Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Ebb and Flow of "Legality" within Digital Content - MGM Vs. Grokster

I think we, as consumers, have general disdain for big business buying legal precedent that protect their archaic business models. Unfortunately, there is not much a general consumer can do to voice an opinion in the courts of law where big money is often the victor. Likewise, start-up companies, with funds nary enough to run their day to day business, cannot afford the luxury of big legal departments and slush funds with which to fend off the elderly velvet lined pockets of major industry players. The MGM Vs. Grokster ruling of recent provides these major players with the precedent they need to ward off technologies and initiatives that may challenge their deep rooted and stubborn version of distributing content. This decision has been oft-lamented by most every major technology commentary of late, and I recently ran across a little Q&A with Larry Lessig of Creative Commons, a non-prof who seeks to develop flexible copyright rules for creative content:

"Ten Years of Chilled Innovation"

I must admit, the advent of technology, and the pathways with which we are provided to distribute and share popular media content (art, music, movies, TV, etc) certainly do bring in to question the legality of certain aspects of transferring digital data, as there is little precedent by which to measure what may be considered "stealing", "sharing", "legal distribution", or whatever buzzword sought for perpetuation amongst consumers may be used. In light of the recent ruling, I must admit its hard not to become a modern day Robin Hood of digital media whereas one steals from the rich (big labels) and gives to the poor (consumers). Outside of a few initiatives supported by the big publishers, where-as media content gets parsed into small pieces and sold a-la-carte to consumers (iTunes, et al, and a few Movie distribution sites), there is still a dearth of understanding as to how copyrights should work in our digital world. Especially in an increasingly global economy; different countries are creating different rulings, and confusing the system even more so than ever before.

The current state of things is pretty sad, as it's becoming a one-sided battle where the few weapons consumers and start-ups may have are being stripped by legal decisions bought by big money and endless court cases. I'm not getting on an anti-corporate soap box here, but rather, I wish many of the big media publishers would realize that technology should be their friend, and find ways to embrace and create new business models by which everyone profits. Our digital world should enable cheaper yet much wider distribution of content, and these publishers should seek amazing ways to free their content and get it in to the hands of more people. Unfortunately, these old croons are set in their old ways of set prices for physical products, and they want the same type of physical control to extend in to a non-physical universe (digital baby!).

It's even more unfortunate that our court system in the States is bending over backwards to oblige the money being shoved in their faces (not to say they are accepting bribes). There is the blatant skewing of stats and figures by big industry lawyers and statisticians that show how much digital "piracy" is ruining their financial futures (it's even funnier that pirates are being romanticized by the same industry through several recent movie endeavors). I would equate this to a manufacturer of horse drawn carriages complaining that automobiles are illegal because they hurt their financial future stole the wheel as a transportation device (it's not perfect, but you get the ridiculousness of the concept here). I'll save my commentary on RIAA and MPAA suing actual consumers for another day (see: RIAA Sues 784 More!), but I simply wonder how long these players can go on treating consumers as criminals before it snaps back in their faces.

"Increasingly, this court is oblivious to the costs of its own decisions. The Reagan Administration pushed the regulatory-impact statements. I think we need an equivalent Ronald Reagan to push the judicial-opinion-impact statement that tries to calculate the efficiency costs of certain legal rules. I continue to be disappointed in Justice Souter's obtuseness to the costs of the complexity that he adds to the copyright system."

For certain, if every innovative idea will have to be stacked up against a legality ruler and have measures in place to prevent copyright infringement, it will no doubt deter most from actually pursuing applications of content distribution and sharing. Considering the cloud that hangs over the copyright system will only grow denser the more court cases pile on top of it, assures that less people will attempt to tackle the enforcement of increasingly nebulous and complicated rules.

"Take the number of [Apple (AAPL )] iPods sold and take the number of iTunes songs sold, and divide it, and it's something like 25 songs per iPod. You know there's more than 25 songs on every iPod. Where did people get their music? Well, they rip it from their CDs. Is that legal? Good question. It's not protected by the audio home recording act, which explicitly said you're allowed to make an analog copy of your CD. But [on the iPod], it's a digital copy.

Ask [former Motion Picture Association of America CEO] Jack Valenti or ask the recording industry whether it's fair use to be copying CDs. Well, they don't think it's fair use. So in selling iPods...[Apple is] encouraging CDs to be ripped. If it weren't Apple, which is a relatively strong company, but another company that's starting with this new technology, what would happen if you filed a lawsuit against them? Your lawyer would tell you, you can't afford to fight this."

Organizations like RIAA and the MPAA would love to create an evolving copyright system that they can control, shifting and changing the wording and application of it to meet their ever tightening fist of control on the marketplace. I am really disturbed at their ability to create an aura of right and wrong with regards to creative content, something that they define in an ever mercurial way. I believe that even when you purchase a song from the Itunes Music Store, the copyright agreement states that it can be changed at any time. The music you buy today, may not work for you in the future, because let's say they start charging a price per time the music is listened to, and you've gone over the limit! It may sound silly, but this evolving concept of content control is not really that far-fetched. If this happened, finding a way to circumvent the play limit on the song you "purchased" would be considered "criminal" activity, and thus, in a moral culture, you would be considered wrong, perhaps even sinful(?)! Ridiculous, scary, and possible at the same time. "Stealing" songs could keep you out of eternal joy in heaven people!

I have no idea where the proper balance is with this. The fair and profitable application of copyrights to digital content is a difficult thing to define and enforce. What I do know is that the industry who produce and publish the content should be at the forefront of this creative thinking. Instead, the distribution and sharing models have been relegated to pioneers who are being pushed to the "underworld" of computing. Decisions like this continue to alienate customers, stifle innovative ideas, and increase a media conglomerates' cold grip on a marketplace where consumers are supposed to hold the reigns of control in a competitive economy.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Old Games are More Fun?

I guess when it boils down to it, gaming is a pretty simple pleasure, and a lot of the time, we just want a quick way to have some fun. Newer, and increasingly complicated titles are more time consuming, harder to be an "expert" in, and cost lots of money! A lot of these are turn-offs, not because modern games aren't great; in fact most are far superior in terms of enhanced gameplay over the "original" genre creating version. Some may argue this (i.e., complicated doesn't make it better, neither will enhanced graphics), and I am no fan of rehashed games (same concept, different setting), but perfecting a genre is a good thing, and I do think graphics matter. There are still a lot of things about modern games (outside of graphics) that are really lacking. For example, there is something not quite right about "rag-doll" physics (I'll leave this to another post).

The lack of true originality existing in today's games shouldn't be shocking. An environment lacking precendent is much more conducive to original ideas, while inventing new genres and original content in today's world is pretty tough, especially considering development costs! Developers will stay within "proven" concepts incrementally upgrading aspects from title to title. This is unfortunate, but expected.

I would have to disagree that "old games are more fun", but re-phrase the title to "old games are STILL fun, and sometimes easier to enjoy than modern titles" - or something along those lines.

Go to SlashDot to catch the origins of this discussion:

Goto Article

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The State of Audio Chat in PC Games

I think one of the biggest reasons why Microsoft's Xbox live service has been so succesful, has been the universal integration of audio chat across the board in the service. Every XBLive game has audio support, and the implementation of it is pretty much flawless (there is room for improvement). Hooking up with friends far and wide, and being able to chat before, after, and during battles is awesome! You wear a small headset, and plug straight in to your controller. I use a very small jabra ear gel thingy that is tiny and comfortable, and works great! Any cell phone wired headset works, and those things can be pretty small! So, while the surround system is still kicking all the sound from the game around me, I have a little earpiece in for radio chatter, which in turn simulates a "real-world" experience. In "mixed mode", you can hear radio chatter of enemies through your main speakers, instead of in your headset, which is also a nice touch, but not every game works well with this - so there is room for improvement.

I just recently purchased Battlefield 2, which pretty much requires voice chat for teamwork and organization. Typing is just too slow to be effective. I am a Counter-Strike veteran, where hitting "y" and chatting became second nature. The smallish maps made it easier to organize teamwork without a lot of audio chatter. It was eventually integrated in to the game, but not widely used, and the support was poor; still, I found it enhanced gameplay, because you could help teammates locate enemies and organize your offensive/defensive efforts on the fly with ease. Screaming "enemy spotted just over the ridge ahead" over your headset leaves your hands free to lay down fire. Stopping to type in the same message while your enemy shoots you in the face because you have become a stationary target isn't that effective. Could you imagine Army Rangers using Instant Messaging to relay comm info in a real battlefield? "Hold on guys, I am typing in enemy locations!" BLAM...the computer gets all shot up! Oh yeah, and so does the soldier.

I guess my chat experience with XBLive has spoiled me, because I still think the PC lags in the area pretty heavily. My copy of BF2 came with a headset, a cheapy stereo thing from Logitech, which you are supposed to plug in to the headphone and mic input on your sound card. But wait a minute; if I plug into the headphone output, I no longer get sound from my wonderful (expensive) Logitech THX certified 4.1 speaker system! Instead, all the great sounds from the game (and they really got the sounds right in this game!) are now going to come though a set of pathetic headphone speakers. No surround sound for me, just old school stereo! This obviously is not ideal. To remedy this I unplug the headphone portion of the headset; but now I am wearing a set of headphones to use the microphone attached to it, which in turn means audio chatter comes booming through my surround sound system. Whereas XBLive has it all right, PC-gaming VOIP has it all wrong!

I have heard of USB headsets, which augment your current sound system, and thought it might offer a good solution to my problems. However, after a fairly thorough search over the last few days, I am now even more baffled at the situation! Searching for "USB headsets" returns largely studio style headphones with microphone booms. "Cans," as they are called by audiophiles, provide decent headphone sound, and some even offer simulated 5.1 surround sound. Unfortunately, no matter how nice the headphones, you can't pack the punch of a good subwoofer (hearing and feeling low frequencies are different things!). Another baffling aspect is that all these headsets are sold as solutions for VOIP, not necessarily just for gaming (Skype or similar computer services and voice chat over IM), but in a world of mono voice communications, why do we have stereo solutions for this? Do cell phones have stereo headsets? How bout your home landline phone service? What about a walkie-talkie? Far be it for me to stand in the way of stereo audio chat as an evolution, and maybe mono broadcasting is just something we have grown accustomed to as a result of practice, but I think the subtlety of voice comm fits nicely into a mono package, and I don't see a need to make it stereo. Can you imagine seeing people at the local grocery store with giant studio style headsets for cell phones - yeah, it's a funny picture.

Because most of the USB headsets are integrated with studio style headphones, costs are also driven up. To get a decent headset, I have to pay $30-$50 bucks! Many cost over a hundred dollars! This is even more baffling to me! I paid $50 for a year of XBLive, and they included a decent headset with the kit! There is something wrong here. I know good headphones can cost a lot of money, but I don't need a great set of headphones, I need a simple solution for in game voice communications. It needs to augment my amazing surround experience, and seemlessly integrate with the gameplay experience. XBLive does this, why can't a PC game? Let's not even talk about the fatigue-factor that comes from wearing large headphones for extended gaming sessions.

I think the solution is for Creative to put a simple headset jack on their sound cards, so we can plug any cell phone headset into the the thing to create a practical solution for VOIP. Plain, simple, and best of all, INEXPENSIVE. Game developers in turn can then work to integrate VOIP services in a blended, but well simulated way in their games using this additional channel for audio. It works for Xbox, why not for the PC world, which has far advanced hardware?