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My name is Robin, and this is my website about computer games. Here you can find essays about old games, industry commentary, free games I've made for fun, and funny songs.

 
“The Bad Touch”
Posted at 21:07 on 20th June 2017 - permalink

The second of two new songs I’ve added this month to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 16/06/2017.

“Switch” – after “The Bad Touch” by The Bloodhound Gang

I’d appreciate your input

Switch, baby, Switch, baby, can’t take an Xbox out
-side of the house to play the games that even Edge will rave about
Gameboy Advance, but enhanced, yes you could say some such
Yes there’s Squid Kids, yes there’s Tingle
Yes there’s racing Mushroom Cup
The Wii U wasn’t up to much
Nintendo had to put it down
Had to recover with another
Turn their sales curve upside down
They codenamed it the NX, shifted all their projects
Nintendo Direct is on it’s time
We know we can adopt it early cause it’s getting Metroid Prime

(Do it now)
Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
But now we do it on a unit that can go where we travel
(Do it again now)
Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So let’s do it on a unit that can go where we travel
(Gettin’ horny now)

[BREAK]

Love…. to see a list of games that’s growing daily
From Pokken Tournament to Thumper
Splatoon 2 to Yooka-Laylee
Lineup’s t’riffic, but to be specific I wanna be playing Rocket League
when I’m on the toilet without spoiling my enjoyment
which I can’t on the PC
If I’m on wifi, when I fly, any time, worldwide
This function is legit, and I can cut you down to size
when we are playing SnipperClips
So you bring yours and I’ll bring mine
We’ll play four player local style
Unless our batteries are fried
From too much Breath of the Wild

Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So let’s do it on a unit that can go where we travel
(Do it again now)
Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So let’s do it on a unit that can go where we travel
(Gettin’ horny now)

[BREAK]

Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So let’s do it on a unit that can go where we travel
(Do it again now)
Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So let’s do it on a unit that can go where we travel

Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So let’s do it on a unit that can go where we travel
(Do it again now)
Move and Wii baby ain’t nothing but waggle
So grab hold of that JoyCon like you’re choking a Fraggle
(Gettin’ horny now)

More Marioke songs


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“Just”
Posted at 21:07 on - permalink

The first of two new songs I’ve added this month to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 16/06/2017 by Marioke’s resident Radiohead-head, @James_SWilson.

“Your Druid Needs More Health” – after “Just” by Radiohead

Elf needs food badly
You’ve been running round a maze
Dressed like a hobbit
Dungeoneering with your friends

Edged weapons not for you
Cause after all you took a holy vow

Your druid needs more health, they do
To fight the beasts that lurk
Your druid needs more health, it’s true
Druid who’s an elf
Your druid needs more health
Your druid needs more health

The stones are slippery, on the dungeon’s fifteenth floor
Evaded orcs and slimes
Till you reached a talking door
If you can get some herbs
He’ll teach you how to make a curing spell

Your druid needs more health, they do
To quest beneath the earth
Your druid needs more health, it’s true
Druid who’s an elf
Your druid needs more health
Your druid needs more health

[GUITAR SOLO]

Your druid needs more health, they do
To fight the beasts that lurk
Your druid needs more health, it’s true
Druid who’s an elf
Your druid needs more health
Your druid needs more health, whoa!

Elf

Your druid needs more health, your druid needs more health
Yeah, yeah, your druid needs more health, yes, yes, you
Druid needs more health!

More Marioke songs


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GameCamp 2017 (#gamecamp9)
Posted at 18:13 on 29th May 2017 - permalink

As previously noted, the ninth GameCamp event took place earlier this month at LSBU in South London.

I was invited onto the GameCamp committee this year, so for the first time got to see the whole process of how the event is organised. I’m massively grateful to all the organisers for the time and effort they volunteer to make the event go smoothly.

Around 200 people attended, and there was a good variety of talks / discussions and playtests going on throughout the day.

Every year attendees are given a ‘free gift’, usually accompanied by rules for a suggested game. For the first time this year, the freebie was an original game designed for the show – ‘Coaster Clash’, a set of five unique beermats depicting five characters that could face off in rock-paper-scissors-Spock-lizard fashion. (There are quite a few of these left over, so look out for them turning up in the Loading Bar and similar venues in the coming weeks.)

Here’s a rundown of the talks I attended – I was rushing around a bit more than usual this year and managed to drop in on a few others as well.

1010ish – Traditional opening address by James Wallis, explaining just what the hell is going on.

1030 – A discussion on adventure game conversation mechanics – I didn’t catch who ran this, but it was a great way to start the event, and encouraged lots of people to participate.

1100 – How you’d go about build Westworld in real life / How games can approach comedy (two separate discussions)

1130 – Pyrodactyl indie developer company post mortem

1200 – Telling stories in card games / There was also a discussion of working with different platforms to get a game published in this timeslot which I’m told was also very good.

1230 – Lunch. LSBU still require the event to use their in-house catering, to the dissatisfaction of everybody involved. And such large portions.

1330 – “Starting a game company” – I don’t know who was running this, but the bit I sat in on was more “how to pitch to investors”. Seemed to go well though.

1400 – A highly informative, quite technical talk on tools (Lua, React Native, Elm, Swift, etc.) that let you develop and deploy games very quickly by James Porter

1430 – Dr. David King led a discussion on dexterity in board (and card games), which it turns out is quite a tricky thing to implement, with various skill and accessibility considerations.

1500 – A joint Q&A / interview between Alan Hazelden (Cosmic Express et al) and Claire “Minkette” Bateman (Oubliette Room Escape et al)

1530 – I gave a rambling ‘travelogue’-ish talk about No Man’s Sky, on the basis that a lot of people who dropped out after the initial launch last year (or were put off by the negative press) were unaware of all the cool stuff that Hello Games have added to the game in the subsequent Foundation and Path Finder updates. I think I managed to persuade some people to have another look, and in turn I learned that the way the deformable terrain works means that the game is unlikely to ever support realtime multiplayer.

1600 – A beta version of Ste Curran‘s latest talk, given this year at Nordic Game. The contents are top secret.

As ever the day concluded in The Ship pub down the road, which we found has some uniquely terrible charity shop board games.

Thanks to everyone who came – until next year!


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“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”
Posted at 18:11 on - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 26/05/2017.

A song that went to #1 in the US and sold over 1,000,000 copies, but which peaked at #23 in the UK singles chart. Something to bear in mind for future song choices…

“50 Ways to Blow Your Cover” – after “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon

The target the agency wants dead, she said to me
Is always accompanied by their security
So 47, please approach them carefully
Because there’s fifty ways to blow your cover

She said I know you make a habit to intrude
And you utilise disguises to avoid being pursued
But sometimes you forget, and storm the front gates in the nude
One of those fifty ways to blow your cover
Fifty ways to blow your cover

Just whip out your gat, Matt
Stab the wrong man, Stan
Don’t make too much noise, Roy
You’ll get yourself seen
Start acting suss, Gus
Been causing a fuss much?
Don’t manage to flee, Lee
Or just be stealthy

Ooh, miss-time your shot, Scott
Get caught on cam, Pam
Be seen with a piece, Rhys
Concealment is key
Toss a grenade, Wade
That’s not how the game’s played
Just drop out a tree, Ste
Or just be stealthy

She said with Squeenix gone this could be your last game
I wish there was something I could do to make them think again
Or, y’know, failing that, at least give us a way to keep our online saves

I said at least we went out at our height
Cause unlike Absolution this one’s actually alright
But the episodic nature meant if one level was shite
Then you’d wait thirty days to play another
Fifty more ways to blow your cover

Just whip out your gat, Matt
Stab the wrong man, Stan
Don’t make too much noise, Roy
You’ll get yourself seen
Start to act suss, Gus
Been causing a fuss much?
Be too slow to flee, Lee
Or just be stealthy

Choke out a goon, June
Spike the wrong meal, Neil
Leave bodies in view, Stu
Where someone can see
Wait for a bus, Gus
Push ’em under the bus, Gus
Reload your last save, Dave
This time be stealthy

More Marioke songs


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GameCamp 9 is happening – 6th May 2017
Posted at 22:13 on 24th April 2017 - permalink

Do you like games? Do you like fun? Can you make it to London South Bank University on the 6th May? If your answer to all of these questions is “yes please!” you should probably consider coming to GameCamp.

GameCamp is an annual one-day ‘unconference’ event that covers computer and video games as well as board, card, physical and other flavours of modern games. (It’s called GameCamp in reference to the earlier BarCamp – neither event involves any camping.)

‘Unconference’ means that anyone attending can give a talk (or panel/interview/roundtable) or run a game – you just pick a room and a timeslot and post it on the central board. You can even claim multiple slots if you like, and the board is open throughout the day, for instance if you feel compelled to start another conversation in response to something else you’ve seen earlier in the day.

Attendance is not restricted to games industry professionals or academics – you just need to be curious about games. Nor is there any obligation to speak or participate in anything that doesn’t interest you – attendees are freely able to wander in and out of talks (provided they’re not too disruptive).

I’ve attended all but one of the previous GameCamp events and have written most of them up: http://citystate.co.uk/archives/tag/gamecamp/

From these you can get some idea of the variety of content on offer (although bear in mind I tended to favour talks about computer games over other stuff). On each occasion I have played something cool, learnt something useful, and met multiple excellent people.

You can buy your ticket here!

The ticket price covers a full day of activities (continued in the pub in the evening), an event programme, a surprise exclusive souvenir gift, and a canteen lunch with vegetarian option.

I hope to see some of you there!

COME


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“Intergalactic”
Posted at 18:19 on 19th February 2017 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 17/02/2017.

“Foundation Update” – after “Intergalactic” by Beastie Boys

Intergalactic, planetary, planetary, intergalactic ( × 2 )

Foundation update, mandatory, mandatory, foundation update ( × 2 )

Sean Murray‘s invention ( × 11 )

Well now, don’t you diss No Man’s Sky
Please stick around to give it one more try
Got planets beyond where you can fly
Maybe this will keep you occupied

“Why’d you lie?” fools said
Got haters on our backs trying to dogpile
Implementing systems can take a while
But now we’re coming back with a very large file

Now if you load it up it’s been restyled
Giant creatures roaming in the wild
No sand worms, sorry Kyle
Wombat’s head on a crocodile

Why do gamers gotta be juvenile?
Coming to my mentions to spit your bile
I’ll mute you so it’s all futile
Animes on your profile

Foundation update, mandatory, mandatory, foundation update ( × 2 )

Chasing black holes, that’s our scheme
Getting to the centre, to say that we’ve been
Trying to survive, no guarantees
I like my planet conditions extreme

When I look on Metacritic or on Reddit or Steam
“I played a half hour, it’s not like I dreamed”
Well on the dogfighting I’m not too keen
Wanna visit worlds not shoot laser beams

Creative mode gonna go sightseeing
I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe
Skies like paintings by Roger Dean
Taking screenshots to use as wallpaper themes

Now when it comes to smuggling my hold is clean
Traded all my finds with a nice Vy’keen
The Hilbert Dimension, new galaxy
Foundation update, mandatory

Foundation update, mandatory, mandatory, foundation update ( × 4 )

It’s from the family tree of old school space ops
Collecting fuel for galactic hops
It’s not a sim, but still on top
Cuz Elite only lets you land on lifeless rocks

They’ve been known to use bullshots
Promised things that weren’t in the box
But Sean Murray’s got no biz getting doxxed
Hello Games time to let that patch

Mmm… drop?

Now if your game’s procedural it needs no plot
Whole galaxy is the sandbox
Try a new planet if this one’s no cop
Or buy a mothership, okay let’s dock

If you want a refund you’ll get mocked
Hundred hours on the clock
I built a neat base where aliens can shop
It’s a cinch with a Gek who mists my crops

Foundation update, mandatory, mandatory, foundation update ( × 4 )

Sean Murray’s invention ( × 12 )

More Marioke songs


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“Geno”
Posted at 18:31 on 22nd January 2017 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 20/01/2017 (Eighties Night).

The Last Guardian is a must-own game for the PS4, unless you require games to constantly explain everything to you.

“Trico” – after “Geno” by Dexys Midnight Runners

Woke up in a cave with a fifty foot dog
Oh Trico
With feathers and horns? Maybe it’s not a dog
Oh! Trico!
So I fed you barrels of flourescent goo
After we were done plucking the spears from you
Bestrode your head and you didn’t bite
Just follow my steps and we’ll get outta this plight

Diegetic information, I gave you some
“A huge man-eating creature”
The Last Guardian
But now just look at me
As I’m riding round on you
Your AI’s pretty flash
You know what I want you to do

[break]

Climbing past each stage, the tower’s really high
Oh Trico
Made it past the armours, the bridges, the eyes
Oh! Trico!
When I couldn’t continue, I called out your name
But I never knew, like you knew, me and you were the same
We found a weird mirror, your tail’s shooting flame, brrrrr!
I’ve fed you, I’ve pet you, I’ll remember your game

Molyneux-like proclamations, Ueda shunned
We thought they must have cancelled
The Last Guardian
But it’s not vapourware
And you finally came through
You’d never get a game like this on your PlayStation 2

[break]

Oh Trico
Oh! Trico!
On Trico
Oh! Trico!
Oh Trico…

More Marioke songs


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Super Mario Run
Posted at 22:16 on 5th January 2017 - permalink

You may have noticed that Nintendo launched their first iOS game last month (with the Android version expected to launch imminently). Super Mario Run is a stunning debut – it’s polished, content-rich and unapologetically aimed at experienced video game players, with Toad Rally, an endlessly deep asynchronous multiplayer game, at its core (plus a set of 96 increasingly challenging single player objectives as a hearty side dish). It’s unquestionably one of the best premium mobile games ever released and is pretty much an essential purchase to anyone who isn’t deathly averse to Mario platformers.

While it’s priced appropriately (at the high end of the $5-$10 premium mobile sweet spot, with the quality associated with the brand bumping it a little higher than average), the game has received some negative press for its anomalous ‘free trial’ monetisation model: the game is free to download but only the first few stages can be accessed, with the rest of the game locked away behind a one-time $9.99 USD paywall.

There are few iOS games of note that have ever managed to successfully implement a hard paywall, New Star Soccer perhaps being the last, three years ago. (Since then a steady stream of minimalist one button shovelware has sadly led to many users assuming that mobile arcade games should be 100% free.)

Once the user has paid, Super Mario Run’s in-game economy works like a ‘sandpit’ version of F2P. There are currencies earned through time and skill which throttle the speed at which content can be accessed in other modes, but no microtransactions to let you bypass this process. A vaguely similar system is found in Ridiculous Fishing, although Mario is clearly designed to be played for much longer.

I think that – in theory – this was a very shrewd decision by Nintendo, allowing them to get the game into the hands of the widest possible audience (an estimated 90m downloads as of this writing – lots of new Nintendo Accounts that can be upsold to the Switch), while at the same time minimising their financial risk and avoiding diluting the brand. The choice of Mario (and specifically referencing the New Super Mario Bros games, a massive mainstream hit) further hammers home that you can expect a proper video game rather than a Nintendo-themed tie-in (in the style of the Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy, etc. F2P games) and sends the message to investors that they’re serious about this.

In practice, I believe that Nintendo underestimated the level of confusion and hostility that would be result from failing to clearly communicate how the game was sold.

Although comment sections and user reviews are always peppered with people claiming they would prefer to pay once than to jump through the hoops of the typical F2P game, in practice there is a section of the audience that simply refuse to pay for games ever.

Without the luxury of being able to soft launch Super Mario Run in a few territories to test the waters, Nintendo had to simply go on their foreknowledge of how the Mario brand was perceived (in conjunction with Apple’s assurance of an unprecedented level of marketing support on the App Store). The resulting negative reviews have overwhelmingly come from non-payers – if the game had used the conventional premium approach its review average would be much healthier.

The purchase process and first-time user experience (new players are led through a convoluted sign-up process, although unlike Pokemon Go the network side of things has at least been stable) have undoubtedly put a crimp in the percentage of players Super Mario Run has been able to convince to pay for the full experience.

However this shouldn’t be read as the launch having gone poorly. In spite of the unorthodox decision to not charge at install time, Super Mario Run is still a premium game, and has already shifted more full price units in the first few days than what many high profile premium mobile games have managed in their lifetimes. The ‘onboarding’ problem is isolated, and can be improved upon without Nintendo needing to fundamentally alter the design of the game. (They certainly shouldn’t react to a wave of disgruntled user reviews and investor grumbling by slashing the price – that is seldom a wise first resort.)

Thankfully, more sensible people seem to have grasped the idea that Nintendo aren’t trying to challenge the dominance of F2P games in the Top Grossing chart with a game that limits per-user expenditure to $10, and they didn’t design the game in this very specific way out of inexperience or arrogance. Here are some editorials that are worth your time:

Casually Yours: Super Mario Run Exposes Problems in Mobile Coverage (Remeshed)

Super Mario Run Is a Trojan Horse for Toad Rally (Kotaku UK)

What analysts think about Super Mario Run (ZhugeEX)

Super Mario Run’s inevitable backlash (GamesIndustry.biz)

Super Mario Run’s missed opportunity (GamesIndustry.biz)

So why have we seen so many pundits jump to the conclusion that Super Mario Run has been a flop, and that Nintendo’s chances of making mobile games a significant pillar of their business are now somehow irrevocably blown? Well, oxygen is free and dickheads are plentiful. But more seriously, there are two likely motivations.

1. Ignorance: If you’re an analyst, business journalist, or even some strain of specialist games journalist who isn’t called to cover mobile games very often, it’s understandable that you would take the current dominant business model (Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clans) to define the entire format in perpetuity. Most people don’t follow the day to day events in the sector that closely, and may (certainly at the business end) view the market through the lens of the Facebook game bubble or other short-term gold rushes. In this context it makes sense to directly compare Super Mario Run to F2P games. Whereas in an informed context, it would be more sensible to wait until Nintendo/DeNA release a true F2P game, which they’re widely expected to do before the year is out.

2. Insecurity: In every field there are some who need to view perceived rivals as failing to validate their chosen team/tribe/hobby horse. The rise of freemium has emboldened a few ‘mavens’ with this mindset: The sort who typically spent the last few years pointing at graphs of declining PC sales and growing smart device sales. (Since PC gaming’s resurgence and tablet sales flatlining they’ve gone quiet on this topic.)

These days most of their hot air is expended on ‘proving’ that the changing way in which the public divide their time between different screens somehow means that ‘traditional’ (console/handheld/AAA/hardcore/single-player/pay-once/etc.) games are in terminal decline. They can’t understand why thoughtfully made, life-enriching games – and especially Nintendo games, which seldom pay heed industry trends – can have any more inherent value than Cookie Clicker or a fixed odds betting terminal.

It’s easy to spot the people in this camp when they’re discussing Super Mario Run – they’re the ones desperately retweeting any scrap of negative coverage, no matter how inane, from unconvincingly scandalised clickbait about how it’s burning through players’ data allowances to glib anecdotes about schoolchildren not knowing who Mario is. They’re the ones treating the ignorant howls of one-star user reviews (the game is “too short” or “overpriced” or “no better than any other endless runner” – clue: it isn’t one; another clue: these reviews never, ever name one of these supposedly ‘just as good’ games) as established fact while ignoring professional critics.

Pokemon Go received similar brickbats. It’s technically broken. The user reviews are terrible. Nobody is going to want to change their routine for a game. It’s a fad. It’s not updated enough. All of which proved to be nonsense as the game dominated the charts for months, still maintaining a more than respectable position between updates, AND massively drove sales of the 3DS games (the aspect of Nintendo’s multi-platform strategy that always seemed to be a bit more “2. ?????” than “3. PROFIT” to be honest). Toys were hurled out of the pram at Miitomo, Fallout Shelter, and pretty much anything else that ever dared to deviate from the narrow path of conventional wisdom before that.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth from some quarters is understandable. In a market where a few advertising and tech companies have been able to become wildly successful by prioritising data-driven design and casino tactics far above artistry and deep engagement, a new wave of customers having their first mobile game experiences with Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run (and soon Animal Crossing?) will have expectations they can’t easily meet, at least without a protracted, expensive and painful cultural upheaval. (There are plenty of fun, deep and artful F2P games, but the model has constraints that will always put certain kinds of games off limits.)

Now, I’m by no means a blind Nintendo fanboy. I’ve regretted a fair few purchases of games for their systems, dislike their habit of repeatedly hawking their back catalogue at inflated prices, despaired at their fumblings with making a modern online service, and thought that the Wii U was a massive backward step. But Super Mario Run is a truly great game and a confident step into the unknown for a conservative company for whom playing safe would have been understandable. Anything that makes the mobile games scene a more vibrant place to be should be celebrated.


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Season’s Greetings
Posted at 15:09 on 24th December 2016 - permalink

I participated in the Marioke Christmas Charity Single this year, in support of Asylum Aid. Please share the video and donate if you want. Merry Christmas!

Please note that this video contains rude words.


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“Virginia Plain”
Posted at 00:57 on 20th November 2016 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 19/11/2016.

I only knew this song from Kevin Eldon’s version, so I was worried beforehand that it would be a bit obscure. You can probably work out which line was written first.

“Neo Geo” – after “Virginia Plain” by Roxy Music

Make a machine and make it great
Factory sealed, I’ll take it
To C+VG I’ll show it
Hundred meg cart, so don’t blow it ’cause
They’ve been around a long time
Just try-tra-try-tra-tryin’ for console bigtime

Take me on at King of Fighters
Take a shot at Super Spy
We’ll play Garou: Mark of the Wolves and then we’ll
Have a Shodown with some Samurai
When we’ve got games like these
Who needs Sega or Nintendo? We are playing NEO GEO!

[break]

Dropping in coins and losing fast
To the front room, we’ll take it
Capcom’s around – we’re trying! – to perfect the Art of Fighting
Shock Troopers and Super Sidekicks
This is your average week
For a Neo Geo freak

Terry Bogard‘s down to street fight
Metal Slug, we’ve seen some wars
Lots of space to store those great sprites
Dual 16 and 8 bit cores – oh wow!
Sure you can play them all on MAME
But for you, and me too, only the real thing will do

[break]

Chojin Gakuen Gowcaizer
Names we’ll never understand
Just to buy the basic system
Would set you back a grand, but hey
Do you want an awesome game?
What’s their name?
It’s SNK

More Marioke songs


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COD:IW and the Windows Store
Posted at 20:35 on 4th November 2016 - permalink

There’s recently been a little bit of a kerfuffle about Activision making the puzzling decision to release a separate (UWP) version of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare on the Windows Store, in which the multiplayer mode only allows you to play with other UWP players (and not with players who have bought the game anywhere else – Steam, retail, etc.).

Microsoft presumably knew that this wouldn’t go down well with the specialist press, so released an official (making no mention of the game or Activision) and unofficial statement to a friendly site. Predictably, many of the major games sites that have picked up on the story have merged these two messages together, resulting in headlines along the lines of “Windows Store version of COD won’t let you play with Steam players and it’s Activision’s fault.”.

I don’t have any inside information about how the deal went down between Microsoft and Activision, but can make some confident guesses about some aspects:

1. Surely the only reason COD:IW is on the Windows Store is because Microsoft desperately want it there, and will have reached some kind of arrangement with Activision (involving cash, better terms, free marketing, technical assistance and/or some other incentive) to put it there. You can liken this to the deals they did around GTA IV (coughing up $50m for GFWL integration, some level of timed exclusivity, DLC, etc.) or ensuring big ‘name brand’ mobile apps (Angry Birds, Netflix, etc.) were on the Windows Phone store when they were still trying to make that work. I’d go so far as to speculate that Microsoft may even be eating the cost of the discounted launch price.

2. There is little chance of this version making much profit beyond that one-shot incentive, so Activision will have made the minimal effort possible to do the port. COD is a franchise that still does a big proportion of its business in console boxed copies, and while the PC market has exploded in recent years, the additional sales that could be mustered from small (non-Steam) distribution channels are unlikely to be a priority for them.

There is an assumption that the Windows Store can’t be doing that badly (compared to uPlay, Origin, GOG and the other stores that occupy the edges of the PC digital games market not taken up by Steam) because it’s bundled with Windows 10, but outside of a couple of Microsoft-owned IP, it’s hard to point to any notable success stories there. The fact that high profile ‘exclusive’ games like Tomb Raider and Quantum Break had to messily reverse out of their exclusivity deals don’t exactly suggest a marketplace in robust health.

3. Microsoft can safely say that they’ve not ordered Activision to break compatibility. What I suspect they’ve done is sneakier, and it’s a tactic that have form for using in the past to disadvantage rivals.

The Windows Store version of COD:IW has to support the weird Windows 10 Xbox app to facilitate multiplayer. The standard version uses Steamworks. While Microsoft don’t prevent developers from implementing Steamworks in UWP games in addition (although they used to), it’s extra cost and work to implement and test two separate systems. (There is a bit of confusion over what MS require, ban, or just make needlessly difficult to implement for UWP games sold on their store, but you get the general gist. The fact that MS are even able to refer to ‘crossplay’ as an optional feature between users on the same hardware platform shows how ludicrous this situation is.)

This is similar to how Microsoft tilted the playing field against Netscape back in the day. OEMs weren’t prevented from installing other browsers on new PCs, but Microsoft argued that Internet Explorer couldn’t be removed as it was part of the operating system. (This turned out to be flim-flam, and the European Court wasn’t very pleased.) OEMs didn’t want the cost of supporting two browsers, so Netscape got the bullet.

I don’t think that this latest silliness poses any kind of serious threat to Steam’s dominance of the PC games space, but it does add another little bit of fuel to the fire of Tim Sweeney’s argument that UWP and the Windows Store risk being used as a trojan horse to turn Windows into a walled garden.

Personally I don’t think that Microsoft can make the PC games market swallow the pill of the PC as a closed iOS-like platform even if they want to. No amount of money would have made GFWL work, and consumers rejected punitative ‘always on’ DRM systems (for the most part). That said, we should continue to scrutinise and question any moves Microsoft (or anyone else) make that normalise a situation where PC games can’t be modified by end users, and access to the market is increasingly reserved for major publishers with deep pockets.

I think it’s in everyone’s best interest for the PC to have credible alternatives to Steam (which is far from perfect itself), and I hope that Microsoft are listening. A few years ago I wouldn’t have believed that they’d ever kill Kinect (and various other ill-conceived projects) to save their Xbox business, so maybe they’re not still the stubborn gorilla we assume.


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Exhibiting old games
Posted at 00:10 on 13th October 2016 - permalink

Earlier in the year I visited the ‘Power Up!‘ games event at the Science Museum in London. I realised that I’ve been attending showings of old games (in various settings) for over a decade now. Arcades may be long dead in the West, but putting a load of old consoles and micros and CRT monitors on trestle tables still exerts a powerful draw.

Over the years, some of the assumptions that the early exhibitors made out of convenience have ossified into an unquestioned Way of Doing Things. This is a problem. Public exhibitions are the only way a lot of people get to experience the medium’s history at first hand, so if convention dictates we’re only able to select games from a limited pool, it’s less likely the historical account will be accurate.

It’s illuminating to compare the ‘Power Up!’ event to the Science Museum’s earlier effort, ‘Game On‘ (2006).

This Summer’s event was unencumbered by the need to explain the history of the medium from its earliest beginnings, and included few games predating the early 1980s UK home computer boom. PC games were now represented, although conversely coin-ops were almost entirely absent. (There were virtually no handheld games in either show.) There was even a healthy showing of multiplayer LAN games. The newer show’s curation was vastly more intelligent (not only picking good and interesting titles, but usually the best available versions of them as well) and the presentation was more welcoming and geared toward social play.

The most pronounced difference was that the 2006 show treated old games as existing in complete isolation from the modern medium, while the 2016 version was more convincingly able to present a continuum – for example showing Batman, Disney and Street Fighter games from different eras side by side. It’s strange to think that not so long ago it seemed that games would be defined by multi-million dollar blockbusters distributed on physical discs in perpetuity, and to suggest that old (or 2D) games still held any relevance or commercial value was a heretical notion for the industry.

Both of the Science Museum shows (along with every consumer show, industry event, games party or ‘arcade bar’ I’ve attended in the intervening time) unswervingly followed two rules:

1. All games must be running on the original, contemporary hardware and media.

2. The most familiar context for presenting games in a public setting is an amusement arcade.

(There’s also the unwritten third rule, that the lineup must include Micro Machines 2, which inevitably follows when your selection criteria stipulates sourcing games that give the most ‘bang for your buck’ from eBay and flea markets. Could Codemasters have known, when they built those two extra controller ports into the cartridge casing, that they were making a bid for immortality?)

Exhibitions of old games are held back by organisers’ irrational aversion to emulation, and by focusing disproportionately on quick, simple, non-persistent arcade action games in service of their default metaphor.

Games are a digital medium. In the vast majority of cases, the experience of playing a game isn’t inextricably bound to a specific set of silicon chips and plastic buttons. The artifact being presented is the running program, not the playback medium. If we accept that there are other reasons to show old games than to evoke nostalgia (or for parents to impress on their children how much better they have it today), we need to move past the insistence on always using original hardware.

Emulation allows us to show games for which physical instances are rare and expensive (either through genuine scarcity or thanks to the efforts of collectors), or for which the original host hardware is too fragile or temperamental to withstand the rigours of extended public use, multiplying the range of viable games at a stroke.

More intriguingly, emulators and related tools allow us to unpick games, letting us zero in on the pertinent parts of the experience and edit out inconveniences.

Games can be made to better fit the event format. Save states can be used to skip loading pauses and present edited highlights of games that would take too long for an individual to play through in the time allowed. Gameplay can be rewound and stepped through frame by frame to illustrate specific techniques.

Accessibility can be improved by remapping controls and offering input macros to simplify or modernise interfaces (Ultima Underworld and System Shock spring to mind here), as well as by tinkering with the game state in realtime (i.e. ‘POKEs’ or Game Genie codes) to modulate difficulty.

We can even channel-hop between different games from different eras and systems to better illustrate our arguments, as demonstrated to great effect by Bennett Foddy‘s Videobowl, a megamix of one-on-one player challenges that essentially turns a broad and eclectic set of ROMs into a big game of WarioWare.

Extrinsically tracking gameplay events also suggests ways to get visitors more involved – for instance keeping a running tally of achievements to be met across all the games (checking in at each terminal with an app or venue-provided RFID tag, perhaps), implementing high score tables, and ‘ghost cars’/player replays to let visitors compete against each other asynchronously and anonymously.

With more sophisticated emulators (and specially built or modified tools and game files), it’s even possible to open up the clockwork of games at runtime, to better explain the design and development process.

The possibilities here are endless, with some more obvious ones hinted at in the developer commentary modes of Valve’s games. In 3D games, we can pause the action, move the camera around, turn elements of the scene on or off, add visual annotations (displaying hidden objects in the environment such as bounding boxes, triggers, etc.), spawn objects and so on ad infinitum.

For technically simpler games, we can delve into the world data and game logic and represent them visually, for instance mapping out the rooms in an interactive fiction story or point and click adventure game on a second screen, or showing what’s happening in memory versus on screen in a 2D platformer or shooter, or showing how a procedurally generated level is built or how particularly ingenious visual effects work.

Beyond direct emulation, for some games there are also restoration projects that better show the authors’ intentions by fixing contemporary shortcomings (such as Sonic remakes that fix slowdown and control latency, or Quake source ports that support modern screen resolutions without altering the already perfectly beautiful artwork).

All of these ideas require more work on behalf of the exhibitors than plugging a machine in and walking away, but would result in vastly more informative and imaginative exhibits.

I don’t know if there have been any exhibitions that have taken this approach. It’s surely something that has occurred to others before now.

Of course emulation shouldn’t be seen as a panacea. Not only are there a number of more recent systems for which fast, accurate emulators don’t (yet) exist, but also many games (particularly coin-ops) where specific hardware and peripherals are crucial to the experience. There are also certainly cases where the sensations and ritual of using the original hardware contribute significantly to the experience (although perhaps not as many as proud retro collectors would argue).

The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park makes a strong case for this, astonishingly allowing visitors to play Colossal Cave Adventure on a room-filling 1970s mainframe. Even more modest exhibits (such as an original mid-1980s Macintosh) serve as a reminder of the crude chittering, flickering, mechanical and analogue nature of early home computers that our rose-tinted memories (and javascript facsimiles) tend to edit out. (The Musée Mécanique in San Francisco provides a similar experience for arcade machines.)

Outside of these few exceptional venues with the skill and resources to do things properly, the results are somewhat less appealing. Hip East London bars are particularly notorious for sourcing arcade cabinets indiscriminately. If you’re lucky they might have one or two lovingly maintained pinball tables or perhaps a classic racing wheel/lightgun/golden age game taking pride of place, but more often you’ll find knackered cabinets with broken sticks and blurry screens that seem to have been ‘rescued’ after twenty years’ service in a chip shop. (Or worse still, those awful imported cocktail cabinets offering pages of glitchy unlicensed MAME ROMs.)

It would be so, so easy to equip these places with well-made new cabinets with good quality sticks and monitors running MAME/MESS, allowing games to be swapped in and out easily and removing the constraint of only being able to offer games they can find original, working boards for. A project for some aspiring Dragon’s Den contestant there.

Returning to the world of museums and galleries: With the benefits of emulation so clear to see, why do exhibitors still largely avoid exploiting it?

Emulators are still stigmatised by the widespread misconception that they’re somehow legally dubious, or still some way off being accurate enough to match the ‘authentic’ experience. (Frank Cifaldi discusses this topic in depth in this excellent GDC presentation.)

The main 20th century formats are now emulated accurately enough that only an observer who knew specific quirks to look out for would be able to tell them from the real hardware in a blind test.

Frustratingly you will still see journalists dredging up the by now ludicrously outdated argument that one needs to buy the original consoles to play Mega Drive and SNES games ‘properly’. (We can expect to see a lot more of this talk in coverage of the NES Classic.) This is the kind of irrational authenticity worship that you can find in many other hobbies (hi-fi, real ale, cameras, cars) where old timers want to keep the riff-raff out.

The main difference you’d notice playing a real PAL SNES would be that the games would be running at 50hz letterboxed on a fuzzy CRT screen with no save states or language patches and no games that didn’t get a European release. Should you want to sample a decent selection of the real top-tier classic games, you’d also get to enjoy the authentic experience of forking out hundreds of pounds.

I’d speculate that even though it can be fairly trivially proven that legality and accuracy aren’t issues, exhibitors planning to use emulation might still face the hurdles of explaining this to hosts’ legal departments and the companies whose games they were seeking permission to show. I can understand why taking the path of least resistance would seem like an attractive option in such a (hypothetical) hostile climate.

More cynically, I’m sure that for some professional old games exhibitors, keeping the myth of authenticity alive works in their commercial interest. Van loads of equipment and arcane engineering skill to keep things running are the sort of rigmarole that can justify a higher fee.

Finally there might be the lingering doubt of whether punters would accept not playing on the original hardware. I think the adjustment would be quick and painless. We seem to have been able to accept some degree of abstraction in most other media. The BFI’s video library doesn’t run 100 year old scraps of film through a projector every time a visitor wants to view them. Composers of classical music predating recording technology would barely recognise the sound of modern performances. The essence of the thing isn’t lost by decanting it into a more suitable vessel.

Once we’ve established that emulators aren’t the work of Satan, we can tackle the limitations of assuming visitors want an arcade experience.

(I should stress that I’m not having a veiled jab at the National Videogames Arcade in Nottingham here. I’ve not visited personally, but have only heard positive things about it – and anyway I suspect the name was chosen more as a punky statement asserting the medium’s legitimacy than any attempt to dictate the styles of game that are welcome there.)

I don’t have a concrete idea of how best to present games that aren’t quick, self-explanatory, pick-up-and-play experiences, but can suggest some starting points.

‘Power Up!’ reminded me of computer games shops of the 1980s and early 1990s which served as social hubs in the manner of comic book and record stores.

If it’s important to display the hardware, make it particularly exotic and interesting looking hardware. Let us pick up and browse game boxes and see the assortment of manuals, code wheels, maps and ‘feelies’ they contained.

Or recreate contemporary studio offices or trade show stands based on photos and videos. Or a living room. With the rise of YouTube and Twitch, should playing be more performative, with some visitors happier to watch and interject than play directly?

Or perhaps the answer is to come up with a completely new set of conventions for a game space that act as cues to let visitors know that their interaction is expected (in the same way that the furniture of art galleries firmly hints at what is appropriate there).

As long as we don’t have another decade of exhibitions of the same over-familiar set of games running on a gradually dwindling pool of working original hardware ahead of us, I’ll be happy.


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No Man’s Sky: Quick Start
Posted at 20:12 on 4th September 2016 - permalink

No Man’s Sky is a fantasy game about being a space castaway.

The appeal of the game is that it’s an infinitely deep lucky dip of randomly generated planets to explore.

The game’s planet generation technology is extremely impressive, capable of creating a broad variety of environments that almost always feel seamless and natural (it struggles a bit with very wiggly coastlines). The best results it produces could pass for hand-crafted outdoor vistas in most other games. Hiking through them is relaxing and zen-like as in the best open world games. The pulpy alien sci-fi setting was a good decision, as it lets the game get away with a much lower level of general detail than if it was trying to build a more relatable real-world environment – the original Halo pulled a similar trick.

A lot of valid criticism I’ve seen of the game (from people who’ve actually played it and aren’t just always dullards with bad opinions) seems to be from players becoming frustrated at the game’s obtuseness, and how much grinding it expects you to do early on just to get to a point where your character is basically competent.

It’s understandable that the developers wanted as much about the game’s systems to be a mystery for new players as possible – after all, everyone has spent the last few years breathlessly praising From Software’s games for taking this approach. The problem is that the player is presented with lots of activities and given no clue which are polished and fun and which are broken and safe to ignore entirely.

To this end I’ve put together a quick list of tips below that are things I’d wished the game had mentioned at some early point. If you’re still in the stage of spending most of the time scrabbling around for plutonium and rearranging your inventory, hopefully these will help you get past that stage to the point when you can start enjoying the game (although the inventory juggling never fully goes away).

The main quest: It’s pretty obvious at this point that the Atlas / center of the galaxy ‘end objectives’ were tacked on to the game as an afterthought out of fear that players would get confused without an explicit goal to work towards. You should probably say ‘yes’ to the Atlas question right at the start (but don’t fret if you didn’t) and definitely not sell the Atlas Stones you receive (as they’re expensive to replace and you need ten on hand to trigger the ending). You don’t need to get all the Journey Milestones to complete the quest so you can ignore the tedious ones (like ship combat).

Inventory: Ship slots hold twice as much of a stackable good as exosuit slots. The intention seems to be that if you’re mining elements on a world, you should be constantly dumping them back to the ship on a landing pad next to a trade terminal somewhere. When you reach a new planet almost always the first thing you’ll see on the surface is a drop pod with a suit expansion. You should buy these whenever you see them.

Feng Shui: Technologies of the same type (e.g. Thermal Protection, Warp Drive, Plasma Grenade, etc.) get a bonus if they’re in adjacent inventory slots.

Movement: The most important thing for any NMS player to know is that sprinting and tapping the melee button before firing your jetpack gives you a massive boost. Forget walking, forget using your ship to make expensive, time consuming and clumsy short hops – jetpacking lets you cover lots of ground and immediately grab/scan nearby items. Unless you’re on a very hostile planet don’t worry about getting too far from your ship. Many bases have a beacon or terminal you can use to summon it for the cost of a bypass chip.

You can also move rapidly underwater by ‘dolphin diving’ – jetpack as high as possible over the surface (preferably starting from a high cliff), and aim towards the water and push forward as you hit the surface, and you will move through the water at high speed until you collide with anything.

Finally, the ‘interact’ button works like a vacuum cleaner. Hold it down as you approach something and you’ll interact with that thing as soon as it’s in range and you can even move away (as long as the button remains depressed) before the bar fills. Sweeping the cursor over multiple collectibles/crates is quicker on a pad than lining up and activating each one.

Multi-tool: You’ve probably noticed this already, but letting go of the trigger on the mining beam before it overheats immediately flushes its temperature back to zero. If you scan a building/structure this will put a marker on your radar to help you find it again. Grenades are the quickest way to blast open steel doors and to farm iron. Grenades can also be used to dig small caves to hide from storms if you need your environment shield to recharge. Don’t bother with the homing grenade upgrade as it screws up tunnel digging.

Combat: All forms of combat in the game are boring and broken but the good news is they can easily be avoided. Sentinels can’t attack you inside buildings, and will stand down if they can’t see you. If you’re being bothered by them on the surface (i.e. you’re farming valuable rare items), you can use the jetpack to easily outrun them. If the drones are bugging you, a grenade at point blank range is effective. Sentinels drop titanium and cargo canisters which sometimes contain really good stuff.

In space, pirates can also easily be outrun (duck and weave a bit and keep dumping fuel into your shields) and they can’t follow you into a planet’s atmosphere. You can dismantle those dust-gathering ship weapon upgrades if you need more cargo space.

Bases: Once you’ve got lots of technology blueprints you can largely ignore mucking about with bases and beacons, aside from using their trade terminals. Landing on landing pads saves launch thruster fuel. If you’re on a particularly resource-rich planet, it’s worth looking for a spaceport to use as a base of operations. This gives you the option to buy and sell goods to visitors (as well as buy their ships) and the trade terminal.

Shipwrecks: Wrecked ships are free if your time is worth nothing – the ones you can find will only ever have a slightly larger (or smaller) inventory than your current ship, and require you to go through the tedious process of repairing all their broken systems and refueling.

The quickest way to get to a distress beacon that’s a long way away on the same planet is to go into the upper atmosphere. (It’s extremely obvious that ‘distance’ is a flexible concept in NMS – what it actually means is ‘how quickly the game can generate this new scenery’. Move far away enough from a planet that it’s not having to process the nearer levels of detail and you can traverse it more quickly.)

Making quick cash: There are playing guides out there that explain in detail how to cheese the game’s trading economy. The quickest ways that are still vaguely fun are finding planets with abundant rare items (Vortex Cubes, Albumen Pearls, Gravitino Balls, etc. – some of which don’t appear on the scanner), and scanning the complete set of animals on a planet, for which you can claim a bonus (usually in the 100,000s of units range) from the Options screen. There are rarely more than one or two types of sea, cave and flying animals on a planet, and land animals are more often found in plains and valleys. You can of course use the name of a planet to remind yourself (and inform other players) of a particularly fruitful world.

Atlas Interfaces: Avoiding spoilies, it’s worth exploring the whole accessible area in an Atlas station or a Space Anomaly.


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GameCamp 2016 (#gamecamp8)
Posted at 23:26 on 27th May 2016 - permalink

London’s leading games unconference, GameCamp, returned to London South Bank University last Saturday after a two year hiatus.

This year the event was relocated to the university’s media building, which turned out to be a more suitable venue than the Keyworth Centre building where the last few were held. The lecture theatres and classrooms available for use were all in close range of the schedule board, and it was easy to drop in and out of sessions with the minimum of disruption.

While GameCamp struggles to gain the publicity of larger, better funded events in the capital, there was still a good turnout, with plenty of new faces. It could be argued that the event has lost a bit of momentum having missed a year (fewer attendees had prepared talks, although there were more playtesting sessions than in previous years), but there was still plenty to see and do.

Here’s a rundown of the sessions I attended (there were multiple events going on in most time slots, so everyone’s experience was different):

1000 – James Wallis (one of the organisers) welcomed us and gave an intro. GameCamp has a tradition of giving a free gift to all attendees – this year it was a wind-up toy robot.

1030 – Implicit role playing in Mass Effect / Playtest of the physical game ‘Democracy’ (nothing to do with the Positech one), which involved players plotting via group SMS before simultaneously taking action.

1100 – At least three things were going on in the same room: The World Is Flat (with yoga ball controller) was playable, a discussion of sports entertainment (wrestling) and a session of the party game A Fake Artist Goes to New York.

1130 – Attendees were given wooden blocks and other props and tasked with devising games using the wind up robots, such as jousting and bowling.

1200 – An ex-Nintendo Europe employee gave a talk about marketing. In the hallway, physical games such as Lemon Joust, Ninja and blindfolded Nerf pistol duels took place.

1230 – Lunch. This year LSBU stipulated that their own catering services were used. A little bit disappointing compared to the bottomless pizza and fresh coffee of past years.

1400 – Kieron Gillen ranted about Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (and less angrily discussed the representation of games as a storytelling device – rather than just thematic window dressing – in fiction in general) which I haven’t read but which by most accounts sounds like an insufferable and cynical nostalgic pandering exercise. (Cline’s appearance in Microsoft’s cringeworthy promotional film about digging up Atari’s E.T. cartridges from a landfill put me off wanting to read any of his work.)

1430 – Kerry Turner and Jo Summers reported on their progress in setting up social events, courses and jams for games creators in Brighton.

1500 – Claire Bateman discussed designing and running The Oubliette room escape game current running for a few more weeks in South London.

1530 – Nothing worth putting in my notes apparently – general chit-chat.

1600 – The GameCamp Awards – a spin on the usual ‘People’s Revolutionary Committee’ closer session, where we shouted out suggested award categories and nominees then put them to the vote.

1630 – A surprise appearance from Ste Curran, who did his talk ‘Kelly’ (about roleplaying Kelly Clarkson in Skyrim) previously performed at Reads Like A Seven.

1700 – Pub – the beer garden of The Ship as tradition dictates, where I was asked “Where do Transformers come from?” many times over. (Not just me I should say – I’ve not been going around claiming to know anything about how alien robots are made.)

I hope we don’t have to wait two years for the next one.

Reports from previous GameCamps (I never got around to writing up #7, a.k.a. the one I gave another really brilliant talk at, but it was very good.)


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“Road to Nowhere”
Posted at 19:30 on 21st February 2016 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke canon – first performed 19/02/2016. (Actually this one’s been ‘in the system’ for a few months but I don’t think anyone had performed it before now.) Inspired by the the absurdly long and varied IMDB voice acting resume of Nolan North (“the thinking man’s Troy Baker”).

“(We’ve Got A) Role For Nolan” – after “Road to Nowhere” by Talking Heads

Well we love Marioke
Now it’s time for a new song
Though the jokes may be hokey
We can all still sing along

Now we’re gonna pay tribute
To a voice acting star
If your game needs a hero
You can call on Nolan North

Yeah

We’ve got a role for Nolan
In our new game
Writing some lines for Nolan
For him to say

Casting an unfamiliar voice?
Big mistake
Bring us our first and only choice
Nathan Drake, Nathan Drake

[BREAK]

We’ve got a role for Nolan
Famous voice guy
Now he’s on board we’re golden
That game I’d buy

Whether the part is big or small
He don’t care
Dinklebot wasn’t working out?
Make the call, he’d be there

[BREAK]

We’ve got a role for Nolan
We’ve got a role for Nolan
We’ve got a role for Nolan

Any game that comes to mind
Prince of Persia Sands of Time
That’s him alright, Nolan’s alright

Hawkeye, Ant-Man, War Machine
Desmond in Assassin’s Creed
He plays all types, yeah he plays all types

Bulletproof with 50 Cent
Even played the President
Once or twice, in that Saints Row shite

Bad guys in Crash Bandicoot
Faulty cores in Portal 2
And Sideswipe, the Transformer Sideswipe

But the accent that he tried
For Penguin in Arkham Knight
Sounded like it was Dick Van Dyke

Skylanders bears his name
As does every LEGO game
Toys to life, bringing toys to life

Titanfall and Destiny
To a cheap JRPG
He’ll still bite, if the pay’s alright

He’s made fourth wall breaking cool
Phoned himself up as Deadpool
Well it’s alright, with Nolan it’s alright

We’ve got a role for Nolan
Hey!
We’ve got a role for Nolan
HEEEY!
We’ve got a role for Nolan
Heh! Heh!
We’ve got a role for Nolan

More Marioke songs


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