Monthly Archives: November 2007

Big Numbers: A Marketing Challenge

One of the biggest problems we have in doing ComicBase (or for that matter, Atomic Avenue) is trying to make big numbers meaningful. It’s the downside of running the biggest, baddest comic book database in town—at some point, you start to feel like you’re just babbling when you try to convey the sheer amount of information involved, or how much it’s grown from year to year.

For instance, ComicBase 1.0 contained some 20,000 issues from 297 titles—all the issues from every title I owned at least one copy of at the time. For the past fifteen years, we’ve worked tirelessly to add to the database, both in scope and in the amount of detail on each issue. First, it was hundreds of titles and a few thousand issues per version. Then it was thousands of titles and tens of thousands of issues per version. Within a few years, ComicBase had become the largest database of comics ever published, but we kept right on adding issues (and adding more detail to each issue as well). But how to put a face on this?

ComicBase 12 just added some 25,000 new issues (for a total of over 325,000!), and involved changes and updates to over 100,000 more—all since the previous year. It sure sounds like a lot (and it was!) but what if we’d settled for doing half the work: say, adding just 12,500 new issues, or making “only” 50,000 updates? Without some sort of context it all just seems like a bunch of large numbers are being thrown around, and there’s really no additional sales appeal conveyed by all our extra effort.

One place where I think we’ve done a reasonable job of it is on Atomic Avenue where, as I write this, some 610,000 comics are available for sale. The relevant comparison is that it’s almost seven times the number of comics available in all of eBay’s auctions, combined. Here, at least, it seems easy for folks to figure out that if you’re looking for a comic—any comic—there’s an awfully good chance you not only can find it on Atomic Avenue, but you’re likely multiple copies for sale in whatever condition you need (and you’ll also experience a lot less hassle in the process!)

But we could really use your help: What comparisons would you suggest if we wanted to talk about, say, the addition of another 15,000 cover images to the Archive Edition (for a total of over 200,000)? Is it meaningful to say things like, “It’s like discovering 75 long boxes full of comics that you’ve never set eyes on before!” or “If you looked at each comic in ComicBase 12 Archive Edition for just 10 seconds each, you’d need to spend over 277 hours to view them all!” Anyone got something more punchy or vivid?

Rock Band!

Rock Band

Guitar Hero is unquestionably one of the best games I’ve ever played, and Neil and I have anxiously awaited each follow-up. My favorite part is the cooperative two-player version introduced with Guitar Hero II which allows one of us to play bass while the other plays the guitar line. This Christmas, however, EA’s upped the ante and released the video game version of crack for the music-loving set with the most painfully addictive game in years. It’s called Rock Band, and it’s a four-person music game where you and your friends can form your own band using guitar, bass, drums, and vocals.

The set currently only comes as a $169 bundle which includes the game, a guitar controller, a microphone (which doubles as a cowbell/tambourine during non-singing parts of songs), and a 4-pad (+ kick) drum controller. They even throw in a pair of drumsticks for good measure. Inexplicably, individual instruments have been announced for sale, but won’t actually ship for a couple of months. Therein lies my greatest source of woe with the game—more on this in a bit.

If you’ve ever been in a garage band, the process of clearing away the sofas and setting up your drums and guitars in the middle of someone’s living room (generally the band member with the most tolerant wife/girlfriend/parents) will be frighteningly familiar. As the game begins, you name the band, set up your online avatars from a number of basic “types”, then start rocking your way through tunes like Radiohead’s “Creep” or Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen”. Some 58 songs are included in all, and you can download new ones from the Rock Band online store.

You start out doing tiny coffee house gigs, and slowly work your way up to larger venues as you attract fans. Our band, “The Quadratics” (featuring ace guitarist Neil, vocalist Carolyn, and me on drums), had its big moment when we won a 1967 van in an early level, allowing us to travel to different cities. The game itself features venues inspired by real locations in any number of places, including New York, Chicago, London, Berlin, and our own San Francisco. Each successful gig can earn your band more fans, as well as a bit of much-needed cash which you can use to equip yourselves with clothes, instruments, and accessories. (For our part, Neil and I bought our virtual selves new T-shirts, then let lead singer Carolyn blow the rest of the band’s cash on a bitchin’ new hairdo and clothes. This part is also frighteningly like being in a real band).

We spent a crazy evening our first night with the game, with Carolyn thrashing it out until she nearly lost her voice. It was some of the most fun I’ve had playing a video game, and compared favorably with at least half the times I’ve had playing in real bands. We even fell into all the old rock habits including Lead Singer Grandstanding, Constant Drummer Fiddling, and gymnastics as we hit the Big Rock Ending on some of the songs. When your band’s cooking along, you can easily get lost in the whole groove, and you even get a chance to devise your own riffs and solos at various points in the game, mimicking nicely the balance between script and improvisation that’s at the heart of playing live music (albeit without the degree of freedom—or difficulty—that real instruments have).

We were all revved up to go at it again two nights later, and both Carolyn and I were ready to take it up a notch on the respective difficulty levels of our instruments—a critical prerequisite to gaining more “fans” as your band works its way through the game. For me, the hardest part was making the bridge between the “real ”drum part, and the part the game expected: on medium, it’s pretty clear you’re really playing the skeleton of the real drum part, laying down the basic beat (sometimes at cut time). When I switched to “hard”, it got really confusing, however, as the drum part was quite close—but not quite the same—as the beat I’d play if I were playing the song for real. For instance, on “Blitzkrieg Bop”, the arm parts (tom/snare/hi-hat) were almost exactly what you’d expect, but the kick drum part had only the downbeat. It was like having to learn a new, “dub” version of the punk song, which was a bit of a challenge, but still fun. I’d get into trouble, however, when I’d let my concentration lapse and my right foot would slide into playing the “real” kick drum part, causing my score to plummet or even fail me out of the game.

We’d managed to slog our way through “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden when I started to realize that my I wasn’t just getting into trouble for misreading the drum part. My yellow drum pad, which is most frequently used for hi-hat parts, had started to trigger only periodically, and soon stopped triggering at all. Since most rock songs call for a steady 8th or 16th-note pattern on the hi-hat, this meant that I was soon failing automatically on every song.

This brings me to the biggest heartbreak of Rock Band: the instruments. The message boards are full of tales of problems triggering the strum on the guitar controller, as well as periodic problems with the sensors on the drum controller. The lack of individually-purchasable instruments means that spares can’t be obtained without buying the entire kit again (itself an impossibility, since it’s sold out everywhere). EA has a fairly efficient RMA system in place, and will cross ship you a replacement instrument using 2-day shipping, but as I write this, the replacement has not yet arrived. Presumably, they’re either short on instruments at EA central, or are overwhelmed with the sheer demand for replacement instruments.

The other problem is that, despite assurances made before the game shipped, on the Playstation 3, neither the Rock Band guitar controller works with Guitar Hero III, nor does the Guitar Hero III controller work with Rock Band. (Apparently the Xbox 360 situation is a little less bleak in this regard). This means that it’s currently impossible to set up a 4-piece band on the Playstation 3, since the kit only comes with one guitar, and no third-party replacements exist. Not surprisingly, there’s a growing list of Rock Band games for sale on eBay with every instrument except the guitar—that one presumably having been spirited away to act as a bass guitar for a different set, or as a replacement for a failing guitar controller. It’s madness, but the game is so addictive that I’ve seriously considered buying a second set myself just so I could scoop the guitar and sell off the rest on eBay. But even that isn’t an option, since the entire set is sold out everywhere.

Argh! Such a good game! And so maddeningly frustrating! I know the situation will be worked out in the months ahead, but the waiting—for both a replacement drum kit and the chance to get a second guitar to use for bass—is killing me.

Any of you EA guys able to hook me up? We have a big office Christmas/Rock Band party coming up, and I’ll bet we could help you out on the comic software front (hint! hint!)

Best “It Shipped” Notice, Ever

From a recent purchase I made at Despair, Inc:

Again, thanks for your recent order from Despair, Inc.

If you have received this email, it means that your credit card information proved valid and that your order has been sent. You might assume now that we have your money that you’re in for better treatment. You might also assume that if you try really hard, you will succeed. But your assumptions would, in both cases, be completely wrong.

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Tech Purchases of Yesteryear

When I pulled down the Christmas decorations from the attic this weekend, I noticed that we’ve actually been in our house long enough that some of the file boxes we’d put up with “destroy by…” dates seven years in the future had actually come due. “What the heck” I thought, “Let’s do some shredding!”

Let me tell you now: the process of feeding old financial records into a shredder for hours on end does not a heartwarming trip down memory lane make. (Mostly it just made me think, “Jeez, have I ever blown a lot of money on stuff over the years!”) There were a couple of nice surprises when I found registration cards from customers of ComicBase 1.0 who said kind things about us—and it was even better when I realized that the name on the top of the card was still a customer over a decade later. The other highlight was coming across the source code for an online D&D game I wrote for a CDC Cyber mainframe back in high school, as well as a BBS system I wrote during a college summer I spent working in Michigan for Dow. There was even the manual for a quiz-making program: my first professional programming gig—for the TI 99/4A computer. All of these got spared the shredder’s wrath.

Not so lucky were the countless receipts for tech items and office equipment. Mostly these just served as a vivid reminder of the relentless march of progress, and how much cheaper and better computers have gotten over the years. I knew it was bad, but some of the receipts were almost physically painful to read, like the first time I bought a hard drive with more than 1 GB of space—for a mere $1,300. The $419 I apparently spent for a 9600 baud Hayes Smartmodem (circa the time ComicBase 1 was written) also hurt.

I was also shocked to see that the first CD-R drive I bought: a crazy-fast 2X model with a drive caddy for loading disks, cost exactly as much ($999.95) as the crazy-overpriced Blu-ray burning drive we bought last year so we could ship ComicBase Archive Blu-ray Edition and claim eternal bragging rights as the first PC software shipped on Blu-ray. A little over a decade earlier, we were one of the earlier—but nowhere near the first—software to actually fill up a CD with all of our picture and movie content for ComicBase 1.3.

At the same time, I noticed that the prices I’ve been paying for electricity, paper, inkjet cartridges, insurance, and so on really seemed quite similar to what I pay now. Sadly, so is my cell phone bill, although it now covers two phones instead of one, and I can’t think of the last time I had to stare nervously over my statement wondering if I’d gone over my allotted minutes and ended up paying outrageous “overage” fees. And yes, about 1/4 of my cell bill today is still a laundry list of indecipherable fees, taxes, and surcharges, just like it was ten years ago.

Sigh. Cue the pretentious French saying about the whole “the more things change…” thing, I guess…

A Very Good Week

This has been a really strange fall for me, with everything from a root canal to a car crash to a crushing workload to termites to the loss of a dear friend. It’s with some relief then, that I gotta say that this was a Really Good Week.

It was a week where everything seemed to come together: business has been good (I even got about two dozen orders of my own on Atomic Avenue in the just the past four days: thank you, free shipping option!), we had a great visit with my folks who had come out for Kelly’s birthday, and I finally got a chance to unbox my Playstation 3 and play Guitar Hero 3 with Neil (who’s currently cleaning my clock. Dang, he’s getting good!).

Speaking of which: the PS3 has really been a pleasant surprise. I’d loved the idea of the PS3 when I first saw the tech demo from E3 two years ago, but frankly the price and lack of compelling games put me off. When the price finally dropped to $399 recently, I finally decided it was time to finally make the move to a next gen console. Having cashed in every Amazon gift certificate I’d ever hoarded over the years and more, I’ll admit I was so afraid of being disappointed that I let the box sit unopened on our conference table for almost two weeks before I took it home to play with it.

I had to pick up a couple of cables at the local Fry’s in order to get it hooked up properly, but I have to say I’ve been surprised how really nice a console it is. The graphics are astonishing, the OS hints at some amazing possibilities (it supports printers for goodness sake!), and the networking is first rate. Best yet, I got a chance to look at the included Spider-Man 3 Blu-ray movie and the picture quality absolutely blew me away—even at the measely 720p my lashed-together projector system will support. The movie looked as good or better as when I saw it in the theater.

Later on, I got a chance to try out Resistance: Fall of Man (a beautifully executed Sci-fi/FPS game), as well as bust open the Guitar Hero 3 that just arrived. Both have been a ton of fun, and I can’t wait to try out Rock Band on it (although I fear Kelly will want to hog the drums).

In other miracles: I actually got word that State Farm (the foks who insured the truck that obliterated my VW Golf almost three months ago) are actually getting ready to wrap things up on the claim. (I don’t blame State Farm in particular, but getting rear-ended in a multi-car crash with about six separate insurance companies involved made for a heck of a delay in getting anything settled). It’s a real relief to not be looking forward to another week of calling insurance companies… (knock wood!)

Happy thanksgiving!

The Windows XP Upgrade

Several months ago, I got a fast new computer (officially so that I could do compiles of ComicBase in record time, but my old machine’s pitiful five-FPS Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter performance may also have had something to do me deciding it was time to upgrade). All things considered, my new machine was a pretty good box, complete with tons of memory, a fast processor, dual 500 GB drives, etc.And Windows Vista Ultimate Edition.

That last feature of my new system was installed out of equal parts convenience (it was easlier to get the necessary drivers installed to make the system recognize my RAID array without the ridiculous “F6/floppy drive” ritual), and a techno-lusting spirit of “embrace the future!” After all, we’d already set up a Vista testbed for ComicBase, and I was using Vista on my laptop without (much) trouble. It seemed time to make the switch and get used to using Vista on a daily basis on my main development machine.

But after four months with the new machine, I’ve taken the plunge and upgraded its OS again… to Windows XP.

I miss the pretty buttons and window borders from Windows Vista, but I have to say that everything else about my computing experience is noticeably better. It’s easier to get to files I want, the system doesn’t constantly prod me to click a button to continue every time I want to change a system setting, and everything’s faster—a lot faster in the case of VB 6, (the programming environment ComicBase is largely written in).

I know as well as anyone that the cause for Vista’s huge slowdowns in Visual Studio are probably an amalgam of older software running on a newer OS, lack of optimizations for various included development tools, etc., and some of this will indeed get worked out over time. But when you work in a given tool (VB) all day long, being able to go from 4 minute compiles to 25 second compiles—along with a complete lack of inexplicable 1-2 minute delays that Vista would insert into the development process whenever a new report was opened or accessed—is the difference between leading a relatively happy existence, and wanting to lay open your veins with a dull razor blade.

Although the months I ran Windows Vista on my main machine were enough to get me accustomed to it, there were few areas where it really shone. More and more, it seems, it’s being compared to the ill-fated Windows Me, and I do see the point. The difference, however, is that Windows Me was actually a (small) step in the right direction from the venerable (but frankly, awful) Windows 98, and didn’t pose as huge of a burden on users and developers in terms of incompatibilities and learning curve. It was a mild waste of everyone’s money, but not actually worse than what came before.

Windows Vista, on the other hand, is a huge effort by Microsoft to move forward in terms of the underlying structure of Windows, with changes to virtually every aspect of the system. Unfortunately, it comes at a very high cost, both in terms of the OS itself ($399 for the Ultimate Edition[!]), its learning curve, and in incompatibilities for both hardware and software. Even as developers, we had to work our butts off to make sure ComicBase ran properly under Vista, making the sort of core changes to the code that were never part of any previous OS compatibility release. It’s a big change.

But what is there about Vista that justifies the cost and effort? A few desirable features to be sure, and a bit of welcome eye candy, but nothing which even a gadget-fiend like myself can really get excited about. Perhaps most damningly, I’d have to say that for my needs and style of use, the interface is pretty fair step backwards. It looks nice, but it requires much more clicking about to accomplish a given task such as changing an IP address on my network connection, or getting to a commonly used folder. Revised interfaces should make tasks—especially common tasks—easier. Too often Vista feels like a bike with the training wheels welded to the frame.

But, as they say, your mileage may vary, and I’m sure there are folks out there that are really enjoying Windows Vista. More to the point, it’s the way Microsoft is going, so most of us are going to end up with Windows Vista on our new computers whether we wanted it that way or not. It’ll come pre-installed. Undoubtedly, service packs and patches will go some way toward alleviating its many annoyances, and the driver and software compatibility situation is bound to improve over time. But for me, I’m shocked to find myself temporarily in the Luddite camp, working smoothly with what I fondly refer to as, “the first Microsoft operating system I don’t actively despise” — Windows XP Professional.

It’s been a nice upgrade from my old OS.