Nathaniel Hood

Nathaniel Hood is a transportation planner and blogger living in St. Paul. He writes for Strong Towns and Streets.MN.

The Rise and Fall of Sonic the Hedgehog (and Sega)

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Video games Updated: December 7, 2014 - 1:27 PM

For a brand to thrive, it needs to constantly reinvent itself. Sega isn’t doing that and the once unstoppable hedgehog has been diminished to mere nostalgia.

The icon that helped launch Sega ahead of Nintendo during the Console Wars has been relegated to second-class superhero status from an overabundance of sub-par appearances and reckless business practices. As a staple of my childhood, I find this disconcerting.

Originally released in 1991, the inaugural Sonic the Hedgehog had unique gameplay, previously unseen graphics, and fast gameplay. Experiencing Sonic in the early 1990s was akin to the previous generation watching color television for the first time. This was the Launchpad of an iconic brand.

Sega followed up with an impressive sequel that gave most players their first-glimpse at the 3D gaming world through expertly-designed bonus stages. This feat should not be understated. Quality games (and a skilled marketing team) helped bring Sega from a market share of less than 10 percent to the dominate player in the industry.

Sonic ended the 16-bit era with a bright future despite some forgettable spin-off flops, such as Sonic Spinball (Sonic + Pinball = Disappointment). As Sega would soon learn, one failed spin-off is fine, but multiple failed spin-offs is not.

Sega’s mismanagement during the 32-bit era created doubts about the company, including the business decision to release a new console (Saturn) without a title of its hottest intellectual property (Sonic). Doubts amplified as Sega faced increased competition from Sony’s Playstation.

The decision to release Saturn (and then immediately pull the plug) was a move that likely cost Sega billions of dollars. There was a four year period between 1996 and 1999 with no major titles. Imagine this timeframe in the mid of a young gamer: going from eight to 12 without the creation of brand nostalgic. In the minds of these kids, Sonic is irrelevant.

This absence of Sonic during this period allowed Nintendo to dominate, and Mario 64 and Pokémon helped create a near monopoly on this age group while Sony converted mature gamers onto their platform (one of those gamers was me, and I still remain largely loyal to Playstation).

For better and for worse, Dreamcast got the jump on the next generation with the clever “9/9/99” campaign. They had learned from their mistakes and released the new console with their flagship franchise (Sonic Adventure). In 1999, you had Sonic Adventure and everything else. Sonic was back! The game was a hit and was a much needed breath of fresh air for Sega fans.

Yet, it wasn’t enough. Despite a successful launch and masterful Sonic games, the Dreamcast couldn’t compete with Playstation 2. Sega soon abandoned the console market to become a software company. Since the demise of Sega’s console business, the Sonic brand has been a collection of mostly misses. It’s an unfortunate truth that Sonic has been damaged to such a degree the gamers approach new releases with caution, not excitement.

When Sonic does best, it’s through nostalgia-aimed releases like Generations. But new versions of the franchise have failed to revive the brand. One journalist hinted that Sonic 06' was one of the worst games of the year and the re-branding that resulted in Sonic Boom: Rise of the Lyric had people scratching their heads. Both appeared to be rushed to market at the expense of gameplay. Continually releasing an unrefined product is a good way to kill a franchise.

Sonic now operates primarily in the nostalgic realm. There are still hardcore fans, but without a landmark release like Sonic Adventure, there isn't much hope for the revitalization of the Sonic brand. A business can run on nostalgia only for so long.

The question is: How can Sega appease the nostalgic fan base while moving the franchise into the future?

This is the question Sega will need to answer if Sonic is going to be around for another 20 years. Sega appears to be making the smart move of tackling the youth market dominated by Nintendo. This is a crucial age group to capture from a marketing perspective. The problem with this approach though is that Sega is challenging Nintendo's market share while still being reliant upon them to release their games on Nintendo consoles.

Sega's faults have been that they've been absent when competition was strongest and over-eager to release inferior products when unnecessary. I want to see Sonic thrive for another 20 years. To do so, Sega will need to drastically improve the quality of flagship Sonic games, aggressively target emerging gamers, and find a way to control their distribution (e.g.: not being reliant on Nintendo).

A First-Timer Plays Dungeons & Dragons

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Games, Society Updated: November 3, 2014 - 9:39 PM

Has there ever been a better time to be a nerd? No, probably not. So, I wanted to dive in deeper ...

My first adventure into ultimately nerdery has left me with one resounding conclusion: if you have never played Dungeons and Dragons, whatever you think you know, forget it. You are wrong. It's not the broad common assumption supported by mainstream media and it's certainly not the Simpson's Comic Book guy.

It's something else.

Dungeons and Dragons is a game I have been anxious to play for quite sometime, but up until recently, I never had that special someone to introduce me. After what felt like a decade, my friend Chris invited to join his group. I finally had my date. Wednesday night. 7pm. Roseville. Fantasy Flight Games Event Center.

On Facebook, a friend suggested I pick up a bag of Cooler Ranch Doritos, Twizzlers and some Mountain Dew. These were surely the needed rations. With giddy delight, I texted a photo of the junk food to my Dungeons and Dragons playing friend. It was only a few seconds later that I was alerted that "Sadly you can't bring that into FFG :( ".

It is at this point that I realized that I had absolutely no idea what I was walking into. Is Dungeons and Dragons even possible without Mountain Dew?

It hit me. I experienced something I hadn't in the longest time: unreasonable teenage angst. As if I was going on a first date. I even mentally beat myself up over what I should wear. It was prom night and I was unprepared and unsure of myself. I could do nothing but drive north on Snelling Avenue and sip Mountain Dew in anticipation.

The FFG Event Center shattered any preconceived notions I had as it more closely resembles a post-modernist downtown hotel than your high school friend's parent's basement. Which, frankly, was both disappointing and relieving. I quickly grabbed a coffee at the cafe and my friend picked up a Surly on-tap before the game (yes, local craft beer is available).

I was a halfling rouge teamed up with an elf and two dwarfs. It was an unbalanced team consisting of two rookies, a mid-career professional and an experienced veteran. And the ruthless Dungeon Master? A friendly dude named Brian.

After a quick explanation of the rules, we were off. The first mission: get a dragon egg from a barn.

Okay - this is where I'm going to lose a few people. I agree. Getting a dragon egg from a barn doesn't exactly sound epic. I was along for the ride, even if the whole deal seemed shady. I distrust anyone, fictional or otherwise, willing to exchange money for a dragon egg in a barn. It worked out beautifully though and it was a great beginners story to learn a few tricks and strategies.

For our successful completion (oh! we dropped a few bad dudes in the process), we were granted 200 gold coins by a man I can only assume was going to use that dragon egg for nefarious purposes. Regardless, we got our coin and traversed into something a little more frightening: a goblin cave.

An crying woman's family had been kidnapped at their now-ransacked farm outside of town (advice to humans living in the world of DnD: buy Goblin Insurance).

Here's where the real fun began. So, two dwarves, an elf, and a rogue halfling walk into a goblin cave. We head into the cave and it's at this point, maybe an hour and a half into the game, that I get it. I decide to take two items and use my imagination (lantern + flask of oil) and toss all of them into the cave. The result was a medieval Molotov cocktail with a side of chaos. One fried goblin later, we're inside and rescuing some humans. Success!

Two missions down, literally thousands to go ...

What's astonishing about Dungeons and Dragons is the learning curve. It's easy to get started, but the game can get insanely complex. It's your job to use your best improvisational skills within the boundaries of the game. It's about asking questions, improvising, and moving within a loose framework. It creates this beautiful platform where you can play the same series of events 10 times and never have the same outcome. It's a table top game with near infinite possibilities.

What did you do last Wednesday?

I helped rescue some humans, drop some evil goblins, bought a dragon egg, and made a few friends in the process. Heroes in our own minds. Nerds in the minds of others. But who cares? There's never been a better time to be a nerd.

If you haven't played Dungeons and Dragons, I think you really should. Grab a coffee (or Surly on-tap) and join us each Wednesday in Roseville's FFG at 7pm. If you have the courage to show up, I can guarantee you'll have a great time.

An Open Letter to Katherine Kersten

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Government, Politics, Transportation Updated: September 22, 2014 - 9:05 AM

Dear Katherine,

Please stop writing the same article over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Being polite Minnesotans, with exceptions being granted to those commenting anonymously on the Star Tribune's website, we have tried rather unwillingly to disregard your repetitive assertions that our regional government agency is akin to George Orwell's 1984.

The assertions in your most recent column ("Met Council's 'Thrive' Plan has a bullying effect") can best be described as click-bait. One day, I would love to address them, but diagnosing the problem and offering alternatives would render this article dry and exhaustively nuanced, and therefore unreadable. I'll leave that task to someone else.

There are real issues in reforming the Metropolitian Council. However, the mud-slinging, or more politely, the constructive-less criticism, harms healthy debate.

I have criticisms too. It would likely serve our region better if our representatives were democratically elected. I believe that local government should have more control over funding and that subsidizing large-scale affordable housing complexes near a highway exit in an exurb is silly. I also believe that we've allocated limited resources towards some rail projects, specifically the Northstar line, that could have been better used elsewhere.

Believe it or not, there is a surprising amount that we can agree upon. We should approach the debate in this manner.

I may be jumping to conclusions, but I think it is fair to say that you've found your base. That being, a group of like-minded souls following you precisely because you'll give them exactly what they want. You write to the blood-thirsty hyenas as if they are caged and starving, and you're tossing them a freshly cut steak.

You also know how to strike a chord with the opposition. You do this by twisting admittedly overused planning industry buzzwords and placing them within quotations. "Sustainability". "Equity". This is how you express mockery onto the subjects without having to address the root issue. These words have, without question, been greenwashed and co-opted. But, when you examine the heart of these concepts, they're things we as a society should genuinely care about; and more importantly, they are neither left nor right.

Transportation and land use are nuanced, and we need to treat them as such. To say light rail is always wrong, or conversely, that never building another road is good, is to not understand urban geography. It is fair to say that masterplanning can never be perfect, but it's unfair to say that our status quo, that being of suburban expansion, has resulted in what the consumer wants. Historically speaking, the free market has not driven the suburban infrastructure and development you claim to support. Ironically, it has been that of massive government intervention at the federal, state, regional and local level.

I don't need to lecture. You already know this. And, when did you fall down that perilous, slippery slope and into the Phil Donohue school of policy making? Such Met Council bashing only makes your most admiring supporters feel good about themselves, but it's unlikely to make much of a dent in the problems we face. A smart person once quipped that.

As someone who would like to see real change at the Metropolitan Council, I would like to politely request that you please start writing critically about it, examining nuances and offering real suggestions. You have a great platform and it'd be a shame to squander such a great opportunity.

Sincerely, -Nate

Nathaniel Hood
St. Paul, MN
Sept. 21, 2014

How To Justify Spending $8m On Something Few Want

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Minnesota, Physical infrastructure, Transportation, Road and highway construction, Football, Vikings, Vikings off the field Updated: September 10, 2014 - 8:26 AM

The Met Council is gambling $8.7 million on a project to alleviate pedestrian congestion that might exist in 5 to 10 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.

That's like buying flood insurance on the house you have yet to buy.

The below $8.7 million piece of public infrastructure is intended to create a more safe passageway for travelers at the Downtown East station during Vikings home games. It’ll serve west and northbound train passengers and other pedestrians looking to enter a new football stadium. It is deemed this will be an important pedestrian overpass once all four major light rail lines completed.

The Viking Stadiums Bridge to NowhereDownload the Downtown East Plan Met Council PowerPoint here [PDF].

Those reading this should have at least two questions:

  1. How did this come to be a thing?
  2. Why is it all of a sudden getting $8.7 million?

I pay particularly close attention to local projects. I read blogs, forums and newspapers daily. I know and follow local decision-makers on social media, track development proposals, and pay attention to those boring committees few care about. I also work in the industry and talk to other people who work and follow the industry across related professions. It’s fair to say that I have a very good idea of what’s going on in the Twin Cities and the transportation and development needs of the community.

Never once have I heard of this project until a few days ago. And now, out of the blue, we’re dropping $8.7 million on a bridge that’ll be needed 10 days a year starting in 2019.

I wrote a blog post last year titled The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure. It was well received, and is even being used as required reading in an undergrad planning course in California. In the article I theorize as to why we make bad decisions when it comes to receiving other people’s money on transit projects;

It’s the orderly, but dumb system that makes planners and politicians play to a bureaucratic equation that is supposed to guide officials towards the best alternative. Only it never actually works out that way and it usually forces smart people into making highly compromised and less-than-ideal decisions.

The pedestrian bridge is different. It may deal with Federal grants, but is also come from local and regional coffers. Regardless, this project is being pushed forward. According to the Star Tribune,

“The transit agency will likely devote $6 millon from its coffers for the project (this figure could be offset by federal grants), with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (which oversees stadium construction) ponying up $2 million, and the rest coming from bonds issues by the Met Council.”

Before we go any further, I think we need to ask a complex question.

How did we get here?

The new $1 billion Green Line is done and the $1.1 billion Vikings Stadium is underway. They combine to represent over $2 billion of investment. Our local leaders are concerned, as they should be, that these pieces of infrastructure be as perfect as possible.

To quote a former Governor (one who wasn’t a professional wrestler),

“All too often, the human tendency is to compound one big mistake with a series of additional mistakes in the hope that somehow the results will improve. This appears to be the case with the Vikings stadium.”

Politicians are attracted to big, transformitive projects, so it seems only natural that our leaders, who have expelled a great amount of political capital, want to see every inch of it succeed. Even if that means throwing good money after bad.

How We Justify It All

An engineer at the Met Council, likely under much political pressure, noticed something: based on 2019 projections, during peak hours on Minnesota Vikings game days, there will be only a 120 second headway between trains. This will likely not be enough time to manage safe pedestrian crossings. The proposed solution is the bridge.

TopView

Please note the skyway attached to the State-mandated parking structure.

The pedestrian bridge makes some sense. Based on the projections, there will be long lines and delays during this period; and building a bridge for pedestrians certainly isn’t an unreasonable response. The Met Council’s Transportation Committee appears to be interested in the idea.

Let’s look at these assumptions: they assume that there will be two additional light rail lines in full operation, both of which have not yet even been either fully allocated money or constructed. Basically, the Met Council is gambling $8.7 million that there might be a problem in 5 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.

To reiterate: Four (4) LRT lines being in operation (Blue, Green, SW & Bottentieu) and that Vikings game attendees hitting a 40% transit mode share. All of things don't currently exist. It also assumes, more importantly, that if there is congestion people will not find an alternative route or change their travel behavior. This isn't to say we can't plan ahead. We should. But, we should be more realistic in our projections and our priorities.

Where Are Our Priorities?

Why did this project get fast-tracked while other smaller, more “everyday” projects never see the light of day? And, when smaller projects get the public’s attention, why do they struggle to find funding? These are merely a question of priorities.

As Nick Magrino (at streets.mn) has asked so often, “why are we embarrassed by the bus?” He writes,

“… I can’t shake the feeling that many of the expensive transit improvements we get in the Twin Cities are thought up by people who don’t actually use transit. Which is why we end up with Northstar, the Red Line, and so on.”

A bridge like this seems like such a low priority, especially when we have legitimate transportation needs. For example, THIS is a bus stop on a heavily used transit line near the center of Minneapolis.

It’s not that a pedestrian bridge is a terrible idea. Under the projections, at some point in the future, it seems maybe reasonable. But, why is the Met Council prioritizing and fast-tracking this, whereas things like bike lanes, bus shelters, and potholes get ignored? I say this because you could build 40 miles of protected bike lanes for the same price tag.

Projects can take on a life of their own. There is no traditional process to getting things done. In this pedestrian overpass, you have the right person with the right slideshow presenting it to the right people at the right time. From here, you have the Met Council employees and political-appointed representatives who have monies at their disposal. The proposal, while not perfect, seems reasonable enough. And, we’ve just spent $2 billion on infrastructure, so we need to make it right. The presentation looks good, so why not go for it?

What would your City do with $8.7 million?

Imagine if the City of Minneapolis was given $8.7 million that could only be used on downtown pedestrian and/or transit projects. What would they do? The answer is: not a pedestrian bridge to be used during 10 sports games a year.

So, why are we doing it?

The answer is that we can get money from elsewhere to do the things we don’t need to do. But, when it comes to doing the simple things that we need to do, well, that money isn’t available from elsewhere. The pedestrian bridge is a bad idea (right now) that’s made worse when you think of the countless thousands of more useful public investments we could be making.

The truth is that the people and the City of Minneapolis don't even care about it. It's not on their radar. It's the people who control infrastructure and transportaiton dollars who care about this. If given the opportunity to allocate these dollars elsewhere, it's fair to say thatliterally everyone locally would divert them elsewhere.

Our priorities get skewed and we misallocate resources most when our funding comes from elsewhere. In fact, it is precisely why Minneapolis has the below. All of which the City of Minneapolis will be tearing down in 30 years …

vikingsblahugh

Note: This is also next to a proposed park called "The Yard" that neither the City of Minneapolis nor it's Park Board want to maintain. Yet, somehow it's still a thing.

Eight Steps To Improve Twin Cities Urbanism

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Government, Physical infrastructure, Transportation Updated: July 26, 2014 - 11:57 AM

We need to stop building bad places. We don’t need to build Rome or Paris. We just need to stop building Houston.

The following eight rules apply to every major and mid-sized city with no exceptions. If your leaders don’t do these, somebody else’s will. And, you’ll have people asking in 10 years time why you haven’t already done them.

1. Make accessory dwelling units legal

This is the easiest way to add density without adding “density”. This won’t change your city overnight, but it’ll help lay the groundwork for improved urbanism. We need to see a rise in these types of dwellings because they add to affordable housing stock, expand housing options, add tax revenue, and are Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street”. Except in this case, it’s eyes on the alleyway. Read more about accessory dwelling units here.

2. Eliminate parking minimums as soon as possible

There is no bigger detriment to urban centers than parking. It adds costs to private development and drives up rents. Car storage is a terribly inefficient way to allocate land, especially in existing walkable neighborhoods. If you want to make your downtown more livable, the first policy move should be to eliminate (or, reduce if elimination is not politically feasible) all parking requirements.

If you worry about parking (and “congestion”), you might lose great local institutions to the suburbs. I’m looking at you, St. Paul.

3. Four-three conversions of stroads

Most four lane collector roads are ugly, unsafe and do a poor job of moving traffic. They are theworst of all worlds.

These stroads take up a lot of space and don’t allow for either bike lanes or on-street parking. Conversions have been well studied and the results are conclusive. They improve pedestrian and bicycle safety, calm traffic, improve emergency response and have reduced vehicle crash rates (between a low of 17 to a high of 62 percent (source)). When it comes to re-striping roads, four-three conversations are nearly always a solid bet. These are easy sells because they usually don’t effect Level of Service (by the way, which is something cities need to stop caring so much about). Also, take time to use the extra space for on-street parking and bike facilities. 

4. Sell public surface parking lots for $1

Cities and towns are sitting on a gold mine of under-utilized land, specifically public open-surface parking lots. What is open surface parking getting you? The answer is very little.

This is easy: sell them to the highest bidder. Have an auction, start at $1 and sell to the highest bidder. Code the specific site to hit all the urban guidelines fitting of a form based code and require development start within 3 to 5 years. Imagine the benefit to a City like Minneapolis or St. Paul if someone put (just) mediocre mixed-use buildings on each city own surface lot.

5. Better transit, not (necessarily) more transit

Light Rail is awesome. But, it’s also expensive. Let’s start small and improve the transit that we have, precisely bus service. Adding a bus shelter is relatively cheap ($5,000 to $6,000). BRT is also great and relatively affordable. Make these moves first. They are political feasible and improve the lives of people who are currently using transit. This means, making what we have run on time and run faster.

Don’t let great be the enemy of good. Support small incremental improvements to our transit service and don’t wait for the “big and shiny” project. Because, if you’re lucky enough to get Federal funding for a new streetcar or light rail, it’ll be 25 years away  before any improvements happen (take note St. Paul). Read more about improving transit in a cost-effective way here.

6. Allow more beer/wine licenses

Retail is dying a slow death. Every sale on Amazon, Etsy, or Zappos represents one less sale at a brick-and-mortar book store, gift shop or clothing store. These, and a shift of the nature of work, will make filling retail storefronts more difficult. We need to fill frontages. It’s essentially to walkability.

Food is the rational response as it’s not easily outsourced. And, to make margins for these places, they’ll likely need to sell beer and wine. There is a changing cultural dichotomy going on. More expensive local craft beer sales and high-end cocktails are shifting the nature of traditional 60/40 (or 70/30, etc.) beer to food sale requirements. These need to change, too.

If you want to fill your empty storefronts, you’ll need to look beyond retail.

7. Eliminate one way streets

The case against one way streets is already solved. The verdict is in.

Converting streets to two-ways has many benefits. These types of streets, as opposed to one-ways, improve pedestrian and bike safety, improve vehicle navigation and overall safety, lower speeds, and improve the financial health of local businesses (source). Many cities have already converted their one way streets to two ways. Your city should too.

8. Allow the “sharing” economy to be legal

Whether the establishment likes it or not, it’s going to happen. The question is, how will you let it happen? Be smart. Be fair. But for God’s sake, don’t make it illegal (I’m looking at you Miami).

Uber and Lyft aren’t competing against taxis. They’re competing against the cost of owning a car. If these services can remove just a handful of cars (or reduce drunk driving) that should be viewed as an urban benefit. And, AirBNB isn’t competing against hotels (which can be expensive), but it more so about providing options for people to safely rent our there apartments and make extra money to off-set the costs of living in an more high-demand urban settings.

The sharing economy might be hard for many to swallow, but it needs to be legal.

Now, these eight suggestions won’t make your city a success overnight, but they are politically-feasible, small, incremental changes that you can make to help inch your city in the right direction.

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