Thursday 31 January 2008

The history books tell it (part 3)

My next PC, around 1990-91, was a 16Mhz 386SX built by whoever were the cheapest suppliers advertising in PC Plus at the time, some generic box-builders. I can't remember its exact spec, probably something like 1 or 2Mb of RAM, 3.5" disk drive and a 40Mb hard disk, but in gaming terms it was a quantum leap from the PC1512 for two reasons: a VGA display, allowing 256 entire colours instead of just 4, and an AdLib compatible soundcard, a similar upgrade in audio terms from the strangled beeps of a PC speaker (though there was at least one game on the 1512, Mean Streets I think, that included speech. Well, I say "speech", the PC speaker went "squuuuuwwwwww wwaaaafssshhhh", and you could just about distinguish words if you tried really hard, but it was speech to us). Finally, the 386sx was at least vaguely comparable to an Atari ST or Amiga for games!

As is doubtless familiar to anyone who's upgraded PCs over time, one of the first things to do was install stuff that just barely ran on the previous machine to enjoy it at blazing speed. I played through Curse of the Azure Bonds again (or maybe one of the Gold Box sequels), delighting in the ability to change the colours of my character's sprites, resulting in most of them having lurid primary coloured hair, skin and weapons (see, even then character customisation was important). I had another go at Xenon 2, probably the pinnacle of vertical shoot 'em ups (should've listed that in the previous post, as I actually finished it on the PC1512, the PC speaker doing its best to beep out Bomb the Bass; on the 386sx it turned out to be rather more difficult, as everything moved at (presumbly) the correct speed, where the 8Mhz of the 1512 must have struggled). I finally got to play through Wing Commander, and loved it. Possibly the first new game I got was Battletech 2: The Crescent Hawk's Revenge. I can still hum the theme music from it... It was a pretty good real-time squad of giant stompy robot command game, and who doesn't love giant stompy robots? I'd played a bit of the Battletech board game, particularly enjoying tinkering with the weapons set-ups, and apart from the very first I think I played and finished just about all the PC adaptations. Then there was Wing Commander 2, even better than the first, great days. Warlords, Chuck Yeager's Air Combat... I got Civilisation from a friend on a disk, no manual or anything, just a cursory demonstration of the gameplay, but that was more than enough to hook me for the longest time, with the added fun of figuring out various game/interface features as I went.

Something else I first got running on the 386sx was Windows 3.0; not really much cop for games (Solitaire excepted, of course) but kept the PC useful for "proper" stuff like word processing with Lotus Ami Pro. Games were still firmly DOS based, and started to need a few tricks playing with memory configuration and the like: you had your base memory up to 640k, then high memory from 640k to 1Mb, then after that either extended or expanded memory, I think... I'm a bit hazy on it these days! Different games would want more of different types of memory, leading to multiple configurations, and hunting around for the smallest possible mouse drivers and similar fun.

PC magazine cover disks (floppy disks, not CDs) were a primary source of software before the internet became prevalent (another momentary digression that should've been in the last post: I did actually get online with the PC1512, via an honest-to-goodness accoustic coupler; a friend had picked it up somewhere, but he had a new-fangled phone, the handset of which didn't fit; we still had a good old standard issue British Telecom rotary dial job. Unfortunately, it was in the hall, so getting online involved lugging the PC downstairs and balancing it on a stool next to the phone. Also, being stuck out in the middle of nowhere, there didn't seem to be any local bulletin boards, certainly not listed in the classified ads in the PC magazines, so that meant national phone calls and only being able to stay online for about ten minutes before incurring parental wrath over phone bills. Still, it was terribly exciting to play one turn of some space empire resource game type thing. Well, not that exciting actually. Especially not at 300 bits per second.) The contents of cover disks would vary, but tended to follow the patterns of the magazines to which they were attached, lots of "serious" stuff, utilities etc., and the odd shareware game here and there when there was space. There'd been plenty of shareware games, like some of the stuff I'd originally been given for the PC1512, but text or ASCII graphics tended to be the order of the day, fast-paced action less so. As VGA and Adlib/Soundblaster cards became more common companies like Epic Games, id Software and Apogee among others were producing fast paced EGA and VGA platform-type games like Captain Comic, Duke Nukem (the platform game before the FPS), Jill of the Jungle, Bio Menace and my personal favourites, the Commander Keen games, still holders of the "Best Use of Pogo Stick in a Game" award.

After a year or so, it was time for an upgrade, in the form of a Soundblaster Multimedia pack: a Soundblaster card, which also acted as the controller for the included CD-ROM drive, and came bundled with a couple of disks: an early version of Encarta (or similar encyclopedia), and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. This was hugely exciting! Video! Of people! A minor flaw, in common with most early FMV games, is that it was totally rubbish as a game, I don't think I ever bothered to solve a single one of the cases, but any visitor was still treated to the astonishing site of real (somewhat blocky and jerky) genuine *people* on a computer! The Soundblaster was also rather exciting, having a line-in socket that, coupled with Windows sound recorder, gave hours of fun of recording stuff, adding echo, reversing it, and generally hunting for satanic messages in Led Zeppelin songs. I had a sweet setup by then, a bunch of old hi-fi separates someone else was going to chuck out (probably because the CD player would deign to bother playing discs about 75% of the time), with the PC hooked up to the amp, so when I was making mix tapes I could drop in crazy .wav files between tracks.

Towards the end of my time with the 386sx, id Software came out with something a bit different: Wolfenstein 3D. I don't remember exactly how long I ran around, shooting Germans and trying to open every single wall in the entire castle in case it was a secret door, but it was quite a while. That spawned a few similar games, like Blake Stone, which used the same engine, but none really matched up to Wolfenstein, at least not until id's next game, but by that time I'd upgraded again...

Tuesday 22 January 2008

The history books tell it (part 2)

Some time around 1988 the venerable Spectrum was showing its age, and it was time for an upgrade. The Speccy was only ever really used for games; I never mastered saving data back to tape, and we never had any radical peripherals like a disk drive or printer that might have made it more generally useful. The main driver for getting a new computer was (like every family computer ever purchased) something to help with homework, so a games console was never an option. The Atari ST and Commodore Amiga either hadn't been widely released, or else were considered too game-oriented.

I'm not entirely sure why we ended up with a PC; recommendation of a colleague-of-a-friend-of-a-sister or something, I think. It was an Amstrad PC1512, a cheap (compared to other PCs) IBM compatible aimed at home users as well as businesses, and coupled with a Citizen 120D 9 pin dot matrix printer made for a formidable powerhouse of a unit. 8Mhz processor, 512k of RAM, 5.25" disks storing up to 360k, this beast could handle anything you could throw at it (this might sound like excessive sarcasm, it was actually a respectable spec at the time). My main disappointment was that we had a choice between either a second disk drive or a colour screen (having both would have been too expensive, and as for the 20Mb hard drive option, I'm not sure Croesus himself had one of them. Possibly because he'd been dead for two and a half thousand years. And he preferred Macs.) The practicality of the second disk drive won out, despite my vehement arguments that a colour display would be so much more useful for... homework... school... stuff... of some sort. Probably. I didn't know at the time that the CGA graphics of the 1512 were limited to four colours anyway; if anything, the garish CGA palettes of cyan, magenta, black and white or green, red, brown and black were marginally less unpleasant when rendered in shades of grey.

So, homework was duly assisted by the bundled Ability office suite, teachers being suitably impressed when presented with printed essays only slightly torn at the edges from removing the tractor feed holes. Word processing and spreadsheets didn't provide much entertainment, though, there are only so many combinations of bold, italics and underlining you can use before getting bored. Six, in fact. There was always GEM Paint, which included a rather splendid image of a tiger, for mouse based drawing fun, but my artistic skills were (and indeed still are) limited to stick drawings. No, I was after some edge-of-the-seat gaming excitement, which was a bit of a problem. The PC wasn't exactly a first-choice gaming system. Nor third or fourth choice, for that matter. At the time it was fighting it out for seventeenth-choice gaming system with a Popeye Game & Watch. No high street shops in our town or the surrounding area sold PC games, and on one rare occasion on holiday when I found somewhere that did (three slightly dusty looking boxes in a sea of titles for other systems), they cost something ludicrous like £15 or £20. Adjusted to today's prices, and taking pocket money into account as a base salary, that would be roughly £3,812.27, so a bit much really. Fortunately the aforementioned colleague-of-a-friend-of-a-sister turned up trumps with a disk full of a random assortment games. The big hit from this was Digger, a gem-collecting monster-squashing game that was rather fun, and beeped out Popcorn from the PC speaker (Wikipedia link included to clarify I'm talking about the song Popcorn, rather than some amazing hack that created snacks from soundwaves as you played). It used the cursor keys for movement, which I found a bit tricky at the time; a fairly standard key layout on the Spectrum was to use Q and A for up and down, O and P for left and right, and space for fire. The idea of using one hand for all four directions was madness, so I squeezed both hands onto the cursor pad. This meant using F1 to shoot was a fairly involved manoeuvre, but as I had no idea you could use F1 to shoot until discovering it accidentally after several months, it wasn't really a problem.

Other games on the disk included Armchair Quarterback, a text-based American Football game (I'd picked up the basic rules from Channel 4 but wasn't entirely au fait with all the terminology, so my play calling was somewhat random; "3rd and 27? Quarterback sneak!"), some karate game that I suspect was intended for a 4.77Mhz processor (or just coded by bastards) as the opponents moved rather quickly (those cats, it could be said, were as fast as lightning; in fact, it was a little bit frightening...), and a few other bits and pieces. I got Elite from somewhere, and spent a long time working up to the titular Elite status. All entertaining enough but not exactly state of the art, most of the games were several years old by that point. I picked up the odd issue of PC Plus or Computer Shopper or similar (I tried Computer and Video Games magazine once, but that was an exercise in taunting with glossy full-colour page after glossy full-colour page of games, of which about three would be available for the PC) and gazed in wonderment at the lists of games available from mail order suppliers (much like the laminated book of dreams, only not laminated of course). With some begging and cajoling (and probably some Christmas money), I eventually got permission (and more importantly, a cheque) to send off for MicroProse's Airborne Ranger, my first "proper" PC game. Very splendid it was too, lots of sneaking, shooting and stabbing fun, infiltrating enemy encampments.

In parallel with an increasing interest in computers, I was also getting into pencil and paper RPGs (just to be a totally stereotypical nerd). Starting with the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, working up to various other RPGs back when White Dwarf was a proper roleplaying magazine rather than just a miniature catalogue, waves walking stick damn kids get off my lawn etc., I even used the database component of the Ability suite to store character sheets. I missed out on adventure gaming on the Spectrum (never played the classic Hobbit text adventure, not that it stops me randomly dropping "Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold" into conversation), but that first disk of assorted PC games included Zork, so I spent a while mapping mazes and getting eaten by a grue without making much progress. The Infocom text adventure of the Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy was on there too; I think I solved the infamous babel fish puzzle myself, but saw most of the game only thanks to a text file containing the solution. There was also Rogue, which I rather enjoyed, doing battle with vicious upper case letters, but never made it out with the Amulet of Yendor. Though classics, they were also several years old and distinctly lacking on the graphics front. Not long after getting that first PC, SSI got the rights to make Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games, which I seem to recall was fairly big news at the time, and I got Heroes of the Lance, a side-scrolling beat(/shoot/spell) 'em up, that was fun enough but generally forgettable, though I was quite impressed with myself for working out that you had to switch to a particular character, and throw her staff at a dragon right at the end. Well, I say "working out", I think it was just a case of cycling through the entire party trying every weapon and spell on the bleedin' night-invulnerable final beast. The pick of the early SSI AD&D games had to be the "Gold Box" series, and though I missed out on Pool of Radiance in favour of Heroes of the Lance, I played the second, Curse of the Azure Bonds, to death. A friend actually bought it, but some swift work with scissors, a photocopier, a brass paper fastener and some sticky back plastic produced an extra version of the spinning copy protection wheel, and it was off to... wherever Curse of the Azure Bonds was set. Milton Keynes, possibly. Spanning four entire disks (yes, over one whole megabyte of game data) there was plenty of adventuring there.

The real breakthrough in PC gaming came when a new kid joined our school. Chatting away, as you do, it turned out he had a PC. And games! Such games he had. He brought a disk in with Double Dragon on it, amazing arcade-perfect action on the PC! (OK, arcade-broadly-similar-if-you-squint-a-bit action, to be strictly accurate, but still.) Turned out his dad used PCs for some sort of proper CAD type electrical work, or something, and owned *hushed gasp* an 80386! With a VGA screen, capable of 256 colours! He had plenty of games too, some original, some copies with printed or photocopied lists of codes to defeat copy protection questions. A sounder basis for friendship you couldn't ask for, and we spent many weekends gathered around PCs solving adventure games (we definitely finished Space Quest III, amongst others) and playing stuff like F19 Stealth Fighter, Sim City, Prince of Persia, Falcon and Populous with even the odd bit of rudimentary networking, when the null-modem gods smiled (not often). As well as playing games, he knew about the dark and mysterious workings of things like the autoexec.bat and config.sys files, and PC hardware (we upgraded the PC1512 with another 128k of memory and a 32Mb hard card, a combined hard drive and controller card. No more disk swapping needed!) I got GW-BASIC from him, and, inspired by Zork, coded up my own amazing adventure game in which you had to escape from a POW camp. Actually, "amazing" might be overstating it a bit, I only got about three rooms in, and the text parser consisted of a couple of IF statements testing for exact phrases like "Go North" or "Take key". Slightly more usefully, I came up with a program to solve some maths assignment that the teacher was most impressed by.

By 1990, though, the PC1512 just couldn't keep up. My friend had upgraded to a VGA 386 and was enjoying his glorious technicolour games while I was stuck with mono CGA. Still, I could at least play most games, after a fashion, until... Wing Commander. Wing Commander needed VGA graphics, and it was amazing. I went round to my friend's house to play it at every opportunity, and it was a driving factor behind the upgrade to my next machine...

Wednesday 16 January 2008

The history books tell it (supplemental)

Another reason it's hard to make a Top 20 list of games is how to assess older games. Have you ever, as an adult, seen cartoons you loved as a kid? There's some timeless classics, Looney Tunes and the like, but I was channel hopping on satellite TV a while back, and found a MASK cartoon.

I loved MASK. I'd get up at some ungodly hour on a Saturday morning when everyone else was still asleep to watch it. I'd endure Timmy Mallett and the Wide Awake Club for MASK. Later on I realised it was just an extended advert for action figures, but even so had a bit of a soft spot for it. On watching the cartoon twenty years later, though... good lord, it was bad. Really terrible.

Similarly, obviously Thro' The Wall won't exactly stack up to Crysis, but after the previous post I thought I'd grab an emulator and give it a try again. It really is basic (in BASIC, ahahahaha, sorry), and today probably wouldn't be in a Top 2000 of games, let alone Top 20. At the time, though, it was the greatest game in the whole world (albeit the only game, but never mind). How to weigh that up against photo-realistic graphics, strong storylines or deep gameplay?

The history books tell it (part 1)

Nothing is particularly grabbing me in current gaming (still enjoying Guitar Hero 3 and X3, but there's nothing particularly blogworthy there). Reading Tom's Top 20 Games list prompted me to make a bit of an attempt to come up with a top 20 myself, but delving into the gaming past for candidates turned into an extended Wikipedia-driven session of extreme nostalgia, so I thought I'd go with some sprawling free-form reminiscing instead as narrowing a list down to a mere 20 would be terribly difficult.

I'll group up games according to the machine I played them on, so to kick things off... the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Like many others in the UK, my formative computing experiences were shaped by the good old Speccy in the early 1980s. We got one for Christmas, probably in 1983 or '84, and it included the Horizons Software Starter Pack. That featured the strangely truncatedly titled Thro' The Wall (perhaps an early attempt at edgy, hip street lingo without resorting to the barbarism of the more phonetically correct Thru), a Breakout clone that was the greatest (only) computer game ever seen (up to that point) in the history of time (in our house). Everyone loved Thro' The Wall, even my parents and their friends. My dad could even get to the dizzying heights of level 2 (and possibly beyond), I'm not sure I ever cleared the initial wall (damn half bricks).

In general, I was a bit too young to really get into the Spectrum (being under ten, and computers only just coming into the home). It was just one of a wide portfolio of things to play with, alongside Lego, plastic soldiers, comics, Star Wars figures and the like. I typed in a few bits of BASIC code from books without really getting a handle on programming (past the obligatory 10 PRINT "ZOSO IS SKILL" 20 GOTO 10), not helped by the cunning Spectrum system that didn't just let you type, say, "NEW", oh no. You had to hunt around to find which key it was on ("A", logically enough), and then use some combination of keys to actually get it on screen, depending on the colour of the word on the keyboard. Hours of fun. I was far more interested in Battle Action Force than any of the Spectrum magazines so critical opinion wasn't really a factor in game purchases; instead, it was whatever Woolworths happened to have on the shelves that I could afford (dependant on not blowing pocket money on sweets for several weeks), cover art being the deciding factor if that still left a choice. Although most of my friends had computers, it was a motley assortment of systems (someone's dad used a BBC Micro at work so they had one at home; one friend had an Amstrad CPC-464, another had an 8-bit Atari), so the playground wasn't a hotbed of tape swapping. Only a couple of other Spectrum games particularly stick in the mind; early on, Daley Thompson's Decathlon, a button pounding sport 'em up similar to Track & Field/Hyper Olympics, and later Saboteur. Saboteur was part of a compilation with Combat Lynx and Turbo Esprit (Googling suggests it was Durrell's "Big 4", and also included Critical Mass but I don't remember that at all), and I just couldn't get on with the other games, which was a shame as I probably bought the pack on the strength of Combat Lynx, being slightly plane-obsessed at the time. Saboteur, though... I finished Saboteur. I got the disk and made it back to the helicopter, I remember being dead chuffed about that.

The only other thing I particularly remember about the Spectrum was that, unlike those fancy-dans with... well, just about any other home computer at the time... the original Spectrum didn't have a joystick port. The keyboard was a bit tricky for anything more than the left and right of Thro' The Wall, so we got a joystick interface to plug into the back of the Speccy. Not one of those simple boards where you just plugged in a joystick and played, though, no. This thing looked like an Enigma Stecker board, with sockets for each key of the keyboard, and six plugs for the joystick up/down/left/right/fire buttons. Terribly ingenious, it let you map the joystick to whatever keyboard controls the game happened to have, though I'm not sure I entirely grasped the principle at the time. Thanks to the magic of Google, I've just found out it was a COMCON interface. Truly, the internet is a great thing.

Anyway, that was the Spectrum, my introduction to the fell world of computing, but it wouldn't be until my next machine that I really fell under its sway.

As an aside, while drafting this, I was browsing the Onion and found the terrifyingly similar:

The Onion

Half Of 26-Year-Old's Memories Nintendo-Related

BROOKLYN, NY—According to an fMRI of Philip Jenkins' brain during memory recall, his parietal lobe is activated equally for the words "mother" and "Banjo Kazooie."

Friday 11 January 2008

Starin' into space

Back to the January sale games, then. I haven't really got into Unreal Tournament 3 yet; the single player campaign, as ever, is fairly ho-hum and mostly involves getting annoyed by your 'bot team-mates stealing the good vehicles and getting them stuck on a random bit of the map. They're either incredibly stupid, or it's genius-level AI that's become disenchanted with the futility of never-ceasing virtual violence, and has taken to staging bold performance art pieces like "Goliath tank upon scenery at most unexpected cant". Multiplayer, I haven't played enough to get to know the maps, so my brief online forays consist of popping up somewhere and going "Where am I? Who am I? Why am I here?", before a tank shell/artillery barrage/sniper rifle rudely interrupts my existential crisis.

I've been cruising around the galaxy a fair bit in X3: Reunion, though. I played the original X: Beyond the Frontier sometime in the 12th century (or possibly 1999ish if not exaggerating quite so much for comic effect) but have forgotten pretty much everything about it, except it involved spaceships and had a really great soundtrack, and never played X2, so I was a bit rusty on the old spaceflight. That wasn't helped by the fact that X3 doesn't so much throw you in at the deep end as club you unconscious, tie you up, stick you in a helicopter, fly you out to the middle of the biggest ocean it can find and shove you out the door. Chained to a weight. Made out of chum. And sodium. Faced with an entire galaxy, a keyboard chock full of spaceship controls, more menus than the draw where I shove all the takeaway menus and nothing in the way of a tutorial, I thought I ought to have a bit of a look at the manual. As I got the game on Steam, the manual is a PDF which is a bad start; PDF conversions of printed manuals usually aren't terribly easy to read on screen, this one being no exception. A useful reference once you're going, perhaps, but not great for starting out, so with a bold cry of "too long, didn't read!" it was off to Google. That did the trick, and in no time I was using the Freehand Tool and Bezier options to create beautiful art, at which point I realised I'd found a tutorial for CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X3 rather than space-shooting type thing X3: Reunion (or X 'superscript 3', to be technically correct, but I can't be arsed to find the superscript tag). A slightly revised search turned up the deeply splendid Apricot Mapping Service HQ, which turns out to be dedicated to X3 and not old PCs. (Momentary digression: never mind the Logitech G15, the Apricot PC had a keyboard with LCD display and programmable keys in 1983!) There I found the X3 Handbook, a couple of years of collected wisdom from the X3 forums jammed together in one handy place (also available as a 156 page PDF; this one's much easier to read on screen than the proper manual, being nice plain text (with a few pictures to liven things up) rather than something formatted for hardcopy). Within the handbook are a couple of tutorials at the "press this key, then this key, then click on this icon on this screen" level, just the job to get me flying around

Having mastered the basics like "speeding up" and "slowing down again", and then the really advanced bits like "turning left and right", it was on with the plot. The X games have always been very freeform, and I've posted before about how I like a bit of structure. X3 seems to handle this quite well; upon starting, you can choose to either engage in the plot, or just start with an archetype (explorer, trader, assassin) and make your own way in the universe. The plot, such as it is, so far seems to involve me as a square-jawed ace hero investigating missing crystals with the help of a sassy space-chick, battles with pirates and assorted other staples of sci fi; unlikely to win a Nobel prize for literature, but it does the job required of setting goals other than "fly around the galaxy going wheeeeee!" Unless I'm terribly mistaken it's not at all time critical either, so you're free to break off at any point and go play in the sandbox (which might not exactly help out the narrative ("I can give you information on these crystals, but first you must free my daughter from her awful captivity." "Sure! Would you mind awfully if I went off exploring for a while first, though?"), but works for me at a game level).

After a few plot missions, I thought I'd have a potter around to earn a bit of money, pimp out my spaceship a bit (maybe get imitation fur seat covers and some classy blue LEDs dotted around the cockpit). As is traditional with space sims, there's two main ways of earning money: trading and shooting stuff. Buying stuff at one space station, flying around a bit then selling it another space station is about as exciting a prospect to me as picking up some cushions from one sofa then walking over to another sofa to drop them. For three straight hours. On to plan B, then, laser attack PEWPEW! More reading of the X3 handbook revealed that, when under attack, there's a chance that the enemy pilot will decide discretion is the better part of valour, and eject. At that point, you can carefully fly up to their abandoned ship, eject from your own ship(!), fly over to the other one in your spacesuit, claim it, return to your own ship, then issue orders to your newly claimed prize to fly off to a shipyard to be sold for profit. Thank you, step by step guide of the X3 handbook, lord knows how long it would've taken me to work that out otherwise. Again, as is traditional in space sims, you can be a pirate and attack hapless traders (while saying "yarrrr!" a lot, splicing mainbraces and drinking rum), but not wishing to incur the wrath of the intergalactic authorities I decided to instead be a Force for Good (and Profit) and go after pirates myself (though I still say "yarrr!" and drink rum while doing so). This has led to mixed results; on my first foray, I nabbed a couple of pirate heavy fighters, excellent start! (Beginner's luck, more like.) There followed a series of disastrous expeditions and much loading of saved games, where overconfidence set me off attacking anything I saw and learning the hard way about rear turret mounted plasma cannons; nobody seemed interested in surrendering unless there was a pan-sector dogfight going between many pirates and a bunch of police, in which case I'd lock on to a lone pirate, knock down his shields, he'd eject and then the collective forces of galactic law enforcement would swoop down on his abandoned ship and blow it into tiny pieces, the gits; and finally, I eventually got a pirate to eject, had his ship all lined up to claim after carefully manoeuvring over, ejected from my own ship... and a stupid twitch of the throttle accelerated my spacesuited self up to ramming speed, and I splattered myself all over the hull of my potential prize. All very frustrating. Finally last night, I went on a particularly excellent rampage, laying waste to the evil forces of piracy and capturing another couple of ships, carefully escorting them back to friendly territory in my own, rather battered by that point, fighter. They were only interceptors, so not worth a huge amount, but it was still a pretty nice profit... until I repaired my own ship, which used up all the credits I'd made and a few more besides. Ah well; I managed to upgrade my own ship with a few bits I'd stripped off the captured vessels, at least, so it wasn't a total waste.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

A casual look will do

As well as being unable to summon up much MMOG playing enthusiasm, I was getting a bit jaded of the MMOG-o-blog-o-sphere, this place included (hmmm, I wonder if there could possibly be a link?) Then all of a sudden, a bunch of stuff turned up in this morning's Google Reader trawl that caused me to adopt a contemplative pose and gesture with an imaginary pipe while going "ng, ng, ng, you're so very right, of course". Coincidental publishing of pertinent pieces, or the caffeine perk of an extra cup of coffee making the world a brighter place? Either way...

Firstly, Zubon picks out a bit of Gödel, Escher, Bach (a book I keep meaning to read) and asks "Can there really be enough content in a game to entertain you for years, not months?", which sort of ties in with some thoughts I had about MMOGs never ending.

Then Will Wallace announced a rather splendid new name for his site, The Skinnerboxer Rebellion, inspired by his previous piece, Why Can’t I WoW Like I Used To?, a great post I very much agree with. It also ties in neatly with Zubon's Hofstadter quotes, particularly "The behavior space of a person is just about complex enough that it can continually surprise other people…" with the suggestions for encouraging emergent player behaviour.

While those suggestions are excellent, one aspect they don't really touch on so much are time constraints, and how they can make social interaction difficult without some sort of asynchronous aspect, something I very briefly mentioned when looking at the average play session length of Half Life 2. And what else should be in the feed-o-matic than Tuebit's Deep... Hard... and Casual from WorldIV that includes a manifesto I can really get behind (IYKWIM) (AITYD), including asynchronous play. And just to round up the fundamental interconnectedness of the blognoverse, that post links to an intriguing pointer to Warrior Epic (not quite sure about the name, though, looks a bit much like a random juxtaposition from a pack of MMO Word Fridge Magnets) at Lagorama, which in turn thrusts hard and deeply back into the casualness with Why Is RMT In MMORPGs The Target Of So Much Hatred?, picking up the "we’ve got money now" point and running with it.

Phew. I think that's used up my 'a href' quota for the year already. Thought provoking posts, eh? They're like buses: big, red and have chewing gum on the seats. Hang on, I mean: you wait all week, then five turn up at the same time. Linked to each other. With comment threads.

Wednesday 2 January 2008

So this is the New Year

Happy New Year, one and all. I'm just back from family visits, and facing the dread prospect of work again tomorrow. Oh well.

This was the way the world (of Warcraft) ended: not with a bang but a whimper. The scroll of resurrection faded, along with any great desire to keep playing. I hardly saw any old friends, what with all the real life Christmas-type stuff going on, so never got near an instance, and ten days of battlegrounds and daily quests is plenty.

One thing January brings is sales, and I've picked up a couple of new games for the new year; firstly Steam were offering a veritable boatload of discounts, I could've picked up a bunch of stuff there, but restricted myself to X3: Reunion for a whole $10. Initial impressions are that it really needs a tutorial, chucking you in the middle of an entire universe without even a suggestion of what keys to press is a bit much. Still, found a couple of helpful user guides over on the forums, so we'll see how that goes. Wandering around town, I found Unreal Tournament 3 discounted as well, so grabbed that for some frantic FPS action. I've only played a couple of the single player "campaign" missions so far, and don't really know what's going on as leaving cutscenes to play results in the PC freezing, irritatingly. Quite why they needed some invasion story (I think, maybe), I don't know. Just make it a tournament, like the others, the clue's in the game title!

Anyway, time to see if I can remember what I'm s'posed to do for this "job" thing...