Review: Xbox Media Center

As I mentioned recently, this weekend I built myself an Xbox Media Center to add to my home theater system (know that I use that phrase very loosely).

While the guide I used provides much more detail, essentially there is a weakness in certain Xbox games that allows users to execute their own code. Naturally, a bunch of geeks quickly ported a tiny version of Linux to run on the system. Using Linux, you gain FTP access to your Xbox’s hard drive. From there, you can load in any number of open source interfaces.

I went with the Xbox Media Center, and couldn’t be happier.

What it can do:

  • Stream almost any video/audio/image file from my PC over my network and onto my TV
  • Listen to streaming radio
  • Read and play my iTunes playlists
  • Play DVDs
  • Read daily comic strips
  • Subscribe to any RSS feed, including podcasts
  • Read my Bloglines account
  • Pretty much anything a script written in Python can do.

Of course, there are limitations. What it can’t do:

  • Play DRM-encoded media files
  • Moving backwards in DVD movies doesn’t work very well
  • Record TV
  • Play HD video smoothly (the processor just isn’t fast enough)
  • Play Xbox games on Microsoft’s Live online service

There are a number of less legal add-ons too, mainly focused on pirating games. But I’m honestly not interested in that. If I wanted to, I could even install emulators that let me play older systems’ games. And notably the XBMC system I have installed, even without the illegal add-ons, already out-functions Microsoft’s own version available for the Xbox. For example: Other than Realplayer files, I have yet to find a video format that XBMC will not play. And believe me, I’ve thrown it some oddball examples. Microsoft’s version is limited to a select few.

I am utterly amazed at how well this all works. The net cost to me was about $150 for a used Xbox and assorted other materials (outlined in detail at the guide linked above). For that small price, I’ve moved my consumption of digital material off of my small laptop screen and into my living room.

I highly recommend building an XBMC, and would be happy to answer any questions about it that I can.

How to Fix an Xbox Demo Disc, With Cooking Instructions

Today I finally broke down and preordered Black, an upcoming shooter for the Xbox (and other systems). While there at Electronics Botique, I got talking with an employee about the game – in particular the demo, which I hadn’t had a chance to try.

EB just happened to have an extra copy of the Official Xbox Magazine, with the aforementioned disc included, on hand. The very nice employee threw it into the deal, free of charge.

Only one problem: my Xbox refused to recognize the disc as a game! Not having a receipt for the magazine, I couldn’t take it back and swap for another. Naturally, I turned to Google.

Poking around various gaming forums showed that I was not alone in my problem. Nobody seems to know why, but the OXM demo discs run into this pretty frequently. Luckily, there is a solution: Boil the disc.

Yes, I said boil it. Again nobody seems to know where this advice comes from, but countless forum posters swear by it for fixing demo discs. The running theory is that it removes some sort of finishing layer off of the DVD, allowing the Xbox drive to more clearly read it.

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I set a pot on the stove. I brought some water to a boil, tossed in the disc, and then immediately took the pot off the burner. I let the water cool enough to remove the disc by hand. Patted it dry, and voila! It works!

You may wish to add salt to taste. 🙂

Oh, and the demo is a whole lot of fun. Stunning graphics, especially considering that this is not an Xbox 360 game. Glad I made the purchase, and can’t wait for the full version.

When Movies and Games Meet

James Cameron recently announced plans for the gaming tie-in to his next big sci-fi movie.

In the weeks leading up to the movie’s release a Massively Multiplayer Onling Game will be available, set in the movie’s world.

I know absolutely nothing about the movie (‘Project 880’ for now) itself, but this idea excites me. What better way to get movie-goers involved than to let them be characters?

There’s another brilliant crossover idea in the article, involving a reality show and an online game, but you might as well read the source rather than have me repeat it.

Review: Guitar Hero

Product Image: Guitar Hero
My rating: 5 out of 5

Guitar Hero is not just a game. It is an experience.

My brother Todd purchased this game for himself recently with some Christmas money. He was generous enough to let me rock out with it this week. To the left, you can see him demonstrating how to play.

In case you’re not familiar with Guitar Hero, here’s the basic concept: DDR, but with a guitar instead of a dance pad. The ‘frets’ of the slightly scaled down guitar controller are five brightly colored buttons. For each note or chord the correct combination must be pushed at the same time the ‘strum’ lever is activated with your other hand. A whammy bar comes into play for bonus points.

The concept is all well and good. But as with any rhythm game the song selection is what makes or breaks the idea. Thankfully, developers Red Octane and Harmonix outdid themselves! The song list includes David Bowie, Megadeth, Hendrix, Queen, Black Sabbath, The Ramones, ZZ Top, and many more. Here’s a full song list. I’m particularly addicted to Ziggy Stardust.

The recordings are cover bands, but excellent ones. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear most of them are originals. These Boston-based bands get to shine themselves with original tracks unlockable later in the game. And unlike songs in Dance Dance Revolution, all the game’s tracks are full length. Including bonus songs, there are 47 available to play!

In a nice touch, completing certain note combinations will increase your ‘star power’ meter. Once full, raising the guitar into a vertical position triggers a sensor and your points are doubled for a time. Meanwhile, the crowd goes wild.

Guitar Hero does an amazing job of convincing me that I am indeed a rock star. Unfortunately, I highly doubt my newfound guitar skills would transfer over to the real deal.

Guitar Hero will run you about $80 for the game and one controller. Extra controllers are roughly $40. We haven’t obtained a second axe yet, but hope to be dueling soon. The game is becomming hard to find at some retailers, and as far as I can tell the separate controllers are available only from the game’s official site.

Alas, GH is only available for the PlayStation 2. But, it makes me seriously consider picking up a used system for myself. Yes, it is That Good!

Meanwhile, Todd is heading out of town for a few days while I remain here. More time to hone my skills! Party on, dudes!

Alternate Reality Games – CNet Explains

This made my day.

That link is to a CNet article, focused around an interview with author Sean Stewart, on the topic of Alternate Reality Games. I’ve played two of them now, including Last Call Poker which is mentioned extensively in the article, and often have trouble describing the concept to others. They’re bunches of fun, and amazing community building tools! I won’t try to describe the concept here beyond calling the games a combination of scavenger hunts, social experimentation, puzzle solving, and a whole lot more.

Plus, I’m the librarian mentioned (but not by name) about half way through page 1 🙂
I solved a very cool puzzle on my lunch break one day, using an obscure hymnal stored in our microfiche collection to crack a code.

ARGs are a niche genre, to be sure. But they’re amazingly deep, intelligent, and involving. I’ve made some great friends through the communities to boot. Can’t beat em!

X-Play Vidcast

Despite my general feelings about the G4 network, which is supposedly devoted to video game programming after rising from the premature ashes of TechTV, it still has one show worth watching: X-Play.

X-Play is simply a video game review show. A heavy dose of cheesy (but mostly well done) humor and obscure references help it stand out. The show isn’t perfect, but hosts Adam Sessler and Morgan Webb have helped me discover a game or two that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Despite the outward trappings, the reviews really do identify the cream of the crop pretty accurately. They aren’t afraid to call a game crap if that’s what it is. I’ve really been missing the fact that G4 isn’t part of my cable lineup on Knology just for this one show. Not enough to pay extra for it, but still.

Anyway, to the point. You can now get downloadable vidcasts of their reviews! The show’s official site has a link on the left side to the feed in iTunes as well as generic rss feeds for your app of choice. Each review is nicely segmented into its own file.

This was a great surprise to end my day on.

DDR Advice for Libraries

A number of fellow attendees at Gaming in Libraries were asking me questions about Dance Dance Revolution. What console to get it for, what dance pads, etc. Now I’m not nearly as well versed on the topic as someone like Eli and the other presenters. But, here’s my two cents from the player’s perspective.

For starters, get yourself a Playstation 2. It has the widest variety of DDR games available, and can also play versions designed for the Playstation 1. Each game has a different song set, and after a while you’ll probably want to move on to a new one.

However, do not buy the Playstation 2 off of Ebay or the like. The small bit of money you’ll save is outweighed by the risk of never receiving the system and being unable to verify its condition prior to purchase. If you’re looking to start out low budget, borrow one. Odds are that a library employee, one of their kids, or one of your kids’ friends has one. Explain to the owner of the system what it will be used for, and I’ll bet they’ll be more than willing to help out. Trust me: Nothing lights up an accomplished DDR player’s eyes like the prospect of group play.

If successful, invest in your own new system. They’re $150, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the price drops in the next six months.

Buying used games, though, is probably ok. And in the case of older versions of DDR it may be your only option. Check out your local Electronics Botique or Gamestop and browse their pre-played selection. I’ve never had a problem with a used game not working, and stores usually take them back if there’s a major issue (just be sure to ask before buying).

Lastly, the dance pads. If you really, really need to keep the budget low the first time out, try the $15-$20 foldable pads you’ll find in any video game store. But, I guarantee they will fall apart and/or stop registering steps correctly before long. The next step up are inch-thick foam pads such as this one. $99.99 each. I have this one personally, and like it a lot. But again, eventually they will break down under the pressure of sustained group play.

In the end, for long term use you’ll be best served by the Cobalt Flux hard metal pads that Eli uses. They’re on sale a bit at the moment, $569.99 for two. An investment yes, but it will pay off in the long run. And players will love you for it. Oh, whatever style of pad you decide on – make sure you’re buying it for the correct console.

Hope that helps.

Gaming in Libraries 2005 – Semi-final thoughts

At some point I would like to write up my closing thoughts on Gaming in Libraries. For now, here’s some bits and pieces from the closing speakers’ panel:

These students, coming up with gaming and now with libraries with gaming, will come to universities and will have expectations.

Libraries are a center for community innovation, and always have (or should have) been.
Books are a technology too, just an older one.

Is gaming finally reaching critical mass?

Needham: “the hell with fines” Litclick – This program is a netflix model – books to your door by mail with no due dates. Also, libraries won’t survive on information alone. The advent of viable micropayment systems could blow us apart in the supply chain.

Again, libraries as the ‘third place’. There’s home, work/school, and where else?

Is policy mostly a mechanism for annoyance avoidance?

Not a good idea to repeat the “coming in for videos as a loss leader” methodology? Videos and DVDs were justified in libraries because of course people using them would check out books as well. But, book circ stats have not kept pace with A/V materials’. Gaming in libraries needs to be justified and stand on its own.

If A/V materials are the growth area now, what’s going to happen when direct delivery (via the internet, for example) is king?

Licensing issues – no OCLC Netlibrary titles are allowed on iPods. But, Random House is disaggregating their books. What happens when users can buy books by the page? Convenience will always trump quality. It is our job to make quality convenient.

OK, so things veered away from gaming a bit at the end. But, still very interesting!

I saw wonderful demonstrations of programs this week, and also came away with a much better understanding of the intellectual background and basis for promotion of gaming. Kudos to MLS and all who contributed to the event!

Gaming in Libraries 2005 – What Libraries Can Do for Gamers – Beth Gallaway

When: Tuesday, December 06 2005 02:00 AM
Where: American Dental Association, Chicago
More Information:
My Role: Attendee
Beth gets to close us out as the last speaker!

Seven things you can do tomorrow to make your library more welcoming to gamers:
1. Use games to do readers advisory
2. Be a strategy guide
3. Embrace your inner technogeek
4. Be flexible
5. Plan change
6. Immerse yourself in pop culture… especially video game culture
7. Try some games!

Beth’s library gaming blog:

Reader’s Advisory:
Instead of recommending books based on their recent reads, ask them what movies/tv shows/games they like.
For example, roleplaying and MMORPG games can mean they’d probably enjoy fantasies or Arthurian legends. Historical simulations like Civilization or Oregon Trail might lead to biographies, historical fiction, mythology, etc. Sports games mean sports books or maybe even statistics. Strategy/puzzles can point at mysteries or puzzle books. First person shooters can mean military fiction, sci-fi, etc. Players of simulations like The Sims might enjoy romances or sociology or architecture. Japanese Manga and Anime can be recommended to Katamari Damacy, Fainal Fantasy players or Pokemon. You get the idea!

(Lots of audience suggestions and questions here, most of which I’ve touched on elsewhere.)
Also there’s a list of gaming-related books suggested for Librarians to read. I see Chris typing it up, and its somewhat long, so go check his site out 🙂

Even at a pre-school level, boys are attracted to the games.

Be a Strategy Guide:
-Don’t be a level boss
-Show, don’t tell
-Make it interactive
-Get them started
-have a free-for-all
-Ask for a demo of expertise from teenagers
-Be open minded

Embrace your inner technogeek:
-Upgrade (via grant money?)
-Get a screen name
-You can’t break it – just try the new tech!
-Pilot projects
-Read tech news

Be Flexible:
-Change the space – reorganize, new posters, etc.
-Flexible furnishings
-Say yes – it is good to help customers/patrons do what they want, within rules of course
-Go meta – deal with both small details and the broader picture
-Customize – create a library toolbar? RSS feeds? etc.

Plan Change:
-‘Sticky’ content – Periodically updated pages (ex: blogs) that users like to check for new material
-Accept change – Perhaps the hardest item here

Immerse yourself in pop culture:
-Know what’s hot/what’s not
-Pop goes the library
-Know about crossovers (Doom, the movie, or music/soundtracks from games, books based on games, etc.)
-Video game culture – RedvsBlue, Penny Arcade, PvP, etc. Pay attention to the game kiosks at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. Lurk around and see what kids are playing.

What services from games can libraries adopt?
-Free services – chat, music, articles, movies, games
-Home delivery/online content delivery
-Social bookmarking or tagging within the library catalog
-Nonjudgement from librarians
-Avatars / immersive library tutorials
-Food – we eat at our computers

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Gaming in Libraries 2005 – Kelly Czarnecki, Matt Gullett – Supporting a Culture

When: Tuesday, December 06 2005 01:00 PM
Where: American Dental Association, Chicago
More Information:
My Role: Attendee
Supporting a Culture: Gaming at the Library

Matt and Kelly work for the Bloomington Public Library. Matt is the IT Services Manager, and Kelly is the Teen Services Librarian.

This presentation will be practically oriented.

What do teens represent in the life-cycle of a library patron?
-Catch them now, and Be Relevant. They’ll be hooked into other services for life, not just storytime for their kids.

Goal: Use tech to serve the patrons.

Game Fests
-Why would they decide to do this? Gamers were on staff and got the ball rolling.

Now we’re watching a mini-documentary Bloomington put together to promote their Game Fests. They have a bunch of board games out to play too, which isn’t something I’ve seen very much in other presentations so far. Dance Dance Revolution is of course a major focus, with large groups of kids gathered around.

Game Fests are run quarterly in a room of 16 powerful networked computers. This is also unusual among other presentations here! Even more, Battlefield 2 (A war-themed first person shooter) is their main event.

Later, a program involving Gamecubes and Mario Kart, a la Eli’s earlier program, was added to the mix. It has been perhaps more popular than the shooter.

Food is another incentive for attendance – pizza and water. “We used soda once, they geet all hopped up on it. We learned our lesson.”

-Board games are very affordable
-Supported by administration – labor and food were covered in grant activities

There have been no problems with support from administration or parents! In fact parents have been praising it, and admin has been cheering them on.

Lessons Learned
-Branding – Posters and art are themed to look like comic book covers. When high schoolers started laughing at the original ‘trendier’ name, it was changed to the more straightforward Game Fest.
-Experience – Much of their work has been drawn from existing programs like Eli’s.
-Competition – Just an open gaming session is perhaps too unstructured, and doesn’t run as smoothly without organization.
-Learned from youth – Talked to the teens, upgraded equipment along with what they wanted, etc.

Community Support & Promotion
-Game stores (EB Games, Best Buy)
-Acme Comics
-Marketing at high schools by running game sessions at lunch time
DDRfreak (a major DDR fan web site)
-Grants and alternative support/funding

Neither Kelly or Matt are big gamers, but appreciate the culture and get involved.

Any networking in community groups help – prizes, promotion, etc. Plus others who see the events, even if not participating, get interested in the library.

They’ve also built a collection of gaming-related books. Lots of kids come in looking for information on careers in gaming, for example.

Related: Next Generation Computer Club –
-Not just games. Multimedia, creating web sites, digital music, etc.

I had to step out for a few minutes, but it looks like there’s a library-sponsored guild in World of Warcraft! Lots of other teen-focused programs being mentioned – Podcasts and film festivals for example.

In the end, this is all just new methods of community outreach.

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