The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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3:59pm on Sunday, 25th January, 2015:

Cat, Cab, Crow


I popped into the university again today to see how well the game jam entries were progressing. Needless to say, I was impressed. It's amazing what a team of four can do in 48 hours (or less than 48 if they squander a few hours on sleep). We have three teams this year, as it's the first time we've entered. They went for very different games.

One game doesnt look great visually and is in definite need of reskinning. It features the university's campus cat (a wild cat that roams the campus) trying to find fish. It's basically a 2D platformer. Nothing special, you might think, except that once you complete a level the next level is the same as the one you just completed but with one of the components you used to complete it disabled. So, a platform might disappear, or a wall might appear, or a moving platform might stop moving. There's always a solution (maybe you didn't notice that the screen was wrap-around?) but it gets progressively harder. If anyone wants to play a recalcitrant platformer, this should appeal.

Another game has a very nice stylised look to it. The premise is that you've fallen out of an aircraft and are trying to stay in the air as long as possible before you hit the ground. It's a vertical-scroller rather than a side-scroller. As it happens, you never do hit the ground as flocks of crows will get you first, but you have fun trying. There's a nice little mechanic involving a friendly bird following you down that you can try to get to hit crows and frighten them off (for bonus points). This game would work very well on a smartphone or tablet; I hope the team takes it further.

The final game looked gorgeous, a testament to the aesthetic skills of whoever trawled the Unity store for compatible free assets. It's a taxi game: customers want to be picked up and taken to places. The view is bird's-eye, top-down, and although it's played in 2D the graphics are all 3D, which is why it looks so good. There are pedestrians who call the cab and who may occasionally wander out ino the road at a moment's notice. There are also other cars, which follow the rules of the road. Pedestrians and other cars are under pretty smart AI control. Now although what I've described of it so far oozes quality, it doesn't perhaps sound like much of a game. That's because I haven't mentioned the key mechanic: it's a four-player game, each player controlling one wheel of the taxi. If you want to turn right, then the players controlling the wheels on the right will have to put their own wheel either into neutral or reverse. Or maybe it's a gentle turn so they just need one of them to do it. Or maybe they need to turn on a sixpence so the front left goes forward, the back right goes in reverse and the other two wheels are in neutral. This is the kind of game that would work best on a console with four controllers, or in a bar or amusement arcade.

Overall, it looks to have been well worth the effort; I certainly liked what I saw. As IGGI is a 3-university centre, next year the event will take place at either York or Goldsmiths. However, I'm hoping we'll be able to use the experience to persuade our undergraduates and (if our games MSc starts in time) postgraduates to take part.

I'd have entered myself but it's double black bullion reward weekend in The Secret World...


3:21pm on Saturday, 24th January, 2015:

Doing What?


I went to the university today to see how the IGGI doctoral students are doing in the Global Game Jam. The topic this year is the easy-to-reskin-something-you-did-earlier "What do we do now?". The students organised themselves in three groups of four, with the games they are designing best summarised as "What do WE do now?", "What do we DO now?" and "What do we do NOW?".

I had planned to arrive just after the students had finished lunch at about 1:30, but actually arrived when they were just starting lunch at about 1:30... Oh well, having two lunches on the same day never hurt me before.

When I read final-year student project reports, nine times out of ten the student will say that they chose to implement their program in whatever language they used because it's the language they're most familiar with. For these IGGI students, all of them could program in C++ and none of them had experience in using Unity. They therefore decided to implement their games in the game jam using Unity.

That's one of the differences between most PhD students and most BSc students right there.


3:39pm on Friday, 23rd January, 2015:



We've entered the students from our IGGI doctoral training centre (still time to apply for next year!) into this year's Global Game Jam. If it all goes well, we'll hire some military weapons to persuade our undergraduates to participate next year. This time, in an effort to ensure that our students aren't going to starve until the pizza arrives in the evening, we ordered sandwiches. Not just any sandwiches, though: the university's top-of-the-range sandwiches. These are the ones normally reserved for real people, rather than for students (who, being students, will eat anything so long as it doesn't look healthy).

Unfortunately, I have to report that despite what the label suggests, there wasn't much meat in these:


6:08pm on Thursday, 22nd January, 2015:

Important Laws


Every year, I get my Virtual World module students to look at The Laws of Online World Design. I split them (the students) into groups and have each group choose the "most important" five rules. Afterwards, I discuss their choices with them, referring back to when I've done this previous years (2012/13 and 2013/14). I usually have groups of 4 of 5 people, but this time I had groups of 3 because we were in a new room that no-one (including me) (in fact probably including everyone else at the university) had ever been to before. People were turning up late not because they were lazy, but because they needed a SatNav to find the place.

Anyway, I wound up with 4 groups this way. There were no rules that all agreed on, but the ones that more than one group had in their top 5 are:

The first and the last of these got support from 3 groups, the others just from 2.

Never trust the client is a perennial favourite, but others that have proven popular in previous years either got only one vote (Rickey's Law) or no votes at all (Koster's Law, Is it a game?, Community Size, Dundee's Law).

There are no right or wrong answers (hmm, actually there are some I'd say are wrong ones); the main point of the exercise is to get the students to absorb the Laws through reading and discussing them, and to help move them towards getting their own thinking straight about what is or isn't important TO THEM in the design of a virtual world. That said, there are definite trends over the years, particularly with the demise of the importance of role-playing as a concept in today's virtual worlds.

The students were quite surprised afterwards to discover that they had actually spoken in front of their peers. Their default setting is to say nothing. Subterranean rooms hewn from ancient 1960s concrete must promote the breakdown of social norms...


3:56pm on Wednesday, 21st January, 2015:

Nightmare in the Dream Palace


Here's a screenshot from The Secret World:

So, my character was repeating a single-player instanced mission called Nightmare in the Dream Palace and fell through the architecture. The large tunnels in the sky you can see there are different sections of the mission. What's supposed to happen is that you get to the end of one then it teleports you to the start of the other. There are more than just the ones you see here, and although I do have pics of the overall set-up (with rooms floating in thin air, that kind of thing) I had to pull back so far that you can't really see the details.

As a result of this bug, I managed to skip four or five tedious sections of the mission. Ordinarily I'd be pleased, but as I'd only done the mission specifically to try something out in one of those tedious sections, I was a bit miffed.

Oh, and by the way, Funcom, if you don't fix that minor exploit I told you about soon, someone else is going to find it who isn't able to keep a secret...


2:48pm on Tuesday, 20th January, 2015:

Rather Different


Every year, I give my second-year students six old-time games to play, in order that I can ask examination questions about them. The games are Pong, Frogger, Zork, Rogue, Asteroids and Tetris. This year, the web-based version of Rogue I gave them stopped working between when I tested the URL and when they tried it, so they only had 5 games to play. Fortunately, Rogue isn't featured in the exam questions this time round (I've just checked).

Also every year, I ask the students what games they liked the most. Each cohort of students has a different take on the games, but in 2011, 2012 and 2013 they've always had the same three games in the top 3 and the same 3 games in the bottom 3. Here's a list of the games and what position they came in the popularity charts for these three years:

Tetris 2 1 2
Frogger 3 2 1
Asteroids1 3 3
Rogue 4 5 4
Pong 5 4 5
Zork 6 6 6

This year the order of popularity (excluding Rogue as they couldn't play it) was:


Tetris was 1 vote ahead of Zork, both of which were some way ahead of Asteroids. So whereas the previous cohorts of second-year students have loathed Zork, this year's really liked it.

Also, in the game design exerise I gave them, three of the five games they came up with using the random materials I gave them were good enough to play for fun. Two of them need further polish, but the other is playable as it stands.

I have high hopes for these students! I just wish my lectures for them were a little less boring than they are at the moment...


5:34pm on Monday, 19th January, 2015:

All Gone


This morning, I finished the last of the 1kg of Cadbury's Dairy Milk that my younger daughter got me for my birthday. I'm quite pleased that I managed to make it last 9 days, although to be honest Iwould probably have polished it off earlier if I hadn't had half a share in a box of After Eight and in another of Milk Tray.

It will probably take me longer to finish the 1kg of Darjeeling tea that my elder daughter got me, though.


4:17pm on Sunday, 18th January, 2015:

Harrogate Victuals


Harrogate, where my dad comes from, is particularly renowned for its tea and its toffee.

I saw a table for sale in a shop today:

So near and yet so far...


4:10pm on Saturday, 17th January, 2015:

Choking on Cornflakes


Oil prices are falling. Some companies that were spending a lot of money on oil now have spare cash. The Prime Minister suggests that they might use it to give wage rises to their employees. The leader of the opposition replies that people will be "choking on their cornflakes" on the basis that the Prime Minister is trying to "wipe away five years of failure" on living standards by making this request.

What's going on here? It's as if the Conservatives are saying things left of Labour and Labour are saying things right of the Conservatives. Have they crossed in the middle or something?


2:56pm on Friday, 16th January, 2015:

CE217 Montage


I finally finished putting together my CE217 lectures today. Yay! OK, so I still have to do the classes, and I still have to do the lectures and classes for CE317, but at least I've reached some kind of milestone.

In an effort to persuade myself that I was still doing work, I put together this montage of images that appear on various slides from the lectures:

Bored? Me?


5:26pm on Thursday, 15th January, 2015:

Healthy Eggs


I had my first Cadbury's Crème Egg of the year today. I'd heard that they'd changed the recipe, using cheaper chocolate and less of it, but I nevertheless wasn't prepared for the full awfulness of the result.

Bleah! The chocolate tastes cheap, it didn't complement the fondant and there was a metallic taste afterwards. A wonderful recipe has been savaged. I hope Cadbury's suffers big time for this mistake. It cost me 65p; I would have felt cheated at 50p.

Normally, my attempts to lose all the weight I put on at Christmas are stymied by the daily Cadbury's Crème Egg I have between now and Easter. Not this year...


4:22pm on Wednesday, 14th January, 2015:



I've now taught both the sets of undergraduates I have this term.

The second years seem quite enthusiastic, but then that's only to be expected given that this week begins the second half of their three-year degree yet only now are they getting some games-specific lectures. The previous 18 months they've been getting lectures shared with other degree schemes. Much of it is games-related (C++ programming, for example), but it's not games-specific. Some of them seem quite sparky, which is always good. Others may also be sparky, but don't wish to stand out from their peers by exhibiting it (sigh...).

The third years are the ones who, in their second year, had my lecture at 9am on a Tuesday and as a result declined in the main to show up. This year, the timetable office decided to put the lecture in the much more student-friendly slot of 9am on a Wednesday. This explains why I only had 2 students present when the lecture started. The lectures are 2 hours long this time round and there are only half as many of them, so I did get more students rolling up (some over an hour late). I'm hoping as it dawns on them that when they leave university they will get jobs that will most likely have a be-here-or-be-sacked start time, so they may consider getting into practice. That said, as with the second years, there are students in the group who have a definite future in the games industry if they manage to get noticed, so I'm actually upbeat about them overall.


2:42pm on Tuesday, 13th January, 2015:

Worth a Thousand Words


The cover of the upcoming issue of Charlie Hebdo has been revealed by the (new) editors in advance of its publication. It shows a bearded man in stereotypical Arab dress holding a sign saying "je suis Charlie". He has a single tear coming from his left eye and a glum mouth. Above his head are the words: "tour ese pardonné".

Hmm, in fact why don't I just show you the picture? Here it is, taken off the CBS News site:

On the breakfast TV news this morning, both in ITV and the BBC, the image was described in full much as I described it. They identified the Arab-dressed guy as the prophet Mohammed, presumably because he looks the same as the characterisation used in previous issues of the magazine. We were told what his sign said and that the words above his head meant "all is forgiven". However, we weren't shown the image.

Why was that?

It wasn't hard for me to find a copy when I looked. Presumably, therefore, the news organisations had some reason for not showing us the image. OK, so what was that reason? Sensitivity? Copyright laws? Anti-racism laws? Spinelessness?

I'm sure they have perfectly legitimate reasons for not showing their TV audience this cover, but they really should have told us what those reasons are, rather than just treating their TV news as if it were radio...


4:52pm on Monday, 12th January, 2015:



This is a photo of a screwdriver with a nail sticking out of it:

It's what happens when someone hangs a screwdriver on a nail that's too big for it and someone else tries to remove it.

Hammering the nail at the pointy end finally freed it...


1:21pm on Sunday, 11th January, 2015:



What does the first M in MMO stand for?

Well, MMO is short for MMORPG, which expands to Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game; or, if you want to be especially pedantic, Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. The first M in MMO therefore stands for "Massively".

There's a reason for this. Back in the 1990s, the concept of multi-player games came to the fore as more and more people connected their computers together. Sometimes this was over modems (we had "modem play" for a while); sometimes it was over local area networks; sometimes it was by serial ports (daisy-chaining RS232 connections for games with more than 2 players); I even saw it done using parallel ports (normally only used for printers). However, with the new games coming out of the MUD tradition there was a step change in how many players there were. These games weren't just multi-player, they were massively multi-player. It's an adjective describing the degree to which these games were (and indeed are) multi-player.

The M in MOOC stands for "Massive". MOOC expands to Massive Open Online Course. A MOOC is characterised by the number of people taking it — tens or hundreds of thousands. The word "Massive" is entirely appropriate, as it captures the central quality of these courses — that they have a massive number of people using them. MMOs are, of course, massive in this sense — they have a lot of players. They don't have anywhere near as many players as some of the Facebook and phone games out there, though. They're also "massive" in the sense that the world they depict is often enormous; again, though, there are single-player games that are just as large if not larger.

Anyone who expands the first M in MMO to "Massive" is clearly somewhat ignorant of history. They also need to think more about why in the present the word makes sense in relative terms. There are nevertheless probably plenty of people out there who do expand the acronym the wrong way.

Professionals shouldn't, though.

Yes, I did indeed write this rant because I came across this review in the Observer's Tech Monthly games section:


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Copyright © 2015 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).