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The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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4:09pm on Monday, 27th April, 2015:

3 RPGs

Anecdote

I fancied playing a party-based RPG a month or so ago, so I finally got around to installing Planescape: Torment. This is a classic game from 1999 that uses the same Infinity Engine as Baldur's Gate, and I've been meaning to play it for years. Obviously the graphics aren't up to today's quality, but it's the game I'm interested in, not the graphics.

Well, it didn't get off to a good start. You don't get to create your own character, you only get to spec out the character they give you — in Planescape: Torment's case, that means The Nameless One. Yes, that's right, I didn't even get to choose a name. OK, well it seems the entire game must be character creation, then: you get to create the person you want to be through play. That's an interesting approach, it means the game is probably well thought-out.

Right, so, off I went!

I swiftly took a dislike to The Nameless One. I couldn't identify with him, and what I mainly had to go on — his physicality — was negative: he was a great, hulking blue barbarian to look at, which did not appeal. I also took against his floating skull companion, Morte, who was remarkably chipper given that he was just a talking head. I carried on, though, confident that as I got to flesh The Nameless One out a bit more I'd get a better sense of who he was and who I wanted him to be.

Planescape: Torment's biggest difference from regular RPGs is that it's not as combat-based. Quests can be resolved through dialogue rather than fighting, which gives it a more thoughtful element than usual. It also means you can't tell how well you're doing and your character can't gain new skills to improve their discourse (although I guess charisma might help). I was really looking forward to this, to see how it was handled.

Sadly, though, I didn't get that far, mainly because of a bug. The save game feature worked fine, but not if you wanted to overwrite an existing file — which is exactly what the quick-save wanted to do. It caused a hang, as did attempting to delete a saved game. The cause looked to be a file protection issue, but changing the permissions on the directory path to the saves folder didn't make a difference. Hmm, actually, that's not true: it did make a difference — it stopped me from being able to load any save files at all. When I looked to see what had happened, they'd all disappeared. I'd only played for two evenings or so, but I wasn't enjoying the game one iota and I was looking at having to play through everything all over again.

I therefore punished it with an uninstall. If it behaves itself, I may give it a second chance some day.

So, what to play instead? I was seeing a few recommendations for Lords of Xulima, so gave that a go.

This wasn't much better in the character-creation department, and (unlike Planescape: Torment) not for any story-structure reason. You play a guy called Gaulen, trying to sort out some kind of conflict among the gods that is leaving the planet a war-torn mess. I played it for a couple of days before I figured that creating a custom party was the way to go (replacing the default's bard with a magic-user and the fighter with a paladin), so I restarted and made quite good progress. I've spent 30 hours in it so far (according to Steam), but it's supposed to have 100 hours of gameplay so that's not actually much.

The game is no Baldur's Gate, but it tries hard and isn't unenjoyable. I was finding its quest structure rather too linear for comfort, until suddenly the main plotline ran out. I had to go exploring to see which zone was the next one I should be entering. Unfortunately, the answer turned out to be "none of them". Basically, there were three zones I could go to: an icy zone that does ice damage every few moves; a deserty zone that does fire damage every few moves; an electric zone that does lightning damage every few moves. My party was getting killed before I got anywhere.

OK, so I know out what to do when this happens: gear up one character with all the anti-elemental damage gear you can find, let the others drop to zero health (they don't die in Lords of Xulima, they're just hors de combat), run the immune character through the damage until you reach a safe zone, then rest and get everyone else back into action again. The trouble is, the drops in this game are mainly random and I didn't actually have much gear that protected me from elemental damage; most of what I'd got I'd sold anyway. There isn't a way to store items in the game (well, if there is I didn't come across it), so I either had to sell stuff or lug it around and take the encumbrance penalty. This meant that with the gear available to me, the only zone I could realistically attempt was the electricity one.

I did succeed in that, getting to the castle, avoiding the traps and reaching the boss. Unfortunately, he was way, way above my level. I could barely dent him before he had my party's heads in a pie.

I went back and tried the icy realm, but couldn't get anywhere before my runner died. I made progress with the deserty zone, but it appears that I'm going to have to fight something to get to the safe zone I found. I can beat this particular enemy, but only with my whole party fit and well. My paladin alone is going to be mashed to a pulp.

It was at this point, yesterday, that I decided to abandon Lords of Xulima. To be honest, it was getting rather samey anyway. It's all well and good having a game with 100 hours of gameplay, but if that 100 hours is made up by repeating the same 10 hours over and over, it's not worth it. I may come back to it later, loading from an earlier save file and then going grinding wandering monsters to level up, but having a choice of whether I lose my party to fire, ice or the weather is not appealing right now.

So, what should I try instead?

Before Christmas, I'd bought and started Shadowrun: Dragonfall, mainly because one of the people I raid with in The Secret World kept harping on about it. I'd stopped playing after three hours, because Christmas got in the way, the plot was run-on-rails straight and the combat was always marginally tougher than I wanted it to be. However, after my experience with Planescape: Torment and Lords of Xulima, it was starting to look attractive again: it has the depth and dialogue of the former and the action and production values of the latter. OK, so it also has the am-I-winning-or-losing-this-conversation? of the former and the linearity of the latter, but at least I got to create my own character. I played it for two more hours last night and it picked up. I'll probably play it post-Game of Thrones tonight and see how it carries on. Maybe I should see if there's a way to put more ammo in a weapon when it runs out, that would be useful...

I really ought to get around to finishing the programming language I've been designing on and off for the past few years, so I can write my own RPG instead of playing other people's...



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10:39am on Sunday, 26th April, 2015:

Role Models

Weird

From today's Observer:



I can't imagine that there'd be much response if high-profile coders were to encourage young men to take up modelling, hoping to shake up the disproportionately female world of supermodels.

I really don't understand how this inspiration things works.



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2:43pm on Saturday, 25th April, 2015:

BOP and BOA

Anecdote

Before:



After:



I only misassembled twice, entailing a mere five screws to be unscrewed then rescrewed in the right holes.

Bonus: when I dropped one of the solid wood components edge-first onto three of the fingers of my left hand, they didn't come off.



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5:27pm on Friday, 24th April, 2015:

Unpalletable

Anecdote

My wife has worked for the same company for 30 years, so she got a 30-year-anniversary present from them. They gave her a catalogue of things to choose from, and she went with this (which arrived today):



It's a garden bench.

It's a self-assembly garden bench in a box on two wooden pallets nailed together, to which it has been wrapped in industrial plastic so that it wouldn't fall over in the large, articulated lorry that delivered it. We couldn't leave it outside, so I had to move the car out of the garage so we had somewhere to put it away from weather and the view of passing casual criminals.

I've now got it out of the plastic, but I'm going to need a crowbar to dismantle the pallets.

Worse, I made the mistake of looking it up on Amazon about three weeks ago to see what its dimensions are, and I'm still being plagued with ads for it.

Why couldn't she have just gone for the earrings?



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5:23pm on Thursday, 23rd April, 2015:

I Despair

Anecdote

I sent an email out to my final-year games students last week which began like this:

Falmouth University in Cornwall runs a programme called Alacrity Falmouth (http://www.falmouth.ac.uk/alacrity-falmouth). This is a hands-on, games-specific MA in Business Entrepreneurship: you make computer games and you form companies that Falmouth incubates. It has a pile of EU funding that means the MA fees are covered AND you get PAID a stipend of £16,000 for the year you're there.

Last year (its first of operation), four of our students got on the programme. They now have their own companies set up; some already have external investors involved. They won't even formally get the MA until September. This is a tremendous opportunity for games students to break into the industry.

Today, the director of the course, Nick Dixon, visited Essex University to give a presentation to our current final-year students. Two of our former students came along too, to talk about their experiences. They weren't just passing by, as Falmouth is a long way from Colchester (Colchester to Falmouth: 368 miles; Colchester to Paris: 322 miles). We were lucky to have them visit.

One of our final-year students showed up. ONE.

OK, so it was our best one, but that's not the point. Former students outnumbered current students in that presentation!

This course already has four applicants for every place, and applications are still open. They don't need more applicants. Nevertheless, because last year's students from Essex were so good, the programme director made a special effort to come here and recruit more and only ONE came to the presentation.

Here's how I ended the second email I sent the final-year games students, which I sent yesterday:

If you want to work in the games industry, don't have anything fixed up yet, have nothing pressing to do on Thursday afternoon but you DON'T come to this, you should probably reconsider whether you do actually want to work in the games industry after all.

I guess I have my answer.

I'd rant at them in the up-coming revision lecture about this, but I have to hand out the Student Assessment of Courses forms that lecture so it might be a bad idea...



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4:58pm on Wednesday, 22nd April, 2015:

Fingers Crossed

Comment

I've been thinking.

After my brother died in 2009, I had a health check-up. The doctor told me I had a 23% chance of dying before I was 60 and a 77% chance of dying aged 60 or older.

Wow! If I do reach 60, I have a 77% chance of dying — and therefore a 23% chance of NOT DYING AT ALL EVER!

I'll take those odds.



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11:16am on Tuesday, 21st April, 2015:

Religious Games

Comment

Concerned that fundamentalists may take it into their heads that games are A Bad Thing, I thought I'd check what the Bible and Quran had to say on the subject.

Caveat: I'm an atheist, so neither of these is my bedtime reading.

As most fundamentalist Christians seem to prefer the King James Bible, I used that as my source. It doesn't contain the word "game" even once. Whether that's A Good Thing or A Bad Thing I don't know. The Bible is usually quite specific when it expresses a view, but when it doesn't things are left up in the air. Games are therefore in the same category as television, computers and toads (none of which it mentions explicitly either).

The Quran is harder to check out because there doesn't appear to be a particular English translation everyone can get behind; I suspect most Islamic fundamentalists would want to read it in Arabic anyway. The most popular seems to be The Noble Quran, which is based on the previously-most-popular version. This does use the word "game", but only in the sense of wild animals killed to be eaten.

If you wanted to make a particular point about games being A Good/Bad Thing, of course, you'd seek out other translations that might use a form or words more in tune with your views.

The World English Bible, which is the latest revision of the KJB, uses "game" in a sense similar to that of "Olympic Games", in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. It's part of an analogy, basically saying that in the same way that people who run in a race need to go all out to win, so Paul goes all out in his effort to preach. The popular New International Version is the same. All other uses are of the wild-animals-to-eat kind. The NETBible, which is a copiously footnoted translation by modern experts in the different languages used, only has the wild-animals-to-eat kind.

So, it looks as if the Bible neither approves nor disapproves of games, unless they're covered by a broader term. Even "play" is used only for musical instruments, role-playing ("play the fool"), and on one occasion what infants will do near snakes.

Some translations of the Quran do have something to say about games. There's a handy 3-translations-at-once on Project Gutenberg that has two translators (Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall and Mohammad Habib Shakir) consistently forbidding "games of chance"; the other, Abdullah Yusuf Ali — author of the previously-most-popular translation I mentioned earlier — goes with "gambling", as (unsurprisingly) does The Noble Quran. This is actually an important distinction, because games of chance don't have to involve bets and winnings whereas gambling does.

There is one interesting occurrence of "game" in the Pickthall translation, in a section about the difference between life in this world and life in the next: "This life of the world is but a pastime and a game. Lo! the home of the Hereafter — that is Life, if they but knew.". The other two translators use "play" rather than "game", but they're clearly operating in the same territory. The gist of the passage seems to be that this life is superficial compared to what follows. This doesn't appear to say anything either good or bad about games, except perhaps that you won't be playing them in the afterlife as existence is more meaningful there.

The word "play" occurs several other times in the Quran, but non-judgementally. Saying that you shouldn't treat religion as play, for example, doesn't mean you shouldn't play. In general, play seems to be just another way of describing leisure-time activities. The Bible never seems to use it this way; in contrast, the Quran never seems to refer to the playing of musical instruments.

So, overall it looks as if a fundamentalist who wanted to use a holy book to criticise games would have a hard time of it, unless they went with a translation of the Quran that forbade games of chance rather than just gambling.

Well, either that or they look at holy books other than the two I did. Or, I guess, they make up their own definition of "game".



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8:38am on Monday, 20th April, 2015:

Traffic Lightener

Anecdote

There's a set of temporary three-way traffic lights on the way to Colchester station. It should be two-way, because one of the ways is off a small estate that only sees traffic when people use it as a rat run to get past the queues of vehicles caused by, oh, let's say an inconvenient set of traffic lights. Leaving that aside though, the reason the temporary traffic lights are there in the first place is because of work being done under the adjacent footpath. Some of the earth that's been dug out of a hole has been put on the road (so as not to block the entrance to people's houses). This constitutes an obstacle to traffic, hence the need for temporary traffic lights.

The thing is, this earth on the road takes up less room than would a parked motorbike. If you can park a motorbike without the need for temporary traffic lights, you don't need them for soil on the kerb.

This is often the case with roadworks. The space they take up on their own is less than that occupied by a parked car. OK, so when people are working on it then perhaps you need extra space so they don't get hit by motorists (or indeed by the vehicles they're driving), but if you plan to be away for a whole weekend doing NO WORK AT ALL, there's no need for traffic lights if your stuff takes up less space than a Ford Fiesta.

Ah, but without the lights, how would people know there were roadworks?

They don't NEED to know there are roadworks! All they need to know is that they can't drive there.

Well how do you tell them that?

You tell them that the same way as everyone else who has parked a car on that road tells them not to enter a particular space: park a car in it. OK, so you don't use a real car, you use a a fibreglass, car-shaped shell. So long as it looks like a car, though, job done.

The particular stretch of road I got stuck at this morning has no parking on the side where the footpath is being dug up, so putting a car there might seem a little odd. However, as I've seen a skip placed in exactly the same spot with nothing more than a pair of lights dangling off the car-side corners to warn drivers that it exists, I believe that traffic flows can cope...



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12:32pm on Sunday, 19th April, 2015:

All Smiles

Comment

So far, this candidate for the local elections is winning the competition for "least sincere smile" in the election literature I receive.



I haven't had anything from UKIP so far, so he shouldn't start celebrating just yet.



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11:23am on Saturday, 18th April, 2015:

Last Time

Outburst

This graph appeared in the Liberal Democrat election literature that came through our door yesterday:



Jeez, Liberal Democrat election literature! I know you're in favour of increased public spending on education, but that doesn't mean you should treat everyone as if they were uneducated! The size of those graph bars bear almost no relation to the numbers written on them! Besides, even if they did and all the people who voted Labour last time voted Liberal Democrat this time, it still wouldn't win your man the seat. Slightly tilting the graph to the left to foreshorten the apparent height of the Conservative bar is a less obvious but no less dishonest trick.

It's incredible how in this election each party manages to put me off wanting to vote for them whenever they're trying to win my vote.



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11:01am on Saturday, 18th April, 2015:

Real Life Politicians

Comment

Vicar: Do you, Ed Cameron, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?
Ed Cameron: I'm greatly in favour of the institution of marriage.
Vicar (prompting): "I do."
Ed Cameron: I stand before you today as someone who has always supported the idea of the family being at the core of British society.
Vicar: Er, so do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?
Ed Cameron: Let me be clear about this. I believe that everyone has a right to marry whomsoever they choose.
Vicar: Please answer the — wait, what, even children?
Ed Cameron: Marriage is one of the cornerstones that makes this country what it is.
Vicar (sighing): I now pronounce you man and coalition partner.



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1:36pm on Friday, 17th April, 2015:

Pump Action

Anecdote

Following today's riveting staff meeting, I went for lunch. Nothing appealed to me at the canteen (where I usually eat) so I went to the diner instead for a burger.

I eat my burgers old-school: bread, burger, ketchup, bread. They don't add the ketchup to the burger at the counter though, they only add the more expensive sauces. So, after I bought my burger I went to the ketchup dispenser to lather it in whatever the stuff they put in those things is.

The ketchup dispenser is pump action, like a hand soap dispenser only the size of demijohn. I opened up my burger, put it underneath the nozzle, then pumped.

Nothing happened.

Hmm. I tried again.

Again, nothing happened. The pump was going down but nothing was coming out. I figured it was maybe empty, but then again it could have been recently filled and the tube inside wasn't yet full of ketchup.

I pumped it again.

BAM! Ketchup shot out at all angles with the force of a jet hose. What hit my burger bounced off. The rest of it went either on the side of the dispenser or on me. I had a great scythe of it across my chest, penetrating deep into my jacket and shirt. With its being red, it looked as if someone had emptied a shotgun on me.

If being looked at by other people is a measure of popularity, at that moment I was the most popular person in the diner.

I guess that I wasn't the only person to pump the ketchup dispenser. Other people had done so before me but given up. Nevertheless, in their attempt they had put the air in the bottle under pressure. I just happened to be the unlucky person who added enough extra pressure to blast out whatever obstacle was blocking the novel.

I ate my burger on the way to my car, looking for all the world like an extra from a slasher movie. I drove home filling the car with a ketchupy smell that will take days to dissipate. I needed a shower when I got home. My shirt and jacket are in the wash.

I wouldn't care so much but it wasn't a particularly great burger.



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1:38pm on Thursday, 16th April, 2015:

Slightly to the Right

Anecdote

We received some more election literature yesterday, this time from the Conservatives.

On the left, what our sitting MP, Bernard Jenkin, normally looks like in his publicity pictures. On the right, what he looked like in the pamphlet that arrived yesterday.



I think his barber must be a Labour voter.

Notice how he leans his head to the right so you can tell he's Conservative, but not so far that you might think he's UKIP.



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8:13pm on Wednesday, 15th April, 2015:

Afternoon in Uxbridge

Anecdote

I went to Brunel University today to give an afternoon workshop on game design. It's a portable workshop I've run before — not always for students, but I do give it to the IGGI PhD nunch and have a shortened version for my second-year students. Basically, it's a game system that the students instantiate a game for (much in the way that you could create a Top Trumps game for a genre of your choice). It's not a regular game system, though, as the sting in the tail is that it's based on the first-order predicate calculus; relational database queries are also based on this, so if you can formulate a game idea using this system then you can easily slot it into a database.

The Brunel students were a mixed group, ranging from first-year BA undergraduates to MA students. Frankly, I couldn't tell which was which, as they were all enthusiastic. They were split into four groups, one of which actually managed to get a playable game. Two of the others were close to playable. The fourth would probably have been brilliant if they hadn't taken so long hammering out the workings of time travel and ended up designing 8 overlapping games instead of just one, but hey, they seemed to get something out of it. Overall, they did really well, especially with the storytelling aspect of what they were creating. I don't know what they teach them at Brunel, but it seems to be effective.

Hmm, actually I do know what they teach them as I used to be their external examiner.

The Brunel games design course, which is so games design that it's a BA (unlike the BSc we have at Essex), is very strong. Two thirds of the original team (which is to say two people) decamped to Falmouth to set up a new games degree there with a massive chunk of EU funding behind it. Brunel responded by putting the other third in charge and then multiplying him by a factor of six (so, hiring another five people, some of whom are game studies types and others of whom are designer types). Their course is so different from the usual fare that employment in the games industry for graduates is something like 30%-40%. This is exceptionally good: most universities will struggle to place even 10% of their graduates in the games industry. We're traditionally around the same mark at Essex University, although in recent years we've sent more students on to do postgraduate degrees in games so we're probably not that high any more. Also, we have only around 20-25 graduates per year whereas Brunel has 40-45, so their absolute numbers are higher than ours too.

Anyway, it was a enjoyable workshop for me if not for the students. Even better, I was paid for it. Win!

Things you don't want to hear at 8:30 in the morning about 3 seconds after having paid £54 for a train ticket that would cost you £34 half an hour later: "Trains to London are subject to cancellations and delays following an overhead line problem at Romford". That's just so you know my day wasn't all fun and games...



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10:45am on Tuesday, 14th April, 2015:

Instant Death

Weird

Most of my ancestors go out of their way to be uninteresting, but sometimes one of them makes a real effort to impress.

So, my paternal grandmother had the maiden name of Hewitt, and came from a mining family (there's nominative determinism for you). Her great-grandfather was one Joseph Hewitt, who died aged 68 in 1868.

68 was a pretty good age for a coalminer to reach back then. His son died aged 44 and his grandson died aged 62, both from lung diseases. This isn't how Joseph Hewitt died, though. He died in a spectacular enough fashion that a coronor had to investigate. Amazingly, the coronor's report survives. Here it is:

(Note: a corve is one of those mining carts on rails, like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).



You have rheumatism, you walk with a stick, you catch a ride in a coal wagon to save yourself a half-mile walk, you put your stick down but it starts to shake out, the guy behind you rescues it, you stand up to get it back off him, you smack your head on a bridge, you die instantly. The death certificate, which I also have, actually says that: "instant death".

Now why couldn't my other ancestors do things like that? It would be much easier to track them down. Hats off to Joseph Hewitt!

(Hmm, I could probably have phrased that better).



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