Thursday, February 28, 2008

Noooo. It is about the story.

At GDC 2008 Ken Levin made the provocative comment that "Nobody cares about your stupid story".

A subsequent post on Gamers with Jobs has many respondents most of whom assert that gameplay is far more important than story.

In fairness to Mr. Levine he did elaborate and he does recognise that immersion is vital. He is really talking about the tacked on story lines that come with many games. I am worried though that this theme taken together with the well publicised success of casual games from companies like PopCap will interpreted to mean that game play is everything and immersion can be abandoned. I am worried that immersive games will disappear to be replaced with a million versions of Peggle.

Therefore I feel obliged to offer a rebuttal:

It is about the story. It is all about the story.

Mind you, I am not talking about the shoddily scripted, confusing excuse for a plot that you choose to tack onto your game. No I mean it is about my story. They story I create for myself as I immerse my self in the world of your game. It is about the great adventures I have, the risks I take and the challenges I overcome.

Sure gameplay is important but it is not everything. I don't even think it is the most important thing. Superb gameplay without immersion will keep me divereted for an hour or so when I am supposed to be working but you won't capture my soul with it. I sure as hell amn't going to pay €50 to play Tetris, never mind €15 a month.

Why is the Guitar Hero franchise so phenomenally successful. Not because of the gameplay (push coloured buttons in response to a pattern of coloured lights). No, Guitar Hero is successful because of the story. The many stories in fact. Each player invents their own intoxicating vision of rock stardom filling a million imaginary stadia with electric noise.

When I want somebody else's story I read a book or watch a film. When I play games I want to create my own adventure, my own story. I need you the game developer to make that possible.

Are you really anonymous?

My last post got me thinking about blogging under a pseudonym and the separation this allows me to keep between my online personality and my "real life".

Most of the blogs I read use some kind of pseudonym although quite a few use a real name. That led me to the question - do pseudonyms really protect our identity? How easy would it be for someone to dig behind the avatars we use on chat sites, forums, blogs and so on to discover who we really are.

I am no detective, nor do I possess any special web skills but after a few minutes searching I have come to the conclusion that the answer, for most of us is: Pretty easy indeed.

Let me clarify. I believe the internet offers tremendous anonymity to some people. If you are a l33t haxxor who is paranoid about security and has the ability legal or otherwise to make computers half way around the world jump to your command then I think you can probably hide your identity pretty effectively. I also suspect that some kid logging into Yahoo as MANU4F4 could be pretty hard to trace simply because they haven't been around long enough to leave a mark on the internet. That is until they set up a Myspace or Bebo page with pictures of themselves and all their friends on it.

For adults like myself however I think the story is very different. We are old enough to have left traces of ourselves in many places. School and college websites, employers websites, clubs and societies, newspaper and magazine articles, forums, blogs and so on. All of these clues to who you really are can be found using internet search tools and they can never really be erased. Cached pages can be searched just as easily as live ones.

I tried this out on myself first of all and then on a randomly picked anonymous blogger. Using publicly available information and a bit of deductive thinking I was very quickly (15 minutes or so) able to dig out lots of personal information. Real name and address, details of current and previous employers, education history, family details and so on.

You can probably tell I was getting a bit carried away. My "inner nerd" was coming out and I began to get engrossed in the detective puzzle. When I realised that what I was doing was borderline stalking I stopped. The point had been made there was no need to go any further.

Does this bother me? Not really. My online identity isn't as private as I thought it was but I am not ashamed of my blog or any of my other online scribblings. I have been around for long enough to realise that you don't put anything in writing (online or in ink) that might be illegal, libelous or other wise later regrettable.

Does this make it pointless to use a pseudonym? Make your own mind up. For me the answer is no. The pseudonym creates a separation between this hobby and other parts of my life. It is a bit like taking off a business suit when you come home from work. Same person but different clothes allows you to adopt a different persona.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Currently Reading....

Recently I have found it easier to blog about the books I am reading that the games I am playing so I have decided to add a "Currently Reading" sidebar.

I hesitated for a while. Somehow, telling the world about books I enjoy reading feels like a more intimate revelation than writing about my gaming hobby.

I guess all bloggers have a certain exhibitionist tendency, putting our innermost thoughts out on the internet for all to see. Nevertheless a huge advantage of blogging over other public media is the fact that you get to keep your privacy. I can write about gaming in my blog without telling you anything about all the other stuff that goes on in my life but writing about what I am reading exposes a little bit more of my soul.

Anyone reading this blog in which I describe the fantasy/sci-fi novels I read and the fantasy computer games I play will probably deduce that I am a pretty one dimensional character. I hope that that is not true. I don't think it is anyway.

Anyway first entry on the list is Alastair Reynolds "Chasm City which I have just started after finishing the first novel in this series "Revelation Space".

My local bookshop did their best to put me off Alastair Reynolds. The were highlighting a glossy silver covered edition of Revelation Space that touted glowing reviews from the likes of "The New York Times", "Maxim" and "The Good Book Guide". Now I am sure these are all very august publications but I have been stung often enough to realise that the mainstream media are totally unqualified to review genre works. From the packaging and the reviews shown it was clear that the publisher was trying to tout this as a crossover novel, rarely a good thing.

Happily I managed to find a paperback edition with more traditional picture of spaceship on the cover and reviews from Stephen Baxter and Locust. I decided to risk it.

Revelation Space is a good read - enough to encourage me to immediately move on to Chasm City.

I have to say I didn't find Revelation all that original despite the review hyperbole. It presents a well drawn but fairly standard vision of a future space faring humanity with different factions embracing varying levels of accommodation with advanced technology. The big idea in this novel is the question as to why the galaxy is not teeming with intelligent life. Reynolds answer is a good one and sets the stage for an entertaining plot but it is not particularly original.

I still recommend the book as an entertaining read. After all if originality was he only measure of a novels quality then the fantasy genre would comprise of four books.

Lotro: Sweet Dreams Throg

Throg joined a pick up group Raid to slay the spider queen Bogbereth. It is a very easy raid, no great tactics are involved and everyone just DPSes away. This random group of 12 players killed her very quickly.


Lady luck was smiling on our dwarven friend and he won the roll for the beasts head. He brought it home and mounted it in a favourite spot (click for full size):


Hmmm....I think he should probably donate it to his kinhouse. What do you think?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Lotro: Say Hello to Ceoldir my new Loremaster

Historically I have an appalling record with alts. I generally tire of them before leaving the newbie zone. Such was the fate of my elf minstrel (abandoned at level 6), hobbit burglar (level 8) and human captain (level 8). Ceoldir, my new human lore master, has managed to buck the trend. I have levelled him up to 14 and am still enjoying it very much.

While my champion Throg is a fairly one dimensional character (he hits things hard) Ceoldir has a a varied set of abilities:

1. He can crowd control mobs to remove them from the fight.
2. He has a number of powerful area of effect debuffs which reduce the damage dealt by melee or ranged foes.
3. He has a pet which can provide extra dps or further debuff mobs, or provide a limited tanking role.
4. He has a limited healing ability
5. He can replenish his power by stealing from a mob
5. He can rain fire down on his foes doing both instant damage and damage over time.

He also has a big stick to hit things with but given Ceoldir's light armour and low morale I have found that melee combat is best avoided except perhaps to deliver the finishing blow to a dying opponent.

All of a loremasters skills are useful during group play but I was surprised to find out just how powerful they are for solo play as well. Played correctly the loremaster can achieve things my champion could not hope to do at the same level. I can tackle elites solo and I have already soloed a number of fellowship quests.

The key phrase here is "played correctly". When things go wrong, pet dead, blinding flash on cooldown, incorrect debuffs applied, the loremaster dies very quickly. Perhaps I am a slow learner but I have died many times getting to level 14. Now, however, I think I am beginning to get the hang of things.

So far Ceoldir has been questing around the human starting areas of Coombe and Straddle, areas that I was not very familiar with. Now at level 14 he moves on to the Bree land quests that I have already completed with Throg. Will I still enjoy it when I am redoing old quests? I don't know but I hope so.

I would post a picture but it is maintenance day and I cant log in to get a screen shot.

By the way - I must eat a bit of humble pie - Some time ago I pronounced that I hate alts and wanted them banned. Umm.... Can I change my mind? Mind you, I am playing Ceoldir as a genuine character for the enjoyment of doing so. He has not received any handouts from Throg and I do not intend to try power levelling him.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Hacker Inside

In my college years I watched as technically minded friends fell under the spell of computers. They became Weizenbaum's "bright young men of dishevelled appearance". I watched as they immersed themselves ever more deeply in the world of monochrome terminals and multiuser operating systems. They dropped out of classes, they dropped out of social interaction, they dropped out of everything that was not connected to their obsession with thinking machines.

I dallied with this obsession for a while. The proto-internet of EARN-BITNET offered undreamed of possibilities for exploration. I stood on the brink and in truth I nearly fell in but some instinct of self preservation held me back from total commitment. I re-engaged with the physical analog world, I graduated I socialised, I got a job.

Now I use computers in my job and at home just as millions of other do. I install software and run it without really comprehending what goes on behind the scenes. Sure I know a little bit more than the average layman and PC gaming is probably my main hobby but I am not in thrall to the machine. It is a device, a tool.

About once a year though the hacker inside comes out. This weekend that hacker decided to re-animate an ancient celeron based machine by installing Linux.

At a logical level I have no reason to use Linux. It does nothing that I cannot do on Windows and there are many things it cannot do. At some deeper level Linux pushes all the right hacker buttons. Friendly distros like Ubuntu try to fool you into thinking otherwise but you need only scratch the surface to wallow in the joys of the Linux command line. Linux scorns the concept of plug and play. Installing a new piece of hardware is likely to take hours of internet detective work and command line hacking.

Saturday was abandoned to total immersion in Linuxdom. By the end of the day I had a working machine complete with graphics, sound and wireless networking, I even managed to get it to play DVDs (no mean feat).

It was a day of highs, lows and intense concentration as I gave myself over fully to the hacker inside. Finally I felt triumph. I had struggled through and I had overcome. I had build this thing with the toil of my brain.

I owned this machine.

Of course the truth was that the machine owned me. This project had seduced me in a way that fiddling with my window rigs never can.

It couldn't last. Eventually I was pulled back by to reality by my wife's gentle but firm insistence that she does not want a Linux media centre pc hooked up to the wide-screen TV in our living room. I was forced to face reality. My project was wonderful but ultimately useless.

The hacker that had briefly come outside retreated back to my inner depths. It is still there. It will always be there but I am content to keep it locked away for another 12 months or so before letting it out for next years annual outing.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Buildabearville: Club Penguin has a rival

My kids have abandoned Club Penguin for a new child friendly MMO called Buildabearville.

Bearville has a lot in common with Club penguin. Kids can create avatars, dress them up, interact with their online friends and play mini-games. Just like Club Penguin you can join for free but in order to access everything you have to spend some real money. In Club Penguin that means paying for a monthly subscription but in Bearville all you need to do is purchase a bear from the Build a Bear Workshop. Given that just about every child under 10 in the western world already has several of these build it yourself bears that makes a pretty big potential market for Bearville.

The really big news though is that in the opinion of my resident child experts Bearville is better than Club Penguin. It looks better and seems to offer more things to do. Player housing and items are a big feature of this type of game and Bearville stuff just seems better and more desirable than Penguin's. Unlike Penguin, Bearville allows players to trade with each other opening up rich possibilities in terms of game economy. Bearville has only been around a few months and is still in beta but it has a lot of content and seems very stable and polished.

Can Bearville's buy once play forever revenue model compete with Club Penguins subscription based model in the long run? Hard to say, but it is unlikely that Build A bear's revenue stream from selling bears is going to dry up any time soon. Also the vast majority of Club Penguin players don't pay a subscription (but 700,000 of them do according to Wikipedia). A previous mmo / toy tie in called Bratz Miuchiz turned out to be a dismal buggy mess but Bearville is much much better.

From my own brief exploration I would say that Bearville has one Achille's heel. A few of the mini games are downright hard. I struggled with a soccer game and a diving game. This is an area that Club Penguin does brilliantly. Club Penguin's mini games are easy enough to be picked up in seconds but addictive enough to keep you playing for hours. If Bearville doesn't get that magical balance right they are going to first frustrate and then lose their young customers.

I would say that Walt Disney's €350m investment in Club Penguin is looking a little dubious at present. Disney haven't done much with the game since they bought it and it looks very tired in comparison to Bearville.

By the way if you know a child who has an older Build a Bear bear, they can retrospectively register it for access to Bearville. This is a time limited offer however so I suggest you encourage them to do it soon.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Verner Vinge: Across Real Time

Across Real time contains two linked novels that were originally published separately. It's a bit late to offer a review of novels published more than 20 years ago but I will share my thoughts on reading the compilation last week.

The first novel "The Peace War" is an enjoyable adventure yarn that introduces a few big ideas without really exploring them. In the second novel "Marooned in Real Time" the themes and ideas are explored more thoroughly. "Marooned" gives an early glimpse of Vinge's ability to think through a big idea and follow it to logical but surprising conclusions. Sadly the plot that ties "Marooned" together is a poorly executed detective story. Rabbits pulled from hats, Deus ex Machina and and a clumsy detective dénouement are used to wrap up the story in an entirely unsatisfactory fashion. Still the two books complement each other well and the presentation of both in a combined volume makes a lot of sense.

When I read "A Fire Upon the Deep" I was struck by the number and quality of Really Big Ideas that Vinge wove into that work. These earlier works have only one big idea and a number of themes.

SPOILERS AHEAD:
The big idea is called bobbling but in fact it is really a very logical thought out approach to time travel. Imagine that we want to write a story about time travel that is logically consistent with the laws of science as we know them. Firstly we must reject travel backwards in time - too many paradoxes and causality issues. Travel forward is less paradoxical but also has its problems. Pluck a person from today and planting them fifty years into the future violates every conservation principle known to science. The solution that Vinge so elegantly postulates is for the time traveller to enter a form of stasis. Their mass and momentum continue to exist in real time but the passage of time stops for the traveller until they exit from their stasis bubble at the predetermined future destination. For the stasis to be absolute there must be no interaction between the time traveller and the outside world so the bubble has to be perfectly impermeable and perfectly reflective. Thus we have come to the mirrored spherical bobbles of Vinge's novels. The only flaw I can see is that since items within bobbles retain their mass they still interact with gravitational fields. At one point in "Marooned" a scheme to send a traveller through a black hole while embobbled is discussed but it is not clear to me that the bobble would actually protect the traveller from the tidal forces involved.

In addition to the bobbling idea the novels (particularly marooned) dwell on the idea of a technological singularity and of the concept of ungovernment. These are recurring themes in Vinges work but I must admit that I am not convinced about either of these ideas.

The technological singularity idea takes note of the accelerating rate of human progress and postulates that at a certain point progress will lead to a dramatic sudden change (the singularity) to a state which is so different from what we have to day that we cannot even begin to imagine it. It is often suggested that the kick off point for the singularity will be the creation of the first artificial superhuman intelligence. This intelligence will be able to create even more advanced intelligences leading rapidly to an abrupt leap in progress. As evidence for the coming singularity graphs showing the exponential rate of progress of humanity are shown but for me this is a major hole in their argument. An exponential curve may grow at an ever accelerating rate but it does not have a singularity. To say otherwise is bad maths.

Ungovernment (Anarcho-capitalism) suggests that individuals would do better without government but allowing the free market to provide the things that governments normally provide. I am extremely sceptical. I am neither economist of historian but I know enough about market failure to realise that I do not want to rely on an unrestricted free market to provide me with public goods. In Vinge's books misgovernment is hailed as the optimum solution for a technologically advanced society. However the example is trivial. Vinge's High Techs are so advanced that they are capable of supplying all of their own needs. There is no economy and no market because none are needed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

This game is HARD

I am huddled against a wall in the pitch black of a Chernobyl night. I cannot see a thing but I hear everything and everything scares the sh*t out of me. The night is full of malevolence, weird radiation scourged malevolence that offers many kinds of unpleasant death.

I have a torch but if I turn it on it will expose my location to the bandits camped on the far side of the wall. They are crack shots armed with sub machine guns. I am a klutz armed with a broken peashooter that is running low on ammunition. It's 3:00am. I am seriously thinking of waiting it out until sunrise. Three hours is a long wait but at least then I might be able to see enough to sneak my way out, or fight my way out God help me.

I have said before that I value atmosphere over game play. The fact that I am still playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl proves it. The game is as frustrating as ever and maddeningly hard but I am getting sucked in. I want to survive this hell zone.

The Dreamer

Twenty five is a magical number. So is fifty two. I never realised this until my daughter, the dreamer, pointed it out to me. You see when a two and a five appear side by side on a digital clock the lines of the digits form a tree pattern. For twenty five the tree is upside down but I am assured that this only increases its mystical significance.

It can be frustrating living with a dreamer. I have to get up half an hour earlier every morning to help my dreamer get ready for school. Her (younger) sister manages to get dressed, washed and brushed all in the space of ten minutes but the dreamer needs about forty minutes to accomplish the same. Even then regular gentle reminders are required to prevent the dreamer from getting distracted by the many magical things around her.

It can be frustrating but when all is said and done a half an hour's sleep every morning is a small price to pay for the joy of living with someone who can discover magic in an alarm clock.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. €8 from the bargain bin.

This game is trying really hard to make me dislike it. It is confusing, laggy, buggy and the story is told in Babelfish translation that is borderline incomprehensible. It is also bloody hard - shootouts are an exercise in luck and desperation rather than fluid skill with the stark "Game Over" message a regular outcome.

Just when I thought that I was getting the hang of things I suffered the frustration of a mission failing to complete. Apparently some passing wild dogs ate the last of the mutants I had been tasked to kill. Google uncovered a patch and joy of joys this very quest bug was mentioned in the patch notes.

I dutifully downloaded and installed the patch and ...

$%@&&%*@

..."Cannot load save game because of incompatible version number"


Of all the crimes a game developer can commit surely producing a patch that invalidates a player's saved games is the most heinous.

I have struggled through some ponderous buggy games before because the atmosphere sucked me in and I have discovered hidden jewels (Arx Fatalis, X2). Eurogamer gave the game a good but honest review. I may just give up or I might just give it one more try.