More Portal

So, if the problem with the original Portal was that there wasn’t enough of it, the solution is probably Rexaura, a new mod for Portal 1 (Which it requires). It’s a new set of test chambers in the original universe, based around extended mechanics for energy balls, including one-shot redirects, balls that explode if you stop holding the button and energy gate switches they have to pass though.

Rexaura does a very good job of introducing you to its new concepts, all of which seem logically thought through (Caveat: I’ve not played though the entire set yet) and while the writing falls short of the original, it’s better than most games. If there’s a complaint, it’s that it tends slightly further towards the timing-based shoot-portals-quickly mechanics that Valve themselves steered away from for the sequel, but it’s still an entertaining series of new and original Portal levels, and well worth the nothing you’re paying for it.


Something Positive About Facebook

I’ve not had a great day.

I’ve got a rotten cold that’s filled my brain with cotton wool, my computer rejected a software update hard enough to require a system restore (Advice: Avoid Catalyst 12.1), I had to throw out dinner when it became obvious the chicken was out of date (which was after I’d spent the time making it), and I’m generally feeling like the universe was waiting for today in order to subdue any optimism I have.

But over the course of the day, starting yesterday afternoon as my Australian friends started the day, I’ve had a steady stream of trills from my phone as people from every part of my life and lives have wished me happy birthday, from family to people I haven’t seen or spoken to since I walked out of the office I worked with them in, though to people from Usenet, IRC, computer games and larp systems. A stream of people who give enough of a care to write two to five words into a text box on Facebook, which is nice.



> Sleep

You sleep. Time passes. Thorin sits and sings about gold.

You have levelled up! You are now level 31. You have one ability point to spend on a feat of your choice.

> Select ‘Gainful Employment’



Foxconn coverage

A short list of companies who use Foxconn manufacturing’s services and aren’t Apple Inc.

Acer Inc.,, ASRock, Asus, Barnes & Noble, Cisco, Dell, EVGA Corporation, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, IBM, Lenovo, Logitech, Microsoft, MSI, Motorola, Netgear, Nintendo, Nokia, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony Ericsson, Toshiba, Vizio.


A short list of Foxconn’s customers mentioned in articles about Foxconn’s working conditions:

Apple Inc in all of them, and “Xboxes” twice.

(Source, Doing a google news search for “Foxconn”, reading the top articles for each story on the front page, and a random selection of the non-top stories, around 20 in total)

Foxconn’s conditions are awful. The latest round of allegations makes me upset at what we do to human beings, and a lot of this coverage comes from Apple’s recent release of a report on how they have to do better by the workforce, but every Foxconn tragedy story I’ve read since they came to light has mentioned iPhones (Which is fair enough, they’re a good and well known example to use) and very few have mentioned any other company at all.

Notably absent from either of these lists is HTC, who do their own mass production. I haven’t seen any news stories about their factories, so they must be paragons of virtue.

computing Current Affairs internet media

SOPA for Brits

So, Wikipedia is shutdown today. Reddit, ICHC and a large number of other sites will be showing their irritation at SOPA and the concepts surrounding it by joining them in going dark for between 12 and 24 hours, US time.

Annoying, isn’t it, how these international websites are going dark internationally for a US law? Well, that’s kind of a large part of the problem. How do you define a site that is under US law? Is it where the servers are hosted? Is it where the company who owns the servers are incorporated? Is it where the person who accesses the data lives?

I (in the UK) rent a virtual server from Linode that’s hosted in London. Linode are an American company. I host an episode of the Daily Show, owned by an american company. Whose copyright laws apply?

In this case, SOPA defines a “Domestic” site as one with a US registered domain name (.com/.net/.org or .us) or IP address. So because my IP address is owned by Linode, it counts as Domestic under SOPA, but also because most of the domains that point at the server (but not all) are top level domains controlled by US parties.

That may not matter, since there is a precedent for charges against British citizens being able to be brought by US companies under US law and for them to be extradited to face them.

The reason why it affects us is that it starts to make a lot of resources unviable, because it places the onus of proof of copyright onto the “host”:

The owner or operator of the site is “committing or facilitating the commission of criminal violations punishable under section 2318, 2319, 2319A, 2319B, or 2320, or chapter 90, of title 18, United States Code.” Those sections primarily deal with copyright infringement and counterfeit products.

This means that sites like Tumblr and YouTube suddenly have a problem, because instead of the person who uploads a copyrighted image, text or video being liable for committing an act of computer piracy under US law, suddenly the websites are, and since the sites are far larger, more obvious and richer targets for lawsuits it will mean the cost of running a site where people upload things starts to have to include fighting thousands of lawsuits against copyright holders, while the user who lied when they clicked the “I have permission to post this” checkbox continues to do so.

It would be interesting to see what the percentage of YouTube/Tumblr etc. uploads that are copyrighted content is, and what percentage of that can be classified as “Fair Use” and what percentage of the rest the copyright holders don’t mind being published, since it brings more exposure. In addition, a lot of posters to YouTube seem to believe they *do* have the legal permission to post things so long as they post a magic mantra about “Not claiming any copyright on any of this video or characters or anything!”. If YouTube, to take a single example, is now legally responsible for every video it hosts, the simple “I’m allowed to post this” legal figleaf stops sufficing, and they suddenly need actual legal proof of copyright, and how do you prove that?

I have a video of tea being brewed,  which I took myself with my very own iPad. It has a soundtrack which I didn’t actually have permission to use, but which I replaced with a public domain track later. I *took* the video, and I can’t legally prove my ownership beyond a sacred vow that that really is the state of the tiling in my kitchen. My video channel also includes some dancing santas and a dancing raccoon suit. The wonder and the beauty of YouTube is, in part, that it’s quick, it’s easy, and it doesn’t require you to log your original tapes with a legal authority before uploading, which is what SOPA runs the risk of requiring.

You can argue that that’s fine, because Google’s huge and can afford to fight those bills, but I host websites on my little server, and if someone with an account on my server decides to upload a jpeg owned by someone else, the idea of me being personally and legally liable for it, able to be extradited to the US for prosecution for it,  is actually terrifying.

And this is hyperbole, to some extent. It’s the ultimate extreme of what the bill would require of hosts if it was misused by the large media companies to attempt to set fire to the stable and set a sniper on the horse, long after it bolted for the hills. They say, as they always say, that the strict rules and the draconian requirements are there not to use against ordinary people, but *bad* people. You know, those other people. They said the same thing about the DMCA when that came in, and those are horribly misused to break free speech, fair use, parody and commentary already.

There’s room in the world for better piracy controls and especially education on what copyright actually *is* and how and why it’s enforced, and for real actual *change* from both sides on how intellectual property and pure-digital creations can have proven ownership, but SOPA and its associated bills are a really bad idea that only really benefit the international mega-global media corporations who lobbied for it, and not just for the US, but for every person in every country that uses a US-based site and looks at cat pictures on the internet.


Recruitment 2012

Worlds turn.

I generally have great hopes for the time between jobs. I’ll finish personal projects, clean the flat, get to the holy prophesied state of no laundry *or* washing up.

So in the last month I’ve played some Skyrim, a lot of Star Wars, some Orcs Must Die, and rewatched the entire seven season run of The West Wing.

I’ve done work on Piracy Inc as well, I’ve got a new combat model which is far simplier from both sides than the previous six-axis stat-a-rama, but which doesn’t fit into my tech model very well. I’ve been working on, designed as a cross-system character white-pages, event organisation system and gallery. So far it has the character bit mostly working, though I need to play with the interface a bit more. The Story is a few thousand words++, although my attempt at a christmas chapter-a-day thing fell apart distressingly early.

Recruitment continues apace. I’ve got three interviews and a tech test today, which is a bit of an overload, but should work out all right. The first one is in about twenty five minutes, so I’m sitting in a Starbucks a few hundred metres from the office (Top interview tips: Wear clothes you’re comfortable in, have three questions ready to ask, arrive an hour early so you’ll *never* arrive late and also have time to gather calm around you before you walk in) with a Vanilla Spice Latte, an iPad and a 3G connection.

Wish me luck…

Computer Games

Star Wars TOR, and MMOs in general

I currently have ten job applications on the go, three are on the boil, two I actually actively want. Since experience has told me that I can hold motivations for around ten jobs in my head before I start going to interviews confused as to what company this is, I’ve mostly been playing computer games this week, alongside keeping ten applications active. So, I shall pad out the lack of content here with some reviews for a little while.

Star Wars – The Old Republic

I had no interest in TOR. I’m not a Star Wars geek (being a geek, I know a lot about it via cultural osmosis, and I’ve seen the movies, obviously) (I say obviously. Two girlfriends now have never seen the movies. It’s one of those statistical anomalies that crop up now and again, like almost every girl I’ve ever had a crush on playing the cello) until I got a chance to play it. I think that’s the thing that the tendancy towards Free to Play games is bringing to the MMO market, the ability to *demo* a game before you play it. Previously you had thirty days, or two weeks, in a trial you could blag off a mate with a proper subscription, but in real terms the heart of an MMO has a sweet spot between the end of the tutorial and the level cap, with ideally another one at the end game, and with most trial restrictions you’ll never see what that is, so often the best way to try an MMO is to play it in Beta, when the full thing is open for free.

SWTOR is a Warcraft Template MMO.

What is currently known as the Warcraft template MMO is an evolution of what was, before the great, lumbering, world shattering, doddering beast that is World of Warcraft came along, known as the Everquest template module. Evercrack, as it was known, ate lives. Destroyed relationships and jobs with equal abandon. Serious articles were written in serious places about the affect of addiction to Everquest on the world as a whole, and it ate the PC games industry for a while, as no magazine or website could exist without keeping up with the EverJoneses. Then WoW came along and ate its dinner while it wasn’t looking. Everquest itself, though, has it’s mechanical parents elsewhere. While it wasn’t the first major graphical MMO (which I’m counting Ultima Online as, for now), it isn’t really inspired by UO directly (they were in development, in secret, in parallel for a long time). The target market for it was RPG players.

Critical on system mechanics digression +1

The general meta-mechanics; semi-transparent turn based combat, skills as actions, hit points and damage calculations, quest-hub progression, equipment and inventory management are all pulled from computer-based Roleplaying Games (CRPGs) of the time. Temple of Elemental Evil, the tail end of the Ultima games, and a whole load of Not-D&D-Honest based games. Notably, though, Everquest was released six months after something changed the CRPG landscape radically, Bioware’s Baldur’s Gate. Far too short a gap than perhaps it needed. It’s kind of hard to relate to what was special about the first BG if you didn’t play it when it was new, but it turned CRPGs from dungeon-hackery where you visited the town to read some new text screens and advance the plot, to a fully realized world with entertaining characters and a deep and engaging storyline. Not that some games hadn’t aimed for the same lofty heights, but BG succeeded, and from it BG2 became a far more accomplished game, and Planescape: Torment became a far more accomplished story.

Everquest, for all it’s addictiveness (A word my spellchecker feels sure should be seductiveness), feedback loops and 3D graphics, wasn’t much more than a co-op CRPG in a persistent world, with a cruel and penalizing PvP system.

Wandering off into a Blizzard

One of the things Blizzard are great at is polish. Not just surface-level polish, but a fractal level of polish where every component part is taken and polished until it shines and sparkles. Diablo was a wildly popular dungeon hack-a-thon, and then they took every component part, every bit of feedback and used it to polish Diablo II until it gleamed. Now they are applying the same process to Diablo II to create Diablo III. The polished the speed of Warcraft II to create Starcraft. The polished the storytelling of WarCraft II & StarCraft to create WarCraft III. Then they took that and EverQuest, and started polishing until they got to WoW vanilla, which took almost everything EverQuest tried to do, and made it better. Corpse runs still existed, but were less annoying (fractionally). Quests were easier to find and complete without constant death. The reward feedback loop crunched and polished until the rodent-brain inside all their customers couldn’t help but press the button for more food.

and I may be some time.

As the years went by the genre stopped being Massively Multiplayer games. Blizzard kept polishing, adding more bits, and they gained ever more users from doing so. They refined epic battles from a massive ruck into a tightly coordinated tactics-based massive ruck, and people stopped building MMO games, and started trying to polish World of Warcraft instead. WoW has set the barrier to success so high that it’s tough to see anything that can be seen as a success next to it (Runescape and Lineage, possibly). MMO games that deviate from the WarCraft-template MMO are few and far between, and if they don’t catch on quick, they are abandoned without mercy (Auto Assault, Tabula Rasa, Dungeon Runners, Earth & Beyond, Asheron’s Call 2) although some survive (City of Heroes, Eve Online, more recently World of Tanks).

Electronic Arts haven’t had a great deal of success in the market beyond their first MMO game, the classic and venerable Ultima Online. Various attempts to get into the space by development (Sims Online, the cancelled Ultima Online 2, Earth & Beyond again), or by investment (Purchasing Mythic Entertainment, gaining the aging Dark Age of Camelot and the good-try-now-once-more-with-feeling Warhammer Online) have floundered and faltered a bit. One thing EA do have, though, is money. Money and a company who are really good at these RPG type of games: Bioware.

SWTOR is a Warcraft Template MMO

Just in case you’ve forgotten where we were before I digressed into a history of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. Bioware’s point of view on this, which I’m paraphrasing from an interview with Eurogamer, is that attacking it for being a quest-based, turn-based combat, skill-button, block-inventory, paper-doll equipment game is tantamount to docking marks from Battlefield 3 for having the same runny-shooty mechanics as Modern Warfare. It’s a Questy-Levely-based MMORPG, same as WarCraft. They are cut from the same cloth, and therefore they are the same kind of thing.

The problem is possibly that we don’t really have the range of terms we need to. MMO just means “Massively Multiplayer, Online”, at least some of which is redundant, and misleading. SWTOR  is an MMO, although if you get more than 64ish people in one area some of  you will be on a different server, unable to interact. At what stage is that different from Battlefield 3’s 64 player maps from a definition PoV? SWTOR is an MMO because it’s questy-levely and online, but Eve Online is an MMO and they are entirely different things. Is it because you need to be online to play it? Same as Settlers 7, then. MMO, it’s like pornography. You can’t define it, but you know it when you see it?

So, SWTOR is a game where you build an avatar and then go on quests for people, levelling up as you go. Other people are doing this at the same time you are, in one big world, and sometimes you interact with each other. So far, so WarCraft. So, lets swing around to the other side of this, shall we?

SWTOR is a Bioware/Obsidian Template cRPG

Closest match is, fairly obviously, the games Knights of the Old Republic and the somewhat more comprehensively reviewed (at least by me) sequel, but also if you’ve been playing Dragon Age 2 (Or the original, but less so) any time recently you’ll see the similarities. The slightly cartoony style, the light-side/dark-side morality system, even down to the ability to have an NPC companion follow you around, helping you attack things, and then disapproving of you numerically when you pick a sub-optimal conversation choice. It’s set in the same world a few centuries later, which explains a lot, and you do end up hearing about – and dealing with – some of the fallout from the previous games. This being Star Wars, they reached a high tech-level and then entirely stopped innovating for thousands and thousands of years, so the lack of progression between KOTOR and this isn’t a massive surprise. But the difference between playing this and playing a normal Action-focused CRPG is minimal. Most of the time you’ll be soloing, but when you’re not there’s a dice-roll based system for deciding whose conversation options are canon (your own light-side/dark-side and companion morality choices are canon anyway).

The CRPG thing isn’t entirely an insult, though. Every character, every stage of every mission is fully voice acted, giving the most moronic kill-ten-rats quest a place and presence in the world. Even this is a plus and a minus, though, as whilst it means the world is a lot more engaging, it does mean every single plotline is presented with the same level of weight, from the advancement of your own personal questline to the wishes of the annoying little weasel with the rat problem.

And yet it’s also unique

Telling stories in MMOs is a science under construction. In WoW, you start with your own race, but once you escape the tutorial into the rest of the world you’re bound up in the same story as everyone else on your side, and the overarching story is told by you being able to grab bits and pieces if you pick up the right quests in the right places.

Rift has quests in each zone as you progress that advance the world-story for you personally, but it’s still a matter of finding those if you’re lucky (or devout), and it’s one-set per side.

The Matrix Online had an ongoing story that actually advanced and changed the world as it progressed in real actual time, but that just left new players with a huge amount of reading to do before they could interact with the plot at all, only really rewarding the people who preordered and stuck though to the bitter end.

Lord of the Rings has the epic quest-line, a series of quests that follow on directly from each other that tell the story of the game and guide you from the start to the current level cap, interwoven with and referencing the LOTR series. If you miss a follow-on quest, there are various “on-ramps” where minor quests in a zone will get you to where you should be, and after every “book” of the main quest, cinematic keep you up to date with the story so far. Still, though, there’s only one story to tell.

When TOR was in development, they described it as “KOTOR 3-10”, and that they wanted to add the forth pillar to MMO games, that of Story. Well, the other three pillars are made from competent evolutions of WarCraft/EverQuest concepts, so there’s quite a lot – the whole value of the game, possibly – resting on the forth.

And it just about handles it. There are eight stories. Eight full-length, well crafted stories with lifts and crashes, set-pieces and crowning glories. At every point you’ll have quests you have that are offered to everyone on your side on this planet, but also your own storyline that only other Sith Inquisitors are on, and that’s the key.

And Finally

The game is polished beyond a doubt. The main core of the game, the base mechanics, are evolutionary rather than a revolution. It’s still a questy-level game where you highlight the dude you want and press One, Five, Six, Two, Three in sequence, where you are given a quest that requires four people and sit in general chat watching for LFG requests. It’s a Warcraft Template MMO. This isn’t to say there aren’t evolutions. Companions, for example, and the ability to send them off to sell your worthless loot like the dog in Torchlight. Or to send them on Crafting-related quests. Plus, there’s a rails-shooter minigame called “Space Combat”

But it’s WCTMMO with a Bioware CRPG bolted on as the storytelling engine, with crafted stories and interesting companions and betrayal and cunning plots. And there are eight of them, all with different companions and different  plots and different highs and lows, and while you’ll get bored of the planet-related stuff alongside if you do it repeatedly, there’s an awful lot of plot and story here to play.

It’s not a race to the end-game, at least not yet. SWTOR is a slight new thing, a Story Driven WarCraft Template MMO, which is a worthwhile thing, if it works. I’m not sure it’s a WoW beater. A lot of Gamers who are bored of WoW will probably switch to it, and be happy (Well, possibly not happy, there’s not the basis for obsessive stats-wunk yet), but a lot of WoW’s base is actually non-gamers, for whom WoW is the only thing they play, and if they give up on it they might just stop entirely.

First twenty minutes

Finally, when I got into the beta I wrote notes on my experiences. Notably, after about half an hour or so the notes fade into nothing and I got stuck into playing the game for several hours without realising. That’s generally sign, I think. Anyway, notes of a Jedi Knight (contains minor spoilers for the first three minutes of gameplay of the Jedi Knight class):

It starts with a 30 Gigabyte download, which is a little harsh.

First view is a cinematic that sets up the state of the universe – Sith Army has just returned. After that, choosing a side (Sith/Republic) gives you another extended cinematic to introduce you to the ideals of the faction. Republic (Good, Truth, White, Losing) or Sith (Evil, Lies, Scars, Winning).

Picking a class/race combo (I went for Jedi Knight. Predictable, but it’s what a lot of people will do. I went for a blind thingy over human or Twilek though) throws you in to the big traditional STAR WARS! Big Opening Theme! Yellow Scrolly Letters! opening, which is fun and by this point you’re really drawn into the universe (as if you didn’t know it already) and your part within it, cinematically.

Text was a bit hard to read at the default resolution. Upping the res made everything a lot easier to read. (Double check, can I do that before I get into the game?)

“All Able Bodied Jedi to the training grounds”, excluding the NPCs just outside the door? Odd.

…and the ones in the building right next to Derren

Clipping on the taxis is a bit crap.

I’m getting out of a taxi that’s already vanished! I’m wonder woman!

Mission going fine. Killing doodz appears to work. I like the combat, it’s fast and hitty.

Hmm. Did I miss a thing explaining how the focus mechanic works? There are a load of tutorial things down the right that appeared without me noticing them. Also, there’s no distinction between “MMO 101” and “Hey, a unique combat mechanic”. Not distracting me is fair enough, but I hadn’t even realised they existed. I should read them.

Oh noes! DBShard Disconnected From World!

Pretty please could the movies not play if I’ve seen them already?

(And then there was nothing, like a million voices cried out at once, and then were suddenly silenced)


Happy New Year

There’s a tradition where every couple of years I update my Geek Code. I’ve been doing this since 1998, and the Code has been getting steadily less in touch with modern geekery ever since, but it’s an interesting metric to measure my life by. So:

GCM/GCA/GPA     d+(-)   s+:+    a       C++++   US++    P-      L++     E---    W+++++  N+
o+      K       w       O--     M+      V-      PS++    PE      Y+      PGP++   t       5+
X-      R+      tv(--)  b+++    DI      D++     G++     e+      h-      r++     y?

If you want to compare it to years past, the whole load of them is up here, but there are a couple of trends I find interesting. Not only the slow growth of the W(ebmaster) section. I make a point of not looking up my previous codes while I’m making the new one, so occasionally I reevaluate my position on something accidentally. I get a documented disillusionment with the X-Files.

But the least obvious missing thing in the new code is a lack of dollar signs, which indicate things you get paid to do.

I’m no longer at Languagelab. It’s all amicable, but they don’t need me right now. So, as of around now I’m back on the job-hunting trail.

I started 2011 contracting as Istic.Networks, which is what I’m aiming to do now. A contract with Languagelab turned into a full time position, which ate my life for a while. During the summer I spent a lot of weekends at Larp events, starting a position as referee for Profound Decisions’ Odyssey campaign, which I enjoyed immensely and should have written up more. Work ramped up over the autumn, but nothing really changed much. I had a nice christmas, and spent a quiet New Years Eve watching Harry Potter movies with my girlfriend on the sofa, which was nice.

2011 started and ended without a regular source of income, which is worrying me a little, but wasn’t that bad a year on average. 2012 could bring some stability without me complaining too much, though.