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.

Toejam & Earl
Posted at 12:37 on 1st March 2015 - permalink

Some extremely welcome and long-awaited news came last week: Greg Johnson, designer of the original Toejam & Earl games, has started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of a new game in the series.

You can pledge to the Kickstarter here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1578116861/toejam-and-earl-back-in-the-groove

The original Toejam & Earl for the Sega Mega Drive is my favourite game of all time. I’ve never gotten around to writing about it in depth for this site, so this seems like an appropriate time to get some thoughts down.

I first played Toejam & Earl shortly after Christmas in 1991. A friend from school turned up at my door with the cartridge (that he himself had borrowed from another friend) and a second controller stuffed in his jacket pockets. “You HAVE to play this.” We knew absolutely nothing about the game. We watched the three minute long intro (at the time there was a lot of competition between developers to create longer and more elaborate intros) and weren’t much the wiser.

We started playing it, and playing it… soon after buying our own copies and obsessively rooting out its (actually funny) secrets and quips. We had seen, in microcosm, what games would become – social, emergent, witty and unpredictable. It took surprisingly many sessions before we completed it for the first time, as the temptation to experiment (calamitously) with the startling variety of items and enemies in the game was too great. It took longer still before we were sure we’d seen and done everything the game had to offer, by which time we were ready to dive into the sequel.

Toejam & Earl is an action-adventure game for one or two players. It’s a game about exploration and friendship and a satire on culture shock and generational differences. Toejam and Earl are two teenage aliens from the planet Funkotron who crash their spaceship on planet Earth. The object of the game is to explore Earth (represented, in as confusing and alien a way as possible, as a stack of 26 layers of procedurally generated islands floating in space), collecting the ten pieces of the ship and returning home. A secondary goal is to achieve the rank of Funk Lord, which is done by accumulating points that are awarded by opening presents and uncovering tiles of the map.

The main obstacles standing in the way of these goals are hostile earthlings (an assortment of animals, stereotypical suburban American humans, and mythical creatures), environmental hazards (tornadoes, quicksand, falling off the edge of the world, etc.), and bad presents (although almost no present is entirely bad – many have a mix of positive and negative traits that can be put to strategic use by an experienced player). Many of its underlying mechanics will be familiar to people who have played Rogue (which Johnson played obsessively at college) or any of the many more recent ‘rogue-like’ games such as The Binding of Isaac or Spelunky.

Toejam & Earl was released into a 16-bit console scene dominated by arcade conversions and platform games, which would later become dominated by fighting games and hidebound Japanese RPGs. It took a completely different approach to anything else on the market at the time. This was probably because the designer, Greg Johnson, had spent the previous decade working on increasingly elaborate ‘sandbox’ space trading and exploration games. (Random fact: the “Greetings and various apropos felicitations, my name is Toejam…” speech that Johnson cites as being the seed of the idea for the characters and subsequently the game echoes a line from the Pkunk aliens – voiced by Johnson – in the game Star Control II.) This served as a foundation to learn about building solid, replayable designs with lots of interacting parts.

Credit should of course also be given to programmer Mark Voorsanger who was unfazed by the challenges thrown up by Johnson’s design – no Mega Drive game had included sprawling procedurally generated levels and seamless transitions between shared and split-screen viewports before.

Concept art (many examples of which are included in the manual, and are used for the basis of the large pieces of art in the intro – look at Toejam’s hands) was furnished by Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell, with Johnson and Avril Harrison (who between them created the sample images for Deluxe Paint) creating the art in-game. John Baker composed the funky music, making heavy use of the Mega Drive’s Yamaha YM2612’s ability to make fairly convincing slap bass sounds.

Most console games at the time (and many since) were built by focusing exclusively on the loop of giving the player a problem to observe, testing their manual dexterity (and perhaps light puzzle solving skills) in executing a solution, and rewarding with a visually thrilling payoff. Toejam & Earl is more interested in creating a dialogue (both mechanical and narrative) between the two players, outside of the screen. (It has been described as being a “two player game with a one player mode”.)

The lines of dialogue that appear above the players’ heads are intended to be read out by the respective players to report on their status in the world. The elevator rides between levels (necessitated by the level creation process taking a few seconds to complete) are used as natural breaks in the gameplay to allow snacking and chatting. There are advantages to the two players sticking together (opened presents effect both players when they’re both on the same screen, and enemies can be dealt with more effectively), as well as to splitting up (more ground can be covered), and there is constant bargaining and strategising over where to go and what items to use.

Another shrewd design decision is the use of the late 80s/early 90s brand of kitschy surrealism (you know the stuff – cows, checkerboards, 1950s nuclear families, Dali references, etc.) to afford lots of leeway to how things that serve a mechanical purpose in the game are represented. (This approach was later adopted successfully by games such as Earthworm Jim and Psychonauts.)

Need to show that a non-player character is benign? Make him an old man in a carrot costume (nobody has ever run away from a carrot in a video game), or a children’s party magician. Need to make the effects of items unknown until they’re used? Make them wrapped presents. What do kids hate of find uncool? Dentists, homework, nerds, parents, um, chickens with mortar cannons(?). What do kids love? Junk food, rap music, new trainers, the very idea of not just being given presents but jacking Santa Claus.

While this methodology may sound like something that would be written on a marketing person’s flipchart before delivering a character like Poochy or Bubsy the Bobcat, in Toejam & Earl it works. The characters aren’t cocky jerks, they’re fallible doofuses trying to be cool, and bickering and joking like old pals do.

This brings us on to a third excellent aspect of its design, and why so many people still love this game 24 years later. It’s imprinted to the core with the personality of its creators, their genuine love and enthusiasm for what they’re making, their optimism about what games can achieve without violence and conflict. In many ways it reflects the values of the early 1990s Californian game development scene of LucasArts, Maxis and their ilk. There’s nothing in the first Toejam & Earl that feels like the result of a committee decision. As such it’s unquestionably the high watermark of Sega of America’s production history.

As a cultural artefact it’s 3 Feet High and Rising in a medium which has spent the following quarter century almost exclusively preoccupied with guns and glamour. The purpose of games is to create memories, and Toejam & Earl reliably and efficiently creates good ones. (It’s widely believed that the original game was one of the most popular rental games of its era – people sought it out, repeatedly, to play in social settings, years before the plastic guitar games.)

People are still playing it. There’s enough demand for the game that it’s currently available on a good spread of digital stores. I try to set aside an evening to play through it again at least once a year. The random level generation really helps in this regard. While I’ve long since wheedled out the last of the game’s secrets (though it was a good few years before I found out you could cheat death when opening a Total Bummer! present by holding down ‘B’ and opening a food present), the randomisation is extreme enough to make each playthrough appreciably different from the last, without ever feeling outright unfair.

I don’t think it’s accurate to describe Toejam & Earl as a ‘cult hit’. It’s just a game that for lots of reasons at the time never made the leap out of the gulf between a flop and a mega-hit. (I’m fairly certain that no game in the franchise has ever broken a million units, but word of mouth kept it selling for months and years after release.)

I do think it’s appropriate to describe it as an artistically important game. There aren’t that many games that feel like they’re wholly indebted to it (although I think it would have greatly emboldened the decisions to greenlight some offbeat games like Earthworm Jim, Zombies Ate My Neighbours, Parappa The Rapper, Psychonauts and Sam & Max), but echoes of its influence can be felt everywhere. The sequels failed to get lightning to strike twice (although Panic on Funkotron has lots of nice ideas of its own and fleshes out the characters and the world – possibly a little too much), but this doesn’t tarnish the inherent credibility of the first.

If you’ve not played Toejam & Earl, I really think you should do so, with a friend if at all possible. Get a version that includes the manual, and read it first. Play it on a TV with joypads. Set aside an evening or two and get a takeaway in. Don’t complain that it’s too slow and you don’t know what’s going on. And if you still don’t get on with it, well, that’s all the more reason to back the Kickstarter, so that there’s a version out there that caters for modern sensibilities.


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One Life Left presents Marioke
Posted at 01:47 on 22nd February 2015 - permalink

Video game karaoke (that is to say, karaoke to popular songs with the lyrics wittily rewritten to be about video games) has long been a staple of the One Life Left (Resonance FM’s long-running video game radio show/podcast) Christmas Party.

But evidently once a year wasn’t enough. For the last several months, the One Life Left team have held a regular game karaoke event – dubbed “Marioke” – on the third Thursday of every month at Loading (Scenario, Dalston, East London).

Every month new lyrics are contributed to the repertoire, which now contains several hundred songs from dozens of talented contributors, with lyrics covering everything from industry history lessons, to game reviews, to amorous encounters with Pokemon.

One Life Left have helpfully uploaded a couple of the ‘classic’ songs with lyric cues to YouTube, if you want to try them at home:

Pulp – Common People

Lionel Richie – Hello

So far I’ve contributed the following full songs:

Daft Punk – Get Lucky

Weezer – Undone (The Sweater Song)

The Police – Message In A Bottle

Little Mix – DNA (Alternate version)

Nirvana – In Bloom (May 2015)

Oasis – She’s Electric (June 2015)

ABBA – Thank You For The Music (September 2015)

Beastie Boys – Sabotage (November 2015)

Talking Heads – Road to Nowhere (February 2016)

Roxy Music – Virginia Plain (November 2016)

I’ve written a few more songs that aren’t listed above, but these are the ones of mine that (I think) stand up to repeated performance.

I plan to keep contributing more songs, assuming any more songs that enough people know AND are prepared to sing at karaoke AND which lend themselves to dumb video game jokes remain untapped at this point.

Marioke continues to take place at least once per month, with additional appearances at industry events. There is now an official site with lyric videos, booking information, and a complete song list at SingMarioke.com.

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“Undone (The Sweater Song)”
Posted at 01:42 on - permalink

My most recently contributed Marioke song. The Commodore 64 is not better than the ZX Spectrum.

“Console Rivalry” – after “Undone (The Sweater Song)” by Weezer

In the
Would tease
Who played
The wrong

Commodore – 64 is better
Who likes the – Spectrum anyway


Oh no
“You can’t
Like both”
And so,
On it goes!

The Sega – Mega Drive is better (whoa oh oh)
Than the SNES – it’s got lots of games (it’s got lots of games)
There’s Gunstar Heroes , Sonic the Hedgehog
Phantasy Star IV , Phantasy Star IV
And Streets of Rage


Nintendo – 64 is better (whoa oh oh)
Playstation is – nowhere near as good (nowhere near as good)
We’ve got GoldenEye – and Ocarina
Mario 64, Mario 64
And nothing else

PC gaming is always better
Your consoles are – simply baby toys
It’s good to see you playing them with their horrible framerates
On your PS4, on your PS4
And Xbox One

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“Message In A Bottle (Carmen Sandiego)”
Posted at 01:42 on - permalink

Another Marioke song, co-written with Sara Passmore for the 2014 One Life Left Christmas Party.

“Carmen Sandiego” – after “Message In A Bottle” by The Police

Working for ACME
Detective Agency, oh
Treasures stolen from
Bangkok or Kigali, oh
A VILE henchman
Was witnessed at the scene
Don’t know where she went just know where she has been

I’ll visit every place in the world
I’ll visit every place in the world
I hope that someone catches
I hope that someone catches
I hope that someone catches
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego

At the hotel, said they’d seen someone
But she left on a boat, with a red flag
She was wearing fancy jewellery
Contact Interpol and tell them we’re on track

I’ll visit every place in the world
I’ll visit every place in the world
I hope that someone catches
I hope that someone catches
I hope that someone catches
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego

Chased her from Iceland to Japan to Peru
Everywhere she went she left another clue
The alpaca wall hangings are back in their rightful place
Criminal mastermind huh? I have cracked the case!

I’ll visit every place in the world
I’ll visit every place in the world
I hope that someone catches
I hope that someone catches
I hope that someone catches
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego
Carmen Sandiego

Warrant out for your arrest
Warrant out for your arrest
Warrant out for your arrest
Warrant out for your arrest

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Posted at 01:42 on - permalink

Another Marioke song. This hasn’t been used as there is already another contribution on file for the base song.

“VVVVVV” – after “DNA” by Little Mix

Does the gravity flip you when you least expect it?
Do you mash at ‘Restart’ as you plunge to your death?
No time rewind
Or quicksave key
Your spiky pits
Keep on killing me
It’s only natural to become dejected
(Oh oh oh)

And I won’t get killed again
I’m not bad at platform games
I know I can make it
With just one more go

Requires far too much dexterity
What do you want from me?
I steer my little man
And try to make him land
Indie in every way
Hard like all Terry’s games
Nothing more to say
We’re here to play VVVVVV

There’s a spaceship that’s full
Of impending danger
Shiny trinkets
That I’ve been chasing for days
(Yeah hey yeah.)
There’s Violet,
and Verdigris,
and Victoria
who all need to be saved.

And I won’t get killed again
I’m not bad at platform games
I know I can make it
with just one more go

Requires far too much dexterity
What do you want from me?
And it’s hard to stay alive
When the floor is made of knives
Indie in every way
Hard like all Terry’s games
Nothing more to say
We’re here to play VVVVVV

Each time the ceiling flips
A swearword leaves my lips
I just can’t do the moves
They do on YouTube clips
It isn’t hard to find
Don’t read between the lines
All you have to type
Is the letter V six times
The greatest gaming test
Some bits will make you stressed
But no-one can explain
Why the elephant’s depressed
If you were to say to me
Veni, Vidi, Veci
I’d know the bit you mean

(Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
Oh woah woah woah woah)

Requires far too much dexterity
What do you want from me?
And don’t get me started on
That Super Hexagon
Indie in every way
Hard like all Terry’s games
Nothing more to say
We’re here to play VVVVVV

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Low Battery
Posted at 19:55 on 11th March 2014 - permalink

I’ve been tinkering with PuzzleScript on and off for a few months now, but over the last few days I’ve put together a complete game with it, which you can play here (source here).

Play Low Battery

It’s a Sokoban variant (which is what PuzzleScript is best at after all), based around having an ever-depleting stock of moves, which can be replenished by collecting batteries – which also act in the same way as crates (i.e. pushing crates that are pushed at them, and blocking crates from being pushed through them).

I wanted to make a game that got around PuzzleScript’s inability to keep count of integer variables in an inventive way (the energy gauge is physically represented in the world), and that could be played with the restart, undo and action buttons disabled (although of course within minutes of releasing it someone asked for a restart button). Give it a go and let me know what you think!

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The true cost of net censorship
Posted at 19:53 on 20th January 2014 - permalink

As you probably know by now, the UK government is leaning on the major ISPs to implement opt-out internet content filtering. This ill-conceived plan is being driven ahead (after a consultation process presumably akin to the tribunal scene from Aliens) to pander to the tabloid press, who can make almost as much money sowing fear and paranoia about new technology among their readers as they can by using it to publish invasive photos of celebrities.

(Coincidentally, Huawei – the company peddling the government-favoured censorship technology – are investing £1.3bn in the UK. But of course that is completely unrelated.)

Encouraging private companies to filter the internet with no oversight is (obviously) a recipe for disaster. It’s already resulting in legitimate websites being blocked, and filters being abused to further commercial agendas. The longer this shambles is allowed to continue, the more damage will be done to the digital economy (and much else) as a result.

The Open Rights Group are taking the novel (albeit possibly risky) approach of pretending for the sake of argument that there could conceivably be a valid case for the government to be involved in running ISPs, and then allowing the bureaucrats to paint themselves into a corner as they unpack the extensive list of legal, logistical and technical issues that would make such a system unworkable.

While this process will hopefully bring their shabby profit-motivated crusade to an expensive deadlock and force it to be quietly shelved, I hold out little hope for the politicians showing the wisdom or humility to abandon their rhetoric. Britain’s culturally moribund political class simply don’t engage with the internet in any meaningful sense. Terrifyingly, this does not seem to simply be a generational issue – many politicians under the age of 45 brag of a technical illiteracy that would be untenable in most other professions.

If the average politician dimly grasps the internet as a “series of tubes” or “complicated teletext” it’s no wonder they’re going to do extraordinarily stupid things like calling for Google to use their giant brains to delete all the cyber hackers. Matters aren’t helped by lobbyists from commercial interests only too happy to exploit this ignorance.

So censorship is morally reprehensible and most politicians are patsies who think Tron is a documentary. Tell me something I don’t know, I hear you cry.

Well, something that hasn’t really been talked about much is how censorship will impact the creative industries in the UK in the long run.

Even while filtering isn’t implemented by all ISPs and users are given the chance to opt out, we are already dividing the country into two groups: those with access to the internet and those with access to a subset that a downstream party has chosen for them. We’ve all already seen the insanely over-reaching lists of filterable content some of the ISPs are offering, including such categories as games and social networking. The likely (in fact, inevitable) upshot of this is that a proportion of the population will lose access to a whole raft of creative channels.

Many fields of creative activity today benefit from online communities where participants can post their work, seek feedback and gain expertise and inspiration from the work of others. Millions of people who would in the past have been denied the chance to develop their skills outside of a formal academic setting are now able to have rich creative lives thanks to these communities. Here is a very narrow cross-section of the places I’m thinking of:

  • YouTube, Vimeo, Twitch.TV, Vine (performers, directors, musicians, animators, journalists)
  • Newgrounds, Kongregate, TIGsource, TWINE, GameMaker, ModDB (game designers, animators, composers, producers)
  • DeviantArt, Flickr, Instagram (artists, sculptors, cartoonists, photographers, fashion designers)
  • Soundcloud, Bandcamp (musicians, singers, composers, producers)
  • WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, Twitter (writers, journalists, comedians, historians, hobbyists)
  • Everything2, Wikipedia, LiveJournal, Wattpad, Amazon (writers, poets, playwrights, screenwriters)
  • Minecraft, Moshi Monsters, Disney Infinity (the majority of British citizens aged 7-13, who will go on to do all the roles above)

This list is far from exhaustive, and focuses on established platforms – it’s surely not representative of where the next generation of creative types are hanging out.

All of the above (and, well, everything else on the web) runs the risk of being heavy-handedly blocked by the ISPs’ filters. A few of them (e.g. YouTube and Wikipedia) have the clout and mainstream recognition to demand whitelisting, but outside of those look increasingly precarious. While this may not be an issue for those of us who pay our own ISP bills, or kids with educated, informed parents, for everyone else it’s a bit of a problem.

What if you’re a teenager with no disposable income or transport, whose well-meaning parents are signed up to a censored ISP at home, and who attend a school with inadequate computing facilities (iPads instead of laptops for example)? Through no fault of your own you are creatively stymied.

Maybe this sounds like it’s not that important. Some of us are too old to have grown up with the internet, and all of us living outside of oppressive regimes have never had to contend with censorship. But jeopardising the main venues for millions of people in the UK to socialise, learn and express themselves is a potentially huge issue.

If the worst-case scenario comes to pass (mandatory censorship of all ISPs), the result will be a generation locked out of global digital culture with the inevitable skills shortage that entails. The UK’s vibrant creative industries aren’t the result of any inherent superiority. It’s very easy to look at the different countries of Europe with creative sectors in varying states of maturity, and to pinpoint where a lack of access to equipment, communication and information has been prevalent at some time in the past.

Thirty years ago the media’s favourite narrative about the games industry was of schoolboys writing computer games in their bedrooms and becoming millionaires. It was a fantasy of course: All of these computer whizz-kids were boys, most of the schools they went to were elite private ones and in a disproportionate number of cases their parents were millionaires already. The vast majority of young people didn’t have computers at home or school – circumstances beat out talent before the race even started.

Since then, we’ve reached a point where literally anyone can now create games (or music, fiction, films, art, etc.), with little or no money or equipment, and (if they’re willing to put the time and effort in) find an appreciative audience and perhaps even commercial reward. We are all creators now.

I once had a job acquiring content for a web games portal (“A&R” in music industry parlance). I was constantly surprised at the average age of the most talented developers. There were kids making a living selling Flash games who were still in high school, and they came from every corner of the world. They didn’t ask for anyone’s permission to do this. What talents are we going to lose by making these opportunities that bit harder to access?

I’ve not even touched on the lost revenue and chilling effects that arbitrary censorship will cause for online retailers, or how this will affect small developers’ ability to self-publish.

Censorship needlessly, pointlessly turns the clock back for everyone. Let’s not let it happen here.

How you can possibly help:

1. Write to your MP.

2. Write to creative industry trade bodies to encourage them to enshrine an open internet as a basic necessity for the UK to remain competitive and democratic.

3. Punish the offending ISPs. At the first hint of creeping censorship take your business elsewhere. There’s now vast amounts of evidence that filters are fundamentally flawed, and if they’re commercially detrimental as well the ISPs will push back. At present, Sky, BT and TalkTalk (as I understand it the original architects of this cynical project) are on the losing side, while most of the others either haven’t been forced by the government to comply or are actively fighting against it, e.g.: http://www.aa.net.uk/kb-broadband-realinternet.html

4. Join/donate to the EFF and/or the ORG.

You can find much more in the way of information and resources on the Open Rights Group site. Assuming it’s not blocked for you.

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One Life Left Karaoke: “Get Lucky (Spelunky)”
Posted at 19:47 on - permalink

We've come too far, to get shot by a dart.

As performed at the One Life Left 2013 Christmas party. In my defence this was written last Summer before Get Lucky got played to death and became Boring Geoff Keighley’s favourite song. Enjoy.

Spelunky” – after “Get Lucky” as performed by Daft Punk

(Verse 1.)

This game is unforgiving
Go back to the beginning
Try not to drop off screen in- (uh-huh)
-to where piranhas are swimming (this time)

(Chorus A.)

We’ve / come too far
To get shot / by a dart
And let’s / try to not
Enrage the / shopkeep-er!

(Chorus B.)

She’s up all night for good runs
I’m up all night to loot some
She just picked up the shotgun
I’m up all night to Spelunky

We’re up all night for good runs
We’ve just used up all our bombs
Those tiki traps are no fun
We’re up all night to Spelunky

We’re up all night to Spelunky ( x 4 )

(Verse 2.)

This temple is forbidden
The entrance is hidden
What’s this cold chill I’m feeling?
Oh flip the ghost has risen (aa-ah!)

(Repeat Chorus A., B., B., B.)

(Instrumental break)

(Repeat Chorus A.)

(Chorus C.)

She’s up all night for good runs
I’m up all night to loot some
She just picked up the shotgun
I’m up all night to Spelunky

We almost got through World 1
Then we got killed by scorpions
We’re not uploading this one
We’re up all night to Spelunky

We’re up all night to Spelunky ( x 16 )

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Doom is 20
Posted at 22:18 on 10th December 2013 - permalink

Doom is a game that has left commentators struggling to come to terms with its impact for the last two decades. Retrospectives of the game first started appearing fifteen years ago. These days only a total plum would fail to recognise it as one of the landmark achievements of 1990s popular culture. Terminator 2, Nirvana, Jurassic Park, Simpsons, Wayne’s World, Twin Peaks, Pogs, Doom.

I was fortunate enough to be one of the people who played Doom and got immersed in its culture at the time. To this day, there is an unspoken bond of shared experience between acolytes of Doom (and the rest of id’s peak run through Quake and Quake II). It’s the gaming equivalent of Woodstock. Those who only came to it later, dabbling in ported versions, missed a huge amount of the experience, which went way beyond the code and pixels stuffed onto those four 3.5″ disks.

It’s still very easy to tell which camp most games journalists (who were old enough) fall into. PC Zone ‘got’ Doom, awarding it 96% and dubbing it the best arcade game and best multiplayer game up to that point. A large part of the UK games press (from PC Gamer and EDGE to parts of Eurogamer and RPS) have never quite managed to discuss the game without tongue wandering to cheek, initially through a nagging snobbery that this sort of thing wasn’t what PCs were for, and later as part of the miserable, superficial, cripplingly self-conscious trend that everything we loved as teenagers should be reassessed as valueless rot, only to be enjoyed ironically.

I was 13 when Doom came out, so of course my tastes were already finely developed and aspects of them not having budged for over half my life isn’t weird at all. Shut up.

In the UK, in 1993, PC gaming was a niche within a niche. Normal people only got turned on to Doom in serious numbers later in the decade, after Doom II game out at retail, PC World boomed and ‘multimedia’ PCs that could run games effortlessly became desirable consumer goods. (Doom, running full-screen and quicksilver-smooth as it’s commonly remembered, required at least a 486-DX2/66mhz with a VESA local bus graphics card, which would have cost around £2,000 in 1993.)

It was post-1995 that the idea of Doom being about “hordes of enemies”, which was to become a meal ticket for the developers of the Painkiller and Serious Sam games, caught on. The original Doom only very gingerly pushes at the capabilities of Carmack’s miraculous engine, as it still had to support almost unimaginably crude machines*.

Far from everyone in 1993 had access to a PC, but almost everyone who did had access to one played Doom. I remember teachers, lecturers, pop stars and comedians, and everyone in my social sphere, male and female, from young kids to teens and parents playing it at one point or other. The number of PCs may have limited it from reaching the masses in way phenomena like Mario, Tetris and Pokemon did, but the fact that at one point it was installed on more machines than Windows 95 suggests that it was culturally pervasive.

For the amusement and enlightenment of the most of you who didn’t waste their early teenage years in this way, here are some aspects of the contemporary Doom experience that are (for better or worse) largely forgotten today:

1. Doom ran in MS-DOS, in VGA, at 320×200, on CRT monitors. This means the pixels weren’t square. Virtually every subsequent reproduction of the Doom art, from source ports to website decoration to fancy coffee table books, has been at slightly the wrong aspect ratio.

2. Most people back then had FM synthesis-based sound cards. (Creative’s Sound Blaster family being the dominant standard.) Robert Prince’s music sounds very different (and considerably more evil) with spiky FM guitars than the parping Hammond organ-like sound of wavetable synth interpretations. (I think you can now emulate this difference in DOSBox if you’re curious.)

3. The disconcertingly in-your-face menu sound effects make sense if you play the game using a mechanical keyboard, whumping the cursor keys with the base of the middle finger, or swiping the ESC key like a bottlecap with the thumb.

4. id Software didn’t officially release modding tools for the game. Most of the tools were reverse engineered by hobbyists. (id’s actual tools were all for insanely expensive $10,000+ NeXT workstations. Again emphasising just how puny PC hardware was at the time, even game development required specialist equipment.)

5. In addition to creating new maps and replacing textures, there was a branch of Doom modding that involved hacking the executable, with sophisticated tools to do this without coding (such as DeHackEd). While this was vastly less flexible than ‘real’ game logic modding tools like Quake C, it let modders change the rules of the game and create new entities by repurposing assets. Obviously these mods are incompatible with virtually all subsequent ports of the game so are largely forgotten. Edit: I’m informed that later source ports do still maintain compatibility with DeHackEd patches. Cool.

6. Very few people had internet access. I remember using CompuServe around the time Doom came out, and being able to download mods and documents from their Doom ‘section’. Most of the distribution of mods and tools was done by magazine coverdiscs, and dodgy commercial compilations. The online community around Doom (which grew and ultimately exploded by the release of Quake) set down the blueprint for how video games lived on the internet.

This was back when BT (curse their gibs) were still charging 1p per minute to connect to dial-up internet, by the way. Because of the general impracticality of browsing the internet at leisure, most of the information about Doom gleaned by the community was condensed into the Doom FAQ designed to be stored and printed for offline reading.

7. You couldn’t really play Doom on the internet in any practical way. You could play it over a modem either directly with another player or via a proprietary service like BT’s Wireplay. Most deathmatch gaming was done by locally networking machines. Network cards were not remotely standard equipment at the time** (and were 30-40 quid a pop, not including cables and other bits and bobs), so networking two or three machines together was often achieved with serial cables. (USB didn’t exist yet either. Or DVDs! O.J. Simpson was still best known for the Naked Gun films. You could go to the theatre and get change from a nickel…)

8. Doom is notorious for being hard and scary, but many players (having no internet) spent a lot of time playing single player maps in God Mode with the intent of seeing cool things happen, and (as the barrier to entry was so incredibly low) starting to tweak the game to make cool things happen. Doom has passed down more DNA to Minecraft than Call of Duty.

9. Doom’s aesthetic is now sometimes dismissed as being extremely cheesy, adolescent and gratuitously violent. Technically this is correct. It is grossly unfair to see it bracketed with the likes of Duke Nukem 3D and Mortal Kombat however. Doom did not use violence to shock. It was trying to matter-of-factly simulate an extreme fantasy role-playing scenario. Doom is id’s answer to the question of what is the coolest, most intense thing that we can represent with this technology?

Everything in Doom’s presentation was geared towards consistency. It works because it’s played completely straight – not in the arse-clenchingly tedious, prog-rock way that Bungie would handle their ‘fictional universe’, but in the way that a lovingly made horror or sci-fi thriller approaches its improbable subject matter. (This approach would be taken further and reap even greater rewards with the first two Quake games.)

Romero and co. knew id’s audience, but do not pander to them. (If you want to see what could have been, without Carmack’s tech, or with Tom Hall’s goofiness, check out Blake Stone or Rise of the Triad.) Compared to Duke3D (and every other action game that emerged from shareware) id’s visual design was startlingly articulate and mature. The Doom box art remains one of the most iconic gaming images, along with the Space Invader and R-Type’s Dobkeratops.

10. Lots of game developers (particularly level designers) got their start in the Doom scene. The first section of Half-Life (after you get out of the monorail) is a particularly obvious example of an environment made with the conventions of the Doom engine still firmly in mind.

11. While I could never get my head around the finicky Etch-a-Sketch logic of making Doom levels, I made several graphical and gameplay mods for the game, including Wild West-themed enemies, a hand mixer weapon (to replace the chainsaw), murderable bystanders, and (as I was a teenage boy after all) lots more blood. Most of these are lost to the ages.

*It’s worth checking out Hexen (the second of two games Raven Software made licensing out the Doom tech) to see the imaginative uses it was later put to.

**This also reminds me that by no means all of the original PCs used to play Doom had mice.

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Transport Tycoon
Posted at 19:03 on 13th October 2013 - permalink

For the past few months my team at AppyNation has been working with publishers 31X (Chris Sawyer’s company) and developers Origin8 Technologies to help bring Transport Tycoon to iOS and Android.

Transport Tycoon is one of my favourite games of all time, and one that has always seemed like an obvious fit for mobile (particularly tablet) platforms, so it’s been a huge honour and privilege to work on this project.

In spite of some early compatibility teething problems, the game has been well received so far, with a Metacritic score of 81% at the time of writing.

Taking the game to Eurogamer Expo further bolstered our confidence that there was a lot of pent-up demand for the game – more than a few show-goers would hear the familiar music first, boggle at the screen for a bit and then emphatically tell us that they would definitely be buying the game on day one. Which was nice.

The game is not a direct port of any previous Transport Tycoon game. Sawyer’s PC games were written in x86 assembly language, so development of this new version of the game required a team that could make sense of this and re-implement the simulation in a more portable (although less efficient) language.

The game uses a lot of graphical assets from Chris Sawyer’s 2004 game Locomotion, leading some to assume that it was a direct port of that game. It would be more accurate to describe the game as a synthesis of elements from all of Sawyer’s Tycoon games – the core gameplay of Transport Tycoon, the simulation detail of Locomotion and some of the later user interface improvements from Rollercoaster Tycoon.

The game has suffered a bit in some quarters from the perception that it doesn’t have a sandbox mode. While this is technically correct (there’s currently no way to randomly generate maps from within the game itself), it’s not as big of a deal as it’s being made out.

In the original Transport Tycoon (as with Sim City), the pre-set scenarios were seen as a poor relation to the randomly generated option. Players didn’t want to have undue restrictions placed on their playing style, and didn’t want to have to adhere to a fixed goal, the completion of which would effectively end the game.

In Transport Tycoon (2013), the ‘scenarios’ are much more like huge, crafted open-ended maps. The game doesn’t place restrictions on the player (except in a few cases), and the player is free to carry on playing after the scenario goal is reached (or failed), or they can opt to ignore the scenario goal altogether. That said, I do acknowledge that a random map generator would extend the life and challenge of the game – the option to switch off AI competitors would be welcomed by some players as well.

As with all mobile games (even self-contained premium ones), the launch is only the beginning. Chris and the developers have some more improvements planned down the road. We hope that everyone who puts down their $6.99 USD gets hours of entertainment out of the game, and that Transport Tycoon makes a small contribution (along with other sophisticated mobile games such as the recent XCOM port) to changing the still all-too-widespread perception of mobile games as limited to being disposable or casual fare.

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Xbox One
Posted at 22:16 on 9th August 2013 - permalink

This bloody machine has become the Zeno’s tortoise of the sporadic games commentator over the last three months. Every time I’ve sat down to wrangle my thoughts into a coherent essay the narrative has again moved on, meaning I’ve had to junk another several hundred words of analysis. Still, things seem to have more or less died down for the time being (although who knows what GamesCom will bring), so here goes.

Conversation over.

These words falling from the mouth of long-suffering Xbox community liaison Larry Hryb made it clear how quickly and completely Microsoft had smashed their carefully cultivated consumer-friendly image in the days following the unveiling of the Xbox One. The mask has slipped. Hryb’s customary synthetic bonhomie had evaporated, leaving a visibly tired, anxious old man tersely trying to steer an interview away from the PR bombs falling on all sides. When Don Mattrick came out with even more arrogant, defensive words Microsoft’s role had by then been firmly set. A console race that everyone had expected to be played out by the numbers had suddenly become interesting again.

I can’t remember a previous console race where a competitor in a good position has managed to damage their chances through sheer complacency, and where everyone (and let’s be clear, Microsoft’s woes and subsequent u-turn haven’t been caused by a few scattered voices – everyone from high profile developers, to indies, to the mainstream press, to retailers have publicly criticised Microsoft’s policies) smelt blood and shifted their allegiances.

So now Microsoft have backtracked on their ‘always on’ policy, and strictly controlling resale of disc games, as well as vaguely announcing that self-publishing will not be prohibited. Some will no doubt argue that this settles the issue, “no harm, no foul”. I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Microsoft have communicated that their preferred outcome (for a platform they control) is to implement always-on DRM. Does anyone really trust them not to let these features creep back in a year from now? How much support and visibility can independent developers expect from a platform holder that is only grudgingly letting them self-publish, and who are yet to give details of how this will work?

There’s a world of difference between announcing an initiative and seeing it through. It is going to take time (maybe a couple of years) to win back developers’ trust, and during that time the shelves of their digital shopfront are going to be a bit more bare. (Have you ever asked a veteran UK console developer whether they ever want to work with Nintendo again? How do you think that happened?)

On top of this the actual consumer proposition is still a bit of a mess. The machine is underspecced and overpriced compared to the PS4, and is bundled with a pointless camera that nobody on Earth still believes serves any purpose other than harvesting data to sell to advertisers. Of course if there’s one thing we know with certainty about Microsoft’s home entertainment division, it’s that they’ll drastically slash the price of the machine and stuff the channel to ensure that it can be at least presented as a success to third party publishers, even if sales then fall off a cliff next Spring.

Microsoft excel(R) when they have a successful externally-developed model to work from. (Better still if they can buy it wholesale, like DirectX or Skype.) The Xbox 360 was essentially a cargo-cultish attempt to replicate the success of the PS2, imitating its characteristics even where they no longer made technical sense. The Kinect managed to be a huge commercial success by repackaging the marketing message of the Wii, even though it didn’t work properly and had no games. The Xbox One has no such blueprint to follow, except perhaps its similarly narrowly-focused namesake, so everybody around the table has been able to tack on their particular interests.

In spite of lacking backward compatibility, the XBox One still somehow manages to be heavily burdened with legacy features, the moth-eaten banners of insular corporate fiefdoms within Microsoft. Kinect. Metro. Live. Bing. Internet Explorer. Television, television, television.

Anyway. Now that we’ve seen how Mattrick’s grand vision has been received, why did Microsoft try to feed us this twelve course banquet of crap in the first place?

The most obvious reason is because they’ve gotten away with so much in the past generation.

Last time around, Microsoft benefited greatly from an early advantage. The PlayStation 3 was expensive for a long time, and it took longer still for multiplatform ports to draw level. (PC games were also, in terms of relative commercial prospects, in disarray.) As a result Microsoft mistook necessity for genuine brand loyalty. At times in the Xbox 360’s life it felt like Microsoft were testing the boundaries of what indignities they could get consumers to dutifully accept.

The launch machines had a failure rate so insanely high that Microsoft ate a $1.1bn writedown as the less painful option (the alternative presumably having been fighting an ugly class action lawsuit). Buggy launch games were waved through certification. (“Coming in hot” as Peter Moore so excitingly span it. We’re sorry the brakes failed on your car, we had to cut some corners to meet a deadline. No we’re not going to do a recall. We’ve said we’re listening and we respect you, isn’t that enough?)

Xbox 360 owners became wearily familiar with protracted exchanges with customer support to deal with dead consoles, scratched discs and guessing the magic phrase which would free them from their Xbox Live subscriptions. The dashboard became swamped with advertising. Kinect Star Wars was an actual thing that existed, as opposed to a terrible SNL skit.

Developers had it little better: Restrictive licensing terms prevented them from adding features or content to their games on other platforms, and indie developers were ghettoised on their digital store.

So it’s fair to say the landscape has shifted a bit since the mid-2000s.

Is the Xbox One going to fail, then? Probably not. There are always a lot of consumers out there who just don’t want to have to make informed purchases, and that’s okay. The Xbox 360 has worked out well for them or their friends, and they can see the familiar franchises are available. Microsoft are betting that there are a lot of 40-something American guys who don’t use social media or read the specialist press and just want to play Madden and CoD and watch live spoooorts. It’s a pretty safe bet to make.

Based on the currently available information, should you buy one? No. The only situation I can see where it would make sense would be for fans of some particular exclusive franchise, but I can’t imagine what that would be at this point. (Another thing that’s changed since 2006 is that most of Microsoft’s internal studios have received the ‘EA treatment’ – nobody seriously expects Rare, for instance, to ever recapture their glory days now.)

Should developers support it? Before the policy u-turn, this would have been an obvious and unequivocal “no”. Now it’s more of a “wait and see”. A platform that pushes one model of product ownership even when it’s not appropriate would cause serious damage to the medium. It’s also worth remembering that there’s still a lot of other issues with Microsoft’s long-standing policies that haven’t been talked about. Is cross-platform play still banned? (Anachronistic and misguided.) Are ‘slots’ on the digital store still scarce, and/or tied to publishers also offering physical products? What are the exact details of the TRCs, and the limitations of the DRM scheme? Do you have to support Kinect? Do players still have to have an Xbox Live Gold account to access huge parts of the system’s functionality?

The original plan would have done massive damage to Microsoft’s prospects in the living room, and there would have been some fallout for the wider industry. The new plan is more palatable but still has some worst-case hidden dangers. As Carmack recently observed, a stable duopoly has generally been very healthy for the console market, and the machines are architecturally so similar that it’s not going to be prohibitive for developers to support both if we get the situation of a rough 50/50 worldwide split again.

But having seen Don Mattrick and Mark Cerny plead their cases I know which I think deserves to win.

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GameCamp 2013 (#gamecamp6)
Posted at 19:36 on 19th May 2013 - permalink

The UK games scene’s very own Treehouse of Horror, GameCamp, returned to LSBU’s Keyworth Centre yesterday.

(You can read about previous GameCamps here: 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012)

The main difference to the setup this year was that attendees were encouraged to bring work-in-progress games to playtest, and as such there were two large rooms set aside for this purpose (one for computer games and one for board/card games).

There seemed to be a higher than average number of talks going on this year, and a less than ideal notice board (tiny cards – typically with tiny text instead of bold titles and speaker’s names – spread over a large, difficult to photograph board) meant that I probably missed a lot of things I’d have liked to see.

Here’s a quick rundown of what I saw and did: (I didn’t give a talk this year.)

1000 – Arrived late, missing the introduction and the first (sparsely populated) talk slot.

1030 – “The Designer and the Body” (@siobhanthomas) – A group discussion that turned out to be about control feel/kinesthetics and the abstraction of manual controls from physical actions. I didn’t get much out of this one (I think I missed too much at the start), but there’s apparently a follow-up questionnaire for those interested in the topic.

1100 – “Mixed Media Storytelling” – A post mortem/discussion about the game-external marketing efforts for Capcom’s game Remember Me, which basically explained what digital agencies have gotten up to since ARGs died. I do wonder if just because social media and ‘transmedia’ technology allows for the back-stories of fictional universes to be fleshed out in depth, this risks leaving too little to the imagination. Some very cool ideas though.

1130 – “Indie Physical Retail” – Two questions were tackled together here, firstly whether there was any way that games retail could be made more attractive (as in, an event setting/arcade rather than a plain old shop), and whether there was any room for indie games to capitalise on such a development. I think the answer is ‘no’, although I do think that we will see a lot more frequent and imaginative offerings of physical products via mail order to support indie games (see: http://www.rgcd.co.uk/) and games sold as systems on a chip. Now when are those Proteus special editions shipping?

1200 – “Super Geek Fighter 2: Turbo” (@YujiLY vs. @Slaktus) – Two fighting game hobbyists offered their alternative viewpoints as to what exactly is going on during a Street Fighter match. Comparisons were drawn to poker, fencing, rock-paper-scissors, chess and debating. I was reminded of Garry Shandling’s remarks on one-on-one basketball, that immediate physical conflict reveals a more honest view of the other person’s personality, as there is no time for the usual conscious editing by the more socially aware parts of the brain.

1230 – “Quizzical Play” (@john_brindle) – An unconfidently delivered lecture about playing games in ways other than the author’s intent followed by a brief, fairly interesting discussion.

1300 – “Lunch” – Somebody decided that green beans on a pizza was a good idea, and I briefly sat in on a playtest of @kierongillen‘s card game about running an games blog, GAMESBLOG.

1330 – “Killing Your Darlings” (@reallyfancy and @carachan1) – A talk about ‘descoping’ projects, with lots of good advice for developers regarding (for instance) ruthlessly culling extraneous ideas, and getting into the habit of implementing experimental projects as complete entities rather than tech demos.

1400 – “In the time it takes a heart to beat” (@steishere) – A preview of Ste’s talk for this year’s Nordic Games conference. I won’t spoil it, but it met and surpassed the standard of previous year’s talks, and of course graphs, music and weird shit from the internet featured prominently. I was surprised to realise that Ste has been working in games development (vs. journalism) for ten years(!) now.

1500 – Wandered about for a bit and checked out some games being playtested. George (@v21) had Tenya Wanya Teens set up which went down well.

1600 – “Make Believe” (@asponge) – Literally a half hour session of playing Make Believe, with cardboard boxes, tinfoil, paper plates, banquet roll and a coconut. Violent, messy and hilarious. Better than all of the physical games going on during the day.

1630 – “Closedown, Pub” – Someone who actually attended the university led a rather dazed and ragtag crocodile of conference-goers to The Ship pub. Lots of interesting conversations were had and a German card game about horse-breeding was played.

This year’s GameCamp felt revitalised compared to the slightly tired and over-familiar vibe of the last couple, probably as a result of the slightly changed format, and riding high from the buzz of last week’s Bit of Alright conference and Wild Rumpus party (which I entirely failed to write up, but both of which were excellent). Plus it came with a free tea towel.

Thanks and see you all next year!

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PlayStation 4: the important bits
Posted at 23:12 on 22nd February 2013 - permalink

This week’s PlayStation 4 announcement has provoked a wide range of responses, from cautious optimism to proclamations of doom for Sony and consoles in general. Business as usual then. Among the legitimate journalism there have been some sensationalist interpretations that have omitted key details and twisted what’s left to fit one of several discredited, over-simplistic and snobbish fantasy narratives:

1. Increased console power means nobody will be able to afford to make games any more. (Nonsense in 2006, nonsense today.)
2. Because mobile, social and web games have expanded the bottom tier of the pyramid, there’s no longer a role for any other kind of experiences. (Destroyed by Rob Fahey here.)
3. Games as good as the very best console offerings will spontaneously emerge on the PC, or on Apple TV, because free market. (It just hasn’t happened in the last 30 years for some reason…)
4. There are millions of children who are going to ask their parents for a microconsole for Christmas, because they’re definitely going head to head with the mainstream platforms rather than being a hacker niche.
5. Increased hardware specs just mean imperceptibly better graphics these days, what’s all the fuss about? (If I need to explain why this is dumb, stop reading now.)

I’ve argued for most of the current console generation that there shouldn’t be a PS4 or Xbox3, and that Sony and Microsoft should adapt their proprietary hardware platforms into fully software-based ‘networks’ that can run on commodity hardware. (I’ve left Nintendo out of this argument as their vertical business model is different to the others’.)

Later developments have changed my mind about this. The proliferation of laptops and tablets has meant that relatively few people have high-end desktop or living-room PCs, which are still seen as being complicated and expensive compared to walking into a supermarket and buying a single cheap, standardised gaming box.

Furthermore, the platform holders are finally starting to embrace digital distribution, eroding their reliance of the unsustainable physical retail market and allowing smaller and indie games (and games with different revenue models) that previously would only be viable on PC or mobile to have a presence on consoles. It’s clear to me now that Sony couldn’t just discontinue the PS3 and email every PSN user a link to their online service – there needs to be a transitional platform, that is architecturally close to a PC and supports farming out functionality to the cloud.

So there’s a reason for this forthcoming console generation to exist, beyond pure inertia. (Although it should definitely be the last one – or one that just trails off forever into PC-like incremental upgrades on the same network back-end.)

So what about Wednesday night’s event?

Anyone who has watched previous Sony press conferences knows that their approach is to reassure commercial partners and provide some detail-light, generic fireworks for mainstream press and gamers. This event was about making it clear that the PS4 wouldn’t be weird or difficult to develop for, and that they were fully committing to another console cycle (which was by no means a given, considering their financial worries and the struggling Vita).

The selection of games that were shown was largely underwhelming. Killzone: Shadow Fall looked technically impressive and The Witness, MediaMolecule’s game and Deep Down looked fun, but the lack of new, insanely ambitious IP was a disappointment. Hopefully E3 and TGS will spring some surprises.

The well-worn idea of lots of players interacting in the same game through different devices and contexts was talked about a lot. While this has long been considered a holy grail by some developers, I’ve yet to see a convincing case for it improving a game to such a fundamental degree as to justify tackling the (possibly intractable) design problems it would entail.

Hardware-wise, they seem to have finally slain the problems that dogged the PS3. Blu-Ray drives are now cheap. Gone are the weird architecture and unfocused online strategy. It seems very unlikely the machine will have to launch at a silly price or suffer years of sloppy multiplatform ports. However it’s a shame that they didn’t seem to want to push the boat out – I’m told the CPU/GPU are fairly pedestrian in PC terms, and the system-level integration of streaming, suspend mode and multitasking are all fairly unglamourous fixtures and fittings. Automatic preloading of games the service thinks you’ll like is a potentially cool feature, and one that iOS could really benefit from too (assuming iOS ever gets a recommendation engine that isn’t rubbish).

I think a lot of people have overlooked two very strong positives in the machine’s standard spec: 8GB of DDR5 RAM, and Move being integrated in the standard controller. These will translate to much richer, more persistent environments (with fewer dead-stop loading pauses), and the potential for much finer-grained interaction (being able to point/shoot/grab in the world with a 3D cursor). Combined with a decent resolution and frame rate, this could represent a similar jump as from playing GoldenEye 007 on an N64 to playing a modern first person game with mouse and keyboard. Not just eye candy – the degree of immersion and agency the player has in the world.

Sony are an engineering company. Their approach has always been to make ‘Big Science’ investments in technology to extend the versatility of their platforms (and let the developers figure out how to use them): Machine vision, DVD and Blu Ray, the Cell processor and now Gaikai. With the PS4 they seem to want to make the console completely blend into the background (the lack of a hardware reveal carried more meaning than just wanting to hold off committing to a case design) and let the games do the talking.

The question now is whether they can make their destination attractive in any or all of the three major markets. The other deciding factor may be whether the Xbox 360’s current aimless drift towards being a media centre with an increasingly neglected digital storefront is simply a result of resources being wound down at the end of it’s cycle, or is part of a wider malaise at Microsoft.

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The Cultural Test
Posted at 20:00 on 13th October 2012 - permalink

Earlier in the year, the government announced plans to introduce tax relief for the UK games industry by April 2013.

For this plan to go ahead, the proposed tax relief programme has to be compliant with EU law. To this end, tax relief will be awarded on the basis of whether projects are deemed to be “culturally British”, and a test will be introduced to help determine this.

You can read the consultation paper for this test here.

I do not have an in-depth knowledge of European trade law and the extent to which this influences the content of the test. But in my view there are some fundamental issues with the proposed test in its current form, which have the potential to cause tax relief to be withheld from deserving projects for poorly justified reasons.

The aim of the tax relief plan is to protect and expand a competitive, commercially sustainable games sector in the UK and to redraw the boundaries of what projects can be feasibly greenlit by UK developers and publishers.

This would suggest to me that the test should focus heavily on whether the staff, studios and technology used are UK-sourced, and whether a proportion of the revenue that comes back to the UK from said projects will be invested in the UK industry. While these factors are taken into account, they are one part of a wider set of requirements.

The Department for Culture Media and Sport claim in the consultation document that “It is not the Department’s intention to dictate the content, or style, of video games.”, before outlining a series of criteria which, by misguidedly viewing games through the lens of film and television, seek to do exactly that.

The test is split into four parts. There are a maximum of 30 points that can be awarded, with 16 points being the threshold to qualify.

Section A: Cultural Content

Total points available: 16

This section, the most questionably relevant part of the test, surprisingly carries the most weight.

Up to 12 points are awarded if the setting, lead characters and narrative of a game are identifiably British or European. Straight out of the gate this penalises games where realistic settings, characters or a narrative are not relevant or are entirely absent. All abstract arcade, strategy and puzzle games and most games with a fictional setting would take a hit here. (The ‘narrative’ requirement could possibly be worked around as it counts the country of origin of the “background material” created for a game.) A payday for anyone making ‘interactive movies’, not so great for everyone else.

Another point in this section is problematic. Points are awarded if “the artistic costs represent more than 50% of the production budget”. This seems reasonable enough except that the definition of “artistic costs” explicitly excludes programmers’ remuneration.

The implication that programming is not a creative activity and doesn’t influence the artistic direction of a game is alarming. There are obvious cases (e.g. Proteus, Topia, or Introversion’s games) where procedurally generated content and effects are the medium from which the game is shaped. But even when programming is separated out as a dry engineering task, it still defines the space in which the rest of the creative actors in a team can work. Carmack leaves as distinctive a hallmark on his studio’s work as Kubrick. Games as diverse as Shadow of the Colossus, Battlefield 3 and Minecraft owe their existence to hard engineering problems being overcome.

Section B: Cultural Contribution

Total points available: 4

This section seeks to award games “which demonstrate British creativity, British heritage or cultural diversity”, which are discussed in a way that suggests they’re still trying to nail down a definition for these terms, which in any case can only collectively net a game the same number of points as hiring an English actor to provide the voice over for their main character.

Heritage is defined as whether the game deals with events from UK history or folklore.

Creativity is defined as innovations in “(i) gameplay; (ii) graphics; (iii) user interface; (iv) Artificial Intelligence, audio or physics; or (v) online or multiplayer functionality”, in direct contradiction to the previous section.

Cultural diversity covers “exploring contemporary social and cultural issues of disability, ethnic diversity and social exclusion; promoting and increasing visual, on-screen diversity”, which you would have thought deserved rather more than the measly 1.333 points on offer, considering how chronically weak mainstream games have been in addressing these issues.

Section C: Cultural Hubs

Total points available: 3

This section covers the easily measurable and obviously relevant issue of where the game and its content was made.

The requirements are surprisingly light, with two points for 50% of the preproduction or programming or graphics and one point for 50% of the audio being UK sourced.

If the entirety of a game’s production happening in the UK only nets less than 20% of the required points to qualify for tax relief, something is clearly amiss. It seems unlikely that foreign companies would parachute in talent to work on UK soil and leave no lasting benefit for the UK industry. (Not that this long-standing practice seems to rule American companies out of receiving film tax credits.)

Section D: Cultural Practitioners

Total points available: 7

This section covers whether a game’s staff consists of UK/EU citizens.

Again, I’m wondering why the point available are proportionally so few, and am a little bit wary that the specific roles covered (“Scriptwriter”?) and team size and structure assumed favour traditional console developers, who, while perhaps not the archaic dinosaurs that some would paint them as, are these days only one section of a larger UK industry making relevant and commercial product.


Reading the consultation document I can’t help but be reminded a great deal of how the film and TV industry made such a hash of setting up the BAFTA Games Awards (or “interactive awards” as they were then) at the turn of the century. That situation took a few years to straighten out, but I’m not sure we have the luxury of time in this case.

Cobbling together a quick and dirty adaptation of the existing test used for film simply won’t work. The way games are made is radically different, and the way that uniquely UKish cultural themes are expressed within them isn’t just about locations and characters. (The proposal that the BFI administer the test is daft as well, clearly.)

Where is recognition being given to games that reference, comment, play with and build upon the UK games culture that has developed over the past 30-40 years? Not the culture of film, literature and other external media. The culture that spawned Matthew Smith, Clive Sinclair, Mel Croucher, Codemasters, Frontier Developments, Rare, Bullfrog, Probe, Sensible Software, Revolution, Sports Interactive and the Bitmap Brothers, the myriad UK-originated genres, the cultural events, and the books, magazines, websites and documentaries devoted to discussing it all?

Why are Splash Damage’s first two games (Wolfenstein Enemy Territory and ETQW) more ‘culturally British’ on points than their most recent two (RAD Soldiers and BRINK)? Creative Assembly’s Napoleon more British than Shogun? I encourage anyone reading this to try running their own favourite British games (or indeed international ones, Professor Layton for instance) through the test and seeing how they fare.

If you have any concerns about how well the proposed test will serve to give the right projects access to tax relief, you can respond to the consultation via email (videogames.culturaltest@culture.gsi.gov.uk) before the end of the month.

N.B.: The above are my personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of my employers or of the wider UK industry. And are subject to change as and when I am properly clued up to the constraints put on the test by EU law.

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Super Hexagon
Posted at 22:16 on 17th September 2012 - permalink

Terry Cavanagh recently released his first mobile game, Super Hexagon. The game is notable for (at least) two technical reasons – firstly it is a conversion and expansion of the game Hexagon which sprung almost fully formed from a game jam, and secondly as it’s an iOS game coded in Flash (something of a rarity).

Super Hexagon’s defining characteristic in press coverage is that it’s unforgivingly difficult. Super Hexagon is not actually a difficult game. It’s a normal game developed and balanced by a man with freakish, superhuman reflexes. For the remaining 99% of the population, it may as well be a slot machine. With extensive amounts of practice it is possible to get better at the game, but only within the hard limits set by biology and genetics.

The game has three gameplay modes, which in addition to being progressively faster, also focus on testing different abilities.

The easiest mode, Hexagon, is about reacting intuitively to the obstacles the game throws at you, as in a racing game (or the ‘escape from the Death Star’ sequence in various Star Wars licensed games). This mode is fun and exhilarating, and offers the chance for even players with average reflexes to tangibly improve with practice.

However after a few hours of play, patterns become apparent that impinge on the player’s enjoyment. Deaths cluster at the 25 and 40 second marks, points at which the game frequently changes up the pattern in such a way that the player has a split second to decide whether to move left or right with no chance to course correct.

Game over! (You are a gradually deteriorating biological machine.) Begin!

Unlike Bejeweled Blitz or Jetpack Joyride, it is too starkly obvious that a proportion of the rounds played come down to blind coin flips. I would hazard a guess that if the patterns weren’t composed in a random order each round, and the only variation was each was just given a 50% chance of being mirrored, most players’ statistics would remain pretty much the same as they are now.

The second slowest mode, Hexagoner, is less about reacting to patterns by thinking about space, and more about learning and executing (with an almost non-existent margin for error) the correct pattern of inputs to deal with each pattern on sight. It’s here that you learn to exploit the ability to ‘grind’ on the side edges of obstacles (only the front faces are lethal). Unfortunately, the fun is limited in this mode by the presence of patterns that demand counterintuitive inputs from the player. For a game that draws comparisons to Rez and Tempest, games about flow, this feels like an incongruously cheap trick.

The third mode is Hexagonest. Unless you have hummingbird DNA the only possible critique of Hexagonest is “Yeah whatever.”

It sounds like I have a huge downer on Super Hexagon. I honestly don’t, and have enjoyed the hours I’ve spent with it a great deal, stressful as they may be. But I worry that the focus by reviewers on its “purity” is getting in the way of it being critiqued in depth. Unlike with other narcotics, for games purity doesn’t correlate directly with quality.

In some games, removing everything extraneous results in shallowness. In some games, it’s not a case of how few components remain but how cleanly and sparely they’re packed together. There are even some games (made by Bethesda) where clutter, sprawl and inelegance ultimately don’t prevent a coherent and memorable game from breaking through.

Reviewers: It’s okay to say that you have reservations about a game even if it achieves what the creator set out to achieve. Developers don’t define how their work should be interpreted. At some time between the release of Doom 3 and Bioshock it seems that a lot of people forgot this.

Super Hexagon is a game almost purely based on manual dexterity. That’s dangerously close to being a sport. But unlike ‘e-sports’ like Quake 3 and Starcraft, there isn’t even room for players to express strategy or any kind of initiative. (The best shooting games aren’t tests to see who is quickest on the draw, they’re games of cat and mouse.) This doesn’t make the game any less valid, but there is a reason that the golden age for games based exclusively on twitch had their commercial heyday thirty years ago.

This is why I find proclamations that Super Hexagon is Terry Cavanagh’s masterpiece a bit much. This is what Terry can craft in a weekend. Games like VVVVVV, CatChat and Don’t Look Back show that he can provide entertainment for the rest of the brain and not just the parts concerned with motor function.

If you have normal reflexes, you should at least try playing Super Hexagon, but you will get more enjoyment (albeit perhaps not quite as much satisfaction) from Minotaur Rescue, Jetpack Joyride or (if you don’t mind the sub-par controls) Super Crate Box. If you have insane reflexes, like the dozen or so players out of several tens of thousands who as of this writing have clocked all six game modes, then… oh you’ve downloaded it already. Righto.

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