Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Artificial Scarcity (or: Damn You Konami)

I didn't want to buy a PlayStation 4 today. Yet as I type this, my new PlayStation 4 is downloading a game demo called P.T. that, as of tomorrow, will no longer exist.

I blame Konami. Also publishers' failure to come to grips with an increasingly post-scarcity world for intellectual property. But mostly Konami.

Back up a bit. When I was a young lad I came across a book by David Peters (who is Peter David's secret identity) called Psi-Man: Main Street D.O.A. It was book three in a series starring a telekinetic Aikido-master Quaker and his telepathic German Shepard. It was, frankly, awesome: funny, action-packed, sexy, and skewering the living hell out of Walt Disney.

When I got older I looked around for the rest of the series, but it was out of print when I found it and things hadn't improved. I ended up asking Peter David himself if it would ever come out as an eBook, and he explained that 1. it was a work-for-hire series he had no control over (that something like Psi-Man was work for hire is still bizarre to me) and 2. that it was out of print for a reason and unlikely to be revived again. I still haven't read the complete series.

Some years later, I got heavily into Warhammer 40,000 and Black Library, and found out that a limited edition book called Xenology existed which detailed the biology of a bunch of their alien critters, including a mysterious ratlike race called the Hrud. I like Skaven (their swords and sorcery mysterious ratlike race) and hunted for a copy. Sadly the book was out of print and could only be had for heavily inflated prices from eBay resellers (now Amazon - currently starting at $92).

I'll admit it, I sinned. I located a PDF of the book online, struggled through five pages, and then gave up and deleted it. (Pirates are not known for quality. I'm lucky I didn't get a virus.) I've kept an eye out, but despite the publisher's print on demand experiments the book is still not available, and I still haven't read it.

Flash forward. Some time ago video game publisher Konami released a game demo called P.T., or Playable Teaser. It turned out to be the announcement for a revival of the classic horror franchise Silent Hill, now Silent Hills, created by the legendary Hideo Kojima in cooperation with the brilliant Guillermo del Toro and starring white-hot actor Norman Reedus. And fans squeed with delight.

Then last week, after a strange and half-public breakup between Konami and Kojima, del Toro confirmed that the game was no longer happening, at least with Kojima. Then Norman Reedus tweeted that it was flat-out canceled. And this past weekend, Konami announced the demo was going to be pulled from the PlayStation store entirely, never to return.

I'd been looking forward to playing Silent Hills when it came out. It was one game that sold me on the PlayStation 4 over the XBox One. (Persona 5 was the real seller. The Last of Us and Bloodborne haven't hurt either.) But I wasn't planning to go out and buy the console for another year, when more of the games were out and I had time to actually play them.

But... hell, I was weak. And I couldn't let the chance to play P.T. go by. It was already a unique and masterful piece of marketing and horror game design, and by the end of the week it'll be a video game legend.

The thing is, there's no real reason this should happen. Yes, the game P.T. is trying to sell no longer exists, but the demo alone was a critical hit and as far as I know, it costs Konami nothing to keep it on the store. But for whatever reasons the game is being consigned to the dustbin. Within a decade it'll be gone forever, beyond recovery.

Similarly, we've entered an age of ready access to digital books, where there are no physical reasons for anything to go out of print. You don't get charged to maintain a book on Amazon, even if it doesn't sell. But scads of back catalog material will never be uploaded, never be made available again.

Sometimes there are good reasons for this: it costs money to make a decent quality eBook and publishers have limited resources. And sometimes there are bad reasons for this, such as when game companies use copyright law to prevent fans from even doing the minimal updates needed to keep abandoned games playable

But either way it's a shame, and it feels so unnecessary to lose works of art this way. We've got enough to worry about with file format lock out, hardware obsolescence, and the damn DCMA without self-inflicting more wounds to society's collective store of knowledge.

Now if you'll excuse me, P.T. has finished downloading and I need to go scare myself shitless before Solid Snake breaks into my house and wipes the hard drive.

Update: I played P.T. For like five minutes. That's when I got too scared playing it alone in the dark to continue. Seriously, if you have or can get a PlayStation 4, download this demo. If you have a PSN account but no PS4, order the demo and hope you can redownload it later. If you're out of luck entirely, pray for a fan port.

Monday, April 27, 2015


I was planning a different post tonight, but with everything going on in Baltimore I can't do it. My mother is receiving care in the city - not where the violence is, up until now, and I'm praying it stays that way. But a massive fire just appeared on my television and I don't know what's burning and I'm scared. I'm scared it's going to get worse before it gets better.

If you're in Baltimore tonight, stay safe, and stay inside if you can.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

And The First Law Shall Be RTFM

I got a new phone last week. Apple this time, not Android. I hear Scrivener is coming for iPhone this year, which was a factor. So were the better games. So were the numerous glitches my Droid RAZR developed over the last year after one too many OS updates.

Changing your phone's operating system is a chore. Not a huge one, since Google is ubiquitous and the cloud has its pseudopods into everything. But getting used to a new interface, and a new level of responsiveness, can be a pain. So can dealing with the tiny little wrinkles you didn't expect. Like Bluetooth not working.

My old phone paired to my car and just worked. My new phone paired to my car, then unpaired. Then refused to pair again. In Maryland it's illegal to be caught diddling your phone on the highway, so I kinda needed the Bluetooth to work.

I turn the phone off and on again, same thing happens. Google tells me this is a known bug in iOS 8, but a patch is due out this very day. I apply the patch and nothing changes. I try out about ten home remedies from various Mac forums and nothing changes.

I end up sitting in my car at 10 p.m. with a flashlight and a Subaru owner's manual before I realize that I've been pairing my phone as an audio device, and not a phone. "But a phone is an audio device," you say. "Yes," I say, "but Subaru made some less than intuitive design choices in their dashboard computers."

I pair the phone as a phone. It works. Sweet Home Alabama returns to plague me for the millionth time. I realize that every complaint I had about Apple's Bluetooth was Subaru's fault. But really, my fault.

I forgot to RTFM.

Or, "Read The Fucking Manual", for the uninitiated. It's a sysadmin solution for a user problem that wouldn't be a problem if the user had deigned to read the documentation on his shiny new toy, covered in blinkenlichten.

It's generally not polite to actually say this, of course. Nor is it wise to list PEBKAC* in a trouble ticket. But RTFM is the Truth and the Way, and you shall be rewarded if you abide by its tenets in all walks of life. The most successful criminals know the law inside and out. So do the most successful businesses. This is not a coincidence. They have RTFM and it has given them power.

If you drive a car, you want to know what all the levers, knobs and buttons on your dash do. You want to know how to open the gas tank, adjust the steering wheel, and put the rear seats down so you can fit that Vegas billboard in your cargo area. So you read your owner's manual. If you're on the road you want to know what the speed limit is, what the rules are to pass a bicyclist, and what side of the road you should be driving on in the first place. So you take a class and learn the traffic laws.

If you make money, you'll want to read up on the basics of paying taxes. That goes double if you're self-employed because you won't have a company figuring any of the numbers out for you. If you're planning for retirement, you want to know how IRAs and mutual funds work. If you're planning your estate, you want to know how wills and powers of attorney work. Because you can pay an accountant or an attorney to know all this stuff for you, but they'll do a much better job if you know the right questions to ask.

(I took an estate planning course recently and it's like I read five fucking manuals. Protip: if you own a spouse with your house... Jesus, did I really just type that? I can't believe it. I'm leaving it in as evidence.

If you own a house with your spouse, and she slips into a coma and you need to sell it to pay for her care, you can't do that unless you have a valid Power of Attorney. Same for your spouse's car. And in Maryland, the statutory, standard, fill-in-the-blank Power of Attorney form will only cover the house, not the car. Your lawyer will not explain this to you for free, so if you live in Maryland I've just done you a favor. A non-binding favor that should not be considered expert legal advice. Feel free to send money.)

And if you are a writer, you've heard that you must know the rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling before you can break them. The same holds true for character, story structure, pacing, you name it. Hell, maybe you want to publish your book in literal blood. Isn't it best if you know the right blood-to-ink ratio to prevent flaking? Or what type of blood to use to prevent the CDC from stomping your ass?

I could talk about James Joyce,  or E. E. Cummings (sorry, e. e. cummings), but my personal favorite example is: you're not supposed to write books in second person. First person or third person, fine; second person, you're on drugs, or drafting a sourcebook for a role playing game. Nevertheless, Charles Stross did it twice, in Halting State and its sequel Rule 34, and because he knew what he was doing (aping the style of a game) and why he was doing it (because he was writing about a heist set in a game world), they were awesome books.

RTFM. Know the rules. Know how things work. Then go forth and conquer, in the full knowledge of how far you should go and how far you can go.

*Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair