Tag: books

The Devil’s in the Resales

hamburglar
Note: The burger in this picture represents your money and me being too tired to Photoshop this picture. The Hamburglar represents the Hamburglar. But for some reason he’s a hipster now? Yeah. I don’t really get it either…

“Well,” I hear you say with a weary sigh, “at least you can sell your books back for money when you’re all done with them.”

Then, apparently not understanding how cliches work, you add, “I mean, at least it can’t get any worse, right?”

At which point, it starts raining.

But to answer your question: Yes, selling your books back is something you have the option of doing, in the same way that you could spend the day before a trip looking for loose change on the ground at the airport to pay for your ticket. You certainly could. It just wouldn’t be all that helpful.

The entire book-buying experience concludes at the end of each semester in something called “buyback.” Or as it’s more properly known, “Would you rather cling to the last shred of a moral victory, or have $6?”

So how does it work? Let me walk you through the process.

Buyback begins by handing a textbook to a salesperson who then tries to come up with the smallest number they can think of. They will then look at the book from various angles and, regardless of its condition, cut the number they were thinking of in half. While all this is going on they continually shake their head and “tsk” as your plans for your refund devolve from “dinner, movie and drinks” to “dinner and a movie” to “a movie” before finally settling on “reading movie summaries on Wikipedia.”

This concludes with one of two monetary outcomes that are, for all intents and purposes, identical.

In the first, you either bought a used copy of the book or some oil from your fingers touched the cover – either rendering it worthless at a tool for future education. The salesperson will reveal the number they thought up. And before you get halfway through your well-reasoned argument that you paid several hundred dollars more just two months ago, they say, “Take it or leave. There’s a line of sad people forming behind you.”

If you take the pittance, you’ll enjoy the realization that the book you bought for $100 used and sold for just $6 will likely be on the shelf against next semester with the same $100 price tag. Alternatively, you could walk out with your head held high(ish) and a bag full of books no human would ever want to read.

And for the record, no, even after going through that about a dozen times I’m still not sure which of those is the moral victory.

In the second scenario, the salesperson will look at a master list, sigh and say, “Looks like there’s a new edition coming out.” They then may or may not mutter something about having thought up a really good low number for nothing.

They’ll then point to the line of sad people forming behind you without offering you either a choice or pittance.

Why? Because as a I hinted at earlier, slightly different editions are effectively worthless to students. Although student bookstores can – and as I’ve seen, will – sell outdated editions, they won’t buy them back from you.

At which point you’re essentially left with a choice of tossing the books in the nearest garbage or giving it to the salesperson to do it for you.

The bad news, though, is that neither option is the moral victory in this case. If you hand over the book for “disposal,” there’s an above average chance it will still end up for sale next semester. And that’s why I probably never went this route. Giving the school the book I bought for $100 just so they could sell it again feels oddly like handing someone back their knife after they stabbed you.

Even if you think you’re sticking it to the bookstore by throwing your book in the trash outside, I’ve seen their employees root through the garbage for sellable books after closing. Seeing this didn’t make me very happy about the entire process. Though it did go a long way toward explaining why my used astronomy book smelled like an odd mixture of shame, human tears and pasta sauce when I bought it.

At least two of those three odors, I can only assume, were directly related to the buyback process in the first place.

So what’s the takeaway from all of this? What’s the moral of this story? What can future students do to make things better? Honestly, I’ve got no clue. Lord knows I was in college long enough that if there was a solution I would have figured it out and tried it myself.

For the most part I was just picking used copies based on the smells I liked most.

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(May as Well) Burn After Reading

burning

Even with all our wars and bickering, I like to think there are certain commonalities with all of us that link us to the rest of mankind on a very fundamental level. I like to think that any two people – no matter their religion, creed, race or class – share something that makes us all innately and inescapably human.

Though, before this starts sounding too flowery and poetic, I should clarify that I’m talking about our shared dislike of how much college textbooks cost.

No two students are exactly the same, meaning that everyone is bound to have their own unique journey through their college years. Some join clubs. Some prefer the solitude. Some like early classes. Some like late ones. And some prefer not to attend at all, because it’s not their money. But one of the first experiences all students will universally hate is buying books.

For those who’ve never been to college, I’ll try my best to explain. First, imagine you’re going through a TSA screening at the airport. Then imagine you’re randomly selected for a cavity search. And lastly, imagine that before you can waddle off to find a bag of ice, the TSA agent holds out a hand that was very recently inside you, clears their throat and nods to a large sign that reads, “Tipping is mandatory.”

It’s pretty much like that, except without the fun trip afterward.

Because that’s the thing people always need to understand about buying books for classes. It’s not as bad as you think. It’s generally much, much worse.

I still remember my first experience at the student bookstore. I’d been reaching for a copy of my astronomy book when I spotted the $110 price tag and cringed. With money a bit tight, I opted for one of the used copies lower on the shelf. That’s when, still not finished with my first cringe, I cringed again at the $99 used price tag.

I made several decisions at once then. For one, I made a mental note to copyright a movie where people do things inside other things and have whoever directed the next Batman movie do it. For another, I decided to find a more used copy at a lower price. I moved lower. And lower. And before long I’d reached the floor. Despite several of the used copies looking like they’d recently been used as second-rate attic insulation, none were more than 10% discounted from the shiny new ones that prompted my first cringe.

Seeing no other option, I chose the least-destroyed used copy I could find and trudged up to the counter. There, I mentally calculated how many meals I’d need to skip to keep a positive checking account balance while I waited for a line of similarly broken students to finish their own purchases. Within about thirty seconds, we were even sighing in unison.

“Well,” you say, butting in, “at least that’s the last of it.” You then brush your hands together to emphasize your point.

Except, no. Because like some horrible, horrible onion, there are many distinct layers of awful to the experience.

Not long after, I noticed an “error” on my syllabus. “Are these pages for the assigned reading right?” I asked the professor after class. “It just sort of starts midway through a random chapter and ends on the first page of another. It doesn’t cover any of the topics you mentioned in class today.”

“What edition of the book do you have?” the professor asked with a sigh, sounding distinctly like it was a conversation he had at least hourly.

I looked at my copy. “Seventh?”

“Right. We’re using a new edition,” he explained, before adding, “There’s actually a newer one coming out in the Fall, now that I think of it.”

I blinked at the useless collection of pages and failure I’d mistakenly purchased in place of the book I’d actually needed. “So…I can’t use it, then?”

“Not necessarily. I mean, it’s still pretty much the same book as it was in the third edition. You’ll just have to search around a bit to match up your pages to the ones I assign.” He shrugged. “The chapter titles are even the same so it shouldn’t be a big deal, except…”

“I take it you’re about to tell me some really good news.”

Swing and a miss. “I mean, the good news is, finding the pages isn’t a huge deal. There are only three reading assignments from the book anyway, and I mostly cover it in class anyway.”

“I’m highly concerned that you consider that part the good news,” I said grimly. He’d effectively just revealed that I’d spent a hundred dollars on a book he’d only expected me to open three times in the course of his class. It made me more than a little worried at what he considered bad news.

“Well, the trouble is, you’ll need a new copy to connect to the online coursework. It has a CD and password that can only be used once.” Having apparently brushed against some memory of what it had been like to be a decent human, he muttered, “Sorry.”

“The online coursework is 15% of the grade…so…” I trailed off into my own misery. “Is there any way I could get a CD and password?” Seeing his lips begin to move, I clarified, “Without buying a new book and wasting a second $100.”

“$100? I thought it was $110.”

My eye twitched.

He hesitated before finally answering, “There is one thing.”

“Tell me the thing.”

“I’ve heard you can purchase it direct from the publisher and cut out the school as the middle man,” he answered. “The good news is that one of my students last year said it was only $60. And I think it only went up $5 in the new edition.”

“You have an interesting view of what constitutes good news.”

This, naturally, led to a lecture on how he wasn’t setting the prices. He was, in fact, on my side. The best I could do, he reasoned, was to make the best of a bad situation by succeeding despite the difficulty. Then again, it was hard to see him as any sort of fellow victim when he’d been the one to make the questionable reading list in the first place. And I’ll admit that his position was more than a little undercut by the fact that he’d actually written the book and was collecting royalties from my purchase.

Now, as luck would have it – and trust me, miraculously so – the CD and password in my used copy hadn’t been used before the book was sold back. Since books are totally non-refundable or exchangeable (until buyback, which I’ll get to), it literally meant that if I’d picked any of the other used copies at random, I’d have been buying a $100 paperweight.

And one that required (at least) a $65 replacement, no less.

Was that a bad experience? Absolutely. But not nearly as bad as the time I bought the most recent edition and couldn’t use it because the professor was still using the third edition workbook CD. I had, in fact, bought a too-new edition to use in his class.

Or the time a professor said they requested the library remove all copies of a book. In his words, “If there were copies at the library, people would just check them out for the reading assignments instead of buying them, to save money.”

“I’m not sure how to respond to that,” I said. “That was pretty much my argument for why a copy should be in the library.” I then let him get back to baking children into pies in his house made of candy.

But that, much like the used book I once found missing every page from Chapter 14 to the back cover, is only half the story.

The Proof is in the Preview

Expectation Reality.jpg
(Left) Preview screenshot. (Right) Release day screenshot.

As news of Nintendo’s new NX console continues to not pour in, I’ve decided to focus my efforts elsewhere for a while.

Okay. That’s a lie meant entirely as a segue. I’ve honestly given up on the NX already, because that was my policy with the Wii U about three minutes after I heard it described. It was also my policy during the last year of the Wii’s life cycle, where they’d clearly given up on it but kept saying, “Well, maybe we’ll do another Zelda game or something for it? So, you know, one game released per year is pretty good for a system, right?”

Actually, that’s got a weird sort of symmetry with the Wii U now. “Don’t give up on the Wii U. There’s a Zelda game coming out for it eventually. Maybe? So, you know, one game released every two years is pretty good for a system, right?”

But I digress, which I should probably stop doing while I segue.

I recently watched a video that was basically just thirty upcoming game trailers cobbled together. In hindsight, it’s not a good way to digest the information. Because at the end all you’re left with is a vague sense of confusion and you’ve actually forgotten the name of the game six minutes in that looked sort of interesting. You know the one. It was right after the “Metal Gear” spin-off with zombies. Or maybe any trailer would’ve looked good after that one.

Alas, I’m not here to point out the highlights. Even before I watched this trailer ball I’ve been burned by so many good-looking games in the past that turned out to be garbage that I’m incredibly wary nowadays. And my historical average of deciding which games were worth recommending based on trailers alone is low enough that I don’t think my readers deserve more of my horrible guesses.

No, this is more about game marketing itself.

Game preview articles tend to be a bit better, if only by virtue of not being a series of flashing images of explosions meant to dazzle you without any real substance. But they’re far from perfect. In fact, the thing that prompted this article in the first place was reading several previews and realizing that once I’d scrolled down far enough that the title was no longer visible, it may as well have been a preview of any game coming out in 2017.

But it’s more than just having the information run together after reading so much of it. Even games in wildly different genres (say, first-person shooter versus action RPG) are more or less pulling from the same shared script. And the worst thing is that, in addition to being just copied and pasted, I’m starting to realize that none of the words actually have any meaning to begin with.

Here are a few things I keep seeing in game previews that tell me literally nothing.

“Story-driven” games or games “with a narrative focus.” The more I hear this, the less I’m sure what exactly it’s supposed to mean. After hearing a reviewer say this about “Overwatch,” a game that literally lacks a story mode, I can’t even say that it’s code for “our game has a plot.”

Granted, they have released a number of animations for it that look amazing. But those aren’t part of the game. It’s like the stories in the manuals of NES games. You can make the manual a 160-page comic but if I can’t squint at your pixels and roughly tell what’s going on, it’s not a story.

But even when games have a story, I’m a bit skeptical of developers who tout their games with these words. I’ve never seen a restaurant describe its clam chowder as “so-so.” Yet, I’ve eaten bad clam chowder before. Those experiences have taught me that even if taste didn’t vary from person to person, the last person I’d trust to tell me about food would be the people whose profits hedge on whether or not you eat there. In short, leave the previews to players and game reviewers.

At least when those reviewers acknowledge that to be “story-driven” the minimum price of admission is, you know, having a story.

“1080p,” “4k” or “60 frames per second.” Graphical resolution is a lot like a garnish next to a high-priced meal. I expect it to be there, but it’s probably the least important thing on the plate.

So what’s wrong with having games with fluid animation and graphics so clear they make reality look like I just rubbed sand in my eyes? Well, nothing – at least not inherently. The bigger issue is that frames per second has become a bit of a lightning rod for gamer angst that more or less boils down to one number being bigger than another. That’s when you start to see angry forum denizens post things like, “Oh, sure. The demo clocked at 60fps but the benchmark tests looked closer to 56. And unless you play it on a native 900p, it looks like garbage.”

And I’m just sort of nodding along before asking, “But you still shoot at bad guys and they drop power-ups, right? Or…no?”

In short, I sort of gravitate between not really understanding the Sudoku-like jumble of numbers and not really caring. Because numbers.

And when it comes to 4k, it’s even worse. My TV doesn’t do that. Yet, it’s still too nice a TV for me to put on the curb and drop two grand just to make that set of numbers go higher. And unless I get the new, more special PS4, my games still won’t look better anyway. So when someone says a game plays at 60 frames per second in 4k resolution, I briefly consider the seventeen different things I’d need to upgrade to even notice (one of which being my own eyes) and then go home and admire the pile of $3200 I’m saving.

Oh, right. I had a kid. So…not so much.

“There are lots of collectibles to find!” I’m not sure when adding tedious work to games became acceptable. I’m even less sure of when it became a selling point.

Don’t get me wrong. I like finding secrets. In an excellent game, it can give you a few extra hours of enjoyment on something you’ve beaten in practically every way imaginable otherwise. And when it’s done organically and/or offers fun rewards, it can push those 40 hour games into 60+ hour territory while still leaving you wanting more.

But more often, it’s done in the most slapdash method available. They give you a list with a bunch of greyed-out words that you want to be white. No special character conversations when you find an object. No reward for completing the list. You’d essentially achieve the same sense of victory by turning up the brightness settings on your television.

“An expansive open world to explore.” Okay. Now I’ll preface this one by saying that it’s only a bad thing about half the time. But when it’s bad, it can transform your epic fantasy adventure into little more than a walking simulator.

skyrim-map
And I actually had to cut off one side of the map to make it fit.

“The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim” is an above average example of open world success. While it didn’t necessarily manage to make the people living there look like real people who actually exist in between your visits, the world map is insane. Sure. You can beat the main game in something like a few hours if you put on your blinders and go straight ahead. But if you feel like turning over every rock and investigating every run-down shack you come across, well, let’s just say that I never finished doing it. And I’m the obsessive type.

The trick to wide open spaces is putting lots of things in it – especially things totally unrelated to the main quest. Side quests, crafting nodes and teeny tiny Easter eggs can be found almost everywhere. It’s just a matter of picking a random direction and heading that way. Or even just pointing yourself at a random bookshelf, since all the books are actually readable.

Will it be your cup of skooma? Not necessarily. Some people don’t like to read. And once you’re outfitted in top-tier gear and there’s little chance of actually finding something worthwhile in a hidden chest, I realize it loses a bit of its allure. But that still leaves treasure hunts, finding the aftermaths of interesting events and entire villages tucked away just out of sight.

Blackreach, for example, was an entire subterranean country that I just happened upon that had nothing to do with the main story.

As far as bad examples, I won’t throw any games under the bus. But there are more than a few open world games with literally nothing of interest between towns. And while the scenery is sometimes pretty to look at for a while, even that gets boring when you realize there’s no reason to wander off the main roads to go in for a closer look.

Cough. “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.” Cough.

Okay. So I will throw one game under the bus here, which I hate doing, because I actually really enjoyed the game otherwise. It was fun to play and had very visually distinct and interesting places to walk through. But it didn’t take me long to realize that was largely the extent of it – walking through them. I mean, sure, you got attacked by random enemies. Though, saying that’s actually fun is a little like saying it was fun to move around in Pokemon caves because you ran out of repel and a Zubat is attacking you every three steps.

So…maybe I have a couple games to throw under the bus there.

I’m once again trending toward a column with no solid point at the end, but it is what it is. The gist is this, though. If your game is great, you’ll have more than enough honesty available to sell it. And if it’s lousy, I admittedly understand wanting to talk it up and, you know, actually make some money off the thing you’ve been working on for the past sixteen months.

If I had anything like a point to make here, though, I think it would be a warning to not stray too far from the truth – even when it’s not pretty. Unless it happens to be the last game you plan to make, keep in mind that gamers remember. And they aren’t often kind to liars who bilked them out of $60 when the sequels come out.

Which sort of makes me wonder how or if they’d try marketing “No Man’s Sky 2.”