Friday, September 25, 2009

Stupid people do stupid things...

...and then blame others for their stupidity. It's sad, really. I have two stories courtesy of our local NBC affiliate, WITN, which show people doing incredibly stupid things most of us would not think twice about, and they're looking for anyone to blame but themselves.

This first one should be an easier sell than the next one. Down in Florida (surprise surprise) a teacher spiked her soda with hot sauce. The parents of the kid who stole the soda are all upset. I suppose it would do to point out that the kid is autistic. OK, he has a learning ability. OK, the teacher knew he'd steal the soda, which is why she spiked it. Still, hot sauce never killed anybody. And still, if he hadn't stolen the soda, he wouldn't have gotten - wait, the kid wasn't even harmed. He was embarrassed. That's it. Anyway, this actually went to trial, and she was found guilty, and faces up to five years in jail. And in 10 years when this kid's legal, he'll be behind bars because, first, his parents taught him it was OK to steal, and the system taught him that if you try to protect your stuff from getting stolen, you can do some serious time even if nobody gets hurt. Freakin' stupid.

Might not be able to convince those of you who have kids, but a couple down in Arizona took some nudie pictures of their kids - three young daughters, it says, ages aren't given - and then tried to develop the pictures at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart called the FBI, I suppose, and the state brought them up on charges, and took their kids. Now they are countersuing the state as well as Wal-Mart for defamation and some other crap. First of all, naked pictures of kids are contraband in the United States, with some exceptions given. Typically parents are allowed a few of their own kids, up to a certain age. Usually a judgment call is made at the photo counter. But it is the policy of any photo lab - and I worked at one, so I know this firsthand - to call the FBI for pictures including any child nudity, and then they make the call. (There is another number for bestiality photos.) Now, I know anyone, say 15 or older, knows their parents have naked pictures of them. It's a given. My mom even sent my wife a couple. Insert eye-rolling emoticon here. But let's be serious. People know that crimes against kids have risen in the last 15-20 years. It's all over the news. More people are aware, and more people are sensitive to rights people never attributed to kids before. And one of those rights is the right to not be photographed in the nude. Pictures don't get lost or disappear anymore. Did I mention that they used a digital camera? They could have printed these pictures at home. Digital cameras are the new Polaroids, they're great for those taboo sex pictures and videos you don't want to take to a lab to get developed. They could have emailed those pictures to all their family members and the FBI likely would never have found out. But no, they took them to Wal-Mart. So they got caught, got busted. But rather than plead their case, they're suing. First of all, Wal-Mart is in the clear. They did their job. They did what they were supposed to do. Now, the state may have overreacted. I don't know. But I'm pretty sure these people aren't going to win their lawsuit. Then again...

Anyway, if you look through the comments on those articles, I post as "Nathan" from "Eastern NC". I pretty much said what I said here, just in 1000 characters or less per comment.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dexter Season 4 teaser, other season premieres

Even if you don't know what Dexter is/all about, have a look at the trailer for Season 4 or just watch it right here. Pretty damn cool.

The Wikipedia article is full of spoilers but will tell you more than you ever wanted, let alone needed, to know.

Long story short, Dexter Morgan is a forensics analyst for the Miami police, and a serial killer by night. Trained by his father, a veteran cop in the same department (but now deceased), to kill anonymously without the cops being able to figure out who did it. His sister's also a cop, but doesn't know about his secret. Through his sister, he met a woman he's dating now, who was abused by her husband. Dexter only kills bad guys, people who have escaped justice somehow. He researches them, using illegal methods, to be 100% sure they are guilty before killing them. The show is seasonal, with each season being a complete story. Seasons 2 and 3 were sequels, not a continuation, of the first season. So it isn't necessary to watch all the seasons, but it does help with back story, and it's neater. Still, Seasons 1-3 were all good.

In other news, Jen and I watched the House Season 6 premiere, and that was really good. The ending could have been better (not to spoil anything, but I was hoping he'd spend the whole season institutionalized - whoops, I guess that was a bit of a spoiler) but the first part was very, very good. I'll have to watch it again, maybe I'll get more out of it. Personally, I'm waiting for another Doctor - more accurately, a Time Lord - the fifth season of the Doctor Who reboot should be starting early 2010, but we have two more specials - a Halloween special, and a Christmas special, before season 5 begins properly. And LOST will begin its sixth and final season soon. I'm just at the end of Season 3, so I hope taking a break to finish Potter 7 and the Dexter books Jen bought me for my birthday will allow me to watch the last three seasons at my leisure, and not have to wait a week for the new ones.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Creative Commons licensed & what it means

If you don't know what all Creative Commons is -- and for the longest time, I didn't -- in basic terms, it's a new level of copyright and licensing for the Internet age. Copyrights and trademarks are highly restrictive and philosophically go against what the Internet is all about. Accepting that, some people got together and made a handful of licenses with simple, visual-cue logos, that someone can glance at and understand.

Take the one on this site, for example. The (cc) part is the same on every license, so you can quickly identify it as a Creative Commons license of some kind. The BY part, "Attribution", means that while you are allowed to reproduce any article on this site, you can print it, put it on your own site, whatever - you just gotta credit me by name and include the URL back here. You don't have to ask permission to use something, which is the whole point of a Creative Commons license. If I post a recipe and you like it and want to share it, you just gotta say where you got it, even if it's a discreet note at the bottom. No further permission and no payment is required. The NC part, Non-Commercial, means you can't sell it. You can't download a bunch of articles and put it on a site people have to pay to access. Or sell them for any price. Not that someone feasibly could, the point is that if they could, they can't. And the ND part, Non-Derivative, just means you can't change it. This part's important. It means someone can't take an article I write, change what I said, and post it somewhere else. They can comment on it (e.g. to say "This is the recipe I found, blah blah blah, but I use 2 cups of this instead of 3 and I add this other ingredient", to use an example) but can't change it.

I don't even know if there's any recourse for violating a Creative Commons license. I've never heard of such a thing. I could be wrong, but it may just be an idea with no real legal backing. Probably so, but it's a good idea, and it's a cut above contacting someone and having to ask for their permission to use something you wrote/made, if you don't intend to profit from it.

As for what it means, nothing new to just read the site. And if you want to repost something, it's easier and clearer how. That's all.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Saying Goodbye to My 20s

So, in 20 minutes, I turn 30 - at least, according to the calendar. At midnight it will technically be the 21st of September, and I was technically born on the 21st of September in 1979, so that'd make me 30, right? Well, not exactly. Close enough. See, I was born at 10-something at night in California. Here in North Carolina, when I was born in CA, it was already the early morning of the 22nd of September. Jen hates when I bring this up. If I had been out here for my 21st birthday, technically I would be able to drink a day early, legally. In another day it won't matter anyway.

I'm always thinking about statistics, the first this, the last that. Jen was the first one to drive the new car. Our niece and nephew (her brother's kids) were the first kids to ride in it (and probably the first people to ride in the back seat). I think we made "Beg" by Evans Blue the first song we listened to in it. That or "The Pursuit" (also by Evans Blue). First place we ate after getting it was Cracker Barrel. Just useless trivia. In January of last year, I promised myself I'd lose a whole lotta weight by around this time. Didn't happen. Diet didn't last long, but I'm eating better. I've given up soda and alcohol almost altogether. I still love some pizza, and macaroni and cheese, but I'm eating the mac & cheese less. And I'm eating salad every now and then. So small changes definitely beat fad diets. The results won't be as quick, though.

When I started my 20s, I had no car and no drivers' license. I was either working in retail or manufacturing in a clean room, but I was either about to change jobs or had just done so. I can't remember where I was when the world was supposed to end, but didn't. The geeks said the world was going to end at the year 2000 to sell computers. The Mayans only wrote their last calendar until December 20, 2012, and they weren't selling anything, but there could be any number of reasons why their calendar stopped so close to the end of this decade, but the guy who did Independence Day and the American Godzilla remake is making a 2012 movie, so somebody's making some bank.

In 1999, I hadn't even had a steady girlfriend, or any for that matter, or any chances with girls and women who were just friends. I'd watched my brothers hit and miss in love and relationships, but never had any of my own. Got plenty of female attention, but only at family reunions and whatnot where every kid in the room wanted to be carried around. So not the kind of attention I needed. Ten years later, I'm happily married. In 1999, I hadn't even been outside the state of California. Now, not only do I live on the other side of the country, I've visited 18 states plus DC and including the state I moved to (North Carolina). I spent almost 60% of my 20s in CA and almost 40% in NC - the move was around my birthday. In just four years here I've had a couple locals tell me I know my way around their home state better than they do. I had nearly shoulder-length hair in 1999, but since 2003 I've kept it buzzed within half an inch.

In 1999, I was using a computer my father - who passed away in 2002 - gave me for graduating high school (in 1998). Now I'm using a computer (at home) that I built myself in 2005. Four and a half years later it's still a solid machine. Tech breakdown of the two computers:

Processor: 200 MHz vs. 2 GHz (2,010 MHz)
System memory: 32 MB vs. 2 GB (2,000 MB)
Video card: 16 MB vs. 256 MB
Total available hard drive space: 18 GB vs. 1.4 TB (1,400 GB)
Optical drive: CD Reader vs. CD and DVD Burner
Floppy drive: Yes vs. No
Memory card support: No vs. Four multi-readers
Display: 15" vs. 19"

So the computer has gotten better, and I was still using VHS for movies in 1999. Now I've replaced my entire VHS collection with DVDs and I'm looking at a move to Blu-ray.

Well, there's midnight. And, life goes on...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Guitar Hero 5 reviewed

The days of Rock Band games being clearly superior to Guitar Hero games are finally over. When Harmonix went to EA and MTV to make Rock Band, Neversoft tried not once, but twice to hold onto the "old" formula of guitar-only play, in both Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock (which came out before Rock Band, to be fair) and Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. Neither game was as good as Rock Band, let alone the last Harmonix GH, Guitar Hero 2. When Neversoft made their full-band game, Guitar Hero: World Tour (aka GH4), which came out around the same time as Rock Band 2, it seemed like they didn't bother looking for what didn't work in the first Rock Band. They kinda just threw something together, and it was a train wreck. Guitar Hero: Metallica, the second full-band game from Neversoft, had better music, if you like Metallica and '80s metal in general. Worse if you didn't, but the gameplay was about the same. Bad. Now Neversoft is stepping up the game with Guitar Hero 5, but have Neversoft learned from World Tour/4 as well as Rock Band 1 and 2? In short, oh yes. In detail, read on.

First impression
It's still Guitar Hero. Sign-in issues that shouldn't exist, do, and will annoy you to no end. Your "band" will develop stupid tricks for doing this stuff "just right". For example, it pays to have the same person sign in first (to be the "leader") every time. Stupidly stupid stuff happens when you don't, but some cool things happen when you do. More on that later. The menus seem bloated with too many entries. However, to its credit, the game goes into a "demo" play when you're at the menu, some song will play, and you can press a button (Y or yellow on the Xbox 360) and you jump right in. If you're on a guitar, you choose guitar or bass, lefty or standard, difficulty, and you're playing. Instantly. Anyone can press Y to join in. Just like that. This is the party mode you've probably heard about. It is quicker than quick play. No loading, no nothing. (No failing, either.)

The Quickplay playlist is far more advanced than Rock Band 1 or Guitar Hero World Tour by a long shot. Like Rock Band 2, difficulty is given, on a scale of ten. (RB1 had a scale of 9, RB2 has a scale of 7, and World Tour had no difficulty notation.) Like other games, a sample of the song plays as you hover over each song. Album covers are not shown, as in Rock Band 2, but the length of the song is given. You can sort by "intensity" for each instrument (intensity is difficulty), total running time, year the song came out, name of the song, name of the artist/band, and maybe a couple others. You can make a playlist of as many songs as you want, it would seem. (RB1 had no playlist, RB2's playlist is seemingly unlimited, but WT's was limited to 6 songs.)

If you're the band leader, you can load and save playlists, too. But you can only load playlists saved when you were the band leader. If someone else was, everyone has to exit out, and that person must sign in first to become the leader, and then load the playlist. You can name the playlists, but Neversoft continues to not support the chat pad; you must enter text arcade-style.

The first thing you may notice is that Guitar Hero 5 lets you play as your Xbox 360 Avatar. Doing this, in fact, unlocks an achievement. In the first hour, too, don't be surprised if you get half a dozen achievements, if you're any good at all. Neversoft's plan thus far seems to be to lure Rock Band loyalists in with achievements and the promise of more to come. I think I have 135-185 Gamerscore with it already?

Anyway, a lot of the "band play" mistakes that World Tour made are gone. Star Power is no longer confusing. Like GH:A and previous, and both Rock Band games, each band member now has their own Star Power. (World Tour tried to "pool" Star Power, and it was just confusing.) Everyone also has their own crowd meter, as opposed to Rock Band's "shared" crowd meter on the left. The score now shows a sort of "band streak" I don't fully understand. GH5 introduces a new feature called "Band Moments", which is like the Unison Bonus in RB2. During a Band Moment, everyone's notes burn in flames for a few seconds. Hit each one and you get a big band multiplier. The band multiplier goes up to 11, between Star Power and Band Moment, if everyone's on the ball.

As such, scores tend to be a lot higher than in Rock Band 2. Expect a million plus points for a decent performance. For a long song with a great performance, don't be surprised if you get a few million. Also, for the first time, you can see each musician's individual score, in addition to the percentage and note/phrase streak. Score-wise, vocalists still get the short end of the stick. An expert guitarist scoring in the low 90s percentage-wise is going to get many times more points than an expert vocalist scoring in the high 90s and getting FCs. Jen complained about the vocals, but not as much as she did with World Tour. Even RB2 has sloppy vocal recognition, in parts, so vocals is bound to be a mixed bag anyway.

The soundtrack is pretty damn good. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana is finally playable. John Mellencamp is finally in a rhythm game, for better or worse, with "Hurts So Good". All kinds of rock, from the 60s to today, is represented in this game.

If you have downloaded songs for World Tour - we do, but only 15 - they will play in GH5, but not right out of the box. You must download a 300MB patch (I have no idea why it's so big, but it IS FREE) which allows downloaded songs for WT not by Jimi Hendrix to work. (Maybe it just re-downloads your DLC in one patch, I don't know.) For $3.50 (280 Microsoft Points) you can export SOME but NOT ALL of your World Tour songs, specifically 35 of them, plus an additional 21 from Guitar Hero: Smash Hits (no, the DragonForce song is NOT one of them, dropping the ball becomes a regular thing at Activision). Still, it sounds like you can get a lot of songs in Guitar Hero 5. And, songs exported from World Tour and Smash Hits will also work as DLC in the upcoming, family-friendly Band Hero Neversoft is putting out later this year (to compete with Harmonix's kiddie offering, LEGO Rock Band).

All in all, Guitar Hero 5 is a good game that, for once, allows Guitar Hero and Rock Band to compete directly. Both Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2 have good features I miss in the other, and they both have a lot of room for improvement. Rock Band will probably always have the larger library, even if Neversoft does figure out how to get the soundtracks of the previous games into the latest one. But Guitar Hero will probably always have the better exclusives. When playing the same song, on the same difficulty, on the same instrument, the track still differs from Rock Band to Guitar Hero, so even the same song is a different playing experience from one to the other. So it is definitely worth buying. And as an added bonus, they're going to give you Guitar Hero: Van Halen when it comes out in December? That's a great deal. And this is coming from a Rock Band loyalist.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight years ago today...

...the world changed forever. Like the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President Kennedy, everyone who lived through these events will never forget where they were or what they were doing that day. Had I been living on the East Coast, I might very well have been awake when it happened, but I was still living in CA, and I remember being home alone, and the phone kept ringing. I wanted to sleep longer, but to do that I had to silence the phone. So I got up, and just as I was about to pick it up to silence it, it rang again. We didn't have Caller ID so I had no idea who it was before I answered.

It was my brother's ex, though they were still together at the time. Later, she'd leave him for another guy, who, as I understand, would later leave her for another girl. Turnabout being fair play and all that.

Anyway, she told me that we as a country had just been invaded and bombed. I told her we were alright, got off the phone, and went to look on the TV. I was pretty sure she had said the World Trade Center in New York City, but all they were talking about on TV was a plane crashing into the Pentagon. I had to go online to get the story in New York.

Since then, I've been distrustful of televised news. They tell you what they want to tell you, with more information after a word from the sponsors. You go online, you set up Google News or a similar service the way you want, and you do it right, and you get the whole story on one page. You use Firefox and Adblock Plus and there are no sponsors, just the facts (and no ads means it loads faster).

We also - Americans in general - learned a lot about the Middle East. I can't be the only one who didn't give it a second thought. It also put the attack in perspective - one attack (well, four - four planes) was such a culture shock, but the Middle East sees attacks like this weekly. Daily, some weeks. So we have to think, if 9/11 was really as bad as we make it out to be, it must be really sad to live in the Middle East, and have this happen all the time. But two factors are in effect: First, we haven't had a terrorist attack on our soil by a foreign power outside of wartime before. This is a new thing. When it happens every day, it's less of a shock. Still sucks, but it's not the epic shock 9/11 was and continues to be. Second, too often Americans think of themselves as worlds better than the rest of the world. Too many of us figure terrorists blowing up terrorists is OK, tending to overlook the fact that, too often, children are caught in the crossfire. Far more children die in their bombings than died on 9/11, that's for sure. Of course, any child killed or harmed needlessly (or at all) is a tragedy. Still, we overlook it when the child isn't American.

It was also former President Bush's finest moment. Never mind that bin Laden and the Bush family go way back, with ties in oil, as well as military (specifically, when Bush's dad, who ran the CIA then, assisted the Taliban in getting the Russians out of Afghanistan) and it was quite convenient that Bush was in Florida at the time. I still think he expected Flight 93 to hit the White House and that his old Saudi buddy told him to be elsewhere. And never mind that Bush gave his Saudi buddy a full month to get out of Afghanistan (and his Taliban crew a month to decide to tell him where to shove his demands). And of course never mind that Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction. The idea of cleaning up the Middle East was not entirely a bad one. Saddam Hussein was a bad man who deserved much more than he got. He and his sons, if an article I read in Time can be believed, raped women, molested children, and killed whomever for fun. I am glad that he and his sons are dead and can only hope that their victims can move on. I do believe we spent a lot more time and more money there than we needed to, and that it was a big part of the recession that the Republicans engineered, but some of the aspects of the war were justified. If only Bush hadn't spent so long over there and tanked the economy doing so, but then again, I wasn't sitting in his chair for eight years. He did what he felt was right based on the information he had, and that's what he'll be remembered for. I only hope Obama can fix it before too long, because I know McCain had no interest in reversing any of Bush's failures - he thought the recession was this country on the right track!

Anyway, I don't want to get too (much more) political. That's all fact, though, if a little biased, based on what I've read and heard. The last bit is straight from McCain's own mouth on the debates, though, which I watched.

So I suppose the point that I've arrived at is that eight years ago today, we all woke up and realized there was more going on in the world that we were aware of, and that we had to recognize our voices, our place in the election system.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Amazon Kindle: Strike Two

Last month or the month before, I wrote in general about the reasons I don't use an eBook reader like Amazon's Kindle, in a response to the controversy surrounding Amazon deleting eBooks remotely (which they weren't authorized to sell in the first place). Aside from that silly mess, my main gripe is that you must pay full price for a book, you can't buy it used, and you can't sell it secondhand when you're done, or even loan it to a friend without loaning out your $300 Kindle, and if you do, obviously you yourself can't read on it until your friend is done. It's a mess.

Now there's a new controversy around the $300 device (and yes, I love going on about how expensive the bloody thing is). If they get stolen, Amazon has the technology to see who stole it, and even to shut it down completely, but in the name of good business (as in, the thief paying for books), they're protecting the thieves' personal information, until ordered to release it by court order.

Talk about stabbing customers in the back, eh? $300 for the device, $25 for books (or whatever hardcovers cost these days, I know they vary), and if it gets stolen, even though they know who did it, they're just going to leave you hanging like that?

Enough's enough, people who have had this happen really need to lawyer up and sue Amazon. They're charging an insane amount of money for a service, basically encouraging theft ("if you steal one, you're just as good a customer as if you'd bought one"), protecting thieves, thereby encouraging it more, and basically they're obstructing justice. Sure, they comply with a court order, but if they know who has your Kindle and they're not telling you, they're an accessory, and at the very least, they ought to replace the Kindle, if it is such a big deal to them to keep the thieves' business.

Seriously, if your Kindle got stolen and Amazon won't help you, call your lawyer. At the very least, file a claim in small claims court. It's under five thousand dollars. If Amazon doesn't send a rep, they forfeit the case... at least, I believe that's how it works. And if they do send a rep, that rep's gonna have a hell of a time explaining to a judge why they're protecting a criminal and, at the same time, why they won't compensate you for your stolen property, when they make millions of dollars, and they're profiting from a crime against you.

...And this is coming from a fan and loyal customer of who has spent probably a few hundred dollars there on books, music, movies, games, Microsoft Points cards, and other stuff! But hey, I gotta call 'em like I see 'em - and this is bullshit.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Playing Rock Band on the computer

Anyone who's been reading this blog any amount of time knows I like Rock Band, and to a lesser extent, Guitar Hero. I love music, and for someone who doesn't have that level of personal connection with music that many people have, I do enjoy listening to music as much as anybody. Though I've never felt the inclination to pick up a guitar/bass or drumsticks, and the less said about my showering and driving singing the better, but there's something about the simulated playing these games offer that I like. I've always liked puzzle games, particularly Tetris and its variants. Manipulating blocks in certain ways to clear them. There was one cool Tetris knockoff for the Super Nintendo that came with the Super Scope - Nintendo's bazooka-looking gun controller, circa 1993 or thereabouts. You got so many shots per block - like 2-3, and if you didn't use all of them, they rolled over. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are kinda like that. You have to destroy the blocks or spheres that come at you - and sure enough, they burn up (GH) or explode (RB).

But a question that has always puzzled me is this: Why can only home video game consoles play these games? Rock Band 2 is available for the PlayStation 2, as well as the PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360, and the Nintendo Wii. Scaled-down versions of Rock Band are on the PSP, and coming soon (December, I think) to the Nintendo DS. A PC is many times more powerful than a PlayStation 2, to say nothing of the PSP and Nintendo DS. (In fact, while no PSP emulator to date has been made that plays commercial games, there are a couple DS emulators out there, so the DS version will be playable on the PC, albeit... less than legally.) All either Guitar Hero or Rock Band are doing is this: They draw models of four main characters, which are fairly detailed. The crowd is kind of in the dark, it probably takes less to render the entire crowd than it does to render the four band members. Then you have the stage, which is relatively complex at times, but it's still no more advanced than a sports game. (Nothing against sports games, but they don't work as hard to draw characters as shooters.) As for the actual... action, you have a multi-channel Ogg Vorbis file playing, with one or more channels tied to each instrument. There's a backing track that always plays, and if one instrument is not being used (e.g. nobody is singing) then that track plays uninterrupted through the whole song, but missing a note causes that track to mute for a second, and failing causes the track to mute until the failed player can be saved. This is all very simple to do behind the scenes. Then it draws the note highway, and colors the fret board for various events. When a bassist reaches a 5X or 6X multiplier or a guitarist is doing a solo, the board glows blue. When anyone's in overdrive, an animated yellow border is applied. As complex as it sounds and as pretty as it looks, the fact remains that the PlayStation 2 can do it, which boasts a mere 300MHz processor, or the equivalent of a mid-range Pentium II. Its other specs pale in comparison to average PC specs as well. So the evidence of the PlayStation 2 clearly states that any PC manufactured in the last six to seven years should be able to run Rock Band 2 without a hitch - if it were compiled for Windows, that is.

So why isn't it? The reason is pretty simple. Video game consoles have copy protection and digital rights management (DRM) PC manufacturers simply cannot get away with. Microsoft and IBM have both tried to force DRM on consumers, and the backlash both times was pretty overwhelming, to the point where they pretty much just gave up. Digital music stores, such as iTunes, are giving up DRM for freely-copyable MP3 files their customers are demanding. Consoles have always been so protected, and gamers have never complained. Console game piracy is very low compared with PC game piracy, though it does happen. The Nintendo DS is probably the easiest to do, as all you need is a microSD (memory card in cell phones - not the SIM card, the other one) to Nitro (Nintendo DS cartridge) adapter. The adapter looks like a DS game but has a memory card slot. Put ROMs on memory card, put memory card in adapter, put adapter in DS, and pick your games from a list. Couldn't be easier. PlayStation 2 hacking requires taking the unit apart and sautering. It's risky, it's tricky, and a lot of people don't do it. Xbox 360 hacking is very tricky and very risky, and all it lets you do is play burned games. However, the Xbox 360 has a killswitch Microsoft can trip remotely that fries the console. Better yet, they'll know why it's broken if you send it in, and won't fix it for you. So it's very much not worth it. So while people do pirate console games (and I have seen Rock Band 2 on torrent sites), it's a minority. Downloadable content, on the other hand, has never been stolen. Not once. DLC for Rock Band 2 is encoded and protected. There is no way to get it for free. If Rock Band were on the PC, hackers would find a way to crack the DLC and share it. Simple as that. Harmonix pays more for these master recordings than Apple does to license simple MP3s and AACs, so they need to protect their investment.

Still, the desire to play Guitar Hero or Rock Band on the PC has not escaped some hobbyists. The most common way to do that is by using Frets on Fire, which is free and open source. There is even a portable version which will run from a flash drive over at Frets on Fire is no Guitar Hero, let alone Rock Band, but it really doesn't try to be. By itself, it's more a parody of those games. They instruct you to hold your keyboard like a guitar (keys facing away from you, backed up against your chest) and use F1-F5 as the fret keys, and Up and Down as the strum bar. Other keys activate the Overdrive/Star Power, and serve as the whammy bar. Trouble is, some songs have power chords (two or more fret buttons must be held while you strum - like red and blue, or blue and orange) and many keyboards can't process more than two keys hit at the same time. You hold F4 and F5 in preparation for a blue-orange chord, and when you go to strum... oops, it doesn't register. Sorry about your bad luck, Padre. The solution is rather amusing. You get a Guitar Hero controller for the Xbox 360, one of the old ones that plugs in via USB, and you plug it right into your computer. Windows will recognize it for what it is and will download drivers from Update, and then the guitar will work as a standard controller. You can even play other games with it. Then, just configure Frets on Fire to work with a joystick/gamepad, and set it up.

Still, Frets on Fire is ugly as sin, but that is not hard to fix. With the FoFix mod, actually a fork of Frets on Fire (it replaces FoF entirely), you can add themes that change how Frets looks and feels. With the Rock Band 2 theme, it tries very hard to look and feel just like Rock Band 2, to the point of being eerie. It should be noted that this is illegal as hell, because it violates Harmonix's trademarks. It uses the Rock Band 2 logo (hell, it uses the whole damn title screen) and much of the graphics. When you're playing, it looks almost exactly like Rock Band 2. I think somebody reverse engineered the PlayStation 2 or Wii version. It's not the game and contains none of the RB2 game code, just the graphics.

Songs are tricky to find as well. Many forums that carry them require you to register, so they can track what you download. You can bet your ass that if they get busted, they'll sell you out in a heartbeat - why else would they make you register? You can probably find some free songs for it, for example Jonathan Coulton is a recording artist who releases his songs under a Creative Commons license. Last year or the year before, he released a song a week for a year. It's silly humor, but it's pretty good. (Check out "Re: Your Brains" - it's coming to Rock Band next week - "Skullcrusher Mountain" is already there.) Anything he's done would be legal to use in Frets on Fire. Other artists... not so much. Some songs come with just the notes, and you supply your own MP3 file. If you hit up torrent sites, you'll get complete tracks. But Frets on Fire doesn't use master recordings; like Guitar Hero, it just mutes the entire thing and/or belches/buzzes at you when you miss notes. Problem is, Frets doesn't un-mute the song after the missed note has passed, as Guitar Hero does. With FoFix and the Rock Band 2 theme, this isn't a problem.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Improving on Rock Band...

Last month, a couple weeks before Summerslam, I posted an article about what the WWE could do to improve its product, primarily for those of us fans, such as myself, who came into the program knowing it's fake, and enjoy it for its technical and production merits as well as the entertainment. I was contacted by a representative of a promotional firm representing the TV station WGN America and WWE suggesting I watch Superstars, WGN-A's hour-long WWE show. I watched and reviewed one episode (and continue to watch it - it's good), then Summerslam comes and I can't help but feel that one of my suggestions - that rules should be respected more - was taken personally by someone high up. Could be coincidence (and probably is - matches are planned and practiced well in advance of pay-per-views) but when I saw that match with Randy Orton and John Cena, and Orton kept cheating, and kept getting called on it... I couldn't help but notice something.

Maybe my luck, coincidental as it may be, will hold for another round. This time I'm taking aim at the music simulation/puzzle game Rock Band 2, having long held that it's not so much a game as a multimedia platform. Harmonix's Rock Band 2, preceded by Rock Band, Guitar Hero 2, and Guitar Hero (more recent Guitar Hero titles were made by a different company), have revitalized the ailing music industry, moving from a scene where pirates stole music online to one where people paid $200 each for a game disc and plastic instruments, and then $2 for additional songs, to play along with them on the screen. But it has been nearly a year since Rock Band 2 came out, and Harmonix is not producing a Rock Band 3 this year, instead focusing on the Beatles-themed Rock Band to come out next week. So one year in and people are still playing this game - is Harmonix just sitting back and letting the money roll in? Actually, no they're not. They put out half a dozen new songs each week, and that takes work. They're building a community of artists and programmers called the Rock Band Network which will allow musicians to build their own Rock Band tracks for inclusion into the game. This should exponentially increase the size of the Rock Band store, which Harmonix hopes to have stocked with 1,000 songs by year's end. Also, there is a rumor of a fabled "Gold Star patch" which notes which songs a player has Gold-Starred (beyond a five star performance rating is five gold stars), and possibly adds support for these new wireless microphones coming out... but little else.

While I certainly don't intend to suggest Harmonix isn't doing enough for its fans, I do have some ideas that would freshen the game up, make it feel new longer, and bridge the gap between Rock Band 2 and the eventual Rock Band 3.

1. Real-Life Rockers
Following the latest Dashboard update, Microsoft is now selling virtual clothing for your Xbox Live Avatar, at $1 for hats and glasses, $2 for shirts, pants, and shoes, and up to $5 for full costumes and "toys" - e.g. your avatar can now wield a lightsaber, or play with a radio-controlled ATV from Halo (yes fanboys, I know it's called a warthog).

Where is Harmonix on this? When you go to play, you have two categories of characters. The ones you've made, and the generic ones that come with the game (I prefer Ol' Smokey). You should be able to buy "Real-Life Rockers". When you own one of these avatars, and you play a song with them as a member, whoever has their instrument defaults to them, unless they've chosen a character they made. (Example: You buy a Nikki Sixx avatar, and select Ol' Smokey as your avatar, and play bass. You play "Saints of Los Angeles" by Motley Crue, and instead of Ol' Smokey, you get Sixx.) Or you can make your own supergroup. Deceased musicians would definitely be used, so for the recently-released Janis Joplin single "Piece of My Heart", you could have Janis herself singing it, and other songs you choose for your set list.

And where's the damn avatar support, anyway? Guitar Hero 5 jumped on this. To be able to use your Xbox Live avatar is trivial. While I'm at it, why can't I use my guy from Oblivion? Microsoft needs to make any company that lets you customize your character export the character in a universal format that any game can use, just because that would be beyond cool. And why can't you use your Oblivion mage or your Madden football player as your virtual rocker? If Rock Band's aim is to let anyone with a home game console be a rock star, why not a mage from an RPG or a sports star? Why even pick up the pen to draw that line? Sure, it's silly, but pick up a plastic guitar and tell me how seriously you take yourself. We don't play games to be serious, after all.

2. Real expansion sets
The Beatles should never have gotten their own game. Neither should Nirvana, No Doubt, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Foo Fighters, and others. What's that you say? Only the Beatles did? Therein lies the problem.

The other bands I named each got whole albums in Rock Band - in Nirvana's case, with the exception of "The Big Three" - "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Lithium", and "Come As You Are", which are probably being held for Rock Band 3 and/or a slow DLC week. $20 for an entire album, which is a good deal, because it's more than the 10 songs that $20 would ordinarily buy you. Well, it's still not enough. If I'm laying down $20 - one-third the cost of the game itself - I don't just want songs. I want Real-Life Rockers (see above) of the entire band, and the opportunity to earn the 250 Gamerscore that paid DLC often adds to a game's total Gamerscore allocation.

That said, the Beatles could have just been an expansion set, albeit a much bigger one. Or they could have done volumes. In fact, Harmonix has said that the Beatles game will be a closed platform - it won't work with downloadable content, and its downloadable content won't work with other games. Have they not been listening to the Guitar Hero fans who have complained about this fatal flaw in the Guitar Hero franchise? It would be unwise to lean towards any of the disadvantages Guitar Hero has when compared with Rock Band; rather, it should be looking at the two or three things Guitar Hero does better, and integrate those features.

3. Unpause countdown timer
The most requested feature in Rock Band - how can I not throw my voice behind it as well? When you resume Guitar Hero World Tour or Guitar Hero: Metallica from a pause (presumably Smash Hits and 5 as well), you get taken back to the paused note highway(s) and you get a countdown timer, so if you had to pause in a hurry, the number of notes you will actually miss is minimized.

Or, hey, how about doing Guitar Hero one better and rewinding 10 seconds? Sure, it could be abused, but maybe scores from songs paused and resumed would not be added to the leaderboards or something.

4. Turn "No Fail Mode" into "Studio Mode"
"No Fail Mode" is stupid. Let me just put that out there. The point of the game is to hit notes, and the penalty for that is the crowd loses interest, and eventually boos you off stage. "No Fail Mode" makes it so if you abandon your controller or the song is just that damn hard (see "Life is Beautiful" by Sixx:A.M. or "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads) you get booed, but you never get kicked out. So I say, drop "No Fail" and rather, have an option to drop the crowd. You get no crowd meter, and no feedback - positive or negative - from the fans (who aren't even there). You can't fail, either, even if you abandon the song from the start. The song just plays, and gives you your score at the end. "Studio Mode" is the best name I can think of; "Basement Mode" works too.

5. Custom Difficulty
If you've never played Rock Band before, could you tell me the difference between Easy, Medium, Hard, or Expert? Many veteran players can't, either. They just know that Easy only uses the first three fret buttons, Medium the first four, and Hard and Expert all five. And that the speed increases as you go up. Fewer notes does make things easier, but slower? Not always. I was playing on drums - doing badly as ever - and my wife suggested I go up to Hard. I was on Medium and couldn't hack it there. Reluctantly I tried - and got twice as far. On drums, Easy and Medium are just too slow. But Hard and Expert have too many notes. There are some good reasons why I can't play the drums right that have to do with my hand-eye coordination and other mental capacities, but part of that also has to do with a hastily-designed difficulty setting. How about letting the player choose the frequency of the notes and the speed they're delivered? The learning curve could be lowered quite a bit without sacrificing gameplay.

6. Better vocals!
This one's below the belt, because until voice recognition technology advances quite a bit, singing in any music game is not going to be tracked accurately at all. It's been said by quite a few on ScoreHero and other Guitar Hero and Rock Band communities: "Either I can sing the song correctly, or I can get points". Some songs require you to scream, others require you to wail, sometimes when the singer himself - or herself - is doing no such thing. Take "21 Guns" by Green Day - does Billy Joe whine and scream? No, he doesn't - it's a very calm song. Yet, you've gotta make yourself sound like a pissed-off Bob Dylan to sing it. It's flippin' stupid. Guitar Hero is far behind Rock Band in vocal tracking, but that's little consolation when Rock Band's sucks to start with. Still, they made a game that incorporates singing - it's on them to make it work right. As opposed to just sweeping it under the rug and letting people just "deal with it".

7. Music video mode and MP3 export
You can actually hack this together in Rock Band 2 with a couple cheats (game modifiers). Turn on No Fail Mode and Performance Mode. Enter Quick Play as a vocalist, and pick your songs, make a setlist. Choose whatever difficulty, it doesn't matter. Start the "game", then go into the pause options and take out the crowd noise, turn the mic volume all the way down and the vocal track all the way up. Resume, and the game will play the songs you've chosen as mock videos. But this should be available from the main menu as "Music video mode" or "Jukebox mode", and rather than letting you choose the difficulty (which means nothing), it would let you choose the arena, and configure other options as well. I mean, iTunes charges $0.99 in the US for songs. The Rock Band Store charges $2, $1.01 more. It's not a lot to be able to jam along with the song, but it should do a bit more, I think. I also think it should export songs you buy - if you like - if you have a 20GB hard drive, you might not prefer this - to the console's hard drive, so you can listen to them in other games. At $2 a song and considering you can't get music off the console, why not?

8. Rock Band Online
What's really hurting Rock Band right now is the fact that, not only is it not a bestselling or top game (program), but not everyone gets online with their game console. But above all that is the fact that Xbox 360 players cannot play with PlayStation 3 or Wii players. None of the three work together on their own networks. So to make online play work, Harmonix needs a central server to play games on. The only problem is that that is not free. Good online play vs. what I hear is shoddy online play is the difference between paid online gaming (Xbox 360) and free online gaming (PlayStation 3). Not dissing Sony, but a lot of people say that. Regardless, Harmonix aren't gonna do it out of the kindness of their hearts at a loss, and we shouldn't expect them to. A nominal fee is reasonable. And this fee would let you play online, not just with owners of the same console as you, but with owners of the other two, as well. I'm not at all sure Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo would support it, though, but it's something worth suggesting. But being able to compete with owners of other consoles wouldn't support the makers of the other consoles, specifically, but would in fact make all of them better. Just ask Activision why they didn't continue their policy of "you can only use OUR hardware" that they used in Guitar Hero 3. It's like the representative said, "How many drum controllers should you need?" (or something like that). Such limited interoperability can only benefit them.

All that being said, while Guitar Hero never attempts to be more than just a music game - and it's a pretty good one, at that - Rock Band is much more - it's a music platform. And I cannot reasonably say that it is "pretty good" at that. Much more than Guitar Hero, but as such, it should strive to be so much better than it is.

So here's my open challenge to Harmonix: Stop competing with that silly little guitar game and shine on your own as something much better.