Archive for the ‘games’ category

A small salute to our technical heroes

April 13, 2012

Valve’s Michael Abrash has started posting a little bit about what he’s working on day-to-day. Reading his piece is one of those moments where you peek behind the curtain and gawp. It’s a brief glimpse of a very shining future.

That post led me to his .plan updates from back in the day. And I mean the italics: the day was the development of Quake.

There’s a great segment in his notes where he remarks on John Carmack’s focus, his drive to find a neater programming solution to a particularly hard problem – how to cull the most amount of work from the game’s renderer to let it run at as fast a frame rate as possible. As Michael put it back then: “Generally, if you find your code getting more complex, you’re fine-tuning a frozen design, and it’s likely you can get more of a speed-up, with less code, by rethinking the design.”

At id, John Carmack, really, really, really wanted to solve the problem. All manner of solutions were tried. I don’t understand a third of what that entailed. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I understand the principle of the problem. But I love his determination.

“When I came in on Monday, John had the look of a man who had broken through to the other side–and also the look of a man who hadn’t had much sleep. He had worked all weekend on the direct-BSP approach, and had gotten it working reasonably well, with insights into how to finish it off. At 3:30 AM Monday morning, as he lay in bed, thinking about portals, he thought of precalculating and storing in each leaf a list of all leaves visible from that leaf, and then at runtime just drawing the visible leaves back-to-front for whatever leaf the viewpoint happens to be in, ignoring all other leaves entirely.”

Here’s a thought. Right now, we’re in a pre-launch holding pattern. There’s a new generation of consoles coming, and with it, a new generation of technical challenges. At this very second, some of the brightest minds on the planet are looking at the silicon arranged in front of them and are asking themselves, “how do we make THIS do THAT.” And they’ll answer “have you tried…”

One of my favourite memories of E3 this year was interviewing John Carmack on camera for a good half-an-hour. There’s a moment in it where John talks about why his tech matters: because if he solves the problem, artists can be let loose to create something incredible. The engine isn’t just for the engine’s sake: it’s to create a moving picture, and a place, and for an artist to come in and sculpt it into something beautiful

I can’t wait to see what next-gen games can look like. I can’t wait to see what our worlds can play like. And I can’t wait to hear about how it was done. Even if I’ll only understand a fraction of the details, I’ll understand the effort.

Oh, and wearable computing, eh? Valve <;3


My new job…

June 11, 2009
Srsly. Don't mess with the coach.

… is to edit this beast of a magazine. Pretty cool, eh?

TF2: Bring on the frogs

August 21, 2008

Dear Robin Walker, hero of Team Fortress.

Congratulations on the latest update. It is good.

However. We’ve been talking in the PC Gamer office about how tedious we find spectating. Tom has his own complicated ideas about two linked arenas so that everyone is playing simultaneously, and the teams get shuffled that way. I don’t really understand what he’s saying, but it sounds good. You should probably listen to him.

But I’ve got a better idea. The frog.

In Operation Flashpoint, if you were killed in a multiplayer mission, you’d re-appear as a seagull, and could watch your friends fight, floating above them.

Obviously, you can’t do that, because that’s copying. But I think it’ll be brilliant if downed players, and spectators, had the option of reappearing as a frog, just hopping around the maps, watching from boot height. They could be squashed, or trampled on, or shot, I guess, and you’d probably want to make it a server option, like party mode.

The really good bit, though, is that you’d have to provide a place for the frogs to appear on each map, and it would have to be called the frog-spawn.

American Invaders

December 4, 2006

American Invaders

From We Make Money Not Art

Gears addendum

November 21, 2006

That final, ridiculous Cole sampling theme tune that plays over the credits?



Gears: it’s pretty good

November 19, 2006

For the first hour, I actually despised Gears of War. It was too hard, the controls were stiff and demanded too many button presses, it was obnoxiously loud (still is, in fact) and the shoulder pads are /ridiculous/.

But I’ve been playing practically all weekend. And now I think it’s terrific. Here are some random thoughts why.

1) It’s astonishingly, hilariously violent.
Rather than a bayonet, the basic COG marine rifle has a hedge-trimmer clipped to the end allowing you to slice enemies from forehead to groin. That in itself is quite funny. But it’s just the start. In a game this afternoon, I pulled out from cover to ambush an enemy with the shotgun. In a single blast I blew away his entire top half. I swear his legs carried on running for two steps. The game is full of this absurd viscera – sniper headshots are met with the top of the victims skull popping off, post-chainsaw you’re left with two chunks of floppy ragdoll meat, you can attach grenades to bad’s backs, and run away giggling…

Worst/Best of all, you can ‘down’ a player or enemy leaving him panting on the floor. To finish him off, just press X to curb stomp’ his head, American History X style.

2) Guns are fun
My favourite weapon is the Torque Bow – it’s a futuristic longbow that fires explosive rounds. Once they’re embedded in flesh they take two seconds to cook off, before popping in a fountain of gore. Key to why it’s so fun is that hysterical two second timer. Online, you can giggle as the victim realises his fate. In the campaign, it’s a time to wait and wonder – did it hit? Clearly, someone at Epic spent months toying with this stuff until they got them perfect. Good job.

3) The cover system actually worksAfter the first act, you’re soon comfortable with sliding from column to column to column, SWAT-turning to find a better shot, flanking suppressed Locusts, or just hiding while you recover a bit of health. In one firefight this evening, I caught one half of my brain watching the other respond to the fight. It was one of those moments of gaming detachment where you can’t quite believe what your fingers are doing. On-screen, these pitched street battles looked incredible – a teenage boys fantasy.

4) It gets pacing and emotional hooks.

My favourite scene isn’t a combat sequence – it’s when you enter a tin-shack ‘stranded’ settlement – they’re the humans left behind by the Locust attacks. As you walk through the town, shutters slam down, a father sends his daughter back into the house, and a street-chef takes a break from cooking rats to heft a pick-axe. Just in case.

The basic story is kept ultra-simple: plot device could save the human race, find a deliver McGuffin to cause Locust genocide but there’s quite a few allusions to the wider world and conflict – the Stranded view you as a fascistic police force, most of the lead characters are given decent backstories and sub-plots (I really liked Cole in all this), and there’s a whole section in an underground emulsion mine – a natural fuel -something the Locusts appear to value highly. Is that why this war began… ? Gears isn’t Thomas Hardy, but it’s just enough to lose yourself in.

5) Co-Op
Is brilliant, and both split-screen and online. It comes alive when two of you take on a well defended position, offering covering fire and sightings. If you have a friend who likes teh g4mes, play this with them.

Frustrations. Yeah.

It’s nowhere near perfect, though. There are a few AI bugs, where friendly soldiers will just stand and be shot at (particularly in the hardcore mode, exactly when you need them) which for a high profile Christmas blockbuster feels unacceptable. The first hour is uncomfortable as you learn the new control system. The indoor levels are tight, perhaps too tight for those shoulderpads – your way is often blocked by a hulking man with a rifle.

Most of all though, I wish it was just slightly smarter. It has a really annoying tendency to shoot itself in the foot with obviously scripted battle sequences, and disregard for emotional connections the game has made in the past levels. It drives me mad when a particular enemy demands a certain weapon to kill, two of which just so happen to have been left by a window that provides the perfect firing spot. Hammer of Dawn? Hammer of Yawn, more like.

And for all the hard work Epic put into the Stranded Settlement, it’s undone with the later defense of the same town. I can cope with lots of Locusts attacking from the street, trying to scale the walls – I’ve got a reason to fight for this. What I can’t cope with is when four of the ‘Boomers’ (big chaps carrying rocket launchers) spawn behind the walls, as a cheap climax to a brutal siege. Why didn’t they just do that in the first place, and spare us the trouble. And surely this means the settlement is uninhabitable, now, so shouldn’t we evacuate these people?

And the vehicle sections are shit. And I wish less racist teenagers were playing online. Still.


So you want to be a games journalist?

October 30, 2006

The sensible part.

Friends and I are to be posting a series of essays on how to be a games journalist. Our field requires a constant input of new talent – talent that’s currently being sucked up by the web, but drowned out in the general noise of dumb blog churn. If you want to do this, you should be reading the entire series. Some of the advice will be contradictory; some of it will outright disagree. But at least it’s from those who’ve been there, and done that.



See also:

Tom, John, The Three, Bill, Mathew, Log, Richard, Kieron, Stuart, The Affectionate One

Important questions to begin:

a) Why do you want to do this?

b) What do you expect to get out of this?

So know this: when you start, you’ll be earning less than peanuts. I started on under 12 grand a year – I now earn more – but my career rise has been slightly quicker than most. For that amount of money, on a magazine you’ll be expected to write around 25 pages per issue. When you start, it’s certainly not going to be the big lead review, either. You’ll be writing the stuff you probably skipped over when you read the magazine – quiz pages, directories, shit reviews, news-roundups. Big reviews are usually kept back for known writers – those who an editor can rely on to produce sparkling copy super-fast, and have a track record. When we look at new hires, we’re not necessarily looking for the guy who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of early 90s strategy gaming. We’re looking for someone we know we can share an office with, and we can trust to ping-pong across the planet to be our epresentative to a developer. We’re looking for someone who can pick up the phone and not sound like a serial killer. We want someone reliable enough to hand in copy on-time, to deadline, with all the elements required. And someone who showers regularly (you’d be surprised). If the answer to the above two questions was a) not that much and b) because actually, I really care, continue.

How do you get in?

1) Start writing now. Review the games you have now. Start a blog, start poking people for email interviews, start making posting online, start making noise. Write about what you care about. People are paid real money to find new writers. If you’re good enough, they will come to you.

2) Do work experience. Four of those who have come for work experience at PC Gamer have been hired by games magazines within Future. They all came into our office for a week, wrote well and got on with the team. This is important.

3) Pitch freelance. Most of our freelance writers, and most new starters want to sit and write reviews. Too few people come to me with ideas for features. This is a problem. In our regular freelance pool, we have five or six guys who’ve been doing this for years. We trust them and our readers trust them. You’re not going to break into that inner circle any time soon. Instead, come to me with ideas for what I should be covering. I promise only to nick the best ones.

The informal guide

Don’t be a donkey, and you’ll probably do quite well at games journalism. Seriously. One of my friends from university moves poo from test tube to another. Someone else works in a food processing plant putting lettuce in your sandwiches. Compared to them, I have the best job in the world.

So what do I do? I’m deputy editor of PC Gamer. Half my day is spent on the phone – talking to the PR reps that act as the gatekeepers to games industry and talking to our freelancers who write up to half of the magazine. With them, I’ll commission copy, talk through their work, chase up any late text or missing elements. Meanwhile, I’ll talk through pages with our art team – because magazine journalism is 50% writing, 50% making the words look pretty. 50 % more of my time is spent talking through mag strategy: what’s to be our next big review, how the flat-plan is shaping up, what we should put in the next issue. And my final 50% is spent working on copy – writing or re-writing. And yes, I’m well aware that there are many halves to a whole.

What am I looking for? I want to work with people who are smart, who make me laugh, and who are going to put in the hours when a deadline goes to shit. That is all. Even though we don’t look it all of us who do this job are professionals, and we look down on those that don’t act like it. I like dealing with grownups.

There’s no real secret to getting involved. If you want to join a magazine, then you need two skills: language and half a social life. Both can be learned – the last one involves going to university to kiss other humans, the first one means reading everything you can get hold of, and thinking about why it’s good. When you get there, be courteous and professional when you speak to people, and have ideas. Write like you mean it, write what you want to read, and understand your own limitations.

If you want in, I might be a good place to start. Email me samples, and we’ll go from there.

(Of course. We haven’t covered how to be a good games journalist yet. Another group post, eh?)