Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Interviews and articles

Hey everyone,

I've been meaning to do this for a while: a list of clips I've my writing. Odds are I'm forgetting at least one or two interviews or articles. Shoot me a jeffryan1@gmail.com at email and I'll question your answers. Possibly vice versa.

12/31/12, Slate: 366 Days, 366 Books

12/10/12, Wired's GeekDad: Tell Your Kids Mashed-up Bedtime Stories

11/12/12, Kill Screen: A Conversation About Wii U With Jeff Ryan, the Man Who Wrote the Book on Nintendo

4/27/12, Independent: Nintendo: Still a Lot to Pay For?

4/11/12, Moon Books Entertainment: Jeff Ryan on the Paperback Release of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America

1/5/12, Kotaku: How I Managed to Write About Super Mario Every Day Last Year

8/28/11, IO9: How Does Nintendo Project the Image of Their Saintly Plumber? A Super Mario Historian Tells Us

8/20/11, Idiot Screen: Interview With Jeff Ryan

8/4/11, Fast Company: Wii Are Not Amused

8/2/11, Slate: Questions for Jeff Ryan

7/8/11, GeekTown: Douglas Coupland: A Tribute to Canada's Greatest Geek

12/20/00, Salon: PlayStation 2, Anyone?

And here are podcasts and video interviews:

11/8/12: Star Talk With Neil DeGrasse Tyson (Nerdist video)

8/12/12: Star Talk With Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Part 2 (podcast)

7/29/12: Star Talk With Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Part 1 (podcast)

12: Bubble Pipe Theater (podcast)

1/26/12: Marketplace

12/8/11: Forbes: Booked (video)

9/11/11: GamerLive TV (video)

8/19/11: PodClack (podcast)

11: Smart People Podcast (podcast) 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Great and Secret Mario NY Comic-Con Giveaway

I've gone to the New York Comic-Con on and off for 20 years, and I've never seen it more crowded than this year. The line to get a badge started three blocks away from the entrance. If you did a shot for every Deadpool costume you saw, or every female Captain America, you'd be drunk within half an hour. Nintendo had enough games so you could play all day and not play the same game twice.

I had a bit of a dilemma. To promote the paperback release of Super Mario, Portfolio gave me about 50 copies to give away. (Anyway that's all I could carry in without my arms dying.) Portfolio is owned by Penguin, and Penguin has a booth, so I had a place to hang out while not shopping or being amazed by a Scarlet Witch costume or whatever.

But Penguin is a huge company, with loads of division. And Portfolio, their business division, usually isn't at Comic-Con, because it's just not as natural a fit. So I had all these books, and I didn't have a place to give them away.

So i decided to give them to Mario. And Luigi, and Yoshi and Toad and in one sad instance a Waluigi. I'd grab a dozen books, start wandering the halls until I saw someone wearing Mario gear. One tap on the shoulder later, and I passed on a free book to them.

Went through all 50 books this way. I was worried I'd start tapping the same Mario on the shoulder, but I ran out of stock way before that happened.

There are loads of giveaways at Comic-Con: put a stack of 500 whatevers on a table, and people will grab at them like they were hotcakes. But there's a serious worry that the instinct to grab will be tempered by the realization of, for lack of a better word, "eh." And they'll discard it. I've tossed loads of free comics forced on me because they're just not my thing.

I think I found a way around that giveaway proble. Every single person who got a book was already a Mario fan, and a big enough fan to dress up as him. (Or wear a Mario t-shirt: I wasn't specific.) They're the ideal audience, and I was quite happy to reward their Mario love with a free book.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

It's-a me, in-a paperback!

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America is now in paperback!

In a sort of anticipatory preparation for the paperback release, the hardcover edition of the book has been quietly yoinked off of bookshelves. Now, though, it's back, with all-new features!

--A breathtaking new cover, showing not the classic 8-bit Mario but today's 21st-century Mario

--A whole NEW chapter on Nintendo's launch of the 3DS, its development of the Wii U, and on its war over a plummeting stock price

--The word "Konami" spelled correctly

--The word "Famicom" spelled correctly

--A bit about bonsai trees

--11% more bibliography

--And more!

I joke about the spelling corrections, but only to hide to pain. See, on some pages of the hardcover Konami and Famicom really WERE spelled incorrectly. Lots of people read through it lots of times, but mistakes have a way of sneaking through.

But the paperback isn't just a reprinting with a softcover: it's a newly laid-out text. new margins and all that. As a result, we had the opportunity to make all the fixes we heard about from hardcover readers.

There's a video game analogy that seems right, if miserly in its implications: the beta. Hardcover readers participated int he beta read of the book. All the big bugs had been taken out, nothing every didn't work, but there were some minor kinks. Like "Famicon" and "Komani" sneaking in. They've all been addressed, and now the paperback read is sthoom as slik! Er, um, smooth as silk.

For everyone with their hands up right now, yes, that analogy is imperfect. Because, yes, beta testers know they're not playing the gone-gold final release of a game. They accept some wonkiness for early access. And often they play for free.

But I feel confident in my analogy because this is not just how it worked for my book, ie, mistakes in the first edition that got corrected later on. This is how it's worked in publishing for hundreds of years. Dickens, Darwin, Stephen King, JK Rowling, and everyone in between all had errors in their first editions. Some were minor: once in a while there was a whopper. (One famous example from Daniel DeFoe back in 1719: Robinson Crusoe takes off his clothes, swims to a wrecked ship, and then fills his pockets with stuff.)

Movies have continuity errors. Books have misspellings. We try our best so that they don't, but we become blind to the content. The only real way to notice them is to expose the work to an audience who hasn't seen it before. And even then not all the tangled get combed out, because the early-reader audience is bound to be small. (And, for any sort of specialty work, if you're not already well-versed in whatever the specialty is the imperfections of description will sail over you.)

The only real test is actually releasing it, then paying attention to what everyone says about it. And fixing it all. Movies very quietly do this: small errors that were on screen will be tidied up for the DVD. Blogs do this: no need to let a misspelling live for a minute more than it has to. And books do it: same principle, except the timeline is extended so it's fixed a year later instead of a minute. 

No one really talks about it much, which I guess builds up the infallibility-of-the-book argument. And the infallibility-of-the-author thing, which the self-depreciating part of myself wants to shake off like an ill-fitting smoking jacket. But for anyone who noticed any slip-ups in the hardcover, uh, give yourself a pat on the back!

But I shouldn't leave without mentioning some paperback positives, other than just fixing errors, which everyone does. We wanted to add some more content to the paperback, and I had posted two extra chapters to the web. But those were "prequel" chapters, if you will, taking place before the main action of the book began. (And they were ultimately cut not for space or because they stunk but due to pacing.) Adding them in, at the end of the book seemed not worth it.

So I wrote new chapter, all about Nintendo's handling of the 3DS and upcoming Wii U launches. it ended on   bit of a downnote, and I had wished it would be a bit more optimistic. Then I got a brainstorm, threw together a few final pages that tied everything very nicely, and that's the end of the new chapter. it really reads, I think, like this was the original ending of the book.

So go check it out!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Star Talk II: The Commentary Track Strikes Back

(Listen to Part I of the Star Talk podcast here, and check out the first commentary track! When you're all caught up, join me, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Eugene Mirman for sandwiches...)

We took a lunch break after taping the first half of the podcast, and everyone headed into the breakroom for grub. I'd never been at Google/YouTube's offices, and in addition to all the other benefits of working there, the employees have an incredible selection of gratis snacks. I've seen game studios' version of this, which translates to "candy bars and eight types of Doritos." Not here: other than sodas, just about everything available was good-for-you food.

One of the tech guys has some impressive tattoos: Neil admitted he didn't have any. Which led to the question: if you had to get one, what would it be? A favorite constellation? The Hubble? Nope. "Manhattangate," he said, explaining that just as Stonehenge was set up to frame the sun during the solstices and equinoxes, there are a few days where if you stand at the right place the sun rises and sets exactly in line with the NYC streets, sailing above the skyscrapers like the Human Torch from afar.

I made the mistake of drinking a Diet Coke with lunch, which meant that I was hydrated for the next round under the lights. And I sweated like Nixon under a fry lamp for an hour. A poor tech member kept blotting my forehead between takes. You'll have the pleasure of soon watching my sweaty, Nixonian form once the video of it's posted on the Nerdist in a little bit: for now you'll have to imagine the sweat in your mind.

Back to the show...

0:13: Blatant plug: one of the audiobooks you can get on Audible.com is Super Mario.

1:15: Do I have to tell anyone that was the theme song for the Mortal Kombat movie?

1:55: Eugene's joke about Nintendo not being as popular as it was before is, of course, a huge gigantic deal for Nintendo, but I didn't want to right off the bat plunge the discussion off the deathcliff of boring and chat about valuations of Nintendo's stock price over the last fiscal year.

3:13: "Xbox. That sounds different from the word 'Nintendo.'" I hope you could hear that line of dialogue over the sounds of me being raked over the coals.

3:28: The return of computing power! It is Neil's job to bring things back to science.

3:42: Mental thought: "Did he just say Mighty Joe Young? The Bill Paxton movie? What the hell is going on? What does this have to do with video games?"

3:50: Mental thought: "Ooooh, got it, rendering hair." Trivia I didn't get to add: about a tenth of the budget for the 2001 Final Fantasy film went to animating the lead character's hair.

Time-unspecific note: The only time Neil was anything other than perfectly genial was when Eugene and I would have a little downtime conversation about games. "Hey, save it for the show," he'd warn. Which makes sense: you don't want the guests to be all tired out from the preshow discussion to actually have the show discussion.

5:50: SimAnt once again! Star Talk drinking game: down a shot for each SimAnt reference.

7:04: "A bunch of mice that will eat...heat...bad example." My job right now is basically to listen and laugh. I'm good at my job.

7:26: Mars Curiosity fans: please tell me if you spot any pawprints from the extinct Martian heat-eating mice.

8:15: It's right here, when I interrupt a talk about the Gaia hypothetic to talk about Doom, that Neil and the producer share "I-told-you-we-should-have-asked-someone-else" looks.

8:18: The disappointed exhalation of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, ladies and gentlemen.

8:39: This back-and-forth is rapidly turning into the "When will then be now?"/"SOON!" conversation from Spaceballs.

11:05: By mentioning "angstrom," I believe I have returned to Neil's good graces.

11:14: I really did learn the word "angstrom" from MTV.

11:40: I'm pretty sure they cut out a boo-boo of mine, where I used the word "omniverse" instead of "universe." I actually know what a universe it, thank you. Omniverse is a SF word for all the different alternate realities of all the universes out there.

12:30: Talking about intelligent designers is okay on Star Talk...when you're talking about people making video games.

13:20: My mind is regularly exploding over what Will Wright is talking about. Wright is the week's expert guest. I am this week's whatever-they-call-the-stuff-in-hot-dogs-that's-not-meat.

14:39: For those not in the know, "To Serve Man" is one of the all-time stone classic episodes of The Twilight Zone.

15:23: That sentence sounded bad as I was saying it, and it sounds just as bad now. From Scranton, Pennsylvania someone is yelling "That's what she said!"

15:35: I chimed in with "trees!" not because I am an idiot, but because "whales" is usually a trick answer. There are groves of trees that have been found to link their roots together, essentially becoming just one tree, and that tree's biomass far exceeds even a blue whales. (Unless the blue whale has Voltronned itself to five other blue whales, in which point: touche.)

16:40: This, believe it or not, is the actual origin of Tomb Raider.

17:05: This is a family broadcast, so none of the three of us make the jokes that everyone else in the world is making right now regarding what Lara Croft's "front" looks like.

18:05: I stop myself at five coming up with synonyms for the undead.

18:30: "How do they do that?" "Computers." That's the sort of expertise I'm bringing to the table.

19:05: If you're a fan of WarGames, definitely pick on a novel called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It's about a futuristic contest where the whole world is basically trying to one-up each other for 1980s nerd trivia, and in one level you have to act out the entirety of WarGames.

19:45: I am obscenely proud to end my little speech with a WOPR quote.

20:10: We couldn't talk video games during the downtime, but talking AI was okay. I don't think we touch on it while the mikes were rolling, but I mentioned the old Eliza computer program. "There's no way you're old enough to remember Eliza!" Neil said. I'm older than I look, though: I'm half McCloud on my mother's side.

21:50: Okay yeah, Will Wright is a limitless genius talking about the Turing test. But can he quote the WOPR?

23:00: ...add "neurology" to the list of things Will Wright can talk about with ease.

24:15: The first chess program that beat a grandmaster was Deep Blue, who trounced Garry Kasparov back in 1997. What Deep Blue did to win was headfake Kasparov, by purposefully picking a nonoptimal move in the endgame. Which Kasparov didn't know it was allowed to do, thus making Kasparov think that he has misread the board somehow, which threw him off his game enough to be defeated. Deep Blue psyched out his way to a win.

25:01: Ask 99 other gamers and they'd give different, more Mass Effect-y answers to this question, but I'm sticking with Starship Titanic.

26:18: Connections: Douglas Adams was friends with the Monty Python guys, and was a story editor on Dr. Who, which is where he got the idea for Hitchhiker's. Neil, BTW, came into the studio sporting a Dr. Who hat.

27:10: "much more?" Nah, really only about ten minutes' worth.

28:10: Eugene keeps revealing more geekier sides to him: here he's joking about Simlish, which Will Wright mentioned in the previous podcast.

28:25: I am not a World of Warcraft player, and I am scared of it the way a fourth grader is scared of drugs. I think I would excuse myself rom the room if I found out a computer in it has WoW installed. I am that scared.

29:20: Oh, the expounding I could do on the virtual economies of video games. I'm going to limit myself to two: first is mentioning that Cory Doctorow's book For the Win is all about young gold farmers in China and India teaming up to unionize. The other is Julian Dibbell's very fun book Play Money, where he quits his job and tries to see if he can survive for a year just on gold farming.

30:45: More reading recommendations: the book Game Boys by Michael Kane is all about competitive gamers playing Counter-Strike in tournaments

32:00: This is an ugly list, and it goes on for a long time. I think just about anything can be addicting, and games absolutely can be if you're of the right persuasion. Very thankful for Eugene to counter up these points with humor.

34:10: Whatever game you bring on a space mission, please don't let it be Left 4 Dead.

35:05: Neil's also a Super Mario Galaxy fan.

36:00: Humiliation story: an older relative who was obsessed with the Big Brain games gave me one, out of the blue, with no explanation, and said "go!" Five seconds later he said "Ha!" because I had popped a bubble in a minigame when I wasn't supposed to. See, I'm supposed to be an expert in games I've never played before.

36:29: I'm pointing to my shirt, which has a green pipe from the Mario games on it. Underneath it is written "Ceci n'est pas une pipe,"which is both a Mario joke AND a Rene Magritte joke.

38:00: I'm cribbing my answers here from yet another book, but I'm turning this commentary track into a bibliography. But here's the book.

38:40: Here I have the great joy of telling you that this entire conversation has been in the presence of a Virtual Boy, the Edsel of Nintendo consoles. Eugene kept fiddling with it, and I would tell him more and more about it. That it was a headset that was so heavy it needed a stand. That you had to hold it with your hand but then you needed two hands to use the controller. That it was really expensive, and only had about eight games for it ever, and was only in red. When I mentioned the crippling headaches it caused I believe he said this sounded like the worst consumer product of all time.

39:50: And that's all she wrote!

When it was over I met Kristal Schaal in the green room: she was the next cohost, for a special on the science of sex. I also ran into Dr. Ruth Westheimer there, who is very nice and who is about 90, and she took less time in the make-up chair than I did. So that felt great.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Star Talk: the Commentary Track

I'm trying something new: annotating a podcast I was a guest on. Read along with this Star Talk podcast all about the science of video games, and as Will Wright, me Eugene Mirman, and host Neil DeGrasse Tyson gap about stuff I'll let you in on the behind-the-scenes stuff. Each paragraph marked with a timestamp, so you can follow it.

0:016: Neil recorded that Audible bit in advance: he doesn't have to say it every show.

0:025: They didn't play this in the studio, which I was really bummed about. I actually listen to Star Talk, so I really wanted to hear the Beasties.

1:08: They didn't play any of the intro/outro music either: that's added in postproduction. This isn't just to punish me will less good music, it's so the voices are recorded cleanly, and the intro/outro songs can be chopped up and played however they need to fit.

1:20: On second thought, I really didn't mind not having to hear Pac-Man Fever again.

1:37: Things sounds a bit different than usual, because we're not in a radio studio. We're in a TV studio: video of this will be on the Nerdist YouTube channel and possibly even TV. The set was brand new: a scale replica of Saturn that was from Neil's own planetarium was over his shoulder. (Hmm: maybe I didn't need to say that Saturn wasn't to a 1:1 scale.)

2:15: If a joke falls flat in a podcast, does it make a sound?

3: 05: First actual question, but it's one I've answered often enough so I'm confident I won't screw up any dates or facts. Neil will throw curveballs aplenty during these interviews, so he's nice enough to start me off with a softball pitch.

4:29: Before I knew this was going to be on the Tee Vee, I wrote down notes, just in case I got questions about, say 1961 technology. I can't use them now, since people will see, but the act of remembering the salient facts and writing them down made them stick in my head. Same thing happened to me in school.

4:35: Mirman on fire with the moon-landing jokes. Neil explained before taping that he was the play-by-play man and Eugene the color commentary guy, leaving me the #3 man in the booth. My job wasn't to be smart or funny, since two immensely qualified people were taking care of those two skills. I like to think I succeeded in bringing neither humor nor knowledge to the podcast.

5:28: "We win. Astrophysicists win." -- Neil Degrasse Tyson.

5:39: "Don't talk to me about random starfields." -- Neil again, on fire.

6:00: I flubbed a follow-up answer about starfield declinations, and the producers were nice enough to, as Dave Coulier used to say, (Mimes scissor-cutting with fingers).

6:15: I just dropped used no-sound-in-a-vacuum to win an argument, giving me the Encyclopedia Brown prize.

7:07: If Eugene wants to play a game where you steal things from people... But it let me talk about the Magnavox Odyssey.

7:58: Anyone out there who doubted that Neil loved Astreroids, doubt no more.

8:06: I am still stunned that Eugene referenced the Vectrex, the Tom Bombadil of video game systems.

8:55: Me being a douche. Neil calling me on being a douche.

9:05: Technically it's "Sims," not just "Sim," but you could make a retconning argument that Neil was referred to Will Wright's entire Sim- ouvre.

9:45: The best thing about Tron: Legacy is the Daft Punk soundtrack: what you're hearing is their song Derezzed.

10:55: I will hold the line that my joke about the sequel to SimAnt being SimUncle is funny.

11:25: Neil works with a clipboard of questions and relevant facts. He recorded both parts of this interview in one day, and followed that up with two more podcasts, same day. And the day after that he interviewed GZA and Alan Rickman, although not at the same time. Imagine trying to do all of that while still succeeding wildly at being the amiable host who just happens to know everything in the universe about the universe. He had a lot going on, but you'd never once think from watching him it was difficult.

12:00: We all looked to stage left, which was where plain old $12 computer speakers were playing the interview clips. That audio was just so we'd know what the clips said. What you're hearing is, of course, the actual clip, not the tinny version we heard. BTW, I would happily sign up for a weekly podcast of just Neil and Will Wright talking shop about the sciences.

14:01: "All they notice is guns and shooting and loud explosions." I was really scared that I'd get this question, but Will Wright gave maybe the definitive answer that a shooter is more than just shooting.

15:50 Inside my head I was going "uh...um..." when Neil asked me what ludology was. Hey I know what to do, which has only fallen flat twice before: a joke!

16:30: You can't imagine how excited Neil gets when he finds out he can bring Star Trek into this conversation. No fake fanboying here.

17:18: What I'm going to say here is lovingly stolen from John Lanchester, who wrote about the GTA series and Red Dead Redemption in Slate.

18:18: Hey, we had a good talk about Missile Command, but it's missing. Maybe it's later. I hope they didn't cut it out.

19:35: I knew my trivia about Tetris being brought up into space by cosmonauts would come in handy one day!

19:45: Eugene is a Russian-American, so his Communism dig has quite a bit of grounding.

20:35: I keep thinking about Conker's Bad Fur Day when people mention the full title of the Super Mario book. Even while being a Nintendo geek, I'm drawn to deeper and geekier levels of Nintendo geekdom. It's sad.

21:00: For those who haven't played Sims, Eugene's joking about one of the only ways to kill a Sim: build a wall around the door of their bathroom, so they can't reach their food.

22:30: Aha! SimAnt is back!

22:40: Ludology and now myrmecology: we're learning some strange words today.

24:50: Now we get into the meat of the processing-power discussion. Me, holding all my notes about physics engines. Uh-oh.

25:10: I get some 1998-era Geek Cred points for mentioning Beowulf clusters.

25:38: AGAIN Eugene outgeeks me, slyly referencing a quasi-true rumor that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy PlayStation 2s because they were supercomputers. The truth was that "supercomputers" were banned from being imported to Iraq way back when, but then technology caught up so much that a mere PS2's guts counted as a "supercomputer."

26:05: Jeff has found the hidden passageway from processing power to physics engines!

26:50: What I said wasn't "robot" but "Lobot." Empire, yo.

27:31: "Everything I know is pre-1991."

28:40: Will Wright does a mean Simlish. Even though he pronounces "gibberish" with a hard G.

30:05: I keep waiting for Will Wright to say something, anything, that's not fascinating. It never happens.

30:10: Hold you tongue and say "apple" if you want to know what beeped-out word Will Wright said.

31:25: I do love this Beowulf system.

31:45: As soon as he said "facial expressions," I knew I had to bring up LA Noire.

32:40: Found a way to pile a purposeful Populous reference on top of an accidental Civilization reference.

33:15: What is the processing power needed to process a processing power question?

33:30: "Thanks, Neil, I'll just take over your sentence for you."

34:45: Here's that Xbox tech demo I was talking about. Remember: this was state-of-the-art over a decade ago. I may...may...have said this was a Nintendo demo instead of a Microsoft demo.

36:14: No geek can let a statement that begins "With X..." without completing it Spider-Man style.

36:55: In downtime between takes, I ask a production guy if he's played any games recently. He gets quiet for a moment. "I hurt myself and was in disability for six weeks," he said. "I played 341 hours of Skyrim." I took that as a yes.

37:50: As cool as the Skyrim cheese-wheel thing was, I think it'd make a great Mythbusters episode to see if it would work in real life.

38:50: Still wondering about the holy grail of computer rendering. I think I should have gone with a game that could make you cry, which is kind of a sidestep answer, but the one I normally hear.

Stay tuned for the second part, coming soon!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Too Many Games trip report

I can only imagine what it's like for guys who have gone to hundreds of conventions over the decades. I'm maybe four hours out of Too Many Games and it's already becoming a dreamlike miasma. Within 24 hours I won't remember what day I met anyone. Within a week most of the people will vague up into abstractions: a good dye job here, a awesome t-shirt there. Basically, what I'm saying is that the only guy I'll remember is the guy with aggro con-funk who looked like he overnighted in a Mumbai sewage ditch. Very friendly guy: I liked him a lot.

Before it all gets whooshed out of my head like so much Level 4 biocontaminant, lets see how much I can remember that's worth telling.

-- Signed a book for a mom to her son Andrew, who was elsewhere. Then a dad and his son come up, and I'm a single second away from writing down his name, which is also Andrew, when the mom shows up. She's his mom: both parents independently decided to buy the book for him. Andrew, you have awesome parents.

--A while back I signed a book for a guy named Eugene, who disappeared before I could give it to him. Ever since then, as small talk, I ask if anyone at the con knows a Eugene, because I have a book for him. "Eugene" is my one-armed, six-fingered man. Sunday a guy comes up with some buds, picks up a book, and opens it. Turns out he picked up the special Eugene edition. "Hey, Eugene, he already signed it for you," his friend said. I gasp. EUGENE! I HAVE FOUND A EUGENE! I Sharpied in a bit about how the book was fated to be reunited with its Eugene.

--First time this has happened to me, but a woman told me that she had my book at home and was reading it as we spoke. Well, she read it when she was at home, not at the convention, but she was in the process of reading it.

--Two dudes running a candle booth were across the aisle from me. Cool candles: one was shaped like a foamy glass of beer, and the man who bought it kept walking by me. I got fishhooked three times in a row by the same glass, always thinking it was going to spill. Turns out the guys, when not chandlers, were from Machinima. (That's me in the yellow shirt in their video.) Tens of thousands of people were watching from that unassuming candle shop all weekend.

--Across from me were some nice vendors selling gorgeous handmade quilts, radically underpriced. They had so many they had to drape two -- a Batman and a Superman -- over on my side of the partition, I didn't mind -- love Justice League -- but they also had a Mario quilt. They were happy enough to switch Supes for my favorite plumber, and all of the sudden my table got some primo advertising.

--Next to the undercover Machinima folks was brentalfloss -- well, he was there when he wasn't performing. I took the opportunity, when his line died down, to bring him over a copy of the Mario book with a question. A reviewer had said I referenced one of Brent's songs. I didn't remember doing so, but I have a chapter that has about a hundred Mario references a page, so it may very well have slipped in. He happily skimmed through the chapter, checking through the lists of Mario mentions, until he says "there."

--The guy in the table next to me was an insanely talented artist who customized hats. My cousins stopped by for the show, and one of them walked away with a dynamite Captain Olimar. I had the privilege of watching him, from scratch, in like an hour, take a blank hat and turn it into the single coolest piece of Zelda merchandise I'd ever seen. And he could ape just about any style: manga, blocky, stylized, lotsa colors, shading, airbrush, you name it. One of the more experienced vendors came over and started to laugh when he found out the hats were going for $20. "Twenty? These are FIFTY-DOLLAR HATS!" He was absolutely right. (If only I didn't have a massive Irish head...)

--I met a man who called himself Fat Chris: in my opinion, "Fat" Chris didn't eve make the top ten percent of fatness for this con, but maybe he's been working out. Anyway, Chris has all but about ten NES games: a serious collection. And he's one closer to a perfect run: he found a rarity that usually goes for $50 online for $30. Chris talked him down to $25.

-- I was hourly stunned at how much everyone in the con knew. Whenever I tried to impress someone with knowledge, they countered with their own knowledge. Maybe it got me brownie points, though, to know that that's not just a Wonder Woman shirt but a Phil Jimenez Wonder Woman shirt.

-- I have the same goal at every con: a Virtual Boy. Hard to find, but I found one here. Problem was, I found one before I even got to my booth, and I decided I'd head back there after a signing or two to reward myself. I didn't make it back in time, because I saw that Virtual Boy in the hands of a satisfied customer. He was buying it for parts. BTW, I could tell it was my white-whale Virtual Boy because the damn thing was muddy.

--Another white-whale item for me was a book called Phoenix by Leonard Herman. I've tracked down almost every video game book ever written -- and was reading some of them during the lags during the convention -- but I could never find Phoenix. Saturday morning, a guy walks by the booth holding Phoenix. The verb I'd use to describe what happened next was "accost": I accosted the guy and asked where he got that.

He got it from Leonard Herman. Who had been sitting 30 feet away from me and I didn't even notice. Needless to say, I now have a (autographed!) copy of Phoenix, and am one step closer to EVERY VIDEO GAME BOOK EVER...EVER...EVER...

I could go on and on and on, but it's now 11:30 and I'm tired, and the Mountain Dew was a very very long time ago. I will sadly shortchange everyone else I met during the con: the websites guys, the developers, the artists, the gamers, the collectors, the kids. I will be up all night if I keeping typing up "con stories." To quote someone with a Scottish accent, "let it go, Indiana."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Super Mario: One of the "Coolest" Book Covers in the World

I love any sort of listing of books, for whatever reason. they're invariably and by design argument starters, because YMMV on just about any art opinion.

This list especially seemed skewed, because it's a list of the "coolest" book covers. Whatever a "definitive" list of this ilk would be, it would probably have to include a bunch of dud books, made popular solely by the book design. And they'd probably have to exclude books that became famous under different covers -- I loved and am still haunted by The Road, but I didn't read it under the cover that's incldued here. As great as that cover is, ti's nto what I associate with that book.

I could go on blogviating -- I'm sure I can't be the first person to make up that word -- but I'll cut it short to comment on one salient point: Super Mario made the list. Props to Dan Donohue for eight-bitting the hardcover dust jacekt, up and keeping things iconic.

Another reason to love these lists is it lets me play the how-many-have-I-read game. I've read 18 of the 50, including my own book too many times to count. Only counting it as one, though.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Trip report: the Midwest Gaming Classic

Due to fog in Milwaukee, the plane that was taking me to Milwaukee couldn’t take off and head to Newark, much less begin its return flight home. So I lost five hours there. I blame whoever it was at MGC who brought the Silent Hill games: those titles just emanate fog.
My plan was to arrive around 1, sign book for a bit, do my speech at 3, and then get to see the show, which closed around 6. I got there around 6:30, thinking the show was closed. I also thought “the show” was a couple of rooms in a nice hotel crammed with arcade and pinball classics. That, at least, was correct. “the show” also poured out into the hallways, lobby, business station, restaurant, bar, and all other meeting spaces. If you’ve ever seen a two-year-old apply toothpaste, THAT’S what it looked like. I say this with two immense Sissy Henkshaw thumbs up.
Even thought the show was winding down, there were a lot of vendors and game fans sticking around, so “closing” basically just meant the crowds in the hallways grew a bit easier to navigate. One of the MGC honchos told me the afterparty was going to begin: free beer, soda, and snacks, everything on freeplay. “It usually goes until about 4 am,” he said. I think I blanched at that, because he told me that I, personally, did not have to stay up until 4 am playing pinball.
Instead of giving someone else my spot and bumping everyone else up earlier, the MGC took what turned out to be a smart gamble and booked me at 8 pm. Everyone who left had the option of sticking around for another few hours of soaking in the wide world of video games.
I had recently given my talk to a college crowd, and I was aware that they weren’t born in 1971, when my talk began. (Well, the subject on my talk began: I’d like to think it doesn’t FEEL 40 years long to sit through.) They got excited for the modern games, but not necessarily the Asteroids or Puppy Pong. This crowd was different: I made a joke about Syzygy, which is the ungainly name that Atari first used. The crowd immediately nodded its head: they all knew Syzygy WAS Atari, before I had ever said so. On the other hand, they weren’t that excited when I mentioned Skyrim.
Signing afterwards went great, delayed though it was. And I got to play a lot of old pinball games I thought I’d never see, much less play. Plus, finding a Contra cabinet on freeplay is a thing of beauty. All of the units there were for sale: as the con went on, more and more had sale signs replaced with SODL signs. Some got folded over and dollied right on out for the trip home.
Pinball fact I didn’t know: it zags where the rest of the collecting world zigs when it comes to scarcity and popularity. Lemme use some Milwaukee examples: there are only five Bob Uecker rookie cards, but 10,000 Hank Aaron cards, the Uecker card would be more valuable, despite Aaron being the more popular and successful ballplayer.
But baseball cards take up very little room: You could probably store a thousand card in the same space as one Harry Potter novel. Pinball machines are bulky, and they need the whole stripe of a room if you’re going to set it up. So the pinball collector is limited to what he (or she, but let’s be honest here: probably he) can stock. And so he wants pinball’s greatest hits, his most favorite tables. Thus, assuming that the more produced and played pinball machines are the better ones, those also become the most wanted collectibles. An Addams Familiy pinball machine runs $5000. A much rarer machine, from before you were born, might be $400.
I get to visit the dealer room in the morning, and have along debate about myself about a Virtual Boy that’s in its own carrying case. Don’t have the case. But would it survive the plane ride? Do I want to check it, for an extra $25? I ultimately decide against it, but I do find out that my Tengen Tetris is still worth $50.My back was to a Tetris documentary while I was signing in the morning, but I snuck enough peaks over my shoulder to feel like I mostly sorta kinda watched it. Ask me if I HAVE watched the movie, and I'll just shut down like an Asimov robot asked to kill a human.
            Rushing through the airport, I realized I never got the bratwurst I swore I would get while I was in Milwaukee. No time, and now at the airport no places other than generic fast food. But right next to my gate was a deli with a grill. I got my brat, in a pretzel roll with handcut chips. Achievement unlocked!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Video Game Book Club: Geeks, by Jon Katz

Note: I THINK I just turned the comments field on. You can also email me: jeffryan1@gmail.com, and I'll throw up the comments in a new article. Tell me your experience with the book, or growing up geeky, or how And reminder: the next book is Smartbomb!

I first saw Jon Katz's Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho in my library in 2000. I was reading a lot about tech companies then, and flipped to the jacket copy, hoping it would be about a start-up. It wasn't. Just regular kids. I put the book down.

From a distance of 12 years I want to yell to my 23-year-old self to check that book out and read it, because it was talking about me. I didn't grow up poor in Idaho, like the two protagonists of Geeks, the electric Jesse and the quiet Eric. I didn't run away from a life destined for nothing to try my hand in a big city (in this case Chicago.) I wasn't involved in drugs or gangs, wasn't nearly as computer savvy as them, and (shocker coming up) wasn't as much of a gamer.

But I was about the same age. I moved to a part of the country far enough away from friends and family that I was on my own. And I found it almost comically hard to make new friends. Jesse and Eric had Richton Park, a Chicago exurb an hour away from anything. I had Norwalk, Connecticut, my first place on my own. Norwalk's a great town if you're rich and clubbing. it may be fine to raise a family. but for a young guy looking for other people his own age, it might as well as been Idaho.

So I spend a lot of time perusing the library, renting black and white movies, reading a whole lot, and going online to stay in touch with high school and college friends. And  I moved out after a year and a half that in retrospect I realize were the worst of my life.

Just like Eric and Jesse, and things got so, so much better with a new job, a new place to stay. I got the friends I was looking for. I met my future wife. I became me, instead of whoever I might have been id I stayed in Norwalk, boning up on nerdery and getting every sort of interpersonal door slammed in my face. Actually, no: the better door analogy would be a world where everyone was home, but no one answered when I came knocking. Still not sure if (this is the end of the metaphor, I promise) the people inside could hear me knocking or not.

Katz it perhaps too forthright in explaining how he grew invested in Jesse and Eric's lives. they were profiled in a local paper as ubergeeks. Katz visited them, and wrote about them for Rolling Stone. While reporting, he helped with some advice, and some money, enough to get them to Chicago. They needed jobs, had no idea if they could get them, but both found good-paying work. When you're 19, accomplishing all this on your own is life-affirming, life-changing, life-defining.

The second half of the book is given to two developments. First, Jesse decides to go to college, despite not being able to afford it. Out of a lack of understanding of the admission process, he chooses the University of Chicago (which might as well have a flaming moat around it), and chooses it months after their admission process is closed. Katz builds up the second-act tension expertly, using this event as an acid test for Jesse: will his drive and intelligence defeat the admission obstacle, or will the real world win, as it almost always does?

The other development has nothing to do with Jesse and Eric, but two other Midwestern high school geeks at Columbine High School. Katz finds himself a lodestone for stories about suffering outsiders, those who were picked on for being different, smarter, shy, themselves. After the shooting things got worse for many, who were branded potential shooters themselves. But the cathartic discussion ultimately seemed to help the geek society. Yes, there were lawsuits saying the doom made kids kill. But there were also denouncements against that type of thinking.

This is a short book, and even at 200 pages it includes two lengthy side-quest passages, one about Wired magazine and one about Columbine. But they both tie into Katz's grander story, how the new information culture has heightened the pocket-protector crowd. The Jock and the Cheerleader are in a decline comparable to American industrial jobs. The last decade of culture has been so geek-heavy, so many comic book and video games and science fiction on the big screen, that the subculture is now the plain old culture. Geeks takes us back to the turning point, showing how the writ-large changes of the world were bettering the lives of two kids who deserved better than what they were given.

Here's the new high school stereotype: there are jocks, and geeks, and the jocks are on their last four years of success. Once they graduate they won't play ball in college, maybe won't even get into college, and be a livelong disappointment. The geeks will go wherever they want, do whatever they want, and have happy lives. This may not be anymore true in a your-mileage-may-vary capability -- I've yet to meet a fencing athlete who wasn't an out-and-proud geek -- but this is the new expectation. And it wasn't like that when I was growing up. Katz's book is a Polaroid photograph of the change, the moment where society decided that being smart was something that would be rewarded.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Announcing the Video Game Book Club!

I got myself nominated for a video game award a week or so back, and found myself in really wonderful company. There's now a list on the internet that lists me and Neal Stephenson using the same <ul> bullets. Maybe in tens years' time I'll consider myself worthy of licking his <superscript>, but right now that list is clearly the work of idiots philistines those I am willing to agree to disagree about. (Edited because I shouldn't call people who might give me an award idiots or philistines.)

I heard that 2011 was a surprisingly good year for video game books. Just look at the nominees: Neal Stephenson, Jane McGonigal, Ernest Cline, Harold Goldberg. I've read and enjoyed all of the books nominated, and they're all great at what it is they do, which are five different things. (Teensy peek into my awards-head brain; if the award goes for best overall writing ability, Stephenson in a walk. for best world-changing ideas, McGonigal. best overall look at games, Goldberg. Most fun you'll have with paper with words on it: Ernest Cline. Best book with Super Mario on the cover: no award given in 2011.)

I have read far and wide for the video game canon. I have read all four massive books in Tad Williams' Otherland series. I've read Ender's Game. I've read just about every nonfiction book about gaming history. I've read strategy guides for games from 1982. But I haven't read everything. And I want to.

That's the purpose of the Video Game Book Club. Each month, I'll tackle another book on my own personal not-yet-read list. You do it, too, and we'll have a chat about the book. Maybe special guests will show up. Maybe I'll pretend that special guests show up. Maybe I'll just

So what's January's book? Let's do Geeks by Jon Katz. What I know about it: About two geeks who play video games. That's half of me!

February's book, by the way, is Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby. 

What'll we do in March? I don't know! I want to hear from you about that. What have you been dying to read? maybe you know of a YA book about games I haven't heard of that you can recommend. Hell, maybe we'll actually play a video game instead of read a book. "I was never really got the sense that the pigs were deserving of my anger. To me, I couldn't engage."

I'm at jeffryan1@gmail.com: let me know what you want to read in 2012!