Category Archives: waffle

War Thunder Community Magazine

I’ve started doing a spot of writing for the War Thunder Community Magazine from the folks at GameOn, a few World War II facts in Issue 2, and a slightly beefier piece about the guns of the RAF in Issue 3, released today. There’s lots of good stuff in the magazine, in my humble and entirely unbiased opinion, including tutorials, reviews and interviews. And a word search.

There are other Community Magazines for WildStar and World of Warcraft, the now-official SMITE magazine, as well as the main GameOn magazine and assorted special issues, plenty to browse. Do take a look!

We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not happen

By Jove, Christmas is a busy old time isn’t it? What with all the presents and visits to relatives and turkey and sprouts and Steam sales and tinsel and Steam sort-of-sale-auction-event-trading-card-gem-things and Doctor Who specials and baubles and destroying 40 ground targets with any Ju 87 variant and figgy pudding and winning five matches each day with Rank II-V vehicles and carols and wintery walks along the beach, it’s a wonder there’s any time left to sit back and consider the real meaning of it all, the birthday of a rather special person. But enough about me.

Plenty of games put on events of some sort over Christmas, and the eagle-eyed viewer may just have spotted that some of the items in the previous list have a hint of the War Thunder about them, as Gaijin seen to have gone a bit event mad. One set of tasks allow players to unlock more of the recently added US tanks, another set offer the prospect of a new plane or tank (self-propelled howitzer, if being pedantic) through 19 daily tasks, and the most recent addition rewards first place on a winning team. Coupled with assorted discounts and experience boosts, most of my gaming time between aforementioned festive activities has thus been spent flying and driving around. I picked up Dragon Age: Inquisition on release, and sunk a fair amount of time into it (summary so far: pretty good) before the War Thunder event madness started, and when shooting up endless waves of planes and tanks got a bit much I took some time out to… go and do the Dragon Age weekend multiplayer events!

The multiplayer component of Dragon Age: Inquisition is very much like that of Mass Effect 3, and a similarly fun way of spending 10-20 minutes in a quick dungeon romp, gaining XP and loot along the way. Like ME3 you can buy boxes of random loot with either in-game or real currency, though a distinct improvement in DA:I is the ability to break down common tat into components with which you can craft armour to unlock new classes, so at least you’re not entirely at the mercy of the RNG. The weekend events offer the opportunity to earn a bonus box of loot by making 100 kills with a particular weapon, which I haven’t found to be too difficult, though the killing frenzy does mean that tanking and coordinated team play tend to go out the window; fortunately on the lower difficulty settings Plan A (“maximum AoE kill everything as quickly as possible”) tends to work much of the time anyway. One “interesting” design decision was that, initially, voice comms were permanently active (on the PC version, at least, I believe a push-to-talk option has been patched in). The ability to mute other players just about preserved sanity in the face of random background noise, but I couldn’t help listening in to one side of another player’s phonecall (he’d thoroughly enjoyed a Micky Flanagan DVD and was relating bits of it to whoever was on the other end of the call), and another match featured the only stereotypical angry teenager I’ve encountered so far. I’m not sure if he was aware that people could hear him, it sounded like he was muttering away to himself at first, but as the levels went on he got progressively more furious at the terrible performance of the rest of the team (who were doing perfectly well), culminating in the final wave when he buggered off and got himself killed; I was running over and in the process of resurrecting him when the dulcet calls of “GET ME UP YOU RETARDS” started, and blow me if I didn’t entirely accidentally run away and let him die while the rest of us cleared up and successfully finished the mission. Oops.

Apart from that, not much other gaming of note; in the Steam pre-sale-gem-auction-thing I did manage to snag a copy of the HD remake of Speedball 2, which I loved back in the day, but have only had time for a couple of quick matches. I got Race The Sun as a gift, from a brief dabble it plays rather well, but again no time for a proper crack at it; with those plus the usual backlog I didn’t bother picking anything else up in the Steam sale itself. Elite: Dangerous is looking thoroughly interesting, the time murderers are back with an all-new picture-type eye-watchable video-style podcast in glorious technicolour, including a guide to Elite exploration, but with War Thunder thoroughly satisfying my flying itch at the moment I haven’t picked it up yet, and I fear I might end up drifting along somewhat rudderless (metaphorically, and perhaps literally depending on combat damage) in the wide open galaxy. A while back I plunked down a bit of cash for a Star Citizen ship, as much in hope as expectation, and maybe it’ll turn out I backed the right horse after all, because the prospective features look awesome, and the projected full proper release date of 2045 coincides nicely with my planned retirement, when I might finally have some spare time to play it.

So quick bright things come to confusion

You’ve got to hand it to Valve, and by “it” I mean “lorry loads of small denomination coins”. In much the same way that kids have more fun playing with a big cardboard box than the expensive toy that came in it, they presumably concluded that spending ages on stuff like gameplay was completely wasted in Team Fortress 2 compared to the all-important hat market, and have now abandoned conventional games entirely except as a form of currency to power the Steam Event Metagame. Building on this summer’s Five-Way Increase An Arbitrary Number Decision Theory Paradox Event, Valve have finally caved in to the ceaseless demands to make their sales vastly more confusing by allowing trading cards and emoticons and profile backgrounds to be transformed into Gems, a new form of pseudo-currency to use to bid on auctions or alternatively to transform into booster packs for more trading cards. Gems can also bought and sold for real money, alongside the emoticons and hats and games and trading cards and profile backgrounds, in a strange and confusing swirl of gems and money and games and hats and socks and toasters. Only without the socks and toasters. For now. Those will probably come in the Easter sale.

Q: What do you call a website with a shovel and the base of the natural logarithm and a red-coloured soft drink? A: Dig-e-tizer (Digitiser)!

Many years ago, in the dark ages of the last years of the twentieth century, this “internet” thing was starting to catch on but was still largely the domain of tech-enthusiasts navigating a sea of “Under Construction” messages via primitive search engines, not the first port of call if you were after up-to-date news, weather, live sports scores, share prices, TV schedules or recipes to accompany cookery programmes. For those, we had Ceefax and Teletext. Imagine a World Wide Web of 999 pages, squished onto screens of 40×24 characters, accessed by typing in a three digit number and watching the page counter tick, tick, ticking along… A smidge primitive compared to almost instant access to the sum total of all human knowledge (or as close as the ‘net gets to it), but a fine and useful service, and free (as long as your television could display it), an important consideration when ISPs had a monthly fee on top of the cost of phone calls (for you crazy kids who don’t remember the olden days: you used to have to “dial” “up” by getting a lengthy bit of cable and running it from the computer to the telephone socket in the hallway, then you shouted “cssswwsswwswswwwwww WEEEEEEoooooWWEEEEEooooooWEEE ccsssssswwwwwsswwswww”, and hoped nobody would trip over the cable or want to use the phone until you’d finished downloading a Metallica song from Napster).

As well as the aforementioned news, weather etc., there were subtitles on page 888 (turning Top of the Pops into instant karaoke), quizzes like the classic Bamboozle!, even a textual soap opera. Most pertinently, though, there were pages about games. On the BBC, as I recall, rather staid reviews, infrequently updated. On Channel 4, Digitiser, a magnificently anarchic array of madness that was only about games as much as Jaws was a book about a shark. Accompanying the previews, reviews, and hints and tips were a whole cast of regular characters, spoof adverts for German metal albums, Mr T admonishing kids to stay away from his bins and, best of all, nonsensical anti-jokes (Q: What do you call a man with bread and butter pudding on his head? A: Pudding Gentleman Type B!) and incredibly laboured sort-of-puns (Q: What do you call an android adjudicating officer who decorates the sycamores in his garden with girls’ toys? A: Ro-Judge Doll-Tree (Roger Daltrey)!) I had no idea of the ructions behind the scenes, I think I’d drifted away from Teletext in general by the time it finished, but have retained a fondness for blocky cartoon snakes ever since.

Good news, though! Mr Biffo’s back with a whole Twitter of words including Man-tastic jokes, and Digitiser rides again as one of those ocelot-come-lately “pages” on the “web”. The future is uncertain as Biffo & Hairs grapple with both the issues of sustaining a site in an atemporal zone of content production and a greased tramp riding an elk (the elk isn’t really an elk it’s a metaphor for a moose), but even if it’s only a fleeting return of Insincere Dave it’s good to see him back again!!?!?!?!!!!!!!!!

Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television

Van Hemlock tweeted:

prompting happy reminiscences of playing at least three of those on an 8086 PC with 640k of RAM (upgraded from 512k) and a mono CGA screen capable of four amazing shades of grey, while being slightly jealous of the staggering nigh-photorealistic (in comparison) graphics of Shadow of the Beast on the Amiga. Ah, happy times. It wasn’t all fun and games, though; the evil menace of “space invaders” had already been recognised in The House of Commons as far back as 1981 as causing young people to resort to theft, blackmail and vice to satisfy their addiction, and this new generation of increasingly sophisticated games prompted further worries, as we can see from this editorial from the September 19th 1989 issue of The Daily Comet:

Video “Games” Spark Copycat Fears

For too long has the youth of our nation been bewitched by the malevolent glowing screen of “television”, breeding a generation of stoop-shouldered square-eyed troglodytes unsuited to healthy British pursuits such as hiking, taking cold showers and planting flags in random bits of the world claiming them for the Queen.  Society must now take action against a yet more insidious threat presented upon those screens, so-called video “games”. Of course televisual and cinematic entertainments have, in the past, prompted some to emulate the activities they see, but where’s the harm in a child dressing as a penguin and trying to carry a bucket of water over a slippery roundabout? Indeed beneficial role models can be presented to instil advantageous values, such as machine-gunning Huns by the score. The interactive nature of these new “games”, though, blur the lines between reality and the wicked depravities depicted therein such that a naive and vulnerable youth can barely tell the difference. Teacher Clem Fandango relates a cautionary tale of Form 3b, carefree children like any other until they came under the sway of a new game called Populous. “They got hold of a load of shovels and started digging up parts of the playground, using the earth to fill in and raise up other sections, completely flattening it on top”, said Fandango. “Apparently it was something to do with being ready in case someone sent a flood upon them; I think they might have been paying a bit too much attention to Michael Fish.”

Parent Ken Suggestion is also worried for his son Neville. “He used to be such a normal boy, hanging around street corners and beating up younger children to steal their lunch money, then he started playing this Sim City. Now all he does is sketch outlines for ideal town layouts with a balance of residential, commercial and industrial zones, and grapples with setting a tax rate low enough to stimulate growth while still raising enough money to fund pubic improvement works. I’m worried that we’re raising a generation of… urban planners.”

Most dangerous of all, though, is a part of the newfangled Microsoft Windows 3, which is going to be released next year but we’ll just ignore that inconvenient bit of chronology. Minesweeper may seem like an innocent puzzle game, but for quantity surveyor Duncan Clench it proved anything but. “My wife Jane just kept playing” said Clench, “hours every day, increasing the difficulty level, until it simply wasn’t enough. One night I woke up and went to get a glass of water only to discover the kitchen had been flooded, and an irregular pattern of Type H Mark II mines had been laid. Of course it was quite straightforward to negotiate those, being simple contact mines, but I was woken the next day by the drone of a Heinkel He 111 dropping a Luftmine B fitted with combination magnetic/acoustic detonator, a much more difficult prospect.”

“Honestly” he continued “it hasn’t been this difficult getting to work since she watched Knightmare, installed those giant circular saw blades in the hall and made me wear that stupid helmet…”

My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate

Gosh, time flies by, doesn’t it? And not just when you’re the driver of a train, though I’ve just been watching quite a lot of Chigley and listening to Half Man Half Biscuit, sometimes both at the same time. Why aren’t there any computer games set in Camberwick Green, eh? You could play Mickey Murphy the baker, quietly getting along and baking cakes, no nasty old monsters or anything, just the dramatic tension of running out of flour and having to rouse that old drunkard Windy Miller to make some more… Actually you could probably do that with the Advanced Bakery Simulator 2013 expansion pack for Farming Simulator

Anyway! Time. Summer is gone, the nights are drawing in, Steam Sale Season is just around the corner and it’s time to start selling perfume, books and blockbuster games, like Dragon Age: Inquisition. I recently wrapped up a second play-through of Dragon Age 2 so was all ready for Dragon Age Keep, a rather nifty site that allows you to see and tinker with various events from the first two games, then gives a quick potted history of The Story So Far narrated by Varric’s lightly buttered tones. That was particularly useful for the first game, the events of which were rather hazy, so I’m all ready to delve back into the world of Dragons and Ages, just as soon as I work out what class to make my Inquisitor; after playing through the first two games as a Rogue, then a Warrior for the second run-through of DA2, I can’t decide between a Mage to complete the set, or to reincarnate my original Rogue a third time for The Saga of the Suspiciously Similar Sisters (“Greetings, Inquisitor! Has anyone ever mentioned you bear a striking resemblance to the Champion of Kirkwall? Who, now I come to think of it, was as close in appearance to the Hero of Ferelden as the game engine allowed…”) Or maybe a Warrior… And then there’s race. And which hairstyle to pick. And eye colour. And perhaps most importantly, which companion to become most companionable with. Now one school of thought suggests playing the game, experiencing the story, selecting the dialogue options that seem most in keeping with your idea of your character, and seeing what develops. This is madness, because Dragon Age is a Game, and the idea of a Game is to Make Numbers Go Up, so the proper way to do it is to check if romance with NPCs offers some sort of benefit to your character, determine the optimal benefit for your specific build, then find a spoiler-packed guide that details the precise choices to make to get that benefit. Just like real life.

Or possibly not. I never really intended things to turn out quite as they did in the first game, and I’m trying to avoid spoilers for Inquisition to let things play out naturally there, but I had seen a preview that mentioned that some romantic options were limited to specific Inquisitor sex/race choices, so I’ve had a quick peek at the art of the possible, as it were. I imagine some people might be a little bothered by companions in DA:I who are only interested in a relationship with an Inquisitor of the same sex, but not the the GamerGrot crowd of course, as it’s unrelated to the concerns about ethics in journalism that are as central to The Cause as the unethical treatment of elephants is to the robot uprising. Although same sex relationships do sound suspiciously Socially Just, and everyone knows that sort of thing is only ever put in games because of unreasonable and probably illegal harassment of game developers by evil Social Justice Warriors, which is definitely the same thing as ethical journalism, so everyone should probably boycott the game anyway as part of Operation If We Put The Word “Operation” In Front Of Something We Can Pretend We’re Like All In The Proper Army And This And That And Not Just The Lunatic Fringe Of The Green Ink Brigade

I dunno, though. A Social Justice Warrior does sound pretty cool, maybe I’ll roll one. Or a Social Justice Rogue. Tell you what, Social Justice Bard-Sorcerer, with a splash level of Paladin, final answer…

In Memoriam Mumorpugers

So. Farewell then
You dominated the world for a bit
And then sort of went away
Like Rome and the Mongols and
Gangnam Style

E. J. Zoso, age 17½

Yes, with the news that Blizzard has cancelled Titan, it’s official. MMOs are dead. Or dying, at least. Or dying a bit more than they were previously, which was already a pretty death-y sort of dying so it’s definitely bad news. Course before we start the funeral rites we’ll have to have another quick skirmish in the Eternal Semantic War over what is, or isn’t, an MMO, MMOG and/or MMORPG, and whether Titan was or wasn’t one and thus can or can’t be used as some sort of yardstick for wider genre health; with scarcely any official information about Titan it’s an even more pointless skirmish than normal, the game being a veritable tabula rasa upon which we can engrave any number of hopes and fears (or, from the sketchy news that it was an action MMOG of some sort and direction changed during development, a veritable Tabula Rasa (video game), as Wikipedia would disambiguate).

Sensationalism aside, I don’t know if the Titan announcement changes much, perhaps just confirms a trend. The pattern already seemed established in 2008 that post-WoW MMORPGs would see maximum popularity at launch then gradually tail off, and though nobody is terribly keen on releasing subscriber numbers any more (not to mention the difficulty of assessing metrics in a generally-post-subscription-model landscape) nothing in the last five years has managed much different. Even as World of Warcraft subscriber numbers started falling, those players don’t seem to be looking for another MMORPG (it’s left as another semantic argument as to whether other MMOGs like World of Tanks or Planetside 2 are Proper Competitors or Whole Other Online Things That Can’t Be Directly Compared). Any number of perfectly good MMORPGs have come along, but none have captured the wider imagination like World of Warcraft; gamers move in mysterious ways, and the cancellation of Titan suggests even Blizzard can’t seem to replicate their formula.

Perhaps one reason is that changing times have chipped away at the unique selling points of MMORPGs. Co-operative or competitive online play is ubiquitous on both console and PC. Social media supplants some of the community aspects of friends lists, guilds and general zone chat (when WoW launched there was no Twitter or YouTube, Facebook still had the “the” and restricted membership, and smartphones were rudimentary and rare). There are echoes of the sandbox aspects of Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies in Minecraft, itself a WoW-esque staggering success. Progress bars, unlocks, achievements and such have spread from CRPGS through the Virtual skinner box of EverQuest to other genres, and even beyond via “gamification”.

Genres seldom really die, though, they just slip in and out of fashion, evolving along the way; Westerns in films, space sims, the point n’ click adventure, currently doing well as “episodic interactive drama graphic adventure” like The Walking Dead by toning down the insane cat-hair-moustache logic and emphasising story. In this atemporal zone of cultural production we’re wallowing in there’s no shortage of choice, myriad MMORPGs presumably doing well enough to justify ongoing existence. Perhaps that’s another problem; after burning out rather on Defiance three of us spent a good hour or so on voice chat running through possible replacements without reaching much of a conclusion other than Picking Random Titles From Steam’s List Of Massively Multiplayer Games And Reading Some User Reviews Is By Turns Hilarious And Terrifying (again seriously questioning Will Self’s assertion of the effectiveness of the group amateur mind).

So the wheel of time turns; players burn out of games, of genres, of gaming itself, sometimes to return, sometimes not. In the words of Oscar Wilde: “Oppa Gangnam Style”.

Wallowing About in an Atemporal Zone of Cultural Production

As is probably obvious from the frequency and content of posts around here I’ve been drifting along, game-wise, for a while now. I still play a fair amount, but it’s rare for something to get me particularly fired up, I feel a bit disconnected from the wider scene. I had a glance through the nominations for this year’s Golden Joystick Awards and found I’d hardly played any of the games, barely even heard of some of them. Perhaps I’m just getting on a bit, but the industry is shifting too; barriers to development and distribution have been plummeting, in general A Good Thing, but with some knock-on consequences. We’re spoiled with such an array of games, blockbuster games, indie games, new games, classic games, enhanced classics spruced up for modern systems, cheap games, free games… There was a piece on PC Gamer about the “pile of shame” and paralysis of choice; I was starting to feel the same with games five years ago, let alone other media as per Charlie Brooker’s more-relevant-than-ever stuff-a-lanche, and the increasing prevalence of bundles, free-to-play and suchlike in the meantime have hardly helped matters.

With such a backlog, and the inevitability of sales and such, I can’t really remember the last thing I picked up and played at the time of release. I did grab Far Cry 3 in the Steam summer sale and actually played it through to the end, something of a rarity in the Grand List of Stuff I Really Mean To Get Back To One Of These Days. Gameplay-wise it was generally excellent, though a few elements like the crafting system didn’t entirely gel; I spent altogether too much time wondering why, after using two Boar Hides to expand the carrying capacity of my rucksack, I couldn’t use more Boar Hide to expand it further, only Tapir Hide would do (and then Dingo Pelts, but only after the Tapir Hide, not before, that would’ve been silly), and furthermore why I couldn’t carry ammunition or grenades in that rucksack but instead had to make a Tiger Skin ammunition pouch and Deer Hide grenade pack. Also, what kind of bastard hunts down lovable tapirs just to carry a few more arrows? In the end I rationalised it as the considerable trauma suffered by the protagonist manifesting itself as a psychological obsessive-compulsive disorder requiring an incredibly specific set of luggage, and on the plus side it must’ve made things a lot easier in baggage reclamation, looking out for a cassowary-komodo-leopard-skin bag amongst a sea of black suitcases. Anyway, the general sneaking/shooting/exploring side of things was top-notch, but the story was a bit of a mess; I was aware of a fair amount of discussion at the time of release in 2012 but didn’t follow it too closely to avoid spoilers, and it seems a little redundant to return to it now. As so often, xkcd nails it in four panels. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, initiatives like crowdfunding and early access offer a deeper glimpse into the development process than carefully managed hype-stoking previews, but make the landscape more complex in terms of differentiating between impressions, previews, reviews and such, and while it’s a great opportunity for some players to get involved early and perhaps help a little in filing off rough edges to shape a game not everyone is always on quite the same page, as the producer of DayZ pointed out.

After the initial excitement and novelty of backing a couple of Kickstarter projects I have to confess it’s sort of blending in to the general background noise now; it’s nice to receive backer updates on the games in progress, but with the aforementioned pile of shame full of things I could actually be playing right now, I don’t spend too much time reading about future additions to the pile. Connected to not buying games as they launch I haven’t really been looking forward to games ahead of launch time, whether due to the general state of things, or my own jadedness, or a bit of both. A brief spark of hope, of the old excitement, is for Dragon Age: Inquisition; I’ve enjoyed every Bioware game so far, after all, and they’re always fertile ground for further debate and discussion (perhaps a little too fertile, in the case of the end of Mass Effect 3, but let’s not go there again…) I was having a bit of a look at Dragon Age: Keep, a site that will allow players to import save files from previous Dragon Age games and tweak things around before heading in to DA:I; that prompted a quick spot of digital archaeology to find previous save games, and to try and remember what sort of decisions I’d taken. The events of Dragon Age 2 were a bit hazy, so I dusted off my original Gray Warden save from the first game and used that as the basis for the start of a new playthrough. After only saying a couple of weeks ago that “I tend to play through story-driven games once”, I’d forgotten a fair amount of what happens in the game so I’ve been getting quite into it again. It has its flaws, a lot of quite obvious environment re-use, encounters that get a bit same-y (“Will there be three waves of minions in this encounter, or only two? To tell you the truth, in all this excitement I’m just going to leave the mages auto-attacking while I make a quick cup of tea…”), but I’ve missed a story-heavy game with characters I really care about. Far Cry 3 had some terrific NPC performances like Orphan Black’s Michael Mando but its protagonist was incredibly dull, and though Dragon Age 2 was criticised for its limited PC customisation options compared to the first game at least you have some choices over appearance and dialogue.

Speaking of criticism, flipping back through old posts to see what I’d said about it at the time I ran across one about the difference between critic and user scores on Metacritic: “Critic’s reviews are decent if not spectacular, currently averaging 81 on Metacritic, but we’ve all seen the stories of pressure on reviewers from publishers, reliance on advertising revenue from games companies, how can we trust them?”

Seems strangely pertinent, what with all the ‘gate’ strangeness floating around Twitter, a somewhat nebulous campaign about improving games journalism, though precisely how isn’t really pinned down as far as I can tell; depending on what you read then the main objective is to drive out some, none, one or more of: Corruption, Social Justice Warriors, Malpractice, Women, Collusion, Bribery, People Knowing Other People, Money, Fascists, Communists or Reginald Maudling. Poor old Reginald. It’s closely connected with some people saying other people aren’t their shield while simultaneously taking great umbrage on behalf of all gamers; in the words of Terry Jones as an old peasant woman, “well, I didn’t vote for you”. There seems to be something of a semantic oddity in entertainment writing; we generally talk about “film criticism” or “literary criticism”, whereas it’s “music journalism” or “gaming journalism”; some of the more lucid Twitter campaigners, focusing on the “journalism” aspect, are pressing for objectivity and impartiality, which is perhaps fair enough for news-based coverage, but a lot of games writing, at least the stuff that I like to read, is far more in the mould of criticism, with different requirements, and gaming is hardly unique in having difficulty in adjusting to the changing times. In books, sci-fi in particular, some of the ‘gate’ business echoes the kerfuffle from this year’s Hugo awards that seems set to rumble on for a long time. In film, critic Mark Kermode wrote Hatchet Job last year, a book about professional film critics and the age of social media, of Amazon reviews and film posters bearing gushing tweets from untraceable users, with many interesting parallels. Getting dangerously far down the meta-rabbit hole (rabbit meta-hole? meta-rabbit meta-hole?), author Will Self wrote a review (itself later critiqued elsewhere) in a newspaper of the book about film reviews, and one contentious paragraph connects the pile of shame, role of critics and industries in flux:

“Now we have instant access to an unparalleled library of films, books and recordings, we are wallowing about, really, in an atemporal zone of cultural production: none of us have the time – unless, like Kermode, we wish to spend the greater part of our adult life at it – to view all the films, read all the texts, and listen to all the music that we can access, wholly gratis and right away. Under such conditions the role of the critic becomes not to help us to discriminate between “better” and “worse” or “higher” and “lower” monetised cultural forms, but only to tell us if our precious time will be wasted – and for this task the group amateur mind is indeed far more effective than the unitary perception of an individual critic. In my working lifetime I’ve already seen the status accorded to book and film reviews undergo a tremendous decline – not, I hasten to add, because there aren’t good reviews being written (this one is especially good), but because the media they are reviewing and the medium by which they themselves are delivered are both in a state of flux. All sorts of cultural production that was concerned with ordering and sorting – criticism, editing and librarianship – can now be seen for what it always really was: the adjunct of a particular media technology.”

I can’t help but think Self might revisit his opinion of the group amateur mind after reading the user reviews of Dragon Age 2 on Metacritic…

A man has free choice to the extent that he is rational

With the European Commission being concerned that “Games advertised as ‘free’ should not mislead consumers about the true costs involved” there’s a bit of kerfuffle over whether the phrase “free to play” is a perfectly clear description of a game that can be played (to some extent) for free, or a misleading veil drawn over an inevitable cash shop of some sort. It’s easy to forget, amidst its current ubiquity, that the phrase “free-to-play” is actually rather recent, coined in 2007 by Ian Free-to-play, but it has rapidly supplanted other models like Shareware (invented by Ian Shareware) and Adware (invented by Bob Holness during the sessions for Baker Street, between saxophone solos).

Delving further back into the past, it’s not too hard to find similar controversies over terminology. The earliest references are probably ostraca from Giza that, though fragmentary, seem to record exchanges between Pharaoh Khufu and his vizier Hemiunu, starting with the latter promising that “… a magnificent pyramid may be constructed, and the treasury of the kingdom shall not need to be depleted to fund this endeavour.” It’s not known if Khufu was influenced by the accompanying hieroglyphs of scantily clad maidens entreating him to “Come Build, My Lord”, but he was clearly delighted with the rapid speed at which plans were drawn up and foundations dug. As construction continued the Pharaoh became increasingly unhappy with the length of time the project was taking, a later note from Heminu assuring him that: “… of course construction shall continue without a single copper deben being invested, my initial assurance is entirely correct in that respect, however the next layer of stones may be put in place almost immediately should you make available nine hundred sacks of grain for hiring further masons and slave overseers.” A similarly dated ostracon indicated that an order for 1100 sacks of grain would grant the purchaser a bonus 150 sacks, but the Best Value option was 3500 sacks of grain with a whopping 600 bonus sacks.

Somewhat later, Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language records:
“FREECOST n. ∫. [free and cot] Without expence; free from charges.
We muſt not vouch any man for an exact maſter in the rules of our modern policy, but ſuch a one as has brought himſelf ſo far to hate and deſpiſe the abſurdity of being kind upon freecoſt, as not ſo much as to tell a friend what it is o’clock for nothing, nor to permit him to gain experience points leſt at a much reduced rate”

Unwary coffee shop patrons such as Johnson himself would often be lured with a cry of “Come hither and MANIPULATE the sugar-preserved fruit ‘pon this TABLE for FREECOST”, but after five minutes the Freecostermonger would whisk a cloth over the table exclaiming “Nay, sirrah! You shall not proceed further lest THREE of your friends VOUCHSAFE that you may CONTINUE, or you may give me SIXPENCE and proceed FORTHWITH”

As the idea of mechanical computation took hold in the 19th century, so too did various payment models. Rather than employ a clerk as a human computer, paying a monthly wage (or indeed “subscription”), de Colmer’s arithmometer promised “… COMPUTATIONS* at NO FURTHER COST, for as long as your ARM has strength to CRANK”, though digging in to the small print revealed “(* basic model allows for addition only, subtraction available to preferred customers, preferred customers may multiply or divide five times per week or purchase a TimesOver season pass)”.

The real breakthrough would have been Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, had the technology of the time been up to actually building it; glimpses of its potential can be seen in Ada Lovelace’s notes on her translation of Menabrea’s Sketch of The Analytical Engine:

“[…] it might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine. Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent. Operations cards capable, when combined with appropriate cards of variables, of the composition of short and simple musical pieces might be made available at no cost, so as to entice and intrigue, with a charge then levied upon cards that would engage the mechanism so as to compose longer and more elaborate forms, perhaps coloured green, blue and purple to indicate yet more prized attributes, offered for sale as a package containing a random selection of operation and variable cards within a plain wrapper, thus offering a tantalising air of excitement to the transaction.”

It took another hundred years for computers, as we know them, to start to appear. Colossus at Bletchley Park was the first programmable electronic computer, designed to break ‘Tunny’, traffic encoded by Lorenz cipher machine, and it must have been tremendously exciting to see the results of a successful run, plain text appearing letter by letter on the teletype: “3. PANZERGRUPPE UMZUSCHICHTEN NACH SORRY YOU HAVE EXCEEDED YOUR DAILY DECRYPTION ALLOWANCE PLEASE PURCHASE MORE TURING-ENERGY TO CONTINUE…”

Alphabeta Spagheta

There are many opportunities at the moment for MMOG players to get involved in game development prior to official release, from the very earliest stage of a Kickstarter like Brad McQuaid’s Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen through providing game-shaping feedback in the EverQuest Next Landmark alpha to slightly more traditional beta testing of The Elder Scrolls Online. In fact the very idea of an official release seems to be becoming increasingly unfashionable, or at least difficult to pin down, as early access, soft launches, headstarts and seemingly perpetual betas blur the lines, particularly for online games that evolve throughout their lifespan.

Aerial combat in War Thunder, for example, is technically in “Open Beta”, but with a fully functioning cash shop and no prospect of a progress wipe. A widely held position, mentioned on the most recent episode of How To Murder Time during a splendid rummage through the difficulties of MMO funding, is that once a game is taking money it can’t rightfully be called a beta any more, which I certainly don’t think is unreasonable, but with “beta” covering such a multitude of sins we really need some better terminology or debates just get bogged down in semantics: “LOL this game is rubbish, the flight model of this plane is inaccurate!”; “LOLOL it’s a beta it’ll get fixed”; “LOLOLOL it’s not a beta they’re taking money”; “LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL it is a beta because it says ‘beta’ right there on the screen and when they use a word it means just what they choose it to mean — neither more nor less”. This is A Bad Thing, because debates should of course be getting bogged down in wild tangents and personal insults instead.

Rather unimaginatively, nobody seems to have pushed on with the greek alphabet theme by following beta testing with gamma, delta and epsilon testing, possibly because that would encourage teams to skip through as fast as possible to get to Omicron Testing just because it sounds cool (imagine Matt Berry announcing “Engage Omicron Testing!”), or possibly because of potential difficulties with Scientology upon reaching Theta Testing. We have the solution, though: when clear, unambiguous terminology is needed, that’s clearly a job for SI units, so we present the SI scale of development centred around the base unit of The Beta (yes, yes, SI units don’t work like this, ssshhhh):

SI Beta Unit Previous Terminology Notes
Picobeta A Vague Idea “Hey, chief, we should make a game or something…”
Nanobeta A Vague Idea written down on the back of a fag packet “… and it would have adventures in it and stuff…”
Microbeta Tech Demo “… you’ll just have to imagine the sky. And grass. And other players. You control your movement with these two knobs on the side, and… oh, hang on, just need to reboot the system…”
Millibeta Crowdfunding An idea sufficiently fleshed out to be a viable prospect on Kickstarter or similar; may feature a Microbeta
Centibeta Alpha A partially complete version of some elements of the game
Beta Closed Beta A feature complete version of the game released to a limited number of people for the purpose of testing
Kilobeta Open Beta A feature complete version of the game released to everyone and their dog for gathering metrics and enfrothening the hype-vortex
Megabeta Stress Test A feature complete version of the game released to everyone and their dog, but only for a limited period of time depending on the temperature you want the login servers to reach (two hours should be sufficient to fry a few rashers of bacon and a couple of eggs, two days for a nice slow-cooked casserole)
Gigabeta Open “Beta” A game for sale, or with a cash shop, with no character/item wipe in prospect if it’s multiplayer, but still under development. Or “a game”, according to current terminology.
Terabeta Finished Product Pull up a chair, kids, and I’ll tell you about a time, long, long ago, when you went into a place they called a “shop”, and you bought a “game” on a bunch of “disks”, and then you “installed” and “played” it, and if it needed updating the game company would have to send you the patch in what we called “the post”…
Petabeta Do dooo do do do A beta run by a bunch of muppets
Exabeta Finished Product (Italian) This-a beta, ees a no more-a, bereft of life it rests in Pisa. (Deprecated; slightly racist)