Wednesday, July 29, 2009

WoWPhone Cometh!

I have been waiting.

You could tell it was coming. All of the signs and portents have been there.

C&Ds to iPhone app programmers from Blizz. The move of the authenticator into app format. This morning, I noticed, the Anti-Christ had arrived.

The World of Warcraft iPhone Armory

(for further information -

Its ... well, I have to say its pretty fantastic. You get:

A fully functional and up-to-date talent calculator
All of your characters and any others you want to see
Achievements and their breakdowns
Item database to plough through at your leisure
The in-game calendar in all of its glory
And lots of other bits!

And what makes this all the more shocking is that it is .... FREE! I expected a $1.99 download maybe, but no - this one is free, gratis and for nothing.

So whats so great about it? Well, the armoury business is something that I expected to be done sooner rather than later. For me, its the Calendar that is the real shocker. As the Calendar is a 'living' item within the game, in theory, it allows in-game to out-of-game communication. It only works one way (ie. you can only read what is in the Calendar, not edit it yourself.) but it is a start.

What other living parts of the game could they do this for? Well, the bleedingly obvious one is the Auction House, allowing you to manage your AH buying from your iPhone. Would that disrupt the game? Not at all. You pay a flat fee each month and if you access the AH from your phone, Orgrimmar or Undercity, it makes little difference.

This could be the start of a very interesting phase in the development of the game. And it gives me a lot of new things to waste time doing between lectures!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

True Testing

I'm am deep in playtest and design twiddling for Beat to Quarters, the naval follow-up to Duty & Honour. I quite like playtesting - its a very focused way of playing, especially when you do the play-and-debrief method (where you play a game and then deconstruct it after the end) rather than the in-play-test method (where you deconstruct as you play). I've had quite a few external playtests too, which is always good (indeed, essential)

However, I have been having some thoughts about the entire validity of the playtest process. This might well end up as a self-defeating argument, but I wanted to get it off my chest.

I like to think I am a competent GM who is better than competent in certain sorts of game and genres. I like to think that in my chosen genre - Napoleonic stuff - I can deliver a really good game. I've studied the period's military and social history, I've devoured dozens of modern and not-so-modern novels set in the period and watched (nearly) every piece of serialised TV and cinema available. And moreover, I love the period! That helps.

So when I come to run D&H or BtQ, I'm pretty competent that I can deliver a good session. Indeed, thats why I designed the D&H system in the way I did - its a game that I can run really well. The enture system plays to my GMing strengths - working with the unknown, tying together disparate bits of story and working within an interpretive ruleset rather than a definitive ruleset. It also depends on the players being empowered to make their own decisions, their own plots and to suggest their own paths to success. I love games like that.

However, you do not get a Free Neil with every copy of the game. So sometimes, when I run playtests, I have to ask myself - is it the game delivering the good session or is it me? If it was someone else in this seat, what would the experience be like? Now obviously there are some issues here.

The first is that I am not suggesting that I am the only person who can run the game correctly - because I am not. I have observed that the people who have talked to me about running the game are also people who are soaked in the lore and love of the period. The upshot of that is of course that it is the sort of game that only certain people will pick up, and when they do, they can use it well. If someone that knows nothing about the period, why are they picking up the game? Hmmmm...

The second is that I suspect this could well be the same case for many games and many GMs. I know that I personally am having a pretty conflicted time looking at D&D 4e. I'm really really enjoying the game we have been playing for the last year and I am tempted to run something after it is finished. However, I know - I JUST KNOW - that the very mechanical nature of 4e and my rather freewheeling, hand-wavey style of GMing are like chalk-and-cheese. It would be horrible. But it is so tempting... Similarly, I know a lot of GMs who like to do meticulous preperation, for whom the concept of the D&H challenges, missions, planning session and what-not is simply a living nightmare of forced improvisation.

I guess the thing to do is divorce a good play session from a good mechanical session. Rather than judging the session on the way it went and how I felt at the end, I should maybe tally up the number of times I ...*ahem*... 'interpreted the rules'? How many time I forgot a modifier or missed a test?

Like I said, a circular debate. I guess you have to think harder about playtesting than just, well, playing and testing. You need that detachment that allows you to see where the Game is working and You are working.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

MMOs Revisted: Age of Conan

I couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

MMOs Revisited: Warhammer Online

I have been sent recently a large number of 'hey, you used to play our game - why not try again?' emails from MMO companies - namely Warhammer Online, Age of Conan and Pirates of the Burning Sea.

Playing WoW has changed a lot for me recently. I realised that I just didn't have the time for raiding in an increasingly serious 'casual' raiding guild and as a result I suspended my activities on Stormrage until things calmed down at work. To keep me occupied I have been pottering on a RP server with a troll shaman, Vuduun, and it has been a lot of fun. Regardless, WoW is in another downswing at the moment, so I considered looking at some of these old games. In the purpose of science, I'll report back here with my results.

Warhammer: Age of Reckoning

7 day free re-trial engaged and massive patch downloaded. Hurrah. The first thing I discovered is that a load of servers have been merged and I also had a free server transfer. No problems there, I'm not part of a guild or anything. Characters pop up and I choose Sunraven, my Bright Wizard. Thats all cool so far and then ...

What do I do again? I spend a good 15 minutes reacquainting myself with the tiny fiddly interface and working out what my various powers do again. I finally remember how to allocate my skill point things with a NPC and bod around on my horse zapping things. The very rhythmic rotation of the Bright Wizard comes back to me and I am zapping things with impunity. There are a few booster quest items that basically zap you forward 2-3 levels in treble quick time and for the duration of the trial you have a 10% xp bonus. I could even find my way around Altdorf still, which seems a bit like a miracle as I couldn't do it first time around.

However, there were some problems. The first was that I had 20+ quests in my log and no idea where they were on the map or what I had to do for them. I could have done some more research, but it was beginning to feel a bit like a job now. I logged myself in to do some PvP and waited ... and waited ... and waited. That wasn't encouraging!

Finally, my mouse stuttered. I moved it. It stuttered again and then some deep hidden lizard memory realised 'Oh shit! Its crashing!' and WHAM! The patented EA vs GeForce incompatibility bug slapped me around the face again and laughed at me bodily. I then remembered why I dropped the game in the first place. It couldn't play nice on my PC. It looks like nearly a year hasn't managed to sort that problem out.

The trial ran out when I was in France. I never cried.

Next: Conan!

8 Days in Provence

Well, not quite a year, but it will have to do!

So, I am coming to the end of what has been an idyllic little holiday to the south of France. It has been quite a revelation to me and quite possibly the most relaxing holiday I have ever had. Staying at my in-laws house (read - purpose built villa complex thingy) has been wonderful once we got over living in someone elses house. We've had a hire car which has allowed us to potter off to places when needed but most of the time its been about chilling out in the sun, reading, writing Beat to Quarters and exploring French supermarkets.

Now, those that know me will be aware that I have never been very pre-disposed towards our gallic cousins in the past. In fact I have resisted any and all attempts to get me to go to France as I really just couldn't be bothered. It was sort of an irrational revulsion type of thing. Well, I am pleased to report that it has sort of disappeared. It has all been quite charming actually. My main barrier has been language - I don't speak French and I find British people who go to other countries and expect the locals to speak English about the most embarassing, insulting and generally arrogant thing we can do. I still feel that way but as it happens, I actually speak far more French than I thought and that o-level standard can get you through most day-to-day interactions. Most things can be navigated with a number and the name of an item, a quick 'bonjour' and 'au revior' and a 'merci beaucoup'. I've had to bust out a 'Je voudrais' and a ' Je suis anglais' when I was asked a direction, and thats about it. Modern society, as it turns out, doesn't require much actual verbal interaction.

What also helps the language barrier, of course, is that the English language has a metric ton of words based on the French and French has a ton of words adopted from English/American. Between the two, there are only a few things you cannot guess at and in those cases, there are pictures!

The food, as you would expect, has been very nice indeed. I have been filling my face with cold meats, umpteen different cheeses, breads and sausages. They also have a better class of diluted juice over here, which is no doubt corroding my teeth like battery acid, but its dead nice! Only downer is that the bread in France goes stale in minutes, it would appear. Daily baguettes are needed! We had an expedition in the supermarket trying to identify what Gluten Free was in French ... 'sans Gluten' - who'd have thought eh?

The animal life has been interesting. Massive green beetles? Check! Wasps like something off a Sinbad movie? Check! Ants you could saddle? Check! Seriously, the ants are enormous - about a centimetre long and then some. The ground in the forest (where we are staying) moves with them!

The roads are, as you would expect, 'interesting'. They have deep open irrigation ditches to each side of the road with no barrier between the car and the ditch. Combine that with the thin and winding roads, the higher-than-the-UK speed limits, the insane scooters, the E600 excess on the car insurance and the E800 desposit on the hire car and well, its been fun! Motorway toll roads as well were a bit of a shock. The drive to Toulon (about from Newcastle to York) cost us E20 in tolls (thats about 16 quid in real money) and the petrol is about the same price as it is in the UK. In fact, whilst I accept that the place we are staying is quite expensive and exclusive, at these prices the UK isn't exactly 'rip-off Britiain'. I spied a Pokemon starter for 'only' E23! Yowzers!

Other random things - we nearly got hit by a bona fide 'dust devil' on the road. French comics look like UK annuals, very cool. The Froid/Chaud on the taps still confuses me. I found that looking both ways still works well for crossing the road and yes, inevitably, despite meticulous planning and checking I *still* set off the metal detector at Newcastle Airport. How? I have no idea and neither did they!

Return to the UK tomorow, all fully charged and ready to rumble,

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The End...

...of my little girls junior school life (or career, as they now refer to it, strangely) was today. It was her Leavers Assembly. Its been something that she has been talking about for two years and I have to say it was by far the most traumatic moment I have seen in the kids school experience. This goes beyond nervous steps into stage productions (that was last week) or exam results (the week before). It even goes beyond that moment when you realise that not everyone is going to be your friend.

It was a half-hour long class retrospective of the years they have spent together since nursery, recounting in that rather twee manner that school 'performances' do, the ups and downs. It was very funny in parts and showed off some of the talents of the kids. It involved a lot of singing. A lot of singing. With the entire year there in front of you, you could see where genetics was playing its tricks. There were the rapidly maturing young woman standing alongside girls who would have looked at home in Reception. There were boys who were clearly approaching 'those difficult years' and others that looked like your stereotypical waifs. Some of the kids were very confident, others were nervous, others were paralysed with fear.

And then, at the end, they had to sing 'The Greatest Day' by Take That. These are the opening lyrics:

Today this could be, the greatest day of our lives
Before it all ends, before we run out of time
Stay close to me,
Stay close to me
Watch the world come alive tonight
Stay close to me.

Tonight this could be the greatest night of our lives
Let’s make a new start,
The future is ours to find
Can you see it,
can you see it in my eyes
Can you feel it now,
can you hold it in your arms tonight

And tears. Floods of tears. The adults in the audience - teachers, parents, grandparents, classroom assistants. Crying. The kids, one by one, started to cry. And the little buggers were still banging out the tune with the tears streaming down their eyes. Even the lads were crying!

It came to an end, the headmaster said some platitudes, as did the headmaster of the high school that 95% of them will be going to and then some prizes were handed out. And then, in a move of the most barbaric, cold-hearted and unsympathetic sort, the headmaster asked them to sing the song again as the lower school kids trooped out.

It was carnage. Really, it was too much for some of them. Boys openly crying and hugging other boys. Girls with their arms around each other. Teachers passing out tissues along the rows to try to add a veneer of dignity to the occassion as parents saw their children put through mental torture. It was like Torchwood had prepared us for this moment!

In the end, of course, everyone was fine. Everyone always is - and the words of the High School head resonated. "You know you have a good school when the kids are crying because they are leaving."

The silly thing is, they will all be popping into each others houses over the summer and then seeing each other in seven weeks time. I tried to broach this topic and suggest that it wasn't the people she would miss but the teachers and the school itself. I was soundly told I was wrong. It was still an amazing, slightly harrowing and yet somehow hilarious and uplifting sight.

Mr Baines. You sir are a class one bastard, but you do run an amazingly good school!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Who Would Be A Parent?

Its been one of those weeks...

First, we had some new additions to the family - Swimmy and Lucky, two goldfish. One child goes to the fair with the grandparents and comes back with ... FISH! Honestly, do they still give away fish at funfairs nowadays? Apparently they do. Actually she came back with one fish but we got another one when we decided to make a fist of keeping it alive. Its quite hard to explain to a child that fairground goldfish have a life expectancy somewhere between a mayfly and an experimental particle. You have to sort of play along. Its Day Five of FishDeathWatch and they are both doing fine.

Then one of the children goes into hospital to have a routine Ear/Nose/Throat related operation. In the pantheon of childhood moments, I have to admit that your first operation is quite a large thing but bloody hell! You would think it was the last-in-the-series of Casualty/Holby City/ER and Grey Anatomy all rolled into one with a guest appearance by House and the cast of M.A.S.H! Its been a full-family multiple adult FAFF-CON ONE operation. Its been quite remarkable. Amazingly, the operation passed off without incident, everyone is fine etc.

And finally, tonight, we had the School Production. It was rather good in that amazingly amateur way that a year of 11 year-olds do plays. The non-hospitalised child had a part that required a little acting and a little singing. She's a grand singer and a good actress but she just managed to surpress her nerves and excitement enough to handle it. Its difficult, as a parent, to be realistic with your offspring about their performance and not crush them like a bug. Indeed, the discovery that what was once a rather cute childhood talent has not transformed into a 'tween' ability (her singing...) is going to prove quite a difficult one. As my wife says, she will learn the easy way (someone tells her) or the hard way (someone tells her...)

Fish, hospitals and singing. Really, none of this was in the handbook!