Archive for January, 2010

Well I'll Be Damned

My aunt Sal happened to be in town the other day and we had her over for a big breakfast and some catching up. While she has made more of an effort than my mother to keep up with the times (I cringed when she got a call on her cell and Lady Gaga began blasting from its tinny speakers), she is definitely not someone I would consider a member of our curious gaming tribe.

Over sausages and pancakes, however, she began talking about a racing game she’s been trying to get the hang of lately. She stumbled over the name at first (“Razer or Raza, maybe, I can’t remember”) and somewhat incredulously I asked, “Not Forza 3?”

“Yes, that’s it!” And she was off talking about how difficult the game is, and how her husband took her newly-acquired Porsche out for a spin around a track and totaled it against the outside wall of a corner. She’s a little annoyed at him, because she struggles with the game and her acquisition of a Porsche was no mean achievement. Now she had to scrape the money together to fix it after letting him have the controller for all of two minutes.

However, what really interested me was how she ended up with a 360 in the first place, because she was quick to explain she’s not much of a gamer and Forza 3 is about all she’s really interested in. She didn’t even know at first that the 360 was different from the Wii, and that Wii Fit was only available on a different system.

Netflix sold her a 360, essentially. She and her husband have used Netflix for years and they noticed on one of the mailers that they could stream it online. Sal gave it a try on her computer and loved the instant gratification, but couldn’t work out how to get the feed from her computer onto her TV. She did notice, however, that she could stream Netflix through her 360 and so she want to the store and grabbed one. Now she’s on Xbox Live, has an avatar, is toying with the idea of doing some competitive Forza racing, and uses the 360 almost as a replacement for cable TV.

I mention this only because it left me slightly astonished. I knew that Microsoft’s deal with Netflix was important, but I viewed it more as an extra selling point to gamers. I wasn’t sure that Microsoft would gain any traction in its efforts to sell the 360 as a set-top media center to non-gamers. However, my aunt Sal is totally in love with it.

It’s probably not news to a lot of people that the console manufacturers are making inroads with non-gamers, but it took me by surprise. I still viewed consoles as gaming platforms that could do a lot of other things. Those other things were extra features that would matter to someone who had already made the decision to buy a gaming machine. My aunt Sal, however, brought a current-gen console into her house because she loved the convenience of streaming movie rentals. Now that it’s there, she’s deciding to give games a try. I think that’s pretty cool.

To Hell with "The Show"

I haven’t talked about it much here, but I’m a huge Formula 1 fan. I’ve been watching for about ten or fifteen years now, since around the time Michael Schumacher made his switch from Benetton to Ferrari. At this point I’m addicted to the racing, the engineering, the business, and all the melodrama that comprise an F1 season. Even with all the egotistical posturing and the ruinous politics that have marred the sport, I still tune in on race day to see the best drivers and racing teams in the world competing for the most prestigious title in motorsport. I simply cannot get it anywhere else.

After watching for so many years, and doing a great deal of reading and virtual racing, I see a lot of things that average viewers probably don’t.  I can see battles for position opening up well before cars appear to be dueling, just from the way the pursuing driver is taking corners. I scrutinize pit stops for the slightest misstep or wing adjustment, and can often tell you exactly why this stop took 9.2 seconds and that one took 10. I can see when a driver is beginning to have trouble with his tires, and can probably tell you why. F1 races often look uneventful, the same way golf or baseball can look boring and uneventful, but if you have a trained eye then most of them are fairly filled with interesting action. Just not wheel-to-wheel racing.

Yet it is something of an obsession within the sport’s governing body and among its fans to find ways to improve the show. The argument goes that F1 has become far too processional at the expense of the drivers’ duels that are the reason most people watch the sport in the first place. Something must be changed, perhaps the rules and regulations or the tracks, in order to make passing and fights for position more regular occurrences.

I love great drivers’ duels. The Hakkinen – Schumacher battles around the turn of  century, with first one then the other having the slightly better car, were a thrill to watch even if they weren’t going neck-and-neck most of the time. For years McLaren had the better cars and when Schumacher managed to get out in front of Hakkinen, it sometimes seemed like he was making a heroic fight against the inevitable as Hakkinen surgically trimmed the gap to nothing. Schumacher was perhaps never quite as good a race tactician as Hakkinen, but few drivers could wring as much performance from a car as Schumacher. The clash of styles and strengths was always fascinating to watch.

Perhaps there used to be a lot more of that kind of thing. Certainly in the 60s and 70s the running order seems to have been a lot more fluid, and longtime fans are quick to wax nostalgic about the great battles of the 80s and early 90s.

So it’s possible I’m biased toward the kind of F1 racing that I have always known: strategic and perfectionist. Passing opportunities come only rarely. Most races I’ve seen are about positioning and timing, and it’s not too often that drivers get in a dogfight for a points-paying position. It also makes those moments that much more fraught, because it’s difficult to battle back once a rival passes you.

In order to bring back “the show” that supposedly makes racing worth watching, however, we find ourselves facing the same kind of rule-tweaking and politicking that has made Formula 1 so dysfunctional. One of the major problems with modern Formula 1 cars, as opposed to those of the 60s, is that so much of their grip is aerodynamic rather than mechanical. In other words, they perform worse when they are near another F1 car, such as when you are trying to pass.

One of the reasons F1 cars are such high-performance vehicles is that they are covered in wings, winglets, and diffusers that generate grip. They are able to take turns at ridiculously high-speeds because the air itself is forcing them closer to the track. Problem is, they need “clean air” moving predictably and smoothly over the body in order for these elements to do their jobs. Out on a track by themselves, it’s not an issue. But if you’re chasing another F1 car, with the same aerodynamic elements leaving weird currents and air disturbances in their wake, then you have a major problem. The guy you’re chasing is getting everything from his aero elements, but your performance is suffering, which forces you to either back off or take serious risks.

The solution I hear proposed most often, and one they’ve tried to implement in various forms over the years, is to eliminate the number, type, and placement of aerodynamic elements that a Formula 1 car is allowed to have. Reduce the amount of aerodynamic group, leave the cars more dependent on mechanical grip (suspension and tires), and they will not suffer the same degraded performance in passing situations.

Problem is, they will likely be inferior race cars, incapable of matching the pace set by their aerodynamic siblings. In the name of improving the spectacle of F1, we would be turning the clock back 30 years and mooting the accumulated aerodynamic expertise of racing engineers who have steadily improving on their craft and learning ever more about how to make air interact better with a car’s body.

As I said, F1 is about the best drivers and team in the world competing at the highest level. Engineers are part of that, and to start reducing their role is to reduce the sport. If the cars have trouble passing because of the way they are designed, then that’s the nature of great racing machines. It’s not really a problem we should be trying to fix by hamstringing the cars or their designers.

Casual fans are always going to be clamoring for more, flashier action. A lot of people tune into baseball games and just wait for the home runs to start flying out of the park. NASCAR explicitly markets itself to yahoos who watch it for the crashes. I’m sure a lot of people just wish hockey was just made of brawls and shoot-outs. But that doesn’t mean these sports should go out of their way to cater to this uninvolved, sometime audience. F1 is a hell of a show if you know what you’re looking at: the culmination of the efforts of hundreds of talented, passionate professionals. There’s far more to it than passing.

(I just found this article on, which is thorough and fascinating explanation of the techniques and physics of overtaking, and why modern F1 features so little close racing. I highly recommend it.)

One Move Behind – EU3: Heir to the Throne Edition

Troy Goodfellow asked me to fill the third seat on the Three Moves Ahead podcast over the weekend, so I spent a few days furiously playing the latest expansion in order to get a feel for some of the subtle yet significant changes Paradox has made to their flagship strategy game.

I have to admit I was really apprehensive about Heir to the Throne because it seemed like a solution in search of a problem, or perhaps a glorified patch. EU3 was not a game that I felt needed significant improvement or changes, and I was a bit put out that I’d bought the “Complete” edition only to have it rendered incomplete a few months later.

By and large, I think the expansion is a significant improvement over the Edition Formerly Known as Complete. Troy and Tom both felt that the casus belli system was good except for how much easier it made prosecuting wars. Now it’s very easy to start wars without suffering the instability that usually follows a war declaration. I don’t really agree with them, but I’m afraid that might be because they understand and game EU3′s rules much more effectively than I do.

One exploit I wanted to mention on the podcast, but it slipped my mind: the AI seems not to request military access to neutral countries (who are usually very willing to grant it). This wouldn’t be such a major issue except that it makes it very easy for the player to fight wars from the safety of neutral territory while the enemy is hemmed within its national borders. As England I fought both Burgundy and France using neutral kingdoms as the jumping-off points for my attacks. Even though I was clearly using Brittany and Aragon to maneuver against France, France never did anything about it. Makes it a little too easy to kite the AI.

The other thing I noticed as we were talking about EU3 is that it’s a dangerous game to start talking about, because you could very easily never stop. Frankly, I would love to do an entire show just talking about the way EU3 models diplomacy and international relations, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game do a better job. There are so many things going on inside EU3 (especially with this expansion), and all the various components interact in such interesting ways, that there are endless nuances you could spend time dissecting. Plus, every game produces a host of, “This one time…” anecdotes.

Final caveats: my sound quality is a little dodgy on this episode, possibly because I couldn’t record in my office and had to use a laptop. So I may sound a bit like I’m podcasting from aboard the Nautilus. However, I also started coming down with a cold during the show, so if I sound a bit crummy, that probably why. As you listen to this show, you are listening to my health fail in real time.

Also, we all mostly recommended this expansion, but take Tom’s recommendation with a grain of salt. I think he may have been recommending In Nomine when he thought he was recommending Heir to the Throne.

Accidental Hiatus

At the end of every year, I tally the books I read. Everyone in my family does this and we usually end up comparing reading lists around Christmas. My father is a very fast reader and can burn through a couple hundred books a year. I’m not as fast a reader and only ever managed around 100, but it was nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, I usually made it a point to read a wide variety of excellent books.

This year I checked my tally. 47. The worst year on record. Even allowing for the fact that I moved from Wisconsin to Boston, and was preoccupied with getting moved and settled for about two months, it’s a depressingly low number. To be honest, it’s also not a terribly impressive reading list.

My partner is on break right now and, even though I meant to stick to a mostly regular work schedule through the holidays, I’ve found myself getting more and more disconnected from games writing, world news, and even gaming itself a little bit. Instead of spending two hours a day patrolling my blog reader, I’ve spent days curled up in my chair, reading books. I haven’t given much thought to games, haven’t played them too much, and haven’t given Twitter more than a few passing glances.

Vacations, especially the ones you didn’t actually mean to take, have a way of pointing out things that are wrong and the ways they could be better. What I’ve realized over the past weeks is that I have let myself become to distracted, multi-tasked into oblivion. I read too much crap that I don’t care about, because for some reason I think it might be important to be able to say I’ve read something that, if I were brave enough to be honest, wasn’t worth reading. I spend too much time being immersed in “virtual worlds”, but never manage to get lost in a novel.

Now that vacation is winding down and deadlines are starting to dot the horizon, I am reluctantly conceding defeat and coming back to the internet’s hyperactive embrace. I have good friends here. But I will also be making more time for reading in quiet rooms, watching sports, and taking walks through this city that I am coming to adore. I hope that it makes me a better, more prolific writer than I have been in the last few months. I am sure that 2010 will find me a happier one.