Wednesday, January 16, 2008

10 Years Ago Today

It was this night, ten years ago, that I first logged onto Ultima Online. I had no idea what I was doing - no clue what shards were, no idea that there were playerkillers about - nothing, except that it was an online Ultima.

I created my first character, Ruffie, on the Great Lakes shard in Vesper. I decided to follow the road, as indicated on the cloth map, to Britain. About the spot where the road turns north of Cove, I saw a player named Falcirn in his house and walked up to the door to talk to him.

From my garb, he could tell I was a newbie, and told me how dangerous it was for me to be walking out there all alone. He was kind enough to escort me the rest of the way to Britain, telling me about the game all the way.

When we got to the city, I was amazed by the hustle and bustle of it all. Scores of players doing all sorts of things. We passed the blacksmith shop first, and I listened to the conversations that were taking place, about the pros and cons of certain weapons.

The we got to the bank. I stood in awe as I realized that each of the many people I saw going about their business was a real person, at their computers, all over the country. It was simply a mind-boggling feeling at the time, that such a thing was possible.

Falcirn showed me to the warrior's guild, where there were training dummies, and showed me how to work my swordsmanship skills. I thanked him as he left for all his help, and promised to look for him back at his house again. I hung around there for awhile, taking turns on the dummies. At one point, I was so overcome with the amazement of being in an online virtual world that I sang the Thermos Song from the Steve Martin movie "The Jerk":

I'm picking out a thermos for you,
Not an ordinary thermos for you,
But the extra best thermos you can buy
With vinyl, and stripes, and a cup built right in

I'm picking out a thermos for you,
And maybe a barometer, too
And what else can I buy so on me you'll rely?
A rear-end thermometer, too

And sure enough, several other players joined in as I sang. Here we were, all strangers in a strange land, but we had at some point in our seperate lives all seen that movie, and remembered that silly ass song.

I never saw Falcirn again, though, as the next day I logged onto the Atlantic shard, because I didn't know what shards were and just picked the one off the top of the list. I re-created my character, Ruffie, and started over. By the time I learned about shards, the Atlantic Ruffie was better developed than the Great Lakes one, so I made Atlantic my home, and I never saw Falcirn again.

Tonight I logged onto the Great Lakes Ruffie, still there, just as I left him, back in Vesper. I had checked him out once or twice over the last decade, probably to do some cross-shard trading around a holiday. I again walked Ruffie from Vesper to Britain and sang the Thermos Song at the warrior's guild. Falcirn's house was long gone, and the only players I saw were a few factioneers near the entrance to Castle British, and a red sitting on the roof of the bank.

You can't go back, but 10 years later I cannot deny the impact that Ultima Online has had on my life. Why do I still play? Partly out of nostalgia for how things were, partly out of hope that someone will bring some vision to the game that will turn everything around, and partly because whatever happens, watching the game's development has been an absolutely fascinating spectacle that, after ten years, shows no signs of letting up.

I hope that, in ten years's time, I'm writing a blog entry about my twentieth year in Ultima Online. I will sing the Thermos Song again.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Jason "Stormwind" Spangler No Longer on UO

Ultima Online has apparently lost its most secretive and enduring team member, Jason "Stormwind" Spangler, to BioWare's Austin division, in spite of earlier reports that he was staying with the team after the move to Fairfax, Virginia.

Stormwind, whose long history with Ultima Online I wrote about here, has quietly updated his online resume, with his latest position being listed as "Senior Software Engineer" at Bioware's Austin studio, where he is doing "Server software development on an unannounced product".

Bioware, whose string of gaming hits include the Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars : Knights of the Old Republic, and most recently Mass Effect, was recently assimilated by Electronic Arts in a huge, expensive buyout. Nothing is known about the MMORPG that BioWare is working on, but many have speculated that it is based on their Star Wars : Knights of the Old Republic license.

As expected, there has been no fuzzy goodbye post on Stratics, as Stormwind has been mostly reclusive during his UO tenure, and as yet no mention of his departure has been made by UO's community coordinator Jeremy Dahlberg. I have sent an email to Mr. Spangler asking for details, but I'm not too hopeful for a response.

More details will follow if I get that response, and perhaps after I post on the Stratics UHall and stir things up a bit.

A reply from Jeremy over at Stratics:
Yeah, he's transferred - it was unrelated to the move. It is a heavy loss, but he is still with the company, so if we need his wisdom we can reach him. He's spent the last couple months training people and wrapping up some of the stuff he was best-equipped to handle, so we're not in horrible shape.

Indeed, a heavy loss.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A New Year, A New Look

Middle - Aged Gamer, my online journal of a first generation videogamer's travels through these strange modern times, has begun its second year with a new look. Hope you like it.

I've also begun adding labels to my posts, including the archived posts, so that those readers who only want to see what I've written about Ultima Online can do so, and likewise with the other categories.

Hope you all like it, and stick around for another fun year.

Cinematic Titanic : The Oozing Skull

Last year saw a sort of revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on several fronts. There were the hilarious Rifftrax mp3 commentary tracks available for download, the four Film Crew releases, and the advent of whole episodes of the show popping up on YouTube.

Towards the end of the year it was announced that some of the original members of the cast, and its creators, were banding together to start their own movie - riffing troupe, calling itself Cinematic Titanic. Included in this group are Joel Hodgson, who created the show and hosted it during its first few years on Comedy Central, J. Elvis Weinstein (who played Tom Servo initially), Trace Beaulieu (the original Crow and the mad Dr. Clayton Forrester), Frank Coniff (TV's Frank), and Mary Jo Pehl(Pearl Forrester).

The first disk went on a sort of pre-order around Christmas, and it finally began arriving to rabid fans a few days ago. I got mine on Saturday and Monique and I sat down to watch it right away.

The presentation is in Shadowrama like MST 3K, which means that you see silhouettes of the cast while the movie plays in front of them. Instead of sitting in theater seats, though, the crew of Cinematic Titanic are arranged in tiered scaffolding on the bottom left and right corners. On the left, sitting at the bottom, is Mary Jo Pehl. Seated one tier above her is Joel, and standing (not sitting)above him is J. Elvis Weinstein, holding onto a railing. On the right is a similar arrangement with Frank Coniff seated and Trace Beaulieu standing above him with his own railing.

This works really well, with the two standing cast members using more body movements and sight gags. There are several other surprises as well, including a "cameo" where Dr. Stephen Hawking rolls out into view and states that if the brain transplant happening in the movie works, he's next. So wrong, but so funny.

Instead of the host segments (skits) from MST 3K, the Titanic crew has opted to simply stop the film at times, freezing the frame, and doing various fun things. It works well, as does the five-person team of riffers, and the Oozing Skull turns out to be a movie rife for riffs - evil doctors, an evil little person assistant, a scary-looking big deformed guy, girls tied up in dungeons, and of course the simple fact that the movie was shot in the 1970s.

The best testament I can give to the Oozing Skull is that it was so funny that it was over well before I expected. Right out of the chutes the Cinematic Titanic crew is firing on all cylinders and it feels like MST3K never went away. My only complaint was that I was mailed just a disk, with no DVD case or anything. Of course, I found a fan-made cover and printed it out and put the thing in my own case, but really, for sixteen dollars they could have made one themselves.

It's a minor geek-style complaint, though, and after seeing the Ooozing Skull I'm ready for more. Bring them on, Cinematic Titanic!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

2007 In Review

For me, 2007 was the year of the Wii, and the year I didn't get an XBox 360 because I'm getting married in 2008. The Wii part was the happy story - that and a continuing stream of great Nintendo DS releases. The XBox 360 story is the tragedy, as everyone I know, including a certain person I work with who rubs it in every single fucking day - now has a 360 and gets to play the latest and greatest games of this generation.

Much like the Odyssey 2 a quarter century ago, I'm stuck with the Wii, and am making the best of it through the very sparse schedule of good releases. Wii Sports, The Legend of Zelda : Twilight Princess, Super Paper Mario, Super Mario Galaxy, and Medal of Honor Heroes 2 are the only A-List titles for the system that I got into this year.

So, without further ado, I present my choices for Game of the Year, along with runners - up, as I have done every year since 1981. For more info on this list, follow the link.

Game of the Year : Super Mario Galaxy
Runner - Up: Wii Sports
Runner - Up: Super Paper Mario
Runner - Up: The Legend of Zelda : Phantom Hourglass
Best New Hardware : Nintendo Wii System

2008 is looking to be a great year for me. I'm marrying the woman of my dreams, and by all that's holy I WILL HAVE AN XBOX 360 SHORTLY THEREAFTER. Of course, when we registered for the wedding at Target, I did happen to scan a 360, so I may just get one from a generous relative on that day. Of course, then I'll be off on my honeymoon and a bit too busy to take it along.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

MST3K On My iPod !

So Monique got me an 80 Gig Video Ipod Classic Gizmo for Christmas, which I've been fooling around with ever since. My 1500 or so songs I already had in iTunes hardly put a dent in it, so I turned to video.

I cannot put my DVDs on the damn thing for some reason. Even the DVD of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix I got for Christmas, which included a digital version that I was able to put on my PC, well - that digital version can't go on there either.

Some research on the internet lead me to some shady sites where you can first rip your DVDs, which is illegal of course, then convert them to the iPod movie format, which is MPEG4 or something. I decided that I wasn't ready to venture into those dark arts just yet.

Instead, I found Zamzar, a free online file conversion site, which allows me to convert YouTube movies into that format. I've since begun loading up my iPod with embarassing music videos from the 80s, some Ultima X Odyssey movies (including my own), a full episode of the Boondocks, and a Mystery Science Theater 3000 short.

Pretty cool stuff! I still want to unload my Venture Brothers DVDs on the damn thing, though.