Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Immigrants in Technology

America is Losing the Edge

I decided after much contemplation that I wanted this to be the headline topic for this week's post because it's something that people don't like to talk about enough but it's a serious problem. There's not enough American-born students with degrees in technology and yet the American government still has very stringent policies on immigration. There are arguments to be made for and against allowing more foreigners in the country to fill these positions, but the point is that we have a fundamental problem. Over half of all startups in the Valley are founded or co-founded by immigrants, and yet more immigrants aren't able to get their idea off the ground in America even if they were educated here. We're living in a world economy in our own bubble. We can't shelter American workers from the rest of the world. By turning away these great ideas, we're doing one of two things: letting them grow in other countries instead or letting them die off instead of possibly benefiting humanity. In the former case, we're reducing our influence in the world and in the latter we're doing a disservice to everyone because there are countries where starting your own company simply isn't as feasible. We can't shelter ourselves from outside pressures in the hope that we're going to continue to come up with the best ideas. Technology is growing too fast for it to be contained in a single country, the question is how big a part we want in that future.

Bing's Share Grows

I'm officially impressed by Bing. They managed to grab 10% of the search market. When they got a couple percent, you could say that they bought it with their advertising. At this point though, they're actually getting enough mindshare to maintain a pretty big piece of the pie. I think we are seeing the aftereffects of the advertising campaign and it'll be interesting to see if they can maintain this. They've definitely been working hard to differentiate themselves from Google and that's going to be key to their long-term strategy. They recently launched visual search, which allows you to browse results with pictures rather than texts. Supposedly, people can process pictures faster than text, but it's just kind of a neat feature that gets them good press coverage. It's actually clever and I think an implicit strategy in Google's arsenal since they're constantly making updates to their products and launching new ideas, which gives them free press coverage and makes them more prominent in people's minds.

Fast Flip and Chrome 3.0

Speaking of which, Google has made a few noteworthy announcements recently. The first is Fast Flip, which allows you to read newspapers and magazines digitally as if you were flipping through them on paper. They're trying to get rid of the taboo associated with reading newspapers and magazines in an electronic form that traditionalists have acquired. It allows you to browse through the articles with more words than you can currently get on Google News, but they're hoping that people will be enticed to click through and read the whole article, which will contain some more advertising. It looks like in the browsing itself the advertising will be off in a bar on the right side so that it's not too obtrusive. I don't know if these publications will accept this or if it will work out as Google hopes, but I think it's a really good idea still.

Another bit of Google news this week is that they've released version 3 of Chrome, which is faster but, more importantly, supports HTML 5. If I'm not mistaken, Chrome is the first major browser to support HTML 5, which supports embedded video, audio, and canvas tags.

Chrome Frame

There was actually one more big announcement from Google last week: Chrome Frame. This is a plug-in for Internet Explorer that allows you to render pages with Chrome from withing Internet Explorer and gives you the bonus of being able to properly render HTML 5. Why would Chrome do this? It's not simply to make the lives of web developers easier since Internet Explorer is notorious for being terrible with web standards, but rather to help increase the audience for their products that utilize additions in HTMl 5. Given that some employers are skeptical to allow employees to install Chrome, Google is probably hoping that at least this frame will be allowed. It shouldn't be too surprising that Microsoft advises against people installing the plug-in citing that it poses a security risk. They haven't really given hard proof that this is true and have instead done a lot of hand waving and proclaiming generalities.

Zune HD Faces Off With New Nano

The Zune HD is finally here, and the reviews are pretty positive overall. I feel like Engadget had the most balanced review that I read really giving a good balance between high points and lowlights rather than focusing too much on one or the other. Microsoft has definitely put a lot of care in the interface and making this a solid competitor, and I think it has succeeded in shaking things up a bit. I don't know if it'll get the popularity they'd like in light of the recent iPod releases, but it sounds like it definitely should.

One of the open questions for the Zune HD is if the app store will work out anywhere near as well as the iTunes app store. It's unlikely to ever be quite as successful, and is off to a bit of a slow start as you're faced with ads when starting up the applications available right now. I think that's a really bad model. I think it's better to say you can pay a buck or two to remove ads from an application and just have ads if someone really doesn't want to pay for an application or just wants to try it out in its full glory without having to worry about an expiring evaluation period or something like that. By having pre-roll ads though, they're really disincentivizing folks from using them.

Meanwhile, the new Nano is out there and doesn't seem all that compelling to me. It's definitely a beautiful device, and Ars Technica gave it a positive review overall, but the only really big addition is a video camera that can't take still pictures. If you really want a camcorder though, you can just get a Flip MinoHD instead. Sure, it's a separate device, but it's better quality (and easily pocketable) and that seems to be the only reason someone would upgrade their Nano to this model.

Switching to Linux

I really enjoyed this article about a guy who had been working on his development of a project solely on Windows and decided to try switching to Linux instead. Surprisingly enough, even with the initial setup he had a much easier time overall in Linux. Things were much speedier and wrestling with dependencies seemed to go easier for him. I actually switched to Linux myself a while back and haven't looked back. The command line tools you get with Linux right out of the box are invaluable and doing scripting just feels so much easier because everything you need tends to come right in the box.

CableCARDs Now Open

36% of all households in the US now have DVRs, which is a staggering percentage when you sit down and think about it. DVR adds a whole new dimension compared to VCRs, and it totally changes the dynamics of how people watch TV and advertising on TV. It's kind of ironic that most viewing still happens live with people turning to their recordings when nothing good is on TV, but that shows that people still aren't ready yet for a 100% on-demand model, which is what proponents of IP TV would be in support of.

You'll probably see DVRs become slightly more prominent now that CableCARDs (the card you use to decode the cable signal) can be acquired outside of an OEM, which makes it easier for people to build their own Home Theater PCs (HTPCs). This is an attractive option for people who have a spare PC lying around and I'm sure Windows 7 aims to make it even easier to have an HTPC. This is a pretty big victory for DIYers and overall just a great thing given how bloody the fight for DVRs and CableCARD acceptance has been over the years.

Quickies

Ok, it's getting late so it's time to race through the last stories.

There are some pretty solid rumors out there regarding a tablet from Mirosoft called Courier that has the interesting physical feature of a spine to split it in half making it feel more like a book. It looks neat, but details are still scarce.

The FCC chairman has taken a harder stance in favor of net neutrality and made it clear that inaction is not an option. That's more than refreshing to hear, and hopefully he stands by it.

After several years, the IEEE has finally approved the 802.11n wireless standard, which is is capable of much faster speeds than 802.11g (which is probably what's in your computer right now) and over longer distances. Say goodbye to routers with 802.11 draft N support and hello to full-on 802.11n support (hopefully).

Yahoo started a $100 million advertising campaign to try to salvage the Yahoo brand by bringing Yahoo back in the picture as people's choice for a web portal, but only time will tell how successful it will be. To be honest, I'm not optimistic from seeing some of the ads already:



This stick figure guide is probably the best explanation of AES I've seen and why you shouldn't use it. Ever. It's a really fun read.

Gnome 3 looks pretty.

Whether or not you've heard of the Windows 7 launch party promotion, you'll enjoy this parody of it. Trust me.

One more bit of humor: the evolution of a programmer. If you're a programmer then you're sure to love it.

Have a great week everyone (though I'm sure the change in weather will make that harder for those of you in Seattle)!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Surviving a Career Fair

Introduction

I didn't have time this week to put together a regular post because of my weekend recruiting trip, so I thought I'd instead provide some tips for those of you in school trying to do well at career fairs. Granted, my tips are aimed more towards CS majors, but some of them are definitely applicable to all fields of study. I thought about these on the way back from 5 hours of non-stop career fair pre-screening, and the folks that I gave my highest recommendation to for getting interview slots based on my conversations with them all had these things going for them. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it's the best I could come up with on short notice.

Hygiene

I have to admit that I'm a little surprised that this had to be included on the list. Please make sure you shower before going to a career fair. If it's hot outside where you are then plan out your transportation appropriately so that you're not all sweaty by the time you get to the fair. Also, brush your teeth! If I can see yellow gunk between your teeth, guess what I'm looking at? I didn't deduct points from folks for these things because I didn't think it was fair to, but the point is that you're trying to sell yourself and presentation is everything. It's harder to hold a conversation with someone who smells terrible - there's really no getting around that. I know almost for a fact that there are companies out there that won't be so forgiving if you have terrible hygiene, so get cleaned up and at least come business casual.

Shake the Representative's Hand!

A firm handshake is a pretty standard thing. It's a matter of politeness and tact. When you've been standing for hours and talking to folks nonstop, it really sucks when someone just walks up to you and sticks a resume in your face. That's a pretty bad first impression and given that you only have a few minutes to wow the representative, you don't have much time to make up for it. You want the entire experience to average out positive, and no greeting starts you out in the negative.

Eye Contact

This generally wasn't a problem for me, but there was one guy who I seriously thought was blind. To be perfectly honest, I spent a good 20 seconds trying to figure out if he was blind. It doesn't count against you if you're blind, but it does count against you if you're trying that hard to not look me in the eye. My end conclusion is that they guy was looking at the ground. Aside from showing a huge lack of confidence (you don't want to be self-deprecating here, it's basically an interview situation), it's really awkward. It felt like talking to a wall. Being a software developer involves a lot of communication, how can I endorse someone who's not comfortable talking with people? I'll come back to communication though.



Refine Those Resumes

My biggest pet peeve was seeing resumes that were clearly not properly prepared. It's really as easy as going to your school's career services and having someone go through your resume with you. I only have 3-5 minutes to talk to you, and I don't want to spend a minute reading an essay about your life while you stand there awkwardly. A resume is a concise summary of your professional career and what you're looking for, so don't give me every little detail. Highlight the key points and let me ask you questions about what I care about. Since different companies sometimes look for different things it doesn't make sense to try to explain everything in detail and hope for the best. The things I focused on the most were:

  • Previous Degrees

  • Graduation Date (do you want an internship, full-time position, etc.?)

  • Skills (programming languages, familiar technologies, etc.)

  • Relevant Coursework (more important for underclassmen)

  • Technical Work Experience (people seemed to not like to mention what languages or technologies they used, or their role in the projects, and instead used a lot of ridiculous acronyms)

  • Technical Independent Projects (which ones were done outside of the classroom and what technologies/languages did you use?)

  • GPA (this was low on my list, but could help more than hurt people)

  • Objective (not always necessary, but was important for folks where I didn't understand what role they were looking for at Amazon and it can't hurt to have it there on the safe side)


Another thing: don't print on the back of your resume because then I can't take notes on it. I know several companies take notes on the backs of resumes, and the less space you give me to take notes the less likely I'll be able to recommend you for an interview spot since I can't read my tiny notes in the margin. If you have to have more than one page (consult with your career services first) then use multiple sheets of paper and staple them.

Keep Your Resume Professionally

I expect for people to have swag bags and probably backpacks, but don't keep other junk in your hands and don't keep your resumes in your swag bag. For one thing, it took those people like 30 seconds to reach in their corporate swag bag for their resume, and it's just tacky. I literally paid $15 for a leather zipper case that I kept my resumes in back in the day and it worked great. Some people kept crumpled papers in their hand, which was also strange. Feel free to use your hands to help you speak, but don't use them to fidget with crumpled papers.

Offer to Summarize Yourself

Some people don't like this, but I do. When you hand your resume to someone, if they don't ask you to give a brief summary of yourself and what you're looking for, then ask them if they'd like you to. It can't hurt. Don't launch into the story of your life unprovoked, but I liked having the guidance as I read someone's resume of what they found most important. It was less awkward than the person just watching me read their overly long resume (in the cases where the resume wasn't well-prepared, I mean). It can backfire if you go into each thing in grave detail though because it's going to give me less time to talk to you and formulate a positive opinion of you (more on this below).

Talk Concisely

Please do not ramble. Please! If you ramble when you're nervous then go through some mock interviews with your career services. Even though it's not a full-blown interview it still is a very small one. Be concise in your answers and feel free to politely ask if you properly answered their question or if they'd like to hear more, but don't offer more information than was asked for. Aside from being irritating, it means that the representative has less time to ask you for the information they really care about, which gives them less evidence to build the case they'd have to make on your behalf to get you an interview. Also, if there's a line behind you then that's even worse because it's impolite to those people and is going to encourage the representative to cut your time short prematurely because they want to keep the line moving since they're not going to get to ask you what they need to ask you in under 5 minutes.

Be Confident

This is a pretty tricky one. You want to be confident, but never arrogant. There were a few people that were kind of unsure on my questions that were, in my opinion, intentionally pretty softball and they used the words "I think". It's one thing if I'm grilling you in an interview with a trick question and you're trying to think out loud about a solution. If I'm asking you to define something like a hash table though, you should really know the answer. I don't want someone to say "I don't know" because I don't want them to give up though, I'd rather see them persist and ask for hints. You don't want to confidently give an answer you really don't think is right, but you also don't want to give a sloppy answer. If you need guidance then just talk it out with the representative and let them guide you. I didn't ask a single difficult question that I didn't preface with "this is kind of hard so it's ok if you get it wrong", and I only asked them to folks that I was already impressed with. Odds are that the person at the booth isn't trying to grill you, they're just trying to figure out if you stand out among the rest.

Be Articulate

I want to say that just having the talent is enough, but it's not quite all of it. You have to be able to communicate, plain and simple. Communication is key to software development at pretty much every good company. If you're being asked a softball question, it's probably to see if you can elegantly talk about something very simple that you ought to be very comfortable with. If you can't talk about something simple, how can you help brainstorm solutions to critical operational problems with your team? You don't have to be a toastmaster (though participating in your local chapter would almost certainly help you with this), you just have to be able to articulate technical and non-technical answers in an easily understandable way. The easier it is for me to understand what you're getting at and the more efficient our time together is, the better my overall impression of you will be and the more time I'll have to take notes about how great your answers were.

Bring Questions

Bring good questions about what you're interested in working on or even questions about the general process. Don't ask stupid questions about the company that you know they can't answer. For example, a recruiter can't comment on a rumor or a recent scandal, so don't ask about it. That can actually leave a bad taste in the mouth of the recruiter and hurt their overall impressions of you. Feel free to ask questions about their experience at the company or what they do or why they still work there, just don't ask anything irrelevant to your potential future at the company.

Warm Up and Don't Get Discouraged

It's a good idea to start out by visiting a few companies you're not all that interested in just to whet your whistle and shake off any anxiety you may have. Then move on to the places at the top of your list. You don't want to launch into your top choice cold turkey.

Also, don't get discouraged too easily. If you don't get the company interested you want one semester, just try again the following one. Don't let one bad experience with one person get you down. Most companies won't blacklist you because one person didn't like you in some career fair. They'll usually give you another chance if you give them another chance.

Conclusion

It all boils down to this: you're at a career to sell a brand. That brand is you. Any good tech company is looking for a solid, well-rounded individual. Not someone who is a guru in one thing and nothing else, but someone who is smart, has the aptitude to learn very quickly, and can communicate effectively. Of course, some core technical knowledge is required, but past that any good tech company is looking to see if you can grow into an exceptional, rock star developer. That drives their long-term growth. No good company wants a code monkey, and no reasonable company expects you to already be a seasoned professional out of college, but they're looking for something intangible that's very hard to detect so you need to make it as easy as possible for them to find that in you.

My tips aren't a sure fire way to get you an interview in the aftermath of a career fair, but they definitely go a long way. You still have to put in the effort inside and outside the classroom to build up your talent, of course.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Apple Undercuts the Zune

Apple's Rock and Roll Event

I hate to say it, but the biggest news from the past couple of weeks is Apple's event. This isn't unfortunate because I have a vendetta with Apple products (I think they're very high quality, in fact), but it wasn't a very exciting event. Not every year can be an iPhone year, but it sounds like it was still a good event. You can get all the juicy details here but the gist of it is: new iTunes, new Nano, and new Shuffle. The new iTunes 9 allows you to share music across multiple machines, has a re-designed store (geared more towards sharing than before, in a legal way), features endless genius mixes, and adds iTunes LP for enhanced liner notes. The only brand new feature here really is the home sharing thing, but this doesn't seem very different from what Windows Media Player already does. The new Nano is kind of nifty, I have to admit.



It comes in some beautiful colors, features a camera (for pictures and video), has a larger display, includes a pedometer, and allows you to pause live radio. Interestingly enough, it also has a mic and a speaker. More than ever, the Nano feels like just a small iPod. It's not a mind-blowing update to the Nano series, but it does look great overall.

The Shuffle update was much less eventful: it supports normal headphones (like it always should've) and comes in 5 colors, plus a limited edition stainless steel.

What I really wanted to get to were the prices: they're lower and come at an inopportune time for Microsoft with the Zune HD looming in the very near future (as in, tomorrow). The Shuffle is $60 for 2 GB and $80 for 4 GB, the new Nano is $180 for 16 GB and $150 for 8 GB, and the iPod Touch was dropped down to $200 for 8 GB, $300 for 32 GB, and now there's a 64 GB flavor for $400. Comparatively, the Zune HD is $290 for 32 GB and $220 for 16 GB. This definitely takes away some of Microsoft's thunder, and Apple may have timed this event for the purpose of undercutting the Zune HD's great price points. In the end, this is all great for consumers, but I hope that Microsoft doesn't get sidled out of the market by an event proclaiming only incremental updates. I'd like to see some real competition for Apple aside from just Sansa, which has a pitiful share of the market compared to Apple's more than 75% share, which leaves Microsoft with a single digit share of the pie. I'm not a fan of Sansa's showings and I'm a little afraid that if the Zune HD fails that we won't see innovation in portable audio for years. So here's to hoping for a clean fight!

Palm Pixi

Who is this guy that Palm is hiring to name their products nowadays? I mean seriously, is this guy high out of his mind? Treo and Centro were good names, I thought, but the Pre and Pixi are really bad names. It's pretty emasculating for a guy to carry around a phone named 'Pixi'. Anyway, it's official now and it's what we suspected: a candybar webOS phone akin to what Centro was to the Treo. Unfortunately, it'll be exclusive to Sprint, but it will be out this holiday season. To be fair, I'm on Sprint and don't think it's as bad as people say: my coverage, especially 3G, is excellent, the pricing is fair, and I love the new Any Mobile feature (free calls to any mobile phone in the country with an Everything Plan), but their customer service sucks. Still, I was hoping that Palm would expand to other carriers in the spring with webOS. They still can, but I don't think Pixi is going to do a whole lot for Palm or Sprint.



The software is pretty much what you'd expect from seeing the Pre; the only major difference is that it now adds LinkedIn and Yahoo to the list of sites it can sync contacts from, and will include a Facebook app that looks better than the terrible website Facebook has for webOS. On the outside, it definitely looks slick. It's even slimmer than the iPhone 3GS, has the nice back plate that you normally only get with the touchstone for the Pre, and keys on the keyboard are higher so they're supposedly easier to type on than the Pre (mind you, I'm quite comfortable typing on my Pre so I have high hopes for the Pixi keyboard). Under the hood, it's less powerful than the Pre but looks like it performs quite well from Engadget's videos.

I know I started out negative on the Pixi, and while I don't think it'll be groundbreaking (since it's staying on Sprint), I think it's going to turn more heads and bring more people into webOS who were turned off by the Pre's slider or keyboard or the fact that it was first generation. I'm really concerned that Palm won't make it to Verizon with webOS before the iPhone, or that it'll never be a success on AT&T because of the iPhone, but I do hope it flourishes because I'm really loving it. I still haven't had time to play with the SDK, but I'm liking the apps on it so far (new ones every Friday) and all the basics of the phone have worked out great for me with very few glitches compared to my old Treo 650. Plus, it looks like the app store really isn't going to be crazy strict like Apple's despite a media player being turned away. Palm reached out stating that it was only rejected for use of unsupported APIs and they'd like to find a way for the application to get released but have nothing against it being a homebrew application freely available outside of the app store. Now that's how you're supposed reject an application, not with smoke and mirrors like Apple does.

Government Control of the Internet

A cybersecurity bill has been proposed that gives the government the power to control the Internet (e.g. cut people off) in an emergency situation, and the Internet was not pleased. I agree with them: this bill is flat out stupid. I'm not a big proponent of big government, and I don't think the government has the technical expertise to manage the Internet in a time of crisis. Does it really need to, anyway? The Internet is bigger than the power of the U.S. government, and it's not really clear, as far as I can tell, what the use case for this really is. I feel like it gives too much power in the case of a situation that's hypothetical. There are cyber security threats all the time that are handled by private companies, and of course the military handles cybersecurity threats against them, but I can't envision a situation where the government would need to be involved, especially since the Internet isn't a public utility.

Best Buy Employees Spread Misinformation

This story was too crazy for me to not talk about it briefly. It's been confirmed that Microsoft has provided training documentation to Best Buy employees that attacks Linux and, by most Linux users' account, slanders Linux. Like the "I'm a Mac" ads, the information provided wasn't full of outright lies, but anyone familiar with Linux would be able to explain why the claims aren't true. It's disappointing that Microsoft is standing on the cusp of their best product release since XP and yet they're doing crap like this. This came to light a couple of weeks ago when a Best Buy employee leaked the training documentation, and Daily Finance then followed up and got an official statement from Microsoft on it.

I have two points I'd like to make. First of all, this shows that Microsoft is scared of Linux. If they didn't feel threatened they wouldn't bother with this. 5 years ago they scoffed at the mention of Linux, but with the popularity of the open-source operation system growing every year (albeit, not to a mainstream size yet) I guess they decided that it had reached a critical mass. I think Linux contributors should take this as a compliment, to be honest. The second point is that this shows why brick and mortar stores are losing business. Retail is a crazy industry and if you're not going to raise the bar and you're going to choose to provide a bad customer experience by spreading questionable information then you deserve to lose business. I haven't been to a big box electronics store in months and since I joined Amazon Prime I literally have had no desire to do so, especially since (as I mentioned a while ago) a Fry's employee try to pimp Monster cables to me with bullshit. Ok, time to get off my soapbox.

Quickies

I have a few more stories I'd like to cover before I start preparing for my recruiting trip this weekend (Longhorn CS majors should stop by the Amazon booth next Monday at the career fair, for sure - I've got some fun questions lined up for people).

Google has announced a plan to develop a syncing service for the Chrome browser to sync bookmarks and other browser data to the clouds. Clearly, they're gearing up for Chrome OS.

YouTube is looking into movie rentals, which is just one more avenue Google is investigating in its longstanding hunt to monetize YouTube. It doesn't seem unreasonable that we could see movie rentals on YouTube next year given that you can already rent movies digitally from the Playstation 3, Netflix, and Amazon Video on Demand, among others.

More solid rumors surfaced regarding an Apple Tablet and the possibility of it coming out as soon as November. It seriously does sound real this time, but only time will tell.

Tech Radar has a really cool article up about OLED highlighting its advantages and disadvantages. If only it was cheaper to produce!

Sony pushed out version 3.0 of the PS3 firmware (aka XMB, the Cross Media Bar), and it may be the most drastic change yet with animated themes, a fancier default theme, a better notification area in the top right corner, improvements to the friends list and trophy section, simultaneous output across audio connectors (still not sure what that means), more avatars, and a What's New that the PS3 boots up to that features new updates in the store and the games you recently played. Very cool stuff (I'm a fan of the simple elegance of XMB).

I don't know if I'll be able to post next week since I'll be in Austin Friday through Tuesday morning, but I'll do my best to get something up here next week.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

PAX 2009

PAX is really just a three letter word for how to spend your Labor Day weekend being a total, unabashed nerd. It was at least as fun this year as last year - I really don't know how to measure fun but it was definitely a great show. It was surprisingly well run (except for a couple of instances where enforcers were arranging lines in a stupid way or not letting people into an event that wasn't full), and actually quite a bit bigger than last year. I don't remember PC free play being over 400 computers last year, or console free play being anywhere near as big as it was (I swear both these rooms must've more than quadrupled in size). A number of improvements were made that made a lot more sense, like moving the artists' storefronts and moving the Penny Arcade store in favor of better arranging the game booths. I definitely saw a lot of games (by no means did I see all the games there, that's near impossible if you want to see any panels), so I'd like to go into my top picks, some other honorable mentions, and then the games I was really unimpressed with it. I've also got some other fun bonus stuff.

My Top 5

I'm going to work through my 5 favorite titles in reverse order. Unlike last year, I don't know if these were the five best games out there. I saw a lot of stuff I liked so I decided that these would be the 5 games I enjoyed the most.

5. Split Second

When I first glanced at this game, I remember my impression being, "Oh great, another Burnout - I don't need to waste my time here." Hearing Dan's excitement for Split Second at the Totally Rad Show panel pushed me to follow my friends into the booth when they went to check it out, and I was shocked by how fun it was. First of all, it was gorgeous. Yes, I had to italicize "gorgeous" just to emphasize how blown away I was. It's one of these racing games where you're driving super fast all the time and so the fact that I could still notice wonderful detail in the backgrounds is pretty impressive. The twist in this game is that at certain points in the race you can trigger events to screw over other racers. For example, with the touch of a button you can blow up the base of an air traffic control tower to have it crash on the track in the way of an opponent. These animations are slick and feel massive without taking you out of the fact that you're still in a race. We stayed at this booth for a while because we were so sucked into it, and each time one of us played it (we all played the same track), it felt like an entirely different race. It looks like it will be a great cross-platform arcade racer.

4. The New Super Mario Brothers

This game had to make the list for nostalgia value, if nothing else. New Super Mario Bros. takes the experience you had playing Mario on the NES or SNES and modernizes it without sacrificing the joy you had as a kid. Not only that, but it borrows a bit from LittleBigPlanet with the idea of co-opetition - so you can play with up to 3 other people but also fight with them for coins and upgrades and such. For example, you can jump on a yoshi and swallow your friend. The controls are just about as simple as they were back on the NES, and I think it'll almost certainly become a must-have title for the Wii.

3. Scribblenauts

Any list of great games at PAX that doesn't include Scribblenauts is automatically unreliable. This game always had a huddled mass of people around it because of how innovative it is. It may have been the most innovative game on the show floor. The concept is simply that it's a puzzle platformer where you can have anything you can think of to get you out of tough situations. You just write out the noun you want and it will magically appear in front of your character (some proper nouns are covered, too). So if you come upon a bad guy, a ray gun can be created. If you just want to fly through the level you can get a space ship. Half of the fun is really just trying to stomp the game. I love the idea that two people can play the same level in almost entirely different ways. The graphics are about as good as one can expect from a DS game, but it just shows that having great graphics isn't a pre-requisite to being a great game. I'm still marveling at the technical achievement of getting the game to recognize so many different nouns.

2. God of War 3

I've been waiting for this game for months now, so it's not surprising that I had a lot of fun getting my hands on God of War III at last. I actually hadn't even played the first two games in the series, but God of War: Collection is now available for pre-order with updated graphics from the two titles as well as trophy support, so I just went ahead and pre-ordered that. Having no experience with the franchise I did embarrassingly bad compared to everyone else who had played through the demo while I was in line, but I still had a lot of fun. I have a feeling that they're still working out a couple of kinks with the controls (which may be why the demo isn't publicly available), but it was definitely visually stunning and had very solid, epic action. The AI surely didn't mess around - you felt like you were really fighting 5+ enemies at once, not like they were being spoonfed to you. The variety of ways you could take them on was really awesome, too. It's definitely a game to be excited about.

1. Shank

Shank was definitely my biggest surprise at PAX. I heard about it at the Totally Rad Show panel, but playing it really is believing. I can show you a video of it, but it's not going to really seem as special as it does when you're playing it. I don't think I smiled or said "holy crap this is awesome" more times while playing any other game at PAX. I grew up on beat em ups like Final Fight and Streets of Rage, so this game definitely took me back. Apparently, from talking to one of the guys at the booth the game's creators were inspired by the games I fell in love with growing up. First of all though, the visual style was excellent. It did justice to forefathers of the genre while still feeling like a comic book brought to life. More importantly, the gameplay mechanics were simply and addictive. It's definitely really violent, but in a really cartoonish way that I tend to enjoy. It brought me a frightening, boyish glee to pounce on a guy a drive a chainsaw through his chest. I'd never do that in real life, but my mind rationalizes doing it in a game just fine.

Other Great Games

There were a number of other games that I checked out that I was impressed with as well.

  • I got to play The Beatles: Rock Band on a stage (I took bass guitar) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I actually didn't know that it supported multiple mics. The special bass, other than being a great replica of Paul McCartney's, didn't seem to be especially different from my normal Rock Band guitar. Anyway, the visual style of the game is pretty much perfect and I think I'm going to have to pick this one up once I get through all the games sitting on my shelf begging to be played.
  • I only watched other people play BrĂ¼tal Legend, but it still looked like a blast. I laughed multiple times and it had plenty of visual polish.

  • I really regret running out of time to play Heavy Rain, but I did spend a while watching someone else play and I think it basically feels like Silent Hill but with heavier focus on the storyline and trying to really put you in the shoes of a character in a story rather than a character in a video game. You get to make choices that are important to the story and it seems like an interactive story done right that feels more than just an interactive story. I'm definitely going to keep my eye on this one.

  • Fat Princess just looked like a lot of fun. I didn't get a chance to play it, but I really wanted to from seeing how much fun other people were having and how cute the gameplay looked.

  • I had kind of stumbled upon Need for Speed: Nitro, but I'm glad I did. It's one of the very few Wii games I've played that I feel used the wiimote well. It controlled really well and was genuinely fun as a racer. The graphics were definitely subpar, but it was still enjoyable.

  • Star Wars: The Old Republic wasn't playable, but I sat in for an hour-long demo if it and was very impressed. If it wasn't enough that all character interactions are voice acted, you can make choices throughout the game that permanently change the future for your character. Not only that, but the combat looked less like MMORPG combat and more like a dungeon crawler's action might look like. In other words, it looked like really slick combat for an MMORPG (though I'm sure you just click to get the cool combat, I still thought it was neat). I'm actually afraid to see more of this game because I'm trying to steer clear of MMORPGs even as this game is starting to suck me in.

  • I had played a beta for Uncharted 2 multiplayer and didn't even play for long because it seemed so bland, but the single player stuff I was watching at PAX was actually really gorgeous. I regretted that I didn't see this until the last minute, but it puts Uncharted 2 back on my radar.

  • Starcraft II was at PAX, once again, and still looks great. I didn't wait the 60+ minutes it would've taken me to be able to play it, but it looks like the sequel that Starcraft fans have been waiting on for years.

  • Castle Crashers was playable for the PS3 and was just as fun as has been on the Xbox 360. I had no idea it was being ported and now I know that I have to get it. They had a fighting game (akin to Super Smash Brothers) available for play, too, but it wasn't nearly as fun as Castle Crashers.

  • I played Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time for a few minutes, and I didn't quite figure out the controls but I still enjoyed it. I think it's a little more grown up in terms of gameplay mechanics than its predecessors but still maintains that charm the series has always had.

  • Almost all of the PAX 10 games were lots of fun and very innovative. My favorites were Tag and Fieldrunners, which I'd buy if I could. Tag lets you paint surfaces to be sticky, fast to run on, or bouncy, and you basically navigate levels in first person view with just these three paints. Fieldrunners was a tower defense game that just happened to be super addictive.


The Bad Games

There were a few games that I was sorely disappointed in.

Firstly, Avatar didn't impress me at all. I even watched a 20-minute demo of it with 3-D glasses. It seems like another over-the-shoulder shooter. I respect that its going to have its own story within the world set by the Avatar movie, but nothing else really impressed me here.

Every year there's an embarrassing game on display that you'd disown your friends if you saw them playing it, and Just Dance was that game this year. The people playing it looked really stupid. If you want a game that teaches you how to dance then I'm sorry but you need to get out more. This game isn't going to teach you how to dance well - going to clubs and taking dance classes will.

I watched some guy play Mass Effect 2 for like 10 minutes because he would not get off and let me have a turn, but I walked away because the controls looked so complicated. The game looks visually great but totally unappealing from the standpoint of game controls.

I watched Left 4 Dead 2 for a few minutes and it looks as good as the first game, but I agree with the crowd crying out that it's too soon for a sequel. I would've preferred that they waited another year or two to bake some more ideas because I didn't see the innovation this time around that I saw last year. The line was at least 2 hours long to play it so I didn't get any hands-on time.

The Sega booth was depressing. It was tiny and their big game on display was Bayonetta. This game takes a female lead, strips her down to as little clothing as I'm sure the ESRB will allow, and has her violently killing people in cliche ways while still trying to evoke sexual innuendo. For shame, Sega. I still remember the days still when you used to make great games, too.

The last game to disappoint me was Wet. It looked glamorous visually and had a strong sense of style, but it seemed way too complicated and difficult. There was one part where the main character was on a car trying to shoot at guys in other cars, and her reticule was super small. I know that's more realistic, but it also seemed really frustrating.

Conclusion

Last year, every other game at PAX was a first person shooter. This year, it was super bloody third-person (or over-the-shoulder) action games. There were actually a lot of games with way too much blood at PAX. I wish that less games would rely so much on blood, but I guess blood sells games like sex sells movies.

Of course, there were quite a few games without blood and even though I saw a lot of re-hashes of old franchises and sequels, I still also saw a healthy amount of creativity. Some people would argue that the industry has gone downhill, but I'd argue that things are no worse than they have been in the past. There's still enough creativity out there to keep things afloat.

Aside from the games, PAX had some great concerts. I think the Saturday night concerts were the best I've been to in a very long time. Freezepop was even better than last year, and Paul and Storm were a great surprise. I think they had hundreds of people clamoring for them by the end of their performance (including me) that hadn't even heard of them before. They were genuinely funny and had great stage presence.

I got my picture taken with Jonathan Coulton the day before his show for free, unlike celebrities at some conventions, and he seemed so cool in person. Anyway, his concert was great and I wanted to share a couple of his more unique performances from his show as best as I could record them from where I was standing.







If you enjoyed those, please head over to his site and support him - he makes some awesome music.

Back to the games: one thing I realized at PAX is that video games have come so far in the past decade, even. I played Doom II and Tribes 2 a bit while I was there and it reminded me of why I started playing video games in the first place. It's incredible how every other game was visually stunning. In fact, the only games that looked consistently terrible were on the Wii. I don't know if it's hard to program for or if the manufacturers just don't care or what, but those games felt like they weren't even up to PS2 standards. In any case, it was cool to see how far we've come over the years, and it's funny how selective we've become as games have become more and more interesting and innovative.

Ultimately, PAX is a place where people who don't belong can really belong. It can be hard sometimes to find other people who enjoy some of the nerdier things you indulge in. Some people, my ex-girlfriend included, think it's silly that I still play video games. I'm not ashamed of it at all though, and I think PAX is a great way to re-affirm that nothing is wrong with enjoying video games or tabletop games. In moderation, it's really not a bad thing, and that community experience people talk about at PAX is still very much alive. Now I just have to wait 12 months for PAX 2010.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Zune is Sexy?

Since I'm so behind I decided to round up just the most important/interesting stories from the past 3 weeks that I wanted to talk to, so some of this news may be a bit old. Sorry about that - life has just been busy. Next week I'll probably do a PAX round-up, but the week after that I should be back to normal.

More Zune HD Details

The real news for the Zune HD is that it comes out on September 15 at competitive price points ($220 for 16 GB and $290 for 32 GB), and it's available for pre-order right now. What's more interesting is how much press the forthcoming mp3 player has generated. It has become, dare I say, sexy.



PC Mag, for one, had some glowing hands-on impressions. To re-cap some of the high points of the device: it has an OLED screen (if you've never seen OLED, you have to prepare yourself mentally for how gorgeous it is), it can output HD to an external screen (like a TV), it plays HD radio, it has a seemingly revamped Internet Explorer Mobile browser, and the user interface is a breath of fresh air from a company that is rarely known for good user interfaces. Aside from that, the videos I've seen all show it as being surprisingly snappy, and that could be due to the nVidia Tegra chip under the cover. Yeah, nVidia designed the processor for the Zune HD - weird, huh? This bad boy has 8 cores including dedicated cores for HD video processing, audio processing, and graphics processing. This means, for one thing, that loading a song won't slow down your experience with the UI, which is pretty awesome.

Aside from this being a Microsoft product, the reason the Zune HD is turning heads is because it's the first mp3 player since the iPod Touch to really try to innovate the user experience. Apple has been resting on its laurels and while the Zune HD obviously won't dethrone them it is likely to chip away at market share if Microsoft markets it right. The integration with the Internet looks a lot tighter than with the now defunct Zune in even something as simple as browsing other music by an artist. Of course, it's September now, which means that it's time for an Apple special event related to music so Microsoft could be undercut by an Apple announcement (probably still no tablet though, so don't hold your breath), but at least they have a compelling product this year to brave the media onslaught.

Windows 7 vs. Snow Leopard

There have been a lot of articles reviewing Snow Leopard and Windows 7 over the past few weeks, including a cool head-to-head at Tech Radar. Interestingly enough, they were balanced enough to say that neither is better than the other but that you should definitely upgrade to one of them. Snow Leopard is much more of an incremental upgrade than Windows 7 with a lot of things most people won't notice since Apple puts out updates to OS X so regularly, but the reception so far seems mostly positive. As for Windows 7, Gizmodo sums up a lot of the pluses and minuses you'll see around. They really sing the praises of the performance and UI improvements. When the worst parts of upgrading are the multitude of versions and a lack of innovation in the Control Panel, you know you have a winner.

If you're still not convinced about upgrading to Windows 7, here are 18 reasons to upgrade. I'm plugging another one of these article because it actually points out some stuff I didn't know about. For example, there's finally an ISO burner out of the box, and it actually has calibration tools to help you hook up your PC to that shiny new HD TV in your living room.

The Wake of the Google Voice Rejection

At the end of July, Apple rejected Google Voice from its app store and from the media coverage it was getting you'd think the world ended. I'm sure Google was even surprised by the outpouring of support for them against big bad Apple. In reality, this is business as usual for the iPhone App Store (to be fair, Google was in talks with Apple before submitting Google Voice and were expected to glide through the approval process). An underground app store has actually grown for the iPhone called Cydia for jailbroken iPhones. I'm surprised that Apple hasn't already shut down Cydia, to be honest. It's funny how the Pre community is full of home brew applications and this is totally encouraged, whereas Apple has gone on record as saying that jailbreaking your iPhone is insidious and compared it to terrorism in one instance (I don't have the citation on this handy, but it definitely happened).

Meanwhile, Microsoft is encouraging developers to charge more than a buck for their applications if they believe it's worth more. So whereas iPhone developers have taken to relying on volume of downloads, Microsoft is pushing its community to the model of driving revenue by using the price as a measure of quality. In all these situations, what's clear to me is that no one has it figured out. Isn't that crazy? Obviously, the iPhone app store is very successful financially, but to some expense of Apple's brand. Everyone has been following different strategies with regards to mobile applications, and yet in the past 7+ years of smartphones, no one has it down just right.

YouTube Extends Revenue Sharing

YouTube has tried many things over the past few years to try and bring in some dough, and they've now decided to extend revenue sharing to viral videos. I guess it was only a matter of time that they figured this out, and I think it's a promising idea. So if your video is deemed as going viral, they'll offer you the chance to serve ads with your video and get a cut of the profits. So if you're not already a YouTube Partner but your video goes big, you still have a chance to make money until you get set up with the program. I'm really interested to see if this has any impact on their bottom line.

Google Maps Adds Traffic to Roads

This is a cool idea that a company called Dash has been working on for a while but Google has added to Google Maps for major roads: figuring out traffic on roads via peer-to-peer communication. So when you turn on My Location in Google Maps on your mobile device, it will send back anonymous information on your speed back to Google, which is used to build congestion ratings on roads. It's probably going to be a while before enough people make the effort to provide their location information to make this usable, but it's a great experiment, at the very least.

Target is Flying Solo

Target has been a partner of Amazon.com for about 8 years now and has finally cut the cord. They'll be running their own e-Commerce operation in 2011. Personally, I don't understand this decision. Running your own e-Commerce site is a huge undertaking, but we still don't know if they're going to to build their new platform on any Amazon services or not.

Microsoft Clings to IE6

Last, but not least, Microsoft has responded to the push from developers to kill IE6. They basically are following the philosophy that you can't force someone to upgrade old software and you have to instead accept it and support it. Microsoft plans to support IE6 for as long as they support XP, which I'm pretty sure will be for a very long time. The problem is that designing a site that works on IE6 as well as IE7 and IE8 and competitors (like Firefox and Safari) is often daunting. I follow the camp that we should get rid of IE6 and sites should explicitly have a message for IE6 users that they need to upgrade to view the site. I know that's not the best user experience, but that browser is also even less secure than IE8, so I don't believe in coddling users who are just afraid of change. Just because some kids don't like vegetables doesn't mean you give them chocolate for dinner.

I'll try to keep down my twittering this weekend at PAX since I got a little crazy with it last year, but I'll try to post a few pictures over the weekend on my Twitter feed, and of course I'll have round-up up by Tuesday. Have a great week, everyone!