Category Archives: General Game-related Blathering


Finally! As of one hour ago, I now have Internet at my place. Not slow, limited, cellphone net any more, but actual DSL with decent speed. (Also, my furniture got moved into my new apartment today, but… priorities!)

Limitless joy! I can now do and play whatever I want, without worrying about bandwidth and monthly volume! I can… I can…



… right.

But tomorrow!


Small Game Saturday: Touch Pianist

Now, hold your horses. The title might make it seem like it’s going to be a regular series. We both know that this isn’t going to happen with my erratic posting schedule. I’m also generally not a huge fan of “casual games”, or what passes for that. However, it’s Saturday, and a nice small game was brought to my attention, so, at least this Saturday is Small Game Saturday!

The game in question is called “Touch Pianist“, runs in your Browser, and is like Guitar Hero. But it’s for the piano instead of the guitar (duh), and it uses just one button. What sounds like a pretty dull idea is actually quite fun. I’m not sure it still passes as a game, per se, but it’s good for an afternoon of entertainment and potentially even some education.

If you turn your screen by 90 degrees (or alternatively, your head), you can see where my comparison with Guitar Hero comes from.

If you turn your screen by 90 degrees (or alternatively, your head), you can see where my comparison with Guitar Hero comes from.

I played the piano for many years, and as halfway decent at that, without trying to sound immodest. Most of the stuff available in Touch Pianist I could play on a real piano back then (except for fugues; fuck fugues…). However, I stopped almost completely 15 years ago when I moved out and couldn’t take the piano with me. These days, I’m missing the practice to properly sight-read most stuff, so Touch Pianist is quite fun. It reminds me a bit of my very first driving lesson, where my teacher told me to steer, and he’d take care of the pedals and the shifting. Touch Pianist takes care of the notes, and all you have to do is the rhythm.

Which is easier to say than to do. Some pieces, like the “tutorial” moonlight sonata, are slow and have regular arpeggios that basically just require you to hit a key as regularly as possible. But once you get to pieces with trills and cadenzas, and switching meters, it becomes a different animal. On the other hand, these are more interesting to play: especially the Chopin pieces allow you to create a genuine interpretation of the piece, even though all you do is control the rhythm.

Rachmaninov's hammering chords are clearly visible in his Prelude op. 23 no. 5.

Rachmaninov’s hammering chords are clearly visible in his Prelude op. 23 no. 5.

For me, the hardest part is not having the score in front of me. With pieces I don’t know, I have to guess the rhythm by the distance between the dots, instead of looking at the notation. Also, if the rhythm or meter changes suddenly, I regularly run over and only realize when it starts to sounds wrong. Nevertheless, it’s very addicting for such a simple game. I played with it for about an hour straight before I had to stop: the constant scrolling of the dots and the background gave me motion sickness. Something that could be fixed in the next version, maybe?

Give it a try! It’s fun for a lazy weekend afternoon. You can find it at

I’m above average and get an ugly card back

Oh look, there’s a lot of dust in the corners…

Ahem. Anyway. You know how, when you spend a long time working all the time, and then the work is suddenly over? You end up just sitting there, wondering what to do with your time again. Because you forgot how to leisure. Staring at the walls, idly surfing the web, wondering at the end of the evening what you’ve actually done all night. Feeling unable to cope with your free time. Feeling bored. The last one shocked me most. I never felt bored with my free time in my life before, ever! Well, except that one time I was stuck at an airport for 40 hours without anything to read, but I’d hardly qualify that as free time in the original sense…

I’m slowly getting back to the point where I know how to waste my free time in style. The first game I pulled from the proverbial shelf was Europa Universalis IV. Pretty nice game, and great if you’re trying to come down from a long strange trip of wrecking your mind over a dissertation. It’s complicated enough to at first trick you into thinking it’s not a game at all. If there’s any interest, I’ll write something about my games. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth whose western borders eerily mirrored the Iron Curtain. The Palatinate which owned half of Germany, plus Denmark and Sweden. And the Ottoman Empire that is working hard to restore the medieval Caliphate (work in progress; The French–Aragonese Kingdom is giving me a hard time). I think I spent about 150 hours on those games. EUIV is about to take the crown of time investment from Skyrim.

But since variatio delectat, and I seem to not be able to focus on games for extremely long stretches as it used to be back when I played WoW, I got meself a side game.

Enter Hearthstone. Which is probably a horrible idea, because starting such a game over a year late means that I have to play with only basic cards against people who spent a year grinding their deck full of epic and legendary cards, which are simply flat out better. It’s also a weird choice for me, because it’s a PVP game at its core. Sure, there are some PVE portions (and I actually spent €22 on the game for the Naxxramas single-player adventure), but they’re really more an afterthought. You play cards against people, first and foremost.

Color me surprised, then, that after less than two weeks, I ended the current season of April in the top half of all players:

Tauren Warrior Stomp!

Tauren Warrior Stomp!

Well, yes, just barely. And it probably tells you more about people who only played an evening the whole month, and people who are flat out horrible at clicking things on computer screens, than about my proficiency with the game. Although I guess I could’ve progressed further up the latter if I had cared about it enough. Which I don’t, I basically just play games at the moment to get F2P currency from the daily quests, and that’s it.

Oh, I also missed the supposedly very important message in fiery decal in the background, because it disappeared first when I clicked the screen. So I might never know what extremely important message it wanted to convey. (edit: By the power of reddit, I learned that it was merely an ad that the last wing of the Blackrock Mountain solo adventure had opened.)

As a present for being so incredibly awesome, I got a present. Well, in fact, it would have sufficed to reach rank 20 for that, and you can’t lose rank 20 once you attained it, so you get that reward for just playing enough during a season. And like all “participation prizes”, it’s appropriately ugly:

But won't that make the cards sticky?

But won’t that make the cards sticky?

Seriously? A cupcake? OK, I admit that the previous season designs were very much a hit-and-miss, but they didn’t have a freaking cupcake on them! I feel a bit cheated for not starting the game earlier. On top of not having awesome cards. Rubbing it in, Blizzard, eh?

We’ll see how long my infatuation with Hearthstone will last. Potentially long enough for Blizzard to siphon another €22 off me for the Blackrock Mountain Adventure Packet (by the way, it’s really annoying how you cannot buy these in other shops where they, by rule of thumb, would cost much less). It’s a nice game to spend 30 minutes on every now and then, I guess. Though it can be very aggravating if you’re unlucky with card draws and just sitting there watching your enemy pull out Emperor Thaurissan or Majordomo Executus or… Hogger – to add insult to injury – and wreck your face with it. But then again, there’s nothing better than beating someone with those cards if they end up with rotten luck of the draw. Schadenfreude!

Another Blizzard Rant

For historic reasons, I have two accounts. If you have read my blog for some time, you know that I started playing WoW on the US realms when I was abroad for a year. After I returned to Europe, the time difference made it very hard for me to raid; I had to look for the handful of EU-timezone guild scattered across all realms. When the last one I was in folded, I went over to EU, but for that I created a new WoW account before unified accounts ever appeared.

I would’ve loved to take my characters with lots of history with me, but no. The whole “you can’t migrate from US to EU, ever” was probably the thing in WoW that caused me the most strife and pain. Reason supposedly being the EU and US divisions being so separate that there wouldn’t be any way to do that.

So color me surprised when I logged into my US account for some unrelated reason and I figured, “I could just add my phone to the account, like on the EU one”, and this happened: error message: "This number is already in use on another account. Please use a different number."

So, let me get this straight. You cannot, ever, transfer characters between EU and US because the divisions are separate entities and there’s no way of transferring the data; but as if by magic, my US account can figure out that my EU account has the same phone number bound to it?

What. the. hell.

I mean, this doesn’t even make sense because you might want to have several accounts for some reason, or two people might share the same phone (unlikely, but definitely not impossible). I  don’t even see why this should prevent you from registering the phone.

But on top of that, it’s just another big “screw you” for people like me. I don’t even play WoW any more, but that feels like still rubbing it in. “Oh, we’re only two separate entities when it hinders you. If we can further hinder you by being only one, we’ll do that.”

MMOs making the cut

A short while ago, I finally bought an SSD for my PC at home. I just couldn’t stand the slowness any more (especially TSW’s loading times were getting ridiculous), and when I saw that Samsung had finally gotten around to producing 1TB SSDs for a relatively modest price, the decision was made.

If you ask why I think that I need 1TB of SSD storage, well… first of all, as a reader of this blog, I wonder why you’d ever think I could do with less! I set 200GB asides for the Windows system partition, another 50GB for my Linux root partition, and with the magic of marketing GB sizes, that left  700GB of data partition area. Since the first two partition sizes were non-negotiable, even a 512GB SSD would’ve left me with way too little space to even keep a modest collection of games ready to play. (I kept the old HDD, of course, but seriously, who wants to go back to THAT other than for longterm storage?!)

I decided that I wouldn’t copy all my games over to the SSD immediately, but rather on a want-to-play-now basis. Interestingly enough, about two months later, there are still only three MMOs on that SSD. Three. I’m surprised myself. Those three are TSW, EVE Online, and LotRO. And the latter, I only touched once in that time: It had a really weird audio bug where all ambient and fighting sounds would stop after about two minutes. I couldn’t solve it immediately,  and wasn’t motivated enough to invest time into it.

It’s interesting to see how I seem to have gone back to focusing more on a single games at a time, as opposed to PLAY ALL THE THINGS at once. Then again, I feel the itch coming back, though not specific enough to try out any of the games yet. DDO? I remember the dungeons fondly, but the skill customization was a mess. RIFT? I never seem to play it more than half an hour before shelving it again for several months, so what’s the point. FFXIV? I feel too behind the curve to be able to face random dungeons through the finder, and from what I remember about the game and my progression position, that’s all I can look forward to.

So maybe not. Maybe I’ll try to fix that LotRO bug again… maybe play another Hobbit through the Shire. Best area in any MMO I ever played, probably.

Only Paying Bodies Count

This post started as a reply to a post by Azuriel, but got out of hand quickly. So I made a blog post out of it. Since it’s a reply though, you won’t be able to understand much unless you go and read Azuriel’s post, which is a followup on Wilhelm’s post, which in turn looked at a report by SuperData Research. Go and read the two blog posts (they’re worth it) if you haven’t already done so, I’ll wait.

Now, I think Azuriel makes one mistake. The report mentions a data set of  36.9 million users, but it doesn’t say anywhere that all these users actually played a subscription MMO, let alone pay for any subscription in that time. I don’t think there is a direct relation between market share and those user numbers. What counts is the money. Look at the revenues, and you can try and “guess backwards” to figure out the number of users.

Now, I have to warn you: there is very little data available on exact subscription numbers and how they contribute to revenue. So at many points, I had to try and guess what I considered reasonable. It’s not quite as bad as a Fermi estimation, but the numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt.


An example: what is the average monthly spending for a WoW user? Last I checked, the US subscription rate was $15. Some players will pay more, some will pay less. That’s due to currency conversion rates, long-term subscriptions, or buying a sparkle pony. (The fine print seems to say that item shop revenue is included.)

If you now take WoW’s $1.041 billion, and divide that by $15, you end up with 5.78 million users on average over the year. That’s too low on users. Conversely, if you take the 7.6 million users that Azuriel mentions, you end up at an average of $11.41 per user per month. That’s too low on per-user revenue.

Or maybe it isn’t. There was probably a bunch of people on the Diablo III annual pass for a good chunk of the year, which they had paid for in 2012. I have no numbers on how many of those passes were sold, but I remember huge invite waves for the Mist of Pandaria beta (which was part of the annual pass package). So let’s just say 1 million users did not pay at all for their WoW subscription in 2013. That’s handwavey, because probably, most users who were interested into the annual pass probably bought it early on, and the annual pass was released in October 2012 (if I remember correctly). But that means even those people didn’t pay for subscriptions for 10 months during that year, so close enough.

That leaves 6.6 million paying customers. Which means $13.14 per user per month. Now we’re getting close. A 3-month subscription is $13.99 per month. Some will have 1-month subscriptions and pay more, some will have 6-month subscriptions and pay less. There will be some revenue from the item shop, but I can’t imagine that the big revenue generator for WoW. So this sounds reasonable.

edit: I was an idiot and off by a year on the annual pass thing. MoP was released in 2012, so handing out an annual pass in late 2012 with the prospect of a beta invite isn’t such a good deal if the expansion is already released… let’s look at the Chinese/Western split instead.

Or maybe it isn’t. WoW, more so than many other Western games, has a strong foothold in China. Or at least it used to have. The number thrown around is typically 50% of the players being in China. I tried to find numbers for that, but I couldn’t really, which is a bit disappointing. What we do know is that the Chinese market has fared considerably worse than the Western recently. There are two articles in Forbes from 2013 that Chinese players have been leaving in droves to other games. That’s good news for Blizzard, because the market isn’t nearly as profitable. Let’s just assume that, of the 7.6 million players, 5 million at this point are from the West and pay the monthly subscription. At an average price of $14/month, that provides a revenue of $840 million. Still $200 million short.

That leaves us with 2.6 million players from China. In China, players pay by the hour in the form of prepurchased game time cards. By poking around on the Chinese website, I found out that the often-quoted price of ¥0.45 per hour is still the current rate. Taking the average conversion rate for 2013, that translates to about $0.073. To produce a revenue of $200 million from 2.6 million players, they would therefore have to have played a total of 2.7 billion hours, or just shy of 3 hours per player per day. That lines up almost perfectly with the values from Nick Yee’s study. However, we have to be careful here, because those numbers are from a different point in time, on a different audience (Western vs. Chinese), and may suffer from selection bias. If I had to guess, I feel like 3 hours/day is a bit on the high side. Then again, there are revenue paths that I didn’t touch (server transfer fees, sparkle pony sales), which might make up for the difference.

EVE Online

A second example. Let’s look at EVE, whose user numbers looked way off by Azuriel’s estimation method. Their subscription is similarly priced, with longer subscriptions being cheaper than WoW’s. Then again, EVE gouges European customers more so than WoW does; in 2013, a Euro was valued, on average, at about $1.30; so EVE cost a whopping $19.50 per month on a 1-month recurring subscription, and still $14.30 at the yearly rate.

In addition, EVE’s subscriptions are supposedly funded indirectly for a significant part of the user base: older and richer characters with lots of income prefer to buy PLEX, which newer and poorer users buy sell for in-game money. However, PLEX comes at a premium: two month subscription worth of PLEX come at between $35 and $46 (=35€), so that’s between $17.50 and $23 per month.

Let’s make a really rough guess and assume that, on average, a direct subscription earns CCP $16 a month, while a PLEX subscription adds $20 to their coffers. For the next step, we’d need to know what fraction of accounts are paid by either option. I don’t think there’s any such information available. Sure, you can look at the amount of PLEX traded each day in Jita, but there are probably rich players playing the PLEX market, so not each sale will end up in 30 days of game time. Probably not by far. Besides, I don’t have historic trading volume values for 2013. However, these days, about 2500–3000 PLEX are traded in JITA each day, sometimes more. So that gives us something of an upper limit. (Station traders inflate the volume; however, back then it wasn’t unheard of to buy PLEX to fund your own subscription, because you could get in-game kickbacks from licensed PLEX-selling sites; those PLEX never showed up in the trading statistics.) Let’s say 60 000 accounts are paid by PLEX every month. That means about $15 million in revenue through PLEX.

That’s still not even close to the $93 million, of course. I was surprised myself how little of the market seems to be covered by PLEX. It certainly ties in with the claim of the “silent majority” that just flies in space for some missions and doesn’t have time or interest in making enough money to fund their game via PLEX. To cover the remaining $78 million, you’d need another 400 000 users by that calculation.

That gives us a total of 460 000 accounts, and that’s actually pretty close: in February 2013, CCP announced that they broke the 500 000-subscriber barrier. Who knows for how long they kept above the watermark; if the number of concurrent users is any sign, then probably not for long. (You can check those at Chribba’s EVE Offline.) But they probably didn’t plummet completely, either.

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:


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!