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?

Why I didn’t play EVE at launch

It seems everybody I know is ill at the moment. In contrast to my typical behavior when it comes to games and hardware (I’m typically a late adopter), I was ahead of everybody this time. I was ill all of last week and half-ill this week, which I’ll blame the lack of posts on this time. Because I need something to put the blame on this time around, right?

Anyway, Ripard asks whether his readers would have played EVE Online at launch in 2003. I like that question, because it is not at all hypothetical to me. I actually tried out EVE at launch. (Or maybe shortly afterwards. Must’ve been before Castor released in December of 2003 because I remember rumors in chat about T2 ships.) I tried it, and was turned away fast.

Ripard names a couple of things that weren’t in the game at launch and that are considered fundamental pieces of EVE these days: war-decs, POSes, capitals, T2 ships, a mature player market. None of the these turned me away from the game, though.

No, the thing that made me boggle and leave after just a few sessions was… seriously, you develop a game about fighting and trading in space… a game like Privateer, an online game like Jumpgate, just grander… and I can’t fly my spaceship?

Most EVE players probably don’t think about this any more when they log in, but at that time, it felt utterly ridiculous to me that “flying” your spaceship meant choosing targets from a list and hitting a button. That system surely was designed by someone who sucked at even the most basic flight simulators! I wanted to use first-person view out of my cockpit, and my joystick! In a way, all flying in EVE is autopilot-based. “Manual” flying means clicking somewhere in space and hoping the ship will fly in vaguely that direction. All normal flying is based on choosing a target and a command (approach, orbit, warp to).

I mean, how strange is that? At that point, I came from trying out Jumpgate, which annoyed me for other reasons (which I have mostly forgotten). A spaceship game which didn’t allow you to actually fly your spaceship seemed like the weirdest idea to me. Surely, only crazy Icelanders who had too much rotten shark could’ve come up with such an idea? That would never fly! (1 Euro in the pun jar, yes yes…) The game would crash and burn and nobody would remember it in 5 years!

Yeah, I’m obviously great at predictions.

Anyway, that’s why I didn’t play EVE when it was released. If EVE were to be released for the first time today, I still wouldn’t. Only playing this weird “space simulator” which really isn’t one made me think that such a concept might work, after all.

Authenticators! How Do They Work?

Have you ever used one of those authenticator thingies that have become popular over the last few years? The ones that add an additional password to your account when you log in, a random 6-to-8 digit number that changes every 30 seconds or so? I sure hope you have, because those things add an additional layer of security to your account that can be very helpful to ward off account stealing attempts.

But have you ever wondered how they actually work? When I looked around for some information on the more technical details when I wrote my last post, I realized that there isn’t a lot of easily available and understandable information around. Or at least I couldn’t find it. When you search for “how does the blizzard authenticator work”, for example, you get a lot of results that explain to you how to use it (buy/download, attach to your account, additional passcode field shows up when you log in), but no information of how the authenticators themselves work. he closest I got was this article on WoWWiki, which itself doesn’t cite any sources. You can also find some technical information of how SecurID works, which (as far as I know) all the key fob style authenticators are modeled after. T But that information is probably not an easy read for someone without any background in cryptography.

I don’t think that’s a good state of affairs, because people should have a chance to at least roughly understand how their security technology works. That way, authenticators are less of a voodoo black box, you can understand what actually makes those authenticators secure, and most importantly perhaps, you can make an informed decision whether you’d rather use the key fob style or the smartphone app style.

So, since I couldn’t find any explanation of the technical workings of authenticators, explained on a basic level, I decided to write my own. Now, I have to add an important disclaimer to this post:

  1. I’m a computer scientist. I hope I broke down the information in a way that makes it accessible to non-computer scientists. If you don’t understand an explanation, please tell me, and I’ll try to fix it.
  2. While I’m a computer scientist, I’m not a cryptography or security expert. I hope I didn’t get any of the details wrong, or put them the wrong way. If you are an expert and can show that I presented something wrongly, please tell me, and I’ll try to fix it.
  3. Most technical information that’s the basis of this explanation was pieced together from sources on the Internet. For a few details, I even used reasonable guesses. Again, if you know better than me and can show that I got something wrong, please tell me, and I’ll try to fix it.

Definitions (a.k.a., the boring part)

Let’s first run through a few short definitions. I’ll use them later on, and I’ll make this part short and hopefully easy to understand. The links lead to wikipedia for people who want to dig deeper.

Algorithm: The exact definition is much deeper and quite philosophical, but for this text, you can think of it as “a piece of computer code that calculates a result from some given input”.
One-way function: A one-way function is an algorithm that transforms an input into an output, with calculations that are easy enough to run very fast. However, the opposite is not true: given the output, it’s extremely hard (and practically impossible) to calculate the input. Like a one-way street, you can only go in one direction, but not the other. This is very useful for some types of encryption or authentication.
Pseudorandom number generator (PRNG): Computers suck at being random. They are built to calculate, and to produce the same output for the same input every time. True randomness is actually a very hard problem. Radioactive decay is considered a true random process, but for obvious reasons, people aren’t too keen on putting a plutonium reservoir into their PCs. The next best thing are PRNGs: they produce output that looks random, but isn’t really: they’re just algorithms that take a single number (a seed) as input, and from that produce one or a sequence of numbers that look sufficiently random (as defined by probability theory, but we’ll leave that to the mathematicians). Given the same seed, a PRNG will always produce the same sequence of numbers. We’ll see why this can be useful.
Cryptographically secure PRNG: It’s simply a PRNG that fulfills some extra requirements. In easy terms, an attacker who looks at a sequence of numbers from a PRNG must not have a chance to deduce any information that could lead to the PRNG’s seed.
Public-key cryptography is one of the wonders of modern encryption. It used to be that an encryption key was a shared secret between two parties. You used a key to encrypt your data, and you needed the same key to reverse the encryption. That had the huge problem that you needed to get the key to the other party securely by some means, because whoever learned the key could decrypt your communication. Public-key cryptography uses two keys, a public one that you can tell everybody, which is only good for encrypting data. To decrypt the data again, you need a private key which you keep confidential. This works by using certain one-way functions. This means you get out of the key distribution problem, because you can distribute public keys and still have encrypted communication.

OK, I promise that was the hardest past. Now on to pretty pictures! I’ll use different colors to denote different keys used in the authentication process. Obviously, they’re not really colored, but it’s maybe easier to keep track if each key has an assigned color.

Key fob style authenticators

authenticator-scaledSo you have an authenticator. It has a button, a display, and a battery. It also has a pretty picture on the front.

blizzard-authenticator-backThe back looks less interesting, but has a very important piece of information: the serial number. (Mine has become partly unreadable over the years. This is bad.)

authenticator-keyApart from a microcontroller (the kind of computer that runs your washing machines, dishwashers, etc.), the key fob also contains a battery, a battery-buffered clock, and a key, that is, a piece of secret data that is used to calculate the numbers that appear when you push the button. This key is unique to this key fob: no other produced authenticator shares this key. This is the “secret sauce” that makes your authenticator work: if anybody ever was able to extract the key from the fob, they could create the same one-time passwords, and log into your account. Thankfully, those key fobs are very sturdy, and extraction is extremely complicated, expensive, and very much destructive to the device.

blizzard-masterkeyBlizzard holds a special master key. This master key was used to create all keys in all fobs (of a specific production run; there are good chances that Blizzard changes them from run to run). To create each fob key, the master key is combined with a number via a one-way function. And that number? That’s the S/N on the back of your authenticator. (It was pointed out to me in the comments that some key fob producers do not actually use a master key to create the fob keys, but instead create random fob keys and then provide Blizzard or other company customers with a lookup list that contains for each fob its key and the S/N. From a security point of view, this doesn’t make much of a difference, though such a list should have a very light theoretical security advantage.)

To register your authenticator with Blizzard, you log in and enter the serial number on the back of your authenticator. Blizzard takes that serial number, combines it with the master key and computes your fob key. It then puts that key information with the rest of your account information. Now you both have a copy of that key. We’re almost done!


Note something very nifty: The secret key was never sent over your Internet connection, or entered on your keyboard. That way, if your computer is compromised by spyware, or someone is eavesdropping your connection, they don’t learn anything useful. They know your authenticator’s serial number, but to create your one-time passwords, they’d need the (silver) key. But to calculate that from your S/N, they would need Blizzard’s (golden) master key! And that one is stowed away as securely as possible. If an attacker managed to get their hands on that one, all authenticators would suddenly be vulnerable. Then again, if they got that, you’d probably be screwed anyway, because chances are they also made away with your main password as well as credit card and other sensitive information. (In the case of a lookup list, the S/N is just searched in the list, and the corresponding “silver” key information taken from that list. Again, no key information is transmitted, and if the list ever got stolen, key fobs would be compromised.)

Now what if we want to authenticate? We have a key, but if we simply use that as input to a pseudorandom number generator (cryptographically secure or not), we will only ever get one password: same input, same output. Not very secure, is it? That’s where the battery-buffered clock in the authenticator comes in. Instead of simply using the key as the input, the key is combined with the current date and time, and that is used as input. Your authenticator knows what time it is, Blizzard knows what time it is. As long as they agree on that time, both will calculate the same result, which to an outsider looks like random gibberish and doesn’t give any information about the key that was used.


This has the nice side effect that each authenticator passcode is only valid for a short amount of time. That prevents an attacker from eavesdropping and recording the password, or pushing the button and recording the output when you aren’t looking, and using the authenticator code later on when they got a hold of your main password. Incidentally, the clock is also the reason those key fobs are pretty much broken beyond repair once the battery runs out: even if you could exchange the battery, there is no way to set the time after power is restored. Server and authenticator are out of sync and won’t produce the same numbers any more.

Mobile Authenticators

Those key fobs have a couple of downsides. First, you have to pay for them, while the mobile authenticator is a free download from Google’s or Apple’s app store. Second, you have to order the key fob and then wait until it arrives at your door via snail mail, while you could use the mobile authenticator within a couple of minutes. Third, if you need to access your account from outside home, you have to remember to take your key fob with you, while you’re probably carrying around your phone anyway.

So you decide to use the mobile authenticator. How does that work? How is it different from the key fob?

mobile_authenticator_keysThe different (and most complicated) part is the initial setup. Since you download the app from Google’s or Apple’s app store, every version of the app is the same. It doesn’t contain a unique secret key like the key fob does. What it does come with though, is a public key from Blizzard (golden). Remember that such keys that consist of a pair of public and private key are special: Blizzard can safely tell everybody public key and still keep its corresponding private key secret. Also note that this “golden” key is not the same as the “golden” key in the key fob explanation. I’m sorry if that is confusing, but I ran out of cool colors, and what says coolness more than gold?

Anyway, in addition to Blizzard’s public key that was provided, the app creates a random “session key” (red) when it is started for the first time. After that, it will connect to the Blizzard server to create a key just like the secret key that resides inside the key fob. To do this, it uses the session key, encrypts it with Blizzard’s public key, and sends the encrypted session key to Blizzard. (This is denoted by the red key in a golden box.)


Blizzard decrypts the session key with its private key. Note that nobody else can get the red key out of the golden box: the public key is only good for “locking the box”, so to speak, not for unlocking it. Now both sides have the (red) session key and can use it to talk to each other securely. Blizzard now creates a secret key, just like the (silver) one that resides in a key fob. It encrypts that key with the session key, and sends that to you (silver key in a red box).


Since your authenticator also knows the red key, it can decrypt the secret key. Voila! Now both Blizzard and your authenticator know the secret (silver) key. Setup is over, the red key isn’t needed any more and thrown away, and the day-to-day authentication works exactly the same as with the key fob authenticator:


You don’t even need any Internet connection while you’re creating authentication codes. All you need is a reasonably accurate clock. If your phone gets out of sync for whatever reason (which it typically shouldn’t, if your phone network provides time information), the authenticator has a button to resynchronize to Blizzard’s servers. Synchronization, of course, requires an Internet connection.


So let’s look at a couple of threat scenarios, and which type of authenticator fares better in each.

Attacker taps my Internet connection: during normal operation, all the attacker can learn that way are the short-term passwords. If they already know your normal password and are very fast, you’re screwed in both cases. If they don’t, there’s nothing to learn for them: the 6-to-8-digit passwords do not provide any useful information about your secret key. The main difference is that the mobile authenticator doesn’t come with a pre-installed secret key, so it needs the key exchange described above to get it. You’ll note that the red session key is created “randomly”. Now, as I said, true randomness is hard to achieve for computers. So there is some theoretical risk if an attacker could figure out how your phone’s random number generator was initialized, and therefore could figure out what session key (red) you created. Then, the attacker could eavesdrop on your connection, capture Blizzard’s response, and decrypt the (silver) secret key with the guessed session key. Winner: both are secure, key fob has the edge.

Attacker learns my secret key: With a key fob, this is pretty much impossible. Getting to know your secret key involves opening your device and doing some serious hardware hacking. At the very least, you’d notice it immediately after it’s done, because an attacker would have to break it open. With a mobile authenticator, this is much easier: the attacker would have to (get you to) install some spyware on your phone that reads your secret key and sends it to them. Winner: key fob.

Losing / breaking your phone / fob: During the initial setup of the mobile authenticator, the app shows you a recovery key that you are supposed to keep in a very secure place. If you ever lose your phone or need to reinstall the app, you can use that key create a replacement authenticator. With your key fob, if you lose or break it, you’re out of luck. Off to Blizzard’s phone line you go. Have some government-issued ID or similar documents ready to mail them to unlock your account. Winner: mobile authenticator.

Attacker steals or “borrows” phone / fob: Like all other attacks, this only gives the attacker a chance to compromise your account if they also know your main password. If an attacker gets physical access to your authenticator, you’ve pretty much lost the fight. With a fob, the attacker can immediately log into your account and, for example, detach your fob and attach another authenticator, locking you out. With a phone, a screen lock might delay an attacker, but those things are not very secure. Winner: you are screwed regardless, mobile has the edge.

Attacker “persuades” you: That’s up to you. It’s your decision how much of your health your account is worth to you…

Yeah, not even a Thunderfury is worth going through that. [source: xkcd.com]

Yeah, not even a Thunderfury is worth going through that. [source: xkcd]

To summarize, the tradeoff is a pretty classical one between security and convenience. The key fob is the more secure device, but if you lose or break it, you can expect a lot more work (and time!) until you get access to your account again. On the other hand, the mobile authenticator’s most glaring risk is that the secret key can be stolen by spyware, which should not be underestimated. Mobile phones are not that secure, after all. But if something happens to your phone, you can use your recovery key to authenticate yourself from a replacement phone, which is both faster and a lot less hassle. Which one you chose is ultimately up to you.