Charles Wallace on Camazotz

Category: Blog

On Oh, No by Cameron Kunzelman

I’ve been reading Cameron Kunzelman’s blog This Cage Is Worms for a few months. I don’t remember how I came across it–probably he left a comment on another blog I read–and it has become a part of my daily dips into the vast pool that is videogame criticism. Kunzelman also makes games–there’s one called Funeral, a masterful deconstruction of the opening stages of Dragon Warrior, which, if the game’s Kickstarter page can be believed, he spent $306 to make–but I am deeply disappointed at his frankly irresponsible and offensive latest work, Oh, No.

I don’t know how much Oh, No cost to make (that information is not available, and as of the time of this writing, the theoretical email I sent to Kunzelman to get this information was theoretically not returned) but I can tell you that the cost to my soul was incalculable.

The game is quite simple–a little dude runs from the gigantic all-consuming head of Michel Foucault, which the player must try to outpace by pressing the Z, X, or C keys as instructed, all while a jaunty chiptune plays–and it’s deeply, deeply, offensive.

Foucault died of AIDS. Oh, No is a clear statement that we, both personally and as a society, need to run from people infected with HIV lest we also become infected. It brings back the darkest days of the plague when hospitals turned dying AIDS patients away and funeral homes refused to take in their bodies. The use of the keys Z, X, and C, being as they are on the lower left of the keyboard, implies agreement with the idea espoused by such luminaries as Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms that AIDS is a disease of the lower classes and of progressives. The giant head of Foucault, with its mouth moving in a mockery of speech, seems to be hungering for the little dude, who body is black and whose head is teal (the gayest color), reminding the player of nothing but a tiny cock that Foucault, being a gay man, must hunger for at all times to the detriment of own health and, indeed, his own personhood.

I’m sure that Kunzelman will say that all of this is unintentional. He, better even than Foucault, must realize that that is irrelevant. We have all seen that dark heart of hatred to which the human spirit can sink. Its name? Oh, No, by Cameron Kunzelman.

Dialogue Tree on Electron Dance

Just a quick note to say that Dialogue Tree can now be found on Electron Dance!

Affordable Quality

My boyfriend and I are moving in together, so we’ve been doing a lot of shopping. Paint, accessories, hardware—but the biggest expense by far has been furniture. As a typical just-out-of-my-twenties American adult male, I have a lot of junky Ikea and Ikea-type shit that we are replacing, and it’s been a struggle to find affordable, well-made furniture that doesn’t look like something my mother would buy. Time and again, we would go to a store that has what we like—vintage-y, mid-century sort of stuff, and be absolutely shocked at the prices. And this is from places that bill themselves as ‘affordable.” So we’ve turned to Craigslist, and have found some good deals there, but of course that sticker price always doubles once you factor in car rentals, gas, and parking tickets.

Apple was always known for great design and great craftsmanship—except for a few dark years in the early ‘90s—but were never known for being affordable, until recently. The ‘Apple tax”, the premium you pay for that Apple logo, is an old joke, made funnier by the fact that, of course, it was true—but it hasn’t been true for at least a few years now. When the Apple tablet was just a rumor, people were speculating that it was going to launch at $999, and that would have been greeted as amazing (it would have been the cheapest Apple computer available) but instead the iPad was announced at $499. The story of how Apple became so shockingly affordable is the great unsung story of their amazing run of success these past 15 years.

And Apple is billed as “affordable luxury” by many people, but in these past few weeks shopping for furniture, I realized something. Luxury and quality have become synonymous. Quality goods aren’t just made well and designed well—they are made well and designed well for people that aren’t you. Apple rejects that. Apple realizes that computers and phones are things that have become necessary in the 21st Century. Apple isn’t affordable luxury—Apple is affordable quality.

People in modern America are surrounded by junk: junky furniture, junky electronics, junky clothes, junky food—and it’s all junk because junk is affordable, and how do you live better than a medieval monarch on $35,000 a year without having all your stuff be made out of particleboard and polyester? And yet, Apple has managed to make wonderfully designed and built products that are a delight to look at, hold, and use, at prices that all other electronics manufacturers struggle to meet, let alone beat.

Why isn’t there an Apple of furniture? Of clothes? Of food? If you want Apple-quality products in any of these categories, you’re going to pay, not just slightly more, but in most cases significantly more, than if you buy the junk. And yet Apple is releasing the highest quality products in multiple product categories at a price that can’t be beat, and more importantly, that average people can afford.

People aren’t stupid. They respond to quality. And that is why they respond to Apple. In a world which tells us that you must be rich to afford quality goods, Apple is there, saying the complete opposite. Maybe other industries should start listening.

Android’s VisiCalc Problem

I’ve been having trouble getting this Wired article about Android tablets out of my head since I linked to it on Friday. The reasons why Android tablets haven’t taken off just seem so blindingly obvious to me:

The most successful “pure” Android tablet line, Samsung’s extensive Galaxy Tab series, holds a pitiful worldwide tablet market share of about 6 percent — and this is across four different Galaxy form factors. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are doing comparatively better with their tablets, but these devices aren’t branded as Android products. Instead, Google’s operating system simply runs in the background, providing OS support for Amazon and B&N wrappers.

Remember this. We’ll come back to it later.

To date, tablet manufacturers that openly celebrate the Android name — think Samsung, Sony and Asus — have touted hardware superiority. In other words, if you want 4G data speeds, cutting-edge CPUs, and superior displays, you’ll have to join Team Android. Or so the story has been told.

This is true–but the fact that “pure” Android tablet share, however you define “pure”, is pitifully small simply indicates that the average person doesn’t care about specs. They care about what you can do with a device. And this is a question that Android tablets simply have had no answer for.

But now with the arrival of the new iPad, replete with fully modernized specs that neutralize the hardware advantages of the biggest, snazziest Android tablets, it’s all the more apparent that Google’s tablet strategy is more vulnerable than ever before.

I think it’s charitable to think that Google even has a “tablet strategy.” They certainly have an “Android strategy”, which is: give away the operating system to phone manufacturers who take it and do whatever they want with it, with Google sucking up the resulting ad revenue. But the phone market is not the tablet market, so what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other.

At this point, it’s glaringly obvious that Apple has the high end of the tablet market cornered. At $500 for the lowest-priced new iPad and up to $830 for the top of the line model, it takes more than chump change to pick one up.

And yet early sales estimates show that Apple’s new iPad is already a huge success. The Verge reported Apple’s Fifth Avenue flagship store sold 13,000 iPads in the first 12 hours of the tablet’s release. Apple itself has stated that pre-order demand before the tablet’s debut was “off the charts,” with more than 3 million new iPads sold in the first weekend of the device’s release.

Needless to say, people are willing to shell out major green for Apple’s new slate.

Android tablet makers are pushing similar high-end models, but alas, buyers aren’t flocking to the devices. Google stumbled right out of the gate with the Motorola Xoom, which was priced at $600 for the cheapest version — a hundred bucks more expensive than the cheapest iPad. The Xoom, as well as countless other high-end Android tablets, have not sold well.

And here we start to get to the meat of the problem. Apple has become so good at locking up parts supply that it is literally impossible for any other device manufacturer to beat them on price. At the same time, the iPad has two years of application support plus a rapidly maturing app marketplace. If Android wants to compete at the iPad’s level, not only do manufacturers need to figure out a way to make an iPad-caliber device at the same price (or more probably, a lower price), they also need to figure out a way to have people be able to do things with their Android tablet. Or more simply: why spend the same amount of money as an iPad to get a tablet which can’t really do anything?

And as we have seen so far, no manufacturer has been able to do both of these things. So what is Wired’s advice?

But Amazon seems to have found the right approach: If you can’t beat ‘em, undercut ‘em.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire went on sale last November, quickly securing a spot as one of Amazon’s fastest-selling products ever. The draw to consumers hasn’t been raw specs and features, as the Fire is a mere 7-inch device that doesn’t include any cameras, and offers limited on-board storage. Nor have apps been a Kindle Fire draw, as Amazon’s Appstore offers a mere fraction of apps compared to Apple’s veritably endless buffet.

No, for Amazon, it’s all about the price. The Fire launched with a loss-leading $200 price tag — significantly lower than the $400 to $500 price tags of branded, 10-inch Android tablets. And the Fire has destroyed its Android brethren in terms of market share, capturing 16 percent of the still nascent tablet landscape, and selling more units in a matter of weeks than other manufacturers managed to sell over the course of a year.

Google may be watching carefully, and reevaluating its options in the wake of Amazon’s success. Last week, rumors circulated around a $150 Android tablet that would be manufactured by Asus and serve as Google’s next Nexus device.

Amazon’s success is certainly something to watch, but they’ve done it by designing an underpowered device that they sell at a loss, the sole purpose of which is to be a vehicle for Amazon’s (admittedly competitive) content marketplace. They’re not trying to sell a general-purpose tablet because they know they can’t compete in that space. I have no idea what a rumored $150 Nexus Android tablet would be good for. Google has no competitive content marketplace, and the device would be grossly underpowered for actually doing anything with it. No manufacturer of Android tablets has been able to compete by emulating Apple, and I have no idea why they think they’ll have any success emulating Amazon. Here you really begin to see the limitations of the traditional PC and phone manufacturers. They’re being blown out of the water and have no idea what to do.

There’s nothing worse than feeling left out. Sadly, until Google can do a better job of convincing app developers to code for Android first, it will be hard for Android tablet users to feel they’re using the latest, greatest, coolest software…

What Google needs to do is borrow a trick from Apple, and make Google Play — it’s just-launched effort to consolidate apps, music, video and books — into a piece of lucrative real estate. Being featured on Apple’s App Store promises a hefty boost in downloads, so if Google can direct millions of eyeballs to its Google Play storefront — like Apple has done with iTunes — developers will fight to get on Google’s radar.

Remember the quote that led off this article? Wired is basically recommending that Google adopt the Amazon strategy, sell a Nexus tablet at a loss, and make up the money by selling content.

This is actually good advice, but there’s a problem with it: there is no way that Google Play become anything more than yet another failed attempt by Google to make finding apps and entertainment easier on Android. Google may have control over the Nexus platform, but it’s never been a big seller, and the rest of the Android space is a confusing cacophony of different manufacturers all putting their own look-and-feel cruftware on the platform.

If someone is looking for an inexpensive content consumption device, are they going to go with the cool device with the cool ad campaign and the cool mindshare (the Kindle Fire), or are they going to go with the no-name Android tablet with some weird thing called “Google Play” on it?

Kenny Rogers said it best: “You got to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.” So maybe it’s time for Google to walk away (or even run) from Android tablets. Android tablets with a capital “A,” that is.

“Android can be successful as an underlying platform for companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the US, but not as a branded platform,” Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps told Wired. Instead, she says, original equipment manufacturers like Toshiba, Dell and HTC will adopt a Microsoft-based plan, pushing out Windows-based slates when Windows 8 finally drops this year.

Could Android do well enough for Google as a back-end platform that supports Amazon’s and Barnes and Noble’s custom user interfaces? Google’s search engine is still the default for the Fire’s Silk browser, as well as Barnes and Noble’s Nook, which means Google still makes ad revenue on all those served queries. Does it matter, then, that Android is virtually unrecognizable on the tablets?

Windows 8 tablets are indeed the elephant in the room–no one knows how they will perform or who will buy them. Like it or not, Windows is still a strong brand name, but if the struggles that Windows Phone 7 has had in getting adopted are any indication, Windows 8 is probably going to be faced with indifference from both buyers and manufacturers. Meanwhile, Android tablets will continue their slow slide to irrelevancy, as the iPad keeps racking up record sales.

At the end of the day, it’s all about the apps. The Apple II wasn’t a success because it was the most powerful PC (it wasn’t)–it was a success because of VisiCalc and all the educational software support it had. Windows didn’t become a success because it was so much better than the competition (it wasn’t)–it was a success because Microsoft recognized the value in locking up software for the OS. And the iPad isn’t a success because it’s the most powerful tablet on the market (it isn’t), or because it was the first tablet on the market (it wasn’t)–it’s a success because Apple, out of all the companies currently making tablets, took the lessons from the beginning of the PC era to heart and made sure that it was easy to develop iPad apps, and easy to find and buy iPad apps. It’s amazing that no one else gets this.

(But really, I could have just saved myself the trouble and simply linked to this PC Magazine article.)

O, the Glorious Downloadable Future of Console Games!

There’s a persistent idea floating around amongst videogame pundits that a download-only console isn’t possible. The latest was written by Ben Kuchera and published last Wednesday on The Penny Arcade Report:

The rumor of a “digital only” console refuses to die. We’ve heard about Steam releasing a console-like device that would use Valve’s digital distribution service to deliver games to customers. Then came the rumor that the newest Xbox console would ship with no disc drive, and would rely on a combination of memory cards and digital distribution to deliver games.

These rumors are bullshit. The world is not ready for an all-digital console, and the United States would specifically present a number of challenges for any company that hopes to rely on digital sales. We’re not saying that this won’t happen in the future, but it is safe to say that we’re a long way from losing discs. How can we be so sure?

Of course these rumors are bullshit, but Kuchera starts off by picking some (very) low-hanging fruit. Rumors about consoles that are yet to be proven to exist are “bullshit”? Next you’ll be telling me that there’s no Santa Claus.

Broadband adoption in the United States stands at 81 percent, according to a “State of the Internet” report released by Akamai in January of this year. The US ranked 13th in average connection speed in the world, with South Korea and Hong Kong taking the first and second slots for speed, respectively. According to those numbers, you’d lose 19 percent of your potential market on a purely-digital delivery mechanism.

Except that those numbers don’t indicate anything of the kind. The fact that 19% of households in the United States lack broadband isn’t important–what is important is the number of households with consoles that don’t have broadband. I don’t know that figure, but neither does Kuchera.

“The real point is that a digital-only box excludes people who aren’t connected, or who don’t want to connect. A lot of people have consoles in basements without Wi-Fi or Internet access,” Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter told the Penny Arcade Report. “At least 15 percent of high-definition consoles are not connected to the Internet, and requiring game downloads would be suicide.”

Except that here he does sort of have that figure. Michael Pachter’s shortcomings as a prognosticator have become something of a running joke amongst gamers who pay attention to this sort of thing, so without a source I tend to politely scoff at the statement that 15% of “high-definition consoles” have no connection to the internet. Let’s take it at face value, though–an 85% connectivity rate amongst “high-definition” console owners is pretty damn good, and it certainly makes Kuchera’s previous statements on broadband penetration seem kind of pointless. The only thing we can say for sure is that phasing out physical media would shrink the pool of potential videogame customers. Pachter’s hyperbole about suicide seems ill-considered.

Downloading games takes time and bandwidth. Many ISPs are now placing data caps on customers, and will either throttle your download speeds or charge extra if you go over your allotment. This is bad news for people who want to download games that may be more than 10GB in size. If you knew buying a $60 game would cost you an extra few bucks in Internet fees, would you still buy it?

According to some, these data caps won’t be going away. “Over a period of years, as the market becomes more accustomed to (usage-based pricing), we expect these plans to become the rule rather than the exception,” Sanford Bernstein’s Craig Moffett wrote in a research note to his investor clients, as reported by StopTheCap.

Aside from Comcast and AT&T, no other major American broadband provider currently has data caps, and no other provider has plans to implement data caps. These caps may be fast becoming the rule in the mobile broadband space, but there is little evidence that they’re on a path to becoming widespread for wired internet service providers.

Digital delivery is going to become a more popular option next generation. But that’s what it will be: An option. No one is stupid enough to require it.

On that Kuchera and I agree. In fact, I would be very surprised if Microsoft or Sony ever made the decision to phase out physical game discs, because such a decision would be forward-thinking. Other mediums got disrupted because they didn’t react quickly enough to the move to online distribution, not because they moved too quickly. It happened to the music industry, it’s happening to the movie and publishing industries, and it’s going to happen to the videogame industry. Indeed it’s already started–look at what Steam has done to the PC gaming market.

You can argue that we’re not “ready” all you want–but gamers are going to gravitate towards the option that is most convenient, not which protects Microsoft’s or Sony’s profit margins.