November 9th, 2013

Reflective Mermaid

Attack The Blockbuster

A few days ago came the news -- Blockbuster Video was closing its remaining 300 stores.

I was unaware there were any stores left.

Blockbuster used to be as common as milkweed pollen.  They were everywhere.  I was unbelievably thrilled to get a universal card which let me check out movies from any Blockbuster I wanted.  They became an important part of my quest to watch and learn about movies.

The news has been painting the story that Blockbuster was done in by the digital revolution, how services like Netflicks and other on demand options made the chain a dinosaur.  Yeah, you might think that.  But I had a front row seat and can tell you exactly where things went wrong.

Blockbuster had a huge advantage over its rivals in those early days -- the three-evening rental.  Technically, it was two, because you had to return it on day 3 -- using that logic, your "overnight" rentals are two dayers.  Recent releases had to be back the next day, but there were plenty of places closer to me that did that, so I went to Blockbuster for the offbeat stuff, the kinds of videos my area didn't stock because the population was so small that they couldn't risk wasting rack space or money on something that would only rent a couple of times to one person.

Which meant I could watch at a more leisurely pace.

The Blockbuster I frequented had three things none of the stores in my area had, that made the drive worthwhile.  First, episodes of The Prisoner, which was how I discovered the show.  Second, a music section with bands that were actually modern day.  And third, an anime section.  I was just getting into it, and I was able to see Akira and Appleseed this way.  Anime is expensive.

Eventually, Blockbuster's foray into video games kept me coming back.  They were the only place that stocked the Sega CD and they had a huge selection of Sega Genesis games.  I was able to play and have fun for years.

So what went wrong?  Well, it started when I was forced to go to other Blockbusters, frankly.  See, those music and anime sections?  They never changed.  The entire time, they never got anything new.  It was like a store would open, they'd get a current selection to bring people in, and never did anything further with it.  So when it came to movies, I became a bit nomadic.

But that was just the start.

I will never forget the first time I went into my usual haunt and found I couldn't find movies easily anymore.  Someone at corporate had decided it would appeal to browser/hunters like me to rearrange the store into new subcategories.  I wanted a martial arts flick?  Well, there was now Action, Super Action, Cops And Robbers...Jesus Christ, how am I supposed to find anything here?  I found myself bugging the people at the counter more and more, and only for movies I already new existed.  The people behind the counter were finding the new layout stupid, as well.

Rental stores in my area started offering more video games.  As the quality of games was beginning its decline thanks to media tie-ins and an emphasis on first person shooters (plus the fact that they were actually getting new games instead of just a stagnant line-up), going to Blockbuster became less important.  Two day rentals?  Most games were becoming boring after only one day, so not having them around so long was a plus.  I could actually find shit.  I wanted a 50's/60's sci-fi B movie with some guy in a rubber suit as the monster?  A store in my area had dozens of those.  My tastes had changed and Blockbuster was no longer the top of the food chain.

Blockbuster was aware of the problems they were having and decided to try cementing their reputations as the ultimate video store.  To flex its muscles, Ballbuster (sic) decided to offer exclusives -- they would be the only video store in America carrying certain movies.  Not only would people HAVE to come to Ballbuster for certain flicks, but they could offer up special deals to studios and distributors because of the reach they had on their clientèle.  The first for this experiment was the sicko remake of Lolita.  This actually illustrates what went wrong with the plan -- they were the only place to see a movie no one was interested in, so it didn't bring anyone.  Meanwhile, enterprising rental stores went around the American distributors and imported copies of the movie from Canada.  Blockbuster went bust.

Then, one day, I'm talking with a guy who used to work for Blockbuster and he told me the end was near --

Blockbuster was getting rid of late fees.

According to him, late fees accounted for over half of their revenue, and whatever they replaced it with, they weren't going to get as much money.  He was right.  Revenue started falling, and Blockbuster started scrambling.  Not helping was the DVD revolution.  Video tapes rented so well because of price -- your average person couldn't keep buying $100 videos, so if you wanted to watch at home before sell through, you had to rent.  DVD's were much cheaper.  But instead of going for more esoteric fare or some other way of bringing in people, Blockbuster watched as people simply bought the discs the day they were released and built their collections, leaving rentals for movies they weren't sure they actually wanted.  As Hollywood went more event, creating an audience that wanted to see specific things and using that as its revenue base, the need for rentals fell away.

Now, when they say Blockbuster was a dinosaur, they are wrong.  Family Video is everything Blockbuster was, including quirky indie flicks, but with frequent updates, staff that keeps the movies where they are supposed to be, and warm earth tones instead of the garish blue and yellow.  And Family Video continues to expand, targeting people who don't do digital or are looking for recommendations and interaction.  They are doing what Blockbuster couldn't -- making their old business model survive in the harsh new world.

I feel sorry for the people who are being left without jobs in this economy.  The mail order is also going down.  I wonder about the Redbox-style kiosks, I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Farewell, Blockbuster.  We had fun.

Pay No Attention To The Code Behind The Curtain

We are just weeks away from the launch of the PlayStation 4 and the XBox Don't Buy One.  M$ is looking at deep trouble because they had to redo the firmware of their system.  When they were saying you couldn't play used games and such?  They built the OS around that.  They have to reconfigure everything to get rid of it.  This will be important, I'll explain why in a minute.

PlayStation 4, meanwhile, is the darling of gamers because "Sony understands us!  No DRM!"

Here's the thing….

…those of us who hang with coders are hearing about what might be in that Day One system update for the PS4.

Yes, the day you buy a PS4, it will system update.  The question is why, since everything was supposedly set.  I want to emphasize this is rumor, not confirmed fact, but I trust these guys, so I believe this.

Turns out the PS4 was just as DRM'ed as the XB1.

M$ shot first, and when Sony saw the backlash, they saw an opportunity to win the hearts and minds of gamers.  It's been reported that they were saying the EyeToy was going to be part of the PS4 package just to bait M$ into integrating the Kinect and jacking up the price of their console by $100, then said, "Oh, EyeToy won't be integrated!" and got good press for the price.

Now, the reason I bring this up is because people are saying, "If true, that's good.  Sony sees the light.  They are being friendly to gamers."


This is a FIRMWARE update.  They are working around existing architecture in the OS, NOT REMOVING IT.  A garage programmer can block those transmissions with two hours and a cup of coffee.  The extent of the modifications is not necessary.

Unless they mean to re-enable them later.

THIS is the problem.  Both PS4 and XB1 will have workarounds because the DRM is baked into the OS.  And there is nothing to stop them from simply removing those workarounds during a system update and not tell you.  And you won't know until it is way too late.

Meanwhile, my Atari 2600 from 1979 is still playing my games.  Classic gaming isn't just nostalgia.  It's a remind of digital freedom.