Sunday, 25 November 2007

Does Wehkamp know something we don't? (updated)

This is very weird. Wehkamp, the Dutch mail-order and Internet shop, still maintains that the Wii game NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams will be released on the 1st of December here in the Netherlands, while the rest of the world and its neighbour know that the game won't be released in Europe before January next year.

I would normally brush this off as a simple mistake. However, as maybe the biggest mail-order company of the Netherlands, you'd think Wehkamp would take those things seriously. Moreover, it's the only game that shows this strange release date behaviour. I've followed the release dates of quite a few games on the Wehkamp website, and they've all kept in sync with delay announcements.

So, what's going on here? Is this really just a weird error from Wehkamp? Or is SEGA organising some surprise early release? I frankly cannot believe either, but I guess we'll know within a week.

In any case, if SEGA does indeed pull up some weird trick out of its hat, I'll have the satisfaction of receiving the game early. After all, I've pre-ordered it an eternity ago (before Super Paper Mario was even released!).

Update: so it seems Wehkamp was just stalling to change the release date after all. It's now set to the 31st of January, more in line with other announcements. However, I find this rather unprofessional: not everyone is reading the specialised press, and changing the release date at the last moment when everyone else in the industry (and thus retailers as well, you'd expect) has known about it for one month shows lack of respect for the consumer. It seems to be a common trend everywhere nowadays and I don't quite like it (to say the least!). I need to keep an eye on it...

Friday, 9 November 2007


A few days ago, Giles Bowkett published a great post. I encourage everyone to read it. He usually gets things pretty right, but in this case he's hit bull's eye.

His article talks specifically about Silicon Valley software engineers and their absurd reaction to the Hollywood Writer's Guild's strike, but in my experience it's a more common and widespread phenomenon than this: engineers in general are often clueless about whatever happens that is not in their area of expertise. And the worst part is that they are often unaware of their cluelessness, and believe that everything works just as in their own knowledge area. And don't try to correct them: they know what they are doing, and anybody who disagrees just doesn't know what they are talking about. Academics often suffer from the same kind of tunnel vision.

I've observed this behaviour for years as an insider. Heck, I've been guilty of it myself! I believe it stems from at least four causes:

  • Engineers deal with exact sciences: engineering is based on physical and chemical principles. Likewise, software engineering is based on maths. In both cases, we are talking about exact sciences, which describe their subject (in the case of physics, the real world) using laws of universal value. The laws of physics don't have exception. They may be valid for only a subset of phenomena, but that only means that there is a better, more general law out there, even if it's unknown at the moment or irrelevant for the work at hand. This is not wrong, as long as one remembers that the laws are only tools to describe phenomena, not universal truths with which reality has to comply. The step is unfortunately easy to make, unconsciously, and creates people with a dogmatic attitude: if it doesn't fit with my view of the world, it's nonsense (or worse: if it doesn't fit my view of the world, it doesn't exist).
  • Engineers are terribly insular: it is natural for human beings to feel most comfortable among their own. That's the reason for the existence of clubs, associations, political parties, etc. We like to be surrounded by people who have the same opinions, experience, interests... as ours. Engineers, however, tend to take this to extremes. It's not abnormal for an engineer's social circle to consist entirely of fellow engineers. When those friends are not engineers, there's a big chance that they will be academics, which in social terms is not that different. Worse even, I've seen entire families consisting only of engineers, often working in the same area (it seems particularly true in the Oil & Gas business, but that might just be my experience). Why this is is a complex question (that I might tackle in another article), but the net result is that the social world of an engineer usually consists of people who think the same way they do. That doesn't help awareness.
  • Engineers feel they are not recognised: we have to be fair here: our world (or at least the developed, Western world) is mostly an engineered world. Many people never go to a theatre or a museum, but they couldn't live without their mobile phone, their computer, Internet, a TV set, a good car, holidays by plane, cheap food and housing... all things provided to them thanks to the work of countless engineers in many different areas. Scientists may get angry at me here, but while they are the ones who discover the principles behind the instruments of our modern life, it's the engineers who actually create the everyday applications of those principles. And it's something the layman is usually unaware of, as academics (or engineers working in universities, which for me is just another sort of academics) get the spotlight far more often. In any case, engineers feel (whether consciously or not) that they are a main driving force of our modern society, but are not recognised as such by the layman. That puts them in a defensive mode, and a tendency to glorify their way as the best way (nobody understands how important I am. Well, I'll show them!). It's not a very good way to approach and understand others.
  • Engineers are not very social: this might actually be the root cause of the previous two reasons I presented. This is a difficult topic to discuss, and causing lots of flamewars in various engineering communities (especially in software engineering). That's because the issue is tainted by the stereotyped images of the geek and the nerd, which are not things people like to be compared to. But one does not need to wear bow-ties and too short trousers to be a bit nerdy, or to have bad hygiene habits to be a bit geeky. The issue here is communication skills and nothing else. Communication skills are not a talent you're born with (well, not only). They are mostly something you learn as you grow, and not only as a child. Puberty and the beginning of adulthood are extremely important as well, the moment when people start getting specialised education for what they will become later, and often live along with people with the same education (in campuses and similar student housings). And while the communication skills engineers learn at that time are great to discuss with their peers, they are not that good when it comes to social chit-chat, or discussions with laymen (like it or not, social chit-chat requires snappy replies and quick apropos, and the ability to talk about nothing in particular. Engineers are more at home with long preparations and analysis, and a conversation must have a well defined subject both parties agree on). To talk in engineering terms, there is an impedance issue, between the way engineers and non-engineers handle communication.

Disclaimer: I do realise that I've been painting engineers with a very wide brush. Reality is far more complicated, and there's lots of engineers with lively social lives and broad social circles consisting of non-engineers. But my own experience tells me that there's at least a plurality of engineers who fit the portrait I've been sketching, at least in part, and those engineers do have difficulties understanding the world outside of engineering, and tend to approach everything with the same method, even when it doesn't apply. They are clueless.

In any case, what I'm trying to get at is that there are as many bigots and close-minded people among engineers as among any other (professional or other) group, unlike what many engineers seem to think.

What about me then? How can I be so self-righteous about my fellow engineers? Am I so much better than them? Well... no. I can also be quite dogmatic (who said we can see that right here?), and I also lack social skills. But what I am not is insular. On the contrary, I can't say that I fit very well among engineers. I don't know whether it is because I come from a family where I'm basically the first one to ever have reached a university-degree level (my sister is the second one, but she studies Law, not Engineering), or because I am sometimes too geeky even for engineers (not many engineers in my area of work are actually interested in software itself, much less in its social implications and things like Free Software. And I haven't even mentioned my interest in linguistics yet...).

But my main advantage is that I am aware (sometimes painfully) of my limitations. I know when I am clueless. How is that possible? Quite simply really: I have someone waiting for me at home who couldn't care less about engineering, while still being the most intelligent person I've ever met. My partner keeps me firmly grounded in the world, and doesn't hesitate to point out when I become too dogmatic. And I am forced to work on my social skills on a regular basis as well. I don't always enjoy it, but in any case it ensures that I can never become a one-tracked engineering mind. My partner also encourages me to entertain more social interests, like sports and arts, to the point that I am currently directing a theatre play.

In a way, it's the age-long advice: get out, get some fresh air, do something different. If you do the same thing all the time, and only meet people who do the same thing, you'll only let your world shrink down to the size of a pebble. There's a bigger world out there, and it's not just utter nonsense. So don't ignore outside advice offhand, because you don't know what you're missing. Here's a clue: the world isn't what you think it's like; go and find that out by yourself.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Pass me the hankerchiefs, I'm watching the game's end scene

I've been very productive last weekend. Mainly, I've finished Super Paper Mario. OK, it was 2 o'clock in the morning when I stopped playing, but I just couldn't leave the game so close to the end.

One thing I've noticed though was how emotional I was becoming as I was getting close to the end. I didn't shed any tear, but my eyes were definitely wet. The game's story was very good, very involving, and very well told, and though the ending was not completely unexpected, it still managed to get me: I was caring.

SPOILER WARNING: the following contains spoilers from a few games.

I was caring for the characters, even Count Bleck. And seeing him and Tippi sacrificing themselves to save all the worlds was heart-breaking. Although they were finally together again, and the bucolic ending shows that they did find the place where they could live happily ever after, I was still sad that they couldn't share their renewed happiness with their new-found friends. And I was sad that my adventures with them were finished.

Few games manage to elicit this reaction from me, and each one of them ranks among my favourite games (yes, I do agree that there's a connection here). One of them is Beyond Good & Evil. I remember how I could not leave the room in the alien Moon base where Jade's uncle Pey'j was lying dead, how controlling Jade was difficult as my tears made it difficult to see things on the screen, and how my tears changed into tears of joy when Pey'j miraculously resurrected. That game was a wonderful experience of cinematographic proportions. Too bad it was so short (it won't surprise you that I am one of the many people who signed all those petitions calling for a sequel).

Another one is Chrono Trigger, on the SNES. Although I have actually never finished the game (more a lack of time than a lack of interest, to be sure. It's one of the only RPG I like. Most only manage to make me yawn), it already managed to make me cry twice (once when Robo gets beaten down by all the other robots, the other time when Crono blocks Lavos's attack and is disintegrated in order to save the other characters). I really hope it'll appear on the Wii Virtual Console, so I can play it again and hopefully finish it this time.

And of course there's the whole Legend of Zelda series, where each instalment manages without fail to transform me into a sobbing puddle of tears (except the very first Legend of Zelda for the NES, but that one didn't really have a story. I mean, it does, but the gameplay itself does not really reflect that). A Link to the Past is probably the very first game I ever played that brought tears to my eyes (proving, like Chrono Trigger, that 16-bit graphics are more than enough to depict engrossing stories. Take that graphic whores). Ocarina of Time is naturally the pinnacle, and I remember playing the last part at least three times in a row because I just didn't want it to end. Just thinking about it again is enough to move me. Majora's Mask made me care for the non-player characters like never before. The Wind Waker's big parting at the end brought a tear to my eye, as did Midna's farewell at the end of Twilight Princess (did you really have to destroy the Twilight Mirror, Midna?).

END SPOILERS: from there on the article is spoiler-free.

On the other hand, there's plenty of good games that I enjoyed playing and yet didn't elicit those emotions from me. For instance, I thoroughly enjoyed the Prince of Persia trilogy, but I didn't become attached to its characters like I am attached to the characters of Super Paper Mario. And it influences a lot the replay value for me: I have completed each of the Prince of Persia games only once, and have no wish to do it again. But I have replayed Beyond Good & Evil at least five times, despite getting 100% completion (including the Pearls) on the first try.

I guess that as much as I value a fun experience (which is why I love Wii Sports, when I normally don't care about sports games), an engrossing story with likeable characters is what really does it for me. Maybe that's why I like Nintendo games so much: they are good at combining both a fun experience and a story and characters I care for.

I wonder whether I'm not in a minority though. The majority of games released these days seem to be FPS clones with cliché stories, sports games, race games or the latest MMORPG. Those sell millions, while gems like Beyond Good & Evil end up in the bargain bin where they don't belong.

Is it so weird to wish for a game to make you care?