June 6th, 2006

GP Book Review: "The Xbox 360 Uncloaked"

The Xbox 360 Uncloaked
by Dean Takahashi
reviewed by Matt Paprocki

Love Microsoft or hate 'em, there's no denying that Bill Gates and company's 2001 entry into the video game industry altered the console hardware equation forever. Beyond that, Microsoft's Xbox system makes for an incredible story - two incredible stories, actually, both spun by San Jose Mercury-News reporter Dean Takahashi.

In 2002, Takahashi's Opening the Xbox gave readers unprecedented access to Microsoft's top management as well as its inner circle of game designers and hardware creators. The book remains a must-read for anyone interested in the creative or business sides of the video game industry.

But the Xbox is old news, of course, thanks to Microsoft's November, 2005 launch of its next-gen Xbox 360. Takahashi chronicles the development of the new system in his latest book, The Xbox 360 Uncloaked. Less a sequel than a companion piece, The Xbox 360 Uncloaked lifts the curtain on a Microsoft team weary of multi-billion dollar losses on the original Xbox, yet still determined to become the dominant game console maker. It's an absorbing read.

Readers hoping to dive right into the story of the Xbox 360 will need to be patient. For a solid 90 pages, there is little talk of Microsoft's new baby. While updating readers on developments which happened following the launch of the original system (such as Xbox Live), Takahashi also sketches out general trends in the video game industry. While initially disconcerting, the opening chapters of The Xbox 360 Uncloaked have a definite purpose, especially for readers unfamiliar with the saga of the original Xbox or the industry. There is, for example, a rather long segment on video game violence and political issues, such as last summer's Hot Coffee scandal.

The pace of Takahashi's book quickens when he recounts Microsoft's early plans to release a portable game system, code-named "Red Jade." The seasoned journalist leads the reader through constant internal debates over projected production costs and profit margins of the proposed next-gen system. It's an eye-opener for those who may think the video game business is just fun and games.
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ESRB Goes Public With Penny Arcade Deal

Penny Arcade leaked the news last week that it had signed on with the ESRB to develop a public service ad campaign.

Earlier today the ESRB confirmed the deal via press release, saying that the PSA blitz was developed especially for the gaming community and is made up of five print ads using original characters developed by the Penny Arcade team. The characters represent the various age levels covered by the ESRB ratings. The campaign will be rolled out over the course of the summer.

"ESRB tends to primarily focus on reaching out to parents about the importance of ratings, but this campaign is focused on gamers under the age of 21 who may not yet fully appreciate the benefits of the rating system," said the organization's president, Patricia Vance. "In order for the campaign to resonate with the gamer audience, we sought to have a little 'edge' to the creative; and let's face it, Penny Arcade comics give a whole new meaning to the term Comic Mischief!"

The press release notes that the Penny Arcade campaign will not take the place of the ESRB's more mainstream "OK to Play?" ads, which will continue to appear in non-game oriented publications.

Robert Khoo of Penny Arcade explained the team's approach to the ESRB deal, saying, "We took this project on to allow our signature style to communicate a really important message: the ESRB ratings matter to gamers of all ages. The characters we created are a reflection of who gamers are and what we love, so we're incredibly proud of the campaign."
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ESA's Lowenstein Speaks Out on Louisiana Legislation

Based on today's story concerning Louisiana's SB340, we asked the ESA to comment on its support of the legislation, which appears on its way to certain passage. ESA president Doug Lowenstein provided his thoughts, addressing both Sen. James David Cain's SB340 and Rep. Roy Burrell's HB1381, which the ESA believes is unconstitutional.

"We oppose HB 1381, which would add video games containing violent content to the State's 'Harmful to Minors' statute, and is no different from other laws already stricken by the courts," Lowenstein said.

"As is consistent with our long standing position going back several years in other states where such modernization of 'Harmful to Minors' laws have been passed with our support, we don't have any objection to adding video games to the Louisiana 'Harmful to Minors' statute as provided in the compromise approach of SB 340 (sponsored by Senator Cain), which would close an existing loophole in the law so that video games are regulated the same as movies. It would also fix fatal flaws in the underlying 'Harmful to Minors' statute to make it constitutional."

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Listen as LA House Committee, ESA Bless Game Obscenity Bill

Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows.

In a just-concluded appearance before the Criminal Justice Committee of the Louisiana House, Rep. Roy Burrell (D, seen at left) and Steve Duke, a lobbyist appearing on behalf of the ESA, sat side-by-side and even yucked it up a little as both spoke in favor of SB340, video game legislation passed unanimously by the Louisiana Senate on May 18th. If the House membership ultimately votes in favor of SB340, which was sponsored by Sen. James David Cain (R), the bill will become law when signed by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco (D).

As recently as May 10th, Burrell and Duke took opposing stances on Burrell's own video game bill, HB1381. On that day, before the very same committee, Burrell's seat mate was none other than controversial Miami attorney Jack Thompson. Burrell and Thompson argued in favor of HB1381, which seeks to outlaw sales of violent games to underage buyers on the basis that they are harmful to minors.

So why is the industry supportive of SB340 while strongly opposing HB1381?

Like Maryland's HB707, SB340 bans minors from purchasing games with sexually explicit content. The industry did not oppose the Maryland law as it essentially mirrors existing obscenity statutes. What's more, Hot Coffee aside, there really are no sexually explicit retail games. HB1381, on the other hand, essentially seeks to redefine violent content as obscene using language found in the classic Miller definitions.
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ESA Sues Minnesota Over "Fine the Buyer" Video Game Law

The ESA, seeking to overturn video game legislation signed into law by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) last week, has just announced that it will file suit in Minnesota Federal District Court. An ESA press release notes that "Similar laws have been struck down by six courts in five years, including the Eighth Circuit which governs Minnesota, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars in legal fees."

ESA president Doug Lowenstein was unsparing in his criticism of the Minnesota law, which takes the unusual approach of fining underage game buyers $25.

"The bill's tortured effort to end run the First Amendment by punishing kids directly fails under the Constitution because children have rights under the First Amendment, like all other citizens, said Lowenstein.

"The State is attempting to impose liability on children because they know that courts have consistently held that they cannot penalize retailers... If this law is implemented... it will create a huge amount of confusion for retailers, parents, and children."

Joining Lowenstein in attacking the Minnesota law was Bo Andersen, President of the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA).

"Legislators in the state of Minnesota have enacted a video game restriction law that they apparently do not want enforced and understand cannot constitutionally be enforced," said Andersen.

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LA Senate Passes Violent Game Bill 35-0

The Louisiana Senate has just passed HB1381, violent video game legislation proposed by Rep. Roy. Burrell (D, seen at left). The Louisiana House had previously passed the bill 102-0. The measure will now go to Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D).

Assuming Gov. Blanco signs the bill, which seems likely given its overwhelming support in the legislature, it will take effect immediately and the video game industry's inevitable First Amendment challenge will ensue.

Speaking about the bill, ESA president Doug Lowenstein said earlier today, "We oppose HB 1381, which would add video games containing violent content to the State's 'Harmful to Minors' statute, and is no different from other laws already stricken by the courts."

HB1381 was drafted for Rep. Burrell by controversial attorney and anti-game activist Jack Thompson.

Sen. Craig Romero (R) presented the bill in the Senate of behalf of Rep. Burrell. Sen. Rob Marrioneaux attempted to amend the bill by adding language contained in another bill, SB340, which had already passed the Senate. It was unclear why Marrioneaux took this course. On one hand he seemed to be concerned about Louisiana being forced to wage a costly First Amendment battle over Burrell's bill. The ESA actively supports SB340, which only addresses explicit sexual content in games, not violence. But, oddly enough, he wanted to leave Burrell's anti-violence language in the bill as well. Whatever Marrioneaux was thinking, his amendment failed by a 20-14 vote.

If you'd like to hear today's Louisiana Senate debate and vote on the bill, GP has a 16mb MP3 file available here.

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