The Return of Baldur’s Gate (Now Postponed)

When Penny Arcade reminisced about Baldur’s Gate, a video game that Bioware came out with in 1998 on five CDs (this was long before a DVD would replace multiple CDs), I had to read the blog post to see what prompted this.

Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis) is coming out with Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition for the PC, Mac, iPad and Android. Now updated with new content to run on current platforms, this seminal game is being introduced to a new generation. Alas, it won’t be out today as it has been postponed until November.

I was a video game tester at Accolade 18 months before Infogrames bought it out in 2000, which later bought out Hasbro Interactive for the Atari and Dungeons & Dragon intellectual property rights, moved the company to Sunnyvale and renamed the company toAtari. (The multiple identity crisis came from the managers of each new acquisition being given a shot at running the mishmash company.) I remembered the impact that Baldur’s Gate had on the QA department after the game first came out.

A half-dozen senior testers bought and installed CD drives with a six-disc magazine into their work PCs. Baldur’s Gate was notorious for requiring the player to switch discs every so often and interrupting the game flow for several minutes each time. The workaround was a disc changer that made the disc switching automatic. Those weren’t cheap at $250 USD. They played the entire weekend in multiplayer mode over the network, starting Friday evening at 6PM and stopping Monday morning at 6AM. I don’t recall if they finished the game or not.

Management wasn’t thrilled that a third of the QA department had called in sick that morning and was out for several days to catch up on sleep. Fortunately, this was after the holiday rush of getting new products out the door. The disc changers were removed and Baldur’s Gate was banished from the department.

I never played Baldur’s Gate when it first came out. I’m not sure if I’ll play when it comes out again, either for the PC or the iPad. Role playing games require a considerable amount of time to finish. Prior to Neverwinter Nights being released in 2002, a single programmer spent 500 hours to play every quest in the game. Even then we weren’t sure if that game was thoroughly tested from beginning to end. I tried playing Neverwinter Nights on my own after I left the video game industry in 2004 but lost interest after playing for 20 hours.

Between a full time non-writing job during the day and running an ebook publishing empire at night, my attention span for any video game is pretty limited to 15 minutes. Tiny Tower for the iPad is the current game that I’ve been playing for the last two months (I just added my 50th floor). If there is any game for the PC I really want to play, it’s probably Diablo III that I tested for a weekend earlier this year.

Young Children Out Late At A Batman Shooting

Among the victims killed at the midnight showing of “Batman: The Dark Knight Rising” in Aurora, Colorado, were a three-month-old baby and a six-year-old boy. A father lost track of his four-month-old son while escaping the mayhem, only to discover later that the mother had picked up the baby while shot in the leg. What were those parents thinking when they took their young children out in public after midnight when the entire family should have been in bed at home? I sometimes wonder if bad parenting is a bigger threat to our children than gun violence at the movie theater.

When I worked at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises), the QA team saw the first matinee showing of “The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King” at the AMC 20 Mercado when on opening days. Along with people from several other nearby tech companies, hardly anyone attended the first showing. This was a remarkable contrast when the entire company—still Accolade back then—spent the entire day to see “Star Wars Episode: The Phantom Menace” at the Century 22, where the HR girls handed out cold drinks to everyone in line as we waited for hours to see the first showing.

I noticed a young father barely out of high school with his baby daughter sitting behind me inside the theater. He smiled back at me at he nervously ate his popcorn, as if he knew he was doing something wrong. Although I’m not a parent, I knew he was doing something wrong. LOTR was never meant for children, especially with the horrific battle scenes between the forces of good and evil that dominated the third movie. This wouldn’t end well.

The little girl responded with glee to the My Little Pony toy commercial and paid no attention to the trailers that preceded the movie. Once the movie started, she became very quiet as her father ate the popcorn faster. The movie opened with the origin story of Gollum as a hobbit who came in possession of the One Ring, sitting down at the river and holding a caught fish. A screen-wide mouth with ugly teeth appeared, biting into the fish and ripping the flesh to shreds. A loud wail ripped through the theater before the crying started in earnest with lush wails.

I didn’t need to look back to see the father spilling his popcorn and hustling his kid out the door. They were soon forgotten as the LOTR theme song overwhelmed the theater. Needless to say, he didn’t get to see the movie that morning. Too bad he wasn’t charged with child abuse. Too bad the parents who take their young children to a midnight movie weren’t charged with child abuse as well. Maybe a stay in the pokey would put some commonsense back into them about raising children.

Fewer Young People Want To Work In I.T.

When I became a lead QA tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis), I knew I was in a dead end job that would last three years and went back to school to learn computer programming. Although the dot com bubble was over by Fall 2002, I couldn’t get into some classes because there were too many students and too few seats as information technology (I.T.) was still hot. Towards the end in Spring 2007, I couldn’t get into some classes because there were few students and too many seats as health care was much hotter.

I graduated with an associate in science degree in computer programming and made the dean’s honor list for maintaining a 4.0 G.P.A. (a consolation prize for not being able to take assembly language programming in my final semester). Thanks to a $3,000 tax credit during that time, Uncle Sam picked up the tab for my career change. My first job out of school was help desk support, where I made the same amount of money as I did as a lead QA tester except I worked only 40 hours instead of 80 hours per week. This wasn’t what I went to school for, but it was good enough to make a living and a career. All I needed was for all these baby boomers to start retiring so I can have job security for life.

Then the Great Recession came to Silicon Valley in 2008.

After two years of being unemployed, six months of underemployed (working 20 hours a month) and filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, I’m working full time in the I.T. field. The biggest problem I have now is working with all the baby boomers still hanging on to their jobs, complaining about being unable to retire and/or afford the latest tech gadget, and bossing me around because they are more experienced farts than I am. This wasn’t what I imagined job security would be like 10 years ago when I planned my career change.

A recent study states that fewer young people want to work in I.T., which means a shortage of qualified workers for future I.T. jobs. Assuming, of course, the visa cap isn’t lifted to allow Fortune 500 companies to import skilled workers from India and other countries to take those jobs away from American workers. Between young and old workers, both domestic and foreign, this is the generational war that I find myself stuck between.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter. I’m only working in I.T. long enough until I can earn a living as a writer and ebook publisher. My job security should come from what I do as an entrepreneur and not on the current trends in the job market. Or maybe I should go off the grid and become a farmer.

Obsessive Lego Behavior In Silicon Valley

Some of the most obsessive people in Silicon Valley are the toy collectors who stock their cubes with hundreds of Star Trek or Star Wars action figures that cover every square inch of counter space. These people appear normal if they were away from their cubes, often holding important positions within a company. But once they sit down in their cubicles to be surrounded by hundreds of adoring action figures like a messianic cult leader, they are no longer normal people.

One Silicon Valley executive took this obsession too far by slapping fake bar codes on Lego toys to buy them at a steep discount from Target stores to sell on eBay, making $30,000 USD in the last year.

Thomas Langenbach, a vice president at the software company SAP Labs in Palo Alto, crafted fake bar codes and pasted them over the real thing on Lego packages in Target stores, Santa Clara County prosecutors said. The fakes gave Langenbach a steep discount, prosecutors said.

After purchasing the Legos, Langenbach allegedly sold them for a profit on eBay. At least some of the Legos were valuable collectors items featuring “Star Wars” characters, prosecutors said.

Hundreds of unopened Lego boxes were found in Langenbach’s San Carlos home, authorities said.

If this schmuck was any smarter, he would be hustling company equipment out the back door to sell on eBay. Less likely to be caught that way as most Silicon Valley companies are more concern about intellectual property being stolen by their workers.

When I was a lead tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis), an action figure disappeared from the desk of a PR flack. An angry email was sent out to everyone that challenged the thief to steal the red cape that went along with that particular action figure. A few hours later, the red cape was gone. The PR flack went so far as to install motion-controlled cameras inside his cube. The thief was never caught. Naturally, the testers were blamed for this. When the PR department moved down to Southern California, so did the thief as the action figures kept disappearing.

On a related note, the Shaun of The Dead pub set got the 10,000 votes to be considered by Lego (good news), but Lego shot down the proposal because the content wasn’t age appropriate for young children (bad news). Lego obviously doesn’t understand the obsession nature of the adults who buy Legos for their children—and themselves.


Saying No To Protect Your Personal Intellectual Property Rights

Shay Pierce, an independent video game designer and programmer, earned the dubious distinction last week as being the only person at OMGPOP, developer of Draw Something (a Pictionary-style clone) app for the iPhone/Touch/iPad, to turn down the $210-million USD buyout package from Zynga, developer of Farmville and other popular games. As he wrote in a Gamasutra article, he had a legitimate reason to walk away from the deal.

It was a reasonable contract. But there were a couple of consequences of signing it which concerned me. Zynga sells puzzle games on the iOS App Store. I sell a puzzle game on the iOS App Store. Was this a “conflict of interest” under the contract’s definition, or not? If so, would Zynga act on that fact, or not? I didn’t want to lose ownership of Connectrode, or have to remove it from the iOS App Store.

Connectrode is a game that I developed independently in 2011, while I was working as an independent contractor. I designed it on my own, did all the coding in my spare time, and contracted the visual and audio work to talented friends here in Austin. (I finished and submitted it to the App Store shortly after my employment with Omgpop began, with the company’s awareness and permission.)

Financially, Connectrode had performed the same as most spare-time indie game projects: not terribly well. It was reviewed positively by TouchArcade, Joystiq, and others, and it was featured by Apple for three weeks; but it never broke into the top 10 or sold millions. It wasn’t changing anyone’s life.

But… I love Connectrode. It’s a very personal creation. My wife (who’s played hundreds of hours of Dr. Mario with me) encouraged me to make it; when you first launch the game, you see a dedication to her. (The code has a special case so that on her phone, this dedication appears on every launch.) And designing a compelling abstract puzzle game is more difficult than you might think — I’m proud of it. It’s not much, but it’s mine.

For many people, signing the job offer would be a no brainer since they have nothing at stake. But for those of us who are creative in our own spare time, the intellectual property rights (IPR) form can be a kiss of death depending on how it is worded.

When I was at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis) before the dot com bust, the QA department was presented with a revised IPR form that was so broadly worded that everything the employee thought of at work or home belonged to the company. Not only did we have to signed the form by the end of the day, we had to submit a list of every personal copyright, trademarks and other intellectual property rights we had to be evaluated by the corporate attorneys.

This sparked a rare uprising in the department—no one signed the document.

Some threaten to call their attorneys. A few threaten overwhelm the corporate attorneys with hundreds of pages to document their extensive copyright claims. Others talked about a strike—a popular topic since Sony paid their testers $4 USD more per hour. At the time, I only had my personal website. I was keen enough on IPR to know that I wasn’t giving the company anything beyond the labor they paid me for. The HR rep, seeing that the QA department wasn’t going to budge on this issue, went back to the corporate attorneys for a much narrower IPR form that everyone could sign.

The CEO of OMGPOP, Dan Porter, posted a few tweets (now deleted) about Shay Pierce over the weekend, creating a brouhaha about what happened and confirming that douchebaggery is alive and well in the video game industry.

These days whenever I’m presented with an intellectual property rights form for a job, I leave it blank. Like last week’s social media password controversy, my anonymous alter ego has nothing to declare. As a tech worker, I’m there to do the job I’m paid to do. Whatever I do and think on my own time is my own business. If a push comes to a shove, I won’t hesitate to say no.

Becoming A Normal Video Gamer

This past weekend I was busy playing video games. After being a professional video game tester for six years and two years after I left Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owner, multiple identity crisis), I’m finally getting back to being a “normal” gamer at home and playing for fun.

I finished playing SiN Episodes: Emergence (PC), a first person shooter that reminded me of Quake II when it first came out. The game was solid for the first half. I really needed a flashlight in some parts of the game that were too dark and re-adjusting the gamma on the monitor didn’t help. The second half of the game just fell apart because the A.I. was being stupid. At the bottom of one set of stairs, I tossed a grenade to the top landing to take out an A.I. that I suspected was hiding there and went up the stairs to find another A.I. waiting to ambush me even though I just turned his partner into hamburger. A point-blank headshot from the M90 took care of him. I’m looking forward to the next installment of this game.

Two other games I just started playing was Half-Life 2: Episode One (PC) and Resident Evil 4 (GameCube).  I suspect HL2E1 will be better than the SiN Episodes. The big challenge I have with RE4 is getting used to the third-person camera view and setting aside the 30- to 45-minutes of playing time needed to get to the next save point. I normally play in 15-minute spurts since my days—and patience—of playing a game for hours at a time are long gone. That might change when Caesar IV (PC) comes out later this year.

BayCon 2006

C.D. Reimer (Slashdot Shirt) @ Baycon 2006

My friend and I spent the Memorial Day afternoon at the San Jose Doubletree Hotel for the BayCon 2006 comic book/science fiction convention.

The panel on video games was interesting considering that only one panelist showed up and someone from the audience jumped in to keep things going. I’m surprised that Nintendo a lot of positive comments after being at the bottom of the console heap for years. Of course, Microsoft and Sony are not helping themselves by pricing their new consoles at the high-end of the price range. There’s a big difference between dropping $200 USD and $600+ USD for a console.

The panel on the intent of the founding founders with author Jerry Pournelle got intense at times. The main argument was that the federal government shouldn’t regulate encryption technology since the founding fathers used ciphers to their encode messages to each other and wrote nothing about regulating ciphers. The government, of course, does want to regulate encryption to prevent being locked out of communication technology that private citizens may use to challenge its authority. The founding of the United States Constitution was my favorite part of history that I haven’t thought about in years.

After the closing ceremonies, my friend got his books signed by author Larry Niven and we went to the anime room to find our other friend. For the first time in several years, I was with my two lovely assistant lead testers who worked on my Nintendo titles at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis).