Archive for the 'Games' Category

NASCAR: Redline

Posted in Games on October 10th, 2013 by MrCranky

Finally! The fruits of our labour since November last year have made it to the app store, and soon enough the Android marketplace. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:-

NASCAR: Redline

I’ve shown screenshots there that give you a sense of how great the Eutechnyx art team got the cars and tracks looking, but at its core this is more about the tactics and strategy of real NASCAR racing than it is about twitch driving skills. Not to diminish the thrill of watching the lovely 3D segments where you see your driver slipping through the tiniest of gaps or avoiding a big pile-up, but the off-track decisions play as much a part in your final position as the driving. When to pit, how far you can stretch your tire wear, choosing the right parts for the track you’re racing on, you need to get all those things right to come out on top. For the real NASCAR fans they’ll love competing against their favourite drivers, on all the real NASCAR tracks, to really feel like they’re part of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

I had a great time working with the team at Eutechnyx to help build this title, so it’s a real thrill to finally see it out there on the app store making NASCAR fans happy. As for me, I’ve been taking a well-earned break, to try and get the constant thrum of highly tuned engine noise out of my head. 🙂


Posted in Games, Tales from the grind-stone on October 25th, 2012 by MrCranky

Oh my, it has been a while, hasn’t it?

In my defence, it’s been a crazy summer, and I have been juggling many different balls. Thankfully, all the work we’ve been doing has finally come to fruition, and is all now out there in the world so we can talk about it. First off, the work I’ve been doing for the last year or so with Sumo Digital, on Nike+ Kinect Training.

This was mostly working on the localisation aspect, as the game is translated into some 15 languages across 3 discs, there was a lot of voice content to get in. I can’t take much for anything else, but I think the folks at Sumo did a great job on it – certainly when I’ve had to actually stand up in front of the Kinect and do some real exercise, I’ve certainly felt the burn!

In-house however, we’ve had another big project that we’ve put our heart and soul into. Last year, Bliss Kiss Productions approached us with a pitch to re-make Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, for mobile devices. Of course, we loved the original game, I think anyone who had a Spectrum or Commodore 64 will have played it at some point: personally I abused my old rubber-keyed Spectrum 48K terribly to try and get a decent score. Thankfully I didn’t have a joystick at that point, otherwise I’m sure it would have been broken just as many others did theirs. So the chance to bring it to mobile was something we couldn’t pass up.

While we did some solid work on it in autumn last year, other commitments meant that it wasn’t until this summer that we could tackle it in earnest. Which, combined with all our other ongoing commitments, made for a lot of work. Dan’s been in pretty much the whole summer working flat out on it, and seems pretty chuffed with his first proper published title.

It’s a remake from the ground up, obviously. Looking back at the original version it was clear that the design was still fun (we spent more time playing than taking notes when researching), but the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia allowed us to forget just how dated the graphics looked. On the Spectrum version, Daley’s an all-white blocky sprite with only a few frames of animation! There were also a lot of design decisions that were clearly made due to technical limitations (such as the shot put taking place on a straight track, instead of in a circular pit as it does in real life). Some of those decisions we revisited, but where there was a design case for it, we erred on the side of the original.

What was pretty clear,  from even the first round of focus testing, was that the original was brutally hard in its learning curve. Running events like the 100m and hurdles are straightforward enough, but three events in particular were unique in their own way: the high jump, pole vault and discus throw all differ in style. Instead of rewarding frantic tapping, they are games of timing. In the 80s, it was fine to spring that sort of challenge on the player and expect them to learn it on their own, but modern players are nowhere near as understanding. With that in mind, we put in a practice mode that allowed players to learn how to master particular events, without the added pressure of participating in the whole decathlon; and we put on-screen prompts and buttons to guide unfamiliar players through each event.

Also needing wholly revisited were the controls themselves. As a first principle we wanted to replicate the frantic button mashing / joystick waggling of the original; the user should have to break a sweat to get those high scores, especially in the 400m. At first glance the touch-screen controls seem obvious, alternating between left and right sides of the screen to run. But finding a way to let the user throw and jump without a) accidentally jumping when they didn’t mean to, or b) having the on-screen feedback be underneath the user’s fingers, was not a trivial task. Worse, when you introduce multi-touch, we had to find a way to handle input so that it was always physically hard to achieve the maximum speed. Later focus testing revealed that our use of an on-screen button for throwing / jumping wasn’t working; users were interpreting “HOLD” as a prompt, not a button, and simply holding their finger down wherever they last tapped. Based on that, we revised the controls to respond to exactly that action.

On the visuals and audio, we wanted to aim somewhere between modern and nostalgic. For the art side, we brought in Paul Helman to work on the graphics, and we feel he was right on the mark in his style – not blocky or restricted in colours, but also not trying to be too realistic. At first we were worried about how Daley Thompson would react to the stylised look we gave him, but all the feedback was positive.

For audio, we worked with Gavin Harrison, who did a great job experimenting on the audio we needed. Evoking the ‘old style’ in audio is somewhat harder; the audio chips of the 8-bit era had a very limited range, which just sounds silly nowadays. In the end, we went for a simple synth-sounding musical theme, and some very slightly distorted audio samples.

We finished our work at the end of September, and the game itself was released on iOS and Android on the 21st of September. The PR machine for the launch is in full swing, and we’re eagerly awaiting the public’s reception of it. When the dust has settled, I’ll try to write up a post-mortem of everything we’ve done, what worked and what didn’t, but right now I’ve been enjoying some well deserved time off!

Accountants, Dragons and Helicopters (not in that order)

Posted in Games, Tales from the grind-stone on November 22nd, 2011 by MrCranky

Ooh: post 666! Spooky. 🙂

I’ve the office to myself for a couple of weeks, as Tim has taken the opportunity to use up the load of holidays he’s saved up before the end of the year, and Dan is busy with both university and other projects. I’m somewhat surrounded by Amazon boxes, as my wife has been using the office as a delivery drop-off for a vast amount of Christmas presents for all and sundry; as a personal rule I don’t shop for Christmas until it turns to December, but she’s a bit more efficient and organised about it than I am. As compensation for that though, and because she’s just generally lovely, she’s also had them deliver a shiny new copy of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for the 360. There was a certain amount of giggling with glee when it turned up, as I’ve been quite jealous of all the other devs who are enjoying it: I do like a good open-world adventure. Where I’m going to find the time to play it I’m not quite sure yet, but even rationed out over weekends I’m sure it will be fun. A first quick blast in the office had me running away from dragons, which is always a good start.

On a whim a few weekends back while I was huddled up trying to beat off a nasty illness, I picked up a copy of DCS: Black Shark from Steam; I do like sim games, and the X52 in the cupboard doesn’t get a chance to come out. It was tragically disappointing though. Not because the manual isn’t the manual for the game, it’s the manual for the actual helicopter. That’s half the fun. No, what put me off was the terrible way it was presented. In a nod to playability, they include ‘game’ toggles for the flight and avionics. The ‘game’ flight mode is much friendlier to new players, but takes away half the fun and control I enjoy. However I learned my lesson with Lock On: Modern Air Combat; actually learning the radar and weapons controls for a real combat aircraft isn’t nearly as much fun! So I want ‘game’ avionics, and ‘sim’ flight, and set the options accordingly.

Here’s where it starts to go wrong. If you set either of those options, the game considers you in ‘game’ mode. And there’s an entirely distinct control configuration for game mode. It doesn’t tell you it’s in game mode, or give any indication as to which controls are ‘current’. You are just supposed to know. It’s not even in the manual anywhere, I checked. Worse, the control configuration isn’t accessible from the in-game menu. So you start a mission, take off (because that part is easy), but find you can’t operate one of the controls (of which there are many). Can you look it up? No. Because to look it up, you have to exit the mission, and go check the control configuration in the front end. I don’t even want to change it, I just need to see which button it’s mapped to.

So instead of actually enjoying the challenge of controlling a complex, agile helicopter, I find myself getting into the mission, only to find that the weapons systems are unusable, and I get shot down because I am spending a good few minutes just trying to get a particular bit of it to work. And there aren’t any missions in there that let you just concentrate on one thing at a time. You don’t get a ‘free flight’ mode, you don’t get some a mission with nice simple targets that don’t fire back right in front of you so you can familiarise yourself with the weapons systems. It’s either ‘quick start’ (which throws you into a mission assuming that you have full control over everything), or ‘campaign’. At least the first mission in the campaign takes you through some easy flying, but there’s no practicing of flight maneuvers, just ‘fly there, then there, then home’. That’s not what you need to practice. You need to practice low level flight, and going from full forward to stopped and hovering before popping up over the brow of a hill. You need to practice strafing and orbiting targets. None of which is encouraged in the missions provided.

Anyway, suffice to say that the nod towards making it ‘friendly’ very much fails. It’s not that much friendlier for novices, and those parts are ignored by intermediate or pro pilots.

Lastly, and on a completely different note, we’ve got ourselves a new accountant, who comes recommended from a couple of other game-devs around Scotland. This is a bit of a relief to me, since our filing deadline is the end of December. The previous accountants, who I’ll not name (although they do deserve to be shamed) have been informed, although they can’t have expected to keep our business, not least because they’ve been avoiding contact with me since spring (and their refusal to pay the fines they incurred through their incompetence).

Real Time Graphics is Virtual Reality

Posted in Games on August 1st, 2011 by OrangeDuck

When I tell people my interest is in computer graphics, most people don’t really know how to react. Much like anything to do with computers, trying to explain it often leads to more confusion than enlightenment. Even to people who have experience with programming, unless they’ve done graphical programming, the whole thing can seem like a box of magic tricks. In most peoples’ heads I imagine “graphics” conjures up images of crude wireframes and sharp polygonal models from the 90s, when graphics were “new” and “experimental”. Of all the responses I remember one particularly well. I was talking to a man in his 60s, an insurance salesman from Yorkshire. His response was something along the lines of:

“So, you’re basically making killing people and stealing cars in GTA more realistic.”

At the time it didn’t even seem like too bad a response. In some ways it was a fair trade. Computer graphics are clearly not one of his interests, and insurance is most definitely not one of mine. What he said was somewhat true in its sentiment, but it remains a rather depressing way to look at it.



And I can’t help but finding myself wanting to fight the fight. I wish I could bring more people around to the art, observation, maths, science and problem solving behind graphics! Even gamers see graphics as a very linear and steady progression. You buy a better graphics card – you get better graphics. At the end of the day few care, or really want to know about the details.

To me the fascination is exactly in the details. Sometimes I feel like I’m viewing the world in twice – there is so much more I see! I could tell you the type of shadow your laptop is casting – I could give you the component parts of that shadow and outline them for you. I could tell you why your fingers glow red when you put them right up to a light, and how headlights reflect across a wet road. But graphics gives you even more than that! It tells you so much about the world in general. Through building virtual objects you learn about the real ones. I could tell you about the different ships in the 15th and 16th century, their parts, purposes, strengths and weaknesses. I could tell you in depth about renaissance sword fighting techniques, about the anatomy of a goat, the ways birds can fly and the mechanism for wheellock rifles. Of everything I’ve studied, I’ve found nothing more enriching to my world view.

In my opinion computer graphics is one of the most interesting fields in computer science. It has huge amounts of investment, research and some exceptionally smart people at the forefront. Progress is made by brilliant ideas over processing power. My favourite example is a new technique used to emulate a phenomenon called radiosity. This technique is called Sphereical Harmonics (or Precomputed Radiance Transfer if you like). The effect it emulates, radiosity, is basically when light reflects off a colored surface onto some other surface, lighting that up with some of its own color.

This technique was first developed in 2002 by Peter-Pike Sloan, Jan Kautz and John Snyder at Microsoft. It combines maths from all kinds of research areas, in some spectacular ways. But the real core of up and coming research is what is fascinating, because it’s borrowing from various quantum physics papers that are using similar Spherical Harmonics models for looking at the rotation of quantum particles. There are stories of e-mail exchanges between the physicists and the programmers, with the programmers requesting help mapping the maths from complex-number space to real-number space so that it can be done on a processor.

All this is where virtual reality will come from. Not from the CGI movies, but from games, because they are interactive, and render images at 60 times a second. This is how I like to look at real-time graphics.

If I became a billionaire overnight I would hire the world’s greatest environmental artists and graphical programmers and my game would be a recreation of all the most beautiful places on earth in stunning realism. Because, if I can settle down for the evening in my living room and experience in true virtual reality, with feeling smell sound and sight, the the sun set over the Himalayas – a casual walk along the Great Wall of China early in the morning, then why would I sit down and slog through several more hours of the next GTA?

The final note comes from John Carmack, the real inventor, and prolific innovator of, real time graphics. As well as his primary hobby being rocket science (proving computer graphics really is more interesting than rocket science!), he provides a quote which I think most people involved with graphics can really relate to.

“…after so many years immersed in the science of graphics, he [John Carmack] had achieved an almost Zen-like understanding of his craft. In the shower, he would see a few bars of light on the wall and think, Hey, that’s a diffuse specular reflection from the overhead lights reflected off the faucet. Rather than detaching him from the natural world, this viewpoint only made him appreciate it more deeply. ‘These are things I find enchanting and miraculous,’ he said, ‘I don’t have to be at the Grand Canyon to appreciate the way the world works. I can see that in reflections of light in my bathroom.'”

Portal 2 / Scope

Posted in Games, Industry Rants on May 17th, 2011 by MrCranky

I thought I’d add my voice to the rest of the gaming community praising Portal 2, which I finished last week. A great story, which made me laugh out loud at least a dozen times, which is rare in any medium, let alone a game. It’s not without its flaws, but all are minor and do not detract noticeably from the overall experience. It most definitely passed my usual acid test for quality: that I wanted to play it even when I didn’t have any free time, to the point where I was skipping sleep to play it some more.

I loved the original, even though I wouldn’t have bought it were it not tacked onto Half-Life 2: Episode 2. It always struck me as a wonderfully weighted title – just the right length, elegant in its simplicity, and with a level of polish that larger titles just don’t achieve. More than anything though, it was a title that left me wanting more, not because it was too short, but because it was so good. Much like a wonderful novel or film where I get immersed in the universe and characters, the end comes with both a warm glow of satisfaction at the conclusion, and an aching for more. More of the characters, more from the rich universe. It’s a rare creation that brings that level of quality to the observer, and both Portal incarnations have that quality in spades.

I’ve been ranting somewhat about the poor judgement of top-end games development recently. Quality of Life and financial issues are just one facet of a deeper problem: that we’ve been trapped into an arms race of scope. To justify a ‘full-price’ cost, developers feel they have to match or out-do each other. Worlds grow larger and larger, not even bound by memory constraints, since every large game streams their environments off disc. Stories grow more and more epic, and require game-play lengths to match. More characters are wedged in, even though there’s not enough time to get to know them in any great detail. Their voices are provided by more and more famous actors. Cut-scenes get flashier and longer.

The problem is that the underlying mentality to it all is ‘go big, or go home.’ Budgets spiral upwards, or if they don’t, then quality spirals downwards. Both hurt a title’s chances of success. But more quality doesn’t justify a higher price tag to match the increased costs. The players have shown in a wide variety of ways that they’re not prepared to pay any more for games than the already high cost. Second-hand sales and rental mean that the RRP quickly gets turned into the ‘real’ price – far lower. Popular titles drop slower than unpopular ones, so market forces still apply. But as an industry we still delude ourselves that we ‘deserve’ the RRP times the number of units sold.

That’s not the real madness though. The real madness is that despite all our profitability numbers showing the decline, developers and publishers keep on down the same path. They know how much more it costs to increase the scope of the games we make, but they do it anyway. Why? Because they know if they don’t invest enough in titles they flop, because they are competing with other titles on quality. But they don’t know how to turn investment money into quality. Quality is hard. It’s intangible, and you don’t always know it until you see it. So they put the money on things they can understand. More levels, more characters, bigger worlds. They set themselves a benchmark of their competitors, plus some. Because if X was a success, and we have more of everything than X, then we’re as good as X, right?

So when a title like Portal comes along, I regain a bit of hope for our industry. By showing that you can make a massively successful title, not by making it bigger, or more complicated, but by making it good, it’s a bit of ammunition for the decision makers. They can point to Portal and say “it doesn’t need to be big, as long as it’s fun”, or “let’s find a mechanic that works well, and just stick with that”. And maybe we can halt this crazy race to massacre our industry’s profit margins.

On Being a Games Artist

Posted in Games on November 5th, 2010 by OrangeDuck

I remember well the moment I realized that game art was probably going to be the most rewarding and fulfilling career option for me. I was talking with another artist and it was almost an hour into a conversation dedicated to techniques of achieving ambient occlusion in real time. At this point I realized three things. Firstly, that peculiarly, I was still enjoying the conversation and felt I had things to say. Secondly, that for the sake of everyone else, it was a good thing I had never met another games artist at a party, and thirdly – that game art is probably my best chance of getting a job doing something I love.

I’ve come to realize that game art is a fairly niche interest. There isn’t a digital art society at the university, and even if there was, I suspect the chances of me meeting another games artist there would be low. When I explain to people what game art actually is, I think they imagine it more as a technical skill – they imagine learning how to use certain computer programs or tools in a similar way to when they learnt how to use Microsoft Word. Perhaps this is to be expected. Although many games in the past have been very beautiful, and I’ve played games in which I’ve been attached to a certain character, often any real feeling is overshadowed by underwhelming storyline, hollow characters and immersion-breaking glitches and oddities. It is still generally an odd thing to think of game art as something that expresses emotion, feeling or ideas – something that comes so naturally to conventional art forms.

I suspect the majority of games artists, when you ask them what they do, will say they “make games”. Not, as their title might imply, that they are “an artist”. In some ways I resent this. Not because “making games” is some sort of trivial pursuit, but because in a greater sense, an artist is attached to themselves, their own experiences, and the artistic community – more than their company or game, of which they might have little input into the real “game” part of. Even more so, game art is not like programming, or the technical use of a special tool. Game art is a creative process. It requires the same state of concentration used for other creative processes. It requires experience, training and knowledge. It requires for the artist to hold an image of what they wish to create in their head.

Perhaps people’s impressions will soon be changing. There is a new form of media taking it’s baby steps into the world – so called “interactive storytelling”. I may not be in the majority with this view, but I am extremely excited about it.

As computer power, artistic skill and graphics engine design have improved, we have finally reached a point where we can render semi-photo-realistic scenes in real time. This gives “interactive storytelling” something over film, books and music – a level of simulated interactivity. Whether this can actually contribute anything to the experience is up for debate, but what it certainly does do is create a reason for this new form of media to exist – and that is enough for me.

There was recently an update to what is one of my most anticipated game developments ever:

The Dear Esther Graphical Remake

Not only is Robert Briscoe one of my favourite digital artist of all time (Having worked on Mirrors edge, a game with simply spectacular visuals), but Dear Esther will probably have been most people’s first introduction into interactive storytelling, and probably the best example of its genre to exist.

The graphics in the updated development version are not only stunning in their realism and technicality – but more importantly they are deeply emotional and the product of a personal project – something that is perhaps more familiar to the creative process of conventional artwork than we have seen before in the games industry. In this sense, the update is a true landmark.

I can’t wait for Dear Esther. Not just because I believe it will be a unique and beautiful experience crafted by some of the best minds in the games industry, but because it might even make me reconsider how I view myself. And perhaps the games industry will do the same.

Crackdown 2

Posted in Games, Tales from the grind-stone on June 20th, 2010 by MrCranky

And so it has arrived. Finally, and after much Herculean effort from all involved, we have given life to a healthy baby game. Okay, so it’s more of a hulking 250 pound armoured law enforcer than a baby, but I’m still proud of it like a child. It’s occupied more than 14 months of my time so far, so it’s a great feeling to know that it’s soon to see the light of day.

Crackdown 2 Box Art

Crackdown 2

It’s weird, I’ve spent the last month and a half working with the MGS and Ruffian teams to take the game they’d made and turn it into a demo form; I thought I wouldn’t want to play the demo again. I’d play the full game, sure, because I’ve never actually made it all the way through without cheating, and it’s a game where the pleasure is in the journey, not in the destination. But the demo is 30 minutes from the start of the game, and your progress isn’t saved, so I thought I’d just skip it and go to the main game. My wife and family finally got me an XBox 360 for my birthday on Friday, along with a stack of games (Halo 3, Halo: ODST, Forza 3, Bioshock 2, Assassin’s Creed 2), so I wasn’t short of things to play.

But like a digital drug, I found myself using my demo preview code, and playing the demo. I knew what to expect, and that didn’t make it any less fun. Shooting, punching, kicking, driving, exploding, all over the island. Not just once either. Four times through, to get 7 out of the 10 possible demo achievements. I even got my wife to play it through as well. That one I pretended was research for work: you don’t get much more inexperienced at 3rd person games than Vicki, and I wanted to see if we’d pitched the demo opening right. We had – she picked it up surprisingly quickly, didn’t die until much further into the demo than I’d expected. More pride – we’ve made something that can appeal to not only the hard-core, dedicated Crackdown fans, but also to newbies as well. Crackdown for everyone!

Ruffian Games Logo

Ruffian Games

Not that I can take much credit for that really, it’s the stellar team at Ruffian who have done a fantastic job on the game. I’ve been privileged to work with them, and the wider team at Microsoft. This has been the biggest budget game I’ve worked on to date, with the highest aspirations, and the highest quality bar. It’s been a real eye-opener, and a great experience. Both teams are chock full of talented, enthusiastic folks, and my passion for the title they’ve matched and exceeded at every turn. I’ve got to give a special appreciation to our ex-colleague Peter Mackay as well – who went to Ruffian after leaving us last year. He’s done a great job on the audio for Crackdown 2, allowing the quality audio design to shine through. I was sorry to lose him as a team-mate, but I think he’s found a great new role at Ruffian.

The demo you can get your hands on tomorrow (June 21st), and the full game will hit the shelves from the July 6th. Get to work Agent!

Tock Tick

Posted in Games, Tales from the grind-stone on October 21st, 2009 by MrCranky

2 more days in Reading, tick tock, tock tick. The new laptop MGS have ordered for me has turned up, and all in all it’s very shiny. Well not so much shiny as glowy. Seriously. There’s like a dozen different backlights, under the keyboard, around the trackpad, and the little alien logo on the top cover, all of which can be set to any colour you like. Which is absolutely overkill, and yet the loveliest little feature I’ve seen in a long while. All of mine are set to dark blood red of course, as it should be!

Windows 7 is working out really quite well as well – the new taskbar system is very much how I think of things when I’m working with many windows. I was always quick to turn off the grouping of windows under Vista, because it was just annoying. The grouping under the large icons in Windows 7 however seems a lot more natural, and I no longer have the “so many windows the taskbar gets flooded” effect I used to suffer from. I’m trying awfully hard not to be a Microsoft corporate shill, but it does feel like this is thankfully a better successor to XP than Vista was. We’ll see how things pan out with driver support and Nintendo, but I’ll probably upgrade the office soon enough.

Not much else to say really, I’ve been under the weather a bit, so fairly unproductive, but I’ve been fine with that for a while. I’ve been working on our Space prototype and sorting out some really interesting problems to do with scale and large objects, but I’ve reached the point where I need a few hours with some whiteboards, some loud music, and some serious thinking time, before I can progress to the eureka solution which feels like it’s hovering just beyond my grasp.

In the meantime, I’ve been killing time with Edge (the subject of the shenanigans from Tim Langdell, which are now thankfully almost done with – in case you haven’t heard, he’s losing), iBASS (a legacy from my younger days, which has been somewhat disappointing in it’s obtuse puzzle design), and a return to Left 4 Dead prompted by testing out my super-powered laptop (which by the way runs L4D like a dream, as long as I remember to put earphones in because the fans are super-loud).

My name is Inigo Montoya…

Posted in Games, Industry Rants, Links from the In-tar-web on February 12th, 2008 by MrCranky

Well, someone must have been taking pity on my and my excruciatingly long train journey filled day yesterday, because I found this little gem on my morning news trawl. I’ve been a Princess Bride fan since the first time I saw it, years ago, so it’s a bit of a no brainer that I would happily shell out cash to play a game version, so the pre-order went in about 5 minutes after finding the site. Looking at the trailers and concept art, I think I’ll be pleased with the end result – definitely looking forward to the release date later in the year.

On an unrelated note, my train journey down to our client’s site yesterday was capped by a mother and her kids joining me at my table, a boy of around 6 and a girl probably 9 or 10. The boy had a PSP and was playing away, engrossed, but he would keep banging my laptop in his efforts to show this or that to his mother. So I asked what he was playing, and he replied “Grand Theft Auto”.

“Hmm,” I said, “Liberty City Stories?”.

“Uh-huh”, with an eager nod.

“That would be the 18 rated Liberty City Stories then?”, which I accompanied by a look for his mother which I hope conveyed the level of my disgust and disappointment in her parenting skills.

“Oh, ” she says, a bit flustered, “is it?”


And with that the conversation died, thankfully. Anything else I could have said would have boiled down to “you’re really just a bad parent”. Really though, come on: you wouldn’t let your five year old watch The Exorcist, or Goodfellas, what on earth makes you think that letting them play an 18 rated game is okay?

The government is apparently planning to ‘clamp down’ on unsuitable video games. If I believed that it was anything other than a cynical vote-grabbing ploy to pander to Daily Mail readers I would heartily endorse this, as I’ve always been in favour of proper age regulation on games content, just as there is for films and television. Thing is, it’s already there. The games industry gets a BBFC/PEGI age rating on pretty much every title that goes out there. The console platform holders (Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo) insist on it as part of the publishing process. Big publishers would never think about not getting their game rated, it’s just part of making games. All in all, we’ve got a great record of self regulation – we are open and up front about the content of games, and we’re not trying to sneak games into the hands of younger gamers.

None of that makes a blind bit of difference though, as long as irresponsible parents refuse to accept that games deserve the same level of care as films. So you’ve found your 14 year old playing Manhunt, or GTA with the Hot Coffee mod – you think it’s outrageous that the developers can make such games. Well here’s a newsflash – we didn’t make those games for your 14 year old. We didn’t sell them to your 14 year old (high street retailers thankfully do pay attention to age ratings). But if their gran bought them the game for Christmas and you said “Oh, that’s nice, now go play” without ever actually checking what the game was like, then I’m afraid that the blame for your child’s emotional scarring lies firmly and squarely with you, the responsible adult. Stop trying to blame others for your actions.

Puzzle Pirates

Posted in Games on June 23rd, 2007 by MrCranky

A while ago, while doing ‘research’ for one of our contract jobs, I was scoping out pirate games on the Internet. Puzzle Pirates had come up in various places as an example of a massively multi-player game that wasn’t targeted at the usual World of Warcraft playing gamer. So I fired it up and gave it a shot; since it is free to begin with it was a bit of a no-brainer.

The game itself is really a massively multi-player world, but the actions you take in that world almost all revolve around puzzle games. Your character is simply a 2D sprite moving around an isometric world. The puzzle games themselves are nothing particularly new or innovative, but they play well, are polished and fit nicely with the world’s style. Your character earns money by working on a ship (either an NPC ship, or a real ship crewed by other players), pillaging other ships for booty, or by working in shops on the various islands which make up the game world. The workings of the ships are tied to your puzzle playing performance; if you play well, the ship goes faster, and in the case of ship to ship battles, can fire more cannons.

A simple idea, but one that works amazingly well; by no means is it an immersive pirate simulator, but the simplicity of the basic puzzles allows new players to contribute, and the complexity of how the different actions interact with the game world leads the player along a long learning curve with much scope for fun along the way. On a hunch, I introduced my girlfriend to the game, and while she doesn’t do any of the more complicated things available in the game, she is perfectly happy to haunt the game’s taverns and inns, challenging people to sword-fighting (a frenetic block building game) for money. I on the other hand have worked hard (in between regaining the losses made when my other half logs on to my character and gambles away all of my money) to build up enough to buy a little ship, and work on trading between islands. In fact, the in-game economy is complex and rich, and the interface is much like EVE‘s in that it involves bids, sales and supply (fake producers) and demand (player-run shops). Everything the player needs, from weapons to clothes, is produced by shops run by other players – the game masters do little to affect the economy at all.

Those who choose to subscribe can access the full range of the gameplay all the time; non-paying players can join in and enjoy the world, but are limited to basic equipment, restricted from owning shops, and may only play tavern (player vs. player) games on certain days. Those restrictions serve to nicely encourage people to subscribe, without placing a big hard wall between them and the paying players.

All in all, Puzzle Pirates is a great game to play. It’s light and easy to play that you can sneak in a quick 10 minutes of fun between other things, and complex and engaging enough that you may find that 10 minutes turning into several hours because of that one-more-go factor. Plus, Three Rings (the makers), have one of the coolest offices around, and you can’t fault that for keeping their staff happy!

Black Company Studios Limited, The Melting Pot, 5 Rose Street, Edinburgh, EH2 2PR
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Last modified: February 06 2020.