Another take on Channel 4’s “How video games changed the world”

On Saturday evening Channel 4 aired a programme about how video games changed the world. In it Charlie Brooker skips through the last 30 odd years detailing the games that defined the era.

Predictably there’s initial reference to Space War and a brief look at Atari and the arcades before we delve in to the home computing scene of the early 1980s.
This was where my interest lay.

As a boy playing games at home I played the games of Jeff Minter, Tony Crowther, Matthew Smith, Adam Billyard, David Braben, Paul Woakes, Tim & Chris Stamper… the list goes on. I think this underlines my point. I knew the coders behind the games. They were my heroes back in the day and a crucial part of the British gaming scene.
Better still they were a direct influence on a young boy’s imagination providing a bucket full of inspiration to a budding game designer.

I remember typing out code listings from the gaming magazines late in to the evening only to find that they didn’t work. If there’s anything that hones your skills and tries your patience it’s fixing syntax errors on a Dragon 32 at nearly midnight on a school night.
After much frustration and guesswork I’d get the game working. Of course the game was never really what I was interested in. It was to provide a blueprint for my own game. I just wanted somebody else to have written the high score table and the collision detection.
There was always a certain amount of bewilderment at how PEEKs and POKEs worked. Similarly the endless lines of DATA that were punched in to create graphics left me baffled. I just knew that the end result was something that looked like a game.

I must have written dozens of games in this way.
My favourite Rasta Plaster Blaster was an adapted Breakout clone. I’d pinched somebody else’s code for firing a ball at a wall and turned it all on its side. My paddle was a little man that shuffled up and down the screen hurling white dots at a coloured wall.
I loved it.

For me the British gaming scene always had an element of eccentricity. Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy, Wanted: Monty Mole, Head Over Heels to name but a few. I’d love to see two hours of TV handed over to this period in the history of computer gaming. It’d be awesome to see just what the developers of these little gems thought about their work and discover what they’re doing today.

There’s probably enough scope to cover the likes of Jeff Minter and Matthew Smith in their own shows. I guess it may not have national appeal but I’d be willing to bet there’s an audience for it somewhere.

Check out the interview with Charlie Brooker over at Edge Online in which he discusses the TV show and his own gaming past.

A quick look at Google search trends and HTML5 games

I threw some money (£100 courtesy of a Google voucher) at trying to promote my mobile HTML5 games portal (m.spacemonsters.co.uk) earlier today.

After initially falling foul of Google’s stance on over-capitalisation of words I finally found a good looking advert with all the right words.
I punched in a load of keywords that I figured mobile users would punch in to Google in their attempts to find free games and saved the campaign.

Within minutes the ads were up and running ( on mobile devices only ).

Within an hour I had some figures to play with.

In the space of 1 hour I had accumulated around 72 clicks from 1,500 impressions for a cost of around £3.50. A quick glance across to AdSense and I’ve made a fantastic 57p from adverts clicked in those games. ( This time next year, Rodney … )

So what were these people keying in to Google for my adverts to appear ?

  • “Online free games”
  • “Free mobile games”
  • “Free games play”
  • “Free games”
  • “Mobile games”

and a couple more specific ones

  • “Free driving games”
  • “Free shooting games”

Interestingly not a single click was recorded for any of the key phrases I had prefixed with HTML5. In fact there wasn’t a single click for anything that included the word Arcade either. This surprised me a little.

So I left it all for a bit and checked again. ( AdWords isn’t realtime in that sense. )
A couple of hours later and I’d had 16,500 impressions and twice as many clicks. Yes, the CTR was falling :)

Another more detailed look at the stats and I could see a familiar pattern emerging. People were certainly typing in the words “Free”, “Mobile” and “Online” to find their games.

So this got me thinking a bit. If the public at large are happy to be specific about the words Mobile and Online, for example, is there a chance that phrases like Browser or HTML5 could ever creep in to their conscience. It seems unlikely but I shall certainly be watching this space with interest !

Tell me a story but not too much…

I love my RPG games. I particularly love those games that focus on combat in a very visually satisfying way. A game that ticked all the boxes for me was Dungeon Siege. I’ve blogged about this briefly before.

Dungeon Siege

Dungeon Siege

What I love about such games is that they don’t ram the story down your throat.
I very much enjoy being left to my own devices to manage a game. Dungeon Siege is essentially an arcade game with loose RPG management thrown in. And it’s this that makes it a winner.
You are fed a small amount of story and then hurled in to the action. Such is the nature of the game you are left to fight your way through each stage and then gather your thoughts and strengthen your party in the “down” times. i.e. the towns and villages.
The game isn’t without its failings but generally it’s a real treat for someone with an over-active imagination.

My tendency to drift off in to my own dream world at the best of times means that the ability to dive straight in to the action and carve out my own imagined adventures is an incredibly good quality for a game.
Often I find that the story is so detailed, so rich and so rammed down your throat that I have little or no room left to add my own spin on it. I enjoy that bit. I enjoy taking the outline for a story, a backstory or a general theme and working on it in my own mind.
Not wishing to decry the efforts of the story teller at all. On the contrary, such is their skill I have no room to flex my imagination.

What games like Dungeon Siege allow me to do is quest in a very satisfying hack and slash style, save progress and then pick up from where I left off instantly. Where, for me, Dungeon Siege 2 fell down in that regard was in its use of the hub. Teleporting to a spot is not nearly as satisfying as just loading a game up and finding yourself in that same woodland clearing or rocky outcrop from your last episode. For me it allows me to “pretend”.

This seemingly immature approach to gaming maintains my interest in games in general. I like to form something of a personal bond to a game. A bond that is lost somewhat in multiplayer arenas. Multiplayer games have rarely floated my boat. Not even Quake. Not even World of Warcraft.
In WoW I made it my mission to fight alone and do all missions as best I could alone. I made it a goal to finish up in as “safe” and visually beautiful place as possible such that when I re-entered the world the next day or week I would feel as though it had been my home for a little while. Sad but true. Such is the bond that I enjoyed forming with these games.

I’ve always been like this. It’s really nothing new.

Back in the 8-bit days one of my favourite games was Mercenary.
With its wireframe visuals and paper thin story it was a perfect world for me to visit. There was enough there to feed my imagination and send it in to overdrive.

Mercenary

Mercenary

Wandering the wastes of Targ and entering numerous hangars and buildings was a great thrill. By todays standards it’s a pretty awful experience but back when games were small and generally the efforts of a one man team this kind of game was enormous.
I loved Mercenary.

More recently the graphically rich worlds of Doom and Quake allowed me to “pretend” in more detail.
Doom’s story was so light you pretty much didn’t care for it at all. For most it was a blastathon with an incredible multi-player aspect. For me it was an intensly rich single player experience set against the backdrop of a story that I had imagined.

Quake

Quake

Same goes for Quake. In fact more so with Quake since it had the hint of a Lovecraftian setting and all manner of hell wandering its corridors.

What all these games have in common is their urgency to have the player playing the game. There is little or no stop-start to tell you the story in tremendous detail.
For me games that do this risk a serious amount of failure. If rich stories in games is your thing then you’ll disagree. But this is intended to be a personal reflection of what I get from games.

Spring and photography

The first true signs of spring are upon us. Blossom on the trees and spectacular yellow / orange / sunburst hues across the sky. Time to grab the camera and start snapping.
I always wanted a kind of photo blog. I’m no photographer but I have a feel for what looks nice.
It’s strange but it’s always the photos of things that you wouldn’t normally give a second glance that capture my imagination. Possibly because it’s framed and static and you’re forced in to giving it a second glance. Anyway I hope to be taking some photos now that we have some glorious sunshine to light the way.

A creative life

I think the first time I ever realised that real life wasn’t really all that good was around the late 1970s. As a 7 year old boy in 1977 Star Wars came at just the right time. By then I was already spending much more than 50% of my time in my own carefully crafted alternate universe, so to see this fantastic science fiction vision of conflict and self-discovery in a distant galaxy unfold on the big screen was pretty much to cement the fact that I should hand over a far greater proportion of my life to the “pretend” worlds.

Even at age 7 I knew I wanted to spend my life “creating”. With a pencil in my hand I could draw and write all of the wonderful things that I was dreaming up. And boy did I dream some stuff up.

In the years that followed Star Wars we saw such classics as Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Blade Runner hit the screens. The timing of these movies was just perfect. In school I was surrounded by like-minded kids. We all dreamed of creating our own adventure stories. Naturally we all placed ourselves smack bang in the centre of each great quest. Our imaginations were running riot when the next great event in our lives came about – the home computer.

As 12 year old kids with wild imaginations and the yearning to create and tell stories Sinclair’s Spectrum, Commodore’s C64 and Atari’s 800XL provided a perfect outlet. We would quickly learn to write BASIC programs and before very long were creating and telling stories to one another in digital form. Anyone old enough will remember the delight of getting your first text adventure up on the screen:

You are at a crossroads. Do you turn left toward the Village or right toward the Forest.
(L)eft, (R)ight

Such games were a blast to create and a lot of fun to play. You never really knew the ending you just knew of a ton of great situations to place the player/reader in.

It was around this time in the early 1980s that Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy series of create your own adventure novels emerged. They were essentially the same as our simple text adventures but included a bit more of an RPG element in that you had to protect your stats and inventory. Who could ever forget their first quest in to Firetop Mountain ?

Shortly after what I fondly remember as an exciting and creative time in my youth the reality of life started to creep in. Exams and the inevitability of further education started to raise their ugly heads. I hated exams and hated school. I learned a great many things at school but nothing like I’ve learned since. I guess the most important thing that school gave me was a safety net. A safe place in which I could safely escape to my comfy cosy world where I would simply create. If I could go back to 1983 I’m sure I’d like to think that I’d do it all differently. Make more of my life. But to be honest I think I’d quite honestly do it all exactly the same.

So zoom forward the best part of 30 years and where am I now ?
Well I work as a web developer. I still create but this time I get paid for it. How long that will last I just don’t know but I’m enjoying it.
I also have a wife and children. I have responsibilities. I have a house to maintain and cars on the drive.
What free time I get is spent collapsed in front of the television or with my wife. It’s hard sometimes just remembering that there’s more to life than family and responsibility and that you are married. Life it seems is just as much work as work is !
I wouldn’t change it for anything.

But I still, all these years later, have the same urge to create and tell stories as I did when I was a young boy. I still imagine far off worlds populated by magical and mythical monsters and young heroes battling with ancient sorcery and fantastical weapons.
My outlet however isn’t a word processor to collect such ideas it’s a blog. Or Twitter. Or Facebook. I seem to spend more time talking about writing than I actually do writing.

So I called time on it. I decided to relive my youth and start writing again. Start creating. I’m pleased to say it’s going very well and I have a wonderful repository of fantastic ideas and mini stories taking shape. Long may it last :) What’s really incredible is that this whole process has dug up a ton of characters and story-lines that I dreamed up as a 10 year old.

Today I landed a Space Shuttle – as you do !

Space Shuttle simulatorSo I downloaded a Space Shuttle simulator for iPad – F-SIM Space Shuttle.
How hard can it be to land a glider ? Well the short answer to that is pretty damned hard actually.

I’ve really not invested much time in the app but from I’ve seen you get to land the shuttle at either Edwards’ Air Force Base or Kennedy Space Center. You can make it a complicated approach or a straight forward vertical straight line descent. Naturally whilst you figure the controls the latter is by far the best option.
Never the less I still hit the dirt like a dart every time.

There’s something very nostalgic about this app for me. I remember clearly the first shuttle flight 30 years ago and remember waiting and waiting for the much hyped descent as it returned to Earth some days later.
As with everything back then film footage was a little hazy. I’m fairly sure that the air temperature around Edwards’ didn’t much help either.
But what a truly mesmerising and inspirational thing for a young teenage boy to witness as this spaceship that had taken off days earlier returned in its entirety to land just like a plane. Magical stuff and something that I will never forget.

I might just have to have a good look around for other iPad flight simulators now that I have the bug !

An evening at Frogg Manor, Cheshire.

Well I can honestly say that I’ve never been to anywhere quite like Frogg Manor. What a gloriously ridiculous yet thoroughly entertaining place to spend a Saturday evening.

Frogg Manor room

A room at Frogg Manor

We all knew the moment we arrived that we were in for something quite different. As you make your way up the handful of steps in to the old building and step in to the entrance hall you could easily be forgiven for thinking that you’ve stepped unwittingly in to somebody’s home. And that’s just it. You have indeed stepped straight in to somebody’s home ! The proud owners of this home, John and Charlee, are right there to greet you and waste no time ushering you upstairs for a few drinks whilst you peruse the menu and make yourself at home.

At no point during our stay did we feel awkward. Every effort is made to ensure that you are 100% relaxed.
The first floor library is a wonderful throw-back to a time of unashamed bourgeois luxury. You sit amongst books, tables and all manner of chairs and loungers in what I can only describe as a scene from an Agatha Christie mystery.

During the course of the evening John and his wife pop round to say hello and share a few tales of their time at Frogg Manor. It is precisely this approach to hospitality that endeared each and every one of us to the place.
If I told you that we left at 1.30am and could easily have stayed (and would have been more than welcome) another 3 hours you probably get some idea as to just how warm and friendly a place this is.

To write any more may well kill the surprises that a Frogg Manor newbie ought to experience first hand. If you’re ever in this part of England I heartily recommend you pay a visit. A bonkers night.

A quintessentially English affair

Now that I have some place to write I figure I should probably get in to the habit of writing on a regular basis. Of course the danger is that what comes out is pure nonsense but with a bit of careful thought and editing I’m sure I can at least offer something worth reading once in a while :-)

A week spent coding web sites takes its toll on my brain. I develop amongst developers where discussion rarely shifts away from the fine details of writing C# and more web specific code such as HTML and JavaScript. I certainly enjoy my job and the challenges that it throws up but I sure look forward to the weekend.

This weekend sees my wife Lucy’s birthday and we’re off out for a well deserved meal with friends to a hotel / restaurant that describes itself as “quintessentially English restaurant”. I’m sure that any number of restaurants will lay claim to this but there’s something about this particular place that somehow feels quite genuine.
When I called to make the reservation I’m fairly sure I could hear Noel Coward tinkling on the ivories somewhere in the background !
Check the web site out and you’ll see what I mean: Frogg Manor Hotel
It’s certainly a breath of fresh air to find a place like this since the majority of restaurants I visit are often less than genuine.

frogg manor

Unashamedly bourgeois the header on the web site tells us. With prices to match. Still if you’re going to do it you really should do it in style !

It’s seeing this restaurant that put me in mind of something that is a bit of a hot topic these days, the subject of identity. I often think that as a country England’s identity has changed over the years. We have a tremendous blend of cultures now and really I think benefit a great deal from it. It’s not of course as simple as just being able to go out and dine in an Indian or Chinese restaurant. More I’d say it helps us stuffy old English types to raise issues of living amongst such diverse cultures. Cultures that we helped ourselves to in times gone by but now rather reject since they pitched up on our doorstep.

But I guess for tonight I shall wander back in time to a point where none of that seemed to matter.
Bring on the roasted venison, apple pie with custard and sherries to finish !!

Hello, world.

I always wanted some place to write about daily thoughts and events (and stuff) that wasn’t in any way linked to my game development. Writing about game design and the intricacies of making games work is a huge amount of fun but it’s very niche. I wanted to be able to express thoughts on all manner of things without messing up a journal with specific subject matter.

I love the “good old days” of arcade gaming and the problems encountered when designing games so that may well crop up but generally speaking I get free reign to talk about anything.

I want this to be a very personal blog. The beauty of any blog is that if it works for me it allows you to get to know the author. I’ve read, and still read, a good many blogs on a daily basis. I love the insight that you get in to somebody’s life who has a wildly different routine to you. Better still they belong to a different culture altogether. Even in some cases where the author is geographically less than a thousand miles away the culture and the outlook is quite different to my own.

I hope you return to read more and discover what it is that interests, excites, terrifies and motivates me. I hope for my part that I get the chance to sit down and write about stuff on a regular basis.
I’m always looking for a diversion / inspiration so please feel free to drop me a line or paste your own blog in to the comments section.

Mark

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