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Why Cardiff is an excellent place to be a Gamer

Cardiff is an outstanding place to be a gamer. Although it isn’t home to any major gaming events in the die hard calendar (yet!), it hosts two exceptional games shops, both of which provide the kind of service that should shame you, if you live or work nearby and persist in purchasing your games from Amazon.
Rules of Play
Rules of Play (RoP) is an unassuming little shop in the Castle Arcade in Cardiff. One of those places it might be easy to miss, among the fashionable cafes and weird boutiques.

Rules of Play, Castle Arcade, Cardiff
Rules of Play, Castle Arcade, Cardiff

However, it is not cluttered, and actually quite inviting. There are none of the intimidating tables with sweaty young men hunched over bizarre dioramas, a la Games Workshop. What there is are staff who are keen to please, able to recommend games to meet the needs of Grand Ma wanting a game for her relatives, and the hardened MTG and CCG nut alike. Quite an achievement, and RoP is probably one of the best games shops I have ever frequented.

While normally there is a cellar for game play, with regular events for diverse games, currently the playing space is relocated due to seasonal flooding. However, RoP also run two game events a month:

  • The second Sunday of every month at Chapter, a family-friendly event usually starting at 5pm with a selection of games to loan out to interested players (although die hards with their own games are often there earlier). On that, the RoP staff are all excellent tutors in games, and will have you up and running quite quickly.
  • The last Monday of every month at The Gate in Roath from 7pm, which is more for seasoned gamers.

I’ll cover their events in more detail in coming months, but it is safe to say that the staff are both knowledgeable and accessible to both novice and expert alike.

Firestorm Games
Firestorm Games (aka StormFire) are less easy to come across, being the “wrong” side of the tracks, if only a convenient walk from Cardiff Central Train Station.

Firestorm Games, 8a Trade Street, Cardiff
Firestorm Games, 8a Trade Street, Cardiff

The shop itself, is about the same size as RoP, but in two smaller sections; one being predominantly Games Workshop (GW) products, the other being a range of board games and accessories for War Games, etc. It’s quite compact, but nice to see things on display for a company that does most of its selling through the Internet. However, the real jewel in Firestorm’s Tardis-like interior is the fully licensed (!) massive play space, affectionately known as “The Battlefields”. Click the panoramic image below to fully grasp this!
Panoramic View of the Firestorm Battlegrounds Play Area
Panoramic View of the Firestorm Battlegrounds Play Area


Firestorm has a licensed bar
Firestorm has a licensed bar
This huge, well-resourced area, with a cafe, bar, figure painting area, and even an arcade cabinet, must be seen to be believed. While it is clear that War Games are the dominant game type here – there is a huge array of dioramas and peripherals, so you only really need to bring your army to play massive campaigns, and Firestorm even offer lockable storage for regulars – there are regular events for CCG, and board game play.
Firestorm's Figure Painting Station
Firestorm’s Figure Painting Station

The staff charge a fixed fee for access to the Battlefields (currently a one off £3.60, but periodic membership is also available), but when I attended recently, there were a range of games on hand, as well as those brought by the regulars, and there was an atmosphere of “Let’s make sure everyone gets a game!” from the staff, who could be seen arranging groups of players to guarantee that people wouldn’t have to wait to be entertained. Even I got roped into a quick game of
Rob and Steve contemplate their defeat in Evil Baby Orphanage
Rob and Steve contemplate their defeat in Evil Baby Orphanage

“Evil Baby Orphanage” despite not intending to stay for long. It just reinforced the great atmosphere that Firestorm provides for the young adult gamer. While I don’t think that this store is as accommodating for families – the licensed bar on the premises necessitates some control over who can play on site – it is good to know that the two shops complement each other perfectly. Both Rules of Play and Firestorm are worth a visit, if you are ever in the Welsh capitol. Next time, I will cover RoP in more detail, especially the regular Sunday and Monday events, but in the mean time, here are some other shots from Firestorm’s Battlefields:
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Hitler finds out about Jacek Fedoryński

I came across this site that automates making Hitler Downfall parodies so decided to have a go. It’s not quite straightforward to know what to put in each box, as the transcript doesn’t quite match up to the one at the Hitler Downfall Parody Wiki (?). So here attached is an eXcel script hitler-downfall-script1 to help you.

Here’s my meta effort to thank Jacek Fedoryński for making this possible.

You are the Hero: KickStarter Support and a #1GAM announcement

This post will serve two purposes:

  1. To support Jonathan Green’s “You are the Hero” KickStarter Campaign for a history of the Fighting Fantasy game books
  2. To announce “MaZone”, an upcoming #1GAM #onegameamonth project, which will attempt to innovate in print form on the game book concept

You are the Hero
WOFM

If this book cover means nothing to you, you are either quite young or very old. It’s by Russ Nicholson and two other guys…

I came across this book in a dusty cupboard that was the Puffin/Penguin book “club”; a sponsored form of school shop that supplied the publisher’s current titles in a ‘sale or return’ arrangement. I’d made many discoveries during the lunch hours Mr. Allen, my first year form teacher and later close friend, gave up running the shop. I think I may have been its only customer in fact. Anyway, he would recommend things he thought I, a voracious reader who had read about 3/4 of the school library by that point, would be interested in. Warlock was a welcome relief from early O-Level revision, as it was waiting for me at the start of the fifth form school year (September 1982). It didn’t do too much harm to my work, thankfully, as I got 5 As 2 Bs a C and a D, but I did ironically fail English, and had to retake that a year later in Sixth Form.

[Kids, O-Levels are not, as you imagine like the Harry Potter OWLs of J.K. Rowling creation, but just like GCSEs really, except you did ALL your assessments in one go – no continuous assessment or coursework! – in a thing called… an exam… while imprisoned in a dusty hall under the watchful eyes of scowling teachers, who’d much rather be drinking tea (or in one case beer or gin) in the lurking smoke-filled staff room. So, actually quite like OWLs, thinking about it…]

For those of us who remember the horrors of Thatcher’s Britain, Miner’s Strikes and the promotion of self-interest over social duty, it may come as a relief to know that
Jonathan Green, who wrote some of these “Fighting Fantasy” books in their heyday, is attempting to celebrate their 30 year legacy.

Many current game designers and writers owe a lot to the green-spined wonders that opened up the idea of non-linear narrative and interactive story telling. Ok, Livingstone and Jackson weren’t the first – there are examples before their first title (shown above), “The Warlock of Firetop Mountain”. Notably Tunnels and Trolls “solo adventures” as well as others – but they stuck somehow. Maybe it was the unique UK writing style, but other brands don’t have the same nostalgia or affectionate appeal as Fighting Fantasy.

Not to say that “Choose you own Adventure”, “Decide your Destiny” and a range of other brands haven’t innovated or done some things better, and (hopefully) Green will cover these, if only to contrast with the FF books as they still compare favourably, in my opinion. However, it is (I believe) timely and topical to consider an official history of this form of literature, especially as tablet computers (iPads, etc) are bringing about something of a resurgence.

You can find out more by clicking the banner below, or Jonathan’s FaceBook Page.
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MaZone – A #1GAM #onegameamonth project
When I talked to Ian Livingstone at DragonMeet last month, I asked him if there was any scope for evolution in the game book design. His response was that electronic forms of interactive fiction were probably the best arena for future innovations. I respectfully disagreed at the time, and vowed to try to come up with something that could work in print – still the cheapest and most robust form of distribution – that even he would consider truly revolutionary (or at least different enough to warrant recognition as progress).

So, as part of #1GAM #onegameamonth (See OneGameAMonth for details), I’m planning a multi-player game book that attempt to innovate on the current formula in several respects:

  1. The ability to backtrack and revisit old locations – Ian was clear that this was one area of weakness in the semi-linear story telling of game books, which presents a difficult obstacle for environmentally encoded narrative. Dear Esther has done that wonderfully in video game form, but it would be nice to return to a book and traditional literature.
  2. The option for several people to each use a game book to independently or cooperatively explore the same environment – I owe Alfred Leonardi’s “Ace of Aces” as well as a recent interview I did with him for the G*M*S Magazine podcast for inspiring this idea, which will be the most technical challenge.
  3. The ability to add new books that would work in the same setting, where the uniqueness of each volume would be reflected in both the text and the interactive options available to different readers. The idea here being that one book would allow you to explore a space, but a second would revisit the same locations with different perceptions. For example, a hero would walk along the corridor, but a ghost could float through the very thick wall.

To show MY support for the KickStarter above, I have promised to make the beta of MaZone (a play on Maze and Zone) available for FREE to backers of Jonathan’s book. I am not planning for this to be January’s OneGameAMonth offering, as I am a bit tight for time this month. However, it will be out before Mr. Green’s book is released. I’m sure it will be rough and needing ‘fixing’, and it might just not work or be fun to play/read. However, I am looking forward to trying out something genuinely new in game book design. Fingers crossed.

Now turn to Page 1…

Something missing

It’s been a while since I last wrote about moving from iPhone to WP7. I have been saving up a list of things that are right and wrong about the current OS and Apps, etc, such as the lack of support for podcasts with a store, such as iTunes, on the device itself. However, these are merely the eco-system that surrounds both devices; one is much newer, the other has had significant investment. This is, though, the last post (for now at least) on my experiment. Why? Simply, because the Nokia crashes.

Not to say that the iPhone doesn’t occasionally need a force reset, but 6-7 times in a fortnight is not an acceptable level of performance. That is how often the Nokia has just up and frozen in the last few weeks. In a way, it is like the Mac v PC debate of old: one is more reliable than the other. So, I am moving back to Apple as my main phone provider. I had planned to finish off my experiment with developing a simple application, to complete the experience. However, this will wait now. I will complete this element one day, but, for now, having a reliable phone is more important.

Good Things (come to those who wait)

Introduction
It is important to realise that the iPhone (king of the smartphone kingdom) has had a number of generations, and the opportunity for Apple to learn from the innovations and mistakes of others, as well as making their own. However, what is often overlooked is how much the foot has been shaped by the shoe, so to speak. Since the original iPod, and possibly the Mac itself, we have been slowly and subtly trained in how to use Apple products. This cannot be overlooked in attributing the relative success of different smart phone platforms. So, moving to a different metaphor (namely Metro) is pushing comfort zones we didn’t know we had.

Nokia Drive
This is a really positive experience. Although this GPS navigation app isn’t on every WP7 device, it is downloadable and wonderful. Drive gives everything a GPS app should: clear 2 or 3D display, turn by turn navigation, free pre-downloadable maps and configurable voices. It totally blows away the paltry iPhone app in so many ways; too many to mention in fact. And it’s free.

Text to speech to text
After I ditched the iPhone compatible headphones, because the mic wasn’t working with the Nokia, I discovered how convenient the speech recognition is. Ok, it’s no Siri – but I’m not falling for the hype – but it works well. For example, I was stuck in an Olympic Torch traffic jam in Newport on Friday. The Nokia tells me (through headphones) I have a text from Victoria Jones. I say “read it” then “reply” and speak “stuck behind torch, will arrive half past five” with the blowers on full, windows down and cheering crowds outside, but the Nokia gets it first time. Even if it hadn’t, it’s easy to try again. And all this without me faking the hand from the wheel or eye off the road.

Summary

Free GPS software 9/10 – its chosen route isn’t always the best.

Hands free SMS Handling – 10/10 – simple, sleek, efficient

My review of Reviews of Fez

Ok, here’s my take on @polytron and Fez. But first a disclaimer: I haven’t finished the game. But I won’t be posting links to other reviews, even though this is a piece about those reviews (Google them). But there’s a reason I feel qualified to comment. But before I explain that I’m going to summarise in one sentence so the haters can jump in to the comment section:

“Fez is about losing childhood.”

But am i ready yet to do the growing up?

Many reviews focus on the mechanics – retro 8 it platformer reflecting the days were games were real games and hard – or the multi-layered “get everyone talking in the playground (Internet forum?)” under the surface content. Some think it clever this is concealed (though what truly is when “walkthrough” is one of the most used word in search engines?) while others worry people “won’t get it”. Still a few naysayers accuse Phil Fish, who is invariably described as “outspoken” or linked to the GDC Japan games thing (Google it), of cunning manipulation. Of course, what’s always worse than a smart arse is a successful smart arse.

So, let’s take a look at what I have gleaned from “Fez: The Review: The Game” (FTRTG), which unlike “Fez: The Movie” (aka the Indie Game Movie that stubbornly resists being torrentable, and will only be shown once in the UK in Sheffield this year :-(so I’m not holding much hope of seeing any time soon) or “Fez: The Game”, which remains firmly unfinished (see my second but). Because I AM finished with FTRTG. All the various takes on Fez in print and web seem to each miss a different but important element – author’s blindspot, limited space or deadlines? – and only reading a selection can you see a growing theme. Like Gomez suddenly being aware of his 2D existence, but having a limited pallet to manipulate it, and his journey of discovery in a frankly bewildering world, I feel (yes, feel) there’s a metaphor here to our own childhood’s end (mistaken for nostalgia by many reviewers). It also cleverly refers to the mainstreamification of Games into modern culture. However, the obvious (and sometimes subtle) references aren’t only to games as some have suggested: the NYT review references meaningless hyroglyphs translated as “Help I’m a prisoner in a Fez factory” but fails to spot homage to a great children’s book “Help I’m a prisoner in a toothpaste factory” sadly, and there are other missed connections to innocent times. Fez is far deeper than many will give credit for. Maybe not deliberately on Polytron’s part, although I suspect it is, but this is, by the external requirements – QR codes, cyphers, and a (deliberately?) confusing multidimensional map – the players’ hero’s journey NOT that of Gomez.

Fez is an impressive addition to the canon of games that will require me to keep digging, and trying to not type “walkthrough” into Google. My only regret is the ephemeral nature of its meta content: will we still be able to use the QR codes in 20 years? it might take me that long, and a series of red rings, to fathom it all.

I did not like (Dan Golding’s review of ) Fez

It all started with a tweet:

@dangolding: I did not like Fez. Here’s why: http://t.co/BpgRchAh

Something about the controversial title didn’t sit right. Checking it out, I couldn’t help feeling it was more rhetoric than reason. After reading the ‘review’ I replied on twitter asking Dan where it was going. It seemed nowhere. Dan asked if I thought his critique was unjustified. So, I said I’d read it again.

It read as a bash Fez for no reason emotional attack. Rather than calm me down, maybe think I’d over-reacted, it just made me feel more angry. So, I commented with a fairly inflammatory response. Go read his post first, and the “me too” comments; no doubt by now others may have sprung to defend him. Maybe they’re right, but something about this article is not right. Anyway, in case my reply has gone to moderator’s hell, here below is my comment on his article reproduced.

***
Like a previous poster, I’m going to quote this:

“But Gomez’s smile is empty and hollow. It is less a naive expression of nostalgia than it is a simpering, mincing appeal. He has nothing else to say, so he just grins.”

but not in order to praise the author. More than anything else, this piece of rhetoric belies the fact that this is a one dimensional opinion piece, playing on the topicality of attacking what is currently getting (undeserved?) praise. It’s not big, and it’s not clever. It’s just the first to burst the Fez hype balloon; like the mainstream media’s habit of building up, then tearing down people through the currency of celebrity.

The overwhelming (if temporary) love fest (fezt?) that is the specialist game journalism coverage of this long awaited Fish product is as much his creation as the game itself; wheels within wheels of viral marketing that shows a credible awareness of the culture of game and how its members can be manipulated. However, if people are happy to be gently massaged, or creatively led through a series of superficial mysteries, who are we to judge. It just makes Fish’s achievement that much more canny. This isn’t shallow propaganda, it’s effective and clever marketing.

The author introduces the idea of “smart” indie games without justification, then straw man argues against his own categorisation as judgemental, then states that all video games would not stand up to Ballet, should we slip down the slope of cultural comparison.

er…?

Most reviews of Fez appear to be joyful description of play, rather than actual critique – for example http://www.critical-gaming.com/blog/2012/5/16/the-dimensions-of-fez.html – but this article presents itself as a critique:
***Twitter***
@dangolding: I did not like Fez. Here’s why: http://t.co/BpgRchAh

@DoctorMikeReddy: @dangolding ok, but what next. Your piece starts but doesn’t end. Where should we go?

@dangolding: @DoctorMikeReddy Well, it’s a critique, not a manifesto. I don’t want to dictate directions so much as analyze current trends.
*** Twitter ***

However, there is no meaningful analysis or identification of trends. It just resorts to a superficial description of what it describes as nostalgia, namely jumping and rotating, which doesn’t “say” anything.

Phil Fish doesn’t need to say anything; given his recent GDC running off at the mouth, this is probably a good thing. However, he maybe does need to “work the room” to make sales – something we should openly debate – and this he has done with remarkable success. To attack elements of the game instead of debating Fish’s multi-pronged technique to build interest in a long in the tooth product, just comes across as jealousy. Perhaps Dan resents the effectiveness of this manipulation, as I can’t see any other reasonable explanation for the vitriol. I can understand this, if it is accurate, but let’s call a spade a spade. Fez encourages a sense of (often bewildering) exploration, both within and without the game. A depth Dan’s article would do well to emulate.

What motivates me?

I’d like to write a really short post today (late)… (as usual)… and leave you with a question to ponder:

“What motivates me?”

And I’d like to leave you with a cartoon I discovered recently, which keeps haunting me. Particularly the last frame. It’ll be down there at the end of this short post. Go now if you don’t want the preachy, uninformed, ivory tower like stuff.

You see, I have developer’s block. I have three games that are hideously late. Mostly due to the unexpected complexity of needing to make them ‘editable’ as well as ‘educational’ and ‘excellent’ (of course, we need the last one, otherwise these will be three very worthy educational games that no one will want to play). And I also have to write a huge report explaining why the games are late, why that isn’t a bad thing, as we are discovering all sorts of interesting things about the process of writing educational games that actually are educational and games. And this report writing is, ironically, stopping me from finishing the games. However, it is important. Without the report, the second year of funding – the most important part, the testing of the games with teachers, parents and students – won’t happen. So, hopefully you will forgive this brief bit of work avoidance. Now I have to get back to writing the report, getting the funding, enabling the really important stuff to happen; namely the actual testing of games to see if they make a difference, rather than just on paper sounding like they will. Of a two year project, only 3 months to make 6 games. Six games that can be adapted, modified, extended and used in ways we don’t really expect. No wonder we are a bit behind schedule.

Anyway, here’s the cartoon. I promised it. Afterwards, think what motivates you. Is it 5 minutes of playing a quick game level after an hour of programming? Is it a cup of coffee and cake? What is it that you do, when you should be doing something else, and the deadline whizzed past ages ago? What is your lizard brain reward? What is it that you do when you are tired of playing games?
http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2286

The ants pick the food, the ants eat the food, and the grasshoppers leave.

“Universities have been bashed over quality, relevance and value of computer games courses for too long. Like complaining that a cafe’s food is disgusting and the portion’s too small, now even schools appear to Gove, Livingstone, Hope and Braben et al to be failing. By turns it’s either too many or too few games, not enough programming, etc, that is to blame for the lack of a stream of compliant, skilled workers streaming from HE into the dark Satanic Mill of game development. Well, Education’s had enough. We aren’t training sweatshops. We don’t teach skills, we teach people. Now bog off and let us do our job!”

This is the summary and abstract for a talk I will be giving at Brains Eden in Cambridge on Monday 11th July.

https://i1.wp.com/www.creativefront.org/assets/library/image/b/medium/brains-eden_logo.jpg?w=474

The title is a quote from “A Bug’s Life”, but few know it was based not only on Kursowa’s “The Seven Samurai” (aka “The Magnificent Seven”) but also on one of my favourite Aesop’s Fables, The Ant and the Grasshopper, where an individual of a playful nature does little to sustain his existence, then expects to long serving collective to support him with resources.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/The_Ant_and_the_Grasshopper_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_19994.jpg?w=474

The analogy should be clear. Ok, yes, this IS meant to be controverial. Deliberately so, as the organisers have asked me to be. For the past couple of years Games Eden have organised ‘Brains Eden’, a gaming festival designed to bring together industry, academia and students. This year it will revolve around a 48-hour Game Jam hosted at Anglia Ruskin University, with representatives from the local companies speaking on Monday on a range of subjects. However, what the schedule seemed to be missing was someone from academia to do a 15 minute talk; “the livelier and more controversial the subject matter the better.”

It’s a double edged sword, this “rocking the boat” malarkey. Not one I am unfamiliar with, even outside of games, having singlehandedly destroyed Higher Education on at least one occasion – according to the Daily Mail
and the Telegraph, though (sadly) not the News of the World – or started a revolution in 21st century university assessment – according to the Times Higher Ed Supplement (THES) and the Guardian – it’s cleary time to don the asbestos suit again. However, this time it has been planned. There is much that is right, or potentially so, with Industry getting involved with HE, although why anyone would think that some form of company sponsored national curriculum was a good idea I don’t know, or even with computer games revolutionising Education generally. So this blog post is more about airing the subject for debate. A proto rant. Do you think the Brabens, Livingstones and Hopes of this World are right? That we should return to an 80s (Thatcherite) approach to teaching programming in schools, in the forelorn hope it will ignite a new generation of bedroom coders – just like it didn’t in the actual 80s? Or that HE has been doing such a bad job of fitting the loyalty chips in the necks of serfs bound for indentured servitude at the nearest Triple-A studio that Industry, which has little or no pedagogical expertise or interest beyond easing the recruitment/staff turnover (burnout?) problem, should step in and “well and truly sort us out!” If so, comment here. It’ll all be good ammunition or target practice for me, when next week I’m thrown to the Lionheads; see what I did there?

It’s not just about Games, it’s far less serious than that.