E3 Video: Xbox SmartGlass

CNet has captured Microsoft’s “SmartGlass” portion of their press conference earlier today at E3. In a nutshell, Microsoft wants to extend the Xbox connectivity to your smart phone or tablet and it doesn’t look half bad.

From bloody sock to bloody balance sheets: Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios goes under

Gaming websites and the Providence Journal are reporting today that Rhode Island-based 38 Studios has today laid off all employees, as well as those of its Maryland-based subsidiary Big Huge Games.

The Rhode Island studio’s only release was this year’s Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a fantasy RPG. The studio may be best known however, for the jock-nerd partnership among its “visionaries” (38 Studios’ term) of former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, comic book artist Todd McFarlane and game designer Ken Rolston.

Big Huge Games was probably best known for “Rise of Nations,” a highly-regarded 2003 PC strategy game.

As of today’s developments, 38 Studios will now likely be remembered for the ill-fated financial incentives Rhode Island officials used to entice the game developer from neighboring Massachusetts.

From Polygon:

The news came as a surprise to nearly everyone involved, including
the state of Rhode Island and Governor Lincoln Chafee who during an
afternoon press conference said that as of this morning they hadn’t
heard a word about possible layoffs or a closure.

During the evening press conference Chafee attributed the sudden
studio closure and financial plummet to their fist game: Age of Amalur:
Reckoning, which he said “failed.”

“The game failed,” he said. “The game failed. That was integral to the success of the company.”

He told reporters that experts told them it would have had to sell 3
million copies to break even. Schilling has said that the game sold
about 1.2 million copies in its first 90 days.

“Companies fail over night,” Chafee said, in response to a question about the sudden closure.

The studio’s financial turmoil first came to light earlier this month
when they first missed and then later made a $1.125 million payment to
the state of Rhode Island.

The studio’s failure could result in the Ocean State now owning the Kingdom of Amalur IP, which our reviewer happened to think has a lot of potential, at least from a player’s perspective.

But Joystiq reports the IP rights may be only worth $20 million, and 38 Studios owes some $50 million to Rhode Island taxpayers.

As of this posting, there’s no statement on 38 Studios’ website regarding the layoffs. The company’s most recent release is a video showing assets for Project Copernicus, which is reportedly a World of Warcraft-style MMO based on the Amalur universe.

The studio calls Project Copernicus “a world worth saving,” but will the taxpayers of Rhode Island agree?

So maybe Iran’s not going to kill that American game developer after all

The BBC reports today the Iranian government has overturned the death sentence against the Iranian-American game developer who Tehran accuses of being a spy.

Judges had found the verdict against Amir Mirzai Hekmati was “not
complete” and referred his case to an affiliate court, a judiciary
spokesman said.

In January, Mr Hekmati was convicted of “co-operating with a
hostile nation, membership of the CIA and trying to implicate Iran in
terrorism”.

The US has urged Iran to release him.

The Tehran Times published Hekmati’s purported confession, in which he is said to have told Iranian intelligence agents that he worked with Kuma, a games company that produces the free-to-play Kuma/War series. Kuma/War games are based on real-life combat incidents and the series’ developers usually take their inspiration from the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although the most recent Kuma/War mission is based on the death of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi.

The Iranian government has claimed that Hekmati told interrogators that Kuma/War is part of a U.S. propaganda campaign to manipulate public opinion in the Middle East.

The U.S. government has also denied that Hekmati is a spy and had demanded his release.

Whether the Iranian government actually has evidence that he is a spy or is simply holding Hekmati, who has also served in the U.S. Marines, as a captive/bargaining chip during the current international tensions between the United States and Iran remains to be seen.

President Obama is today scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss what strategies, which could include actual military options, may be employed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. 

(Via Kotaku)

Hitting the pause button on SOPA and PIPA

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Thousands of sites on Wednesday went dark in protest over the controversial and broad nature of SOPA and PIPA, the anti-piracy bills that are being considered in Congress, bringing awareness to millions of web surfers. Just take a look at this Twitter account scanning through the complaints about Wikipedia’s blackout to get a general idea of how many homework assignments went unfinished (there’s some frank language in there, so tread carefully).

Both bills have been critically debated by many within the tech industry over the dangers that the incredibly broad nature of the powers they propose to use against illegal sites hosting pirated material inherently have.

Imagine shutting down a street because someone decided to paint their house with something obscene, and you’ll get the gist of just how broad those powers could be. Never mind that you buy your groceries at a corner store on the same street. That’s just too bad.

Now it looks like the doubts that many have had over both has finally earned some action on Capitol Hill. Or rather, inaction.

According to Reuters, both the Senate and the House of Representatives had decided to delay a critical vote on the bills scheduled for the 24th for the foreseeable future. SOPA and PIPA aren’t dead, but it’s clear that Wednesday had been a wake up call for many of the bill’s supporters…some of whom have withdrawn their support.

And according to ProPublica’s Nerd Blog, opposition in Congress surged following Wednesday’s blackout as you can see in the image above. That number includes a few of the co-sponsors for bills.

Everyone sees eye to eye that there’s clearly a need to deal with piracy. But it’s just as clear that passing legislation with deep, and potentially devastating, flaws is not the way to do it.

Reports: Iran sentences American games developer to death for alleged espionage

This is a rare serious post on Tech-Out, but the most important story in gaming this week is not about the experience of playing games, but the Iranian government sentencing American game designer Amir Mizraei Hekmati to death for espionage.

From GamaSutra, via GiantBomb:

After the former U.S. Marine was detained while visiting Iran in August
(supposedly to visit family), local daily newspaper Tehran Times published excerpts from a purported confession
in which Hekmati admitted to helping create games designed to
“manipulate public opinion in the Middle East” at New York City-based
developer Kuma Reality Games, under the CIA’s direction and payroll.

Hekmati allegedly said, “[Kuma] was receiving money from the CIA to
(produce) and design and distribute for free special movies and games
with the aim of manipulating public opinion in the Middle East. The goal
of the company in question was to convince the people of Iran and the
people of the entire world that whatever the U.S. does in other
countries is a good measure.”

The U.S. government denies Hekmati worked for the CIA and condemned the Iranian government’s actions. From the Associated Press.

The State Department called them a “complete fabrication,” and White
House spokesman Tommy Vietor added that “allegations that Mr. Hekmati
either worked for or was sent to Iran by the CIA are false.”

“The
Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies,
of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent Americans for
political reasons,” Vietor said in a statement.

Kuma Reality Games has published its Kuma War series of war-themed games since February 2004. The free-to-download games are presented as episodes, most frequently from real conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The series debuted with a two-part episode intended to recreate the death of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay Hussein, in the early aftermath of the American-led invasion of Iraq.

The series’ most recent episodes feature the deaths of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and al Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Most of the playable missions listed on Kuma’s website are based on actual U.S. engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Mission 58, “Assault on Iran” is an attempt to create what Kuma describes as a plausible scenario for a Special Forces strike aimed at neutralizing Iran’s nuclear capability.

Kuma’s mission descriptions are undeniably pro-American, but that of course is no evidence that Hekmati committed espionage or that Kuma Reality Games is a CIA front. Kuma head Keith Halper did, however, tell Kotaku.com that the company has produced training software for the military.

I honestly wouldn’t be shocked if the CIA tried to use games to influence popular opinion, but it seems like a waste of taxpayer dollars when the makers of the Call of Duty and Battlefield series are spending millions on games that show the U.S. military in a positive light. That bit of semi-paranoia out of the way, I have a harder time believing the Iranian government and Hekmati’s purported “confession.”

My guess is that the Iranian government won’t really execute Hekmati, and that his trial and imprisonment is just one big show amidst the current diplomatic crisis between Iran and the United States. That prediction, of course, depends on whether or not the U.S. and Iranian navies end up shooting at each other in the Straits of Hormuz.

Extensive coverage on Steve Jobs’ retirement

Check out the San Jose Mercury News for extensive coverage on Steve Jobs’ retirement and what it means for Apple, the company he led.

The Mercury News is a sister paper to my employers, The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and The Sun, and they do a great job covering Silicon Valley and tech.

Apple’s stock is down a bit in Thursday morning’s trading, but I don’t expect the company to suffer with Jobs no longer as the company’s CEO. Apple created a market for tablet computers and if Hewlett-Packard’s decision to abandon the PC market is any indication, there’s a strong chance that tablets will replace PCs and laptops for many households wthin the next few years. Jobs also still has a role as chairman of the board and his hand-picked successor, Tim Cook, is Apple’s new chief.

From the Mercury News:

Analysts say Jobs, who
stepped away in January from day-to-day management to take his third
medical leave in a decade, assembled a strong management team to execute the Cupertino company’s strategy.

“That
magic won’t go away overnight,” said Richard Doherty with the
Envisioneering Group. The company’s products “not only have his
fingerprints on them, they have his DNA.

This may be the closest we get to a real-life Bioshock

“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?”

Readers who have played Bioshock will remember Rapture, the underwater city built as a Randian utopia where its fictional residents sought freedom from society’s constraints against such things as using “plasmids” to modify one’s genetic structure in order to shoot hornets from one’s hands.

I have yet to see reports of plasmid research, but the idea of creating a new society in the ocean is reportedly a real one. The Lookout, via Details, reports Paypal founder Peter Thiel has given $1.25 million to “an initiative to create floating libertarian countries in international waters.”

Thiel has been a big backer of the Seasteading Institute, which seeks to build sovereign nations on oil rig-like platforms to occupy waters
beyond the reach of law-of-the-sea treaties. The idea is for these
countries to start from scratch–free from the laws, regulations, and
moral codes of any existing place. Details says the experiment would be
“a kind of floating petri dish for implementing policies that
libertarians, stymied by indifference at the voting booths, have been
unable to advance: no welfare, looser building codes, no minimum wage,
and few restrictions on weapons.”

Readers who have played Bioshock know that Rapture’s inhabitants ended up killing each other and challenging players’ notions on whether the concept of “free will” can exist, at least as it relates to the way video games can present players with the illusions of moral choice.

I can’t say whether any future seasteaders will face such grisly ends, but I will say that I’m not sure if I like the idea of looser building codes within an ocean-built city, but what do I know?

Here is the Seasteading Society’s perspective:

The vision of seasteading is an urgent one. We can already see that
existing political systems are straining to cope with the realities of
the 21st century. We need to create the next generation of
governance: banking systems to better handle the inevitable financial
crises, medical regulations that protect people without retarding
innovation, and democracies that ensure our representatives truly represent us.

Seasteaders believe that government shouldn’t be like the cell phone
carrier industry, with few choices and high customer-lock-in. Instead,
we envision a vibrant startup sector for government, with many small
groups experimenting with innovative ideas as they compete to serve
their citizens’ needs better.

Currently, it is very difficult to experiment with alternative social
systems on a small scale; countries are so enormous that it is hard for
an individual to make much difference. The world needs a place where
those who wish to experiment with building new societies can go to test
out their ideas. All land is already claimed — which makes the oceans
humanity’s next frontier.

You know what? Plasmids are not real. (I think). I want to see what happens. Go for it, Mr. Thiel.

Violent games: Read the Daily Bulletin article

I was on furlough/vacation when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association.

The 7-2 ruling affirmed video games enjoy the same First Amendment protections as cinema, literature and theater while overturning a California law that banned the sale of violent video games to minors.

Inland Valley Daily Bulletin colleague Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino wrote the following article on the court’s ruling. Her piece first published on www.dailybulletin.com on June 27. Read it after the jump.

Continue reading

Student at San Bernardino art school wins Sony scholarship

Alicia Crawford, a young woman from La Quinta who attends Art Institute of California, won a $10,000 scholarship from Sony Online Entertainment, the company announced.

Crawford is the fourth winner of Sony’s Gamers in Real Life (AKA G.I.R.L.) scholarship. The prize comes with $10,000 and a 10-week internship at Sony Online Entertainment’s headquarters in San Diego where she will be assigned to the company’s Free Realms team.

The scholarship, Sony says, is intended to help young women get into the gaming profession. Free Realms, a free-roaming online game targeted at child players.

Crawford won the scholarship with these art submissions, inspired by Everquest II.

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Film critic wants to show video games’ influence at LACMA film series

Former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell says in an interview with film site Indie Wire that he would like to see videogame developers present their work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Mitchell is new curator for the Film Independent/Los Angeles County Museum of Art

That said, Mitchell’s interests lie in expanding, if not redefining,
what it might mean to see a movie at an art museum. “I’d love to get in
the people who make videogames (like) ‘LA Noire,’ ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ he
said. “You can’t go to movies and not see the influence of those games.
I want to expand and not ignore the late 20th-century additions to
filmed entertainment.”

That also could include television. “For kids under 25, there is no
line of demarcation anymore,” he said. “There’s not that kind of
snobbery.”

Personally, I think movies have had a greater influence on those games than the other way around. “L.A. Confidential,” one of my favorite movies, obviously influenced L.A. Noire and Grand Theft Auto IV players will remember an obvious homage to the famous bank robbery scene from “Heat.”

That out of the way, Mitchell’s idea sounds like a decent attempt to get draw Southern California movie fans and video game players (often the same people, obviously) to the museum. I like forward to hearing more about LACMA’s plans to exhibit games alongside cinema.

(Indie Wire, via L.A. Observed.)