Friday, January 08, 2010

A Moving Experience

So, I've been blogging on here for nearly eight years now, from September 2002 to the present day and, it's been fun. However, we've probably all noticed that it's not been happening on here, probably a hangover from those dark days at OXM where I almost got fired for shooting my mouth off about the otherwise-lovely Steve Brown's inability to manage me.

In attempt to revitalise my flagging enthusiasm, I'm going to be bidding adieu to this place and moving over to my own website, Funambulism. At the moment, it's just a Wordpress blog and a few associated elements but I've got a few plans as to what else to do on there. Hopefully, friendly readers, you'll come and join me over there?

(I am, however, going to see if I can keep auto-updating this blog to reflect what's happening over there - but it would be nice of you to move).

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

How can the sky hold so much water?

Snowfall dominates the watcher, the Brownian dance of crystalline H20 swept by the winds into crevices and peaks, evanescent but hypnotic and alive in the mind's eye. The UK at the moment is living through its snowiest, and hence whiniest, period for 20 years. The mind is boggled at the immensity of this event - think on this, enough solid material is falling from the sky to cover a whole country to a depth of a foot in one day - and it never looks like it'll ever run out, just that some random temperature shift has chosen to drop a tiny sample of it on your head at that time. That must be a staggering amount of ice particles just floating around the world in the clouds, right?

Well, it's not. It's a fantastically tiny amount of water:  3,100 cubic miles or 12,900 cubic kilometres. That might sound like a lot, but that's only about 0.04% of the total fresh water in the world, which is itself only 2.5% of the world's water. It just looks bigger because ice, and in particular the gloriously space-inefficient snow, takes up a lot more room than liquid water and because us anthropocentric humans have a tendency to focus on the tiny part of the environment we inhabit, the exposed skin of the earth, and forget the ocean's depths.

This air-borne liquid is a tiny proportion of the world's total water, and an equally tiny element of the world's fresh water (which, incidentally, is going to be a source of conflict in the parched areas of the world over the next decade.) However, land-based fresh water is essentially one giant reservoir - with insufficient top up from this constantly replenished 0.04% of airborne water, it would empty relatively quickly (look at the disappearance of the Aral sea). If this system breaks down, even slightly, we're going to have an unimaginable world drought. And it might be.

Ships of the Desert

J.G. Ballard's The Drought (AKA The Burning World) showed effectively and imaginatively what a world would be like if this tiny amount of Fresh Water vanished.  The Drought has several parallels with Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, the most important of which is a theory of chemical polymerisation of water caused by chemical pollution - in Vonnegut's less-likely theory it's a new type of water molecule that causes a chain reaction in other molecules, like a catalyst or an exponential reaction, but in Ballard's book it's the destruction of the precipitation cycle by industrial waste that stops evaporation. The latter seems equally fantastical but in the last few years 'neustonic plastic islands have been found covering substantial proportions of the Oceans, including what was once the beautiful Sargasso Sea (a mid-ocean gyre with its own species of seaweed and a key location for ocean-going turtles.)

So this is to say: don't whinge about the snow. If it stops, we're dead.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thoughts On Closed Systems and Video Games

Predictably, Microsoft have just announced the new Games For Windows Live will also support full game downloads. Manufacturers, having taken over all the development studios, and recently the Indie and casual devs too, are now taking over the distribution channels too. It’s likely that we’ll see the first full, true AAA game distributed solely through the Playstation Network in the next year; full games are already available on the PSPGo. Even Nintendo distributes games through its Wii store. These all make it easier for consumers to get access to new and old games. So what's the problem?

The key issue here is that, like the App store and Xbox Live, these are closed systems which are bad from every angle, except the owners' profit – for example, developers' and third-party publishers' games will be competing against the manufacturer's own products that will be developed, marketed and streamed through the whole system with preferential treatment. Anything that is bad for competition is ultimately bad for the consumer, as it drives up prices.

For example, if GFW Live is bundled with new computers, that means new audiences will get access to Games On Demand, which is great for them in terms of ease of purchase - however, they won't have access to the range of choice and prices that the internet offers, and through that bundling they'll be tied into the Microsoft rather than the Steam model and network. Once they've emotionally or technically locked you in, they can charge anything they like - look at bank charges on overdraft limits or the premium cost of Xbox Live. Microsoft has done this before with Internet Explorer and used the glacial process of global law to destroy its competitor Netscape before competition authorities could effectively punish it. Their previous experience will hardly be a deterrent.

In terms of their competitors' disadvantage, manufacturers' ownership of AAA developers means that competitors are excluded from distributing those games, whether that's cross-platform or cross-digital distribution system. It's the same problem that Randy Pitchford raised with regards to Steamworks, but writ large. Gamers want to play on the system that has the widest range of games and features - we don't want yet another clunky downloader insisting on starting itself up as Windows does and swallering resources, just like we don't want to buy several consoles and a PC. To compete with this the other digital distribution companies are going to have to integrate social networks, match-making, remote saves and run endless promotions, just to stay in the running - and even then how can they compete with the big manufacturers' and Valve's AAA games?

Disentanglement of technology and openness of APIs/development at every level is the only fair option. It’ll be interesting to see if, for example, Sony blocks access to internet-flash games or merely fails to keep the PS3’s Flash software up-to-date, which would have the same effect of stopping indie development on that platform. Or if Microsoft allows indie, community or free games onto Games For Windows Live (I'd love it if they bought Kongregate and integrated that company's excellent flash games API into GFWL.) Or, even, if Valve unbundled Steamworks and its development studios from Steam itself.

It’s strange than an industry as advanced as games hasn’t distributed games digitally earlier but it's worrying that this vertical integration threatens to fragment the community. Ideally, someone needs to create a Kelkoo or Froogle client for games, that compares prices from other download sites, has the matchmaking/patching elements, and is bundled for free with machines; but only Microsoft could have realistically done that, and they haven't. With developers, third-party publishers and consumers all losing out from vertically-integrated closed-system game publishing, something has to change.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Quick Thanks

This post is just a quicky to thank my excellent and highly savvy driving instructor Shola, who really pulled all the stops out to help me pass my test. He runs an Advanced Driving Instructor's blog over at and if you live in North-West London, I'd heartily recommend him as a calm, safe, flexibly and very experienced instructor.

Monkey Island 2 in 3D using Cryengine

Beautiful, though the music convinces you more than the imagery.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Imagining the Tenth Dimension

So the tenth dimension is all the possible timelines from all the possible starting conditions of the universe treated as a point? My. Brain. Hurts.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Antikythera mechanism Video

Via Rossignol.

Game Pricing

(Some thoughts I supplied for a piece about on a big games website that got spiked because of politics...)

Question 1 (Of 1)

1. Do you believe that the recently rumoured price-hikes of triple-A games in the UK are justified. If yes, why? If no, why?

From an economics point of view, it’s entirely rational. If you believe, like a good Ayn Rand pupil should, that businesses do best when unfettered from regulation and morals, and that businesses doing best is best for the rest of us, then companies should be allowed to set their own prices, relative to the rest of the market, and see how the consumers respond to it.

And games-consumers will buy Modern Warfare 2 for £50+, where they wouldn’t buy Bookworm Adventures for the same price. It’s all about demand curves here; set the price high for Modern Warfare and you won’t cut out that many consumers, as they’ll forgo other pleasures to pay more for this; demand is relatively inflexible. Activision could have set the price at £60 and people would still have bought it in nearly the same numbers. However, try doing that for a weaker license or a first time game, and it won’t sell. Demand is relatively flexible, until the franchise is proved. When a franchise is this strong, you’re getting close to monopsony conditions and the publisher can charge whatever they like.

Whether it’s moral; well, publishers aren’t in business to be moral – they’re in business to maximise their revenues and they’re ethically and psychologically closer to venture capitalists than they are to developers, who want their games to have as wide a distribution as possible for fame / their message.

This turns hardcore gamers into early adopters. If you want to get the game on the day of release, you have to pay a premium; otherwise, you can wait a week or two and the standard discounting will kick in, and you can get it at the price you would normally have bought it – and you can keep that process going on, until a year down the line the people with lower price expectations scrabbling through second hand stores (if they haven’t already pirated it, which is a threat only to PC games, really). Notably, though, Call of Duty 5 has never been properly discounted and still sells heavily at a premium price – as does the original Modern Warfare – so Activision know that hiking the price of this iteration really isn’t a risk.