Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Duke Nukem Forever

This is about Duke Nukem. If you don't care (and really, who does?) then skip.

DNF is a videogame that's been in production, full time, since 1998. It was sort of in production even before that - I know one magazine posted screenshots in December '97. DNF was (is / will be) the sequel to Duke Nukem 3D, a popular PC shooter.

I was a fan of Duke 3D. The gameplay was tight. It had a blend of humor, action and scares that worked well. It had plenty of secrets. Most first person shooters are all about multiplayer; Duke's focus was on the one-player game, and the story and scenarios were crafted well to reflect that. ... Of course, we're talking 1996 here. You wouldn't play it now. Unless maybe you were bored and in a VH1-ey kind of mood.

Videogames generally take about 2 years to develop. From greenlighting the project to mass production, it's about 2 years. Plenty of games take longer, and some less time - and historically the process has been quicker. I speak as someone who worked for a console game publsher for 4 years and watched it happen. Two years is industry standard.

What this post is about is making the following case: 1) 7-10 years of development for a videogame is completely unacceptable, from the point of view of anyone - a good-faith fan, a developer with any self respect, a shareholder of Take-Two Interactive. (Duke's corporate paymaster) - anyone. 2) 3D Realms' (Duke's developer) lofty and dismissive and sneering attitude toward anyone saying "Where's the game?" is nothing but obnoxious jackassery. It's the worst kind of arrogance - unjustified arrogance. And 3) That Duke Nukem Forever (when we finally see it) cannot possibly be any good. It is destined to fail.

Let me start by mentioning a guy named Arthur Laffer. He's the economist who famously drew the "Laffer Curve" on the back of a cocktail napkin. The conventional wisdom at that time was that if the government needed more money, it had to raise taxes. Higher tax rates, more money. Let's look at a graph, shall we?

Laffer's insight was to realize something obvious. Once taxes got too high, they would start having an impact on the amount of time people were willing to work. The more government takes out of your pocket, the more they're responsible for providing for your needs. At truly high tax rates people wouldn't work at all. Why work if the government takes 90 cents from every dollar? Better to stay home and let government provide for you. Laffer drew this curve.

His point was that in a situation where taxes were high already but the government still needed more money, it might be better off lowering taxes to get more tax revenue.

It was a wacky concept, but today it's accepted as pretty much the truth. Now why am I bringing this up? I think Laffer would have had a lot to say about Duke Nukem Forever. Consider the relationship between the time a game takes to develop, and its eventual quality. I think the conventional wisdom might lead to a graph like this.

A straight line. Makes sense. The more time you invest in making a game, the better it gets. If you rush a game out the door early, it's going to be bad. Take longer, it gets better.

But then again, maybe that's not the full picture. Maybe it really looks like this.

A sloping curve. A curve with decreasing returns. This makes a little more sense. During the first year or two of development you make great strides. But after many years of development, you approach the limits of how good the game can get. The team is only so talented, there's only so much money, you can only have so much content and so much fine tuning and balancing. So in the long run, quality starts to flatten out.

But this curve is also wrong. I'm here to introduce my own curve, Laffer style. This is what game quality really looks like over time.

It eventually declines, and finally plummets. Now this has to seem counterintuitive. After all, nobody goes to work and makes the game worse. Nobody sabotages art and animation. They work on the game and try to make it better. The problem is that at some point, this becomes as hopeless a job as bailing out the sinking Titanic with a pail. There are other, powerful forces at work; forces that are working nonstop, 24/7, inexorably, to make the game irrelevant and obsolete. These forces cannot be slowed down. With every passing day, Duke Nukem Forever gets less innovative and less pretty. It's gets less technologically impresive and less exciting to play.

It's like some guy with a beard down to his knees bursting out of a basement door saying "Finally! It's done! My sequel to Gyromite! It's taken 20 years, but I wouldn't compromise - it had to be perfect! It's the best NES game of all time!!!" After a certain point, no matter how skilled a game developer you are, your work in progress will be overtaken by the forces of obsolescence and it will be ruined.

But it's more than that. With every day the fanbase shrinks, the number of people who remember Duke 3D in any detail get fewer, the number of people interested in Duke declines, the value of the overall franchise starts to crumble. With no new product, and a mums-the-word policy from the developer, people forget Duke.

Plus, doesn't an eight year delay suggest, just maybe, that these aren't the smartest bunch of guys? Am I supposed to think they can make a good game when they've shown staggering incompetence in the planning of the making of the game?

Now, Duke bought itself some time (staving off obsolescence) by restarting the project with the Unreal Tournament engine in 2001. It threw out what it had so far and started from scratch with a more powerful foundation. Maybe that was a smart idea. But it was an idea with a fatal flaw. The idea presumes that you have the team, the resources and the skill to actually complete the game in about two years. If you can't do it by then, then guess what? You have another game that's nowhere near done and is approaching technological obsolescence. What are you going to do now? Start over a third time?

And then there are the rising expectations. The more time the game is in utero, the more we expect from it. DNF has been in production, full time, for 8 years? What does a game that took 8 years to make look like? What wonders will it contain? Now, if Shigeru Miyamoto retreated to a mountainside cabin for 8 years, cutting himself off from the world, monk-like, and devoted the time to crafting some exquisite new game of his own invention, well then now THAT would be a game worth an eight year wait. That game would blow your mind.

But head-up-his-ass, God-complexed, Hostess-snack-eating pompous asshole George Broussard is not Miyamoto. And Duke Nukem is not King Lear. It's a standard FPS that uses T&A and one-liners to distinguish itself in the crowded FPS marketplace. Or, rather, it did. In 1996. This middling franchise has earned 8 years to make its next game? Why? On what grounds? And its crack development staff is so gifted that we must not disturb their genius? We're not allowed to ask how it's coming along? Who else gets this priviledge? Why Duke?

Oh, you didn't know about the 3D Realms attitude about handling DNF inquiries? No questions are allowed. Broussard answers to no one. Not even the CEO of Take Two, his publisher. The CEO, Jeff Lapin, was fielding questions during a stockholder's meeting and was asked what the story was with Duke. All Lapin said was that he suspected it wouldn't be done in time for a 2003 release. (A sensible statement, considering it's 2005 and there's still no sign of the game). Broussard's response (in an internet forum) was that Lapin needs to "STFU, imo". Consider that. Not only is George telling the CEO of his corporate parent to shut the fuck up, but he's doing so in his capacity as lead designer of videogaming history's most failed project. The game industry's perrenial laughingstock. The game that was given not just the Vaporware game of the year award, but a Vaporware Lifetime Achievement Award. Where does one get the balls? Perhaps from the same place one gets the ability to take a franchise like Duke and steer it down into a mountain.

Here's what's going to happen when DNF finally sees the light of day. It will temporarily benefit from the increase in buzz and attention that comes from being a game that was in development for 10 years. Duke's marketers will misattribute this attention as being a reflection of genuine enthusiasm for the game, which it won't be, and this will send them into an overdrive of superlatives - claiming Duke is the most covered game of the year, the most talked about, the most anticipated, etc.

The game will debut to reviews that will be unfairly negative. The urge to compare it to other delayed failures like Daikatana and to continue the 10 year habit of mocking it will be too strong. So it won't get a truly fair shake. But the reality is that it will be a passable next-gen Duke entry, not too weak, not too strong. But it will not blow any minds, and nothing about it will justify its gestation time. On this score alone it will be considered a great failure. Other shooters (made in normal spans of time) that are as good or better than DNF will come out both quickly before and quickly after Duke, further underlining how unecessary the 10 years were. The erosion of the fan base will have taken its toll, and this will be reflected in sales. Only about 5 guys worldwide are going to laugh at those scripted moments in the game that are tongue in cheek references to earlier Duke adventures.

The game won't recoup costs, and the franchise will not recover. And so now, finally, after years of patience, I say goodbye to Duke. I've been a fan all this time. I've waited. My hopes were high. But it's over. DNF will not deliver.

It's time to forget about Duke, move on, and chew bubble gum. And I'm all out of gum.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Dr. Laura

I am so sick of this woman.

In Vegas, our radio afternoon-talk options are pretty limited. Dr. Laura is on the most prominent talk station, and she's on every weekday from noon to 3, which is the time when I'm most likely to be on the road. It's either her, a stock program or a sports program - slim pickings. Again and again, driven to choose one of these three choices out of boredom, I end up saying "Well, I'll give Dr. Laura one more chance." I always regret it.

Let me expose Dr. Laura's one trick. Becuase, it IS just one trick. Here goes:

People call in with personal problems: relationship problems and family problems. The problems range from fairly minor tiffs to "my children just died in a fire" and everything in between. Dr. Laura listens, diagnoses, and advocates a course of action. The caller wipes away a tear and says "Thanks, Dr. Laura." Goodbye. Next caller. Okay. Dr. Laura's technique is to take any situation and make it conform to a preconceived 3-act story of problem/personal growth/resolution.

Dudn't matter what the problem is! Could be any problem at all! She's performing a magic trick - the same trick, over and over. The thing about these callers is, their problems are usually fairly complex; they're layered, they have shades of gray, they involve years of relationship history, they involve deep-seated behavioral patterns and psychological turmoil. These aren't simple problems with simple solutions. But Dr. Laura will take this problem, interrupt the caller as soon as she has heard enough of it to put it in one of her standard pigeonholes, and perform the magic trick. The magic trick is that surprise! Your problem is really quite simple! See, in the Dr. Laura philosophy, there are only about eight problems. There's the woman who's getting stepped on and has to assert herself. There's the lazy, weak woman who's shirking her obligation to God and husband. There's the woman who's boyfriend has some bad habit and needs to be given an ultimatum. There's the man who needs a wakeup call that his childrens' welfare is paramount and all other concerns are secondary. And a few others I might be forgetting. Once Dr. Laura has established which of the eight problems she is currently dealing with, she can cut off the caller - his role is over. Now the story proceeds to its climax. The caller knows she is being stepped on / abused, she knows it! Furthermore, she knows what she has to do! Why are we even wasting Dr. Laura's time with something so obvious? All that's left is a tearful acknowledgement from the caller that Dr. Laura hit the nail on the head, and it's another one in the books.

Dan Savage, who writes Savage Love, also has this kind of kick-in-the-pants, tough love style of advice giving. He'll tell it to you straight and he won't mince words. There won't be any sensitive preamble, and he won't be delicate. But Dan Savage is also capable of changing gears and acknowledging a difficult, complex question with no clear answers. He'll sometimes change his mind. He'll post responses from readers and experts who weigh in with divergent opinions. He's quick to say "Dump the Motherfucker Already" but he's equally likely to see a gray area and seek compromise. When have you ever heard Dr. Laura talk about compromise?

See, Dan is thoughtful. Dr. Laura is a parlour show. The people who admire Dr. Laura do so because of the one trick: here was a problem that seemed terrifyingly complex, but as it turns out it was really quite simple. Only Dr. Laura could have cut through all that underbrush to expose the real problem. She's amazing.

Is it normal to listen to a relationship advice program and find yourself violently disagreeing with the expert advice? Here are a few standard Dr. Laura concepts that just seem dangerously wrong to me.

1) If you're not in love with your husband anymore, what you should do is pretend that you love him... go through all the motions of loving him... in every way act the same way you would act if you really did love him. Then, in time, the love will return.

Me: Huh? How does that work exactly? What if there's some actual *reason* that the woman doesn't love her husband anymore, beyond the possibility that she's lazy and weak and is ignoring her duty and promise to God to love him always? You know, what if there is some actual *problem* with the marriage? Do you think maybe that's worth exploring? Nah.

2) Even though you love him, you should dump your boyfriend. He's a drunk (or a liar, or a cheater, or a gambler, or whatever) and people never change. Time to move on.

Me: Of course people can change you miserable shrew. Don't want to get sidetracked here, but when Dr. Laura was making her moral argument against homosexuality, wasn't the idea that men are naturally beastial and weak and lustful and somewhat savage and that it takes the love of a woman to temper man's sinful nature? This argument was making the rounds for a while. So that's why homosexuality is ultimately futile - because a man without the guidance and temperance of a woman's influence will always be a savage. How does that jive with Dr. Laura's frequent conclusion that errant men are incapable of change and should be abandoned? If the woman loves him, can't she work on him? Can't she help him? Shouldn't she "temper" him like she's supposed to? Why the contradiction?

And how about Dr. Laura's supremely condescending manner toward every caller? Dr. Laura is never, ever happy until she's made it clear that you're five years old and gotten you to admit it too. I think this is tied in with "the trick". Dr. Laura is the great simplifier of problems. She needs you to admit that you've been foolish, carrying on as if your problem had any nuance to it, any hint of a third dimension. You child. You ass. Don't you see how black and white it really is? Why are you hesitating? Kick him out and change the lock. Of course you go pick him up from the airport. She absolutely cannot get an earring.

You know, Judge Judy can get away with an attitude like that. She's talking to people who have broken laws and and misbehaved in a variety of ways. Maybe they need a little Judge-Judy dose of stern authority. But the people who are calling in to Dr. Laura are good, decent people who are doing something difficult - reaching out for help with the most personal kinds of problems. Seeking help of this kind is itself a gesture of humility. These people don't deserve to be ridiculed and belittled. Like your low level supervisor always reminding you that he's the boss, it's cruel and cheap for Dr. Laura to always squeeze every last drop of superiority that her radio-doctor position affords her.

Here, for your convenience, is every on-air Dr. Laura conversation that ever happened, condensed into about one page.

"Hi Dr. Laura, thanks for taking my call."

"How can I help you Denise."

"Well............ it's my boyfriend. He's been living with me for about a year...."

"How old are you?"

"I'm thirty six.... He was injured on the job last March.... He works for the Coast Guard...."

"How old is he?"

"He's my age.... He lost the use of his legs..."


"And he gets around in a power chair....."



"Did I ask you if he was your age? I asked how old he was."

"I'm sorry Dr. Laura. He's thirty six."

"Okay, go on."

"He gets around just fine, and he hasn't really lost any of his independence. It's just that.... well... he's not the same man he used to be."


"He doesn't seem interested in staying active..."



"Denise, what is your question."

"Well... okay... see we used to do everything together, but lately he always finds an excuse..."

"Denise you haven't heard me. What is your question?"

"What should I do Dr. Laura?"

"Do you have children?"


"Denise, he is either going to have to change his attitude in a hurry, and I mean soon, or he is going to lose you."


"You know what the right thing to do is, don't you Denise."

"(sniffle). Yes."

"He is either going to rediscover his joy in life or he can be miserable all by himself."

"(sniffle). Yes."

"But he is not going to drag you down with him."

"(wipes a tear) Thank you Dr. Laura."

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Naked Chicken

I saw this commercial for Naked Chicken. Go watch it and come back for discussion.

Okay. Naked chicken. I saw this ad and it didn't really register. My mind processed it and filed it the way it does for most commercials. It was stupid but it didn't seem too offensive. But the more time passed, the more I kept coming back to this ad in my mind. Naked chicken.... The more I thought about it the angrier I got. Why was I getting so steamed about this commercial? Finally I could no longer contain my rage and just shouted angry insults at the Naked Chicken, cursing the chicken, cursing Buffalo Wild Wings, damning everyone who had ever eaten a naked chicken and all their family members too.

I still can't get a full grip on why this commercial angers me so much, but I'll try to talk it out.

First of all, we have a guy holding a blurry piece of chicken, and he asks the waitress why it is blurry. Now, I have to point out, just for my own sanity, that things in real life can't be blurry and pixellated. So this is the first point where the commercial is asking for my suspension of disbelief. No problem. You got it. People talk to cartoon characters in commercials, they wink at a Mr. Clean who's come alive on the bottle, same with the Brawny Guy, okay fine.

But now, the guy asks why his chicken is blurry. This is a red flag. I, the viewer, have suspended *my* disbelief. "Chicken can be blurry." I've told myself. I've accepted that. It's weird and uncomfortable, but I've made peace with it. But now the guy in the ad doesn't quite understand it either. My suspended disbelief is collapsing like a house of cards if the guy in the ad is questioning blurry chicken. He's supposed to be on board with it. Now I'm back to square one: why does the chicken have some sort of computer effect on it that people can see?

The waitress comes over, all smiles, and helpfully clears up the confusion. But this is another request for suspension of disbelief. If I'm meant to question the nature of blurry chicken, as the guy in the ad did, shouldn't I be considerably more freaked out than he is? Wouldn't I be shook to my very core that the chicken was blurry? Wouldn't I be freaking out? That his blurry-chicken-crisis is so easily resolved doesn't ring true. This is a much more difficult request for suspension of disbelief. Buffalo Wild Wings is asking me to accept that chicken can be pixellated, but not immediately - only after some casual questioning. This challenges the very limits of my suspension of disbelief abilities. It's as if you saw a Mr. Clean commercial where Mr. Clean comes out of the bottle and congratulates mom on a clean kitchen, and you find it amusing, but then mom freaks out that Mr. Clean has come to life, and now you're confused and frightened, but then Mr. Clean says "Don't worry, I do this every Wednesday" and mom calms down immediately. Huh?

So as I struggle with this, the commercial doesn't get any easier to understand. The waitress explains that the chicken is censored because its naked. Now, further SoD is required because guess what? That doesn't make any sense. Even if I could pixellate things in real life and cause only mild, temporary confusion in others, chicken is naked to start with and doesn't need to be blurred. Shouldn't the guy in the ad say "Isn't 'naked', in this sense, only referring to the absence of breading? And since when have we been modest about chicken nudity?"

But, well, this is all a joke. Ha ha. Naked Chicken. Get it? Not really, no. It's not funny. No. Just not funny. Nobody in the ad is behaving like an actual human being. And note the fleeting look of distaste of the waitress's face as the ad ends. Is she annoyed because the whole "blurry chicken question" is something she has to explain 20 times a day and she's sick of it? Or because the one guy is waving his blurry chicken around like an idiot? An open question, I guess. There's so much groundwork that has to be laid for this lame punchline that the whole thing is just a confusing waste of time.

Again, I ask: remember when commercials were just "The Lincoln Towncar. Magnificently designed and appointed. Luxury you can afford." and that was it? There was no triple-layered irony and forced humor?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Auto Mechanics Adjusting my Seat Setting

This is a situation that just recently brewed to a boil. For a year now, I've been taking my car to this one Bridgestone garage here in Vegas. Mostly just regular tune-ups.

And every time I get the car back, the seat is a) scootched way, way up, b) brought up from its reclined angle, and c) vertically raised. Sometimes d) the rear view mirror has been readjusted, e) the driver's side mirror, and f) the steering wheel has been lowered.

Okay, I didn't even know you *could* lower the steering wheel. I had to hunt around for the switch that brings it back up. Aside from the fact that they seem to be employing Herve Villachez as a mechanic, there is absolutely no call, none, for them adjusting any of this stuff when they give me an oil change. And I've known this for some time; I keep making a mental note, everytime I leave the garage, to tell them next time not to change the settings.

To give you an idea. Here's what goes on. I park in the Bridgestone parking lot. I walk in. I request service. I give them my key. The mechanic takes the key, enters my car, and drives the approximately eight and one half feet to the interior of the body shop. Later, he makes the same trip, in reverse, back to the parking space. And for this he has to LOWER THE STEERING WHEEL.

Well this time, I finaly remembered to bring it up at the counter. This was pretty much the conversation:

Me: "Oh, uh.. hey. Could I ask for uh, one small favor?"

Bridgestone Guy: "Sure boss, what's up?"

Me: "Could you tell the mechanic.... not to change the setting of the seat. ... ... In the car?"

BG: "The setting? What do you mean?"

Me: "Well, it's just that, every time I get the car back, the seat is always scootched way up."

BG: "Oh no, we don't do that."

Me: "Oh I know you don't. It's just, you know, the guy always scootches it up."

BG: "Well, hey, sure. It's not a problem."

At this point the guy writes a note on the work order... "Customer requests... do not adjust seat." Now I know I'm screwed. Now I am ensuring that this mechanic will just hate my guts and do something awful to the car. I also really want to bring up the wheel adjustment and the mirrors, but I know not to press my luck.

Two hours later (they were replacng brake pads) I get back in the car. The mechanic left the floor paper inside the car. You know how they put a paper on the floor of the driver's seat to not get it dirty? Well, he left it in there. The seat? Not adjusted. The mirror? Way out of whack. The steering wheel? Lowered all the way.

Well I'm not going to seek any further justice on this. I don't think you want to get on a mechanic's bad side. But let me just pose the question. Are you so worried, during the 10 second drive from the parking spot to the garage interior that some reckless driver in the fast lane is going to ride up into your blind spot at 60 mph that you need to mess with the side mirror? You know, if I'm hiring a guy to drive my car cross country to some other city, by all means, adjust everything. In fact, if you want to leave some fast food wrappers on the floor, no one's going to say anything. But if the amount of time it takes to mess with all the settings actually exceeds the amount of time you're going to spend driving the car, maybe you should leave it the hell alone.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Registered Trademarks

One more thing before I leave the Starbucks topic. I occasionally buy a bottled fruit smoothie there; one of those healthy, alternative brand smoothies that they keep in the refrigerator case.

You know how all those little fruit-smoothie-in-a-bottle brands are all going for that hippie, Ben & Jerrys asthetic? The little smoothie with the rainbow on it, or the cartoon drawing - its very existence seems to be a rebuke to the cold, cruel, Minute Maid juice empire. This is a rogue, underground smoothie. A smoothie that doesn't play by the old rules. It's a new, hip, enlightened kind of smoothie, one made in a socially responsible, eco-friendly, diversity respecting sort of way.

Let me read you, verbatim, the text from the smoothie label. Note, this is an Odwalla brand, "Citrus C Monster" smoothie. Also note, the font here on Blogspot won't let me use the symbol for a trademark or a registered trademark, you know - the "r" with the circle around it or the tiny "TM". So I'll just indicate where they appear in plain text. Okay....

Citrus C Monster (registered trademark)

Easy to C. (trademark) This sweet, C - ferrying smoothie is a blend of orange juice, peach puree, apple juice, pureed guava, pineapple juice, acerola cherry juice, raspberry puree and passion fruit juice. Vitamin C is an important antioxidant that you body needs. It neutralizes free radicals and plays an important role in supporting a healthy immune system. With multiple sources of Vitamin C in a delicious multi-fruit smoothie, this Monster is a wonderful way to "C for Yourself"(registered trademark). To read some nourishing stories, visit our People to Planet (registered trademark) page at

All right. Do you think the happy, silly, whimsical intent of these phrases here is just slightly undermined by the constant legal reminder that those phrases are protected by trademark? You're trying (desperately, I think) to generate these warm, gushy feelings in your customer base, and at every turn, you are hinting that you will not hesitate to unleash your lawyers and sue their asses back to the stone age if they just try and use your whimsical phrase without permission.

Let's say I trademarked the phrase "I wuv you!". Now say I send you a bouquet of flowers and a card saying "I wuv you!" (registered trademark) Wouldn't that be a profoundly disturbing message? Wouldn't you put down the card and back away very slowly?

The r-with-the circle-around-it means only one thing. It means WE HAVE LAWYERS ASSHOLE. YOU WILL BE SUED.

And what gives Odwalla the balls to think so highly of it's stupid little trademarked phrases? Do you really think, Odwalla people, that there is a single person on this earth who has been tempted, even for a second, to steal the phrase "C for Yourself"? Has anyone, even for a moment, been impressed by naming your website "People to Planet" - like you and you alone are the first people to think of making a consumer-interactive website, or you and you alone understand the rich subtlety of how a website can unite people over great distances?

Or do you not care about any of that, and "C for Yourself" and "People to Planet" is just a desperate bid for whimsy, because that's what you think sells smoothies?

Okay, I just visited the website, and man does it reek of incense and unwashed feet. Apparantly, they have a unique process for making juice called freshalicious. No, wait a minute, let me go back and make sure... no, it's actually Freshology.

Don't you understand (and now I'm talking to the general public) that the very existence of the word Freshology means that someone, somewhere has taken you for an idiot? I'm not anti-whimsy here, I'm not anti-fun, but Odwalla, you HAVE to TRY... HARDER. Trademarking your warm-fuzzy slogans undermines their entire reason for existence, it's useless to trademark them anyway because there's not a chance in hell anyone wants to steal them (If your legal department says different you can fire them) and you need to scrap Freshology. How about Frooteloo! or Freshgasmic! Those are free, by the way. They're all yours.