Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sometimes an artist makes you see something new in something old

I'm not either an American Idol fan or much of a  morning TV viewer, but when I'm working in NYC I sometimes flip on the TV in the AM to wake up to.

The other day i happened to catch this broadcast...

I never thought of the song "Mad World" as a queer anthem before.  But I think I will after this.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Getting smart about licensed game content

I've been thinking a lot about the issues a game company faces using someone elses licensed IP since seeing the new Star Trek.

I really feel for the guys at Cryptic as I think they've gotten nothing but screwed by licenseors.  First Marvel pulled the Marvel Heroes license out from under them half-way through the development of that game.  Now JJ Abrahms and Paramount have labeled everything that came before the new Star Trek movie as "Your father's Star Trek."

IMO the new Star Trek is very successful in rebooting the franchise.  This bodes very well for the future of the franchise from Paramount's point of view.  On the other hand it pretty much invalidates the entire history of the series to date... including all of Next Generation, which is the license Cryptic holds.

Given how much time it takes to develop a major game, I think we need to start writing tougher licensee protections into IP license contracts in this industry.  I think there should be serious and significant penalties for canceling a contract for anything but the very best of reasons.  I also think the licensor should be liable for actions they take that damage the valuse of the license between the time of contract signing and the first few years after release of the game.

Baring that, I think we need to think long and hard whether it really makes sense to license any IP at all in our business.  As is its a major source of uncontrolled risk in the development process-- a process that is mostly about risk management.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Terminator War

For my birthday we went out and saw the matinee show of Terminator Salvation (aka Terminator 4.) Its an interesting if maybe flawed film.

The good points. Its a war movie, and that's really what I wanted from this movie. I've been waiting since the teases Cameron gave us in the original Terminator. The movie absolutely sells the post-apocalyptic blasted and machine dominated landscape I at least always imagined from the brief, dark flashes we were shown.

This was Stan Winston's last movie and its a fine send-off for the master of full-size mechanical effects. The film mixes full size props, model work and CG so successfully that I was rarely aware of what technique was in use when.

Unfortunately, the movie is also deeply flawed. John Connor is supposed to be our hero , but in this movie he is practically a supporting character. Although we see his competance and command ability we never really get to know him, and as such, find it difficult to really care about him.

The plot also has a few "dumb" moments. I don't want to give any spoilers, but suffice it to say for a group wearing rags in a world where anti-biotics are rare and valuable, their medivac capabilites when called upon are truely amazing.

They also felt a need to work BOTH tag-lines from previous terminator movies in. The first one is acceptable, but the second when it comes up feels really forced and obvious. It was also Arnold's tag line, and in Christian Bale's mouth it sounds pretty silly.

Another silliness is that at one point John Connor rides a machine that has no business being human-rideable at all. It isnt even particularly important to the story and IMO should have been left on the editing room floor.

On the SkyNet end, there are also some oddities in technology. Without spoiling anything its hard to go into more details, but after you see the movie just consider what it turns out SkyNet has constructed in the context of where it supposedly is in the advancement of terminator technology. To my mind they don't exactly line up.

All in all I'm not disappointed in this film. It did what I wanted, which was really introduce the machine-war in a gripping and visually stunning manner. It also hints at what may be the machine's fatal flaw. It's never stated, but I would argue that the machines' have a problem-- they are built to purpose. In many cases in this film machines under the control of SkyNet *could* have killed Connor. But thats not what those particular machines were built to do. Machines don't go "off mission". They do exactly and only what they are designed and programmed to do. I can see that as eventually being the flaw that brings SkyNet down. But if that was the intent, the script could have made that clearer.

All in all, this was an intersting and enjoyable film, but it really could have used a good science fiction screen writer to tighten it up and remove the "goofy parts."

The ninth wonder of the world

Well, tonight I saw something I thought I'd never see... A Michael Bay film that actually works.

Michael Bay has an amazing penchant for goofy, over-blown pyrotechnic militaristic spectacles. His first outing, Independence Day. was a god awful mess. So badly written plotted and xenophobic/jingoistic that it led to quite a few internet lists of "what I learned from independence day."

The sad fact of the matter is Michael Bay has all the sensibilities and moral depth of a 13 year old comic book junkie. Its said though that true art is accomplished when an artist meets the limitations of the medium and uses them to their best advantage. I just finally saw the Transformers movie and it is a perfect 13 year old fantasy. Michael Bay met and used his own limitations in this film and, wonders of wonders, it works.

This is not a deep movie. In fact its a goofy, over-blown pyrotechnic militaristic spectacle. But its eaxctly what every kid imagined while playing with his Transformers and watching it unfold on screen is surprisingly fun, even for an adult.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dying on demand

Its hard to do anything in this country of value that puts any group with money in a less then favorable position.  As such it was just a matter of time til the insurance industry and their cronies started trying to scare people away from getting better health-care.

Last time around the lie was "god forbid we might end up like Canada..."  Yes, god forbid we MIGHT end up like Canada.  I've traveled to Canada a lot on business and have taken it on myself over the years to do my own survey.  And you know what? From cab drivers to business executives, I have yet to meet a *single* Canadian who is unhappy with their health care system.  Compare that with the number of Americans who are really happy with their insurance provider.  We could do worse then to end up like Canada.

It turns out that the only people who don't like the Canadian health system... are the American health insurance companies.  Well, now, there's a surprise, huh?

Unfortunately for the insurance companies this time around, Canada is in SO much better economic shape then we are right now that, when the Comparison is drawn, even the dumbest American has to wonder if being Canadian is really all that bad.  SO their new target is England and the brittish National Health Service.

I listen to the brittish equivalent of NPR's "wait wait don't tell me", they call it the "News Quiz."   The britts are rather incensed at our attacks of their helath care system and have some both funny and pointed things to say.  More or less they all come down to this:

"Well its true, with the NHS you have to wait for treatment somtimes, where as in the American system you can die any time you want."

That about sums it up.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Not Your Father's Star Trek: A Movie Review

Shelley and I went to see the new Star Trek movie on mother's day.

The tag line for this movie is "this is not your father's Star Trek" and this is more true then you might expect.  Without giving away spoilers let me just say that this movie truly reboots the entire series and lets it start all over again while still making sense within the franchise history.

Probably being the age of "your Dad" that they talk about, as a Star Trek fan since TOS, let me say that I still loved this move.  JJ Abrahms walks the line brilliantly between keeping all that your dad loves about star trek alive while updating the series in very smart ways.  

The action feels "modern" in a quick-cut 21st century style while still also feeling very "trekish".  The new actors by and large do a good job of catching the soul of the original performers' performance of these charcters, while exploring their youth in a way we've never been privledged to see before.  Shelley and I agreed that the strongest of these was the new McCoy who really seemed to channel DeForest Kelley in his performance. 

We disagreed  on the weakest.  The new Checkov looks nothing like Davy Jones, who Walter Koenig was originally cast to look like.  Shelley found that distracting.  For me, there was something about the new actor that plays a young Scotty that didn't quite click for me.  I guess he sort of has the air of a "slacker" in this film, which just didnt fit the tireless engineer I remember so fondly from TOS.

The science was also a bit hand-wavvy for Star Trek.  A magical new kind of matter and travel through black holes feature heavily in the plot.  Someone will probably try to claim that there are time-travel paradoxes in the plot as well, but as we already know the Star trek universe contains multiple parallel realities (eg the episopde "Mirror Mirror") these are pretty easily explained away.

Quibbles aside though, this movie was tremendous fun and bodes will for the future of the franchise.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Why people who run factories shouldn't run software companies

Well, I'm having an interesting debate over on linked in with a guy who has this idea that you can treat software employees as replaceable parts in a production machine.

His logic is that there is always someone else to hire if the employee quits. Many of the greatest minds of the 19thc. would probably agree with his logic.

The problem, ofcourse is that this IS'NT the 19thC. and we arent making Ford automobiles.

His delusion comes from the misunderstanding that he is paying people to spend man-hours producing lines of code. This idea was debunked back in 1975 by the classic book The Mythical Man Month. One of the best known anlogies from that book explains that if one woman can produce one baby in 9 months, it does NOT necessarily follow that 9 women can produce one baby in 1 month.

This is the fallacy of looking at the product of the software process as lines of code. Its not. The product of the software process is problem solving. The code that implements the solution is just the most visible artifact of that process. A far more important part of the process is the thinking that went into the solution. This is what can generate improvements and off-shoots from the original problem and keep you moving forward rather then constantly re-tracing your own steps.

And that lives squarely between the ears of your developer.

The smartest engineering manager I ever knew once said to me, "your most important assets walk out the door every night. You want to make sure they walk back in the next morning."

That means you had better treat them like valued individuals, not cogs in a machine. And if you don't do that, they will find someone else who will.

I did do a bit of research and discovered that my antagonist in this debate runs a two man shop, and thus doesnt actually have any employees. In my mind, thats a good thing for everyone concerned.