Slaying the dragon

A little part of my childhood was killed last week. The first magazine to which I subscribed, Dragon, will no longer be published as a magazine. It, along with Dungeon, rely on a license from Wizards of the Coast (WotC), which Wizards is evidently eliminating. My fond memories of pawing through the issues I got in the mail each month (from around #70 to #125) already took one blow, when I gave the issues to a fellow gamer during a move, content in the knowledge that I had PDF versions of them. Even though I haven’t read the magazine for years, its cancellation now makes me irrationally sad.

It is also the latest in a line of such cancellations, as Wizards appears to be attempting to pull all intellectual property rights back to itself. It chose not to renew the Dragonlance license to Weis & Hickman a couple of days ago as well. White Wolf reverted its license to Ravenloft last August. Even Code Monkey Publishing, who writes d20-related software, was refused an extension to their license last November. According to them, Wizards said this was “because of future product considerations”.

What this means is not clear. Comments from the soon-to-be-former publisher of Dragon indicate that both magazines will continue to be released electronically on the WotC site. It’s possible that Wizards is just trying to be the lone nexus of all D&D related information, much in the way that Steve Jackson Games is for their own games.

Reading the tea leaves more closely, however, suggests that Wizards, after opening the content of some of their Dungeons & Dragons product with the hugely popular Open Gaming License (OGL) and the d20 System, may be looking to close it again with their next edition. The d20 System radically altered the economic landscape of role-playing games, for better and worse, and serves as an interesting case study of open licensing in a real economy. I’m not much of a fan of the d20 system, but very much like the idea of open gaming. One interesting facet of this is that, while the OGL is not revocable, the d20 license is, which may be bad news for a lot of gaming publishers. Add to that the fact that much gaming content might not even be copyrightable, and it looks like the RPG economy is going to be shaken again in the near future.

While all this is happening, Shadowrun‘s license has been sold again. The new company is (ironically, if you know the game) based in Seattle, which puts them close to FASA Interactive, a Microsoft owned company that owns the electronic rights to the game, which they are using to make a multiplayer shooter video game to be released Real Soon Now. I’m not sure the proximity will be relevant, but could be interesting. It also implies that SR will probably have a Fifth Edition before too long, even though it is the same staff as it was under WizKids.

Regardless of what games you play though, dice will likely be getting more expensive. At I-CON, I talked with one of the guys at Chessex, one of the largest dice vendors around. All of their product is made in Germany (often using machines that no one builds anymore), so they are getting nailed by the Euro-dollar exchange rate. As of this writing, buying 100€ worth of goods costs about 136USD. At the start of 2006, this same 100€ worth of goods cost only 120USD. The Chessex guy claimed they’d been resisting passing this onto the customer, but couldn’t continue doing so. This will probably make feeding my dice addiction at least 13% more painful.

So, taking all this in, I suspect role-playing, economically anyway, will get worse before it gets better, and a lot of gaming companies (and probably retailers as well) are going to get nuked. At the same time, however, companies like Drive-Thru RPG, which sells watermarked (but non-DRM) versions of role-playing products in PDF format, seem to be gaining steam and micro publishers based around electronic publishing seem to be springing up all over. Many products from these authors are extremely innovative, either thematically, mechanically, or both. I suspect that, within three years, most current paper RPG publishers will have either folded or been bought out, regressing us back to WotC, White Wolf, probably Steve Jackson Games, and maybe a half-dozen smaller players. At the same time, the electronically published RPG market will heat up a lot. It will also be where the cool stuff is happening, as the talented authors become more inclined to innovate once outside of the d20 realm. We might see one or two print-on-demand attempts, which will likely fail. In this environment, I expect open licenses to fade to nothing in the printed world, but catch on a little in the electronic micro-publisher world. Someone coming up with a good, open system, might be able to capitalize on the closing of d20 to build a big community of authors, if they time it right. I wish I had such as system, or a better oracle. Anyone know of good candidates?

Fighting global warming with greed

An Inconvenient Truth aired on HBO a few days ago and held up better than I thought it would, though it comes across more as a good lecture than the best documentary. One of the things Al Gore says in it caught my attention: during a slide of the car emissions standards, he points out the fact that U.S. auto manufacturers cannot sell a number of their models in China, because they do not meet China’s emissions minimums. This gives me an idea on how American car companies can save the environment and make scads of money at the same time. It goes like this:

First, make line of cars that get something like 60 miles to the gallon, or some number higher than any other manufacturer. If they are more expensive, so be it. Make the technology that runs it as hard to duplicate as possible. If possible, make it require a substance that you control the vast majority of supply.

Now.

A year or so before these cars become available, leverage your evidently huge influence over emissions regulators to quickly change the U.S. standards such that new cars sold in America have to have emissions just shy of your new model and, crucially, above everyone else’s. You’ve just captured the entire American car market, preventing everyone else from importing to the United States. Attempt to do the same in as many other countries as you can.

Of course, you will not actually be able to reap the benefits of this directly. What will happen is that before the legislation is voted in, other countries will protect their own auto industry and attempt to derail the new regulation with lobbyists of their own. If this fails, they can simply boycott U.S. cars, which would hurt. So, while these negotiations are going on, you unveil the real strategy: you meet with foreign car manufacturers and give them rights to your technology in exchange for joining your new auto hegemony. They then can make their own cars that meet the new standard, giving them incentive to support it, and to make it happen in their own countries. You gain the royalties on all of those cars you sell, as well as support for you new standard.

Depending on how many foreign companies go for the deal, you tune the limit your in-pocket legislators are writing into emissions standards. Chances are those who would reject the deal would be those who meet already high emission standards. If you can’t get them to join, you tune the limit to be below their levels, thus replacing their need to oppose the regulation with a reason to support it. They become de facto conspirators. You do this until those still opposed to the move can’t buy as much influence as you. This should not be difficult. Once the law passes, it should be possible for the hegemony to crush those that didn’t play along, eventually buying them.

If all goes well, you should end with a situation much like you started with, except that a) most new cars in the world will be far less polluting, b) some job adjustment will have occurred, with jobs gained from building and supporting the new technology and lost (at least temporarily) from companies that wouldn’t play ball being locked out of various countries, c) cars will likely be more expensive, which consumers won’t be able to do anything about (hey, at least they’re no longer dying from global warming) and d) car makers would have made a ton of money.

Pandemonium

Those of you who know me personally have a good chance of also knowing Tyler Stewart. He could use some help. He recently moved his seventeen year old store, Pandemonium Books & Games, to Central Square and the move didn’t go well, forcing him to close the shop for over three months and take on more debt than he expected. He is asking for some short term assistance.

He explains the whole thing much better.

Pandemonium is an incredibly cool store and I miss it pretty much any time I walk into another (and, hence, lesser) gaming or sci-fi book store. Please help keep it open.

Odd odds

Last night I paid for some goods in cash. They cost $17.83. I gave a $20, then dug into my pocket for change to see if I could unload some of it. I happened to have exactly 83 cents in my pocket.

I’m wondering what the odds are of doing that. That is: for any random transaction, what are the odds you have exactly the right amount of coins on you to exactly match the fractional portion (the cents) of the price? I’m not a statistician, but this seems like a hard thing to figure out. I’m not even sure what information you’d actually need to solve it. In the first place, over all transactions are the 100 possible values for the fractional portion evenly distributed? How about the number of coins you are likely to have in your pocket, much less their denominations?

A possibly related, but probably easier problem: if you wanted to be able to always pay exact change in US currency, you need to carry four pennies, a nickel, two dimes and three quarters. If you just grabbed a gob of x coins from a jar, how big does x need to be give you a 95% chance of having at least this combination?

Smith Haven Apple store opening

My wife and I were on hand for the opening of the Apple Store Smith Haven, partially because we’ve never gone to an opening before but mostly because it was only a few blocks from home. I brought my camera, but cleverly left its batteries in a recharger in my kitchen. I took some crappy mobile phone photos, but others have posted better.

We got there at about a half hour early, making us about 80th or so in line. The crowd was not at all what I expected: all ages, all races, all genders. Many more couples and seniors than I expected. One elderly guy in a Giants hat was breathing oxygen through a nose tube fed from a messenger bag slug across the back of a t-shirt declaring that “old guys rule”. There were some requisite geeks, like the guy in the “Nobody Reads My Blog” t-shirt, a pimply teen photographer with his skinny white ass sticking out of the dumb low cut pants that teens wear or the guy pitching the Long Island Macintosh User Group. There were also a few aging-hipster-artist-with-pony-tail types as well, but largely the crowd was surprisingly normal.

By the time the store actually opened, the line was at least twice as long as it was when we got there and still growing. The doors opened without much fanfare, in spite of one guy trying to drum up some spirit. Inside, the entire staff flanked the entrance in two columns, all cheering and clapping. They kept this up without stopping until the store reached capacity, which seemed like at least ten minutes. I can barely clap for five seconds without getting bored with it, so I was kind of impressed by this. We all got a box with a black XL t-shirt with a white Apple logo followed by “Smith Haven” on it. It didn’t occur to me until later, but the box was a nice touch, classier than a big pile of shirts being thrown around. I wonder what it costs to box them all.

The store itself is a fairly standard mall Apple store: glass front, walls with monitors, iMacs and Mac Pros, two rows of islands with laptops, ipods, etc. I was a bit surprised that the 24″ iMac wasn’t in evidence. Also, one whole island was dedicated to external hard drive cases, which I found a bit curious. Maybe the mark-up is worth the extra attention?

After my wife drooled over the latest iPods, I noticed Shake for the first time, and a few third party software titles caught our eye, we were ready to leave. Of course, we had to do the requisite messing around with Photo Booth, and I tested a theory by using my Swiss Army knife to swipe the resulting image from the machine on the sly:

Given that people were still waiting in line outside when we left, it looks like this will be a good location for Apple. It also looks likely to help out the generally shabby Smith Haven Mall (which has been undergoing much needed renovations for months). I, for one, haven’t even been in the place in nearly fifteen months but will probably now go in every couple of weeks.

An idea whose time has come

Being in Las Vegas recently got me thinking about theme hotels. It may be time for a Viking themed resort. Call it Valhalla. You could advertise almost exclusively in the north-central US to get your initial client base (and perhaps New England and St. Petersberg). The hotel could be a mix of modern Scandinavian influence and Viking history. It should feature at least the following:

  • Main tower of hotel built around Yggdrasil, the world tree. Lobby would represent Midgard, with standard rooms (Vanaheim), lesser suites (Ljossalfheim) and master suites (Asgard) above.
  • In-between the lobby and Vanaheim would be the Muspelheim spa, the largest collection of sauna, steam rooms, hot tubs, mud baths all lit by flows of “lava”.
  • Beneath the lobby would be Nifelheim, any icy playground, with ice rinks (including the world’s first x-treme ice rink), pools with slides that look like ice, frozen gateways to restaurants, a passage to Jötunheim mall, more hot tubs, etc.
  • Casino space, with Svartalfheim as the main casino and Hel as the high rollers section. Hel might also hold the nightclub.
  • Naturally, guys with horned helmets at the door and fur bikini wearing cocktail waitress.
  • Shopping mall with animitronic display in central courtyard featuring Erik the Red kicking Columbus’ ass every fifteen minutes.
  • All you can eat lutfisk bar.
  • Something to do with Nokia and/or Ericsson.
  • On the Migard level, a $5 entry buffet held in a large stone room with a central fire, common tables and huge hunks of meat.
  • A networked VR room, where you can take place in daily reenactments of Hoskuld and Tyri’s attempt to sack Constantinople in 860. While this force was turned back (by either a big storm, the Virgin Mary or a massive bribe), had it succeeded, it easily could have catapulted Scandinavia to be the dominant civilization of the world for centuries.
  • Guests can participate in occasional, late night raids in longboats across the dancing waters of the Bellagio to sack the Picasso Restaurant.
  • Ragnarok enacted every hour, on the hour.