Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Amazon's video-game trade-in program: a good first impression

If you haven't tried Amazon's new video-game trade-in program, here's some insight from one transaction -- mine.

First, some caveats. Trading in a video-game ultimately involves some fairly complicated decision-making about where and how you're originally purchasing games (new or used, for instance, is just one aspect that affects the final value of everything you do). Moreover, you've got choices besides Amazon, but they vary greatly in terms of the amount of effort they require (such as becoming an online seller yourself or taking games to a brick-and-mortar store that buys used games).

Over time, I'll examine a few of the more complex wrinkles. But I started out with a simple goal: I happily accepted Amazon's advertised offer of a $19.50 gift-card deposit in my account in exchange for sending in my copy of "Resistance 2,'' a PlayStation 3 shooter that I found monumentally disappointing (and that I bought new from Amazon for $60 in October). What I wanted after that was convenience.

Mostly, I got it. As part of the transaction arranged online, Amazon e-mailed me a prepaid mailing label that was a snap to print out and put on the envelope I used for easily dropping the game in a mailbox. I hoped the process -- and the availability of my $19.50 credit -- would be lickety-split. But that was unrealistic, I think, especially given that the trade-in games actually are purchased by third-party merchants.

A week after mailing the game, my account was showing it as not yet received. That was misleadingly worrisome, suggesting to me that perhaps something had gone wrong in the mails. An e-mail inquiry I sent to Amazon was partially helpful (informing me that the merchant involved categorized the transaction as "pending"). When I told Amazon -- which solicits feedback on its responses to e-mails -- that I wasn't completely satisfied with the explanation, I got another reply that represents one of the better demonstrations of customer service I've been graced with in a looooong time. The information itself remained a little confusing, focusing on time lines for my "return" and "refund" (as opposed to a "trade-in"), but it was clear that the item involved was "Resistance 2" and -- this was the clincher for me -- the tone was exceptionally reassuring. To quote the Amazon representative:

"I will personally follow-up your return and the refund status to ensure this issue is taken care of, so that you do not have to contact us again for your refund on this order.

"Rest assured that this matter will be resolved to your satisfaction. Your patience and understanding are greatly appreciated in this regard."

The upshot: I got e-mail notification today (the two-week mark since mailing) of the transaction being completed and the deposit of the gift-card amount in my account. Overall, the convenience of the whole process rates pretty high with me, and Amazon's solicitousness is even more impressive.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A celebration of doodle art







Last weekend, I attended a benefit that celebrated two things: doodle art and a good cause. Let's start with the cause: support of an organization named Shakti Rising. I suggest taking some time to click the link and delve into the Web site. But this excerpt from the FAQ will give you a sense of the work being done:

"What is the Shakti definition of recovery?
Recovery is the decision to live and to take responsibility for your own life, which begins by admitting you have a problem and acknowledging that you want to change. It is a restorative healing process requiring willingness to let go of addictions and self-destructive attitudes while embracing change. The process uncovers the underlying emotions that triggered your self-destructive reactions. Old behaviors and attitudes are replaced with an awareness of your Self, deepened interactions with others, and reconnection with your sense of Spirit."

The benefit, organized by an extraodinary woman and mom named Catherine O'Brien, offered contributors the opportunity to obtain framed doodles from a wide variety of celebrities and public figures. This was the kind of intersection of pop culture and philanthropy that didn't make me think twice about heading out on a chilly, rainy night. And I went home delighted.

Now in my possession: A teleprompter script that NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer doodled on in the era when the PBS show was co-hosted by Robin MacNeil (the last line is "GOOD NIGHT, ROBIN''). The doodle features a signpost that says "Dixie Sunshine Depot,'' a reference, apparently, to his (at least then) futile quest to find a Dixie Sunshine line sign for his collection of bus memorabilia.

Also now mine: What I'm calling (for now, anyway) my Roman soldier doodle, created by acclaimed writer and Stanford professor Tobias Wolff. I've read a couple of his short stories; I'll be a student of his work from here on.

Don't want this post to get too long, but to close: The exhibit catalog can be ordered online in hardcover or softcover (proceeds to Shakti Rising). Here's the site:

Monday, March 23, 2009

How to follow this week's Game Developers Conference

Do it through VentureBeat (www.venturebeat.com).
That's where you'll find the coverage of my former San Jose Mercury News colleague Dean Takahashi (we blogged as "Dean & Nooch).
Nobody -- absolutely nobody -- covers a convention more thoroughly and indefatigably.
Dean and I disagreed about lots of issues over the years (mostly in an entertaining way, I think) but he always had one edge: He couldn't be outworked.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Rorschach, the "Watchmen" flick's hero?

I really liked "Watchmen," and I think I could devote at least 20 posts to the issues raised by the differences between the film and the comics. But one stands out to me above all others: In print, I found Rorschach to be a man in much more psychological distress. In the movie, I found him psychologically challenged but with a prevailing nobility. If the film could be said to have a hero -- which is a stretch -- it would be Rorschach.

In print, the story's nuances are triumphant. There is more room to interpret, and there's more depth. In the movie, there are moments of overwhelming emotional power that dwarf what a comic can deliver. These moments are sometimes raw, sometimes sweet and generally big and boastful, with much less ambiguity than the comics celebrate.

As a character on pages, I found Rorschach as troubled as he is intimidating. On the screen, I found him to be constantly extraordinary and ultimately beyond defeat, regardless of what compulsions were driving him. These are the questions I'm left with: When you think of the movie Rorschach, do you empathize? Would you like to be just as pure in spurning compromise, no matter what other horrors that forces you to embrace?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Facebook, the blog sinkhole

I resisted Facebook -- out of sheer ignorance -- for quite a while. Once I discovered its power professionally as well as socially (the latter still being most valuable), I became a huge fan.

Now it poses a substantial dilemma. This blog format is a far better way to deliver commentary, foster conversation and perhaps even do some hard-news journalism. But Facebook is a great way to direct people here and build some momentum for wide-ranging discussions. Indeed, Facebook proved impressively helpful when this blog launched. But then the other shoe dropped.

As I've continued to tease to topics on this blog, people have registered their thoughts right then and there on Facebook, accompanying whatever little synopsis I had hoped would drive people to this site. Facebook is a one-stop convenience for all sorts of expression -- an amazingly sticky destination that easily can deter a side trip to Blogger land. I understand that; I respect it. But I think it could end up offering too easy a way for people to share ideas. Too lazy a way, to be honest.

I think we could have some deeper exchanges here at SectorEarth, along with plenty of fun. Those of you kind enough to have paid some attention so far, please spread the word. Coming soon: Some thoughts about the "Watchmen" flick and Amazion's new video-game trade-in service.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"Watchmen": Re-read the comics before seeing the movie?

My answer is yes.

One of my best pop culture pals batted this around with me before the flick's opening. We agreed: re-read. So my chum on the opposite coast headed into a local comics shop for the paperpack collection.

My pal told the woman at the counter about the plan to read before seeing.

"She was like, 'Oh no, you should go see the movie, because the movie will be good on its own, but if you read the book first it'll ruin it -- you should try to enjoy the movie.' "

My pal: "I said, 'Oh, but I'm really looking forward to being one of the people in the audience who knows what to look for in every scene.' " Clerk resisting sale: "Then you should see the movie, then read the book, then see the movie again."

Among other things, my pop culture ally notes that "She overestimated how much money and time I'm planning to devote to the whole endeavor."

But I think she miscalculated more deeply, too. It shouldn't be so hard to separate the reading from the viewing, with the reading providing an upside only.

The rest of you think?

Monday, March 9, 2009

More "Killzone 2" thoughts: Terrific -- for what it is

The more I play this game, the more impressed I am with it as visceral interactive entertainment. I'm comfortable with its violence, and I'm thrilled with its intensity. My sense of engagement is off the charts, and the technology, while not perfect, makes me feel challenged personally as well as tactically. Yes, personally, because it demands that I call on just about everything I've learned during a decade (or close to) of reviewing first-person shooters.

And here's something I know from experience: If I can be that specific about why I like a game -- as opposed to settling for "It's fun, so there'' -- we're not talking about your run-of-the-mill game.

Isn't it interesting, then, that "Killzone 2" is also a testament to the video-game industry's continuing shallowness. The game is devoid of any artistic depth. It's not without some artistic elements, and it conveys a reasonably absorbing sci-fi milieu. But it has almost exponential powers of silliness in its dialogue and other pretensions toward humanness.

Honestly, I'm not knocking it. It is what it is, and I'm hooked. But someday, games are going to combine raw strength (as found in "Killzone 2") with genuine literary qualities. I'm still waiting for that era to begin.

(Oh, and yes, I'm writing this before finishing "Killzone 2," but folks, video games don't find their muse in the 10th, 15th or 20th hour of a shoot-'em-up).

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Thanks . . . Oh, and Mr. Ebert, please hurry back

Many thanks to those of you who have found this blog and have e-mailed me or started commenting. Those of you who know me best won't be surprised that I'll often respond one to one, but yes, I'm hoping this blog also builds enough readership to nurture a lot of conversation from post to post.

This evening, I was bouncing around the Web in pursuit of many of the week's pop culture stories, and the "Watchmen" flick was at the top of my list. As it happened, the now disastrous "At the Movies'' TV show came on across the room, reminding me of the void we've been left with since two forgettable (why name them?) non-personalities were given the reviewing platform that belonged to Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper at the program's last heyday. After Ebert became ill and Roeper teamed with various guest critics, the show was less engaging but still highly watchable. Not now.

For me, the release of an event movie is less fun without Ebert and Roeper swapping observations about it. But as I kept spinning through Web sites -- while the current hosts chattered hollowly about "Watchmen" -- I found a number of references to Ebert having recently written that he and Roeper will soon announce a new review show. That will make me as happy as a well-cast Green Lantern movie.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Killzone 2: A first reaction

Two hours in and yes, yes, finally a game that looks as if it will live up to its promise.

I've always been sensitive to price as an important part of the review equation, whether I was getting promotional copies from game publishers or buying within my personal budget. Last year, the broken putting in the Tiger Woods game for the Wii made me feel as if I'd thrown money away, and the surprisingly silly mechanics in big parts of "Resistance 2'' (PS3) made me think that the experience was way too expensive for the value. I waited for those games with great anticipation and ended up seriously disappointed.

The just-released "Killzone 2" (PS3) has been on my radar for a long time, and my instant reaction after one session with it is easy to summarize: It appears to be one of those rare games that's distinguished by the intelligent and balanced challenge it presents. Players have to react to smart opposition -- the game's a shooter, if you didn't know -- but on the other hand, nothing early on raises the specter of overly intimidating action. I'll obviously have more to say as I play deeper, and I can't imagine that I won't have some quibbles (the hype is awfully, awfully high around this game). But so far, the game's smarts have translated into gripping video-game fun.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Xbox 360, Peter Moore and me

Every now and then when I was at the San Jose Mercury News, a story or blog item that I'd written would take off, getting far-flung attention and showing up all over the Web in all sorts of new contexts.

One such item: A 2007 interview with then-Microsoft video-game executive Peter Moore. It was posted in a series of chunks on the blog I co-wrote with Dean Takahashi, now at VentureBeat. A variety of subjects were discussed, including the Xbox 360's hardware problems. Some of Moore's phrasing -- most notably two words: "things break'' -- generated intense reaction.

Late last year, Moore (now with Electronic Arts) used another interview to reflect on that conversation with me, but his remarks seemed to me to be at odds with something that could be easily checked: the original material I posted on the Dean & Nooch blog and still internationally perusable. But the new Moore interview began to be cited widely without any reference to how it did or didn't jibe with his previous quotes.

I thought that was ominous. The mainstream media certainly has been its own worst enemy for many years, but Web journalism, well, yikes, it teeters between lame and horrifying. I couldn't get anyone interested in providing some perspective except for editor Patrick Garratt at Videogaming247.com . I remain extremely grateful to him. But what about all the other folks who seemed to have no interest in any context that might be, gee, overwhelmingly relevant to Moore's new quotes? Oh, and did it matter that my name was being raised without any input from me? Apparently not.

I was well gone from the Mercury News when all this percolated, and I was without any good platform for addressing the issues directly. I've got this blog now, and it's way too young to have the kind of readership that would level the playing field. Maybe some day. But for starters, let me revisit everything by repeating below what Videogaming247.com posted -- thanks again Patrick -- and getting it all on the record in yet another place:

----------------------------

Moore was not "pushed hard" on 360 failure issues, says Antonucci: full interview transcript
Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Mike Antonucci, the San Jose Mercury News journalist named by Peter Moore in his recent Guardian interview as “really pushing hard” on the issue of Xbox 360 failure rates, has contacted VG247 to set the record straight on the subject.

Antonucci, who’s now moved on from the paper, conducted the interview in which Moore famously said that “things break” in relation to the RROD problem.

Antonucci told us this morning that both he and Dean Takahashi - author of The Xbox 360 Uncloaked - had mailed the Guardian to show that Moore hadn’t been “pushed” in the interview, or that Antonucci had taken his remark out of context, saying that, “Perhaps the loss of context is a reference to other reporting that quoted my interview with him.”

The note went ignored, apparently. You can read the full mail sent to the Guardian after the break, which includes a full transcript of the interview in question. We’ve bolded the section containing the quote.

Dear Mr. Stuart [Keith Stuart, the journalist that conducted the Guardian's Moore interview - Ed],

Happened across the Peter Moore interview in which he mentions me. I’m the former San Jose Mercury News reporter he referred to.

For the record: I’m not “called” Mike Antonucci — that’s my name. :-)

I left the Merc a couple of months ago (in case anyone wants that context).

Moore was not “pushed hard” by me (the question put to him was from a reader/consumer and I relayed it), nor was he taken out of context by me. Perhaps the loss of context is a reference to other reporting that quoted my interview with him.

All of this is easy to track. He’s referring to one part of a multi-part interview with him and here’s the full version (as it’s still easy to find on the Web).

I would appreciate you posting this (or summarizing it) out of fairness. Moore was given enormous room to comment as he wished and is totally responsible for his own remarks.

I’m cc’ing Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat, who shared a blog with me and takes a key interest in Xbox failure issues.

Peter Moore interview, part three (answers to readers’ questions)

Posted by Mike Antonucci on May 7th, 2007 at 5:24 pm Categorized as General, Mike Antonucci, Nooch on Gaming

OK, here we go with the last portion of my roughly half-hour interview with Microsoft’s Moore on April 19.

There’s an occasional contribution from me (flowing naturally from the conversation), but this is mostly Moore responding to questions that readers hoped I could squeeze in.

The first question was about Xbox 360 backwards compatibility, and, only by coincidence, Microsoft had made an announcement on that subject a few hours before the interview. So I put the released info on this blog the following day (April 20), and therefore I’ll skip the question here and just attach the info for your convenience.

In a day or so, I’ll also combine all three parts of this into one for-the-record post (although I generally try to stay away from posts of such length).

Part three:

Q (from reader): Gosh darn, all this talk about the portfolio, but all I see on Arcade are more shooters, and every other game announced for the system seems to be a shooter. Whatcha gonna do about that? I feel like I need to purchase a Wii just for some variety. I loved “Viva Pinata” but there’s gotta be more than just shooters and racers right?

A: So, they should have gone out like 290,000 people did in the first five days and bought “Guitar Hero II,” which is my latest addiction, ’cause i love it. And an old guy like me picking up a guitar and playing, if I can do it, anybody can do it. And then they should start looking at all of the movie games that are coming out. I just looked at all of our blockbusters for movie games — “Ratatouille” and all the stuff that’s coming out this summer. They should go to Xbox.com and take maybe a little bit more of a deeper look at all of the games that are coming out.

Q (from reader): Has Microsoft given any thought of producing a CG animated “HALO” series? The CG footage at the end of the “Gears of War” game was awesome. If Halo produced something of this standard (or the even the CG effects from the Halo Wars RTS game footage) and maybe started out by following the scripts from the Halo novels, it would be a big winner for all (Microsoft, “Halo” fans and animated fans in general).

A: So, CG isn’t cheap, and if read into that, you’re almost saying, “Let’s get the ‘Halo’ movie back on track again.”

Q (Antonucci): Well, “Star Wars” fans, for instance, get all that “Star Wars” animation. So I think he’s just hoping that “Halo” will have the kind of animated outlets that . . .

A: And I would love to talk about “Halo 3,” but I can’t talk about “Halo 3.”

Q (Antonucci): But that’s not animation (in the context of the question).

A: No, it’s not animation, but there’s enough stuff in there, in the stuff that I’ve seen, that’s going to get people excited. And y’know. I’ll back down a little on getting into detail on this because we’ve got some stuff (but) I just don’t want to give the game away.

The next question was about the Xbox Live Diamond Card program, but there was some confusion about what the reader meant, so we mostly put it aside. Some e-mail exchanges with the reader followed and I’ll eventually deal with those in a separate post.

Q (from reader):With the success of the Wii Controller and the encouraging words from developers about the (Sony) Sixaxis does Microsoft plan on, or have the ability to, adding a motion sensitive controller to their system?

A: We certainly have the ability. Whether we believe it’s something that we need to do, in the current state of where we think our business is, is probably a better question. We have already done this before with a controller called the Freestyle, which many of your readers will remember, which actually had a very similar motion to the Sixaxis. It was for the PC. . . . We admire — I’m on record ad nauseum — what the Wii is doing with the Wii remote. And the Sixaxis, I’ll maybe be a little bit more critical of the reader’s comment that there’s a lot of positive (momentum), because I don’t see a ton. But I’m sure I don’t know what’s in the pipeline from developers working on the PS3. But I feel pretty comfortable where we are.

At this point, I made reference to feedback I’d been getting about a story I’d done on the PlayStation 3 being used in medical research, with PS3 owners running software simulations as part of Standford University’s Folding@Home project. I rephrased a blog question into something a bit broader:

Q: Are we overlooking or is there anything in the works that would make the Xbox that kind of multi-purpose device?

A: We continue to look at this and see whether there’s real value. (Moore mentions that Bill Gates “quite frankly has had a conversation about this” and notes that Gates is interested in applying “philanthropic processing power to big problems”). But I’m not quite sure yet whether we’re seeing real tangible results from the PlayStation 3 Folding@Home initiative.

Q (Antonucci): There seems to be an enormous amount of participation that’s leading to a lot of speed-up in that research. A: Then if we truly believe that we can in some way marshall the resources of a much larger installed base of Xbox 360 owners, with a processer that’s of equal power to the PS3, then you have my commitment that we’ll look at that. And if we believe we can add value to solving a gnarly problem such as the medical problems and the health problems that Folding@Home seems to be doing, then we’ll certainly look at that very strongly.

Q (from reader): I’d like a straight answer on issues with hardware quality (have suffered through 2 defective 360’s in a 7 month span and am about to call it quits with this system). MS claims an ‘accceptable’ 3% failure rate but I imagine the actual number to be much higher — perhaps 2x or 3x more?

A: I can’t comment on failure rates, because it’s just not something – it’s a moving target. What this consumer should worry about is the way that we’ve treated him. Y’know, things break, and if we’ve treated him well and fixed his problem, that’s something that we’re focused on right now. I’m not going to comment on individual failure rates because I’m shipping in 36 countries and it’s a complex business.

Q (from same reader): Also, will future models be designed to run quieter? The fan noise generated from my 360 is so loud as to distract.

A: Noise is something I don’t bury my head in the sand about, and it’s primarily the DVD drive. People get confused with the fan noise, but it’s actually, in some instances, the 12x spinning of the disc that annoys some people. The great majority of people actually don’t notice it, but it’s something we continue to look at. We take that feedback very seriously from consumers, and we’ll continue to look at it. Can’t tell you, can’t make you any promises, that it’s something that’s going to be fixed overnight. I don’t notice it, but maybe I’m different. But I am not oblivious to the fact that some people do.

Q (from reader): What is the most important thing for Microsoft to accomplish in this calendar year?

A: Continue to broaden our base. If you have an installed base that continues to grow, then good things happen. If we can maintain our attach rate as strongly as it is, (good things happen) for the eco-system, the multi-billion-dollar eco-system that surrounds us, whether it’s our publishing or development partners around the world. We need to continue our momentum. We of course need to have great success with games like “Halo 3,” which I think will be the story of 2007.

Q (from same reader): It seems like consumers are identifying with the Wii. What do you believe are the current reasons for the Wii success and how is Microsoft positioned to address these?

A: So I think the Wii is a combination of innovative input — and I’ve been on record (about that) for two years since I first saw it in Tokyo when Iwata-san brought those controllers out — but price is also a major advantage for Nintendo. Their intellectual property has always been strong, has been for a decades. The question is going to be, as we get further down into the life cycle, how sustainable the experience is going to be, how much third party support is going to continue to grow for the platform. And we’re not blind to the fact that we continue to need to make our platform more approachable. Our work with Activision in making “Guitar Hero” such a success over the last couple of weeks, I think, is the tip of the iceberg of some of the work you’re going to see around a more approachable platform. At the same time, I don’t want to lose my hard-core guys, who I love to death and who are huge fans of what we do.

Q: (Antonucci): Last question. I’m going to let you read this one out loud yourself, because there’s a name in here that apparently this reader thinks you’re going to be familiar with (but) that I’ll probably butcher the pronounciation of.

A: “What is Microsoft’s current relationship with Tomonobu Itagaki and why not purchase a Japanese company to gain a foothold in Japan?” Itagaki is a great friend of mine. Itagaki-san is the key developer behind such great games as “Dead or Alive” or Ninja Gaiden.” And of all the Japanese developers, from the very git-go, he believed in the Xbox platform. I’m talking Xbox, not Xbox 360 . . . and more recently through Xbox 360. I’m a huge fan of his. I’ve spent a lot of time with him in Japan. Y’know, he’s a unique individual with the glasses and the long hair. And his games are always interesting of course. The way that the DOA girls show up is always popular within the gaming ranks. . . . I’m a huge fan because of the commitment he gave us early, particularly in the face of ridicule from the Japanese developers and publishers who thought he was an idiot for getting behind Xbox. We now look at great cases like Capcom, who have come to the fold and are are doing phenomenally well with Xbox 360. . . . As regards purchasing a Japanese publisher, we’ll never comment on our acquisition plans at all.

Q (Antonucci): But the larger issue is making more headway in Japan.

A: And you may argue that purchasing a publisher would do that. I’m not totally sure that would be the case, because if you purchase someone, that makes them a first party, and that actually dilutes the value of what you’ve just done, so there’s a business reason why that becomes difficult. I would rather focus on what I’ve done for many many years, which is travel on a regular basis to Tokyo and build relationships with those publishers. One thing I’ve seen — and I’ve been going to Tokyo now for eight years, probably 50 times in the last eight years – is there’s a more global outlook now from Japanese publishers than there has ever been. Capcom (is) the best example of that with “Dead Rising” and “Lost Planet,” with which they’ve done incredibly well. They realize the Japanese domestic market is insufficient to sustain them without globalizing, and, quite frankly Westernizing the way that they go to market. Konami, Sega, Capcom, Namco — all does that same thing. And that bodes well for us, because obviously they see our strength in the Western world and they’re becoming great partners of ours.