Mark Crump

I am a writer. This is my journey.

Dungeons and Dragons embraces Free to Play model

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Today, Wizards of the Coast announced that the next version of Dungeons and Dragons (officially called DND5e, unofficially DND Next) will be free to play. Sorta. In a way, Wizards has embraced the Free to Play model a lot of MMOs use. In these MMOs, you can usually play a base class to a given level cap but to go beyond a level, or play different classes, you need to pay.

On July 15th (ish) along with the Starter Edition, Wizard will release a free PDF that’s basically the rules you need to play and the base classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard) to level 20. If you want to play what they call an advanced class (Barbarian, Druid, Paladin, etc.) you will need to buy the Players Handbook which comes out a month later. The Basic Rules also have most of the equipment and some monster info so DMs can get their campaign up and running.

I think this is a great idea and also gets around the big problem I have with the 5E release: the timing. When 4E launched, I could by a nice little boxed set with the core rules. This time, they are staggering the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and DMs guides by roughly a month each.

The other reason I think this is a great idea is it gets people to play and try out the new version of DND for free. I think 5E is far superior to 4E for reasons I’ll cover in a future post. Basically. 4E was a vey complex system. My character sheet was usually 7 pages long and half the skills were a reaction that required some type of event to trigger it. The fifth edition feels more like the 2nd edition, which was my favorite edition.

 

 

Gibson Memory Cable

Gibson Memory Cable-1

Gibson recently announced the Memory Cable, a $99 guitar cable that records up to 13 hours of audio onto a mini-SD card. It’s a pre-amp recorder so you won’t get your amp signal. I think this would be great for recording how you sound on stage or in practice. It’ll be a clean sound, so you can reamp it. That said, I think recording clean and listening back is a great way to hear how you really sound.

ComiXology and the Curious Case of the App Store

I’ve long thought of ComiXology as the Amazon of comic books. It became a truer statement when Amazon bought Comixology a few weeks ago. Andy Ihnatko summed up my inital reaction with this Sun Times post in which he said:

“I’m hoping that this ultimately ends with ComiXology making comics on Kindle better, and not Amazon making ComiXology’s comics … like Kindles.”

This week, Amazon dropped one hammer by removing in app purchases from the ComiXology app. Now, ComiXology behaves exactly like the Kindle app: you have to go outside the app to purchase content.

Some background on the matter at hand

In July 2011, Apple began enforcing in-app purchasing restrictions for e-reading apps. The Kindle, Kobo, and Nook apps released new versions that removed bookstores from their iOS apps. These restrictions said that 30% of any in-app purchase (IAP) went to Apple. Some people viewed this as Apple collecting a rent, similar to the rent a brick-and-mortar store pays. The other end of the spectrum had people feeling like Apple was acting akin the Corleone family, where they simply “didn’t want anything bad to happen to the developers app.” My opinion was that Apple was taking the view that any exception granted opens a can of worms they don’t want to deal with.

Policies work best when they are applied to everyone equally. In this case, everyone is treated equally by Apple. If you offer an IAP, pay Apple 30%. I don’t generally have a problem with this policy but almost three years later it’s still a little jarring when I have to quit the Kindle app and go to Safari to buy an ebook.

In this Tech Hive article Moises Chiullan has this quote from Chip Mosher, ComiXology’s VP Communications & Marketing:

“As we move to complete the acquisition with Amazon, we are shifting to the web-based purchasing model they’ve successfully used with Kindle, which we expect will allow us to strike the best balance between prices, selection and customer experience.”—Chip Mosher, ComiXology

IAPs work for me because it limits the sites that have my credit card and I can buy a couple of gift cards to Amazon or Apple to use as an allowance of sorts. In this case, the balance of customer experience has not tipped in my favor.

Changes to ComiXology

Comics are a somewhat unique form of content to consume. For the most part, comics don’t take as long as say, Game of Thrones, to read a volume of. In my case, I’d buy the first comic in a series and when I got to the end of it, ComiXology nicely told me there were more issues in the series and did I want to purchase it? This was incredibly convenient for me, but perhaps not so convenient for my bank account. The one saving grace is that I don’t generally buy a lot of comics – enough $2.99 purchases and soon you’re taking about real money. In my case right now, about one purchase – but it was certainly nice to have. If it was a series that’s in the middle of its publishing run I could tell Comixology to auto-purchase the new issues.

Now, when you reach the end of a series of which you don’t own the next issue, Comixology simply stops. There’s no clue there are any more issues; not even a hint to go to the ComiXology web site and purchase it. It simply has a button “back to Library.”

I don’t foresee ComiXology’s changes affecting how I buy comics. I’ve always thought long and hard about any comic I buy anyway. Going to a website as opposed to an app isn’t likely to change the amount of comics I purchase. The big problem, though, is ComiXology’s site doesn’t have a lot of search refinements. As a consolation prize for removing IAPs, ComiXology credited everyone’s account with five bucks. I figured I could buy about 5 $.99 comics. I went to the Top Sellers page, but I couldn’t sort by price or average rating. This is something that I’m a little surprised that ComiXology doesn’t offer.

The Apple morality clause

In that same Tech Hive artile, Moises states something that has been on my mind for a while:

ComiXology also found its content running afoul of Apple’s rigid guidelines about what could be sold through the App Store. Take the case of the series Sex Criminals, banned from being sold through the in-app purchase feature on ComiXology, and yet, still available for sale within Apple’s own iBookstore.

Remember that line I had earlier about policies working best when they are applied to everyone equally? This is a case where Apple violates their own policy of acceptable content they hold developers to. It’s absolutely ludicrous for Apple to ban something from a 3rd-party developer’s app while selling it on the Apple store. Note: This fell off my radar screen after it happened and I can’t find out if the decision was ever reversed.

The problem gets even worse. A quick search through the iTunes store yields plenty of erotic fiction, unrated movies, and season one of the Starz show Spartacus, which has the rare scene where there isn’t a decapitation or a naughty bit doing the things that naughty bits do.

There are many things I think Apple does very well, but this is one thing with Apple that drives me nuts. If they don’t want adult content available on their platforms, fine. Just don’t also sell it through your own in-app store.

Is this problem solvable?

In the case of ComiXology, they had two problems: Apple taking a 30% cut and the worry that another comic would run afoul of Apple’s censors.

Apple eliminating (or even reducing) the 30% cut, well, isn’t really going to happen. The issue surrounding most ereaders is that they are middlemen in the distribution chain and the margins probably aren’t there to give Apple a 30% cut. Back to my comment about policies, if Apple created an exeception for resellers you possibly have the problem of a lot of developers trying to get lumped into that. Apple will continue to stick to thier belief that they get 30% of anything bought on an iOS device for consumption on an iOS device. By and large, I don’t have a problem with this. If a game developer releases an expansion for an iPad game, Apple should get their cut.

Apple being the final arbiter of content is a thornier issue. While this is something that I’m not overly fond of, I think I’d like to see what would happen if Apple didn’t curate this content. The mens rooms of truck stops comes to mind.

The best solution is probably the one ComiXology took: decide that paying 30% for the headache of them curating their content was too much.

Now lets just hope Apple doest take away the ability for apps like Amazon and Comixology to download content from outside the app store. I doubt that will ever happen, though.

Nils Lofgren talks guitars

Nils Lofgren talks guitars

Great guitar player; great gear. Lots of great fender stuff.

Thoughts on the stagnation of iPad sales

Apple yesterday announced its Q2 2014 earnings. iPad sales were down almost 3M units from Q2 2013. According to Macworld.com:

Apple sold 16.35 million of the tablets this past quarter, compared to 19.48 million in the second quarter of 2013. Revenues from the iPad fell as well, from $8.7 billion to $7.6 billion. The iPad had a smaller impact on Apple’s revenues, too, accounting for 17 percent of sales, compared to 20 percent last year.

I have some thoughts on why that may have happened.

Last year, Apple announced the iPad Air and the iPad mini with Retina Display. While both have the new A7 chip, of the two I think the iPad mini with Retina Display is the more tempting upgrade if you own a previous gen iPad. This is because the previous mini did not have the retina display, and was a gimped model with a lower-specced processor. The new mini that actually had feature parity with the larger iPad was a nice upgrade.

The 64-bit processor in the new Air (and mini) is a great upgrade, but I don’t think enough people were taxing their iPads to the point they felt needed a faster processor if they already had a retina iPad. I’m not sure there is even enough RAM on the iPad to fully take advantage of the 64-bit chip. It also doesn’t have the Touch ID sensor, either, which could be a factor.

So, I think a lot of the sales are people who  are probably very happy with their iPad 3 or 4. I know I am. I need the iPad with the largest memory, so I’m on a 2–3 year upgrade cycle on my iPad.

Jean-Louis Gassée had a great article called: The iPad is a Tease

Despite the inspiring ads, Apple’s hopes for the iPad overshot what the product can actually deliver. Although there’s a large numbers of iPad-only users, there’s also a substantial population of dual-use customers for whom both tablets and conventional PCs are now part of daily life.

I see the lull in iPad sales as a coming down to reality after unrealistic expectations, a realization that iPads aren’t as ready to replace PCs as many initially hoped.

Gruber has his take here.

We might have overestimated the eventual role of tablets and underestimated the role of phones — and the whole argument is further muddled by the industry-wide move toward 5-inch-ish phone displays.

I’m not sure about this. A larger screen iPhone is certainly appealing to me. It would take place for a lot of the tasks I would consider a mini for, as long as the resolution also increases – I’d like my Kindle documents have more words on the horizontal size.

I wrote earlier this year that 2014 is the year of the iPad for me. That is largely playing out. Rarely does my MacBook Pro leave the house. My next OS X device will be an iMac. As iOS continues to mature, I will be able to put off buying a new Mac as long as this one keeps running. The largest barrier to going iOS all the time is games, and GigaOM’s WordPress install. Other than that, when I leave the house these days, I only need my iPad. I can write, post to this site, surf, read, and even play some games (just not World of Warcraft).

I’m expecting to get another full year out of my iPad 3. By September 2015, this one will be getting long in the tooth and require replacement. I expect that to be why iPad sales are down. Now that the product has matured, there’s no need to upgrade every year.

Apple does the unexpected; opens OS X betas to everyone

I will admit, I did not see this one coming. Apple announced on April 22, 2014 that they are now allowing anyone with an Apple ID, and is 18 years of older, to participate in their beta program. Previously, this required an Apple Developer Account ($99/year). Now, it’s free, as in beer.

I think this is a great idea. Personally, I’ve been in the iOS and OS X developer programs solely for research. As a freelancer specializing in Apple products, I needed to be comfortable with the new OSs before launch to write about the new features. Now, at least, I don’t have to worry about the OS X program.

When I reached out to Apple PR about their motives, they declined to comment. My uneducated guess is that Apple needed more feedback on beta releases than they were getting from the developer pool. I know that the betas leading up to a GM get a lot of testing from developers, but I don’t know about the dot relases. This could also be a general security issue since betas for the new versions of OS X usually hit the torrent sites. That’s not a good way for people to get their hands on operating systems.

How it works is pretty straightforward. You sign up and download a DMG file which has a MavericksBetaAccessUtility.pkg file in it. Installing this allows he prerelease iTunes 11.1.6 and OS X 10.9.3 betas to be downloaded from the Mac App Store. What is not explicitly stated is whether this will still be in place when the beta for OS X 10.10 starts this summer. There is an FAQ here, but it’s a little vague on how forthcoming betas will be handled. I think that 10.10 will be included. At least, I hope it is. A concern, however, is that the DMG and the PKG file say “Mavericks” and not “OS X”. So, it’s possible this is only for Mavericks. We will see in two months.

My next question is whether this will be available on iOS. I am split on this, and the 51% of me thinks it will not be. OS X has a much smaller install base than iOS. It’s also easier to recover your Mac from a bad beta than your iPhone. Also, you download the files for iOS betas from the developer page; not the iOS App Store.[1] Were Apple to introduce free iOS betas, they would include it in the free developer accounts. You’d have to pay to use iTunes Connect. This would also eliminate the selling of device provisions that generally drive Apple nuts.


  1. Technically, you also do this for the OS X betas, but once you’ve entered in a reclamation code, the beta software appears in the App Store.  ↩

My Thoughts: What Apple will, and will not speak about tomorrow

Will speak of:

New iPhones

They will announce the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5 C. I think it will have the fingerprint sensor.

People will complain about both releases.

 iOS 7

- GM available, date of release announced

- The “killer” iPhone 5 feature announced. People will complain.

- The icons will stay the same. People will complain

- I’m going to go on a limb and predict the iPad will get iOS 7 the same time as the everyone else. Reason: Universal app updating will be problematic

iTunes

- The new version that works with iTunes Radio will be announced

iPods

- I think the iPod Touch will get the 5c treatment

Will NOT speak of

- iPads: no new iPads

- Mavericks: Little, if any discussion

- The new Mac Pro: Not a word, except maybe to play the movie

- iPads and MacPros will be October (at least iPad) discussions. What I don’t know is if the MacPro and Maverick’s releases will be quiet releases, or Apple will hold an event for them.

 

 

 

 

 

Guitarists that inspire me

I’ve been playing the guitar off and on (ok, more off than on) for almost 30 years. Over those 30 years, I’ve listened to a lot of guitarists, both good and bad, and I thought I’d share with you some of the ones that have influenced me

Billy Gibbons

ZZ-Top_500472The Reverend Willy G (he’s an actual ordained minister) has always been a big influence on me. His lazy Texas blues style coupled with an amazingly cool look in many ways is the picture of what a guitarist should be.

His playing, though, isn’t that simple to mimic. A lot of double-stops and harmonics, and he makes sure to leave some space for Dusty and Frank to be heard. His solo on La Grange is one of my all-time favorite solos. In my post “Guitars as wands” I mentioned that I name my guitars. The guitar that I just got, a nice Honey Burst Les Paul I named Gibbons. I’ve always wanted a replica of Billy’s Pearly Gates Les Paul, but since used they got for $20k, this is as close as I’m going to get.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

???????????????????????????What a terrible, terrible tragedy his death in 1990 was. I remember where I was when I heard the news. I was on Rt 16 on the Natick/Wellesley border on my way to band practice. Needless to say, that days rehearsal was full of Stevie Ray.

Stevie was my Hendrix. Again, another Texan, but this guitarist had fire. He played like he knew his time on Earth was limited, and sadly it was. The helicopter carrying him from a gig crashed into a hill.

Whenever I pick up a Stratocaster, Pride and Joy is one of the first songs I play on it. I have few regrets in life, but not going to see the tour he did with Jeff Beck is one of them.

Jimmy Page

Jimmy PageJames Patrick Page, another Les Paul weilder, is the poster-boy for a guitarist that sold his soul to the devil. In fact, his interest in the occult, coupled with a massive heroin addiction, were blamed for some of the events that lead to Zeppelin’s downfall (Notably, the death of Robert Plant’s son Karac was seen as a price the band paid).

Jimmy got his start as an in-demand studio session, and Led Zeppelin were probably one of the first super-groups in history. Page knew exactly the sound and look he wanted from his bad. That vision made him rich.

What’s funny is, Page in many ways solidified the  image of a Les Paul and Marshalls, but for the first album he used a Telecaster and a Vox amp. On the 3rd US tour, Page was using Hiwatt amps.

What Page did, was show to sound big, you needed to start small. He recorded the first Zeppelin album with a small amp, cranked, and used distance miking to capture the huge sound.

And, man, playing Page’s stuff is hard.  His riffs are intricate, and are also often mimicked my John Paul Jone’s bass.

Steve Vai

Steve VaiI’ve often described Steve’s playing as someone who gives a speech using the biggest words and most complex vocabulary he can. Or more like a fantastic bottle of fine wine. However, songs like Giant Balls of Gold show Steve is capable of writing some damn catchy hooks.

Steve’s playing is so technical, and so many effects go into his sound, he’s almost like the Darth Vader of guitarists: it’s hard to tell where the man stops and the machine begins. Back in the day I was so obsessed with his sound ,I seriously contemplated getting an Eventide Harmonizer to try and get the sounds he used on Passion and Warfare.

His signature Ibanez Jem guitar is one of the few signature guitars I’d like to own. I do have an Ibazed RG570 that has the same body as the Jems (without the monkey grip handle, though) and I recently had it renovated and his signature Gravity Storm pickups put in it. That’s about as close as I’ll get.

Joe Satriani

SatrianiIf Vai is like a fine wine, Satch is like a good craft beer. Satriani is Vai’s former guitar teacher, and I can’t help but think those were some fun lessons.

I’ve always thought Satch’s playing was much more more lyrical than Vai’s. I’m not saying Vai is a passionateness player, but Satch just seems more so. His song, Flying in a Blue Dream, is one of my favorite songs of all time.

As amazing as his solo career has been, I really think he his stride when he formed Chickenfoot with Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony. Go ahead and watch this Chickenfoot cover of Highway Star. I’ll wait.

Amazing, wasn’t it?

Neal Vitullo

_IGP0687A couple years ago, I walked into a small club in Taunton and had my life changed. Neal was playing, and for the next three hours, he made that guitar his bitch.

Virtuosity is often over-used, but in Neal’s case, he’s one of the finest guitar players I’ve ever seen, large stage or small. I’ve seen him countless times over the years, and its getting near time for my “Neal fix” Seeing Neal that first time, I could imagine what it was like walking into a club and seeing Stevie Ray play.

The best part, of all the guitarists I’ve listed, Neal is the only one I’ve taken lessons from. I took lessons from him for over a year, and can still his voice guiding me as I play.

Check out his website and go see him.

Guitars as wands

Dan Amrich wrote in this blog post, “I sound a bit like the classic California nutjob when I say this, but I believe guitars are like Harry Potter wands, and even though I chose the Mira, it simply didn’t choose me back.” Since he wrote that, the words have been resonating with me.  Usually, for the same reason he mentioned: a guitar that seems like it would be perfect for me, ends up not being perfect.

When I’m at Guitar Center there’s usually someone practicing bad licks on expensive guitars someone playing the same guitar for a long while. I’ve always held to the belief that you’ll know in the first 5 minutes of playing a guitar if it chose you. And sometimes the guitar really chooses you. In 1990, I was at Daddy’s Shrewsbury when I spotted a nice sunburst Ibanez RG570. I played it for 5 minutes, bought it on the spot, and 23-odd years later it’s still  the guitar I reach for most often. It recently got a little renovation with some coil taps and new pickups, and it’s a very happy little guitar.

A few years ago, I bought a silverburst Epiphone Les Paul that chose me. When I went to the store, I was actually intending to buy a different used Les Paul, but after playing Silver, I knew that guitar had chosen me (it did take me a while to get used to the silverburst paint job though). Trish got me pickups designed by one of my favorite guitar players (Billy Gibbons), and it’s been one of my main guitars.

Sometime last year I swapped guitars with my friend Jeff. I got from him a very nice Epiphone Les Paul Royale in black. On paper, it was perfect for me. I like my Les Pauls big and weighty, and this was a heavy summbitch with a thick neck. I never cottoned to it, though. Simply put, the guitar didn’t chose me. I still used it, but it was the guitar I brought in case something happened to Silver, or if I needed to tune down for a song.

Circumstances this week opened up another trade and Black went back to Jeff, and I got a different Les Paul from Jeff.

When I got home tonight I played it for 5 minutes. It had chosen me.

My predictions for the October 4, 2011 Apple event

My predictions:

New iPhone

  • Teardrop shape
  • slightly larger screen
  • Same processor as iPad 2
  • not announced, but 1GB of ram
  • 32 and 64 GB models
  • Released third week of October

iOS 5

  • Release Candidate released day of event
  • Public release two days before new iPhone launches
  • Nuance voice capture and Siri integrated

Steve Jobs

  • No Steve Jobs
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