Meraki - Doing something with soul, creativity, or love. It’s when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing. It forms the core of my game design philosophy.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Konsoll 2015

It's a bit after the fact, but here is the fun and games that was our Konsoll 2015 experience.

Konsoll is an annual games conference that takes place in Bergen, Norway. Regular readers will already know that I like both games conferences and Norway, so this one hits an awful lot of bases.

This year we were only slated to do a workshop on game design and I was also set to resume my traditional place on the Dragon's Den panel. We were also bringing Willow with us, which always puts an interesting slant on conferences like this. Instead of staying at a hotel, we were taken in by Yngvill from Henchman and Goon. This also meant that, like last year, her mum, Anne, would graciously take on babysitting duties.

Flying out with us were fellow speakers Gary Napper, Creative Director on Alien Isolation and Clare Blackshaw from Sony. The flight was largely uneventful, which would lull us into a false sense of security for later.

Snow Cannon

The night before the conference proper saw the official launch of Snow Cannon Games. Essentially, a bunch of Konsoll stalwarts and Norwegian business types have got together to form a publisher - something that has been a little thin on the ground over there. Their launch party was held at a library, of all places. But wait - this is a Norwegian library, which means it also has a bar. I have no idea if that's a thing that's repeated throughout the country, but it's certainly a different approach to the way we do books and stuff over here.

Day One

Reindeer hotdog. Delicious.
First day of the conference proper and we're pretty much left to our own devices. This means catching the bus in to town* and wandering up to the venue. Rather than catch all of Lee Petty's talk on Headlanders, we loiter outside, catching up with Andy (who we really don't need to catch up with) and Alex (who we shouldn't need to catch up with seeing as how he lives in the same town as us and yet we only see him once a year in Bergen).

After another lesson in marketing techniques from Emmy, it was lunchtime. After huffing a sandwich and engaging in a spirited debate with Clare in the greenroom on the car crash that is Star Citizen, we had to pop back to sort Willow out. That meant public transport followed by a quick trip to the store to pick up food**. That was an interesting exercise that took far longer than it actually should have but that was nothing compared with trying to operate Yngvill's oven...

Day One - After Party

Then it was back in for the evening's festivities in a rather fancy hotel in the middle of town. The highlight of that for me was being invited to sit on the panel for people to ask questions.

What normally happens on these things is that everyone is quiet and polite and you normally get the same answer across the board. In fact, I'd like to see some stats on just how many answers start with "What he said", or "I agree with...", but these things, whilst useful insights for those with the questions, generally run the same way.

Not this one. Largely thanks to Clare who was only too happy to call bullshit on peoples' answers and tell it how it really was. It lead to some incredibly cool debates and was most entertaining to be a part of - even if it did take the organisers a little by surprise.

Day Two - Workshop

Second day and it was workshop time! For the uninitiated, my workshops are centered around making a game out of whatever junk the conference organiser can lay their hands on at the time. Normally, when I run this thing at Animex, we have a whole day. That means the morning can be spent coming up with ideas and prototyping and the afternoon can be used to playtest and refine. By the end of the day, most teams have got something pretty nifty going on.

At Konsoll, we only had the morning, which meant we needed to compress the format slightly. Do away with the icebreakers or the get the creative juices flowing bits and just dive straight in. To this end, we applied a few more restrictions to the design process to make it a bit quicker and easier.

You'll note I said 'we' up there. Yes, Leanne was there to run the workshop with me. This made my life much easier as we could be in two places at once - each roaming around the teams and observing, then meeting up to compare notes and point out the interesting features from each one.

Workshop space is always limited and usually goes pretty fast***. We were told we had space for 30 and it had filled up real quick. On the actual day, only 15 turned up - I guess that's what happens when you're scheduled for the morning after the party the night before. It was a bit of a shame as we had to turn away a whole bunch of people who were enquiring after spare spaces. Never mind - 15 made for 3 teams of 5 and away we went.

The items available to people included coloured card, pens, boxes of matches and bags of balloons. Now if you can't make a game out of that little lot, you're in real trouble. The teams did pretty well - there was one game that played a bit like the hacking bit in Paradroid, another that added a strategic meta-game to rock, paper, scissors and the last one which... well, was bonkers and genius in equal measure.


Jonathan in action.
It was eventually called Jonathan, for reasons that will become slightly clearer in a bit, and I'll try to explain how it works.

It's for as many players as you want really - 5-6 is a pretty good number. Each player gets a balloon and stands around the table. In the middle of the table you tip out the matchsticks, placing the box upside-down in the centre. One player starts by picking up the box and placing it in front of them. They're now the Picker and they can pick up matchsticks one at a time and place them in the box. The person to their right becomes the Blower and they must start blowing up their balloon.

The Picker continues to pick up matchsticks. If they run out of matchsticks in the middle, they can start taking sticks from any player they choose. They can stop at any time by turning out the matchbox in front of them. Any sticks inside are added to their stash. They can then place the matchbox face down, back in the centre of the table. At this point, everyone else shouts 'Jonathan!', which is the cue for the Blower to become the new Picker and the person to their right to start Blowing.

The game continues until a Blower manages to overinflate and pop their balloon. At that point, any matchsticks still in the box are awarded to the Blower and everyone else must pay one matchstick in tribute. The person with the most matchsticks is declared the winner.

It's a pretty simple game, but one with lots of interesting strategy. On the one hand, you want to spend as long as possible collecting sticks. But the longer you do, the more the guy next to you will inflate his balloon, potentially ending the game - and giving themselves quite an advantage when it comes to scoring. There's an interesting physiological element in play too - having to start a slightly fiddling manual task after effectively hyperventilating is entertaining****.

The only thing that remains is to somehow work alcohol into the mix. Then be prepared to see this baby at the Olympics.

Day Two - Dragon's Den

See the level of bemusement?
Each year I sit on the Dragon's Den panel and each year, people come up and pitch their projects at us with varying degrees of success. This year was simultaneously the least successful and yet, conversely, most entertaining.

The scoring mechanic had been revamped - for the better. Now we had three tokens per pitch. One for marking it out as a high-risk investment, one for low-risk and one for hell-no-but-I'd-like-to-play-it. This got around the problem that arises with either a fixed monetary resource or a traditional out-of-ten scoring system whereby the earlier submissions might get gimped as you want to save your big score for what might be coming up. Instead, because we had enough resource to fully 'fund' each and every project, this went away. The winner would be decided by whoever had the most high risk tokens with the others being used in sequence in the event of a tie.

I'll start with the final pitch of the day. Basically, this guy had written Minecraft. I mean, it was a carbon-copy. Technically, it was impressive enough - especially since he actually had plenty of ingame footage, but his entire pitch was "Minecraft but more". When pressed on what the "more" part actually was, he revealed that's what he was going to have to hire a designer for as he had no idea. Brilliant. To top it all off, when the finance guy pressed him on investment and equity, simple maths dictated that he valued his company at £10m(!). He received precisely zero tokens from anyone and a rather incredulous look from Finance Man.

The second pitch was one of the funniest things I've seen in a long while. I mean, crazy and delusional, but hilarious. This guy's design centred on three core tenets - Brains (those brain training apps), Boobs (does that really need an explanation?) and Hard Sci-Fi (er... what?). It seems like, after a particularly intense play session of Hunie Pop, an anime, Match-3 dating game, he came up with the idea of ripping out the Match-3 bit and swapping in Dr Kawashima instead. Skin it all up to look like Mass Effect and boom! Sit back and watch the money roll in.

I had no words as there are just so many problems with that as a concept. But the pitch had us in stitches.

So it was left to the first game. A game that I can't remember many of the details about. I think it was some kind of RTS where people would take it in turns to send their troops out in particular directions and watch them shoot the crap out of each other. A little bit Pikmin, a little bit Galcon but easily the most well-rounded title of the three.

Day Two - Wrap Party

Prior to the evening's events, we just had to pop back to the house. Largely to welcome back Yngvill's husband, Thomas, from his stint out at sea in the Navy. It was the first time Yngvill had seen him for about a month so naturally we just dumped the kids on him and left him to go to the wrap party.

This year's wrap party was held at the Bergen Game Collective - a shared office space for a number of Bergen-based game devs including Rain Games and Henchman And Goon.

Special props to Anders from Antagonist for graciously sharing his pizza with us and to Gary for trolling people on Twitter who don't like odd socks. Actually, that last bit entailed going around to find people who wouldn't mind swapping a single sock with someone else so we could take a photo of a larger group.

There was much alcohol and discussion of games as well as several bags of Smash, so I was properly in my comfort zone. As was Leanne who, whilst critiquing Rain Games' latest project, managed to make Peter cry with her vicious barbs...
Don't think she's afraid of heights.


The next day was spent recovering from the night before. Oh, and taking the kids to an awesome soft play area. Seriously, that place was fantastic. Willow spent most of her time in the ball pool or doing laps on the slide but they had everything from rope bridges to trampolines to cannons that fired foam balls at a big pirate ship. All of that for what amounts to £5 for the whole day. "Adults" go for free.

Little did they know that I was the biggest child in that place...

Return Trip

As always, we had a fantastic time at Hotel Yngvill and it was a real shame to leave, but leave we did. Thomas took us to the airport in plenty of time for our flight. We grabbed some Smash in the duty free and a bite to eat in the small cafe.

It turns out there was plenty of even more time as our flight was delayed due to the ridiculous level of fog at Gatwick. After a couple of hours, we were getting a bit antsy. Not only was Willow a little bored of the small cafe - there's really not much at Bergen airport - but we were now a little concerned that we'd miss the last train back from Gatwick when we landed.

Willow makes a great Smash mule.
Three hours later and still no flight. The airline gave us vouchers for food, which, as we'd already eaten, pretty much spent on more Smash, loading it into every container we had - including Willow's backpack.

By now, I was frantically looking around for other methods of getting home once we reached England. We could probably get as far as Brighton and then cab it, but it was going to be pricey.

Eventually, our flight took off and we were homeward bound. We meandered through passport control, baggage claim and into arrivals before we realised that we actually had 5 minutes before the last train to Worthing would leave. Thank you Westward flight and Time Zones!

I ran ahead to the station to get tickets... only to find the queue snaking back into the airport itself! Obviously a little concerned at this state of affairs, I tried short circuiting the system and going to the guard by the ticket barrier. Explaining our situation, I asked if it would be okay for the three of us to nip through and buy a ticket on the train.

Thankfully he said yes!

So we scuttled through and, just as the elevator arrived at the platform, so did the train. We hopped on and breathed a sign of relief... which turned into a gasp of concern as the tannoy announcement asked for the three people who just got on without buying a ticket to get back off again. Did they mean us?

Thankfully no, but now we knew we had to deal with a guard who already had previous for throwing people off his train. The train pulled away as he approached, positively reeking of Jobsworthness.

He was a bit taken aback that they'd allowed us through the barriers at Gatwick, but he was only too happy to let us buy a ticket. Hell, he even did us a sneaky group one that saved us... well, 3p, but it's the principle of the thing.

After that, Willow promptly fell asleep and we were home free! Back from another excellent Nordic adventure. Thanks go out to Linn for inviting us, John for organising everything, Yngvill, Thomas and Anne for looking after us while we were there and Unnamed Conductor Chap for not being a dick when you could have so easily done so.

*It's always entertaining taking public transport in a place where you don't speak the lingo.
**It's always entertaining buying food in a place where you don't speak the lingo.
*** It must be fun or something.
**** To the other players or spectators at least.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Unlocking Content

There is an article over on Kotaku that really touched a nerve with me. You should go and read it first and then come back.

Welcome back. You didn't read it? Well, I'll try to catch you up.

Simply put, they believe that all content in games should be available from the start. It's a follow on from the news that the new Call of Duty will allow the players to experience the campaign in any order they like as the traditional system of unlocking content as you go is archaic and, as a paying customer, you get to dictate how the content is delivered.

Here is a slightly rambling response to said article, based in large on the replies to my subsequent Facebook post about it.

UPDATE: Added another bit at the bottom about unlocking as reward, inspired by this other article.

Sweeping Generalisation

My biggest problem with the article is that they open with the word 'All'.

Straight off the bat, it's a bold claim and, like 'all' sweeping generalisations, it's wrong.

Certainly, some games would benefit from this approach. The oft-cited example is Rock Band. Linked in to that article is a bit of Dara O'Briain stand up that, curiously enough, I always bring up when I'm talking about what makes games special.
When all you want to do is rock, not unlock

In the early Rock Band and Guitar Hero games, the fiction was that you were a band member and had to build your way up through the game, using the standard game technique of ordering songs in terms of difficulty. This makes sense from a pure gameplay point of view - you don't want to overwhelm a player with too hard a song because they won't enjoy it and will, most likely, give up on the game.

But songs are such an emotive topic - people pick up those games because of the individual tracks that appeal to them. Those are the songs they want to play and they don't want to have to wade through tracks they haven't heard of and aren't interested in to get there. Subsequent versions of Rock Band and Guitar Hero have realised that this is the case and that, semantically, they're not so much games as toys. To this end, the newer version have done away with traditional game trappings such as failure and progression and the experience has been improved because of it.

Likewise, driving games. Once you try to step away from the young-driver-working-his-way-through-the-forumlae, er... formula, you see that again, cars are an emotive thing. People have specific cars or tracks they want to race and don't want to have to jump through arbitrary hoops to get there. If FIFA or Pro Evo's only mode forced you to start out at Dagenham and Redbridge or Accrington Stanley, they would rapidly lose their user base and Little Big Planet's decision to lockout editor content based on progression was a little frustrating to say the least.

The key thing is that this doesn't apply to every game out there. Narrative games, in particular, would suffer enormously if you could just hop to the end. Your experience would suffer as a direct result of that. You don't start watching, say The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense with the punchline. By the same token, you wouldn't want to drop into Bioshock halfway through.

Games in which the narrative is incidental could definitely pull this off. Call of Duty is actually a pretty good example of this - assuming they aren't dropping any more (nuclear) bombs and are just getting down to the nitty gritty of blowing up whoever the US currently regard as the Bad Guys.


It's a tired old subject, but I do belive better descriptions of games and their mechanics would be beneficial here.

If your game doesn't have a fail state or a presented narrative then I would suggest what you have is a Toy and a Toy should be able to be played with any way the user desires. This means no unlocks and everything available at the start.

If your game has failure, progression and rewards then it should probably have some kind of structure to it. Not always, by any means, but these are all things that a decent designer can use to enhance the player experience.

It's worth pointing out that neither of these things is quantifiably better than the other. It's also worth noting that both can exist within the same base game. For an example of this, look no further than Minecraft. The creative mode is enjoyed by so many people and used to make so many awesome things. There are precious few restrictions - not even gravity - more on that in a bit. Then you can add a couple of restrictions and have survival mode which puts a totally different spin on things.

Even if you don't want to deal with the semantics of things or you think I'm being picky, surely you can see the benefit of having subcategories - if only so that the use of the pronoun 'all' becomes a little more relevant.

All 'Toys' should have their content unlocked and available from the start to be played in any order. Even if it isn't perfect, it's something I can get behind a lot more than any 'All games should...' statement simply because of my own definition of 'Toy'.

Of course, you can do away with semantics altogether and just refer to these things as Games. But then I'd argue that you lose the right to use the word 'all', because it just doesn't apply across the board.


And this is where I can throw out my own generalisation.

Gameplay only exists through the introduction of restrictions.

Think about that for a moment. If you are blocked from doing something you want to do - score a goal, reach the alien space ship, rescue the princess - but there's something else you can do to lift the block - beat the keeper, shoot the alien hordes, work your way up to the highest platform - then that's where the gameplay (and challenge) lies.

If you could just place the ball in the back of the net whenever you want or press a button to make all of the aliens disappear or teleport to that highest platform, the gameplay vanishes along with the fun.

The metagame can (and some would argue, should) still be a game. It doesn't have to make the same choices as the main game as it can be an entirely different entity. Mix and match. Do what you want. It doesn't even have to be black and white - linear or open. You can blend the two approaches as much as you want. Have linear bits then let open it out for sections or make players choose paths or anything in between.

Here's another argument - a literary one, no less, that applies just as well in this situation:

A hero is only as strong as the villain he defeats.


Stepping away from the narrative, one of the main gameplay reasons to restrict access to certain levels is if your game contains any form of persistent progression. By that I mean your character levels up or something similar. If each level allows the player to bring in things of a given level, it makes a degree of sense to lock out levels for which the player doesn't possess the item / skills / resources to complete.

A lot of territories to balance
One of the biggest problems we had with Syndicate was that the metagame was almost entirely open. Save for the geographical constraint of only being able to select neighbouring territories, the player could pick whichever mission he wanted in whatever order he wanted. This made balancing a nightmare as you could never count on a player reaching a certain point with a certain weapon.

The issue with this kind of approach is that it is likely that the player will end up in a situation that they cannot handle. When that happens, you're banking on the good nature and perseverance of said player to have them not just throw in the towel and go play something else. With the attention span and patience of the modern playerbase at an all-time low, this is definitely a problem.

Of course there are exceptions. Wonderful, glorious exceptions but I'm going to try and get through an entire blog post without mentioning Dark So... d'oh!


Done well, unlocking new content is a very established reward structure - a little thank you to the player for playing the game and a little motivation for them to continue with something that they enjoy. It's not the only reward by any means but merely another weapon in the designer's arsenal.

In a narrative or linear game, the reward is the continuation of the story, but that's by no means the only reason.

Consider the puzzle space on mobile - a hellish melange of unimaginative 1,2 and 3 star levels, unlocked in sequence. Some break the mould and let you play boards in any order. Others snake you through a linear map, only gating progression as part of their monetisation strategy.

As an aside, that latter approach is probably what's feeding this argument. Players are frustrated at their lack of progress and being unable to see all of the content. Yet it's that very frustration that developers are relying on them to get players to pay up. It's a whole other can of (regularly opened) worms.

But, if you remove monetisation from the equation (ha ha ha ha ha), you can return to something where locked content is an impetus to do better. You could have pages of levels that the player can tackle in any order - even moving on to other pages whenever they feel like. Then, if they manage to complete a full page, bonus levels open up.

Annoyingly, my main takeaway is, again, a semantic one. Do we need something to differentiate between 'unlock' as part of gameplay and 'unlock' as part of monetisation?

Thursday, 10 September 2015

A Theory On Monetisation

The first thing to note about this is that it contains both the word 'A' and 'Theory'. That means it's just one theory and, as such, may be wildly off base. YMMV.

Monetisation is still seen as a dirty word in game design. I myself am not fond of it. But that's only because it has dragged along so many negative connotations with it. Primarily, these manifest themselves as the phrase “How do we get people to give us money?” which, for the majority, simply translates into “How do we trick people into giving us money?”

I put it to you that, if you start with that premise, you're doing it wrong - subjectively. Note that this comes from a purely moral and ethical high-ground rather than something that makes economic sense – all of the evidence would suggest that if you're doing it 'wrong' you stand to make so much more money than doing it 'right'. Then again, the fact that we all need to feed our families and stuff would suggest that maybe your definition of 'right' is the correct one after all.

The way I see it is that there are two main problems.

Does this need a caption or are we good?
The first is that people are dicks.

People will begrudge having to pay anything for their entertainment and, wherever possible, try getting it for free. Obviously, there are exceptions to this but I think this holds true for the vast majority. It's why F2P exists – I put it to you that, were people not dicks – tight-fisted dicks no less – then the standard retail model would still work perfectly and we wouldn't have to have invented F2P.

Secondly, people are dicks.

Not those first people, but the people in charge of the apps themselves. The ones coming up with ever more devious and lucrative ways to scam money out of Joe Public. The ones for whom making games is merely a device for producing money rather than something they love doing. The ones for whom enough money is never enough money.


I think this is what it's all about.

Developers and Publishers don't trust Joe Public. They have seen how JP would rather burn a box of puppies than cough up 99c for an app. They can't be trusted to pay fair value for this entertainment that costs a lot more than they think to produce. So alternate methods of reimbursement must be sought to keep the Developers and Publishers in business. But it's okay – I, as a developer, have come up with a new, completely insidious method of getting paid. Now, what are your bank account details?

No gas? That's a shame.
Joe Public don't trust the Developers and Publishers. They have seen how D&P make loads of money from coming up with ever more devious methods of extracting money then brag about it down the pub. They are annoyed by energy systems, worried by seemingly random difficulty spikes and requests to bug our friends. But don't worry – I, as a gamer, will never fall for these tricks. In fact, I will go out of my way to not spend any money on you because you don't deserve it you filthy tricksters. Now, where's that next set of bonus levels?

Each of these things feeds back into the other – a desperate arms race, if you will.

Of course, those assertions can be wrong. Very wrong.

Did your game not make any money? There are many reasons why this is the case. It might not be that people didn't want to pay your asking price or buy any of your IAPs. It might just be that, with the marketplace as crowded as it is, they just don't even know you exist. It might even be that – and this might be hard to hear – your game just isn't very good.

It's at times like these I'd really like to be able to give JP a little credit. I'd like to think they can recognise a cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers, lazy implementation of a formulaic experience designed solely as a revenue stream and simply not fall for it.

Maybe it's just me, but I'd like to see new things – not just re-hashed versions of something I've already played. It's true that sometimes all this means is to take that existing thing and raise it's production values through the roof, but even that is getting a bit stale.

Alongside the word 'trust' I'd like to offer up the word 'fair' as well. It's pretty obvious to me, but games should always be fair. They can be difficult, sure, but they should always be fair. The player should never feel cheated. They should enter into each and every play session with the feeling that their destiny is in their own hands and they're not about to arbitrarily suffer at the hands of unseen forces. Only by repeatedly presenting things in this fair way do I believe developers will be able to allay any suspicions and convince players to offer up fair payment for their services*. Quid pro quo and all that.

Public Opinion

Frustratingly, it's very hard to gauge public opinion. It's very easy to find a lot of folks on online forums who decry the very nature of IAPs and clamour for a return to the 'good old days' where they could just pay a fixed amount up front and never be bugged for money again. Likewise in app reviews – they're either asking for premium or a flat payment to disable ads or the energy mechanic.

The problem is that this support for premium simply doesn't manifest itself in the sales numbers themselves. As soon as you stick a premium price tag on an app, your downloads will suffer enormously, yet the only people who seem to champion the F2P approach are Developers & Publishers who have already reaped the benefits of said approach. Given that these people are by no means in the majority, I'm finding it hard to see where this discrepancy is. I wonder if it's partly due to the stigma that's still attached to F2P in general? If you voice support for it, you're seen as money grabbing or not a 'true' gamer perhaps? Possibly even that you're less potent as a lover...

Either way, what it boils down to is that tricksy F2P is the dominant approach whilst Premium is dead in the water.
Nothing uncanny about this valley.

Uncanny Valley and Outliers

But, like all sweeping generalisations, that's wrong.

Just as there are, in fact, free games that don't using gouging wait timers or intrusive ad models out, there are also tales of breakout hits that have worked and made money using the premium model. Games like 10000000, Monument Valley and The Room series spring immediately to mind. These are games with a premium price tag** that were successful. As such they intrigued people enough to get featured and talked about for long enough so that they would rise above the detritus in the stores.

This is where I'd like to propose another theory. One that I am calling the Uncanny Valley of Premium Pricing. Actually that's too much of a mouthful.

From now on, it shall be known as the Uncanny Value. Boom.

Bear with me here and remember that I don't actually have any stats to back this up – I refer the honourable reader to the 'Theory' bit at the top of the article.

I shall assume that you are already familiar with the Uncanny Valley from which my theory takes its name. Well, what happens if we apply a similar principle to premium prices, albeit one rooted to the other end of the scale?

Firstly, we shall assume that your game looks really cool and reviews well because, you know what? - you made a good one. Yes, that's one hell of an assumption but those are the things that should be all under your control and it gives us a decent baseline to work from. We shall also assume that people can discover your app***, which is even more outrageous...

Next, the challenge is to get people to download it. Other than the stuff just mentioned - previews, screenshots, reviews, word of mouth, favourable theme / genre, etc. - this relies a lot on the price point.

At a price point of zero dollars, people don't tend to be put off. Sure, there are some – the vocal minority from earlier – who rail against anything F2P and refuse to download things that contain IAPs regardless of how they're implemented, but the keyword there is 'minority'. After all, what have they got to lose? That's right – nothing!

At any other price point, people have to ask themselves whether or not they will be getting value for money. This is, understandably, a very key decision.

Whilst steadfastly not backing any of this up with stats – 'theory' remember? - I put it to you that the most common price point is the lowest one – normally around the dollar mark. This is largely thanks to the race-to-the-bottom mentality of being cheaper than the competition to attract more customers. Then there are a few titles at the $1 - $2 mark, a few around $3 - $5 and fewer still braving it into double figures.

But here's what I'm thinking.

That $1 - $2 range represents the Uncanny Value. There's so much dross out there that anything in that price range stands a very good chance of being dross itself. At some point though, that perception changes. Where, exactly, I'm not sure – my theory-filled gut is saying somewhere around $4 - $5. If the developers are prepared to value their work higher than that, doesn't it stand to reason that it's of higher quality? Might it not, at least, look like they have some degree of faith or pride in it?

Sure, it would be a bold move to stick out a premium title with what amounts to a price tag 5 times greater than your competitors but given all of the problems you're faced with already, isn't it worth a shot? The optimistic approach is that you only have to sell 1/5th of the units to make the same money, which, with discoverability being as it is, might not be such a bad idea after all.

Are you ever going to hit #1 on the Top Grossing chart using this approach? No. Don't be silly. That shit is locked down for years to come by powers beyond your comprehension.

Might you make enough to feed your family and continue the kick-arse profession that is making games? Who knows? Maybe?

I certainly hope so.

* Sadly, the real world is unlikely to agree with me. After all, people are dicks.
** And, crucially, premium production values or premium gameplay.
*** Think Steve Ballmer but replace the word 'developers' with 'marketing' – for the love of God, nobody make that video...

Monday, 18 May 2015

Elite: Dangerous Part 4

In which Commander Bulk Paint spends a lot of time tinkering with controls and throws down a lot of text.

A Measure Of Control

I elected to not bring my gamepad into work. For starters, Bulk Paint: Entrepreneur isn't going to be getting into scrapes any time soon and any time on the work machine is just going to be spent lugging cargo around.
Actually, quite a bit of time is spent getting the keyboard and mouse setup just so. By default, the mouse simulates the joystick, controlling pitch and roll and the keyboard does, well, everything else. The initial keyboard uses WASD for throttle and lateral thrust, QE for yaw and RF for vertical thrust. It didn't take long for that to feel uncomfortable.
Starting with the thrusters, I felt that the yaw layout was wrong – especially for landing. Swapping yaw and lateral thrust seemed to fix that – made things a bit more FPS-y.
Now for the mouse. By default it felt a bit twitchy. I decided to try something a little more akin to Freelancer – mouse controls pitch and yaw. Moved yaw, again, putting lateral thrust back on AD and roll on QE. Again, it feels a bit more FPS-y and, even though I haven't played one of these on mouse and keyboard for a long time, it's like an old, comfortable pair of slippers.
That seems to work quite well – with a couple of caveats.
Firstly, the lack of centering. If you move a joystick, it will naturally attempt to return to the middle position. Only prolonged pressure will keep it in the position you require. When you move the mouse, it stays moved. It does not come back to the middle. FPS use the deltaXY – how far the mouse has moved that turn - to determine pitch and yaw. Elite Dangerous uses mouseXY – the actual mouse position. What this means in real terms is that to make a prolonged turn, an FPS will have you constantly moving and reseting the mouse to keep the deltaXY going whereas Elite Dangerous only needs you to move it once and it'll keep going for you. Sounds good on the surface – for starters, FPS games very rarely need you to continue rotating in a single direction for an extended period of time* so having it stop when you stop moving the mouse is cool. That sort of input just won't fly here though. Funnily enough, it's not the fact that no input will stop the ship from moving, as you often need prolonged yaw and pitch as you're flying around. Instead the problem arises when you have to stop tumbling. Instead of just letting go of the joystick, you have to manually find the neutral position. Once again, the lack of haptics** bites you in the arse.
Also, I can't seem to decide whether or not I want the mouse Y inverted or not. Normally, I'm all “Inverted mouse is king!” - push forward to nose down, just like a joystick. That changes when I have a mouse cursor on the screen, in which case pushing forward should make the cursor move up. Elite Dangerous has a mouse cursor, so I should not invert the Y... except it only occupies the centre of the screen and even fades out when you're not really moving it. This means that I find myself constantly flicking between thinking I need inverted Y and I don't depending on whether or not I can see the cursor. Writing this on the train, I can't honestly tell you how I left it.
I understand how this makes it seem like I'm ragging on the control scheme but, to its eternal credit, the game does a bang-up job of presenting you with all of the options you need to make it work. You can tell it to centre the mouse over time, giving you that an analogue for the deltaXY controls of an FPS – but then you run into the can't-constantly-turn problem. You could dial the sensitivity right down and introduce a large deadzone, making it easier to locate the neutral spot and reducing the twitch factor – but you're still going to have a small issue of knowing what mouse position results in the steering input you'd like as all mouse positions feel the same. It's all stuff you could get used to, if you want.
But I want a joystick.

Home Is Where The Joypad Is

This is where your lateral controls are really needed
Hello gamepad! I know you're not my HOTAS but you're still far more suited to this than mouse and keyboard.
I think I might have a solution for my yaw-based shenanigans though. Pitch and roll only on left stick – like a normal joystick. Then vertical thrust and yaw on the right. Throttle is on RB and LB and, in flight, there is no lateral thrust. I don't think I'll need it. This system works out very well in open space.
Of course, I could have gone full FPS – put pitch and yaw on the right stick – maybe putting vertical thrust and roll on the left, but this will do for now.
Except for docking.
I miss my lateral control when docking. Okay, maybe not the docking part, but certainly the final landing bit, which seems to be where I do the most damage.
Thankfully, ol' Elite Dangerous has thought of this. There's a section in the control options that allow you to override things whilst in Landing Mode – ie: you have deployed your landing gear. This means that I can swap lateral thrust back in for yaw on the right stick and re-enable the roll into yaw at low input on the left. As I will only ever be in this mode inside a station or on final approach to an outpost, the fact that I have to modulate my left stick to introduce yaw at the expense of roll is okay.
It works like a charm and soon I'm zinging in and out of stations like it was second nature. Perhaps it's time to put it to the test and embark on a mission or two?

A Deal's A Deal

Let's stick with the cargo stuff for the time being. Some guy wants me to take 4 units of scrap somewhere. Simple enough. The stuff gets loaded and I make use of my new-found control comfort to blast out of the station at speed, even hitting the boost as I'm in the mail slot. I can only imagine outside observers marvelling at the aesthetic of this ship as it describes a glorious arc towards jump alignment straight out of the gate.
The mission is a doddle. Stuff delivered. Money paid. Let's grab another.
Slightly different deal.. This guy wants Fruit and Veg. I'm to go and find some and bring it back. I look on the Commodities page to see where this station normally imports from – Eravate. That's only a jump away. A cinch. I sign up and hit the Black once more.
Eravate doesn't have any Fruit and Veg for sale. At all. I check a couple of stations***. Nothing. Hmm. I hit up the galaxy map. What I'm looking for is an Agricultural system. Find one, but it's several jumps away. Never mind – multi-jump routes in this are nowhere near as tedious as Eve Online. I top up the fuel tanks and away I go.
Three or four jumps later and I begin to worry. My fuel is running low and I haven't jumped through a system with a station in for a while. I elect to stop at the next services.
But the next services aren't in the next system. Or the one after that. I have precisely one jump's worth of fuel remaining.
I drop into the next system and immediately hit up the navigation. Yes! A station! My tanks are merely fume containment devices. I cruise towards the station for a splash and dash...
And I'm being interdicted.
Really? Now? You do this to me now?
Cheeky little AI pilot even has the gall to DM me in supercruise. Even though I'm pounding the escape vector like there's no tomorrow, he's got me. We drop into real space. Fangs out! It's only a Sidewinder – which would explain how he was able to keep up with my moves - and with these new controls he doesn't stand a chance.
Actually, with these new controls and those gimballed Multicannons I fitted earlier, he doesn't stand a chance. In fact, I tear down his shields and am ripping through his hull when he decides to bug out. He boosts away, spinning up his FSD. When he jumps, he's down to 4% hull. So close!
So glad docking remains tricky
Back into supercruise and I make it to the station. Some spot repairs and a whole lot of fuel later and we're good to go.
I check the bulletin board. See if there's anything on offer that I can do on the way to the agricultural system. As luck would have it, someone wants some Scrap taken to a system right next to the one I'm going to. Why not? Doesn't make sense to be flying around with an empty cargo hold. Load it up mate – I'll drop it off on the way.
A couple of jumps out and I'm lining myself up when I spot a Signal Source. Maybe I'm still flushed with confidence after that last encounter or maybe it's the feeling that I didn't quite finish the job, but I decide to check it out and maybe go looking for trouble.
There's a guy here who wants to make a counter offer. Don't deliver the Scrap to where it's supposed to go. He'll pay good money if I take it to a station in this system instead. Hmm. Is Commander Bulk Paint the kind of guy who would go back on a deal?
Actually, after what happened the last time I stuck to my (literal) guns, yes. In the name of science, I decide to see what happens if I follow this arc instead. I find the station and hand over the goods. Job done. Money in the bank. Some bars move around to indicate the shifting political balance of power in this region. I have played a part in something. What, I'm not entirely sure, but I've done it.
Now, back to the task at hand – the search for Fruit and Veg. Nothing in this system, so I need to keep on moving.

Straight To The Source

I jump again and again I'm presented with an interesting Signal Source. Why not? That last one was pretty lucrative.
Sure enough, this one is similar. Some guy says it would be better if I didn't deliver that Fruit and Veg. Instead, why don't I just go back to Eravate and speak to his people. You know what? I haven't actually found any Fruit and / or Veg, so this does appeal to me...
I accept his offer. He laughs and departs. Not sinister at all.
I begin the journey back to Eravate. There's part of me that feels bad for going back on not one but two deals, but I feel I'll be able to turn it all around later in the game when I've got something other than this entirely disposable ship. Suddenly, everything lights up – I'm being interdicted again. I do a better job of evasion this time but still to no avail. I find myself dropped back into real space and staring at a Cobra MKIII intent on doing me harm. I boost to close the distance before he can get his hardpoints deployed and brought to bear whilst cracking open my own. After that, it's a simple matter to stay out of his firing solution whilst the multicannons do their work. It takes several full clips to down his shields. His chatter is filled with bravado, but it already feels futile. More bursts pepper his hull but the damage isn't enough to seal the deal. His shields come back on and he manages to get himself lined up for a burst. My shields hold – just. Wait: were those missiles? Not sure I should let them hit.
It continues like this for a while. A dance. A ballet. One protagonist, flitting and nimble. Unpredictable. Chaotic. Lancing and probing with stabbing arcs of tracer fire. The other, burly, stoic and with one hell of a right hook****.
Something has to give. Luckily for me, it's his hull. The Cobra erupts in flame and debris. My bank account erupts with a 20k bounty. 20K! That's more money than I've ever had in this game.
I make it back to Erevate with no further troubles and still buzzing from that encounter. It finally feels like I've made it. This is what Elite is all about. I get a report detailing the political ramifications of my actions – one faction's influence has increased at the expense of another. The factions themselves mean little to me – right now, but I'm sure that's something that will improve over time as I have a better idea of where my allegiance lies.

It's All In My Head

Something is bugging me though. Where those interdictions random acts of attempted piracy or a direct response to something I had done? There's part of me that thinks the underlying system is just reacting to me reneging on my contracts by sending out disgruntled allies to teach me a lesson. It may just be random chance, of course, but the narrative in my head has me being chased down by my former patron for stabbing him in the back which is far more satisfying. Post hoc ergo propter hoc*****, maybe, but more satisfying nevertheless.
It's like the difference between reading a book and watching a film. In a film, it's presented to you as-is. In a book, your mind fills in the blanks and, if you're lucky, will do a far better job than any film can.

* Apart from Magic Carpet.
** Physical feedback – the 'neutral' part of the desk feels just the same as everywhere else on the desk.
*** I have yet to work out whether or not commodity availability is on a per station or per system basis.
**** Pretty proud of that paragraph. I should write it down somewhere for the future...
***** Glib Latin phrases as well. I spoil you people sometimes.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Elite: Dangerous Part 3

In which Commander Bulk Paint: Hired Gun is still confused by mission terminology and woefully unprepared for his chosen line of work.


Get the troublesome* play with Willow stuff out of the way so I can have a good crack at this space thing. Taking stock – I'm in an Outpost in my starting system. LHS 3447 or something. I wonder where Lave is? Open the galaxy map and search. Found it! And Diso, Leesti and Reidquat. These names mean nothing to you? You're dead to me. Sadly, they are all very far away.
Some folks in this outpost want me to off some other folks in a neighbouring system. Something about a Warzone. Sounds kinda fun. Accept the mission. In fact, accept two missions, both wanting the same thing – go to Kini and destroy n ships in a Warzone. Two birds and all that.
Jump to Kini and start looking for this zone thing. There's a lot of looking. Kini doesn't appear to have that much in it – binary star (which is cool), single planet and an orbital Outpost. No Warzones. Keep my eyes peeled for Signal Sources whilst mooching back and forth between the stars.
Dinner arrives just as I find one. Perhaps I should dock and eat. The Outpost is nearby so I lock it in and approach. Stupid thing is very full and it won't let me land. Dinner is getting cold.
Finally land and wolf dinner like I have some pressing business to attend to or something. Notice that the station has a big, floating pirate symbol hovering over it. Does this mean it's got a Black Market? Man, if only I hadn't dumped all that Biowaste...
Head back out in search of Signal Sources. Feels a little like I'm back playing EQ and camping spawns. Find one and drop in.
There's a Hauler and he messages me. Same thing as the other mission guy – he knows who I'm working for and has a better offer. Wants me to go kill other people instead. Mission brief updated accordingly with both parameters. I decide that, as I've already accepted the job, I shall see it through to the original specification. Feel like that's the honourable thing to do.
Deploy hardpoints. Let's do this!

Combat Baby

Yeah, you'd better run!
My first burst strikes him from above. I immediately accrue a 400 credit fine for my aggressive action. His shields flash and weather the storm as he lights the burners and tears off. I dutifully drop in behind him, pulse lasers bracketing him nicely as he jinks and rolls. Finding it pretty tricky to get a bead on him actually. I can see his thrusters working overtime as he constantly throws his ship sideways whenever he arcs upwards. My lack of independent yaw control is holding me back.
Remember to divert power to weapons and unleash burst after burst. Finally drop his shields. He throws it into another evasive manoeuvre and drops out of view. I spin to re-locate him and find him just as he's lining up an attack run. Decide that head-to-head is probably not the best plan when your ship appears to be made of paper maché and execute a nose-down boost to give me a bit of a traverse thing going. Some of his shots find their mark and my shields get worryingly low, worryingly fast. But I survive it and even manage to get back on his tail. Drop his shields again and start chipping away at his hull.
There are several things at play here that are making it very tricky to do any sort of prolonged damage to him. Firstly**, my tools. I don't think the gamepad has the fidelity I need. Although that might also be down to the aforementioned yaw thing. Secondly, it's been an awful long time since I've played anything like this. Certainly something that didn't have some kind of auto-aim component.
Eventually, I wear the slippery bastard down and his ship begins to explode. Boom! Suddenly I have a 6000 credit bounty on my head for murder. Oops.
I check the mission brief to see if anything's updated. Nope. Still asking for the same number of people to be killed. Clearly I'm not doing this right? Maybe this first guy is merely the other side of the coin and the Warzone is one of those pick-a-side-when-you-get-there deals, with me failing to get there just yet.
Undeterred, I press on, painfully aware that I now have a big bullseye on my back.
Another signal source finds the guy for the second mission. Probably worth a different approach. I listen to his offer then respectfully jump away. Still no signs of a Warzone but come across a Strong Signal Source instead. Perhaps this is it?
Drop in and a wing of pirates can't believe their luck. It's an ambush! I light the 'burners and start throwing all kinds of shapes whilst cycling through the hostiles on my targeting computer. Really not sure that they're anything other than random pirates and nothing to do with the mission at hand.
Of course, it's all moo anyway as they shred both my shields and hull in short order. There goes another Freagle.

Square Minus One

Back at the station, I check out the invoice from the insurance company. They've replaced my Freagle and outfitted it with the basic stuff that I had equipped for just a couple of grand. That's not a problem. The problem is that they appear to have paid off my fines which amounted to 9600 credits! Money which I did not have.
So it would seem that they've saddled me with a loan. From now until the loan is paid off, 10% of anything I earn will service the debt. Son of a …
I decide that the life of a hired gun is not for me. Not yet. I need a bigger ship, better guns and a proper joystick. For now I think I'll bin off the Eagle and use the money to pay off the loan and kit out my Sidewinder a bit. First, I have to get to my Sidewinder.
It turns out that it's back where the Eagle started, which sadly is Dalton Gateway - a station about a 15 minute flight from the system's star...
The Sidewinder's kit is all loaned stuff. It's rubbish. When I was toying with the upgrade screen on the Eagle, I noticed that the main thing seems to be power draw so I elect to make an updated power plant my first order of business. I then get a bit sidetracked by looking at liveries. I was considering dropping a couple of quid on a Blue Sonoran or Orange Mojave skin but it turns out I have the Mercenary one for pre-ordering the game. It's no Chris Foss, but it takes the edge off the sheer noobness of the ship.
With that in situ, I start looking at guns.
Yeah, I know – the hired gun thing – but I'm still going to need to be able to defend myself. This station doesn't have any affordable Lasers but it does do a line in Multicannons. To top it off, they're gimballed*** which could help solve the yaw problem. I spooge the rest of my money on a pair of those bad boys.
Well, not all of it – some money is kept aside for valuable cargo. My plan is to get shot of this system due to the travel time between jumping in and reaching this station. I browse the commodities, looking for affordable things that will maximise my paltry cargo hold of 4 units and take me away from this godforsaken backwater.
I load up with textiles. Textiles. Be still my beating heart. But it's honest work I guess. The commodities screen tells me where these things get exported too – a handful of systems. I pick Eravate and off we go.
Cleve Hub – cool name, tidy profit. Small, but tidy. So much easier that all that laser stuff.

Perhaps it's time for Commander Bulk Paint: Entrepreneur to take centre stage?


* Not actually troublesome. You should see her when she has a bath. It's lots of fun. Also, she will give you a kiss if you ask her. It's adorable.
** Most significantly, obviously.
*** Kinda like a halfway house between fixed and turreted. Or, in Kerbal Space Program terms, bolted on or taped to.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Elite: Dangerous Part 2

In which I talk more about the adventures of Bulk Paint: Space Adventurer. Or, more correctly, Space Waiting-For-A-File-To-Download Person. I got home and set the whole thing running whilst I could then indulge in bathtime and bonus cuddles with Little Miss Up Way Past Her Bedtime.
“Nice fat pipe”, I thought. “Should be done in no time and I can hit the Black as soon as I've put her to bed.”
Sadly, I think everyone with a Mac had the same idea. I think it's because a Mac release of something is so rare that everyone flocks to it, just so they can tell their grandchildren that they were there. Either way, 0.4MB/s was plainly ridiculous.


10 o'clock came and went and with it, my opportunity for 8 hours of sleep before the morning commute. Ah well. At least I'd be able to play it tomor... wait! Did that bar just fill up? Is it fully downloaded? Perhaps I can get in one mission before bed? Leanne asks when she should tell me to turn in for the night. I say I've got this*.

A Measure Of Control

First things first – let's crack out the gamepad. In the absence of any HOTAS, the trusty 360 pad is being called into action. Takes a bit of time to get everything set up but eventually I'm airborne and... yawing a bit. Switching to a different input mode sorts it out.
Now to go and find that Eagle that I got for pre-ordering the game in the first place. Oh look! It's in the same system. Should be easy enough. Launch. Jump. Dock. Head for the pad. Forget how the throttle works. Ding off the control tower. Lose my shields. Back up and try it again. Land.
Consider trading the Eagle in for a quick 40k but decide against it. Jump into the cockpit and look for missions that want me to blow stuff up. Find some guy looking for someone to take down 2 Traders. Seems legit. Accept and launch. Still a little sketchy getting through the mail slot, but a bit smoother than mouse + keyboard. Lock in the target system and off we go. Jumping!

Target Lost

Arrive in system and... now what? Where are these guys? Let's head to... I don't know... pick a planet at random. After the, now traditional, flyby and loop back, I'm in orbit. Traders are nowhere to be seen. Jump again and find another spot. Let's try an asteroid belt.
Nope – nothing. Just some AIs, mining themselves into an early grave. I've heard about Signal Sources or some such – maybe I try to find one of those? From what I've seen, these things are all over the place, so how come I can't find one?
Wait! There's one. Slingshot around like I planned it then drop in on that poor, unsuspecting... Cobra! Ooh – this should be fun.
Deploy hardpoints and open fire! Yeah! Take that you Trader scum! Feel the wrath of whoever it is I'm working for! Pew! Pew! Pew! Oh, you lost your shields? Poor you! Taste my poorly configured** Pulse Lasers!
Ouch. Okay, good shot sir... and again. Hey, what happened to my shields? Okay, some evasive flying and let's try to stay clear of his front arc. A dodge here, a deft roll there. Give my shields a chance to regene... ouch! Sparks? Fire? This isn't going as well as I'd hoped. Redirect power to shields! Get them back online! Hey – what's the key for redirecting power to shields? Perhaps this is something I should have looked up before I launched?
This is NOT my Freagle. Mine is lower res :(
My Eagle is no more. Twisted wreckage in a cloud of hubris.
Insurance pays out though – only costs me a couple of k in the end. Of course, it's early doors and that couple of k accounts for a third of my total cash. Still, lesson learned. Now it's in to the fitting screen to sort out those lasers. It's easy to get them nicely lined up – two underslung hardpoints at the front of the ship should do it. I can even give the thing a lick of paint as it appears I have a red livery I can use. Wonder where that came from? Never mind – on it goes. The Red Eagle is ready to fly again! Ooh, skull decals. Maybe I'll leave them a bit until I've done something that warrants a fearsome skull. Perhaps I should get another laser and stick it on that top hardpoint? Triple Pulse Lasers, baby! Except... I can't afford it. I would have been able to afford it if I didn't just have to shell out on Eagle Insurance. Dammit!
Next step – hit up the Options screen and find out how to direct power. D-Pad you say? Why didn't I think of that?
Let's find that Trader chap and give him what for. What for, it turns out, is nothing – the mission vanishes when you blow up. Not to worry – I'll pick up another one. Except it doesn't look like anyone is after someone to go somewhere and blow something up. Perhaps I should turn in for the night?
Welp! 00:20 – I should definitely turn in for the night. Or invent a time machine. Or something that gives me a full nights sleep in only 10 minutes.


Drag myself out of bed. Time for a mission before I leave the house.
No! That's stupid. Pack up your stuff and get in to work. You might be able to get a mission in before everyone else arrives. Remember to bring the joypad. This means leaving something behind. Sandwiches perhaps? No - the laptop's power cable is boldly sacrificed – I think I'm going to sleep on the train in anyway rather than get more stuff done on Space Krieg.


Standing outside the office. First to arrive. This means I don't have a keyfob and can't get in...


At my desk. Let's crack out the gamepad and get it all set up. You ever tried getting a 360 gamepad to work on a Mac? Downloaded the Tattiebogle driver but it doesn't recognise the fact that the pad's plugged in. Google Fu reveals that I need to open up Terminal and sacrifice a chicken***. Chicken sacrificed. Mac rebooted. Gamepad recognised. Let's get into space!
Spend pretty much the same amount of time re-configuring the controls. This means that I should probably stop flapping and get on with some actual work.


That's enough work for the time being. How about shooting some Space Bastards? Off, into the void as no-one wants to give me a mission. Find a weak signal source and drop in to find some floating wreckage. There's a couple of cannisters of Biowaste too. Remember how to open up the cargo scoop and snaffle them up, only dinging one of them off my hull like a ping-pong ball in the process. It's like free money!
Hmm. Why does that say “Illicit Cargo”? This might be trickier than I'd hoped. Need to find a black market and probably avoid the big stations – I'm not confident enough with docking yet to try the Silent Running approach. Stick to the Outposts instead where I'm less likely to get scanned. Jump!
Drop out of supercruise and line up. Request docking permission. Denied!
Wait! They know I'm carrying dodgy crap? Oh well – let's try the next one. Thankfully, there appear to be a whole load of them in this system. Jump! Drop! Request docking permission.
Denied again. Oh, come on! Wait a second... ah. I'm further out than 7.5km. Get closer and try again. Permission granted! Dock.
Mark Stacey - you want it.
No black market. Can't offload the merch. Launch and try the next station. And the next. And the next. This is getting tedious. It also dawns on my that I may well have gone back to a couple of outposts that I've already visited. Perhaps I should just dump the cargo and do something else. Besides, lunchtime is over.
Consider buying a skin for my Eagle and Sidewinder since they're only £2 and it seems like I'm going to be spending a lot of time in them. Half-heartedly attempt to persuade Stace to join me by showing him pictures of the ships decked out in Urban Camo and shamelessly reminiscing about that big diamond convoy we did from New Tokyo in Freelancer one time...


Pick up a courier mission. Tiny paycheck but doesn't seem to require any cargo space or for me to have to fight anyone. I just want a quick one before I head home. Find the target system, drop in and head for the target Outpost. Request docking permission.
Denied. Oh FFS. What now? Check distance. Close enough. Check rating with the station's faction. Neutral. Perhaps it's full? Keep requesting permission. Yes! Finally. Pad 3 for me...
Except someone's still on Pad 3. Poxy Sidewinder. Get off my pad you eejit! Don't you realise my docking request expires soon? Contemplate blasting him out of the sky. But I'm in a no-fire zone. Consider backing off and shooting him from outside the zone. Dismiss this as far too risky. Finally, he shifts his stupid noob ship out of my way and I'm down.
Now I realise that it's 17:49 and the chances of making it from Tottenham Court Road to Victoria**** in time for the 8:16 are slim. But I don't fancy hanging around for the next one, so I snarf everything up and peg it...
Make it by the skin of my teeth, Sit down. Start writing this.


* I do not have this.
** One above the other. Looks weird when you fire.
*** Type some stuff in that looks entirely unintelligible. Macs are silly.

**** With no Central Line, so a walk to Oxford Circus instead. More 'jog' actually. I have no shame.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Elite: Dangerous Part 1

When I was at school, one computer game took over the playground like no other - Elite. Each day, we would proudly share our exploits of the night before. Tales of lucrative cargo runs, brutal fights, ship upgrades and even trips into Witch Space would be traded like currency. Heated discussions would take place over the merits of the various computers you could play it on - largely BBC Micro vs Spectrum*.

I can remember the shop assistant at Esdevium Games asking me what I thought my ultimate game would be. I replied "Elite but multiplayer". He said that was impossible.

Of course, this was all a long time ago. A very long time ago.

Fast forward to today. Okay, you can fast forward to a few months ago, but I only have a Mac, which means I've had to wait until today. Years and years of waiting, of pretenders to the throne, of false dawns, pleasant distractions and, most recently, an unhealthy obsession with Let's Play videos on YouTube have finally brought me to this place.

Actually hands-on with Elite:Dangerous.


I should be leaving the house, but I'm hitting up the website to see if it's available for download yet. It is not. I am sad. I leave the house and head to work. I contemplate bringing a wired gamepad to the office, but that might mean leaving my sandwiches at home.


It is still not available, but a tweet suggests that it'll be up in an hour or so, once the server downtime has been completed. I download the wallpaper pack that came with my purchase and set up my desktop to change every half an hour. It is my intention to install it on my work machine as it's an identical spec to my home machine**.


It's available! Well, that's what the tweet said, but I can't find a download link anywhere. I nip to the forums to find most people in the same boat. I tweet @EliteDangerous to see what the deal is.
No reply, but someone on the forums has managed to find a link to the installer.
Despite my scepticism of the link validity, I install the installer. It sits there, filling in a small blue bar.


It's ready! It's ready!
I fire it up.
Hmm. I thought I'd bought a version that gave me the option of an Eagle as a starting ship? Maybe not. Not to worry - it's not as if I'm going to be giving combat a go just yet. Tutorial? Pah!
Start Game.
Ew - it looks a bit blocky.
A quick tinker with the graphics setting and I've upped the resolution to 1920 x 1080 with everything else dropped from High to Medium. Looks crisper. Now, let's take this baby out for a spin...


Yeah, I'm still on the landing pad. Not entirely sure how to navigate the menus... ah, WASD and space. Launching!
Woah, these mouse controls are going to take a bit of getting used to - I so should have brought my gamepad in. Also, back to the config menu to turn ON inverted Y. A little better, but I can see the sensitivity may have to be tweaked later. It's a little disconcerting, knowing that messing around in the menus doesn't pause the game and I'm drifting through space. I'm kinda relying on the fact that there should be a whole bunch of new noobs today doing exactly the same thing.
Right, let's go somewhere and see what it's all about. Console, navigation... um... navigation? No, not the system map. Or the galaxy one. Ah, wait, there we go - Q and R to step through tabs. Okay - asteroid belt - that sounds fun. Target locked and Frame Shift...
...not engaged. Ah - hardpoints. I think I pressed the fire button and they deployed. How do I get them to, er... undeploy?
The U key, of course. Frame shift ti... oh. Landing gear. L perhaps? Yes! Ooh - I'm going much faster now - good to know. Frame shift time! Jumping!
Now I'm hammering through space at Ludicrous Speed, heading for the asteroid belt and adventure. It's really chugging a bit now - a combination of the massive sun in front of me and the scanner being rather filled with a load of contacts. I weather the storm and drop into the belt. Much calmer. Not as asteroid-y as I was thinking it was going to be, but still.
Contact in the distance. I line up and give it the beans. He's shooting an asteroid - must be a miner. He's spinning erratically - must be a player. Target him... yup, CMDR IForgotHisName. Harmless and Clean. Probably a HOMO***
He's chipped off a few chunks of Palladium - perhaps I can scoop that lot up? Back to the key config to find out how to open the Cargo Scoop - Home key... I have no Home key. Arsebiscuits. In to the right console and doing it the hard way... opened. Hey, why does it say Refinery Required? Ah well, perhaps I shouldn't nick this guy's stuff after all. In fact, let's find somewhere else to go.
I think a new system. There's one that has a name and isn't just a series of letters and numbers. Goodbye CMDR WhoeverYouAre - happy mining. Jumping!
In system and facing a big sun. Pull back on the stick so I'm not just going to ram the thing. Then find a station - a proper one, with docking and everything. There we go.
7 seconds seems to be significant. If you modulate your throttle, you seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time 7 seconds away from wherever it is you actually want to go. Bollocks to that - let's give it som... woah - too far. Never mind, I'll swing back around like it was all planned.
Dropping out of frame shift drive and there's the station. That's more like it. Now for the postal slot. Memories of the original come flooding back as I line everything up. Having a bit of issue with roll being on the mouse and getting mixed up between yaw and thrust left / right which causes some problems. Still, docking request has been accepted and I'm through. Landing Pad 36... there it is - below and left. A deft roll. Some vertical thrust and we're nicely lined up...
Except we're not. We're too far left. And back. Throttle up and a bit of lateral thrust... nope - that's yaw... lateral thrust and... brakes! Brakes! For God's sake man, slow down. Not that much! Now we're too far back again. Throttle up - slowly. Lateral thrust. Correct the roll drift. Aaaaannd... oh, shit. Landing Gear. Right - everything's lined up - vertical thrust and bring us in... bosh!
Bring up the station interface and... holy crap, it runs like a dog. Perhaps it doesn't like the interior and a full screen overdraw? Back out and select the hangar instead. That's a bit better, but let's try dropping it to 1280 x 720. Now, missions.
Hmm, a bounty hunting one - shoot four guys by the looks of it. I don't fancy combat without some kind of joystick - I'll come back to that one. 900 credits for four units of Hydrogen fuel at a nearby station? Could be doable. Check the market - 85 credits a pop? Okay, trading it is. Load up, accept the mission and let's get out of here.
Ready to launch. Vertical thrust to clear the pad and tower and retract the landing gear in one fluid mo... bounce off the other side of the bay, albeit with landing gear retracted. Note to self: don't hold down the thruster buttons for prolonged periods of time. Line up with the green side of the slot and throttle up. Realise we're heading for the wall. Throttle back down and line everything up again. Painfully aware that there's a timer ticking down for me to get out of this place. Throttle up. Hold breath. Clear!
Right, where's that station? Target locked, frame shift coming online. Jumping!
It's by the sun. And look at all of those trails. It's okay, I've seen enough Let's Plays to know that they're all ships in frame shift mode. It's like commander soup. I hope they all ignore me on this vital and incredibly lucrative cargo run. The sun's getting quite big in the window now. Never mind - I'm nearly there.
Oops! No, I'm not. It's on the other side of the sun. Perhaps I should go around?
Small detour, but everything's okay now. Lined up with the target and not a celestial body in sight. 7 seconds. 7 seconds. 7 seconds. Safe disengage. Drop back to real space.
The lining up process is a lot easier this time. I get through the mailbox almost on my first attempt. Landing Pad 06 is right there and I glide in like a pro. A pro who occasionally still messes up yaw and lateral thrust, but a pro nevertheless. Landed!
Into the hangar and off to the bulletin board. Mission complete! Riches beyond measure! Lunchtime done.


Wouldn't it be a good idea to write this stuff up somewhere? Might make an interesting read for someone... And the boss has just cracked open a bottle of wine.


Considering heading home and trying it on a joypad or, at the very least, a keyboard with a Home key. Also considering calling up Leanne and getting her to install the installer and start downloading everything so it's ready for me when I get there.

I can't see that going down too well.


*Spectrum was superior - it had Missions. You can take your swift loading times and station interiors and stick them up your arse.
** Mid 2011, 27" iMac, 8GB RAM, 512MB video card (512MB lower than the min spec would suggest)
*** Honourable Order of Macintosh Owners.