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September 18, 2006

Best. Cake. Ever.

Ever wish you could rewind the clock and get another crack at one of life's major decisions, like, say, which cake to have at your wedding?

I do. At our wedding, we ordered raspberry & white chocolate, and the caterer, in his infinite wisdom, decided that what we really wanted was orange and dark chocolate, even though my wife hates dark chocolate. So we had that going for us, which was nice.

I'm not going out on a limb when I say that this one's just a smidge better.

via Kim's blog

Speaking of cake, here's a show the whole family enjoys together.

Ah, cake.
Sweet, sweet cake.
Is there anything you can't do?

September 14, 2006

Things Change

Here's my final Dad's Take column for AOL Games / GameDaily


Things Change.

Don Ameche shared this sage insight with Joe Mantegna, in 1988's movie of the same name. And never were these words truer for me than they are today.

As of Monday, September 18, I will no longer be writing for AOL Games / GameDaily, or teaching video game history at Westwood College. Instead, I'll be working for Electronic Arts as a game developer. EA Chicago is a talented, dedicated, close-knit group, and I'm very excited to be joining them.

As I mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I aspire to be a producer in the video game industry, and Monday I take a ginormous leap in that direction. However, while it is undoubtedly the biggest step, it isn't the first. That came back in April of 2003, when I herniated two lumbar discs (the same injury I wrote about in my first GameFam post and my first GameDaily column). No, really. Bear with me; I'm going somewhere with this.

That fateful morning, I was getting ready to go to work when it felt like a giant rubber band inside my back snapped. And at that time, work was nowhere near as satisfying as my writing and teaching have been, and as I hope my game development career to be.

What type of work was I doing, you ask?


OK, fine. I was selling boxes. There, I said it.

That's no typo. No mistake.


I'll give you a moment to let that sink in.

I had graduated from business school just as the dot com bubble was bursting, and all the high tech marketing opportunities dried up like so many worthless stock options. So I took a job doing sales and marketing (mostly sales - ugh) for a folding carton company that supplied many major consumer packaged goods companies.

I was not the happiest of campers. I knew that I needed to find something that made me excited to get out of bed and go to work in the morning, and surprise, surprise, boxes didn't provide the joie de vivre (joie de travaille?) I sought. But as a husband and father, I couldn't just toss out a steady paycheck and health coverage, to go tilting at video game windmills.

So off I trudged every morning.
Every morning, that is, until April, 2003.

When my back went boom, I was in a lot of pain, but as it became clear that I had a surgical procedure and a long rehab ahead of me, it dawned on me that I was being presented with a rare opportunity to reinvent myself professionally.

Determined not to squander the painful gift I was given, I set about immersing myself in the world of video games. I played games by myself and with my kids. I played in the day. I played at night. I spent months researching both how to make games today, as well as game industry pioneers - the people who had made the 3-minute masterpieces I loved as a young 'un. When I wasn't sleeping from the painkillers (yes, I had a prescription), it was all games, all the time.

Although I was still in the middle of rehab, I put a video game-focused resume up on Monster, just to see what was out there, and hoping that by the time I found something, I'd be good to go.

About two weeks later, I was invited to interview for a position teaching about the history of the video game industry. I thought it was a joke. Me? Teach a college course? What are you, nuts? Sure, I have a consuming passion for video games, and I know a fair amount about industry history, but teach? In fact, I called my wife over to see the e-mail and share a chuckle with me.

Well, the e-mail wasn't a joke: the program director was dead serious, and, as it turned out, prescient. He saw something in me that I didn't realize was there. When you're passionate about something, it's a lot of fun to share it with other people.

To prepare for the class, I spent hours and hours putting together huge PowerPoint presentations with very little text and lots of pretty pictures, to accompany my lectures and hold my students' attention. And lo and behold, it worked. I enjoyed teaching, and I got a lot of satisfaction from helping out the students who needed the extra boost.


My teaching position allowed me to attend E3 2005, and when my bleeding ears and aching feet had healed, I set about sharing my knowledge of kids' games with other parents, who didn't have as much time to play games with their kids as I did to play with mine. I launched GameFam in mid-June, 2005, and shortly thereafter, I started writing this column for GameDaily.

I've loved every minute of it. As I began to find my voice as a writer, I was given remarkable autonomy to blather on about that which I deemed to be of value, yet when I needed advice or support, my editor always had my back. Thanks, Jill!

And the support I received from GameDaily was not just editorial. From the very beginning of our professional relationship, the GameDaily folks knew that I was looking for an industry job, but they never hesitated when I wanted to attend E3, GDC, and the Game Marketing Conference. Although they understood that I wouldn't be devoting 100% of my time to the website** at these events (what with the networking and all), they not only didn't give me flack, but they actively supported me in my quest, and they went above and beyond the call on numerous occasions. For that, I will always be indebted to the whole GameDaily team, and I leave on the warmest and fuzziest of terms.

Down the road, you may read another column of mine when I feel that I have something to contribute, to raise the level of discourse regarding video games and children. In the meantime, I wish the GameDaily team much success as they embark on this new chapter as part of the AOL Games family.

** By the way, before you get all up in arms about me shirking my responsibilities as a writer, take a gander at my GDC and E3 wrap-up columns, as well as some of my post-E3 game previews. I did plenty of darn fine work, thank you very much.


So Monday begins a new chapter, not just for me, but also for my family.

In the time since my back injury, I've had the blessing of an overflowing bounty of time to spend hanging out with my wife and kids. Clearly, that has come to an end. But whether or not I got a job in the video game industry, that would have ended anyway. Because now that I'm healthy and don't have to work from home, I would have had to go out into the full-time (and more importantly, full paycheck and full benefits) working world anyway. The only question is whether I'd be making games for EA or another video game company, selling cheese for Kraft, or, say, filling out TPS reports at Initech. My point is that all of these jobs are difficult and demanding. But only one provides me with a deep, intrinsic motivation to succeed, as opposed to the extrinsic motivation (i.e. paycheck) alone. Of course I have pride to succeed in anything I do, but I think you can see how it ain't the same.

My wife and I have talked to our kids about my new job, and about how my schedule will be changing. They're most definitely on board, and it gives them something fun to tell their friends at school. I'm sure there will be a few bumps in the road, but we've had bumps before, and we've always driven over them together.

I don't plan to ever stop playing games with my kids. From current kid-friendly favorites like Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper, and LEGO Star Wars, to the upcoming T-rated frag-fests several years down the road, playing games with my kids will always be one of my favorite things to do. So while the quantity of time spent together will necessarily decrease, our joint gaming sessions will always be the very definition of quality time.

I also don't plan to stop writing about the games we play together. So while I bid a fond farewell to GameDaily for now, I will continue blogging. Especially in such a charged political environment, I believe I'm doing something worthwhile here. I just won't be able to do it as often, and I won't have the time to sit for hours, crafting masterpieces like this one ;). I'll probably do exclusively thumbnail reviews, and I'm looking into podcasting, but whatever form the new GameFam takes, I'll be around.

Now if you'll excuse me, my son will be home from school in a little while, and I promised him we'd play the awesome rhythm-game boss battle vs. Mz. Ruby......... again.

There's his school bus. Gotta go.

You stay classy, San Diego.

Wii Wanted It Cheaper & Earlier

Nintendo's new Wii console will be released in North America for $250 on November 19.

At $200, I was definitely planning to pre-order a Wii.
At $250, I'm not so sure.

$200 would have been far and away the cheapest next-gen console launch price, but $250 is a hop, skip & jump from Xbox 360 core territory.

I know, it's not about the technology with Nintendo; it's about the gaming experience, and I support that wholeheartedly. But while I'm sure we'll love the Wii when we eventually get it, the game we want most - Super Mario Galaxy - won't release until next year anyway.

Bottom line, I haven't made any irrevocable decisions here. But for the time being, color me ambivalent.

September 12, 2006

Happy LEGO Star Wars II Day!

Enjoy the blocky sci-fi goodness!

September 10, 2006

Holy Follow-the-Leader, Batman!

A blocky caped crusader?

Say what you will about copying the hot trend and lack of original ideas. All I know is, my kids (especially my son) are gonna be all over a LEGO-botimized Batman.

Here's hoping they follow LEGO Star Wars' lead and not take themselves too seriously, making the game fun for kids and grownups alike. For the Batman version, I hope they do a lot of the campy stuff from the TV show.

Tune in next year (I'm guessing).
Same block time!
Same block channel!

Oh, and speaking of LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy hits store shelves on Tuesday. Are you ready for the big day? My kids and I have been playing the LEGO Star Wars II demos (PC & PS2), and as good as the first game is, this one's better.

September 07, 2006

REVIEW: Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus

Like Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, Sly Cooper, along with his band of merry thieving orphans, is a beloved figure in these parts.

Sly 2: Band of Thieves, which I reviewed last year, is one of my kids' all-time favorite video games.

Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves, which I'll get around to reviewing one of these days, is a terrific game as well. We had a great time playing it a few months ago.

Although Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus is the first game in the series, we didn't get around to playing it until now. But the fact that we went out of order didn't affect our enjoyment of this game, which was considerable.

Since I already discussed the series' visual style and backstory, and addressed possible concerns about endorsing thievery in my Sly 2 review, I won't rehash them here. But like the 2nd and 3rd games in the series, playing Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus is like exploring inside a great comic book.

As with many of the games we play together, we first played the demo of this game on a PlayStation Jampack disc. And based on that demo, I have to admit that I didn't think we'd like the first Sly game as much as we enjoyed the later versions, but as it turned out, I shouldn't have worried. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus is an out-freakin'-standing game. The tight controls and sense of humor are present and accounted for, and the characters are terrific.

That said, there were a few issues, especially when comparing this game to its successors.

Clue Bottles: In Sly 2, smashing the bottles holding various clues wasn't an essential part of the game, but in this game, if you don't find the requisite amount of clues, you'll miss out on some valuable new skills and abilities. This is most unfortunate, because it's a pain in the ass to get them all, which means that backtracking (including dying on purpose so you could start from the top to take another (literal) whack at the clue bottles) is the order of the day. This gets easier when you earn a tool that reveals where all the clues are, but of course, you have to find all the clues on a previous level to get it.

Voice-overs: Most of the voicework is very solid, and I particularly appreciate that the same three actors (Kevin Miller as Sly, the underappreciated Matt Olsen as Bentley, and Chris Murphy as Murray) voice the three main characters throughout the series. The same can't be said of every character, and in fact, Inspector Carmelita Fox is voiced by a different actor every time, with this one being the worst of the three (beating out the Sly 3 version in a squeaker). Ironically, the best one is Alesia Glidewell - the very same Alesia Glidewell I criticized for her horrible job voicing the conniving Constable Neyla in Sly 2.

Controls: Muscle memory-related control confusion was another issue for me. If you want to run fast, you press the R1 button in Sly 2, but in the first Sly game, you have to press the triangle button. As a result, instead of running away from the rabid guard dogs, I paused for a leisurely look-see with my binoculars, resulting on a nice bump on the coconut.

Additionally, there is less free exploration than in Sly 2 and Sly 3, and Sly Cooper is the only playable character, as opposed to Sly 2 (Sly, Murray, and Bentley) and Sly 3 (Sly, Murray, Bentley, Carmelita, Dmitri, The Guru, Penelope, and Sly 1 villain the Panda King). Of course, this simply means that the series just keeps getting better.

Speaking of better things, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus has the best rhythm mini-game we've ever played (feel free to quote me on that one).

A few months back, I wrote one of my pituitary "mega-reviews" about the rhythm game genre. While the games I highlighted are full-fledged rhythm games, many many other video games incorporate at least one rhythm based mini-game into the gameplay. Some do it well. Some do it exceedingly poorly. But more often than not, it's an unwelcome intrusion - an annoying, unnecessary, discordant hurdle that interrupts the flow of the game; detracting from, rather than enhancing the gameplay.

That's not the case here. This game gets right what so many other games get wrong. The mini-game makes sense in the context of the level, and it excels both rhythmically and visually. The X, square, circle and triangle buttons don't simply move lifelessly across the screen on a conveyor belt. Oh, no. Voodoo mystic Mz. Ruby flings them at you like lethal rhythmic projectiles. Additionally, the platforming that leads into the mini-game is rhythm-based as well. As you make your way to battle Mz. Ruby, you have to avoid stalactites that rhythmically slam down like gator jaws, as you spire jump from peak to peak. My kids absolutely love this level, and although we've only been playing the game for a couple weeks, we've replayed it many many times already.

September 03, 2006

Here's Something We Hope You'll Really Like

In the last few weeks, several outstanding videos have cropped up on the series of tubes we like to call the internets. Here are a few of the best. Enjoy!

Andy Roddick vs. PONG

Trackmania Sunrise - 1K Project II
Awesome video combining footage of 1000 cars!

History of Video Games

How Not To Be Seen

GTA Coke ad