Gamestop to buy Electronics Boutique

According to Yahoo!, GameStop are buying Electronics Boutique, for "only" $1.44 billion (compared to Adobe's purchase of Macromedia for $3 billion, this doesn't seem like a lot).

I can't say I'm thrilled at this. The level of competition in Dublin's retail video game market is already virtually nil. GameStop's arrival last year through the purchaseof Gamezone killed one of the few independent retailers left in the country. Now, since Electronics Boutique own Game, and now GameStop owns Electronics Boutique, it means that GameStop has control of 95% of retail video game outlets in Dublin.

The few places left to buy games (with some value - meaning Dixons and Argos are out) are:

  • Smyths
  • Xtravision
  • GameXchange on Talbot Street (mainly second hand stuff - snes/megadrive)
  • ??

I generally don't like buying games over the internet. I'd like to say it's because of the hassle of sorting out returns if the game is damaged in any way, but the truth is that it's just because I'm an impatient little shit who can't wait a week for delivery when he could pay just a couple of euro more to get it today.

But with GameStop's mark-up fast reaching epic proportions, it's looking like there'll be no choice soon.

UPDATE

After a bit of hunting around, I found this on Yahoo:

"On January 30, 2004, [Electronics Boutique] terminated our services agreement with Game Group initially established in fiscal 1996"

So it looks like there is still a little bit of competition left after all.

Ubuntu

Every couple of days, the hard drive of the G4 I use in work starts 'clicking'. Well, more like 'ke-CHUNK'ing. If I'm lucky, my computer freezes for a few minutes and comes back to life. If I'm not, I spend the next half hour or so rebooting until it goes away.

Finally, I'm facing up to the fact that my hard disk is dying and until I can get a replacement, I'm without a Mac to work on. So I'm giving Ubuntu a whirl.

One of the biggest complains thrown around about 'free' software is that it's only free if your time is worthless. The hours wasted getting things configured just the way you like them do add up. It's very easy to spend an entire day tweaking your desktop instead of just acccepting what you have and getting on with your job.

The guys in Ubuntu seem to understand this - they've packed Debian (the smart choice of a Linux distribution) in such a way that they take all the pain out of the installation and day-to-day administration.

My personal experience is that Ubuntu has detected almost everything I've thrown at it - sound and video were auto-configured (and in a nice way too, any previous attempt at auto-configuring my video in the past has left me with a headache-inducing 60hz refresh rate and no obvious way to change it). Bluetooth setup was relatively painless (gnome-bluetooth and gnome-phone-manager took care of this). Today, it even auto-detected my USB keyring and auto-mounted it, putting a link to it on my desktop.

But there are also some things I dislike about Ubuntu. For example, the default behaviour for nautilus (the file manager) is a variation on the new 'spatial' nautilus. When you go into a child directory, nautilus closes the parent window automatically. I love spatial nautilus, but hate this behaviour. After a little bit of playing around, I found that it could be changed with the following:

gconftool-2 --type bool --set /apps/nautilus/preferences/no_ubuntu-spatial true

Matthew Thomas recently provided a fantastic round-up of other outstanding issues with Ubuntu.

Other nice things:

  • evolution has some really nice new features aimed at increasing productivity, including an ability to create a task from a message with one click
  • liferea has a 'condensed view' option for feeds, a feature I'd previously praised in Pheeder. Even better, this is feed-configurable, so you can set only certain feeds to use the 'condensed view'. Liferea is still my favourite RSS reader on any platform.
  • beagle is amazing - I know that something similar is going to be available in Tiger, but... wow.

But I still miss Quicksilver. Gnome Launch Box just doesn't cut it.

Cooking

A couple of weeks ago, on the recommendation of a couple of food blogs (101 cookbooks being the big one), I picked up a copy of Nigel Slater's 'Appetite'.

I think I'm in love.

I already own a few cookbooks. Standard fare like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. Then things like "1000 Quick and Easy Recipes". And "Good Mood Food". And they have all, without exception, bored me rigid.

You see, I'm not much for following instructions. I was brought up by people who were quite happy to boil/roast the shit out of every meal. This taught me that not everyone's palette was the same. And from this, it taught me that slavishly following recipes is no way to create a meal. Especially when you're just cooking for yourself - how do I know my tastes are going to be the same as Jamie's? (For the record, they're not. His recipe for Chicken Maryland made me quite ill).

In comes Nigel Slater.

His book explains everything I knew instictively about cooking but had never heard from someone who actually knew how to cook: recipes are not gospel and should be used only as a guide. He reminds us that recipes were originally used by chefs to keep track of where the housekeeping money was spent. And as he so correctly points out, being told to "put it in the oven for 35 minutes" will not give the same result for everyone, since everyone's setup is different, everyone's meal is different. Everyone's palette is different.

Another thing I love about Nigel Slater's book is the straightforward way he presents his food. There is no trace of snobbery in his writing. In fact, he writes as elegantly about the delights of a Big Mac as he does of any of his other recipes. Lines like "there is nothing wrong with using a stock cube, not all stock has to be home-made" have led my girlfriend to refer to the book as "vidication" for all the frilly 'domestic goddess' nonsense being thrown about by other food writers that make us normal people who can't spend all day reducing stock feel slightly boorish for turning to Knorr for some help.

Also unusual about Nigel Slater's book is the way the writing lends itself to casual reading. Unlike the other cookbooks in my collection which have a brief introduction and go straight to the recipies, Slater's book has a conversational tone, and almost half the book is given over to best practices - how to best cook a steak, how to best store food, and how to best enjoy your food. This leads to 'Appetite' being the kind of book you can pick up and read at any time, not just when you're looking for ideas for something to cook.

I also can't argue with anyone who extols the beauty of a simple sausage and mash done well.

And with that, my first attempt at a homemade ragu.

A Simple Ragu*

*"Simple" in this case meaning "made with things we had lying around in our kitchen".

If you're like me, you probably buy a load of ingredients with good intentions and never get around to using them before they go off. The three main culprits for me are tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese. So last night, I decided to do something about this. I decided to make my own ragu.

For this, you will need

  • Plenty of tomatoes (12 or so small ones)
  • A large onion (or a couple of small ones)
  • Balsamic Vinegar
  • Garlic
  • Basil
  • Dijon Mustard
  • Dried Chillis

Get a few cloves of garlic (I'm fond of garlic and used 3 large cloves, which didn't overpower the flavour of the rest of the ingredients), and slice them very thin. As thin as you can.

Then cut the onion, as thin as you can. If you're no good at cutting onions, or want to improve your onion-cutting skills, you could do a whole lot worse than checking out Peter Hertzmann's article on "How to cut...".

Finally, cut the tomatoes into small chunks about the size of a jellybean. Keep every part of the tomato, don't try getting all fancy and de-seeding it. We'll need everything.

Warm a good, solid non-stick pan and in it, melt some butter with a little olive oil to keep the butter from burning. When it starts to warm up, throw in the garlic and fry until it starts to brown. Then add the tomatoes and onions.

You'll need to keep stirring the tomatoes until they start to get really mushy. This should take about 20 minutes. Then season well with plenty of salt and black pepper.

Right now, you have a very basic ragu. From here, it's up to your individual taste. Personally, I was in the mood for something with a little kick, so I put in a bit of balsamic vinegar, basil and a heap of dijon mustard. I also put in a good helping of red wine. To spice it up, I crushed some dried chillies and put them in too. Once you've added your last incredients, you should leave it for another 10 minutes or so before it gets really sticky.

This is perfect for putting over your favourite pasta. If you want to mix in some mince, you should put your ragu through a blender first, and cook it with the meat for about 20 minutes until the meat soaks up all of the flavour.

If you do decide to try this, comment and let me know how you got on. Although don't worry, I'm under no illusions as to how many people are going to try cooking something they found on a random website.

Wordpress spam

There's trouble a-brewing with Wordpress.

Right now, the Wordpress site is unavailable, and I'll bet cash money it has a lot to do the recent kerfluffle over the seedy business practices Wordpress has begun engaging in.

Since my blog is powered by Wordpress, I'm slightly disappointed in this. I chose Wordpress as much for the quality of their politics as the quality of their software. Even more disappointing is Wordpress' unconvincing response to the criticism.

I sincerely hope this gets sorted soon.

DSL Update

A couple of months ago, I posted that our DSL went kablooie. And now, a couple of months later, it's still down. Here's the story of what happened.

Early February - Get home to discover that although our DSL modem is connecting and giving solid green lights all the way, when we try to actually log into UTV, we get a "remote host not responding". Phoned UTV immediately, and they reckoned it was a modem problem, and that I should try out a few things and then report the modem as 'broken' to receive a replacement

next day - modem can't even connect any more. Permanent state of flashing green lights. Phone UTV support and they tell me that it's something more than that. I should ring back in a couple of days.

A couple of days later - I phone back and they say they're going to get Eircom to test our line. This should take 5-8 working days.

two weeks later, around the end of February - I phone UTV back, and they say that the line check revealed that Eircom had disconnected our DSL line. Why? I don't know. UTV support guy says that this sometimes happens by accident, and sometimes it's an accounts issue. Our account was fine, so it wasn't that. Advises me that I should ring Eircom to find out why we were disconnected.

Next day - Phone Eircom to find out why we were disconnected. Person on the other end was most unhelpful and wouldn't tell me why. I asked if I could speak to someone else to find out why. They assure me that noone would be able to tell me why I was disconnected.

So I phone UTV and tell them that Eircom won't tell me why. They say they won't arrange a reconnection until they know why we were disconnected, so that they can be sure it won't happen again. I explain that Eircom won't tell me why. UTV's response (paraphrasing here): "Not my problem."

A couple of days later - Phone UTV again. No movement. Told that even if UTV were to reconnect me, it would take fully 10-14 working days to reconnect me.

A week later - I flip out at the lack of help from either side and email sales@u.tv to ask them to sort this mess out (if you're wondering why I emailed sales@u.tv - I was informed that the UTV accounts department is the exact same as the support department. Since they were spectacularly unhelpful, I thought sales might be more interested).

5 days later - No response at all, so I have a minor panic attack and tell UTV that their lack of cooperation or understanding on this matter was completely unacceptable and that they should cancel my account immediately. I get a reply within the hour telling me my account was disconnected.

yesterday - Since Smart aren't going to be launching their broadband in my area until early may, I've signed up for Esat's three-month broadband trial. This is initially 1MB, but will be increased to 2MB come April 4th (with no increase in the cap - but we're only going to be using this for a month or so). I botched my application and decided to try again some other time.

today - Got a phone call from Esat saying they saw that I'd been trying to apply for their broadband, and if I'd like to go through the application over the phone with them. After all the fucking around with UTV, I was genuinely taken aback by the friendly, helpful service from Esat.

Hopefully, we should have broadband in the next 8-10 working days.

Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party

A while ago, someone asked me who my favourite actors were. I started rattling off some names -- Ron Perlman, Bruce Campbell, William H. Macy -- and I was stopped, and asked who my favourite big name actors were.

And I don't really have any. I love character actors.

I think I love them because they can pop up in all sorts of unsuspecting places. Rather than watching a movie almost exclusively because it has Johnny Depp in it, it's nice to watch a movie and suddenly have a bunch of people go "Hey, no way! It's that guy from... oh, what was it?"

An unsung hero among character actors is Stephen Tobolowsky. A "hero" because he is so incredibly prolific: I believe he holds the record for starring in the most movies in the 1990s. Unsung because almost noone remembers his name, and he's doomed to be forever known as "that guy from.. uh.. Groundhog Day!".

Hopefully, Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party will change that. The trailer makes light of his relative anonymity - Stephen Tobolowsky asking various punters who they think "Stephen Tobolowsky" is. The answers range from "A Russian Scientist" to "Serial Killer" by way of "Porn Star".

The Incredibles

I loved The Incredibles.

It was completely unlike all of the other Pixar movies - it was grown up, had something resembling an original plot (Watchmen comparisons aside) and its production design was beautiful.

I picked up the DVD over the weekend. I still haven't gotten around to watching the movie, because I've been spending my time over on the second disk, watching the 'making of' featurettes.

Even these are completely unlike the other Pixar 'making of' featurettes. 'Finding Nemo' gave us fluff - people like Lee Unkrich and Andrew Stanton telling us how fantastic it was to make this movie, and gee whizz, isn't Pixar just great? On The Incredibles DVD, Brad Bird and various other Pixarians explaining how hard it was to make this movie. At one stage, they even show a fight between Brad Bird fighting with a producer to justify the cost of a particular scene: something I'd never seen on a DVD, let alone a Pixar DVD.

It's a fascinating set of featurettes, but the highlight for me came in the form of a closeup of their tools. The idea of building a rampantly successful motion pictures using Makefiles makes my tiny nerd heart flutter.

Zelda: A Cautionary Tale

"Yes" or "no"?

Two years of sitting on a shelf with a mental note of "must complete, someday", I finally got around to playing Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. And for two weeks, every spare half hour was spent playing that game, beating various bosses, sailing the seas digging up treasure, talking to everyone I met, amassing a veritable horde of spoils.

Now, after a long day in work, I've turned on the Gamecube and dragged my favourite chair closer to the TV only to find the game asking me "yes" or "no"?

It didn't say what the question was. What could it be? Load the game?

I choose "yes".

"Please wait..."

Hmm. My muscle memory spasms a little, telling me that this isn't the way I load my game in Wind Waker. Flash of panic. What have I done?!

"Done!"

And I'm taken to the quest screen.

Three empty slots. Three "New quest" buttons, empty as the day they left the Nintendo factory.

My game is gone. All my hard work. All my emotional attachment is gone. As if to pour some salt on the wounds, I checked gamefaqs, to see how far I had to go to the end of the game. Not far. A couple more shards of the Triforce and I'd be fighting Ganondorf once and for all. All gone.

Now.. I don't know what to do. I tried launching straight back into it, but there's so much to do. My sea chart is empty, my spoils bag is.. hang on, I don't even have a spoils bag yet. I resent every conversation with every character, so I don't talk to anyone. Even more, I resent conversations that I must have to progress in the game. The unskippable nature of them grates over me. Things that were beautiful and magical, even the cute little cut-scene where you change the direction of the wind and Link whips his head around - all these things are like nails across a blackboard.

And so it's going back on the shelf for another two years.

This time, without the mental note.

Simpler side of gaming

"Iwata-san has the heart of a gamer”and my question is, what poor bastard™s chest did he carve it from, and how often do they perform human sacrifices at Nintendo HQ?"
-- Greg Castikyan

Greg Costikyan recently posted a transcript of a rant he gave at a GDC roundtable talk on the topic of game production. The panel were speaking about how the cost of game production has risen to the stage where it is actually prohibitory for publishers to fund developers that aren't working on licensed or recognisable IP. In it, Greg talks about how J Allard's GDC keynote filled him with dread - the idea of welcoming in an era of HD video games with massive production costs, increased workload for developers and no additional profit for anyone but the games publishers?

He's right to be afraid.

But there seems to be a bit of hope, from an unlikely source.

Flash gaming.

No, hear me out.

Although it's never going to take over the world, we've reached the stage where people have had enough of creating silly games based around hitting/pissing on/killing celebrities and have begun exploring the medium's creative possibilities. And although they're just short, 5-minute bursts of gaming, they've been creating a bit of a buzz on among the internet community.

Helicopter game

This was the first truly addictive flash game I can think of. Although it's almost 4 years old at this stage, it's still a lot of fun to play. Simple premise - fly your helicopter, don't crash. I doubt a lot of people would pay a lot of money for this, but just think how many hours were lost to this game in offices around the world.

Treasure Box

Beautifully introduced by Metafilter as "If Rube Goldberg and Terry Gilliam made flash games, they might go like this", Treasure Box showed that Flash games didn't have to just simple affairs. Although there isn't actually much gameplay in this to keep people entertained, there's enough eccentric beauty to keep people fascinated.

Skills to pay the bills

Okay, so we've got some good flash games out there, so what? Well, some bright sparks out there have figured out a way to make money out of very good flash games and because of this, we're seeing the beginnings of a resurgence in the shareware games scene.

Some examples:

Gish

Gish is a platform game where you control a ball of tar. Using Newtonian physics (and some physics-cheating constructs), you guide your ball of tar through various obstacles to reach the end of the level. Because of its unique and superbly crafted nature, it has won all sorts of praise. But here's the rub - the developers of this game are actually making money from it because of its shareware nature (play the basic levels online, pay $20 for the full game). I don't know how much, but I'm sure it's nothing to be sneezed at.

Codename Gordon (site down right now)

What started out as a flash 'tribute' to Half Life 2 (or a way to stave off the boredom until the game was actually released, depending on who you ask) is now available for purchase through Steam. Codename Gordon: Half Life 2D is a beautiful thing - embracing the limitations of flash gaming and turning them into a feature.

Alien Hominid

Like Codename Gordon, Alien Hominid started off as a way for a group of friends to create a simple game and hopefully sell it. It started off as one of a hundred games on popular flash site Newgrounds (play the original) is now being released on the Xbox, PS2 and Gamecube. And what's more, it hasn't been significantly changed during the transition - it still retains the same look and play mechanics.

Of course, none of these are ever likely to compete with the likes of Resident Evil 4 or Gran Turismo 4 in the battle for the hearts and minds of the casual gamer, but they do go some way to showing that there is a distribution channel for these simple flash games and, providing your game is good enough, that money can be made from them.

How much money? Well, that remains to be seen. Certainly not enough to retire and live the rest of your life with cocaine and champagne enemas. But enough to keep your games sustainable?

Maybe.

Like these flash games? Want to get some more examples? Do yourself a favour and check out gotoAndPlay.it


Update

Ren Reynolds posts a rebuttal to the GDC roundtable. His conclusions are similar to mine - for all of those who are bemoaning the death of innovation in games, there are other options.

Random Nerdings

Too busy in work to find time to write anything of substance, so here's a quick list of the most nerdy things I've been doing over the past couple of days

  • Installed GeekTool After hearing so many people praise GeekTool, I finally installed it last week. Then I configured the MySQL access list on our RT database in work. Now I have a list of my open issues on my desktop - cool! I wonder if there's any (easy) way of colour-coding this list.

  • New DVD Player Dixons are selling a Philips DVP630 for a measly EUR99. This is a fantastic player that will play just about anything you throw at it (VCD, SVCD, MP3s, JPGs, DivX and DVDs). It comes locked to Region 2, but Amazon kindly provide a guide to unlocking this player.

  • GDC 2005 Interesting things from GDC this year include

  • A trailer for the new Zelda (link goes to HD version), sporting a heavy Lord of the Rings influence.

  • Some videos of Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse

  • J Allard's keynote about HD and the next Xbox

  • Ralph Koster's keynote about 'fun' in videogames

  • Microsoft's announcement of "pay-for-download-able content" on the next Xbox. Puerile armchair opinion: Fuck that.

  • Episode III Went to see the preview of Constantine over the weekend. I thought the film itself was a disgrace to the big-dumb-blockbuster name, but never mind that. During the trailers, they showed the trailer for Episode III. This trailer has me salivating, and seeing it on the big screen had me giddy for hours.