Haxed by Megahurtz — extremely strange Flash game; level 3 plays over a landscape of scrolling spam emails (via)

Joni Mitchell's "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" Demos

I’m working on a couple larger projects at the moment which I should be able to announce soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share a very rare recording I found on Big O Magazine’s always-excellent ROIO of the Week (Recordings of Indeterminate Origin).

These are the unreleased demos from Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, one of my favorite albums ever. Unlike the lush arrangements found on the album, these early versions are stripped down to only piano, and acoustic guitar. It’s like Hissing of Summer Lawns in the style of Blue or For the Roses. At the time of its 1975 release, The Hissing of Summer Lawns was panned by critics unhappy with her shift towards jazz/folk/rock fusion. I doubt they would’ve complained if these demos were the final cuts.

The Seeding of Summer Lawns

01. Harry’s House/Centerpiece

02. Edith and the Kingpin

03. In France They Kiss on Main Street

04. Sweet Bird

05. Shade of Scarlett Conquering

06. Shadows and Light

07. Dreamland (later released on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter)

08. The Boho Dance

09. Hunter (unreleased demo from Blue sessions)

As I mentioned, I found these on Big O Zine. That site is an odd cookie, the web presence of a long-running music magazine in Singapore with no less than four active domain names that redirect to each other in strange ways. The navigation is obscure and each page on the massive site is created manually in Dreamweaver, so it feels like a throwback to online zines from the mid-1990s. There’s no homepage for the ROIO of the Week, so your best bet is finding the most recent ROIO of the Week on the homepage and skimming the hand-edited list of archives from there.

But man, what a resource. Not confining themselves to just live bootlegs, Big O posts demos, alternate studio sessions, and other extreme rarities from classic and current artists. (For example, Steely Dan’s Royal Scam Outtakes, Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball outtakes, Barry Gibb’s unreleased 1970 album, Jeff Buckley’s Grace outtakes, and Janis Joplin’s 1964 audition tapes.) But you need to be quick: they’re usually removed within a week or two. The Joni bootleg was removed from their site, but this is so great, I’m giving it a permanent home so it can be heard by a wider audience.

Santa Monica Farmer's Market, a First-Person Narrative

It’s almost been five years since the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market tragedy, when an 86-year-old man accidentally took the lives of ten unsuspecting people with his burgundy Buick LeSabre. I was there, and documented the aftermath in real-time.

This morning, at around 2am, I received an anonymous comment on that entry from someone who survived. It’s a haunting glimpse into the experience of cheating death.

From: vancouverite

When it’s not your day to die, it’s just not your day to die.

I was there that day. Right there. My son was less than a year old at the time and it was a rarity that he and his father stayed home that day, they’d normally be rushing me along impatiently.

So I was dawdling, perusing the lovely organic greens and the beautiful melons, working my way up one side of the street stalls and back down the other.

I am only alive because at that moment, I was looking at Meyer lemons instead of arugula.

It started with a loud, continuous screeching/scraping noise, and then loud boombangs (the screeching turned out to be the upright poles of the display tents and the tables being dragged across the road surface, the bangs being those structures falling).

A young couple standing next to me at the lemons stand joined me in glancing up the street towards the growing cacophony that was heading our way. He gently moved in front of her, shielding her with his body instinctively as the disaster careened mere inches from us. We were so close I’m sure I could have touched the vehicle if I reached my arm out.

My first and only thought was to get home to my child as fast as I possibly could, everything else was suspended in time. I realized I had never let go of my 4 bags of produce. I looked down and saw red smeared on my legs. It seemed to be a combination of strawberries, raspberries, tomato and perhaps blood.

One minute I remember feeling jealous of a pretty slim girl with Manolo mules on talking on her cell phone. I can clearly remember seeing one of those perfect shoes lying sideways in the middle of the road with no idea where its wearer was who was right in front of me just a moment ago.

I remember the middle-aged black woman, separated from her teen daughter, distraught and focussed simultaneously as only a mother can be. I’ll never forget the raw sound of relief she uttered as she found and embraced her daughter a few moments later.

Worst of all, I remember being so close to him in his car, I could see the bodies, one under, one on the hood, and the utter chaos moving along in slow motion. The image of his face with his glasses askew will haunt me for the rest of my life. I could have sworn he looked right at me, he wasn’t even looking forward through the smashed windshield.

I remember the man running after the car crying and yelling “he just killed my wife”.

Just today, the accident invaded my life again. As I drove back to my downtown office this afternoon, the pedestrian traffic was quite heavy, and I thought to myself, as I have now and again since that day, “I know exactly what it would look and sound and be like if someone were to just plow through these people”.

I think about everyone that was there that day and have often wished for just one chance to get together to share our compartmentalized grief, to tell our stories, and to comfort one another in a way noone else can.

My Favorite Liar — a college professor uses a clever technique to focus attention

Greetings from 1993!

Excerpt of a letter sent to a grade-school friend in September 1993. I was 16.

I got a new computer...an IBM 386. It's a beauty of a computer, but I sunk all of my money into it and my parents still had to help pay it off... It has an 80 meg Hard Drive, a Super VGA card (not a monitor though, still stuck with VGA...), a brand new keyboard and mouse, 4 megs expanded memory, a High Density 3.5" and 5 1/4" drive. Cost about $800 but it was worth it. I consider it an investment for college. I plan to major in Computer Science in college with maybe a Psychology minor.

Have you ever heard of Virtual Reality? Of course you have... If by some odd chance you haven't, take a look into it. I'm telling you, it WILL be bigger than TV. I hope to get into it as soon as I can. Come to think of it, you should too.

This is the danger of keeping a digital record of everything you’ve ever written.

ForumWarz Postmortem: Interviewing the Game's Creators

ForumWarz is my newest obsession, a web-based game like nothing I’ve ever played. In short, it’s a parody of Internet culture in the form of a real-time role-playing game. You play as one of three Internet archetypes — the camwhore, emo kid, or troll — and try to disrupt message boards any way you can, using your sexuality, bad poetry, cross-site scripting attacks, or simply banging your head on the keyboard. In the process, you’ll meet a large cast of strange characters who will send you on missions in a very funny microcosm of the Internet.

Among those parodied: Furries, Google, script kiddies, Boing Boing, Apple Computer, ricers, 4chan, Ron Paul, gamers, Bill O’Reilly, Tubgirl, otaku, and the Church of Scientology. Also, it’s almost certainly the only game to include a text-adventure minigame based on R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet.” This game isn’t for everyone.

Before reading any further, I’d highly recommend trying the first two or three levels. Warning: If you’re easily offended, this game is not for you. And don’t worry about getting stuck with the Jimmy character during the tutorial; you get to choose a username, avatar, and class when you hit level 2.

Continue reading “ForumWarz Postmortem: Interviewing the Game's Creators”

Still Alive at the Valve Party

At the risk of turning Waxy into a Jonathan Coulton fan site, he performed a short set at the Valve Software’s Steam Party capped by a finale of “Still Alive” performed on Rock Band, backed by the Harmonix developers on guitar and drums.

JoCo covers himself on Rock Band

I’m pretty sure this is the only published photo of their final score, a 5-star performance:

Jonathan Coulton's final score, backed by the Harmonix team

And yes, Coulton sang his own song on “Easy.” (Afterwards, he said the Harmonix guys lowered the difficulty because thought the crowd noise would mess it up.)

Shortly after the set, I saw a tipsy geek hop on stage to copy the unreleased song from the Xbox 360 with a USB key before a Harmonix team member tackled him. I discovered he wrote up the story this morning, which was a fun read.

The Jonathan Coultons of Gaming

I’m mostly a casual spectator of the gaming industry, with my experience limited to being a fan, so it’s been a delight to meet the people behind the games I love at GDC. At the same time, I’ve felt a kinship with these indie developers, having worked as a developer (and accidental entrepreneur) in the web industry for the last ten years.

One of the most jarring and frustrating differences I’ve seen between the web and gaming worlds is the dominance of middle-men: publishers and platforms trying to control the distribution of games. In the web industry, there’s nobody controlling distribution and I don’t need anyone’s authorization to launch a new project. But the gaming industry is dominated by gatekeepers. For consoles, you can pay through the nose for the privilege to be on Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network or the upcoming WiiWare, and then wait months to be released into the pipeline. On PCs, there’s no clear monopoly, with distribution fragmented between a handful of game download portals and distribution frameworks like Steam.

Or you can go it alone and sell directly to your fans through your own web presence but, for the moment, this is very rare. Why? There’s no clear answer.

The gaming industry today feels like the music industry of the recent past. Bands were desperate to get signed to a label, and financial success was elusive without a record deal. Record labels provide the funding to record an album, the marketing to promote it, and access into the well-established distribution pipeline of record stores and other retail outlets. In the last five years, these gatekeepers have lost relevance as musicians like Jonathan Coulton, Radiohead, and Trent Reznor have started selling directly to their fans through their own sites, or adding them directly to iTunes or Amazon.

Small indies like Bit Blot (Aquaria), 2D Boy (World of Goo) and Invisible Handlebar’s Audiosurf are like the Jonathan Coultons of gaming — bootstrapping their game development, doing their own promotion, and cutting out every middleman to deliver games directly to their fans. And it seems to be working, at least well enough for them to grow and keep doing what they love.

Clearly, this route doesn’t work for everyone. I talked to Jonatan Söderström of Cactus Soft, one of the most creative and prolific game designers working today. He releases an interesting freeware PC game nearly every month, but is struggling to survive at home in Sweden. In desperation and “on the brink of extinction,” he recently added ads to his site and asked his audience for $1 donations so he could eat. Talking to him, he reminded me of many other brilliant programmers I’ve worked with — motivated and talented, but almost pathologically uninterested (or incapable?) in self-promotion or business.

Bit Blot and 2D Boy both understand that while game design comes first, marketing can’t be ignored. They work with the media, speak at conferences, keep visible blogs, and connect directly to their community online. For example, Bit Blot’s “Seven Days of Aquaria” campaign offered new information and gameplay videos each day until its release. The result? So much anticipation and demand that their servers died on release day. It was a brilliant campaign that cost them nothing but their time.

As an outsider, it seems obvious that the costs (monetary and otherwise) of going down the publisher/platform route are too high. Like a record label, the publishers take a cut and try to own your intellectual property and distribution options. Developing for Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, and Playstation Network all have their associated costs and royalties too. Between 30-50% of revenue goes to the platform and the development costs for localization and testing are much higher. Even if your overall sales are 20% lower by skipping the distribution channels, it seems like you’d still make just as much money, with the benefit of more control and more time to focus on actual game development. (If you’re interested in the topic, Simon Carless wrote an interesting editorial earlier this month that ran some of the numbers.)

Whether you work in music, gaming or web development, the ultimate goal should be to do what you love without compromise, get recognized for your work, and not starve to death in the process. If your primary motivator is fame and getting your game in front of as many people as possible, regardless of the cost, it seems the only option for game developers is going to a major publisher and working with the big platforms. But if you’re happy making a healthy living with a more modest audience, the DIY route is more viable every day.

Obay Unveiled — Torontoist gets official word from the people behind the ad campaign