Monthly Archives: April 2009

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

A bit of recent tidying up has turned up some dusty old PC magazines, so I thought it might be a bit of fun to look back at The World of 1989 *wobbly screen flashback effect*

In the UK in 1988 the consumer PC market was ruled by Amstrad, Alan Sugar’s IBM-compatibles being far cheaper than their rivals; almost every company advertising in Issue 28 of PC Plus from January 1989 (likely published a month or two before) were only offering Amstrads. In a sign of things to come, though, one company, Watford Electronics, were offering their own PCs; the recently introduced Amstrad PC2000 range wouldn’t have the same success as their initial offerings as a host of other companies started assembling their own systems and competing on price, but at the start of 1989 it was Amstrad all the way. Including 13% VAT, £440 would get you a basic PC1512 (8Mhz 8086 processor, 512Kb memory, mono CGA screen, single 360k 5.25″ disk drive), while a top-of-the-range PC1640 (same 8Mhz processor but 640k memory, colour EGA screen and 20Mb hard drive) would set you back £1320. 80286 and 80386 processors and VGA screens were just starting to filter through to consumers, an Amstrad PC2286 (12Mhz 80286, 1Mb memory, 14″ high-resolution VGA screen) wouldn’t give much change from £2000, but you did get Windows 2.1 with that.

If you wanted to upgrade your PC, £200 would get you a 20Mb hard drive, or for £250 a “hard card”, combining the hard drive and a controller card; £50 would secure an extra 128Kb RAM for your Amstrad 1512. Amstrads came with mice, which was a good thing with a Microsoft mouse costing £105. Printers were mostly dot matrix (£130 for a 9 pin Citizen 120D, £1000 for a 24 pin, colour, 136 column Epson LQ2550) unless you wanted to spend as much as an uber-PC on a laser (£1500 minimum), though Hewlett Packard were bringing inkjets to the world with the £600 Deskjet.

The cover story of PC Plus was “Now We’re Talking! Full test of Amstrad’s new price-bustng network kit” Yes, for a mere £459 you got three network cards and the requisite cables and software to connect up a file server and two workstations. Elsewhere “comms” were something of a black art of V21, V22, V22bis and Hayes compatibility, scarcely a hint of bulletin boards or electronic mail around the place, though fax cards offered the opportunity to turn your PC into a low-price (£300-500!) alternative to a dedicated fax machine (£1000+).

Enough of all that, though, what about the good stuff? Well, in games news “Players of The Bard’s Tale will be pleased to hear of The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, due in December at £24.95.” Also out in December, Electronic Arts’ Zany Golf would offer nine “wild and imaginative holes that cannot be recreated in real life”. I remember a bouncing hamburger in that… Reviewed were Grand Prix Circuit, giving you a chance to drive a Ferrari, Williams or McLaren on eight circuits; Airborne Ranger from Microprose, the first proper PC game I bought, possibly on the strength of the review; the classic arcade conversion of Double Dragon, smoothly done and with a two player mode, and Jet Bike PC, a budget offering from Code Masters at £15 compared to £25 for the other games with only CGA graphics, but well received for compulsive gameplay. Finally The Three Stooges was praised for superb graphics and sound, but the five arcade mini-game snippets were deemed too simplistic, easy and repetitive, especially for the £30 price tag. A quick scan of the adverts doesn’t really turn up any classic games listed, flight sims and adventures to the fore; PC gaming was still very much in its early days, playing second fiddle to the Amiga and Atarti ST.

Thought for the day.

From Wikipedia:

“The 2012 Doomsday Prediction is a present-day cultural tradition proposing that cataclysmic and apocalyptic events will occur in the year 2012.”

And then, on another Wikipedia page:

“The 2012 Summer Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the XXX Olympiad, are due to take place in London, United Kingdom”

Yes indeed, we British really are that bad at organising international events.

KiaSA Records presents…

Rock on!

CD 1

1. Grind – Alice In Chains
2. I’m Bored – Iggy Pop
3. Get Your Grind On – The Notorious B.I.G. Feat. Big Pun, Fat Joe & Freeway
4. Bored – Deftones
5. We’ll Grind That Axe For A Long Time – Pantera
6. Bored Of Everything – ELLEGARDEN
7. The Grind – Aerosmith
8. It’s Easy To Get Bored – Helmet

CD 2

1. Slave To The Grind – Skid Row
2. I’m Bored – Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band
3. The Grind Date – De La Soul
4. Bored Stiff – Every Time I Die
5. Daily Grind – Little Feat
6. Bored To Tears – Black Label Society
7. The Grind – Erykah Badu
8. Bored Stiff – Chas ‘N’ Dave
9. Grind Time – Chamillionaire

Plastic Rock Roundup

Welcome back to the world’s premier Plastic Rock News Column, for regular updates on all the plastic rock news! Well, I say “World”, just Europe really. OK, not all of Europe, Britain. And “regular” might be overstating things slightly. And it’s not really *all* the plastic rock news, I’ve only got a Wii and don’t care about the other consoles. And it’s probably worth making it clear that by “plastic rock” I mean the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games with their plastic instrument peripherals, rather than natural looking but lightweight stone substitute for garden dressing or modelling. What was I talking about again?

First exciting news, after a couple of false alarms Rock Band 2 finally has an official release date for the UK Wii version! A mere four months after the US release, we get to Rock in a Band for the second time on April 24th. With Guitar Hero instrument compatibility and downloadable content, unlike the original Wii Rock Band, I’ll be picking this up to finally compare the two Plastic Rock Behemoths. One silver lining to the cloud of the four month delay is that it’s given plenty of time for Wii DLC to become available, and while not quite up to the full few hundred tracks available on other systems there’s been a steady increase from the fifty originally available in January.

Not long after that, it’s time to get a mosh on with Guitar Hero: Metallica out on May 5th. Normally I’d grumble about that being a month after the US release, but compared to Rock Band it’s positively speedy. It’s getting good write-ups, and as a paid up person-who-quite-likes-Metallica I’m much more excited about this than the previous Aerosmith game (though some of their stuff was fun to play, I haven’t gone and bought any Aerosmith albums since playing the game, and still prefer most of the non-Aerosmith tracks).

That’s not all the guitar heroism for this year, though, as a month after that (in the US, UK release isn’t confirmed yet as far as I know) Guitar Hero: Smash Hits is released. This features 48 songs from the first four Guitar Hero games using master recordings (the first three games were mostly covers) with support for a full (plastic) band. I’m quite happy about this; I borrowed the original Guitar Hero a while back but never played GH2 or Rock the 80s at all, and most of the songs will be new to the Wii (so long at they don’t go crazy with stuff from Guitar Hero III).

There have been grumblings about cash-ins and milking the Guitar Hero franchise, especially with suggestions of at least one or two more full Guitar Hero games to come this year (as well as assorted Nintendo DS versions and other tie-ins), whereas Harmonix are (rightly) lauded for continuing to release downloadable content, building up a massive Rock Band catalogue (though the Guitar Hero World Tour library is steadily growing as well, I’ve picked up some rather splendid Hendrix and Queen tracks recently, and Harmonix aren’t entirely forgoing new games with the PSP Rock Band Unplugged to come and The Beatles: Rock Band in September). The advantages of downloadable content are obvious, you pick exactly the songs you want, but there’s a price: £1.40 per song, to be specific (on the Wii at least, and without the benefit of album or “track pack” discounts), and that can rack up pretty quickly. On a pure £/song basis (never mind the quality, feel the width), at current GAME pre-order prices Guitar Hero: Metallica comes in at 61p per song, and Rock Band 2 a bargain-tastic 35p. Another advantage of the whole bunch o’ songs on a disc is that it introduces you to music you might not have sought out otherwise, and maybe I’m just easily pleased but there are very few songs in the Guitar Hero series so far I actively dislike, and lots of stuff I’ve since gone out and bought. Overall, then, DLC is great, but I’m perfectly happy for them to keep cranking out new plastic rock games. I’d even be tempted by Rock Revolution at less than twenty quid, if it wasn’t for the fact that the Wii version doesn’t support instrument peripherals, t’ch.

Empire: Totally Warsome

I’m having a huge amount of fun in Empire: Total War at the moment. The Road to Independence campaign gives a small-scale introduction to the new elements of gameplay, and after winning that I’ve plunged into a nice big Grand Campaign as the British. The campaign mode is fantastically rich now, as well as all the good stuff from the previous games, enhancements in Empire include a technology tree to research your way through (I do like a good technology tree) and individual government ministers, allowing for many fun cabinet reshuffles. I’m starting to get to grips with the real-time combat too, especially now I’ve managed to overcome my obsession with cannon to build more balanced armies than the somewhat experimental Loads Of Cannons (And Some Howitzers) Regiment, which was terrifyingly powerful at a distance but a bit vulnerable to being charged. Naval battles are great fun when you have two or three ships and can pay close attention to them, I’ve been chasing some pirates (around the Caribbean, no less), but massed fleet battles get very confusing in a hurry. All in all, though, a more than worthy latest instalment in the series. Highly recommended!

Keep it secret, keep it safe.

More exciting MMO news, Massively has the scoop on the latest astonishing game to be revealed to the world before it really should have been. This time it’s Funcom’s The Secret World. Here are some quotes from the article with a little KiaSA commentary:

If you’ve been waiting for a chance to see what lies beyond the curtain and fall into the elegantly dark setting of The Secret World, then get ready

For the hype machine to start lumbering its way out of the dank cavernous pit where it has slumbered for an age, in search of human hope to feed upon and sate its hunger?

for your first glimpse of what lurks beyond.

Same difference.

At the GDC we got the chance to sit down and discuss The Secret World with Funcom and lay our




on a

Close to final copy of the game, that’s been through several testing stages and is almost ready to be previewed by the general public in what we’ll all laughingly refer to as a ‘beta test’?

few cinematics of the game.


While we were unable to get our hands around

The developers’ necks for starting the hype with nothing more than a CGI screenshot of some virtual boobs wrapped in a tight vest accompanied by some hand waving marketing waffle that would make the OnLive people jealous?

a playable version of the title,


we were treated to many of the game’s basics and concepts. This may not be the tidal wave of information, but it is a start to the flow of The Secret World’s river of fresh ideas.


[…] First and foremost, TSW will be an action/adventure styled MMO appearing on both the PC

and some random console – probably the 360 because it’s from Microsoft, as is Windows, so how hard could a port be – to show that they’re hip with the gaming fraternity, even though we all know that it’ll just hit the PC and be “Coming soon” to the console for the next ten years, assuming the game lasts that long.

and Xbox 360.

Bingo. By the way, how’s that Age of Conan port for the Xbox 360 coming along, Funcom?

There is no release date yet, although there are internal milestones that the team is attempting to stick to.

Translation: “We have no idea when this is going to be out, we only came up with the idea yesterday. Geoff has a few design goals written on the back of a cigarette packet, and we got Clive down in graphics to whip-up a CGI video to show to the Hype Waiters [*]. We’ll have some forums soon too, to allow speculation about anything and everything to do with the game, so that there will be maximum disappointment when, funnily enough, the game turns out to be nothing like the wild and unrealistic designs of a bunch of rabid fans.”

The concept of TSW was officially started in 2002, but was unofficially created by Ragnar in the late ’90s.

Honestly, they’ve been working on it for years. Tens of years. Almost, TOO MANY years, for something that they can’t show us any game-play for. Now, let’s all sing the Tabula Rasa song.

The idea was to take

White Wolf’s World of Darkness and make an MMO that was exactly like it, but with a different name?

our universe and overlay it on a world of contemporary dark fantasy. A game with urban locations that takes place in today’s world with fantastic qualities that include the stuff of legends and myth.

Meh, close enough.

Bored now. You can read the rest at Massively. Then I’d recommended a steaming hot bath and an all-over body scrub with carborundum grit and methylated spirit, in order to get yourself clean.

[*] Hype Waiters: People who serve hype to consumers.

Public (Quest) Convenience

With patch 1.2 in Warhammer Online tempting Melmoth back to try a Slayer, a few other people have also been returning to WAR. I rolled up a new character to hook up with them in the lower tiers; figuring the massed Slayer ranks would just about have DPS covered it was down to a tank or healer, and though I imagine a healer would be very popular on our side, I had a bad feeling it would be equally popular with hordes of healer-targeting Choppas, so I went with the tank and started a Knight of the Blazing Sun. I’m rather enjoying it so far, he definitely feels more robust than the ol’ Bright Wizard (“Armoured Knight in ‘more robust than bloke in a dress’ shocker”), able to round up and hold the aggro of a good 5-10 mobs, so long as they’re a level or two lower and I’ve got some backup to either keep my health topped up or nuke them down, and the damage isn’t too shabby either, especially wielding a two handed weapon.

When levelling up my Bright Wizard I spent much of my time in scenarios. Unfortunately the server has got a bit quieter since then and scenarios don’t pop quite so frequently any more, which is a bit of a shame as they were perfect ad-hoc small-group content. As per that post, the usual MMO collection of “Go. Hunt. Kill boars.” quests are great when solo, but can be a right pain to co-ordinate in groups. Group-wise, at least in WoW, LotRO, WAR and their ilk, you get group quests and instances (or group quests in instances); the trouble with these is they’re typically fixed for a certain size and composition of group. This sort of ties in with a Tweet this morning from one of the WAR players we’ve been grouping with: “MMO Questions: Why a group size limit of 6?”, which I started to reply to, but had only made it as far as “It is incumbent upon us to investigate the historical aspects of social, and utilitarian, grouping in a number of contexts to fully apprecia” before the 140 character limit kicked in.

In pencil and paper games it’s down to the Dungeon Master to tweak encounters to suit, and he can adjust things for the number of players in a party and any particular strengths or weaknesses they may have, so a party of six containing three barbarians who all managed to roll 18 for Str, Dex and Con don’t have to face the same two kobolds (one with a slight limp) that might be more appropriate if the players had decided to roleplay a small party of pacifist academics. MMOGs generally work the other way around, the encounters are fixed and you’re expected to bring a group of 1, 5, 6, 10, 24, 25 or whatever other lottery numbers seemed like a good idea at the time, with (in the aforementioned diku-style games) a suitable balance of yer Holy Trinity of tank, healer and DPS. I suspect they’re done that way as it’s easier for designers; not “easy”, but at least it’s one less variable when you’re trying to pitch content for players of different levels, classes, character builds and gear. It doesn’t have to be that way; City of Heroes, as I’m sure I’ve banged on about at tedious length before, scales encounters to suit parties of 1-8 by mixing the number, type and levels of the enemies you face, but then City of Heroes isn’t especially loot/achievement-centric and doesn’t tend to stand up terribly well to fierce mathematical min-max scrutiny. It’s great fun for jumping into with any number of friends (so long as it’s eight or less) and beating up a bunch of thugs while dressed spandex, though.

Scenarios in WAR were a really great way of easily grouping up with varying numbers of friends, and running bite-sized chunks o’ fun. Public quests were always fun in busy zones and easy to drop in and out of, but as players thinned out across later tiers (and scenarios, and open RvR) they got a lot quieter. A couple of tweaks since launch have made them a handy ad-hoc group alternative to scenarios: firstly they’ve added easy public quests, aimed at a group of two or three, so even if there’s just a couple of you there’s something to aim for. Secondly, you can fly to any zone; that wasn’t always the case, and if you and a friend were stuck in the middle of different flight-master-less zones and wanted to group up, it would take literally quite a long time just to travel. If you’re in a guild that has recall scrolls, you can now get to any zone for 30 copper and a couple of loading screens (although depending on the zone there may still be a sodding great RvR lake and enemy warcamp slap between you and a sensible destination, but still). If there’s a couple of you, you can head for an easy PQ and give it a lash. If it’s a bit too easy or hard, you move up or down a chapter; if another person or two joins in, you can move on to normal PQs. It’s been a really handy way of jumping on and playing for the odd hour here and there.

Lightsaber blues.

The lightsaber, iconic science fantasy weapon from the Star Wars universe. Say it with me. Light. Saber. Lightsaber. It just rolls off the tongue, and it feels right. So very right. I was, in one of my many moments of intense scrutiny of something that is utterly unrequiring of such examination, trying to form an opinion as to why the name lightsaber works so well. Actually, it’s not so much that lightsaber works, as that so many other variations of it just don’t work, or at the very least they don’t seem to conjure the right image when spoken out loud to oneself. Note: it is considered polite social etiquette to experiment with shouting out alternative lightsaber names in a small, out of the way room of your house and not on the London Underground during rush hour, apparently, or so the nice armed policeman told me after he had un-cuffed my hands and given me a rag to staunch the bleeding.

Light and saber, it says it all, the blade is made of a glowy light, and it’s a type of sword so therefore we’ll pick something that sounds like a swordy sort of name. Easy. But why sabre? Why not lightsword? Well, it doesn’t quite have the same effect, for some reason. A bit obvious perhaps. Ok, but a Bastard is a type of sword too, so why not Lightbarsted? Hng. Ok, ok, the blade glows, and you whack things with it, so it’s a glowywhacker, right?

“Your father’s glowywhacker. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age.”

“How does it work?”

“Weeelllll, you see the glowy end?”

“Uh huh!”

“… look, the name sort of gives it away don’t you think?”

Ok, not glowywhacker then, you spoil sports. Fluorescentflamberge? Shinyshikomizue? Hummingblade? Peniscompensator?

“Your father’s Peniscompensator…”

Hmm, that might have worked.

The point is that the name could have been anything really, it’s only because the Star Wars universe has entered popular culture and established its names and conventions so firmly with those of us who are fans, that we can’t imagine any other name for a lightsaber, or at least we can, but they all sound wrong, feel wrong, and look wrong. And in the case of peniscompensator, are tangibly and plainly Just Wrong.

So where are you going with this, Melmoth, you tangential wafflemonger? I’m glad you asked, strange voices in my head that sound like Norman Lamont!

Lightsaber didn’t work, it never worked. I imagine when Lucas wrote the name he was snorting into his coffee. Those of us who care about the franchise in any way have become accustomed to the name. We can’t think of any other name for a lightsaber that feels right because that’s the way it is and has always been.

Now let us, through the darkly ancient and mystical art of transposition (wooOOooOOOo) move this understanding over to the MMO genre.

Levels didn’t work, they never worked. I imagine when the developers designed character levels they were snorting into their collective coffees. Those of us who care about MMOs in any way have become accustomed to the idea. We can’t think of any other rating system than levels that feels right because that’s the way it is and has always been.

I wonder if this is the biggest problem that innovation in the MMO genre faces – the systems that we associate with an MMO are so entrenched in the current player base that anything else will feel too unfamiliar, and any ideas put forth will sound wrong to their ears, no matter how good they may be. An MMO has levels, and a grind, and some crafting, and a few dungeons. It will have an avatar that you can customise at the start of the game, and then tweak in various ways over the course of you levelling up to an arbitrary cap of some sort. We all know this, it’s what MMOs are. Well, not really, it’s what we’ve become accustomed to; it was something that was put forward originally and enough people accepted it without laughing in the face of the developers that any other people coming along at a later date would see those people grinding away, and killing boars in the hope that they may find one with intestines or eyes or that consisted of boar meat, and so on and so forth, and they’d think “Well they’re all doing it, so I guess that’s what we do”, shrug their shoulders and proceed to dip their feet in to the calm unchanging waters of Skinner Box conditioned gaming. Many would find the water too cold for them and leave, many many more would swim out with wild abandon.

This is why we won’t see a game succeed when it is vastly different from, and makes huge sweeping changes to, the genre’s staples. The genre does need to move on, it needs to adapt and change to avoid having its calm Skinner Box waters stagnate, but it needs to be affected by tiny feeder streams – evolutionary adjustments, tweaks and upgrades. A tsunami-like wave of change will do nothing other than throw out all of those people already swimming in the water.

And for the record, I would have called it a Laservibrator.

Bzzzmmmmmmm. Wuhhmmmmmmm.

Thought for the day.

Watching a person get sucked wholly into the hype of a yet-to-be-released MMO is like the slightly amusing and sympathy generating experience of watching a puppy try to run around on a frozen pond: a frantic yelping cacophony of boundless enthusiasm and no balance, often ending in a painful experience.