All posts by chrislreed

GameStop Vs. Amazon: The Customer Experience

I recently bought a videogame from GameStop. Then I bought one from Amazon. What follows is an account of the customer experience provided by both companies.

One of them is an exercise in convenience. The other requires such extreme mental fortitude that, to prepare, I have to slay a dragon and bathe its viscera before I can build up the strength to withstand it. See if you can tell which one is which.

Buying a game from GameStop

I drive to the store and go in.

The clerk greets me and asks if he can help me.

“I’d like a copy of Xenoblade Chronicles.”

“No problem. Are there any other games releasing this year you’d like to preorder?”

“No, thanks.”

“Have you heard about The Last Story?”

“Yeah, I’m familiar with the game.”

“Do you want to preorder it?”

“No, not right now.”

“Because you’re buying Xenoblade, so you’re probably a big RPG fan, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, have you heard about Pandora’s Tower?”

“Yes, I’m aware of the whole situation with those games being ported over from Japan based on customer demand.”

“Yeah, so If enough people buy Xenoblade and The Last Story, then they’ll probably bring Pandora’s Tower over, too.”

“Yeah.”

“So do you want to preorder The Last Story? It’s only five bucks, and it secures you a copy.”

“No, not right now.”

“Okay, are you a member of our Power Up Rewards program?”

“No, and I’m not interested.”

“If you join you get lots of great perks and bonuses, like extra money on your trade-ins and…” (he continues in this manner for some time). “So would you like to join the rewards program?”

“No, thank you.” By this point I’ve been standing at the counter holding my credit card for about five minutes.

“Okay, you can swipe your card.”

I swipe my credit card, slide it into my wallet, and put it away.

He asks to see my credit card and drivers license.

I fish my wallet out of my pocket, open it, hand over the cards.

He stares at them for a few seconds, inspecting them for god-knows-what, even tilting my license to verify that the hologram on it is legit.

He hands them back, along with the game in a bag.

I speed-walk out the door, wanting to get far away as fast as possible.

Buying a game from Amazon

I type the name of the game into the search field.

I find it immediately, and notice that it costs $10 less than the retail price.

I click the “Buy now with 1-Click” button.

Two days later it arrives at my doorstep.

How Cats Work

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When my wife and I moved in together a year and a half ago, I became the co-owner of two cats. There’s Mancha, an extroverted love-bug who greets visitors at the door and spends most of his time either asleep or snuggling up to whoever’s around. Unfortunately, for about 30 minutes a day, he acts like a maniacal banshee, shrieking at nothing, doing laps around the house, and chewing on the other cat. The other cat is Chula, a curmudgeon who’s usually nowhere to be found. I assume she’s off in a dark room somewhere, listening to The Cure and contemplating how unfair it is that she’s trapped in a world inhabited by other life forms.

For several months after the cats moved in, I had no idea what they wanted from me. Their food dish would be full and their litter box would be empty, but still they’d approach me and meow, obviously with some need unfulfilled or desire untended. I’d pet them, but they’d back away, annoyed. So I’d sit there blinking until they gave up and wandered off.

My whole life I’ve been a dog person, and until I started living with cats, I had no idea how big of a difference there was between the two species. Dogs are open books: all they really want is your approval (and to eat whatever you’re eating, regardless of whether they’d like it). Most of the time, a dog’s goal is to make its owner happy. This is why they’re popular pets.

Cats, on the other hand, don’t give a shit about you. Technically speaking, this should make them terrible pets. But luckily for them, evolution has made them adorable. As a bonus, cats are also lower maintenance than dogs, which can make owning them worthwhile in some cases.

Now that I’ve spent some time with cats, I’ve started to understand most of their desires (to go outside, a bite of fish, to break my focus whenever I’m working), but I’m still baffled about how to make Mancha calm down when he’s hyper and how to turn Chula more personable.

So it was with great interest that I watched a new show on Animal Planet called My Cat from Hell. It’s about the owners of problem cats–biting, scratching, hissing hellspawn–who want to make their felines into normal, loving pets. So these folks call a cat specialist to their house to assess the situation and tell them what to do differently to make their cats stop being total assholes.

This cat whisperer fella is a fat, bald, tattooed hipster named Jackson Galaxy. (I’ll take a moment to let the absurdity sink in). The thing is, unlike me and most cat owners out there, this guy actually has a grounded understanding of why cats do what they do, and how to shape their behavior.

Based on his impressive results in the first episode, I learned that cats primarily want what we all want: to feel safe. To achieve this, the owners of horrible cats had to arrange their furniture so the felines could circle around the room without touching the floor. This makes them feel like they have escape options if–heaven forbid–someone turns on a vacuum on the floor. Mr. Galaxy also stresses the importance of body language when engaging with a cat and how to hold them properly (cup them to your chest, letting their feet dangle). It’s all good stuff, and I’ve found some of it useful when dealing with my (admittedly less than hellish) cats.

In hindsight, Mr. Galaxy’s prescriptions make a sort of obvious, “why didn’t I think of that?” sense. But count me pleasantly surprised that some weirdo named Jackson Galaxy could cue the world in to what’s going on behind feline eyes. Now if only he’ll show me how to pep Chula up and chill Mancha out, I’ll be a Jackson Galaxy acolyte.

Social Networking: You’re Doing It Wrong

I think social networking is a good thing. And I’m not alone: just ask any of the millions of earthlings who log onto the Twitters and the Facebooks every day. These sites are wonderful platforms for discovering cool Internet content, engaging in lively discussions, promoting your work, and connecting with near-strangers for exciting new sexual encounters.

But all too often well-intentioned people bring the whole experience down by posting things that only their closest friends and family members could possibly give a crap about. This is called oversharing, and it makes everyone uncomfortable.

I’m talking about the people who post updates about the most banal details of their life (“Listen to this dream I had!“) and post photos of what they’re about to eat for lunch (“A peanut butter and jelly sammich!“). I’m talking about the people who use Facebook’s “check in” feature everywhere they go (and these are usually the people who go everywhere, all the time). I’m talking about the people who post about their fragile emotional states (“how could she cheat on me…“), and their money problems, and their religious inclinations.

“What’s wrong with posting that stuff?” you might be asking.

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it: none of those topics are appropriate for a public forum.

“But hold up. The only people who can see my posts are my friends, right?”

Wrong.

The vast majority of the people you’ve “friended” on Facebook aren’t your actual friends. Many of them are people you would never think about again if they didn’t show up in your news feed. Some of them you probably don’t remember meeting in the first place. I’ll even bet you have a few you actively hate. And yet here you are, broadcasting boring or overly-personal details of your life to them.

“Then how can I share this juicy information with the people who care?”

One way is to have actual conversations with those people, in real life face-to-face situations. Other ways include e-mailing, texting, video chatting, and instant messaging. Take your pick.

Regardless of how you go about sharing that kind of personal information, don’t do it in a public forum. Instead, consider your audience. Take a second to decide whether what you’re about to post is appropriate for and potentially interesting to everyone who will see it. If not, don’t put it online for all to see.

I’m all for social networking. But what your Facebook “friends” and Twitter followers want is different from what your real friends want. Real friends will care (or pretend to care) about nearly anything you have to say. The people in your online networks, on the other hand, are far more selective. They want your opinions on things you’re passionate about, pithy witticisms, links to interesting articles and funny videos, and that’s about it.

What your jerkface boyfriend said to you this morning? Save it for your actual friends, or your therapist.

Dead Space Isn’t Fun

Dead Space, the well received 2008 shooter about slicing up aliens in space, is not a fun game.

Technically it’s very impressive. It’s got big budget graphics, immersive audio, nail-biting atmosphere, lots of gameplay variety, and plenty of cool set pieces. So how’d they screw it up? Several ways, but the most joy-leeching of the bunch is that the game punishes you for doing the very thing that it forces you to do: shooting aliens. It’s a game at odds with itself.

Let’s back up a second. The story line puts you in the gravity boots of a mute engineer who’s trapped on a space ship filled with psychotic aliens. The aliens’ limbs are their weak points, so shooting off their arms, legs, claws, and tentacles causes extra damage. You’re discouraged from shooting the trunks of their bodies in two ways: the game either passively punishes you by requiring a lot more shots to bring them down, or actively punishes you by doing something like breaking open their bodies to release a colony of tiny, hard-to-kill spider aliens.

So by a very deliberate design decision, the game urges you to shoot at the flailing limbs of aliens that are often rushing at you quickly and en masse. Pinpoint accuracy is required. And since the pace of the game is usually very hectic, normal human beings pushing buttons on a controller will miss more shots than they nail.

Everything I’ve described so far represents solid game design. This could easily be a very fun gaming experience with a reasonable difficulty curve. Unfortunately, the developers screwed it up by being stingy with ammo.

Shooting at the flailing limbs of shrieking aliens while they try to rip you apart is challenging, intense, and fun. Worrying about running out of ammo while doing this is still challenging and intense, but it’s definitely not fun. It’s a step beyond reasonable difficulty and a step into “why am I even playing this game?” territory. It brings the whole experience down.

It’s kind of like if Super Mario Bros. made you run around collecting “jumps” before you could leap over pits or hop on enemies. By being stingy with bullets, Dead Space withholds an element that’s essential to the particular kind of gameplay it sets up. You lose something precious every time you pull the trigger, but you’re required to pull the trigger all the time.

The developers could have done several things alleviate this frustration. First, they could have given players plenty of ammo to make up for all the missed shots they’re sure to pop off. Failing that, they could have equipped you with some kind of chainsaw-like weapon to chop off alien limbs in hand-to-hand combat–a more dangerous but suitable backup method of making kills if you run out of bullets. At the very least, they could have set the game up so you could flee from most enemy encounters if you run out of ammo. They did none of these things.

That’s not all that’s wrong with the game. You’re also shorted on health packs, credits, and the power nodes that allow you to upgrade your equipment. The size of your personal inventory at the start is laughably small. The storyline is an open fire hydrant of cliche, and just about every level requires backtracking, something I thought gamers and developers determined long ago was a major drag and agreed to avoid.

But the biggest fun-suck is item shortage. I’m sure the reason the developers chose to go this route is because they couldn’t decide whether they were making a shooter or a survival horror game, so they made something in between. They brought in the gameplay mechanics and enemy frequency of a shooter, and the item shortage and atmosphere of a survival horror game. But Dead Space is a shooter at heart. Putting a horror atmosphere in a shooter works. Being stingy with items doesn’t.

So what we end up with is a pretty good game buried under bad design decisions. Maybe Dead Space 2 will fix these issues, but I probably won’t care to find out.

A Song of Ice and Fire

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George R. R. Martin is a crazy person. His series A Song of Ice and Fire has already secured its place among the best fantasy series ever written. The story it tells is epic in every sense of the word: it’s grand in scope, with a richly detailed world that’s populated with a staggeringly large cast of characters. And there’s nothing brief about it. Four of the seven projected volumes have been published so far, and each one’s a door-stopper. The pace of the narrative sometimes veers toward leisurely, but the characters are so complex and interesting that you’ll always want to find out what happens next.

The story is set primarily on the continent of Westeros, a land of lords and commoners that’s modeled after medieval Europe. Seasons often last years in this world, and it’s likely that the coming winter might span a decade or longer. Humans are the only race in Westeros, but there are hints of strange creatures in the north, beyond the barrier wall that marks the upper border of the continent. Magic exists, but it only happens in a messy, bodily form that very few people can control. Unlike most other fantasy series, hundreds of pages will pass without even the slightest hint of the supernatural.

Instead, the primary concern of these novels is political unrest. Who has power in Westeros, who wants it, and how they go about trying to get it, are the engines that drive the series. High-born families are lucky only in that they have some control over their fate. For the common people, life is short and brutal. Oftentimes they meet horrible ends, with their villages decimated by whatever army is vying for power, or by the bands of marauders that have taken the tumult as an opportunity.

But more than anything it’s the characters that will keep you coming back to these books. Ned Stark the natural leader, Arya the resourceful tomboy, Tyrion the sharp-witted midget, Cercei the schemer, Jaime the oath breaker, Samwell the bookworm: these aren’t archetypal fantasy heroes drawn in broad strokes. These are complex, lifelike characters, written with spark and summoned from experience. You’ll find nothing resembling the Good Versus Evil fantasy trope here. Wretched characters will surprise you with their capacity for empathy, and decent ones can change into something else entirely by the time you turn the page.

One reason the plot is so compelling is that, in this series more than almost any other, predicting its direction is futile. Book by book, the point of view hops around, giving you first-hand perspectives from characters you never thought would be important to the story. And the author holds no one sacred. Main characters you’ve followed for thousands of pages can be cut down in shocking scenes of violence.

That A Song of Ice and Fire is a fantasy series might turn off some readers of “serious” fiction, but it shouldn’t. Martin can write sentences and characters as well as anyone. The phrase “speculative fiction” is often used to describe serious works of fantasy and sci-fi, so it will have to suffice here. Few enough fantasy writers–or writers in general–have created a story so dense and compelling. Martin is on the level of other genre greats like Gene Wolfe, whose Book of the New Sun series is similarly rich.

An HBO show based on the series, called Game of Thrones, is set to start in April. The first season will cover the first book and, if all goes well, subsequent seasons based on the rest of the books will follow. I just hope Martin keeps pace with the writing. Only four books have come out over the past 14 years, and he’s been slowing down lately, with only two books in the last decade. Perhaps the TV show will spur him on. In any case, I’d hate to see this end up like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which the author left unfinished when he died.

If you want to read the books, I’d suggest reading the series as quickly as possible in order to keep it all in your head. It can be easy to forget where you saw a character last or which band of mercenaries an outlaw is attached to. Usually you’re given enough context to find your bearings, but still it’s nice to have the fan-created wiki at your disposal.

Reading A Song of Ice and Fire may take a few months, but it’s a worthwhile endeavour. Whether you love or hate what becomes of your favorite characters, Martin clearly has a vision for where he’s taking this series, and I intend to see it through to the end.

Book 1: A Game of Thrones
Book 2: A Clash of Kings
Book 3: A Storm of Swords
Book 4: A Feast for Crows
Book 5: A Dance with Dragons
Complete Collection: George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones 5-Book Boxed Set

Spoon Is A Band That You Should Listen To

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I hadn’t paid any attention to the band Spoon until Metacritic used the scientific method (or a reasonable approximation thereof) to declare them band of the decade. Any band to receive that high of an accolade I had to check out. And you know what? These guys are incredible.

Spoon is unassuming. They’re not flashy. They have no gimmicks. They don’t use overly slick production. They’re not in your face. They just play rock music. Drums, bass, guitar, vocals, and the occasional keyboard or horn. That’s it.

Their music is great largely because of their rhythm section, which almost always propels the songs forward at an energetic clip. You can nod your head to their songs, and you will, because they’re catchy. The vocal and guitar tracks are memorable, thoughtful, and propulsive, but oddly discreet. They have edge but not bite.

And as tight as the playing is, the music has a loose, effortless, on-the-fly kind of feel. It’s infectious, like party music, but it’s not disposable. And this is important: they sound like they’re having fun.

In an interview on the All Songs Considered podcast, singer Britt Daniels and drummer Jim Eno come across almost exactly as you’d expect from their music: as regular guys. When asked to comment on their Metacritic distinction of being the best band of the decade, Daniels says, in a wry deadpan, “It’s true.”

But as much fun as their music is, the craftsmanship is also apparent. The songs are constructed in surprising yet ear-pleasing ways. “Got Nuffin,” from their album Transference, for instance, is composed of a dozen or so parts that slowly build to a hypnotic jam that’s impossible to resist. “Everything Hits at Once,” from Girls Can Tell, is similar–it’s an intricately designed piece of music, but all its parts merge and flow into one another so smoothly that you might not even notice its depth.

If I had to pick a fault, I’d say that, like many other bands, they have the occasional tendency to navel-gaze for maybe one track per album. “The Ghost of you Lingers,” the second song on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, for instance, endangers the energy they build up with the excellent first song, “Don’t Make Me a Target.”

But that’s easily forgivable. If you’ve never listened to Spoon, I recommend the album Kill the Moonlight as a good entry point. But you really can’t go wrong with any of their stuff. They’re one of those bands you could listen to every day for a year without getting tired of.

When asked about what drives their creativity in the interview above, Daniels says, “If I’m going to dedicate my life to this band, then I want it to be the best band in the world, and I want to make records that are going to be great forever. I don’t want to do it half-assed.”

That’s who they are, and that’s what they do. They make great music, they do it consistently, and they do it with style.

Using Google Voice on an iPod Touch

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A guy could list a slew of reasons to use a Google Voice number as a primary phone number, including the financial (free texting, free long distance, cheap international calling), the convenient (ringing multiple phones, text and voicemail backups, customized greetings for individual callers), and the creepy (voicemail listen-in, easy call recording).

To me, one of the coolest reasons is that you don’t even need a phone to text and talk to people. You can do those things from a computer, an iPad, or an iPod Touch. For the sake of this article, I’ll talk about using a 4th generation iPod Touch, but everything here applies equally to an iPad.

To use your iPod as a Google Voice phone, you need two free apps: Talkatone and Google Voice. These are not the only apps with the necessary features, but they’re both free, and no single app that I’m aware of gives you the functionality of these two combined. The Google Voice app handles texting, and the Talkatone app lets you make and receive VOIP calls using your Google Voice number.

Talkatone has all the important basic features you’d want for handling phone calls: your Google Voice number shows up on the recipient’s caller ID when you make a call, and the sound quality is great for both the caller and the recipient (assuming you have a strong Wi-Fi connection), and the app also stays open in the background when you’re not using it, so it rings when you get a call.

However, Talkatone has a few drawbacks. First off, it doesn’t have a texting feature (hence the need for the Google Voice app). Not a deal-breaker, but annoying. Another problem is that you’re told to sign out of Google Chat any time you leave your computer, because an incoming call might be routed there instead of to Talkatone. And even after you sign out and close the browser window, it can take up to 15 minutes to switch where your call will show up. This could lead to missed calls (wife having a baby, job promotion, reminder of a Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy), which you might find unacceptable for a primary phone line.

Also, Talkatone functions through Google Chat, so when you have it set to receive calls (which, if you’re using your Google Voice number as your primary number, is likely to be always), you’re also listed as “online” to all your Gchat buddies. You can set your status to “Away,” but people can still message you. And anyway, it’s hard to remember to switch your status to “away” every time you don’t want people messaging you.

So Talkatone handles phone calls from your iPod, but you need to use the Google Voice app to send and receive text messages. Just like Talkatone, this works pretty well but it’s not ideal. First, if you open a blank text message and start typing the name of the person you want to text in the “To” field (like how you would in your phone’s texting app), it doesn’t connect to your contact list. So if you put “Bob” in the “To” field, it won’t associate Bob with a phone number. If you send the text, it will actually try to send it to the word “Bob.” So you have to go through your contact list to choose a recipient, or reply to a text you’ve already received.

Once you do that, you can start typing your message. However, there’s no character counter, so you don’t easily know how many texts you’re sending. Also, using Google Voice, you you can’t send MMS messages (pictures or videos), and you can’t send text messages to more than one recipient at a time without doing one of a few high-maintenence workarounds.

Which actually points to the larger issue: the whole Google Voice system is incredibly confusing. It’s great that Google Voice gives you so many options and so much functionality, but that functionality comes at the cost of having to wade through numerous settings menus and remembering tricks and shortcuts to do the things you want to do. And even though Google Voice can do lots of things regular phones can’t do, there are still certain basic functions it can’t do (like MMS and bulk texting) which are far likelier to be deal breakers.

To its credit, Google Voice it has continuously gotten better since it was launched. The longer it’s around, the more functionality it gets and the more platforms it becomes available on. Now some users can even port their existing number to become their Google Voice number. I won’t do that yet because of the deal breakers listed above, but in a few months, who knows?

Retro Gaming

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In a fit of nostalgia/stroke of genius, I decided to set up a retro gaming station in my basement.

The basement is unfinished, so it’s basically a room the size of a small skating rink with a concrete slab for a floor and the chill of winter creeping in through the walls. Prior to starting my project, much of this floorspace was occupied by boxes of random crap my wife and I hadn’t touched since we moved in, plus a few noisy appliances and the cats’ litter box.

To start with, I cleared off an 11′ by 17′ section of floor by shoving all the boxes into the far corner of the basement, where they impede the path to the breaker box, and where they’ll probably sit until we move again. Then I dragged a semi-broken entertainment stand into the clearing, pushed it against the wall and, with great physical effort, planted the last CRT television in the world on top of it. Next, I wheeled over an armless desk chair and looked with pride on an entertainment station fit for a hobo. All it needed was some game systems.

The first console my family purchased was an Atari 2600. This was back in the ’80s, and even though I don’t retain many clear memories until around the time Ducktales was on TV (the early ’90s), I remember enjoying games like Vanguard, Tutankhamun, Missile Command, Yar’s Revenge, and Frogger. But since the Atari was rightfully owned by my older brother, he took it with him when he moved out.

Next we got a Nintendo, the system that won my heart and set me on a path to lifelong gamerdom (and probably obesity). The NES was my family’s main system through the Ducktales era, so I have far more fond memories of playing classic Nintendo games than I can put down here. Suffice it to say that I still remember the special powers of all the animal buddies in Little Nemo: The Dream Master, and to this day the Bubble Bobble theme song pops into my head at random times. Unfortunately, the NES was well on its way toward crapping out when we sold it in a garage sale about 15 years ago.

Several years later, I played Super Mario World at my buddy’s house and knew with absolute certainty that I had to have a Super Nintendo of my own. So I saved up my paper route money and bought one, despite my dad’s complaints that I should buy American-made products. Since the Japanese invasion hasn’t happened yet, I’ll call it a good move. Between Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country, Super Metroid, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, Super Castlevania IV, Street Fighter II, Super Mario Kart, Super Punch Out, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and the Final Fantasies, the SNES is probably MY FAVORITE GAMING SYSTEM OF ALL TIME. (Congrats, SNES–you get a ribbon).

After the 16-bit era, I, along with many others, gave up on Nintendo to enter the wonderful world of CD gaming with the Sony PlayStation. This would turn out to be a mostly ho-hum system with only a handful of stand-out games, but of course I didn’t know that at the time. I suspect the reason it never blasted into the stratosphere of awesomeness is because developers were still figuring out how to put one polygon next to another to create fun 3-D worlds full of exciting 3-D action. Still, the console that brought us Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Street Fighter: The Movie can’t be all bad. (Just kidding about that last one).

I must have liked the PlayStation well enough at the time, though, because I bought a PlayStation 2 the day it was released. This turned out to be a terrific system, one I still played occasionally for years after getting my Xbox 360. And while we’re on the subject of current-gen systems, I’ll note that I’ve since ended up with a PS3 and a Wii as well. Also, I’m a huge fan of the Nintendo DS and, of course, iOS devices.

If you weren’t taking notes, the gaming systems I still have in my possession are the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, and PlayStation 2. And since the PS2 is backwards-compatible with PS1 games, the systems I set up in my basement gaming station are the SNES and PS2. Also, somewhere along the way I ended up with a hacked Xbox that has every NES and Genesis game on it, so I set that up down there, too.

My goal was to create a space to replay the games I love–the Castlevanias, Zeldas, Marios, Metal Gear Solids, Jak and Daxters, and the like–as well as to finally play the games for those systems I’ve bought but never finished. And it turned out to be just as awesome as I’d hoped–except for one thing: I’ve learned that spending any significant amount of time near a litter box is a bad, bad idea.

Nowadays, when my wife comes home from work, I can often be found down in the basement, in front of a 24-inch CRT television, clacking away at an SNES or PS2 controller, while my current generation systems gather dust underneath a 52-inch LCD television upstairs.

And as for the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii games I’ve bought but haven’t gotten around to yet? I’m sure I’ll find time for them in, oh, 10 years or so.