Friday 29 May 2009

Thought for the day.

MMO developers seem content to simply will players not to min/max.
However, players will simply always min/max an MMO developer’s content.

Thursday 28 May 2009

Developerial Intentionality

I’ve never been the biggest Star Trek fan; I’d enjoy the odd episode of the original series or The Next Generation on BBC2 but didn’t religiously watch full series, and hardly caught any of Deep Space 9, Voyager or Enterprise. The new JJ Abrams-helmed film looked quite fun from the trailers, though, and sure enough turned out to be a rather splendid romp, which in turn has fuelled my previously low-key interest in Star Trek Online. Checking on their forums, though, it appears the game won’t tie in to the new film, being set after the end of the “old” timeline (at least according to Wikipedia, Star Trek Online being set 30 years after Nemesis). Understandable, given it’s been in development for a while and would presumably take a fair amount of effort to update, and setting the game slightly outside established events gives them a lot more freedom (Star Wars: The Old Republic takes a similar tack, of course, only setting itself well before the established timelines rather than afterwards; Lord of the Rings Online cunningly interleaves its story with the events of the books, but does need a certain amount of handwaving to explain away the hordes of Elven adventurers trooping around the Shire and endless stream of people standing next to Strider for photo ops). The new Star Trek film rather shakes things up, however, so in the best comic tradition “nothing will ever be the same again”…

(Warning: if you want to know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the new Star Trek film, look away now. I’m pretty sure the following includes no major spoilers, and unless you’ve been living with the the Toast King or Moon Nazis of Iron Sky you’ll probably have picked up more details in reviews, trailers and the like, but just to be safe…)

Star Trek (2009 film), as Wikipedia would title it, changes the (Star Trek) past slightly, unravelling the big ball of wibbley wobbley time-y wimey stuff such that the events of the original series didn’t really happen, a rather cunning mechanism that allows them to effectively reboot the franchise and start afresh, but without having to shout “LA LA LA LA LA the previous series don’t exist LA LA LA”. It’s no surprise, then, what one of the main talking points around the geekier forums is: the number of chairs on the bridge of the Enterprise in its various incarnations. It’s simply ludicrous that any starship would expect a crew member to perform their duties while standing, it just wouldn’t be efficient, especially for long periods, and spoils the whole film. (The Liberator of Blake’s 7 is much better seat-wise; Doctor Who’s TARDIS, total disaster.)

Actually that might just be the more ergonomically focussed forums. No, one of the main talking points is: timelines. What happened to the previous Star Trek series and films (apart from Enterprise)? There are two general schools of thought: firstly that the events of the new film caused a branch in time, and the new film runs in an alternative timeline parallel to the previous series, which still happen as portrayed. The second is that there is only a single timeline, and the changes wrought in the new film mean none of the previous series happened at all, disappearing in a puff of reboot. I say “two general schools of thought”, naturally there are several others including the ever-popular “what the hell are you talking about?”, the slightly missing the point on a sci-fi forum “you know it’s all fictional and none of it *actually* happened, right?”, and the more unusual “what does it matter, only The Cage is true Star Trek, everything else is non-canon apart from my own twenty seven volume fanfic epic Captain Pike and the Ocelots of Uncertainty”, but most of the debate is around single vs multiple timelines. In a wildly surprising turn of events, what may seem to the casual observer to be a largely esoteric matter is a fierce point of contention, both sides deploying a terrifying array of precedent from previous episodes, films, authorised novels, unauthorised novels, slightly authorised novels, interviews, commentaries and other references, not to mention light sprinklings of astrophysics, lashings of quantum mechanics, and, when all else fails, pictures of cats accompanied by grammatically suspect captions.

A key weapon in the multi-timeline armoury is an interview with Bob Orci, co-writer of the film, which states:

Anthony: So what happens (…) is the creation of an alternative timeline, but what happens to the prime timeline after (a character) leaves it? Does it continue or does it wink out of existence once he goes back and creates this new timeline.

Bob: It continues. According to the most successful, most tested scientific theory ever, quantum mechanics, it continues.

Anthony: So everyone in the prime timeline, like Picard and Riker, are still off doing there [sic] thing, it is just that (a character) is gone.

Bob: Yes, and you will notice that whenever the movie comes out, that whatever DVDs you have purchased, will continue to exist.

So Cryptic’s Star Trek Online can boldly go where no online game has gone before back in the “prime” timeline, and still be consistent with the “official” rebooted franchise (as far as anything in a long running sci-fi franchise can be consistent). I’m not sure if there are going to be any time travel elements in the game; I did have a brilliant (if I say so myself) idea to explain character respecs: you pop back in time, have a little chat with yourself, and suggest that you specialise in Engineering instead of Medicine at the Starfleet academy, and Bob’s your proverbial Uncle (who may also be your Nephew in another timeline). Course you’d have to avoid giving yourself a sporting almanac, or the secret of the Tension Sheet, but those are minor details.

Anyway, back to the sci-fi forums, and Orci’s quotes have resolved the debate, the new film is in a different timeline, everyone’s happy, right? Right. No, wait, not “right”, the other one… No; Orci’s quotes merely escalated the conflict into the new and yet more terrifying realm of authorial intentionality. In a nutshell: is the author’s intent important, or even relevant, compared to a reader’s/viewer’s interpretation of the work? Once a thread reaches the point where it’s simultaneously debating wavefunction collapse in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the deconstructionalist approach to internal, external and contextual evidence in a medium in which the notion of the “author” is highly fluid, I figure it’s time to run up the white flag, but the question of the importance of authorial intentionality struck me as Quite Interesting in relation to games, particularly in light of the recent happenings in City of Heroes regarding the Mission Architect.

So to translate the idea a bit to “developerial intentionality”: does it matter how the developers intend a game to be played, or is it entirely down to the player to decide how they should experience the game? It’s terribly easy to say “I’m the player, I know what ‘fun’ is, I should be allowed to play this game however I like to have the most fun, and anything the developers put in my way is a Bad Thing(tm)”, but I’m not sure the player is *always* the best arbiter; obviously they need to provide the bulk of the input (Developer: “this game is a plain black screen and consists entirely of pressing the ‘f’ key, which does absolutely nothing” Player: “erm… that’s no fun.” Developer: “YES IT IS!”), but a bit of developerial nudging can sometimes be useful. Difficulty is an obvious one; as players, we often tend towards a path of least resistance (well, I know I do). A while back, when playing the old superhero game Freedom Force vs the Third Reich, I hit quite a tricky mission, and after failing it a couple of times I thought I’d reinforce my team a bit by building my own hero with the editor it provided. I can’t remember if the game naturally allowed you to make stupidly powerful characters, or I just min-maxed seven shades of arse out of the system, but either way I ended up with someone who smote fascists with the greatest of ease, allowing me to easily finish the difficult mission. And the next one. And the next. All the way to the end of the game, in fact. In doing so, I didn’t get a great sense of accomplishment, it was all somewhat anticlimactic, but I also felt like I’d finished the game and didn’t have a strong desire to re-play it “properly”. My own fault entirely, but on the “fun” scale having amazing power and smashing through everything seemed like “a lot” of fun, but turned out to be “probably not as much fun as playing it ‘properly'”. Though perhaps the original mission was just too tough and I’d never have been able to get past it, which would have been “still less fun that that”. Tough business, this “fun” scale. And that’s just in single player games; any sort of multiplayer, especially massively multiplayer or player vs player content, dramatically increases the complexity as your “fun” interacts with that of other people. At which point I think it’s time to run up the white flag again before quantum physics comes into it.

In conclusion, then: the new Star Trek film is fun; I cannot prove this, but it *is*, in the same way that Mount Everest *is*, and Alma Cogan *isn’t*.

Wednesday 27 May 2009

Yet in bold quest thereof, better to sink in boundless deeps, than float on vulgar shoals.

After regaining consciousness and finding myself lying on the floor of the lounge with my face bonded to the carpet by a tenuous glue of dried saliva, I spent a short while contemplating the sensibleness of spending a solid fours hours editing a podcast until two o’clock in the morning. My mind then drifted on to the health implications of heating one’s testicles to a somewhat alarming temperature through the unfortunate circumstance of them having happened to block the heat exhaust port on my Macbook as I collapsed comatose upon it. I would state for the record that I was still fully clothed and that this is not the prelude to some sort of strange Macbook mating fanfic, or a working draft of the explanation I plan to give to my doctor:

“ did I get first degree burns down there? You.. you wa..want to know how? Uh, well, it’s because I’m a part time podcaster you see; hazard of the occupation. Yes, I’m sure you want to take pictures. For some sort of medical journal I presume? Wait, what? Your blog?”.

I have the strangest nightmares.

Having regained my composure, and all feeling in my genitals, I moved swiftly on to the most important question of any day: what was I going to play? As I mentioned on the podcast, in a move which many would call madness but which I would propose is less mad than many of the things that occur inside my head cavity, I decided to have a nose around in Vanguard and see if the game is yet able to offer anything of interest to a jaded and cynical MMO veteran who is questing in their own right to find an MMO that restores that long lost sense of adventure and exploration that they once knew. Vanguard is known to be big. Really big. So with the offer of a fourteen day free trial I decided to brush the electronic dust from off of my Sony Station account. I then spent a good hour or so having an allergic reaction to its Fisher-Price front end and its bizarre configuration options nested away in window menus, until finally I got the game downloading. I’m not even going to venture a review, preview, first impression, call it what you will, because I really didn’t spend enough time in Vanguard to justify it. The races are varied and plentiful; the classes look interesting with some nice interpretations of the standard fare. When I entered the starter area and completed the first few quests up to level four or so it was surprisingly engaging, certainly compared to how I imagined it to be after reading various reports in the blogosphere and beyond upon its release, which left the impression that it was the MMO equivalent of Hannibal Lecter: something that teased and toyed with you, then utterly destroyed your will to live before serving you your own brain alongside a nice glass of Tuscan red.

The reason I stopped playing the tutorial was that everything was all so terribly familiar, I had played Vanguard before and in a far more accomplished form. I reactivated my subscription to Everquest 2.

I’ve never been an Everquester. I earned my MMO wings in Dark Age of Camelot, skipping Ultima, Everquest and several other MMOs that are generally accepted to be what Real Men (and Women; thanks Stan) played when MMOs were hard, computers were complicated, and blogging was something done by a martial artist with a bunged up nose. I did try Everquest 2 a year or so ago during one of my many bouts of MMO ennui and although I enjoyed pottering around in the character creator, I only managed to get one of the several hundred characters I created past the initial starter area and to a major city. I’m not sure why I didn’t get further, perhaps I was just generally burnt out, such that soloing another MMO – especially one as daunting as EQ2 is when you first stand at the base and peer neck-achingly up towards its summit which is hidden not in the midst of misty clouds as one would imagine, but somewhere behind the moon – was never going to do anything other than further the frustration felt.

I’m looking for an MMO that is impressive in scope and offers a sense of adventure and exploration, and Lord of the Rings online is impressive in graphical presentation and content, but is also greatly restricted by the IP. What’s more, every time Turbine attempts to add a third storey extension to the intellectual property in which they dwell, one pictures a giant eye staring down at them and all who would follow them; wreathed in flame, the lidless all-seeing eye of Tolkien, watching and waiting. So I have strapped on my backpack, taken my trusty walking stick in hand, and set out on my adventures in the lands of Norrath instead. I spent some time researching classes, and settled on one that was a little outside of my comfort zone in an attempt to spice things up yet further. Traditionally playing healer classes, more specifically hybrid healers, I decided to avoid them and instead picked from the DPS line. I couldn’t entirely resist the siren call of ‘group support’, the role I most enjoy playing but which does unfortunately have the – oft sadly unfulfilled – caveat of requiring a group. DPS to see me through solo content then, and tasty group buffs should I find myself in the strange and disorientating situation of participating in an amenable group in an MMO.

What with Champions Online being delayed, along with Jumpgate Evolution and I’m sure, as we mentioned on the podcast, soon to be every other MMO near release as they all frantically scramble to add the missing boars from their game in order to qualify as an MMO (hint to the sci-fi MMOs: Duke-Nukem-style boar headed mutants), I’ve got a few months to slowly wander my way through a few areas of EQ2. I’m not there for the levelling treadmill, the fact that it’s all new to me means that I want to explore this strange new world, seek out new life and new civilisations, and go boldly where only a few hundred thousand people have gone before.

If I can do all of that as a three foot tall man-rat with a penchant for singing, so much the better.

Sunday 24 May 2009

Kiasacast Episode 3

For those of you who are not monitoring our podcast RSS feed or stalking us on the Twitterverse, brace your main hats and hang on to your sails, because we’re pleased to announce that it’s time for Kiasacast episode 3: The Kiasacast Strikes Back!

This episode of the podcast includes:

– Listener’s mail

– Second Opinion: a Darkfall re-review

– This (Three) Month(s) In KiaSA: Don’t Believe the Hype

– What We’re Playing

– Book Corner, including:

     – Child 44

     – Fly by Night

– The brand new and incredibly innovative Listener’s Twitter Questions

– Search Sewage


     – Can you identify the music from this episode’s show?
       Answers on an aldis lamp, and then email an MPEG of the lamp to us.

     – Last episode’s tune: Xenon II Megablast, intro from the Amiga version, outro remix by daXX

Download Kiasacast Episode Three

Thursday 21 May 2009

It Was Eighteen Years Ago Today: Wing Commander Special

It’s 1991. PC Plus have awarded Wing Commander 4/5, obviously a libellous hatchet-job by some buffoon who’d barely played it for two hours, because Wing Commander was the very definition of “awesome”, and not just in a misprinted dictionary that had replaced random definitions with military ranks. So what was so great about it?

I’d upgraded my PC1512 to 640k of memory and a 32Mb hard drive, but that was about as far as you could go; the power supply for the whole system was in the monitor and you couldn’t over-ride the on-board graphics with an expansion card, so I was stuck with the four colours of CGA (or, on my mono screen, four shades of gray) and occasional “beep” of a PC speaker that, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, didn’t make for the most compelling audiovisual experience. Curse of the Azure Bonds had characters, a story and the mechanics of AD&D for thoughtful, tactical combat, but the sound and graphics were more functional than jaw-dropping, and sometimes you just wanted to beat up big colourful thugs (and in the game, ah), so I’d still troop off to arcades from time to time with piles of 10p coins for Final Fight, Golden Axe and the like.

Wing Commander is the first game I can remember that made me go “whoah, dude!” (for Bill and Ted were most excellent at the time). My PC wouldn’t even run it, but a friend’s dad had it for his VGA 80386, and I’d head around there at every opportunity. Not only did this machine of awesome power have VGA graphics (256 colours? Was that even possible? Did that many colours actually exist?), it had a sound card, so even the intro had us rapt. Where today we frantically mash mouse buttons and escape keys to skip past interminable splash screens to actually get to the game, back then, to silhouettes on the screen, you heard a genuine real life orchestra[1] tuning up, then the tap of a conductor’s batten, and as the Origin logo appeared amidst bursting fireworks, a symphonic score carried you into a deep-space dogfight between gloriously technicoloured craft.

The graphics alone would have made Wing Commander noteworthy, but it had substance to back them up, and it needed to as a “space-sim” for it had hefty space-boots to fill. We’d had a chance, after all, in the early 80s to clamber into the cockpit of an actual X-Wing[2] in the Star Wars arcade game and do battle with TIE fighters; though the gameplay may have been fairly simplistic, sitting in that cabinet with the flight yoke you just needed someone to stand behind you and randomly whistle now and again, and you were Luke Skywalker. With sufficient imagination and your own “pew! pew!” sound effects you didn’t even need to put any money in, much to the annoyance of arcade owners. On home computers there was the colossus of space games, Elite (for the full story of which I would highly recommend Francis Spufford’s The Backroom Boys, an extract of the Elite chapter available at The Guardian.) Although first released in 1984, so hardly fair as a direct comparison (there were probably single sprites in Wing Commander that were as large as the 32k that the entire game of Elite took up), Elite was still going strong in 1991; the very same issue of PC Plus that reviewed Wing Commander had a brief note in the news section that “Rainbird has enhanced the classic Elite space simulation to cater for EGA and VGA, plus Roland and AdLib sound cards”. I can hardly imagine how mind-blowing it must have been on its initial release.

To challenge Elite on freedom or scale would’ve been playing right to its strengths, the universe of Elite was a massive sandbox for you to explore, and tell your own story. Elite was a cold game, though, as cold as the depths of space you flew through. Beyond the stark black and white of space, effective vector graphics but showing their age, the raw algorithms of procedural generation were veiled enough to give the illusion of a living universe, but it was a universe of data on a screen, factoids about planets, price lists, friend or foe status; you never spoke to a soul. The novella that accompanied the game may have fleshed things out a bit more, but were an entirely hypothetical individual to have perhaps obtained the game in some way that didn’t include the book, they wouldn’t have that benefit. Wing Commander was more visceral, with its dynamic soundtrack, and vivid sprites and bitmaps taking full advantage of VGA. It worked on a much smaller scale, effectively the single carrier on which you were based, but with immersive detail right down to the interface; instead of a text menu with “Load” and “Save” options, you went to the barracks, and clicked on one of the beds to save the game. Between missions you could go to the bar and chat to the bartender and fellow pilots, before combat your Commanding Officer gave you a thorough briefing on what was happening and your objectives, klaxons sounded as you scrambled into your fighter craft. While out flying you could communicate with your wingman, and even enemy pilots for a bit of taunting if you wanted. Though your missions had strict pre-set objectives as opposed to the total freedom of Elite, the path of the game did depend on your performance, successful missions leading to a strike at the very heart of the enemy, unsuccessful missions leading to your retreat.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts I like a degree of freedom in games, but I also like some structure and guidance, so while the series of combat missions of Wing Commander could be seen as more restrictive than the freedom of the galaxies of Elite, that suited me fine. I loved Elite, enough to reach the titular rank, but trading was always a pretty subsidiary part of it for me, I was a bounty killer first and foremost (by which I mean a pirate hunter, rather than a popular dancehall artiste responsible for some fierce riddims), flying around, destroying pirates for reward money then picking up any loot they might drop to sell for further profit. Hmm. No wonder I got into MMOs.

Wing Commander was one of the major factors that spurred me to get a new PC, and one of the first games I installed on my shiny VGA 386SX was Wing Commander II, taking what seemed like (and quite possibly was) hours to install from a massive pile of 3.5″ disks. The second game in the series used pretty much the same engine, but had more of a story involving wrongful accusations of cowardice and treachery. Privateer followed, giving Elite-esque freedom and trading options, as well as main plot you could take part in or ignore as desired, but I remember it more as a decent enough follow-up than anything ground-breaking. For some reason I never picked up the later games in the series that switched to polygon graphics with full motion video cut-scenes; I think when Wing Commander III first came out my PC at the time wasn’t really powerful enough to handle it, plus with all the FMV it came on an unprecedented four CDs, so if there was an entirely hypothetical group of students at that time who exchanged the odd game here and there, they wouldn’t have been able to easily copy it. The series also had stiff competition from a descendant of that original Star Wars arcade game, the excellent X-Wing series that more than sated my space-sim needs for the mid-90s. Still, the original Wing Commander will always be that “whoah, dude!” game.

[1] Revisiting it might actually reveal a MIDI-synth orchestra sounding like a bad ringtone, but don’t spoil it…
[2] Not an actual X-Wing, they don’t exist, but don’t spoil it…

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Through the Jungle very softly flits a shadow and a sigh.

Is anyone else hoping that Blizzard respond to the post with something along the lines of:

“Nessingwary and STV? Yeah, that was Crazy Colin the intern who did that. Worst design ever. What’s that? All our other content is so well thought out that you were sure that STV had to have some hidden high-brow design behind it too? No, no, no. All our other content was so good because we were able to concentrate on it while Crazy Colin dribbled over the design tools in a half-concious stupor; I mean he essentially created STV with his forehead.”


It’s unlikely, since Dr Bartle is a clever fellow. Like very many clever fellows though, he has that delightfully eccentric inability to express himself in words without causing massive misunderstanding and gnashing of teeth from everyone who isn’t in the club of twenty people who think that a normal conversation opens with an immediate insult to the intelligence of their fellow conversant.

In the Melmoth Test of Blogger Psychology he would probably fall under Inadvertent Flamebaiter.

Monday 18 May 2009

Wii waits. That’s what wii does.

At the end of April, I said “(Rock Band 2 has) been delayed another couple of weeks, May 29th being the current release date (though that may just be a placeholder if the database behind the website can’t cope with inserting “when hell freezes over” into a datetime() field).” Sure enough today, just as I’m thinking “only another couple of weeks until Rock Band 2 for the Wii, gosh I’m looking forward to applying pressure to coloured buttons in a rhythmic fashion to the sounds of popular light entertainment combos”, an e-mail comes through announcing another four week delay, to June 26th. On the Tony Harrison outrage-o-meter, this is now officially a Level 4 Outrage.

With details of Guitar Hero 5 emerging including the first ten songs (Dylan! Woo!), bookies are currently taking bets on Which Guitar Hero Games Will Be Released In The UK Before Wii Rock Band 2:
Guitar Hero: Metallica. 1/1000000 on, no more bets being taken.
Guitar Hero: Smash Hits. 5/19 on, seems likely.
Guitar Hero 5. 8/9 on.
Guitar Hero 6. Evens.
Guitar Hero 7. 5/2.
Guitar Hero: Rocks the 20s (a nostalgia trip back through all your favourite hits of the 2020s). 10/1.
Guitar Hero 125th Anniversary Special Edition Tribute. 25/1.

All I can imagine is that Harmonix decided to save a bit of money, so the output of the Wii Rock Band Disk Manufacturing Plant in Timbuktu, instead of being loaded onto a ship, was formed into a rudimentary raft which is now being piloted through the choppy waters of the North Atlantic. Full access to the Captain’s Log sheds further light:

March 7th. Making good progress in calm waters. Estimated release date: April 24th.
April 16th. Reports of pirates off the coast of Morocco have forced us to sail much further west than we were planning, resulting in being caught in the North Equatorial current. Estimated release date: May 15th.
May 2nd. Storm-force conditions brought down the mainsail and put a hole in the hull that needed patching with several drumheads and a plastic Stratocaster. The mast has been re-rigged with promotional sticker sheets, reducing average speed to seven knots. Estimated release date: May 29th.
May 17th. Things not quite going according to plan. Stuck in the doldrums, use of plastic guitars as oars maintained progress, but attracted the attention of Ebirah, horror of the deep, who seized two members of crew before we drove him off by flinging drum sets at him. Europe will have to make do with Rock Band 1 peripherals for a while longer. Food supplies running low, drinking water down to half a cup per man per day. Morale kept up by imagining the endless amusement being derived on the Rock Band forums from telling Wii owners to get a proper console whenever they complain about the delay. Estimated release date: June 26th.

It Was Eighteen Years Ago Today

And so the roller-coaster ride through the back issues of PC magazines continues, reaching issue 53 of PC Plus, dated February 1991. Only a few months on from the last piece, the cover price is up to £2.60, and the page count up to 298. Prices of the systems on offer was fairly similar to the previous October, though most vendors added 80486-based systems to the top end of their range; the Multiplex Computer Group were offering a 14″ Super VGA 485-25 with 4Mb RAM and a 65Mb hard drive for £2,999. Though upgrade components had been a staple of advertising in all the previous issues, system fundamentals (moterboards, cases etc.) for scratch building were more unusual; Euro Bell had a nice selection in this issue, including a range of cases from flip top compact table top with 200 Watt PSU for £98 up to a monster floor standing tower with 250 Watts for £209. Speaking of cases, one thing that really stands out as you flick through the adverts is how astonishingly ugly every system was; acres of beige as far as the eye could see in boxes so rectangular that the slight ridge on the front of an IBM PS/2 was a dangerously abstract touch.

The Brief Encounters section contained a couple of interesting products. For £1,144,25 “Diskfax”, as the name suggests, was a chunky box you attached to a phone line, stuck in a disk (it supported both low and high density 3.5- and 5.25-inch disks), dialled up a number, and by the magic of telecommunication, a copy of the disk would emerge from a similar box at the other end of the line. The review pointed out a couple of flaws, firstly that the other party had to also have a Diskfax obviously, and secondly that somebody had to be at the other end to put in or swap disks (unless you went mad and got the version with a 20 Mbyte hard drive for £1,719.25), but “Overall the Diskfax was reasonably fast – sending a 60K WordStar document in just under 90 seconds”. The review concludes “In two year’s time every office may have a Diskfax – or it might have disappeared ignominiously! Who can really tell?” Well, I think with 18 years hindsight we can have a fair stab at that… Elsewhere, if you thought Twittering a status update on the move was a recent phenomenon, the Vodata CDLC modem attached directly to a laptop computer and Vodafone portable telephone (which, in the picture, was about the same size as the laptop) without the need for irritations such as accoustic couplers or untidy wiring; the reviewer hooked up a Tandy 1100 and a Panasonic C series phone, and was able to log on to Compuserve from the train. At £632 for the modem, though, and I shudder to think how much for the phone calls, it wasn’t cheap.

In Mailbox, Keith Parry of Norwich took issue with David Dala’s letter in the previous issue suggesting that icons in computer software were a backwards step and likely to lead to widespread illiteracy (O RLY? NO WAI!), arguing that they were actually making best use of our cognitive capabilities in pattern matching. Debate raged in both letters and on the CIX electronic conferencing system over the use of Pascal in the Open University’s Fundamentals of Computing course and whether this was useful to industry, with a couple of CIX shorthand terms spelled out for those not used to the jargon: IMHO – In My Humble Opinion, and TPTB – The Powers That Be.

The big group review was Notebook PCs, with four basic, low cost models assessed. Not exactly powerhouses, with CGA LCD displays, 640K RAM, a single 3.5″ disk drive and 8086 or 8088 processors, they did cram that all into tiny packages (the Tandy 1100 was 12″ x 9.75″ x 2.5″ and weighed a mere 6.4lb), for £500 to £1100. The main cover story, though, was “The Best of the Year”, the PC Plus awards for 1990. In no particular order, they were:

  • Peripheral of the Year – HP LaserJet III
  • Spreadsheets – Microsoft Excel
  • Desktop Publishing – DESKpress
  • PC of the Year – 386SX PCs
  • Word Processing – LetterPerfect
  • Integrated Software – Microsoft Works
  • Graphics – Digital Research Artline 2
  • Databases – Microrim R:Base 3.1
  • Accounting Packages – Sybiz Service Industry Accounting
  • Operating Systems and Utilities – Microsoft Windows 3
  • Programming and Development – Basic 7
  • Overall Winner – Windows 3

Going into a bit more detail for the Entertainment Program of the Year: “1990 was the year when leisure publishers finally realised that the PC can be an all-around business and pleasure computer. With innovative imports from America, increasingly polished home-grown products and some imaginative developments from across the Channel, there were many releases for sophisticated gamers. (…) In a year when everybody seemed to imitate Sierra with animated, arcade-based adventures, one company re-thought the classic, text-based game and brought it out of hibernation.”, the award going to Magnetic Scrolls Wonderland. I have to confess that one totally passed me by, I have no recollection of it at all, and an uncharitable person might suggest that its windows-based interface particularly appealed to a team who liked a nice WIMP application. There was certainly a better candidate later in the magazine, though probably ineligible for the 1990 award…

After Hours had a couple of little reviews for Jack Nicklaus Unlimited Golf and Course Designer (catchy title, 4/5) and Prince of Persia, for which “The beautiful backgrounds and fluidity of the animation put it in a class of its own” (also 4/5). The main reviews were Stratego (a fairly straight board game conversion by the looks of it, 3/5), Lost Patrol from Ocean, that saw you leading the survivors of a chopper crash through harsh Vietnamese terrain (ambitious but repetitive, 3/5), and a couple of other games I remember quite well.

In Mean Streets you played a hardboiled gumshoe in a Blade Runner-esque future, mostly as a point and click adventure searching for clues and talking to suspects, with the odd side scrolling shooter sequence if you got ambushed by hoods while out and about. What was really extraordinary, though, was the sound. The PC, being a Serious Business Thing, had no time for frivolity such as “music”, so the only sound output was from a single channel speaker that went “beep” and, on a good day, “boop”, not entirely conducive to a fully immersive multimedia experience. Through the use of Strange and Arcane Magicks (or, according to Wikipedia, controlling the speaker’s amplitude of displacement using pulse width modulation), Mean Streets *talked*! And had music, with drums! And gunshots! Granted it was a bit fuzzy, like somebody was relaying the effects to you over a walkie-talkie, but nevertheless it was a heck of a feature. PC Plus were also impressed, awarding it 4/5 for all four categories of Graphics, Instant Appeal, Lasting Appeal and the overall Value Verdict.

Finally, there was Wing Commander. Oh, sweet Wing Commander… Securing 5/5 for Graphics and 4/5 for Instant Appeal, Lasting Appeal and the Value Verdict sounds good, but to be honest I think they under-marked its awesome majesty. I could write a whole post on Wing Commander… which sounds like a pretty good idea, actually, so next up, a brief pause before we plough on to 1992 (with a new magazine title, this was the last PC Plus, ooh great excitement) to look at Origin’s space-sim extraordinaire.

Sunday 17 May 2009

In delay there lies no plenty.

For the record: the rumours that, whilst gathering inside information, our game industry mole surreptitiously scrawled “Don’t forget to add boars” on the Cryptic Studios master development whiteboard, thus causing the recent delay in release date for Champions Online, are entirely unsubstantiated.

Friday 15 May 2009

Aural pleasure.

In case any readers are interested in listening to us blather for forty minutes or so in our so called ‘posh’ English accents (Zoso is exceedingly posh, I border on “Gor blimey Mahewy Poppins”), we were kindly allowed to intrude on the most recent episode of the VanHemlock podcast.

As an added bonus there’s also interactive audience input from our good friend PJ from

With limited power comes limited applicability.

As its final release draws ever nearer m’colleague and I are allowing ourselves to become ever so slightly interested in Champions Online. Picture, if you will, Champions Online resting on the corner of the metaphorical office desk of our collective mind, with Zoso and myself seated on swivelling office chairs that represent our interest in the game. We would both now, perhaps, be twisted ever so slightly towards the game, with our hands still firmly on our computer keyboards and our faces directed straight at our monitors, but we are definitely now able to observe the vague form of the game’s packaging from out of the corner of our eye. One foot might be placed firmly to the side of the chair, poised and ready to launch us in a squeaky wobbly trajectory towards the game should its pull prove too much for us to resist.

As such we decided to engage the services of our industry mole to go behind the scenes at Cryptic Studios and dish the dirt. As moles are wont to do. He returned with a hastily snapped picture of a development board which listed many and varied powers. Some of the super variety, some less so. We present to you here the ones that were crossed out and therefore, we assume, will not make it into the final release of the game:

  • The power to undo really tight knots in shoelaces.
  • The supernatural ability to avoid damp sticky patches on the floor in the kitchen at night when barefoot.
  • The ability to lick your own elbow.
  • The travel power ‘Scooting backwards on an office chair propelled by one foot’.
  • The mutant ability: levitate birds.
  • The power to know immediately which is the right way round for a plain t-shirt with no label in the neck.
  • The ability to never ladder tights.
  • Supernatural resistance to semolina pudding.
  • The ability to summon fifty starfish at will.
  • The mutant ability: gigantic growth when in a confined space.
  • The inhuman ability to sneeze with your eyes open.
  • The power to cross one eye at a time
  • The travel power ‘Running behind a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel and then pushing yourself up on the handlebar and free wheeling until you crash sideways into a large display of baked bean tins’.
  • The power to toast bread at will.
  • The mutant ability: launch a destructive beam of red laser fire from your genitals when you expose them.
  • The ability to produce a really good paella out of thin air.
  • The power to transform any person into Beryl Reid.
  • The mutant ability: rapid fingernail regeneration.
  • The ability to see clearly at night during the daytime.
  • The uncanny talent to not smack your lips in disgust after licking a postage stamp or envelope.
  • The power to walk up the down escalator.
  • The mutant ability: spontaneously combust at will.
  • The power to be faster than a tall building and able to leap speeding bullets in a single bound.
  • The ability to breathe beer.
  • The mutant ability: super speed when on slippery surfaces.
  • The power to give everyone in a fifty foot radius the power to give everyone in a fifty foot radius the power to give everyone in a fifty foot radius etc.
  • The preternatural ability to predict when somebody is on the other side of a solid door so that you don’t reach to open it only to have them open it first and you grab your chest and go “bwah!”.
  • The mutant ability: indestructible body hair.
  • The ability to eat soup that’s slightly too hot.
  • The astonishing power to wear skin-tight latex with breasts smaller than watermelons.
  • The power to shout incredibly quietly.
  • Supernatural resistance to itchy underpants elastic.
  • The ability to quote the average county score of any Middlesex batsman from 1952 to 1986.
  • The mutant ability: prehensile penis.
  • The group travel power ‘Running around in a snaking line of people to the tune of Yakety Sax’.
  • The inhuman strength to open a really tight jar lid, but only if someone else has loosened it a bit first.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Reviewlet: Plants vs Zombies.

I suppose that since our default sub-heading for this sort of post contains the word ‘review’ I should have some sort of disclaimer here at the start to appease our Internet Overpersonages who think that you can’t review a game without having played every single inch of it TO THE DEATH. Twice. Additionally it’s probably not considered a real review until you’ve performed a Fagan inspection of the source code, checked the UML design for namespace completeness, and stalked the lead developer from a house across the street until you know what their favourite breakfast cereal is, what time they eat each day, and how long on average they spend on the toilet afterwards.

So if you can’t bear to read a review in which the reviewer hasn’t spent the entirety of their life up to this point investigating the genealogy of the game’s creative director in order to determine if they have the correct genetic makeup to produce a fun game, look away now. The rest of you can read on to discover my thoughts on Plants vs Zombies what with me having now played it for a bit[1].

Plants vs Zombies is PopCap Games’ latest offering in that market of games for which they have become famous: that being the electronic entertainment equivalent to viewing the Magic Roundabout whilst simultaneously flushing one’s eyeballs with a crack cocaine solution and eating Galaxy Minstrels. PopCap have distilled the idea of ‘gaming for the sake of simple enjoyment’ to its purest form and they continue this trend of producing unadulterated, beautifully presented and utterly addictive games with their current offering.

I’ve read and listened to a multitude of commentaries on the game and most of them describe PvZ as being a tower defence game. They then go on to explain the various dissimilarities between PvZ and a traditional tower defence game, until one is left wondering if PvZ is perhaps in fact not a tower defence game at all but a first person shooter. Or a small dog in a hat. It’s hard to entirely qualify what PvZ is; where Bejeweled sits distinctly in the puzzle genre, PvZ is part puzzle, part tower defence and part arcade game. Ostensibly though, PvZ is clearly of the family of tower defence games, but very much like Michael Jackson is a member of the family of Jacksons: you can see a few vague resemblances if you look hard enough and perhaps squint your eyes, but clearly a great deal of surgery has happened at some point in order to diminish those resemblances. In the case of PvZ, however, the surgery has been far more successful in giving the tower defence genre a bit of a facelift, rather than turning it into a crazed living representation of Jack Skellington from the Nightmare Before Christmas with a penchant for children.

PvZ does have a penchant for children though – but with entirely non-prosecutable intent – as well as that confusing and somewhat derogatory category of people known as “housewife gamers”, because this is not your traditional tower defence game, where various types of enemy run through a maze of gun towers which have been placed in increasingly bizarre and complex patterns by the player in order to maximise the amount of time that the poor dumb AI units spend jogging under a rain of weapon fire that would make the forests of Apocalypse Now blush. Gone, for example, are the health bars of the enemy units, removing the need to micromanage your towers to any major degree in order to min/max the slaughter potential of your killing field. In place of health bars are subtle visual hints as to how much damage a given zombie has taken, zombie armour (delightfully represented by traffic cones on the head, screen doors held like a shield and such) disintegrates and is destroyed, until the point at which the zombie is close to death whereupon their head falls off in the finest tradition of George A. Romero. Also removed is the freedom to create a complex maze of turrets on a large play map, instead the zombies approach your house in search of brains across a five row, nine column grid that is represented as a lawn to the player (replete with swimming pools and such at later levels to add extra terrain complexity). On this grid one can place a variety of friendly plants which have, over a rather short period of time, evolved an astonishing array of abilities that are perfectly adapted to stopping waves of rampaging zombies. Convenient! All of the character designs in the game, both plants and zombies (not forgetting Crazy Dave who pops up every now and again to lend some friendly, if utterly insane, advice) are typical PopCap: simple yet beautiful and fun. ‘Polished’ is a word we sometimes use to try to convey our feeling when presented with a game whose production values are clearly top notch, as though the game were a brass object placed in the centre of a room formed from the developers’ ideals and well-formed intentions, such that the more the game is polished the more it shines, the more it shines the more it reflects in its surface the room surrounding it, and therefore the more we can see of the now unobstructed intent of its developers; PopCap is synonymous with polished.

Another of the game-play elements to change is that of resources. In more traditional tower defence games the player earns resources by killing the enemy, these resources can then be used to purchase new towers with which to defend against tougher enemies and larger waves of enemies. The more impressive defence towers cost more resources, so the balance is between having many small weak towers or to save up for the more powerful towers at the risk of not having enough defence in the meantime to stop the current wave of enemies from reaching their destination. Essentially what this boils down to is a sort of debugging simulator, where the player compiles their defence and then runs the program and sits there watching how many holes it has in it. As such, many tower defence games include a fast forward option so that players don’t have to endure the less than fascinating game-play element known as ‘sitting on your hands and waiting to be able to play again’; PopCap, on the other hand, have applied their usual RSI-inducing methods to remove the tedium of sitting and waiting for your resources to build for the next round. Plants, being the photosynthesising little blighters that they are, generally require sunlight to power themselves, and the plants in PvZ are no exception. Sunlight is the resource in the game that enables you to grow more plants, and it initially comes in one of two ways: either falling from the sky at certain times or ejected by the eponymously named Sun Flower. The sunlight is represented as a small glowing ball of light which the player must click on to collect, so in between planting your defence you must also remember to click on the various sun resources dropping around the screen in order to be able to continue to plant. It makes for quite a frantic experience when facing some of the more populous waves of zombies, and yet it is not a laborious or tedious objective, instead serving to activate the oft dormant arcade gamer gene in us that once was fundamental to the genetic makeup of good gamers everywhere.

There are many variations of plant that the player can utilise, thus it still satisfies the more prominent tactician gamer gene that is prevalent these days. Unlike traditional tower defence games, however, you’re not only limited to what you can plant by whether you have the resources to fund it, but also by the limited number of slots for the packets of plant seeds that you can take into each round of the game; you have to choose carefully which combination of plants will best suit the setup of the lawn that you will have to fight on next. In addition to plant selection tactics the player also has to contend with the various classes of zombie that they can face. For example the pole vaulting zombie can leap over obstacles placed in its way, such as the punningly named Wall Nut which traditionally halts a zombie’s progress for a set amount of time. Variations of the standard game-play also exist, such as night time attacks where there is no naturally occurring sunlight and the player must therefore rely on their sunflowers to generate enough resources to power plant production, as well as making extensive use of the free-to-plant mushrooms. Free to Plant mushrooms are entirely free to plant but also have a subscription plan of £5.99 per month to access extra fungi features. Really.

No not really.

If this fundamental foundation of fun wasn’t enough for your money, PopCap continue their art of blending a genre of game with which they are not usually associated with elements of game-play that they are well versed in. As such there are mini-games spread throughout the standard level progression of the game, such as a bowling game where instead of your standard fixed slots of plant seeds you have a conveyor belt of walnuts that you can grab as they appear and launch down the five ‘lanes’ of your lawn at the wave of approaching zombies, knocking them over and, if you’re really good, getting their mates on the rebound as well.

In the end, though, there’s little a review of PvZ can tell you that you didn’t already know by looking at the name of the developer associated with the game. If you like PopCap Games’ past products then this one will not fail to live up to your expectations. Likewise if you can’t stand the light-hearted but relatively shallow repetitive fun that a PopCap game represents then this may not be the tower-defence-based game that you are looking for. Perhaps you should try a small dog in a hat instead?

On the off chance that you have yet to experience a PopCap Games’ production, then I know someone who does a very nice line in Class A narcotics that you may wish to consider first. You know, try something that is only mildly addictive before getting on to the really hard stuff.

Score: 2*Pi/180 out of Jam

[1] ‘A bit’ may be taken to mean nine hours, or two hours, or seven and a half minutes, or the time it takes a fish to blink on a particularly balmy Monday afternoon. Generally though, it means ‘long enough to determine whether I like the thing and would continue to play it given the spare time.’

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Reviewlet: Tank Men by Robert Kershaw

When looking at military history it’s easy to view tanks in terms of statistics; on the strategic scale the numbers employed and distances covered, at an individual level armour thickness, gun calibre and velocity, engine power. Tank Men, as the name suggests, concentrates on the human element, the men (and, in some Soviet divisions, women) who crewed the tanks in World War I and II, an area sometimes overlooked not only by history but also early tank designers.

Based heavily on letters, diaries and personal testimonies, Tank Men looks at the whole experience of armoured warfare. The camaraderie of crews functioning together, crammed into tiny uncomfortable spaces, frequently roasting or freezing, always fatigued but having to maintain constant alertness. A recurring theme is dread of being trapped in a burning tank; crews would not only see the results, at extremely close quarters if recovering vehicles, but also sometimes hear trapped comrades over open radio nets. Some of the accounts are quite harrowing, and really bring home the horrific nature of war that’s all too easy to distance yourself from on the other side of a screen.

From the initial deployment of tanks in the battle of the Somme to VE Day, via the first tank versus tank engagement in 1918, Blitzkrieg, North Africa, Kursk and Normandy, Tank Men covers the key formative campaigns of the tank from the perspective of the men who fought in them. A thoroughly researched and gripping book, highly recommended.

Monday 11 May 2009

I am not a geek.

Geeks now have a movement no less.

From Wikipedia:

The word geek is a slang term, noting individuals as “a peculiar or otherwise odd person, especially one who is perceived to be overly obsessed with one or more things including those of intellectuality, electronics, etc.”

But I’ve seen the Geek Advancement video now, so let’s update it:

From Melmothpedia:

The word ‘geek’ is now used by a huge proportion of the Internet population who own a Macbook or an iPhone, are pretentious, and like to pretend that they’re actually doing something incredibly rare, misunderstood or difficult.

They are likely to be mainstream actors; music stars with a penchant for ludicrously large trousers and dancing like a crab on a conveyor belt; or perhaps in some form of journalism. In a large number of cases they will be an attractive woman wearing a top cut so low that you can see her bikini line, but it’s cool because she’s a geek so she’s actually rebelling against the system and most certainly wasn’t ever a cheerleader, very often. Ok, so that was primarily because she was too busy sorting out being Queen of the Prom, but still. They are rarely socially inept or peculiar unless it is affected for promotional videos where they are being condescending to everyone they think isn’t part of their elite club.

Geek is essentially a term that has been appropriated by the high school cheerleaders, jocks and cool kids to represent the fact that they now have netbooks and smartphones and therefore mock other people through Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and Blogger rather than by passing messages in class.

You can tell someone who isn’t a traditional geek through a simple test:

Does the person in question constantly jabber on about the fact that they’re “such a geek” in a way as to sound like they’re an outsider while at the same time knowingly acknowledging that they’re part of a club of several hundred million people all of whom profess to be geeks too, as if in some sort of masonic ritual of fellowship? Do they like broadcasting this fact in incredibly public ways? Do they think they’re better than you because of it?

Yes? Then what you have there my friend is a Geek2.0. An iGeek. Geek2020.

A member of the Chic Geek Clique.

Saying that you’re a geek these days doesn’t mean what you think it means. It lost its meaning when people started using it as a badge of social aloofness, when the term became cool with marketing people in expensive suits who write on large whiteboards diagrams that look like Mr Messy trying to copulate with a Lego set, and when films started to be made that showed geeks saving the world and getting the girl and being Jake Fucking Gyllenhaal.

I’m a software engineer in the aerospace industry. I’m a techno-freak. A gadgeteer.

Some people even say I’m weird and socially inept.

But I’m definitely not a geek. At least I hope not.

Friday 8 May 2009

Proper names are poetry in the raw

As Champions Online approaches release lots of lovely information is emerging, mostly based on actual (albeit beta) gameplay, thus avoiding a volley of Melmoth’s semi-automated command to line of site anti-hype weaponry. Massively have a bunch o’ good stuff including a piece on character creation (quick summary: sounds like City of Heroes TURNED UP TO ELEVEN). I was literally salivating when reading it, though that might’ve been something to do with the bacon sandwich I was eating at the time.

One piece of really good news is that Champions is going to be “shardless”. I’ve previously posted about the annoyance of trying to get together with friends in MMOGs; I’m not sure if Champions will separate US and European players, hopefully not, but even if they do at least a “shardless” setup is one less barrier to getting together with people online.

Warhammer Online does, of course, have multiple servers. Guild Wars, and by the sounds of it Champions Online, rely on instancing, which is great for convenience, but not so good for the world cohesion an RvR-centric game like Warhammer needs. It’s not really a problem in PvE and small scale PvP skirmishes, but a bitter struggle over territory becomes slightly abstract if there are several different struggles going on over the same territory in parallel dimensions that you can move between. EVE manages the best of both worlds, a single cohesive, shardless world with meaningful territorial control, but as so often EVE is a pretty special case.

The nature of Warhammer Online means a server really needs a balanced population; both realms comparatively equal so neither gets steamrollered all the time in RvR, enough people for the thrilling ebb and flow of massed combat rather than the slightly less thrilling lengthy hunt just to find somebody to fight, but not so many that the server collapses in a heap when everyone piles into the same ruck (they initially needed some server splitting/cloning, and recently introduced the “Winds of Change” to remove people from RvR combat in certain circumstances on some busier servers). A couple of months back 43 US and 20 EU servers were closed down to consolidate the player base, and though my main server (Burlok) soldiered on, it’s been increasingly apparent that it wasn’t very viable. During the recent Nordenwatch weekend, when the usually Tier 1 Nordenwatch scenario was made available to everyone together with some tasks to e.g. participate in it 20 times, capture the fortress 10 times etc., my Warhammer diary went something like…
“Saturday: logged in. Played a couple of rounds of Nordenwatch over an hour or two. Got crushed, situation not helped by seeing one Order healer all evening. Logged out.
Sunday: logged in. Inevitable city under attack. Contemplated two hours of public quest drudgery. Logged out.
Monday: logged in. Nordenwatch eventually popped after half an hour or so. Joined match halfway through with Destruction a couple of hundred points ahead. At least managed one fortress capture before the inevitable loss. Logged out.”

It’s not a great surprise, then, to learn that Burlok is closing down and we’ll be able to transfer our characters to another server, which will almost certainly lead to at least one issue. I rolled up a couple of Destruction alts on another server after the first wave of closures, and it took a while to find a name; characters were automatically transferred to the remaining servers when the others closed down, exacerbating the usual difficult in coming up with something not in use on an established server. Wherever Zoso the Wizard ends up, it’s unlikely he’ll still be called Zoso, what with legions of imitators all over the place (or it might be my crushingly unoriginal name choice, you never know).

The more players sharing a playing space, the greater the difficulty in ensuring each character is uniquely identifiable (see also: duh!) A common solution in shardless games is for characters to have both a forename and surname (step forward Kenneth Titanmittens and Horatio Thunderpants of Free Realms), but Champions is taking a slightly different tack, allowing any number of characters to have the same name, with the account name of the player used as a unique modifier if necessary (a conventional surname wouldn’t quite fit the superhero setting… “Superman Smith, have you met Superman Jones?” Mind you, Desolation Jones is a great comic.) My gut reaction was “hurrah!”, an end to the frustration of coming up with an amazing character concept but finding the name (and hundreds of minor variants of it) had been taken; there’s also great potential for a super-team based around the philosophy department of the University of Woolloomooloo. On the flip side, though, being forced to come up with ever-more unusual names can be quite a creative driver, I’m rather pleased with “Terminal Hardware” that came from some random Wiki-surfing, the undead/robot theme of the character entirely coming from the name (don’t ask where the samurai armour or pirate hat fit in). There’s also the issue that anybody who happens across you can promptly create a character of the same name, and probably costume, either fairly innocently (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all) or with more nefarious intent (“Captain Hero in identity theft shocker!”), though I’m sure people will learn to pay pretty close attention to account names before too long. If Champions is as alt-friendly as City of Heroes and is hugely popular at launch, you could be looking at half a million subscribers averaging ten alts each, so I can’t think of a better solution offhand. Roll on Team Bruce! All together now, “Immanual Kant was a real pissant…”

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Have I Got MMOnews For You.

Host: And the final round is “Continue the Headline”. This week, teams, it’s news that “Yesterday Eurogamer MMO published a review of Darkfall Online, scoring the game 2/10. Several hours later, after a bit of email discussion, Aventurine responded on its forum, claiming the review was factually inaccurate and the reviewer had played the game for only two hours.”

Zoso: “Eurogamer defended the two hours its reviewer had spent in the game by pointing out that, by Einstein’s theory of relativity, it had *seemed* like three months.”

Melmoth: “Several Darkfall subscribers have vowed to sit around for as long as it takes to macro their writing skills to the point where they are able to compose a really very stern letter indeed to the Eurogamer editors.”

Zoso: “Darkfall continues to expand its innovative play styles, the existing Player vs Player and Players vs Blog Author models now joined by Players vs Games Site.”

Melmoth: “A Eurogamer spokesperson was quick to point out the irony of a bunch of hardcore PvPers complaining about someone teabagging their game through a completely one-sided and blatantly unfair encounter.”

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

It Was Nineteen Years Ago Today

In the continuing look back at old PC magazines, twelve months on from the last piece we’re up to Issue 49 of PC Plus from October 1990. The £2.30 cover price was the same as in October 1989, but the page count was up from 170 to 234, a fair chunk of it in additional advertising from 189 companies, up from 112 the previous year. PCs were starting to take off in the UK with many more companies offering their own systems, mostly 286 and 386s with the odd 8086 or 8088 box at the low end (I still had my Amstrad 1512 at the time). £1000 would *almost* get you a colour VGA 16Mhz 386SX system with 1MB of RAM and 20MB hard disk (£1093, excluding VAT, from Dan Technology); the 33Mhz 386DX was the flagship of most ranges, with Mesh offering a 386-33 with 4MB of memory and a 150MB hard disk for £3595 (if you wanted to install every program in the world, you could even step up to a 766MB hard drive if you had £5475 kicking around.) For upgrading your existing system, a Soundblaster card (“Makes all Sierra games sound like epics!”) could be had for £199, while a 16 bit DFI VGA card with a massive 512K of RAM offered the frankly insane resolution of 1024×758 for £169. A Compact Disk ROM drive was available for £399, though needed a £129 SCSI interface kit if you didn’t already have one of those.

The main reviews were for a couple of new systems. Amstrad, having had major problems with their PC2000 range including having to recall the models with hard drives to replace them, were launching the PC3000 range aiming at more of a business market, with fairly standard components and expansion options and no bundled items (no mouse, no Windows). PC Plus were impressed, giving it 4/5. IBM, meanwhile, were heading in the other direction, trying to branch out into the home market with the PS/1, hoping everyone had forgotten the PC Junior of a few years previous. Though well packaged (“the whole system does come in a single box, and the first thing you see when you unpack it is a booklet already open at the page that says ‘start here’ (…) We had our test machine up and running within six minutes of cutting the parcel tape”) and including IBM DOS 4 on ROM and a copy of Microsoft Works, the PS/1 had negligible expansion capability (it required a whole extra system unit to add any expansion cards, and another system unit for a 5.25″ disk drive) and wasn’t a great performer, with a 10Mhz 286 processor and only 512K of memory in the single floppy versions. Illustrating the difference in take-up of online services, the UK version of the PS/1 came with an RS232 serial port instead of the modem built in to the US version. The PS/1 got 3/5 as an excellent package for the first-time user prepared to pay for the brand name and convenience, though power users and businesses would probably find it somewhat lacking. Though neither range would turn out to be a total disaster, they were never wildly successful. IBM never established itself in the UK home market, and as the PC3000 review pointed out: “the days when Amstrad could open up a huge price gap between itself and the rest of the field are long gone. The PC3000s are undoubtedly very keenly priced but they are not the cheapest on the market”. Extremely price sensitive consumers (like me!) would switch to smaller more agile box-builders, and Amstrad never really gained a significant foothold in businesses, the PC2000 débâcle doubtless not helping.

Also reviewed was Wingz from Informix, a brand new spreadsheet running under either Windows 3.0 or OS/2 Presentation Manager (impressive graphical capabilities, but as a result had heft hardware requirements), and Lotus Magellan 2.0, a file management program that allowed you to search a disk for both file names and strings within files, view several popular file formats without having to fire up seperate applications and backup, restore, undelete, zip and unzip files for £132 (no mouse support, though.) “On The Write Track” was the final instalment in a survey of optical storage technology covering erasable optical disks, not as common as CD ROMs or WORM (Write Once Read Many) drives, possibly because a drive cost £3885, with each 600Mb disc costing a further £285. In the book section, “Alan Sugar – The Amstrad Story” could probably do with an update now to reflect that he’s better known for his role in The Apprentice than cheap consumer electronics.

News announcements included Lotus being sued for patent infringement over sorting sequence routines, WordPerfect introducing LetterPerfect, a cut down word processor that would run on only 330K of memory from a single 720K floppy, and Microsoft releasing version 1.1 of Word for Windows. It was a mixed month for Microsoft. On the plus side, celebrating its 15th anniversary, following the launch of Windows 3 in May they’d already shipped more than 500,000 copies, and reported revenues of $1.18 billion, making them the very first PC software supplier to achieve annual sales of more than £1 billion. It wasn’t all good news, though; C J Gaskell of Preston vowed to never buy any of their products again on the letters page after having great difficulty obtaining disk 8 of Microsoft’s Basic Compiler Verison 7.

The games section is a bit of a disappointment with reviews of Global Dilemma, Breach 2 and King’s Quest IV, none of which I recall playing, though a growing interest in PC games was possibly reflected in several shiny full page colour adverts for Team Yankee (the definitive action simulation of modern tank warfare), Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (“Cowabunga!! The heroes in a half shell (TM) are coming”) and Kick Off 2.

Monday 4 May 2009

A fake fortune teller can be tolerated. But an authentic soothsayer should be shot on sight.

Take a look at one of the new weapons that you can obtain from World of Warcraft’s Ulduar raid dungeon.

And here’s a quote that I made on my old blog back in 2007:

It’s not just size, though. You might get some of the more outstanding weapons glow with a ghostly light, or have flames springing from the blade as if the weapon itself was trying to manifest its inherent ability to cause pain and injury as a warning to others. As if a twenty two foot long serrated blade wasn’t convincing enough. The problem lies with where the developer goes next, flaming swords become passé and ‘so last season dahrlink’, and so bigger and more enviable effects are applied, until eventually you have a bunch of people running around with weapons that have miniature galaxies orbiting the hilt and the ePeen brigade are comparing whose weapon has the most advanced civilisation living on it.

Hat tip to Spinks for the ePeen tweet alert.

Sunday 3 May 2009

Such men are apt to think of the true male feminists as utterly chauvinistic.

There’s been some discussion in the blogosphere recently about MMOs being targeted primarily at a male audience. People seem to be under the crazy impression that MMOs are targeted at the more testosterone-laden members of society. This is heresy deserving of a poking with the softest of pillows whilst being seated in the most appallingly comfy chair! Why only today I was directed to the free to play online multiplayer RPG Nodiatis via a banner advert, and here’s what greeted me when the site eventually loaded:

Don't get many of those to the pound.

Now to conform fully to standard scientific rigour it should be noted that the woman in the screenshot was panting somewhat, forcing her chest to rise and fall in a vaguely hypnotic rhythm. Or so I was told by my team of highly trained laboratory technicians.

It seems immediately and abundantly clear that what this introductory screen is saying is thus:

“Women of Planet Earth welcome to our game and take heart! For in this otherworldly place of fantasy that we gift to you, we give you evidence that all the bimbos have been rounded up and chained to rocks with their arms above their heads until they either suffocate under the weight of their improbably large breasts or choke to death on the bleach fumes coming from their hair.”

I honestly don’t see what the problem is.

Saturday 2 May 2009

Character develops itself in the stream of life.

I was deliberating and cogitating over whether to change my character’s appearance in WAR the other day. Aesthetically pleasing character appearance is one of the many tributaries that feed into the main river of my altitus, made all the more painful by the fact that I can never seem to get it right the first time, despite having all the time in the world to play around with the character creation options. For example, it’s what I spend most of my time investigating in any MMO beta that I participate in: trying all the character options, seeing which hairstyles work, which ones make you look like Shaft on a bad hair day, and which ones clip so badly that it makes it seem as though the natural order of your character’s skull has been reversed such that the hair grows on the inside, making its way into the daylight by way of incredibly overactive neck follicles. If I’m in your beta, you will have the most rigourously tested hairstyle options in the MMO industry.

There is no paid character customisation in WAR, which comes as a complete surprise to me because it’s not as though Mythic have anything else to be getting on with. I can only imagine that they’re all sat on a tropical beach somewhere, drinking their lolitas and watching all the young margaritas walk by with their sun umbrellas and a slice of lime on… their… shoulder. Ahm.

Anyway, a lack of paid character customisation meant that I would be paying with TIME: Currency of the Universe [TM], via the complex technique of deleting said character and re-rolling it with face option 3b instead of 3a, and a hairstyle that didn’t poke through the top of every hat I wore, as though it had turned traitor to my cause and was desperately trying to flag down an enemy player, notifying them of my whereabouts.

This re-rolling is often not a huge problem at the low levels when I usually decide that the lavender eye colour would go better with the nostril hair style that I’d picked; I like playing the lower levels of MMOs because it’s where the game is actually fun, where the designers hadn’t thought “Oh bugger this, let’s… just…”scribble scribble scribble“There. That’ll do. Well, it’s Skinner Box enough to keep them paying a subscription for another couple of months at least. C’mon Nigel, let’s go back to the flat, I’ve got some lolitas chilling in the fridge”. What any MMO developer should really do is create the first twenty levels of their game, then stop. Then create an entirely new game, based around the same premise, and when they’ve done the first twenty levels of that, stop, and tack those twenty levels on to the end of the first game. Continue like this until you’ve got a game that is continuously fun, rather than following the Escaped Balloon development strategy, which mimics a balloon that has been accidentally released whilst being inflated: it shoots off with a load of noise and energy, flying all over the place with phenomenally farted enthusiasm, but very quickly runs out of air with a last gasping high-pitched toot, and then arcs across the room and hits the floor with a disappointingly limp flollop. And then all the children in the room burst into tears and are inconsolable at the failure of the balloon to perform at their party. Psychologically scarred by the events of that day, they grow up to follow a life of crime either as prostitute or politician, and when the police eventually catch up with them and raid their flats they find nothing but a barren room, the bare light bulb swaying gently from the force of their entry, ancient peeling wallpaper hidden beneath the nailed-up decaying remains of a thousand balloon animals.

Or, y’know, not.

It then followed that I was curious as to whether the majority of people actually ever cared that much about how their character looked, or whether most people just pick something that looks good at the time and then forget about it forevermore. This, in turn, lead me on to wondering how, without projects like Daedalus, we would know the answer to such things.

Well clearly Blizzard will have a good idea as to the answer. They will be able to see how many people use the barber on a regular basis; they will have figures on the initial rush after it was released; how often the barber is used in general; what level characters use it most. Not only that, but they also have all the data relating to their paid character customisation: how great the uptake was and which things people changed (I’m guessing the character’s sex, with male to female being the greatest migration, for fifty bonus “well, duh” points). The interesting thing is, I think it’s safe to say, the majority of people probably weren’t desperately clamouring for this sort of customisation content, indeed I think the greatest desire was for something frivolous and pointless, such as additional end-game content.

Therefore I finally came to wonder: is Blizzard adding this sort of feature for research purposes more than anything else? Are they gathering data on things such as ‘interest in character customisation’ for their next MMO? It will certainly save them a whole lot of development effort if they can determine that the uptake of the barber in WoW, say, was very limited and that clearly people aren’t all that bothered about tweaking a character’s features. Are they testing the RMT waters by seeing just what sort of ‘fluff’ players are willing to pay for and for how much with their paid character customisation and name changes? Or is it in fact the case that character customisation is high on the wish list of the average MMO player? Perhaps there’s a happy middle ground, and Blizzard are trying to find where that lies.

I decided not to re-roll my character in the end. After all, one goblin looks pretty much like another when being trampled under the feet of two opposing armies on the field of battle.

Friday 1 May 2009

Credit Crunch hits the Empire

I have a fairly advanced Grand Campaign going in Empire: Total War, heading towards the end of the 18th century with modest European holdings and fairly big chunks of India and America. With a developed industrial base and a few good trade routes I’m bringing in plenty of money every turn, though my territorial gains were sufficient to annoy pretty much every other nation into unfriendliness if not outright hostility so I’m having to maintain strong garrisons around the borders. Things have reached the point where I’m getting a bit lazy and can’t really be bothered to construct well-balanced armies, load them on to ships and shunt them around the place to maintain a single schwerpunkt, I’ve just been churning out whatever units have been available around the place and leaving conquering armies wherever they ended up rather than redeploying veteran units. It’s a bit like that point late in an XCom mission, where you’ve swept most of a map and are sure there can’t be many aliens left, there’s probably one unconscious but not dead in some shed somewhere, so you split your troops up to look for them, and start moving as far as you can without saving action points for overwatch fire, and then you open a door and get blasted by nine heavy plasma rifles…

A couple of days ago a patch was released overhauling many aspects of the game according to the patch notes, so after updating I loaded up my save, trundled around a bit, finished a turn… and was slightly surprised to find at the start of the next turn that I was totally broke. Checking the economy screens, I’d gone from making £50,000+ per turn to losing over £100,000 every turn, they weren’t kidding in the notes when they said “Economic tweaks have been made to campaign to reduce amount of money made in later part of campaign.” Obviously the global economic downturn has kicked in, presumably much of my military might had been financed on the basis of subprime mortgages; I should’ve been suspicious when I noticed my treasurer had very dark eyebrows despite his white hair, I thought it was just his wig as per the style of the day, but perhaps not.

I’m not too worried, the patch notes suggest starting a new campaign to get the full benefit anyway, so I just need to decide whether to play as good old Blighty again, or give it a try from a new perspective. Maybe I’ll see if I can get Prussia a decent empire…