Computer Games

Remaking the world

My problem with World of Warcraft was always the start.

I’m told the end-game content is good, raiding is fun and tactical, and the risk/reward feedback loop is pretty well tuned, and these things may all be both true and fine, but I never got there. When I entered the game, I was presented with a neat cinematic, a pretty cool flyover of the entire world and how as on of its chosen saviors I could save it. Then I was ordered to kill ten rats with this small dagger.

I was surrounded by guards sitting doing nothing, in a lush green world. There are some rats over there, go kill them. Then, when I’ve done that, there are twelve differently coloured rats over there, go gather their pelts. I understand you need to teach combat, but the disconnected banality of the opening experience always left me cold. A couple of times I slogged though (Kill ten rats, that’s combat; Get eight collars, that’s random drop distribution; Find nine logs, that’s glowies; Kill the bandit leader, that’s boss fights. Now you’re ready to go to Goldshire! Please take these goggles. They will do nothing.) But the wide world was just more of the same, references to continuing struggles, tiny efforts to make this person’s life a little easier. This wasn’t heroic, this was a combination extermination/courier service. Then there was the “Thousand points of light” problem, where a new quest zone would result in filling your quest tracker, slowly draining it, moving on. As a player, you were taught to ignore the quest text most of the time, and focus on the results. Fedex this to here, Kill ten ratcatchers. Get this over with. The biggest problem was a industry-wide one. In an MMO, it is impossible for your character to make a difference. You can kill the bad guy, but he’ll respawn in a bit so someone else can. You can save the orphan, but so will everyone else. Progression is by level, not by world.

Somewhere over the last five years, Blizzard learnt how to make questing more interesting. The revamped starting zones have a lot more of a cohesive storyline. Instead of the Level 80 guards hanging around ordering you to kill the rats, you’ll be sent to assist guards already fighting them. Instead of collecting a dozen baskets of grapes miraculously uncrushed by evil bandits, you’ll be given a temporary steampunk water jet and told to put out fires. It’s a lot more interesting to play. And instead of independent quest-zones that drop a pile of unrelated quests on you and then fade out, you get actual stories.

This is good. The rebuilding of the starting areas with the more modern production values and scripting abilities makes them a lot nicer to work though, and once you get into the shared content, the moments of awesome come a lot more often.

For example, a couple of days ago I posted:

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There is a Warcraft quest where you sit on a horse with an ! above your head and dish out quests to NPC morons who pass you. This amuses me.less than a minute ago via Twirssi

The rest of this post contains spoilers for the missions that branch out from “Welcome to the Machine”, a Horde-side L20ish quest chain.

I – and in this case I is Robane, Warlock of the Sunwell – had kind of run out of things to do in the Ghostlands and couldn’t get a 5-man group together to do the final dungeon, so I decided to get started on my professions. While in Silvermoon city dealing with my Engineering stuff, I found a Command Board (a new thing for the new patch, a thing that will point you towards level-appropriate quests, saving you having to work out where to go next) telling me that I should report to this place near Undercity. Previous experimentation had provided me a safe route to Undercity (ie, I had tried to walk, then discovered that the portal south from Ghostlands involved a TWENTY LEVEL AMBIENT MOB LEVEL JUMP which had repeatedly one-shotted me until I realised it wasn’t my tactics at fault) and so I finished crafting all the dynamite in the world, summoned my fiery steed, and galloped to report in.

Come in here dear Robane, have a cigar. You’re gonna go far and fly high as a ranking officer of the Forsaken. Yes, indeed, this is the good life and you are going to live it!

Both the mission title (“Welcome to the Machine”) and the first line (“Have a cigar”) are Pink Floyd references, which was a good start. So I climbed the Skeletal Steed beside me and waited with an exclamation mark on my head. I had reached the pinnacle of my career: I was an NPC. Sure enough down the track came three WoW player stereotypes, the clue-proof moron, the risk-averse gear-horder and the superior pretty-boy elf. Complete with Old Spice references:

Johnny Awesome

It was well written, it was funny, and I enjoyed the quest. I filed it under “amusing meta-referencing diversion” and went away. They told me to go to the mines, and I did so.

A few quests later, inside the mine while I captured some errant miners, there was a screaming in all-caps. I investigated, and it was one of the “Heroes” I’d sent on a quest. Surprised, I rescued him (and he tagged along, aggroing everything he saw, much like his archtype) and was blasted by an NPC at the end for not letting survival of the fittest take its course. I laughed, and went on.

One of the new things in WoW, relatively, is “phasing” where one of the fundamental “rules” of open world design is broken, and people see different things in the same place. One of these is the new Sludge Fields, where you do a chain of quests which actually shut it down as a base, including fighting and killing people who were NPCs. Actual progression. Anyway, during that sequence I ran into the third of my questors, Johnny Awesome, who had been captured and was crying because they’d taken his most valuable possession from him. This was fun, and funny, and I continued on.

There were unique quests with custom UI elements, big bad masses of angry slime, and… and a large orc in epic gear drowning. The last of my questors. I helped him out, and he was grateful, and explained to me what had happened… in a phased cutscene? Cool. Exposition in show-don’t-tell form!

And the cut scene was well written, and contained a traditional fart joke, and then his dragon was dying, and he was upset. He asked me to get some stuff to help, and I did. Slowly, the two dimensional archtype I had mocked at the beginning of the quest was actually turning into a character. I defeated gnolls to get the mushrooms to heal the dragon, and we went on a final ending quest. Full frontal attack of the people he’d seen in the cut-scene to get the Alliance war plans, and this had stopped being a meta-referencing mockery of Warcraft player archtypes, and was now an actual plot thing. At the top he held off the bosses – who I couldn’t even damage – while I grabbed the plans (and yes, this is a bit scripted, as I didn’t read the quest text properly and therefore tried to fight the bosses alongside him for a while until I realised that a) I couldn’t aggro them, b) He wasn’t damaging them and c) He’d been on zero health for a little while now) and his dragon pulled me out, then went back for the Orc Archtype.

Who died.

Because he isn’t a PC.

He got a final death speech thanking me for being a good friend, asking me to make sure his dragon got a good home, hoping he’d be remembered as a Hero of the Horde, and then he died on the back of his dragon. The NPCs at the other end were grateful for the plans, expositioned the plot for a little while, and then said he was a hero of the horde, he would be long remembered. It was, in fact, a legitimately sad and quite emotional moment in an MMO, a constructed quest chain that made the player feel that they had actually made a difference to the world – ignoring the fact that a thousand people could be doing the same quest chain right now, it’s the personal story that is important here.

So that’s what Cataclysm is, as far as I can see, it’s a rebuilding of large parts of the Warcraft pre-end-game world to make it flow a lot better, and to make the player’s personal story important in the grand scheme of things, rather than as an assistant to the NPCs who really matter.

And I quite like it.


By a factor of two

I am amused that the two personal accounts I use that have an option of two factor authentication are Paypal and World of Warcraft. Both of those use my phone (Paypal though a one-time code by SMS, with an application).

Halifax recently upgraded their system. Now, instead of remembering a username, a password and two of five facts about myself, I have to remember a username, a password I type normally, and a password that they ask for random digits out of, as if that’s significantly different from another password. In fact, the new password can only contain letters and digits, and isn’t case sensitive, so it’s a secondary *less secure* password. In fact, with new Halifax banking accounts being designated a username consisting of their surname and some random numbers, it’s now basically three passwords you need to remember, plus where you went to school.

I wonder if they’ve invested in 3M’s thriving Post-It note business recently.

Recently I was setting up a business bank account with HSBC. That _does_ do two factor authentication by default, with a device they send you in the post. However, the password was restricted to a subset of punctuation on top of normal auth. Worryingly, they specifically banned percentage, at, quote and semicolon symbols.

Two factor auth is technically and socially difficult, and doesn’t solve all the problems either, but three passwords to remember is even worse than one.

Computer Games

Games For Windows Live Undead, Marketplace Edition

“Age of Empires III is available for 10p”
Interesting. That’s probably worthwhile.
“On Games For Windows marketplace”
Ah well. Lets give it a go.
  1. Go to site. “10p or 10 points” Well, I have 200 points, use those.
  2. Sign in to MSN
  3. Enter credit card details. What? Oh. Can’t I use my points?
  4. Fine then. 10p to the Visa. May your transaction fees never be overcome.
  5. Yes. yes. Yes. Yes. Download.
  6. … That’s the games for windows client? Don’t I already have that?
  7. Fine. New version. I agree, I agree, I agree. Launch.
  8. Yes, download that new game.
  9. What? Yes of course install it. Why would I… nevermind. Yes, install it.
  10. What damned product key?
  11. Oh, right, there’s a “Game Keys” option on the panel. Yes, that one. Yes, that one. Copy, Paste.
  12. … I can’t paste it in? I have to type it? But it’s *there* in electronic format! It’s in your own damned client!
  13. Fine. Type.
  14. Correct. Enter.
  15. I agree
  16. I agree.
  17. Yes, first born, whatever.
  18. Play.
  19. No, that’s launching a window of the directory you installed to. I note with interest that’s not the hard drive I’d have prefered.
  20. Play.
  21. … Your play button actually launches the directory window, doesn’t it? Oh well done.
  22. Age3.exe
  23. Ensemble Studios Presents A Microsoft Game Studios Game Of Nvidia: The Way It’s Meant To Be Played
  24. Now my tea’s cold. Woe.

Single Sign On

Google Apps has a single signon API. This makes you think they value the concept of single signon.

Due to recent upgrades in Google Apps and other circumstances, I’m down from four regularly signed in Google accounts to just two. is a google apps account for mail, I had Nicholas@ this domain as a google account already, and I was using aquarion@gmail as my main account since shortly after I got a beta invite (Until AqCom was Google Apps, all Aquarionics email forwarded to my gmail account). Recent advances merged the nicholas@aquarionics google account and the google apps account.

What I want is to sign into Google.

Right now, I’m signed into my email & calendar using the apps account; and Reader and Youtube using my Gmail account. The new thing allows me to use Reader under google apps, but – crucially – doesn’t allow me to merge my Gmail Reader data with my Aquarionics data, meaning that if I start using the Apps Reader account, I lose all the data for recommendations, all the shared items, all my starred items and fuck around with everyone who follows me. I went though the sharing problem with Google Calendar when I moved over to that, and it was a ballache.

Docs is even worse. There’s no concept of moving ownership of documents from a Gmail account to an Apps one, so the only way to copy existing documents over is either to export and import (as word documents, ffs) or share from one to the other. Plus, right now if I go to my Apps docs store (logged into both gmail and apps accounts), and click a file that the App account can read and the Gmail one can’t, I get refused access because Gmail can’t see it. From the Aquarionics docs store.

Google: I want to migrate things to my apps account. I can migrate my calendar from exchange, I can migrate emails from an IMAP server. I can download or export every calendar, document, email or photo I have stored with you into local copies. You’re whining about Facebook being a lockin for contacts, but WHY CAN’T I GET MY DATA FROM ONE SIDE OF YOUR SERVICE TO THE OTHER?


Four More Things Recruitment Companies Have Done That Annoy Me

Looking at these, they actually apply to any company I deal with. Hey ho.

Answering an email by phone

My primary method for communicating is by email. If I send an email, I have a trace of when I last spoke to you and about what. I realise most people work differently, and treat phone calls as a “human contact” and feel better about it, but I like traceability and email. Plus, my flat has bad mobile reception. I do not want to have to start using a full multimedia CRM solution to keep track of which recruiters I’m dealing with, but it’s getting that way. Although even that is fouled up by the use of…

Unknown Numbers

When cold-calling clients I realise it might be a benefit if they can’t tell who you are and blacklist you before they pick up, but if you’re calling a client who is going to need to call you back at some point, it’s on the outside edge of unhelpful. Especially if you’re…

Not leaving a message

I use Hullomail instead of O2’s voice mail service. This means that when you phone me, I get a notification by SMS and an email “from” the email address associated with that phone number (assuming you’re not falling foul of the above) with your message as an MP3 attachment. I can then listen to it in the most effecting method for my current circumstances. Unless, of course, you don’t leave a message, in which case I have to guess and phone you back. If it’s an unknown number, I can’t, and if I don’t recognise the number then I probably won’t. Please leave a message after the tone?

(I realise some people don’t like voice mail services. I have a lot of sympathy for them when they’re my friends).

Getting My Name Wrong

When I introduced myself as Nicholas, and when you asked if it was “Nick or Nicholas” and I said “Nicholas” this was a hint. When I corrected you, this was a hint. This is a trivial annoyance, but with re-enforcement it makes me want to never talk to you again.

Computer Games Gaming

Four Pounds

When I was small, I had pocket money and a Commodore 64.

A shop in town sold Commodore Format and budget C64 games for around three to four quid. If I saved up – I occasionally did – I could buy a “full price” C64 game for ten pounds (I remember doing this with James Pond 2, after Commodore Format gave it the coveted “It’s A Corker” accolade). The games were piled high, and sold cheap. Even on the Amiga, games got released at the 25/30 quid price point and then after a few months you could grab them for a fiver on one of the budget labels.

As games have been made more expensive due to increasing costs of production (It takes longer to build a high definition level than it does an old one) games have retained their price point, roughly. Inflation from 1995 to 2010 is about 45%, meaning that in monetary terms a £30 game in 1995 would be a £45 game today, which fits with Activision’s vision of top tier game pricing. PC games new are apparently stuck at around 30 basic (~45 for a “Special Edition”), which implies that a million selling game in 2010 would make the same, maybe less, than a 1995 game allowing for inflation, which means that instead of more expensive games to make being more expensive to buy, we’ve ended up with more expensive games to make just being under more pressure to sell more copies. Selling copies is perhaps easier, given the retail pie is a massive amount bigger than it was in 1995.

The thing that’s interested me is Steam.

Steam is a DRM/Digtal Download system created by Valve Software and released for Half Life 2. It’s interesting because while it does provide a DRM system, it balances this with things that are a benefit to the user, not just the publisher. That is, the Publisher gets a reasonably successful DRM system, and the customer gets a discless install process, ability to access their games from anywhere (and saves, more recently) automated patching and integrated DLC, social aspects, matchmaking. It’s also replaced the traditional budget market, to some extent, as games on Steam – where the publishers wish it – will generally decrease in price as the game’s shelf-life decays. However, while the shelf-life of a game was always a literal space concern for retail, here it will fluctuate based on popularity.

The thing that triggered this originally was the release of “CODBLOPS” (Call Of Duty: Black Ops, recent followup to the incredibly popular COD: Modern Warfare 2), which made me want to go and finally take a look at MW2, to see if it was at a more reasonable price for a year-old game. It’s not. As of a couple of minutes ago, over a year after its release, it’s still at prime-retail day-one release price, £40, which is stupid.

When Valve did a 50% off of L4D about six months after release (Putting it to ~£15, as I recall) sales went up by 3000%. Publishers appear to be divided on the maths of this. From Valve’s perspective (and 2K games, which received a similar boost to 3-year-old Bioshock when they put it out for £3.50) a few thousand people who hadn’t bought their game in the last six months/three years decided to do so, and 3000% of a small number sometimes beats 100% of a larger one. Activision appear to still be attempting to squeeze as much profit from each individual sale, without dropping the price, on the basis that while people will still pay £40 for a title, it seems silly to drop it, even if ten times more people would buy it at, for example, £20.

Secondly, the bit where I don’t need to find the DVD to play Bioshock? Is valuable. Valuable enough to throw a fiver at Steam for a digital copy of it so I don’t have to anymore. Same for Civ4, Freedom Force and a few others. Games I own on DVD, but picked up in a Steam Sale anyway so they’re as convenient to play. The point where I did that was £4.

Bringing it back around, £4 appears to be a magic number. It’s the point where I’ll buy a game that I’m not sure about, or a game I already own. It’s less than an overpriced latte, and even if it only holds my attention for a couple of hours while I work out if I like it, it’s cheaper than a movie ticket (London, remember).

So some things really don’t change.


Three Things Recruitment Agencies Have Done That Annoy Me

Having entered the murky world of Contracting, I’m putting together a new set of recruiters, since my previous circle of useful ones mostly deal in permanent roles. These are some things agencies have done that annoy me:

Gone dark

If I’ve applied for a role, and you’ve put my CV forward, and they’ve given you feedback of the form “Good but not the one”, please do not “wait until [you] have balancing news” before telling me of this.

This goes double, triple, quadruple for interview feedback. One agency got told “We’d hire him now, but he’s too expensive with your fee” and instead of discussing negotiations with me, fobbed me off with “They haven’t got back to us” for a month until they hired someone else.

Fishing Expeditions

If I apply for a job that happens to go though you, it’s because I’m interested in applying for that job. I’m not really interested in being on your database as a primary objective, and phoning me up with roles outside my field (The top part of my CV consists of a long list of buzzwords I’m compliant with. None of Java, .Net, ASP, Mercury or Drupal are on it, whereas other things like them are. Guess why?) will not make me happy.

Fucking Around With My References

My references aren’t on my CV. As of this month, though, I won’t give them out except to companies themselves, not to agencies. Why? Because a recruitment agent asked me for my references “because a company asked for them” and then used them to spam high-level contacts in previous companies. Well done.


Red Chicken

Heat oil, some chop chicken, some garlic, some onion, fry.

Add some random spices to make spicy-fried-chicken base. Realism that the sour cream is more important than you thought. Give up on fajitas.

Turn down heat on flash-fry, find a saucepan and throw together a roux and then a white sauce. Put some water on for rice.

(A few months ago I decided that missing from my basic stock of “things I can cook with my eyes closed” was a white sauce. I know the theory, but I spent a few nights playing until I could produce a servicable white sauce by guesswork and feedback loop. This has served me well)

Add tomato puree, splash of ketchup and a bit of nutmeg for a basic tomato sauce (variant 3 “What do you mean we have no chopped tomato left?”). Combine red sauce with chicken for seven minutes while the rice cooks.



2010 Current Affairs


Same thing as 2008, although the number of survivors of WW1 has shrunk to four.

In World War One

  • Forty two million people were mobilised for the Allies
  • There were twenty two million casualties on the Allied side.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

In World War Two

  • Over 10% of the 1939 population of Germany were killed. 16% of Poland.
  • The soviet union suffered 10,700,000 military deaths.
  • The UK lost 382,600.
  • One of these was John Brunt

The point of Remembrance day is not war. It’s not really peace, either, and anyone using it to push any political agenda is doing the Service a disservice. It’s the unspoken social contract between those who go to fight the powers that would attack our country and those who survive: That if you go and fight, and do not return, we will remember them.

You may disagree with the current war, where the direct threat to our lands is diffuse and not really counterable – and possibly enhanced – by direct action in the lands of others, but this war is not all wars, and these reasons are not all reasons, and those that die of these decisions did not make them.

And so we remember them.



The rules of Bar Billiards

These are the rules of Bar Billiards:

You score until you bank, or screw up.

Placing a ball on the black dot near the front of the table, you poke it with a stick up the table. All the holes in the table have numbers, and the balls that you knock down the holes score the numbers indicated. If the red ball falls down a hole, you score double what is indicated. You do not record your score yet. If you have neither banked or screwed up, you go again.

If you have hit the ball and not screwed up but no balls went in, you have banked your score. Record it, add it to the board, hand over to the next player.

If the cue doesn’t hit any other balls, you have screwed up.
If a ball comes back behind the front line, you have screwed up.
If a ball goes off the baize, you have screwed up. (House rule: unless it comes back)
If a ball knocks over a white peg, you have screwed up.
If a ball knocks over the black peg, your recorded score goes back to zero, and you have screwed up.

If you screw up, it is the next player’s turn, and you do not get to record your score.

If all the balls are on the table, you play by taking the ball nearest the cue spot and playing it (from the cue spot).

Game continues until one or no balls are left on the table. At some stage the timer will end, stopping potted balls from reentering play, after which play continues as above (“all the balls are on the table”) until one or zero balls remain. If one ball remains, you enter sudden death.

The winner is the player with the highest score. The loser is the player with the lowest score. The unfortunate is the person who scored seven hundred points in one go before tapping the white peg over.

Sudden Death

If you only have one ball left, block off the top two rows of holes (leaving only the 100 and 200 score holes) and remove the white pegs. The aim is now to pot the remaining ball directly into the 100 or 200 hole, which is automatically banked and added to your final score. The red ball (double) and black peg (zero recorded score) function as normal. Each player gets a single shot, and the circle continues until the ball is pocketed.