Three Years of Random Waypoint

WordPress made sure to remind me that today is a special day:
3yearsblog_wordpressgrats
Three years ago, I started Random Waypoint with my first post. I had just left my raiding guild, and for the first time in years, I felt directionless when it came to MMOs. Well, I guess that’s not completely true, because I had already started feeling like that for some time before I left the guild, but inertia kept me playing.

Since then, it’s been an up and down here, especially when it comes to posts. Phases of almost-daily posting or at least two-to-three-times weekly are separated by long periods of silence. So I’m happy even more about people who keep my blog on the back burner and continue reading when I pop up again. I’m not very good at writing regularly on a grand timescale, but I still enjoy doing it now and then. Every now and then, I even genuinely like posts that I have written!

Since it’s time to look back, and since wordpress provides some neat historical data, what better to do than show some plots?

More plots, more plots! (Click to enlarge; goes for all of them.)

Posts

postsRed diamonds on the timeline are posts. Since the beginning three years ago, I’ve written 186 posts, which means about 0.16 posts per day, or 1.2 per week. That only tells half the story, though. Since this blog goes through phases of activity and phases of silence, I identified them in the timeline: The grey areas are times of activity. You can see that I started enthusiastically, writing posts very regularly for about 10 months (from July 2011 to May 2012). I then had my first lull, and came back just in time for the first anniversary. It felt weird to write a “happy anniversary” post as the first one after two months of silence, though, so I didn’t that year. I went back to posting regularly for about 4 months, before I fell off the face of the earth for an extremely long time: my longest break up to now was from November 2012 to July 2013, a full eight months with only two posts in-between! Again, I came back just in time for the anniversary, and again, it didn’t feel appropriate to write a post about it. (It seems there is something about the dog days of summer that drives me to write blog posts. No idea why.) Since then, I’ve gotten into an on–off routine: 4 months of posting, 2 months of silence. Going by that rule, you’ll get some semi-regular reads until November! Even this time around, I only came back just in time for the anniversary, but this year, I was curious enough myself to crunch the data. Coming back to the beginning, while I wrote 1.2 posts per week over the lifetime of this blog, if you only take the active times, we get an average of 2.1 posts per week. That’s pretty close to the unofficial “2 posts per week” minimum that I have in my head.

Views

OK, so we’ve seen what my posting behavior is. How does that influence views? In fact, how many views does this blog get, anyway?

It’s not a huge-volume affair, but it gets regular traffic: I’m close to 10,000 views now. As I’m writing this, the counter is up to 9,788 views. That’s about 9 views per day, or 52 views per posts. Of course, these are again distributed very unevenly. Time for another plot!

viewsFirst things first: writing posts produces views. Surprise! It would be very sad if it were otherwise. Because then I’d have to assume only bots came by. That said, even during times of inactivity, some low-volume traffic remains. I assume these must be bots that are not filtered out by the wordpress statistics, and people who prefer to check the blog directly every now and then instead of using an RSS reader (you can also use Twitter now to get notifications).

You can also see a good example of how it takes time for a blog to take off. Even though I posted a lot in the beginning, it took a few months to attract regular viewers. I’ve been considering selecting some of the better posts from that time and reblogging them as “reruns” during lulls, because some of them never got much attention.

The amount of traffic that a post produces is both very irregular and almost completely unpredictable. Posts you spend ages on tinkering to near-perfection don’t make any impression, while a fast throwaway comment makes your status updates blink like a Christmas tree. This is probably nothing that comes as any surprise to those who write themselves. Every now and then, a post can get 60, 70 views within a day. Even more rarely, things go crazy. There are two events that dwarf the rest of the daily-pageviews statistic: (a) marks my top day in views in the last three years. One of my posts got mentioned on the MMO Melting Pot, and directed a lot of viewers over here. This wasn’t the first time I got mentioned on the Melting Pot, and it wasn’t the last either, but something must’ve been special about this one. Maybe it was the right post at the right time, or maybe it was a windfall of something larger happening. Maybe the MMO Melting Pot, in turn, had just gotten mentioned on a very large site? We’ll never know. (I miss the Pot, by the way. It was a great way to find new blogs.) (b) is an event that puzzles me. I have no idea what happened. Checking the logs, it looks like just a lot of random pages being accessed. Maybe it was an unfiltered robot, or somebody got really interested and went through a lot of posts.

These days, every new posts gets around 20–30 views within the first 24 hours. On the downside, that means that, when I give a lecture, I have an audience 5–10 times as large. On the upside, I’m pretty sure that my readers are much more interested in what I say than most students. My readers even come voluntarily, and without an exam to guilt them into the lecture. (That would be a funny thought, though. An MMO blog exam. Hm….)

Speaking of my readers, I have to thank them for being so faithful, even during the times of silence, and always coming back. While I try to follow the rule of “write for yourself, not for others” (which is one of the reasons that, when I really don’t feel like it, I just don’t write for myself), it’s a great motivation to see people reading, and especially commenting.

Miscellaneous

To finish with the statistics, let’s have a look into the most viewed posts, popular search terms, and other random tidbits.

Top Posts

The most famous page on this blog is, obviously, the home page. Many people either surf directly to the blog, or they click the blog link (instead of a post link) when they see a new post has been published. 3,764, or 38.5%, of all page views are for the home page. Since this doesn’t say much about which posts are popular, let’s disregard that information. The Top 10 of posts, only counting views of the post pages themselvesm, from the last three years is:

1 EQ2: Simulating the Level Cap Experience Before the Level Cap 258
2 So I applied to EVE University… 239
3 The Totalitarianism of Progress-Focused MMO Gaming 235
4 PS Vita Test 217
5 No Heart for Shotacon 178
6 Pilgrimage to the EVE Gate 170
7 An Example of a Good Dungeon 158
8 Another one bites the F2P bullet 142
9 What I’m not playing: LotRO 119
10 So… It’s Kung Fu Panda After All? 115

Most of these posts are from 2012. That means they had enough time to collect extra page hits over the last 1–2 years, but they’re not from the very early time of the blog when there were little readers (and linkers). Again, the list shows that it’s hard to predict how popular a post will be: there are some longer and more “theoretic” posts in the mix (number 3 or 7), as well as some simpler “this is what I’m up to” posts (1, 2, 9). The largest surprise might be numbers 4 and 5: I wrote the PS Vita Test posts simply because I had played around with a Vita at Sony Building in Tokyo before the official release, and felt like I had to at least write something about that, even though I hadn’t followed news on the Vita at all. The “Shotacon” post was a short half-serious, half-tongue-in-cheek remark about TERA’s Elin, and why they only come in female versions. I wouldn’t consider either of these posts exceptionally good, but they both seemed to benefit from a buzzword in their title. Which gets me to…

Top Search Terms

This is actually less interesting than it sounds. Sadly, google has stopped giving search terms in their referral links, so these days, I don’t have much information about what people searched for to end up here. However, the top two search values were “PS Vita” and “shotacon”, which confirms my guess about why those two posts ended up in the Top 10. I also feel like a lot of people searching for the latter term left disappointed…

I don’t seem to attract any outrageously weird or funny search terms. Some of the more offbeat ones are:

the best swashbuckler ever in eq2 (you called?)
dead hooker juxtaposition (I’m… not even sure I want to know.)
blue öyster cult (Must be my user icon.)
flosch taste (refined! what else?)
is it possible to reach the eve gate (Be my guest and try, but you might not have enough time until the next server downtime.)
“can not/cannot” grammar (yes, that is one of my pet peeves.)
where can i find shotacon games? (not here. And yep, that one left especially disappointed, I bet.)
город гоблинов (Hey, I understand that! And I didn’t even need Wilhelm’s help! Here you go.)
panda hardcore (I really, really hope you don’t mean that kind of panda hardcore.)

Top Referrers

This one was actually quite tricky, mostly because blogspot uses ccTLDs and you end up with all sorts of referrers that look different, but are the same: http://www.bhagpuss.blogspot.com, www.bhagpuss.blogspot.de, and bhagpuss.blogspot.com.au all show up separately in the logs. With the help of some perl scripting magic, I came up with the following top referrers in the last 3 years: (note: I removed search engines from the list; they don’t count in my opinion.)

1 blessingofkings.blogspot.* 1325
2 mmomeltingpot.* 676
3 nilsmmoblog.blogspot.* 529
4 bhagpuss.blogspot.* 396
5 playervsdeveloper.blogspot.* 232
6 raging-monkeys.blogspot.* 216
7 Google Reader 80
8 tagn.wordpress.* 77
9 biobreak.wordpress.* 72
10 hzero.wordpress.* 55

It’s interesting how four dormant or defunct sites still managed to make it into the top ten: The MMO Melting Pot hasn’t been stirred in almost 10 months; Nils’ MMO Blog has had only 3 posts in the last 14 months; Syl has since renamed Raging Monkeys and moved to another domain; and Google Reader suffered a much-lamented death. Of course, that might have to do with my regular posting breaks. However, even dormant sites can still produce traffic: for example, Nils’ Blog still is used by many people as blogroll, it seems. It is still in the Top 10 referrers for the last quarter.

Overall, blogspot blogs seem to produce more referrals than wordpress ones; I assume this must have to do with their rotating blogroll that shows newest posts at the top, something that can’t be done with wordpress unless you host it on your own server (which is why you can enjoy it on my page, yay!).

Random Waypoints from Around the World

Since early 2012, wordpress also collects data about which countries viewers come from. This produces another nice figure:

3yearsblog_countriesI cut off at 10 views, because the picture got unwieldy enough with the white space to the right. What surprises me most, I think, is how high on the list Britain, Canada and Australia are. The UK even beats Germany! (A result you haven’t seen in football for a long time *rimshot*). I guess I just assumed I’d get more German hits because the domain ends in .de, but then again, all posts are in English, so it’s maybe not such a big surprise. Canada and Australia mainly surprise me because neither country, for all their land size, is all that populous. It’s also quite funny that I have 15 hits from Hong Kong, but only 1 from mainland China. I’m probably blocked or something. Also, Switzerland finishes on a strong 8th place. I have a hunch who’s responsible for that!

Final Random Stats

Longest post: 3871 words, Allegiance, Betrayal, and Oh So Many Warning Boxes!
Shortest posts: 18 words, “Homefront” on Steam…
Most commented: 12 comments, What I’m not playing: GW2
Most revisions before finally published: 91 revisions, Allegiance, Betrayal, and Oh So Many Warning Boxes!
Most revisions before finally published (and not also the longest post): 76 revisions, Authenticators! How Do They Work?
Most used category: General Game-Related Blathering
Least used category: City of Heroes (and that one isn’t going to grow any more, I’m afraid.)

Final Thought

Off to another three years! I wonder whether this blog will still be alive and kicking then. No other way to find out than to continue!

Silly Shirt Idea

Back when we started running Molten Core 7, 8 years ago, we had a lot of fun, despite, or maybe because of, the fact that Molten Bore was somewhat… repetitive. It lent itself to cruise-control raiding (except maybe on Ragnaros… “group up the sons, group up the sons!”), so there was ample time to have fun and goof off.

One of the mainstays was, of course, that people wanted one specific item of loot, which wouldn’t drop week after week after week. Back then, I came up with this idea for a silly shirt. I never got it made, although I was close to it a few times. Then I realized, “when am I ever gonna wear it?” These days, it’s hopelessly old-fashioned, and even many current WoW players won’t get the joke any more, but I still like the idea, so anyway, here it is:

moltencoreshirt

For people who don’t know WoW: Burning Pitch was a vendor trash item that could drop from all mobs in Molten Core (and fire-based enemies elsewhere, so it wasn’t even unique to the raid). Almost everybody walked away with one or more after a raid night, because you had to loot stuff. You couldn’t skin the Core Hounds for their precious Core Leather unless they were looted, and the designated guild skinner (with Finkle’s ready) repeated his mantra many a time every run: “Loot ze hounds! For ze love of god, loot ze hounds!” (Or it would’ve sounded that way if I had been the guild skinner, which I wasn’t.) Burning Pitch was the consolation prize you walked away with to at least cover a small part of your repair bill. The font is Arial Narrow, WoW’s standard chat font, and the colors the standard orange raid chat and gray for a poor quality item.

15 Games From 25 Years, Part 2

Yes, I am a horrible blogger. I do have some excuses why it took me more than a month to finish part 2 of this series, but they can’t really explain all the delay, so I won’t even start. So, let’s just ignore it took me 40 days to finish this post, and, without further ado, just dive in:

9. Starcraft (1998)

For being one of the few (and the last) RTS game I played through without getting bored.
starcraftRTS games came at a weird time for me. I was still attached to the old-style point-and-click adventures, and 2D platformers. But when Command & Conquer came around, I played it quite a bit. At least I played the single-player campaign. Because back then, in 1998, there wasn’t much multiplayer gaming around that didn’t involve split screens. But soon enough, RTS games bored me. Always the same: build up some structures, amass an overwhelming force, then attack and crush your enemy, and all of that wrapped in a repetitive story. Until Starcraft came around, that is.

Back then, the story-telling within an RTS was amazing to me. Every mission, every cut scene seemed to have an insane story turn. I’m sure that my memory is exaggerating this in hindsight, but I remember that I believed that the story was awesome. It was what kept me playing. Because, at its core, it was same-ol’-same-ol’: build up structures, amass an overwhelming force, crush your enemy. Except for the special missions. Those had an almost RPG-like feel and were quite fun. But after the single-player missions, I was done and moved on to other games. With fond memories, and a short return for Brood War, sure. But it seems RTS as a genre is not for me, if not even the game that was played professionally for over a decade could keep me interested long-term.

10. Half-Life (1998)

For being one of the few FPS games I played through, and for showing that FPS can tell a story.
halflifeIn the first part, I said that FPSs never interested me much. Partially because I didn’t like their twitch gameplay, partially because I sucked at said twitch gameplay. But mainly because most of them came with godawful single-player “storylines”. (I needed to put that in quotes, because, really.) Half-Life was different. It started with a normal work day (sure, in a very much non-normal work environment, but still), and there was no shooting at all in the first half hour; instead, the time was spent on telling a story. The hero was an unlikely candidate for an FPS (and, granted, required some suspension of disbelief to work), and to top it off, there was a sense of mystery with that suitcase man appearing and disappearing.

Thankfully, I could *cough* procure a US version of the game (statute of limitations! Plus, to cover my shame, I actually bought the game a couple of years later, when I got the chance to get an English version), because the release fell into the “Dark Ages” of German game publishing: Because the rules on computer game violence were so strict and well-enforced, and because game companies feared loss of sales more than changing their games for the German market, Half-Life was changed. Extensively. Basically, all enemies were changed into robots, because shooting robots is cool, obviously (won’t somebody please think of the poor robots?!), and all non-enemy humans “fainted” when you shot them. I don’t even know what story they came up with for the robot invasion… thankfully, it seems that these days, the overbearing censorship has been dialed back quite a bit. Haven’t heard of a game being changed for the German market in some time. Maybe the publishers realized that teenagers don’t buy games anyway if they want to play them, and being put on the index doesn’t hurt much.

11. Grim Fandango (1998)

For being one of the best stories in point+click adventure games and a swan song for the genre, and for its great visual style.
grimfandangoWith the 90ies coming to their end, the classic adventure style of point+click faded from the limelight, too. Lucasfilm Games and Sierra stopped producing their hallmark series, and it wasn’t until some time later that smaller studios surfaced to fill the gap with quality replacements. Grim Fandango was maybe the last jewel by one of the large players. The story of love, betrayal and financial and political scheming is set in the Land of the Dead, which (I was told) is modeled after Mexican folk tales of the afterlife. It was a captivating story, but that wasn’t everything. The game was so perfectly set in a mixture of only-possible-in-dreams architecture and real-world Art Deco, with a soundtrack to complement that setting, that for style alone, this game would’ve earned a place on the list of best adventure games of all times. I mean, just look at that wallpaper!

Grim Fandango may have come closer to perfection than any other adventure game I ever played. And in some way, it is fitting that the game is set in the Land of the Dead, and ends with the way from there into the underworld. Because after the swan song of Grim Fandango, the curtain for adventure games on the big stage fell for good.

12. Diablo II (2000)

For playing so excessively that it probably single-handedly cost me at least one undergrad semester.
diabloiiWhen I picked up Diablo II in the summer of 2000, I was underwhelmed at first. Sure, it looked like a nice game, but the graphics resolution was so low that it hurt, and it just felt very incremental, nothing new and shiny, just a bit more of everything that had been there in Diablo (and maybe I had played the first installment a bit too much in the late 90ies). For a year, the game spent most of its time on the shelf, until the expansion came around, which, among other things, featured higher-resolution graphics. That did it for me, and from that time I was hooked.

I spent endless nights (and sometimes days) bringing my mage up to high level, then my paladin, then… at some point, I started collecting unique items compulsively. I even had a list of every unique and set item in the game, and ticked off every new item I got. My goal was the “holy grail”: find one of each of these items. Needless to say, I never finished that. I spent a lot of time on it, though. (Fun fact: did you know that only a handful bosses could even drop unique versions of the Sacred Armor type, and to add insult to injury, there were two unique Sacred Armors, with one being 8 times rarer than the other? I must’ve been crazy back then, thinking I could ever finish the grail.) I probably spent half a year playing Diablo II most of my waking time. Only WoW came even close to that obsession later. I also never seriously played online. I tried once or twice, but it never appealed to me. I stayed a single player.

13. Ultima Online (1997)

For keeping me away from online gaming until WoW came around.ultimaonlineI was a latecomer to the MMORPG party. I found it unfathomable that, if I wanted to play a game, not only would I have to buy it, but then also have to pay a fee. Every month! The craziness! These days, there are many people who’d rather do that instead of getting interrupted by annoying advertisements, or by obviously disruptive game mechanics that try to have you pay at every corner.

My natural curiosity, however, made me try out one of those strange games when I moved out of my parents’ and into my first own home. For the first time, I had a sizable amount of money available to me every month, much larger than the pocket money I had before (yeah, I was lucky my parents financed me and I didn’t have to work while studying other than as research student assistant because it was interesting and to earn some nice-to-have extra money). Of course, I had to finance everything out of that, but I lived frugally and had leftover money to buy all sorts of entertainment crap if I lived off cheap food. So, which game would be better suited to an Ultima fan to try out an online game than Ultima Online? It sounded great: a living, breathing world to explore and live in!

Of course, my curiosity is only one of my natural traits. Another is a stubborn insistence to not to things the easy way and how everybody else does it, but to do them differently just for the sake of being different. So, obviously, I decided that I didn’t want to become a fighter in UO, because I could do fighting in most other games, right? (The fact that I was killed by a rat the first time I entered the Britain sewers might have helped with that decision.) I decided to become a merchant. To do that, I’d have to craft stuff to sell. And to do that, I’d have to gather materials. I thought smithing sounded nice, so off I went to mine. And I mined. And mined. And mined. And soon I was so horribly bored out of my mind that I couldn’t look at cave walls any more. I wasn’t used yet to what we call “grinding”. This was supposed to be the great online experience? In retrospect, I think I just did it completely wrong, but I didn’t know better back then.

I stopped playing within a week. I was not going to pay this outrageous monthly fee to play the most boring game I had seen in ages! And that was that for online games for me. I barely considered any other online titles for years. Until…

14. World of Warcraft (2004)

For prodigious reasons that, if it were to summarize them, this subheading would have to be as long as the following text itself, contrary to usage.
wow-iniquitous-nefarian-down…to adapt a quote by the amazing Umberto Eco.

Oh, World of Warcraft. Where do we start? You were an important part of my life for six years (as sappy, or pathetic, depending on your point of view, as that sounds), and to me, you are what Everquest is to the older generation (or to those that started playing online earlier): the first hit whose rush we’re chasing after, trying to find it elsewhere.

After the letdown of Ultima Online, I wasn’t convinced I’d ever try an MMO again. For several years, I ignored the genre, and it wasn’t until my year in Tokyo that I picked up a copy in a shop in Akihabara, the nerd nirvana. (The irony of starting to play WoW in Final Fantasy XI’s country of origin does not elude me.) To make a long story short, I found a great guild, we had lots of fun, guild broke up, guild partially reunited, people moved on, I moved on, game lost its charm some time during Cataclysm. So much, so normal and boring.

But there are so many things that I can’t forget, maybe similar to what other people experienced, maybe not. The first time I left the Valley of Trials, and I realized that that area was just a tiny part of a zone, which was just one of dozens; when it hit me that this world was seriously large. My first, utterly incompetent dungeon run. Being picked up by my later raiding guild around level 30 after a Scarlet Monastery run (“I don’t know if I want to commit, I might stop playing again soon” — “just try it out, no hard feelings if you leave”). The headrush when I finally killed my last demon for Rhok’delar. And of course our guild’s high point in Vanilla, killing Nefarian in the autumn of 2006 (the picture is from that night). And so on, and so on. I still have contact with some people from that first guild. But what am I telling you, half the blog is based on some memories from my WoW days. You find them peeking around every corner. And finally, without WoW, you couldn’t even read anything here: my leaving in 2011 was one of the reasons I created this blog. It says so in my very first post ever.

15. Portal (2007)

For showing that short and small games without lots of content can be great.portalFor a long time, I was stuck in the “blockbuster mindset”: the bigger and longer a game, the better it must be. That’s strange in a way, because I started shying away from the blandness of blockbuster movies early on. I was always more a Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch guy than a Steven Spielberg one. Nevertheless, there is a certain logic to the thinking: with a movie, the difference between a 90-minute and a 150-minute movie isn’t significant enough in time to make you consider the “money-per-hour spent” ratio too deeply. With a game, it can be quite important whether you’ll get 6 or 60 hours out of it, especially if the price is the same.

Portal was different, though. As far as I know, it was a lucky random occurrence, thought as a mere bonus to Valve’s orange box, a collector’s-edition-like version of Half-Life 2. But the game developed a life of its own, and I’m probably not the only one who bought the orange box specifically because of Portal. (I don’t think I ever played Half-Life 2 for more than two or three hours; though that might not be fair, because I heard the game is actually quite nice.)

The thing with Portal is that it is so good exactly because it is so short: you can easily finish it within one extended sitting on a weekend evening, maybe taking a short break in between, like they have at the extra-length movies, just without someone asking you whether you’d like an ice cream (it never hurts to have some in your freezer, of course). Being able to finish the game in one sitting and witnessing its story unfold in those few hours gives the game the sense of immersion and immediacy of a good movie. The story isn’t watered down because it’s frequently interrupted by those pesky work days that keep you from playing. You absorb it in one go, and then can ponder about it later, if you want to.

I still haven’t played Portal 2 (though it’s been in my Steam library for ages… story of my life, and everybody else’s, it seems), but I heard it’s not as condensed and takes longer to finish. I wonder whether it can still deliver the same feeling of immediacy that the original could.

 

And that’s it! Here we are. 15 games, 25 years. If I ever get around to it, I might make a small “bonus post” with a list of games that I wish had influenced me, but didn’t, because I didn’t get around to them until years down the road.

15 Games From 25 Years, Part 1

I think it’s been over a month since the idea first showed up in my feed reader: name the 15 games that you feel were most influential to you. I thought it was a really cute idea, but didn’t have time to get around to it. Then it showed up a second time. Then a third time. I liked the idea more and more, so I created a dummy draft post. Now, after everybody and their grandmother has done it, I finally get around to doing it. It seems to be my thing: writing about topics when others are done with it, playing games years after their release, and so on. If I fail my PhD, I probably should apply for a job at some magazine that runs these “What ever happened to X?” columns.

It actually was quite hard to pick 15. The first 10 or so were incredibly easy. Then the troubles began: should I pick game X or game Y? Which one was more worthy of a spot? Should I maybe just cut the list at a point that felt natural to me, or extend it? In the end, I decided such lists are there to make you pick and choose. I guess it’s what Sid Meier calls “interesting choices”.

Once I had done this, I had another choice to make: how to sort the games? I thought about ordering them from least to most influential, but ran into problems. Was SimCity more influential than Metroid II? Starcraft than Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis? That didn’t work. I could have gone with chronological ordering. That works if you’re always at the vanguard of game development and releasing, or if you want to simply give a list of games in a historical overview. But this is about how influential games were to me. So, to me, the best way is to follow Rob Gordon and sort them autobiographically. Especially because, as I already said, I sometimes only get around to games months or years after their release. Because of this, while I give the release dates, they won’t be in order.

So, what then does “influential” mean? It can mean a lot of things, and there can be wildly varying reasons, big or small. A game can simply have been my first video game. It can be a game that opened up a genre to me. It can even be influential in that it kept me away from a popular genre for good. I’ll try to point that out for every game I list. So, let’s get this going, finally.

1. Battle Chess (1988)

For being the first game I had to hide from my parents.
battlechessI got my first computer, a PC, in 1990. Well, it wasn’t technically “my” computer. It was a family computer, so my parents used it for word processing, and I learned how to program QBasic on it. First steps towards becoming a computer scientist, I guess. It had been a hard fight. I had wanted a computer for a long time. All my friends had Amigas, or at least NESs. My parents, however, weren’t very interested in technology. It might be too harsh to call them Luddites, but they weren’t that far off. As the first child, I also had to fight for a lot of things that my brother got a lot easier later on. We had a TV, but I was only allowed to watch very limited program, and not much. My parents weren’t fans of computers, either. They didn’t feel like they needed a word processor, after all, they had a typewriter. (In their defense, the first word processors were barely better than a typewriter, so I can kinda see their point in hindsight.) So I had to beg for ages. When my parents finally relented and we got a PC, I held up my side of the bargain and worked seriously with it quite a bit. I did the programming that I mentioned, I tinkered until I destroyed the operating system install (probably several times).

And of course, I played games. Now, that hadn’t been part of the bargain, but my parents were no idiots. They knew it would happen. I had a couple of games like Sokoban, which I liked and my parents approved. Battle Chess was the first game that I had to hide from my parents. You see, they didn’t endorse violence. Violent computer games probably were the main reason they fought against getting a PC for so long. So Battle Chess was not approved of in our household. You killed the pieces when you captured them! Of course, it was all cartoon violence, in a way. But it was in a new medium, and who knows whether that wouldn’t turn me into a ruthless killer? I think I can now confidently say that it didn’t. But it was the first game out of a bunch that I hid from my parents for fear of disapproving frowns and maybe even groundings. As I said, my parents are no idiots: with time, their “no violence” doctrine softened. But I hid those “violent” games just as well as (a couple of years later) the pictures of scantily-clad (or not-at-all-clad) women. Oh, puberty! But that’s another story and shall be told another time. Or, come to think of it, maybe not.

2. Gargoyle’s Quest (1991)

For being the first game that showed me that games could tell a story, even a simplistic one in hindsight, and for pushing me to learn English as fast as I could.
gargoylesquestOnce we finally got a computer in our home, things progressed at breakneck speed. Just a couple of months later, I got a Game Boy for Christmas from my grandparents. (I hope I get the continuity right here, I’m can’t remember for sure which one was first, PC or Game Boy. But it fits the storytelling better this way, so I’ll go with this order.) Years later, my parents told me they hadn’t been happy with this at all, but what was done was done. My first games were the plain and simple type: beat a level, progress to the next one. Story? What’s that?

Gargoyle’s Quest was the first game I owned that told a story. It was a disaster in the beginning. I couldn’t beat the first stage, which was what we’d call “overtuned” today. (Every other stage felt simpler than that evil first one!) Thankfully, I got a one-year subscription for the Nintendo Magazine with the Game Boy, and a couple of months after I had gotten the game, they published a code that let you skip the first stage. From then on, it was smooth sailing. There was a world to explore! I had played games like Zelda before at a friend, but they don’t really work well for playing together, plus my friends were more into the simpler games, so this was the first time I was exposed to a deep story in a video game, or what passed for it in my mind those days. I was hooked, and from then on, games needed depth to interest me.

Of course, there was the tiny problem that the game was in English. I had to run to my parents all the time to have them translate for me, which they did dutifully, but I could tell they were immensely bored by it. Gargoyle’s Quest is probably the first time I felt like I needed to learn that strange language, and when English classes started in school the year after, I dug in.

3. SimCity (1989)

For learning to love the simulation genre, and for helping me figure out that I am no Richard Bartle.
SimCityI think this is the first simulation game that I played. It was easy enough so that a ten-year old with limited understanding of English could grasp the concepts. I loved planning my city, building it, and seeing it run. I loved it so much that, in fact, I tried to create a board game version of it for playing when my parents chased me off the computer. I created lots of tiles (residential, commercial, industrial, roads, etc.) to place on a map. I failed miserably trying to come up with a system to manage cash flow, though. All that behind-the-scenes management of revenues and expenses, which was done by the game engine, was voodoo to me. I’m still not all that good with money, but I blame part of that failure on being 10 years old and only having a very limited understanding of finances. But one good thing came out of it: my failure showed me that designing games is hard. SimCity 2000 came later, and expanded on the original. After that… let’s just not talk about it.

4. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992)

For having the greatest story I played up to that point, which would have been worthy of being the fourth Indy movie.
indy4Gargoyles Quest had showed me that games can tell a story more complicated than “your princess is in another castle”. Indy 4 taught me that those stories, told well within the limitations of the medium, could rival those of movies and even books. Having three distinct ways to finish the game, while probably less than impressive to someone who started their adventure career with Maniac Mansion, was something I loved. I learned that games not only have limitations in storytelling, but also tools available that books and films do not (except if you build everything around it like, e.g., in Run Lola Run). To this day, I think that Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis would have made a great movie, and it’s a shame it never was to be. And it’s obvious which of the three paths the movie should have picked: Team all the way! Sophia Hapgood rocked. I might’ve even had a prepubescent crush on a pixel character back then. While you had to rescue her more than once, she was still leagues above the typical cardboard cut-out damsels in distress of her time.

5. Metroid II (1992)

For understanding how a relatively small world can contain so many wonders to someone without access to playthrough guides or out-of-game maps.
metroid2Metroid II, the only installment of the series on the Game Boy, is often panned as the red-headed stepchild, only saved from being the bottom of the barrel by some later abysmal spinoffs, or so the story goes. Me? I had never played the original Metroid, so I had nothing to compare it to. I personally loved the sense of exploration in the game. The strange thing? Look at this map. Doesn’t look all that large, right? But without any in-game or out-of-game map available, I managed to lose my way so many times that it felt much, much larger. I think it took me months to complete the game, because I tried to search every nook and cranny for powerups and those elusive last metroids that triggered earthquakes to open up additional areas. When I saw that map for the first time, I couldn’t believe how small it was.

6. Final Fantasy Adventure / Mystic Quest (1993)

For being the first RPG I played, and for being engrossed in a great and long story (for a Game Boy game).
mysticquestThis was one of my all-time favorite Game Boy games. Many people seem to agree: it often features on “Top X Game Boy titles” lists. And it’s easy to see why: for a Game Boy game at that time, the story was captivating. There was a real sense of progress by leveling and weapon/armor upgrades. There were cities, deserts, woods and dungeons to explore. Of course, it was still a Game Boy game from the 90ies: if you play it today, you can finish it in a weekend (which still isn’t all that shabby compared to its contemporaries). It wasn’t all that nonlinear, either: most areas were cordoned off until you finished a story line part that awarded you the special ability to clear those trees, crush those boulders, and so on. In fact, it even cordoned off areas behind you at times. Nevertheless, at that time, it was great. While I never played all that many classic RPGs, Mystic Quest (as it was called in Europe) was the game that warmed me to the concept of number-based progression. And then there was the music, of course. Somehow it seems the Japanese producers understood best what to make with the limitations of the 8-bit age.

7. Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (1988)

For showing me that a zany story beats dated graphics.
zakmckrackenI think we’re seeing a trend here. I favor games that tell a story, because that is what I tend to remember. Zak McKracken was the first “vintage” game I can remember playing and having lots of fun. Now, don’t get me wrong, at the time of release, the graphics weren’t all that shabby. But by the mid-90ies, it looked very dated. I loved the humor at the time, though. I think I was old enough by then to get a good deal of the cultural references in the game, something that would’ve gone over my head back when the game was released. It also was the first time that I beat a copy protection on my own. Back when we are were poor teens and games were traded back and forth between us, those copy protections always proved pesky. You either needed a “warez” version or become creative. With ZakMcKracken, I borrowed the black-on-dark-brown copy protection sheets, used the school scanner and Paint Shop Pro’s “levels” tool to make a high-contrast copy, and printed it out. I felt extremely wily that day. Good thing there’s statutes of limitation and I can now write about that. These days, I have money to buy my games, and Steam makes that a lot easier, too.

8. Quake (1996)

For showing me that I suck at FPSs and that I didn’t like their paper-thin story.
quakeThis is the first game on my list that influenced to me in a negative way. In effect, it soured me on most FPSs to come after it.

Quake was one of those games that the cool kids played. Well, that’s actually not quite true. At least in my area, all computer gamers were nerds. So playing quake made you something of a cool nerd, which is more the equivalent of the one-eyed amongst the blind. The game had a bit of a reputation because not only was it all about shooting things, it was mostly about shooting people. Or their characters, in deathmatches. I remember playing it in the school computer room. One upside of not having any competent computer science teachers was that the administration fo the computers was mostly done by a select group of school nerds. And with that power, who could prevent them from installing Quake on those machines? Pirated copies, of course, because even if we had had the money to buy multiple copies, none of us was old enough at that time to legally buy the game (it was on the German index, so no sales to minors).

The problem was that I sucked at the game. I was truly, genuinely horrible. Around that time, User Friendly was a big thing in web comics, and I felt like I was Stef: always getting killed, spending half my time in some lava pool, and so on. So I tried to get better, brought home a copy, and tried to play the single-player campaign. That was a horrible letdown. I’m not even sure it had any story to speak of. I realized that I didn’t want to train to stay competitive, because in the end, the concept of FPSs just bored me. Quake was the game that once and for all put me off FPS deathmatches.

Alright, that’s it for now. Because this is already one of my longer posts, I’ll talk about the other half next time!

In Which SOE Surprises Me

And this time, in a good way.

On Friday, I got a 7-day pass for Landmark. I didn’t get around to it until Sunday evening because, you know, Easter and all that. And it didn’t work. It was somewhat weird, but I couldn’t get to the download page that their link was supposed to send me to. Annoyed at being (yet again) foiled by SOE and their website, I vented on twitter. (What is it with SOE and their website, anyway? When information doesn’t disappear, as Wilhelm often points out, there always seems to be at least some part of it broken at any given time.)

Yesterday (and, let’s be fair, that was the first office day again after Easter), I actually got contacted via twitter by Omeed Dariani, who is Senior Brand Strategy Manager for Landmark. Now, if I only knew what exactly that is… but it’s similar to a community manager I guess? So maybe that makes him something like Landmark’s Ghostcrawler or CCP Guard?

Anyway, being actively searched out without submitting a bug report was surprise #1. I’m not sure whether that’s one of the things that just happens on Twitter? Anyway, we got to talking (as well as you can in 140 characters), and I promised him a detailed bug report, even though the original bug had disappeared by then. And when I promise a detailed bug report, I write a detailed bug report. So I wrote him a nice one, complete with screenshots of the web site to highlight the problems, and a nice netcat/openssl trace to show the quadruple(!) HTTP redirection happening to their download link from my location. I’m not sure how much that actually will help them, but my limited experience with bug hunting is that traces from remote users never hurt, because there’s so much stuff that you can’t test properly if you’re sitting next to your own servers.

But now comes surprise #2. Within three hours, I not only got a refreshingly non-canned response. (They seem to be pretty good with that on the Landmark team at the moment. Dave Georgeson’s intro video also pointed out some obvious things that nevertheless many developers don’t like to say, like “Open Beta is pretty much release these days [so don't hide behind it when you lack polish]“.) On top of that, I got, as  a little “special thank you”, an Explorer Pack key.

I was genuinely surprised. This is actually pretty awesome. It’s not only a non-trivial present money-wise (I think they still cost $60? Not that I had planned to buy one, but still), it’s also a nice token of appreciation.

Being the suspicious person that I am, I tried to figure out whether there were ulterior motives. I already thought about that when I got the 7 day pass; I don’t think I had ever applied for one. But I’m not famous on twitter (go look at my follower numbers, I dare you!), and my blog? Looking at the page hits… nope. So I’ll take it as a genuine thank you, and an appreciated one at that. It’s also fortunate, because I haven’t had much time to play at all yet — I think all I managed so far was create a copper pick — and that pack means I can check back at my leisure.

Now, the bad thing is that the sandbox building game genre is something I haven’t really warmed to yet. There is a chance I might not play much Landmark at all. But hey, now that I have a second chance to look at it, I probably will. It will give me the chance to maybe at least visit some other bloggers’ homes eventually, in case I end up sucking at the whole building thing myself. Syl, bhagpuss, I’m looking at you!

Wide Range: Game and Church Music?

Easter-time is over. I hope you collected some eggs, or feasted, or, if that’s not your thing, at least enjoyed the four-day weekend.

For me, Easter (and Christmas) mean visits with the family, which include church. Now, I won’t go into my personal stance on that too much, because it’s one of the best ways to completely derail arguments and get zealots on all sides worked up. Let’s just say I grew up Catholic, and these days consider myself neither a devout one nor an atheist. I’m just somewhere in the wide area in between, walking around towards one or the other pole over time.

Why am I saying this? Because what you grow up with forms you, and as a Catholic, you may develop a very particular and keen sense for two things: ceremony and sacral music. The first isn’t all that important right now (I might talk about it another time in relation to games, if I find a good point to start from), but the second is surprisingly important, also in relation to games. But I don’t even want to talk about that now (note to self: do talk about church music in games or influencing games at some point). That I like music, you might have gathered from earlier posts…

So why am I saying this? Well, I am lucky enough to live in a city with a cathedral. Having a cathedral with a bishop around means it’s really easy for me to get my “fix” of both ceremony and sacral music when I feel like it. The cathedral has a large pool of choirs and instrumentalists to pull from, and there’s a solemn mass with choral and sometimes orchestral accompaniment every week. That naturally leads to music from a wide range of composers being performed, from Renaissance to modern, with sprinkles of Gregorian, of course. It’s an awesome way to broaden your cultural horizon for pretty much free of charge. They publish advance programmes, and if something interesting shows up, I make a note in my calendar.

This time, I found a mass by Kentaro Sato in the programme. My japanophilia made me look him up. Wow! His work list sounds interesting. Turns out he’s a composer of both game and church music. That’s pretty cool! I like that combination. I wonder how many other composers spread a spectrum that wide. I would imagine that the prejudices on both sides are not very conducive. “Killer games” vs. “religious nut jobs” and all…

I think I know where I’ll be next Sunday morning.

That’s all. Sorry if I bored you.

8-bit Tunes And Why We Are Chasing Them

If you have a similar blog roll as I have, if your RSS feed features a lot of people like Syp or Syl, then you inadvertently have run across a lot of post that showcase the authors’ favorite game music tunes. Have you ever noticed how a lot of them seem to be from the “good olden days” of 8 or 16 bits? Why is that?

Undeniably, sound quality has gotten better over the years. Most games these days have full symphony orchestras at their disposal. So why is it that those primitive tunes are stuck in our head?

The Nostalgia Hypothesis

One plausible argument is that it’s simply music from when we were younger, and that nostalgia is playing a trick on us. While the music is objectively worse, we hold it in high regard because it subconsciously reminds us of our childhood or youth.

That is an interesting point, but in my opinion, it’s completely wrong, bollocks, utter shite, patronizing, selling that music short. Yes, game music these days has a lot more budget – and with it choices – at its disposal, but, in a way, that’s what makes it less memorable. It’s just too similar to film music.

The Uniqueness Revelation

In my opinion, there are two reasons that make this game music from the 80ies and early 90ies so memorable. Both of them have to do with the technological limits of the time.

One is that music was not saved as PCM file. That was way too large, from a data perspective. Instead, what you published with the game was a rough description that you fed into a synthesizer. Even today, you can find a niche mod tracker scene that keeps alive this concept. This meant that you were severely limited in what you could play, typically to maybe 4 notes at the same time (8 notes if you were lucky), and “notes” in that respect included percussion and sound effects in the game. (Hint if you don’t know much about music: you need three notes to even produce the major/minor chord that has been the fundamental basis of western musical harmony for at least 400 years.) This limitation leads to a focus on the fundamental melody. In contrast, a lot of film music diffuses into a barely tangible wash of harmonies that never seem to go anywhere and melts in your hand like rancid pudding; blame Wagner and what came after him for that (yes, I loathe Wagner; different topic). 8-bit melodies are great because they never lose their focus, because they can’t afford to.

However, that’s not even the most memorable thing about that music. If you listen to contemporary game music, especially big-budget, it’s almost indistinguishable from big film music. That’s not entirely a good thing, though. Except for very avant-garde 70ies music, the sound of 80ies and early 90ies consoles and other computers was completely unique: even 80ies synth music was different. In a way, the sound chips of that era, while they often tried to emulate existing instruments, created a completely new sound space, virtual instruments that had never been there before.

In that way, that early game music is some sort of cultural heritage that is unique and only existed as state-of-the-art for that short moment in time, before technology caught up again. That it’s still, maybe more than ever, cited in low-budget indy games, is a testament to its uniqueness.

[EVE] Unintended Consequences and Unfortunate Timing

So, CCP rolled out Rubicon 1.3 for EVE Online this week. In totally unrelated news, the New Eden Open tournament is two weekends in. The finals will be this weekend. How do these two relate after all? Let me quote CCP Fozzie:

Currently there is a defect that causes the Crucifier to apply a 10% bonus per level to Tracking Disruptor optimal range and falloff disruption, rather than the correct 7.5% per level. This only affects the range disruption effects, not the tracking disruption.

There is also a defect that causes tracking disruptor scripts to not affect the falloff disruption values of Tracking Disruptor modules. This means that a Tracking Disruptor will always reduce target falloff by the same amount no matter what script is loaded.

The fix for these bugs will not be ready to apply to TQ until Monday [...].

I’m not deep enough in the know to judge whether that’s a big thing or not, but it sounds like one. For a highly-trained character (and I assume that’s what all tournament pilots are), the Crucifier temporarily boasts a 50% bonus instead of 37.5%, or 6km additional optimal range, and 3km falloff. That sounds like quite a bit, and can potentially change the power of certain group compositions that the finalists might have planned to bring.

I know CCP likes to handwave problems as “unintended consequences”, to the point where by now that phrase has become their version of Blizzard’s “working as intended”. But instead of dropping a major upgrade in the middle of tournament that thousands of people follow on live-streaming, wouldn’t it have made sense to delay it for a couple of days?

Instant-85s in EQ: But which to choose?

That didn’t come as a huge surprise. After EQ2, SOE is now also rolling out “Heroic” Characters for EQ with the following properties: “level 85 with a full complement of gear, Alternative Advancement Abilities, and a unique mount.”

OK, so the details are still a bit fuzzy: what quality does the gear have, how many AA do you get? Though, truth to be told, I don’t think that matters much to me. EQ was a game that I never get around to playing in its heyday. I’ve tried Project 1999 before, but I think I stopped around level 5. I blame it on being distracted by a squirrel or something.

However, just like with EQ2, for a limited time, you can get your instant level 85 for free. That’s a price I’m willing to accept. It would be nice to have a high-level character. I don’t think I’ll get around to level it much, but I could use it for sightseeing. Run around low-level zones, check out old raids, things like that.

The problem, of course, is: what to choose? There are so many classes! I guess, in the end, it doesn’t matter too much if all I want to do is travel around and look at things. But that has never stopped me from fretting about the choices.

Maybe an enchanter? I like the idea of the class (it was my Project 1999 class, after all), and they get spells to lull/pacify enemies. That might be useful if I screw up.

Or a druid? Traveling spells, like a wizard, but also evac. That’s not only useful for getting out of bad situations. I imagine it might also be great to get out of dungeons fast after I explored them.

What about a magician or necromancer? If I end up wanting to level the character, I’d probably be served best by a certified soloing class. Then again, I don’t think it’s very likely that this will happen. Plus, neither are all that great for groups, or so I heard. And the only reason to level from 85 to cap, solo or not, is to play in groups at some point, right? Besides, they’re both pet classes, and I’m not a huge pet class fan. (On the other hand, high-level enchanters are probably even more extreme pet classes with charms that can break at the worst time.)

I’ve also been thinking about a bard. I tried one on the Fippy Darkpaw time-locked server when it was opened. But other than the fact that I like the concept of bard classes in games, I don’t see anything especially appealing that would make a bard a great explorer. Except run speed, I guess, but with mounts around, I wonder how much that even matters.

Then there are all the other classes I don’t know anything about. Maybe one of those would make a good choice, too.

Hm. Can anybody with EQ experience give some suggestions?