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by Jason Gross

18 Aug 2008

September 3, 2002 is an important date for the music industry. That was the day that Napster was effectively shut down by the courts after punishing lawsuits by the major labels. It’s also the day that the same labels started to seal their own fate by killing off a service that could have helped to save it as Napster was desperately trying to make deals with the majors while these lawsuits were going on.

Not content with that, they’re now in the process of killing off not only Pandora service, which has been a great way to hear and learn about music, even for hardcore music nuts like yours truly, but will also probably mean the end of other Net music services who can’t afford the licensing fees. Because of punishing royalty rates that they can’t afford and pushed on them by SoundExchange and the Copyright Royalty Board, it looks like Pandora will be out of business soon, as detailed in a Washington Post article.

SoundExchange insists that its demands are fair but like many online radio stations who won’t be able to afford the new rates they’ve set, Pandora can’t afford to meet their demands. The end result is no music and no service then. So the labels can be happy that they’ve driven another music service out of business, not to mention one that was playing by their rules. Ultimately when services like this disappear, music fans will be driven to more of the unauthorized P2P services that the RIAA is trying to shut down. But obviously this strategy isn’t going to work if the legit services can’t survive themselves. Also, the labels won’t be too thrilled when they ultimately realize that once Pandora and other streaming music services are driven out of business, they won’t be able to collect ANY revenue from them anymore.

The end result is another example of the industry and labels stupidly killing themselves off. But don’t worry, they’ll be sure to scapegoat everyone except themselves. And ultimately it won’t matter because they’ll be shrinking and bleeding more each day. Good sound business policy it ain’t.

FOLLOW-UP NOTE: One thing I forgot to include in the post above was another blog entry that I did two years about Pandora. I was really impressed with how well the service worked with finding music similar to what I liked and even more impressed that it came up with a bunch of surprises when doing so.  That alone makes me hope that the service will find a way to stick around for a while.

by Lara Killian

18 Aug 2008

image

The Enchantress of Florence
Salman Rushdie
Random House
May 2008

Sir Salman Rushdie’s latest work of fiction, The Enchantress of Florence, is another sumptuous feat of storytelling. The author layers story upon story in a muddled palimpsest that meanders through time and jumps geographically so that the reader cannot completely follow the chronology of events or pin down the relationships between characters. It always feels like an accomplishment to finish a Rushdie novel, but the effort is well worth it.

The center of the universe in this novel is a woman named Qara Köz, the “hidden princess” of India in the Middle Ages. She is constantly choosing her own destiny in a world where men usually make the rules, and she uses the people around her to achieve her goals. Qara Köz is a woman capable of entrancing all who cross her path, all who see her, even those who only imagine her existence. Her magic is like a whirlpool, drawing in the men and women in her periphery and merely casting them aside when their purpose has been served if they are lucky; the unfortunate are destroyed.

Piece by piece, the princess’ story is revealed to her distant relative, King Akbar, who struggles with his place in history, wondering what will be come of his dynasty, and curious about the workings of the world as well as arrogant about his power to control it. Three Florentine childhood friends play key roles in the travels of the princess, and the descendant of one of them is the storyteller who enlightens the emperor in his capital city of Sikri. After hearing the conclusion of the tale, Akbar muses,

No woman in the history of the world had made a journey like hers. He loved her for it and admired her too, but he was also sure that her journey across the Ocean Sea was a kind of dying, a death before death, because death too was a sailing away from the known into the unknown.

The life of The Enchantress of Florence is a fascinating one, and Rushdie admits  that this, of all his works, is the best researched. Though some may find his writing overwrought, I always enjoy it, and look forward to his future efforts.

by Mike Schiller

17 Aug 2008

While I’m not the type of person who subscribes to the idea that a gaming system or company has to have a mascot to survive, it certainly doesn’t hurt.  Despite its tremendous stable of long-running characters, Mario will always be identified as the true symbol of Nintendo.  Sega, for better (the ‘90s) or worse (the ‘00s), will always have Sonic standing at the forefront of its stable of games (maybe the angry fella at the center of MadWorld can take over next year).  At one point, Sony had Crash Bandicoot out front, but his star has lost a bit of its luster over the last 10 years or so.  So who’s taken over in the Sony stable?

Some might say that the torch bearer of the Sony brand has now become Solid Snake of the Metal Gear Solid series, and that’s not a bad guess—Snake’s current incarnation of the old man showing the kids how things are done seems particularly à propos for the place that Sony is attempting to take in the modern gaming market.  Still, no series has offered the sort of consistency and quality (not to mention a whole pile of releases) as Ratchet & Clank.  The two of them combined may well be the current face(s) of Sony; immense firepower, copious cunning, and Ratchet’s ever-present smirk seem as though they would serve Sony well, if Sony were ever to push them to the front of a marketing campaign.  They’re even kid-friendly, at least in image, which would help the company cut into the Wii family market.  Are you listening, Sony?  Everyone who was going to buy the PS3 because it’s also a Blu-Ray player has already bought the thing.  It’s time to shift your target.

The Ratchet & Clank series is relevant right now, because the latest iteration of the series is on its way this Thursday as a PlayStation Network download.  I’ve spent a lot of time this month extolling the virtues of the Xbox Live Arcade, so it’s almost as if it only seems fair that I would highlight a PlayStation Network game this week; Ratchet & Clank surely gets the nod over an(other) updated version of Galaga no matter what the updates to the latter.

Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty isn’t so much a new game as it is an episode in the mythology of the duo. as it’s only a three-to-four-hour game.  Still, despite the short length, the consensus so far is that it continues the traditionally consistent and engrossing experience of its predecessors, and that anyone who still likes to play the old pseudo-platforming action/adventure style of game will be richly rewarded by the game, even if the high won’t last all that long.

Too Human: Baldur vs. the Spider-Thing

Too Human: Baldur vs. the Spider-Thing

Elsewhere, the ever-controversial Too Human is on its way this Tuesday, a game whose controversy stems not from any objectionable content, but from the tremendous length of its development cycle.  Advance word says that the roundabout way that it eventually came to be may have hurt the play experience, but it still seems like an interesting (and graphically impressive) enough experience to warrant a look, even if it might be destined for bargain bins sooner than later.  Deadliest Catch: Alaskan Storm makes its weekly appearance on the PC release schedule (perhaps it’s time to let it go…), and hey!  It’s Anibus, for the Wii, which surely must be a…sequel?  Prequel?  Who knows?  But chances are, it has something to do with last year’s shovelware stink fest Anubis II.  So there’s that.

Looking forward to anything else this week?  The full release list, and a trailer for Quest for Booty, are after the jump.

by Glenn McDonald

17 Aug 2008

More updates from GenCon:

I’m a total sucker for old-school, turn-based RPGs, like the first few videogame iterations of Dungeons & Dragons. In these games, you controlled a party of 4-6 characters, and would lead them in turn-based combat against the bad guys. That meant each character would act individually in turn—the elf fires his arrow at the orc, the wizard moves three squares and shoots a fireball at the troll.  Time crawled to a stop in these games. This was combat which in game time was resolved in seconds, actually taking an hour or more to play in “real” time, as you carefully executed each hero’s actions.

Promo art for The Continuum

Promo art for The Continuum

This is the kind of excruciatingly minute control that turns on a certain variety of videogame RPGers—like me. The new D&D games, like the otherwise excellent Neverwinter Nights series, move too fast for my old bones. I like the old-school approach. So I was psyched to check out a new game premiering at GenCon: The Continuum. A hybrid of sorts, The Continuum combines elements of turn-based RPG play with strategy wargames like Axis and Allies, along with a Collectible Card Game (CCG) aspect. I demoed the game in the main convention hall, and man-oh-man, am I sold. This game is going to get me in a lot of trouble, I can tell.

The cover of issue #1 of The Continuum's comic book

The cover of issue #1 of
The Continuum‘s comic book

The Continuum lets you control entire armies of 300-plus individual characters, each of which has its own stat block, equipment, etc. The CCG element comes in when you assemble your armies. You essentially purchase new and better combatants, much in the way you would purchase new cards in the digital version of a game like Magic: The Gathering. Your army becomes, in essence, your deck. What’s really cool here is that the game is entirely browser-based—it’s all managed via Flash animation, and the raw throughput of data they are managing here suggests they have a real design savant on staff somewhere. It’s nicely scalable, too. You can command various squads of up to 20 characters, or even your entire army as a whole, if you want to play quick and dirty. But—if you really want to—you can micromanage all the way down to the level of each individual fighter, commanding each in turn just like in the old days.

The Continuum just came out of beta a couple months ago, and already has a solid, global player base (you can play others online or go solo against the AI). The game has a very cool and compelling narrative chassis as well – check it out for yourself at www.thecontinuum.com.

I spent a good part of the rest of the day attending various writers workshops and symposia (besides writing about games, I also occasionally write for them—I recently realized a lifelong dream by co-authoring a Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook, an advanced geek achievement I am proud of beyond all rational proportion).

A little bit of exposition in EVE Online

A little bit of exposition in EVE Online

There’s an interesting trend happening in this area. As the videogame industry continues its phenomenal growth, companies are starting to recruit science fiction and fantasy writers—and tabletop RPG game designers—to provide the narrative content needed for their rapidly expanding worlds. This is especially the case with MMOs, massively multiplayer online RPGs like World of Warcraft, Everquest, EVE Online, etc. One panelist, speaking at a workshop on freelance fantasy writing, estimated that every new expansion of a videogame RPG or MMO requires about 500,000 words of scripted dialogue to populate the conversation “trees”.

This writing used to be done by the coders themselves, or a small team of copywriters pulled over from the marketing division. And it showed. So the idea that the big companies are now hiring fantasy and sci-fi authors is a win-win for everyone. The games get more literate, and the writers have a new market. 

As always, the most fun to be had at GenCon is wandering the exhibit hall and people-watching. Or troll-watching, or stormtrooper-watching, or what have you. More pics after the jump…

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