The Money Farm

To the tune of: Money, Money – Cabaret
The Money Farm

Buy a PC Gamer-approved product every day this week and you get reward points. You’ve levelled up, now you’re a PCG Ambassador, so you get a PCG fan kit. Meanwhile, your health insurance is incentivising you to walk as it’s worried about your heart rate, and a tobacco firm is incentivising you not to read The Guardian because of its coverage of cancer risk. You get an achievement from the local council for not giving money to a tramp, and your eyetracking device is giving you bonus points for reading every line of an advert (but not the small print). It’s a nightmare and it’s coming.

What no one is mentioning is a crash, a bubble bursting. There’s a risk that social gaming could collapse overnight. Yet this is unlikely, because the place where it’s based, Facebook, is now so central to our lives. Instead, social gaming is spilling out virally into the world, and its effectiveness in altering our behaviour means it’s soon going to be affecting you in ways you may not even notice.

An excerpt from a feature I wrote for PC Gamer, in the issue on sale now. I’ll put up the uncut version when my contract allows.

Solving MMO review problems

To the tune of: Nina Nastasia – Our Discussion

As an MMO reviewer, I’ve felt both privileged (at occupying a niche few are equipped to explore) and also terrified (at a reviewer’s complete inability to perceive the whole game). As Quintin Smith found last week, and Ed Zitron found previously, reviewers, no matter how professional, can’t just hop back into an MMO when it’s been updated and hope to review it. Especially not, as those two found, when the audience they think they’re talking to isn’t the audience that actually reads and responds to the article. Here’s a putative structure for reviewing MMOs that deals with the problems caused by trying to employ time-poor professional reviewers.

Cpl Smith, M.I.A.

Problems

  1. Must experience enough of content in proper way to do review.
  2. Different experience types for player types – solo, casual, hardcore, obsessive.
  3. Need for humour, quality writing.
  4. Cost of review process must be kept down.
  5. Content alters substantially over game’s lifetime.

Many professional reviewers provide 3, can attempt 2 but usually fail, don’t keep playing so can’t do 5, and to provide 1 would be to disregard 4.

Solutions

  1. Multiple reviewers
  2. Multiple reviewers
  3. Mediated by co-ordinator
  4. Co-ordinator is paid writer-editor – incentivised to find free reviewers and collate & polish their opinion.
  5. Reconvene with original panel at regular intervals.

It's all about getting a good team together.

This system as a narrative. Un-paid enthusiasts are given early access and review title in return for thought-access. Primary writer becomes interviewer, co-ordinating impressions from many different groups. Individual, subjective experience is not of primary relevance, but collation of views is. Common problems can be identified, and the game rated on these – whilst problems specific to groups acknowledged, represented. Panel reconvenes to alter score when game has altered substantially from previous score. (This also provides you with an evaluation structure for up-and-coming writers, as you can test their analysis, reliability and writing ability  through these panels.)

Here’s a question I don’t know the answer to – is this process applicable to reviews other than MMOs? Should all reviews be done this way?

That Mordin Moment: The Unusual Case of the Singing Salarian

To the tune of: The Element’s Song by Tom Lehrer

It’s 2010 and my jaw is hanging like it’s been wired open. I can’t believe what I’m watching on screen. The wise-talking pensive scientist / special operative who’s been fighting robots and aliens and stuff at my side, is… singing. And, in the deep darkness of the far future, in the lab of my one-of-a-kind spaceship in uber science-fiction action-game Mass Effect 2 what he’s singing is… Gilbert & Sullivan? Particularly a parody of a Modern Major General.

It’s 2007 and I’m munching on a buffet at Bioware’s offices in Edmonton, Alberta. Their headquarters are a great solid block of a building, enclosing a wide covered plaza, and along one side of it are tables and a buffet. Opposite me, chewing lugubriously, is Drew Karpyshyn, chief writer for Bioware, and author of numerous pulp sci-fi novels and script. Like the rest of the guys here, he’s something of a shtarker – if, as I naively imagine must happen all the time in Canada, the whole building gets routinely buried under a mile of snow, these guys would survive on built-up buffet-generated body-fat for weeks before they had to start eating the QA team.

I look around at these guys and, while they seem smart, I’m, as always, a little disappointed with the atmosphere. Like all their compadres I’ve visited, the location of this group of North American developers is clinical and dull – 3D Realms had a bunker that was tedious cubicles inside, Blizzard’s base could have been in a Reading business park, Monolith and 2K are buried in silent office blocks in the suburbs… only EA (the campus in San Fran, or their recently-abandoned UK riverside headquarters) seem to have had a sense of the grand scale of what they’re building; these are the people building the future of the mind and they’re doing it from cubicle farms and bedrooms, enlivened only by merchandised cartoon dolls on their desks and the same sort of pop-culture posters on their walls their grandfathers would have stuck up during the war. Drew seems pleasant and bright, but not the image of wild-eyed writer I’d have expected.

Yet Drew, or one of his colleagues, wrote that scene. Someone in that company is aware of 19th Century British comic opera, well enough to write a parody of it (even including references to “patter” and the traditional updating of the song to current cultural events). That same person is also confident enough of their audience, confident enough of their own abilities and has enough confidence from their team, that they’ll put it into a wildly-inappropriate genre video game, but in a perfectly appropriate context. The moment doesn’t just work in the context of the character as an arbitrary grab at giving him depth – it works within the internal history of the game, with the character’s development from a simple doctor to something halfway between Mengeles and Einstein, and within the character’s motivations and especially his dark secret. It’s up there with Andrew Ryan’s Teetime and Modern Warfare’s helicopter crash – but better executed, less po-faced and completely tangential to the plot.

Internet culture talks often about the moment some piece of media “jumped the shark”; I’d say that Mordin moment, is the inversion of this, the moment when games stepped up from being puerile, simplistic and arbitrary constructs of a moment’s pleasure, to fully-fledged self-sustaining, confident and internally coherent worlds of their own.

Red Write Hand

To the tune of Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

I gone and done wrote something, hic:

I’m Big Daddy Delta, terror of Rapture, splitter of splicers, defender of the weak, diving suit fetishist extraordinaire. I’m stuck on one side of a door, there’s a broken window and a yellow glowing switch a few feet away. I have a clever hacking dart gun, which requires my simply pressing a button when a needle on its meter passes through a certain colour. I shoot, I score… and get a mild electric shock. I repeat. Again and again. There’s an endless supply of darts so I keep shooting until I die of Electron Overdose and respawn, humiliated, at a Vitachamber. Yet again, someone on the art team has thoughtlessly swallowed the Manichean standard that red is bad and green is good, and decided he should use a primary palette to distinguish between these opposites -which means poor old colour-blind me gets killed.

You can read the rest over at RPS

Online Review Summary List

I thought I might as well have a list somewhere of all the reviews I’ve done; I’ll update this when new stuff appears online.

PC Format
Hidden & Dangerous 2
Day of Defeat
Evil Genius
EverQuest II
Empire Earth II
Fate
Freedom Force Vs The Third Reich
Freelancer
Galactic Civilisations
Guild Wars
Ground Control 2
Homeworld 2
Hidden & Dangerous 2 Sabre Squadron
Hidden & Dangerous 2
Heroes of the Pacific
Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile
Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords
Knights of Honor
May Payne 2
Medieval Lords
Neverwinter Nights: Premium Modules
Praetorians
Planetside
Rome: Total War – Alexander
Rome: Total War – Barbarian Invasion

Rome: Total War
Silent Hunter III
The Lord of The Rings: The Battle For Middle Earth
The Sims 2
UFO: Aftermath
World of Warcraft
Worms 4: Mayhem

Official Xbox 360
Def Jam: Icon
Brian Lara Cricket
Superman Returns
Battlestations: Midway
Shivering Isles
Call of Duty 3
Import Tuner Challenge
F.E.A.R.
Open Season
The Godfather
Ninety Nine Nights
Lego Star Wars II
The Battle For Middle Earth II
Table Tennis
Top Spin 2
Far Cry Instinct Predator
Battlefield 2: Modern Combat
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

PC Zone
Battlestations Midway
Neverwinter Nights 2
Heroes of Annihilated Empires