Monday, March 28, 2005

new newspaper article

I was fortunate to be featured in a story in the Vancouver Province last Friday.

Jim Jamieson
The Province
March 25, 2005

When Stephen Cawood left Microsoft Corp. and returned to Vancouver last fall, he was expecting to settle into a new career writing business-software manuals.

Instead, he now finds himself working with a heavily armoured character named Master Chief to defend Earth against a throng of vicious aliens called the Covenant.

Although it may sound like Cawood took a sip out of the wrong glass of Kool-Aid, anyone who's familiar with the wildly popular video game Halo 2 may know that he has simply immersed himself in a burgeoning book publishing industry that is hitching a ride along with the First Person Shooter and the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game.

read the complete article...

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

halo 2 battle guide sold out

a couple of people mentioned that they've been told that the shipping time for the The Unauthorized Halo 2 Battle Guide would be a few weeks.

I just found out that the reason for this is that the guide has sold out - the retailers are waiting for the publisher (Thomson Premiere) to print more copies. the good people at Thomson are on the case.

sorry about the wait. I'm sure that it will be available again soon.

update: there are a few copies left, but the second printing is in limbo.

leaked info about Halo 2 ex-pack

there has been yet another leak that suggests an expansion pack for Halo 2 will be out soon. the ship date shown was May 24th.

most likely this is a collection of new multiplayer levels. I like to think that they will be provided free over Xbox Live DLC and that this pack is targeted at non-XBL users.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

injecting Doom texture into Halo 2

inspired by Doom on my Xbox, I thought that I might want to create a Doom mod for Halo 2. I think I'll call it Foundation of Doom.

here's an initial trial of a Doom texture injected into a Halo 2 map. I simply extracted the texture from the Doom .WAD file and injected it into the Halo 2 .MAP file. thanks to the tireless efforts of the Halo modding community, this sort of work is not difficult.

Monday, March 21, 2005

best Halo 2 mods

here are my favourite Halo 2 mods. as there is only one version of Halo 2 right now, these are obvious Xbox mods.

My Hardware
Xecuter 3 chip from xbox-modchips
although I would have like to have seen some documentation come with this chip, I have been more than satisfied with the hardware. I recommend this chip (and this retailer).

General Mods
by Aztec
this mod allows you to 'fly' around the map and watch other people fighting. although you cannot participate in the fighting, this is a fun mod to use. while in spectator mode, your HUD is much simpler, you get a more subtle motion detector, and no weapon or ammo data cluttering up your screen. if it weren't for the Blind skull, I would use this mod for screenshots.

Map Mods
The Hive by MrMurder
Undeadlong by MrMurder
Bluenight by GTJuggler

Modding Apps
Encryptomic Signature by Iron_Forge
ADI by The Swamp Fox

Saturday, March 19, 2005

frustrating Halo strategies

my friends and I recently had a conversation about frustrating Halo strategies. in the battle guide I wrote that any strategy is valid as long as it doesn't involve cheating (e.g. standby or dummying). while I still believe this to be true, I think it's also fair to say that gamers are reluctant to play gametypes if someone employs a boring strategy. simply put, if the game isn't interesting then people won't want to play it.

I don't expect anyone to stop using an effective strategy, but I also won't play games that prove to be consistently boring. for example, we tried "Rockets Jugger" with three people on Foundation. The first person to be the Juggernaut quickly realized that he could wait in one of the rooms and blast the other two players before they got anywhere near him.

I don't think that I would consider this a question of 'etiquette'. I wonder if it really boils down to the game type / map. in other words, we shouldn't be focusing on what the players do, but what the game allows. one of my friends came up with an excellent "Lockout King" strategy but then everyone adjusted and it's still an interesting game. that was an example of a strategy that was interesting. so really it's a question of whether the game type allows for a boring - yet effective - strategy.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

working at home

when I think about the contrast between working at MS and being a full-time writer, the most obvious difference is working at home.

I'm a night owl so working at home is the pinnacle of my most treasured benefit: flex-time. my most productive hours are generally between 10pm and 2am. this schedule doesn't jive with the 'normal' working hours particularly well. I don't know what percentage of the population find that they are more productive in the evenings, but there are quite a few of my brethren out there. I hope that someday everyone will respect that not everyone works best on a 9-5 schedule.

in Masters of Doom, David Kushner writes that John Carmack's ideal schedule is 4pm to 4am; that sounds like a little bit of heaven. funnily enough, Kushner writes that Carmack would criticize the people who came in early for "never being here" (i.e., they didn't work late into the evening). this is ironic since night owls are the ones who usually suffer from the perception that they aren't toiling hard enough. when I was working in the software industry, I used to greatly benefit from the crunch times. since I functioned best during the evening, I didn't mind so much when I had to work late.

however, there are also disadvantages to working at home. the most obvious drawback is the lack of camaraderie with colleagues. of course, by 'camaraderie' I mean playing the Robotron 2084 machine in a Redmond kitchen and talking about how whacked the software industry has become.

not having to commute is a great benefit, but not being 'forced' to leave the house can also be a negative. I'm thinking that I'll have to sign up for some regular activities so that I have some semblance of a schedule and occasionally get out to actually interact with some people.

the second obvious difference between a corporate environment and working at home is the lack of external motivation. although, on the surface, it's great to not have to worry about someone else giving you a hard time, another turn of the screw reveals that self-motivation seems to be most effectively nurtured if you are already prone to be hard on yourself. in my case, I've discovered that this is true - I find that I get more upset with myself than most of my formers managers ever did.

so there's another bit of irony for you. it seems to me that the people who will work best on their own are precisely the people who's most nagging manager is internal.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

responding to the critics

in the age of blogging, it's painfully obvious that anyone can publish anything they want online - like this rant for example :)

for the most part, the online reviews of my work have been flattering and I appreciate the fact that people take the time to write reviews and e-mail me their comments.

however, I'm sure that there are plenty of people out there - like myself - who are frustrated by anonymous cybermud slinging. I have only seen minor cases when it comes to my own work, but I've seen pretty awful things written about other books. for my part, I would like to see an Author's Response feature added to the online book review mechanisms. my rationale for this suggestion is twofold:

1. having conflicting critics can be confusing, but such discrepancies could be clarified if the author had a chance to respond.

2. the satisfaction of being able to address a poorly written review would be gratifying. reviewers don't always use logic in their posts, and sometimes they aren't even on topic. for example, when my first book came out, someone posted a 'review' that was a critique of the software package covered by the book - there was almost nothing in the review about the book and the reviewer even said as much. as for the Halo 2 battle guide, one guy posted an ad hominem review that lacked any substance at all. his complaint about the book was that I'm not a world-class Halo 2 player. that's no secret. in fact, it's pretty easy to find out; I've mentioned it in the book and on this blog. the book was as much a learning experience for me as I hope it has been for readers. my perspective as a learner enriched the content.

in general, I think it's fair to say that anonymous reviews on Amazon are being read more and more often. given that their importance could approach the importance of the professional reviews, I'd like to see some sort of mechanism that presents both sides of the coin.

update: now has a 'PLOG' option that allows authors to post messages on the pages for their books.

Monday, March 14, 2005

best halo resource sites

here is my short list of the best Halo sites:

New Sites
------------------------- - a Wiki knowledge base for Halo

Major Sites
------------------------- - official Halo site - fan site with great news updates (and a DB of tips and tricks) - fan site with a great forum (great for tricks and glitches)

------------------------- - hardcore mod site - mod and vid site

------------------------- - cool jumping videos (by a Halo 2 Battle Guide contributor) - all things 'jump'

Other Sites
------------------------- - minimalist battle guide site :)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Doom "1" on my Xbox

I got Doom I running on my Xbox today...
<wipes tear of joy from keyboard>
not Doom3, not even Doom2 - the original recipe Doom.

it's all thanks to the good folks who created DoomX. all I had to do was FTP the files onto a modded Xbox and download the shareware version of the original Doom. it even shows that cool DOS command line text while it's loading - which is almost instantaneous on the Xbox. one great addition to the game is that the vibration feature of the controller is enabled. when I get hit with a fireball, I know about it.

it's funny how rarely we go back and play the games that were our favourites. technology just evolves so quickly that we don't have time to throw our old staples a bone.

I doubt that I'll be going through this game on Nightmare! mode, but I'm enjoying the memories that are jumping back with the zombies. remember how the shotgun was the tool of choice for sniping? :)

update: Doom is now available through the Xbox 360 Live Arcade, so you don't need a modded box anymore.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Xbox 2 - specs from GameSpy

GameSpy has published an article about the Xbox 2 (Xenon) specs.

here are the highlights from the article:

CPU - Xenon's CPU has three 3.0 GHz PowerPC cores
GPU - Xenon's GPU is a generation beyond the ATI X800 (500 MHz)
System Memory - Xenon will have 256 MB of system RAM (Xbox 1 has 64 MB).
Optical Drive - Games will come on dual-layer DVD-9 discs.
Memory Units - Xenon will use 64 MB to 1,024 MB memory cards.
Hard Drive - Optional drive (size TBD).
Camera - Xenon will have a USB 2.0 camera. It's capable of 1.2 megapixel still shots and VGA video.
HD Games - Developers are being instructed to plan their games for high-definition. The baseline is 720p at 1280x720 for gameplay and video clips.
Xbox Live - All Xenon games must be Xbox Live 'aware'

these are pretty cool specs, and I'm thrilled to see that the hard drive is still present. I'm looking forward to getting this machine. although the camera is a nice surprise, I'm hoping that there are many more media related surprises yet to be announced.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

cool article: Halo's Pillar of Autumn

Stephen Loftus [SoundEffect] has posted an interesting article on that examines the scale of the Halo 1 ship, the Pillar of Autumn.

the article details the structure of the ship and then examines how well the first and last level actually fit into the virtual constraints. the author's conclusion is that Bungie was true to scale but didn't limit themselves to creating the levels within the specifications of the ship.

for example, when it comes to the final Halo level, Loftus notes that, "the Warthog 'Maw' drive at the game's end is fully three times the Autumn's entire length, yet it was supposedly a drive through the ship".

I found this article intriguing because of another consideration - that is, the pressure that Bungie is under to produce games that can withstand the investigation of the community microscope. this, it seems, is part of the price of the success of Halo.

for example, the Halo virtual universe isn't supposed to just allow for Halo game play, it is expected to obey the laws of physics. I recall reading a post where a Halo 2 fan pointed out that he could hit a container into the air and then melee it to keep it aloft. he wasn't happy because he discovered that the container's spin did not match the movement of his arm. think of how this must have made the Bungie developers feel. I can easily imagine the war cry coming from the Redmond Millennium buildings, "He did what?! A container! WTF! Does he know long we worked on the physics! What's his gamertag? Let's settle this!".

personally, I think it's great that the community is expecting quality work from game developers. Halo clearly set a new bar when it comes to the quality of the engine. speaking as a fan, I am not offended that the level designers deviated from the technical specs of the Autumn; just like fiction writers, I believe that they should have the artistic liberty to mold their virtual world to suit their needs. I certainly didn't know that anything was awry when I played Halo, so I'm fine with their choices. after all, they are the experts.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

support serf to writer: part IV

this is part III of a story about software support and how I moved through various jobs...
part I - support serf to writer: a how-to
part II - support serf to writer: part II
part III - support serf to writer: part III

after the MCMS pre-sales program in Redmond was a success, I started working on the sample site for MCMS 2002. the new .Net platform was all the rage amongst developers so the MCMS management decided that .Net would be the main focus of the MCMS 2002 product cycle. this meant that I had the opportunity to develop the Woodgrove.Net sample site. I was thrilled to be working with the new C# language. even though it was primarily a porting exercise, I greatly enjoyed the project.

based more on my commitment to the job than my development skills, I was offered a position as a web developer on the MCMS product team. since the .com bubble burst, most companies have reduced the size of their web teams. Microsoft is no exception. consequently, the title of "web developer" is rarely used. in addition, unlike most Microsoft jobs, there is no defined career path for web developers. in other words, if I ever wanted to change jobs, I would have a tough time.

when my new manager suggested that I should move to the role of Program Manager, I jumped at the chance. instead of writing the code for the sample sites, I was now responsible for the specifications. I found this to be interesting work but frustrating at the same time. when you create specs, you have the ability to bring forth your idea of what a feature should look like. however, it's very rare that anything that a PM does will actually get to the customer. PMs at Microsoft love to say "we don't ship the specs".

the problem with the Microsoft system is that if a dev feels that a PM is making a mistake, she can change the dev estimates in favour of the way that she believes the feature should be designed. this sort of maneuvering ability requires that all the groups within the product team to be on good terms and working towards the same goal. in Barbarians led by Bill Gates, Marlin Eller argues that developers don't need PMs at all. I personally feel that this is a ridiculous assertion. having specifications is crucial to the software development process. the number of potential bugs that are avoided in the spec phase is substantial.

after being with the product group for awhile, I thought that it would be a good idea to write a book about the new MCMS .Net Application Programming Interface (API). we happened to be talking to MSPress about porting their site to MCMS so it was easy for me to get the right contact information. I sent a proposal to an internal publishing agent and she told me that there was already an MCMS book underway. she contacted the group and they asked me if I wanted to join their writing team. the result was Microsoft Content Management Server 2002: A Complete Guide for Addison-Wesley.

I do regret the fact that the first MCMS book wasn't done with the guys who started the project at NCompass. however, I was excited to have the opportunity to do some writing. it was clear to me that my goal of getting more technical was outdated. I wasn't going to be a hardcore developer so I figured that getting back to my passion for writing was the obvious choice. even though my US work permit prevented me from accepting any compensation for the book, I gladly accepted the invitation to join the project.

the team leader for the MCMS book was Bill English, a veteran writer who had already written a couple of books about SharePoint. the other writers were Olga Londer, Todd Bleeker and Shawn Shell; the Addison-Wesley editor was Sondra Scott. I hadn't met any of the other writers before the project began. however, Shawn was one of the most experience MCMS consultants in the world. over the years, I had exchanged e-mails with him about various projects.

since I was late joining the project, I was given fewer chapters than most of the other writers. however, I was pleased with the ones that I was assigned. for example, I was given the architecture chapter - one that I was hoping to write.

another side effect of joining late, was that I found the schedule to be aggressive. like the other authors, I had a full-time job so I could only write during evenings and weekends. however, now that I've worked on other projects, I realize how naive I was about the schedule. even with a job to consider, the schedule was less aggressive than most.

<how-to section>
as soon as I was given my chapter assignments, I started working on the architecture chapter. I talked to the devs and put together my first rough draft. in an effort to gather some feedback, I sent the early draft to some of my friends. one of the MCMS devs responded to my request with the criticism that my chapter "didn't look like it was written by a 'writer'". it was the most honest feedback I had received and I felt that I was truly fortunate to have friends who would be so frank. if you aren't getting honest feedback, you aren't getting feedback.
</how-to section>

having realized that I was far from my goal of becoming a writer, I began an ongoing effort to improve my skills. although I haven't pursued any formal training, I am still considering the idea.

the MCMS book made it to a second printing so it was considered a success. I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided that I wanted to write full-time. fortunately, I figured this out at the end of my days with Microsoft. after marrying my Canadian girlfriend, I knew that it was time to move back to Canada.

I sent out some quick e-mails letting my friends in the publishing business know that I was interested in more writing projects. although working hard will create opportunity, I feel that there have been a few times when I have simply been lucky. this was one of these times. without my knowledge, one of the writers, contacted an agent and told him that I was interested in a writing career. the agent called me up and we started talking.

after a short time, it was clear to me that the StudioB agent was more than qualified to help me map out my career. we started exchanging ideas about books that I could write. I expected to be writing about things such as ASP.Net or content management. however, when I mentioned that I had been a Beta tester for Halo 2, everything changed. I wrote up a proposal for a book about Halo 2 combat techniques and the agent sent it to some publishers. the first day he sent it out, three or four publishers expressed interest.

<how-to section>
finding an agent was essential to my ability to write full-time. I would strongly recommend that all new writers seek out a skilled agent.
</how-to section>

I moved back to Canada and I started work on The Unauthorized Halo 2 Battle Guide: Advanced Combat Techniques for Premier Press Game Development (Thompson Course Technology). the project went extremely well and it led to other book deals. I am currently working on Halo books for O'Reilly and Sams.

in the end, I feel that it was working on project-based hobbies that reduced the friction of moving from one position to another -- a little luck didn't hurt either.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

halo 2 battle guide - addendum

my own retrospective analysis of the content...
for information about mistakes, please refer to the halo 2 battle guide - errata

General Comments

1. Rumble Pit play
I should have spent more time discussing the 'Rumble Pit' style of play. since this is what most people do on Xbox Live, I should have elaborated on winning strategies when the game seems like complete chaos. for example, the sword rules Lockout, and the Plasma Pistol + Magnum combo is great for Beaver Creek. these weapons work well in the chaos of rumble pit because you can score quick kills. as I wrote in the battle guide, the longer it takes you to finish someone, the greater chance that there will be an 'add' and you'll be an easy target.

Game Types

given more time, I would have included another factor of detail about specific game types. for example, 'king of the hill'. these games have a rhythm that players need to exploit. more often than not, the winner is not the player with the most kills. for example, here are some thoughts...

1. King
King games have a rhythm to them. do you find that one guy seems to always be along in the circle? that's because he has found the rhythm and is exploiting it to his advantage.

this is the Lockout King strategy for the guy on my friends list who wins the most King games:

- do not just jump into the circle.
- wait till a second person gets in the circle and let them go at it
- then walk towards the circle, throw 2 grenades .. most of the time you get a Double Kill
- then run around the circle
- as people come inside the circle, I do not bother shooting at all
- I just run around the circle and let two other people shoot it out
- before I die, I usually get 5 - 10 seconds

this may seem odd to some, but getting since getting frags is only cursory to performing well in a King game, it makes sense.

2. Swords
there is a bit of a 'glitch' when it comes to sword fighting. players who jump towards their opponent will have an advantage in the fight. I'm not sure why jumping improves the lunge range but it is obviously effective. some have argued that this guarantees that you strike your target high enough for a one-hit fight. however, I don't believe that this jumping advantage was the intention of the Bungie developers.

Weapon Comments
1. the Plasma Pistol + Battle Rifle
this combination was not really discussed. in open terrain, it is highly effective

Halo 2 Map Comments

1. to start with, here are the areas that will get you tagged the fastest:

Ascension - inside of the relay dish (i.e. the middle)
Beaver Creek - the creek
Burial Mounds - any open space
Coagulation - the middle of the map (unless you reach that RL). in Sniper games, the back of the bases is a popular kill zone.
Colossus - plain view at the top of the lift
Foundation - the middle of the side platforms (i.e. in the open on the upper level)
Headlong - the dirt area under the broken road
Ivory Tower - the top of the courtyard
Lockout - the courtyard
Midship - the middle (see a pattern?)
Waterworks - the open area in front of the bases
Zanzibar - pretty much ground level on the entire map (with the exception of rocky areas)

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

favourite fiction books

in contrast to the best geek books listing, these are my favourite fiction titles. I acknowledge that these are nothing more than my humble opinions; feel free to send me your comments.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald this book is often praised for its description of 'the jazz age' even if you aren't interested in the historical setting, you can simply enjoy the style.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
The Fountainhead is a great example of why I enjoy about Ayn Rand's novels. the dialogue is intelligent, the style is tight, and the philosophy is enmeshed in the plot. I'm not an objectivist but I respect the manner with which Rand used her novels as a vehicle for her belief system.

Dune by Frank Herbert
although I have been a Ray Bradbury fan since I can remember, I haven't read a great deal of science fiction. it wasn't until I read Dune that I appreciated the full potential of the genre. Dune is brilliant. for example, the level of detail that surrounds Herbert's imagined world is staggering. whether it's a quote from some fictional religious text, or a reference to a pearl of combat wisdom, Herbert never fails to deliver the most intricate detail required. this remarkable construction has come to be known as the "Byzantine tapestry" of Dune. I recommend this title to everybody - even if you aren't a fan of science fiction.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
this is a great book, and I'm not just writing that because it's over 1100 pages long. it's a perfect blend of technology and plot. I'm so impressed that I'll be reading another Stephenson book ASAP.

Whale Music by Paul Quarrington
this book is an absolute pleasure to read. the point of view is original and the way the story is revealed is intriguing. whale music is rumoured to be loosely based on the life of the beach boys' brian wilson.

personal trivia note: during my days as a lifeguard, I actually lifeguarded the filming of some scenes in the movie version of whale music. the best part was that they let me eat anything I wanted from the catering table. mmmmm pistachios...

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
wow, what a colossal undertaking. after finishing this book, I feel as though I've read one hundred short stories. as Marquez has acknowledged, this book stemmed from the stories that he was told by his grandmother, and the influence is obvious to the reader. this book is full of memorable tales that somehow seamlessly shift from fantasy to realism. some books are like chips from a paper bag, this book is a fine meal served on immaculate chinaware.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
this was the first Ayn Rand book that I read and I was thoroughly impressed. as I've already written, I don't share her point of view, but I greatly enjoy her writing.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
this is an excellent book. in fact, it actually holds up well to all of the hype that you hear about it these days. the book is written from the perspective of an autistic teenager. if you're at all interested in gaining an insight into the inner workings of an autistic mind, then you should read this short book.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
this is probably the funniest book I've ever read. I recommend the entire four part trilogy.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Exodus by Leon Uris

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
IMO, this book a classic for good reason. I found the first half of the book so intriguing that it was tough to put it down. the voice reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (or even Whale Music) because the reader gets a chance to experience the world through a different perspective.

The House of God : The Classic Novel of Life and Death in an American Hospital by Samuel Shem
the house of god is an irreverent insider's look at the life of medical interns. the book is gritty and it has been said that it does for health care what catch-22 did for the military.

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Woman in Bronze by Antanas Sileika
I enjoyed this book by Lithuanian born, Canadian writer Antanas Sileika. it was an interesting tale set in places that I knew little about.

Rockbound by Frank Parker Day
this is an interesting book about life on an island off the eastern shore of Nova Scotia, Canada. the novel was originally published in 1928.

Shopgirl by Steve Martin
this novella was an interesting read. the movie is considerably different than the book. I guess they wanted to be able to bill the movie as a romantic comedy so they added a lot of gags.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
when people talk about this book, they seem to exclusively discuss the section of the book that takes place on a life boat; they don't mention that that part only begins about halfway through the novel. I found the first half to be mildly interesting (because biology interests me and there's a lot about animals), the section on the lifeboat was worth reading and the ending is excellent. it's probably worth reading, just to get the chance to think about the ending.

Others that I need to add to the list:

War and Peace
Poinsonwood Bible
The Picture of Dorian Grey
Moby Dick
Crime and Punishment
Pride and Prejudice
Of Mice and Men

young reader books:

The Chronicles of Narnia
Charlottes's Web
The Hobbit