gambitch - now available in blue
Our constant efforts to reinvent ourselves reveal how much we fear our own images.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

If it surprises anyone that I haven't been updating my blog for a week, there's a reason. I was spending time fiddling with some code and editing text files for a game. I'm not paid for this, nor is it any kind of formal work - I was loosely hacking parts of a game for my own use.

It's not that I don't like the game. I do, actually, and that might explain why I bothered to do all the editing. It's just that my love of proper newspaper journalism and my fussiness over language and, particularly, grammar tend to combine and make me a rather detailed critic of newspaper writing in terms of style and language. Of course there are other things to look out for when talking about news coverage, I know, but that's not to say I don't ever look out for them. All I mean is that I can tell when a newspaper article does not read smoothly, and I don't like that.

I equally don't like it when games that try to mimic some element of real life don't do a particularly good job at it, especially when things like randomization in draws aren't done when the option to do so was open. If you're wondering where this fits into the idea of me trying to hack a game (more like rewrite some scripts, actually), the game in question is a football management simulation. You might have heard of it - Total Club Manager.

I don't really want to go into my work on the edits, suffice to say they take quite a bit of time and I'm liking what I'm doing. What's been nagging away at the back of my head lately is the (admittedly trivial) thought about hacks like this and how they relate to the game industry. It doesn't happen quite the same way with shooters like Doom or fantasy-world stuff, but with games that are based on reality and try to recreate them this can be quite big.

I have said before that I play SimCity. Well, to be more precise, I played SimCity - the game has been put on hold for various reasons. I've not "moved on", it's just been put on hold. If you check my links you'll see one to SimTropolis, which is a community of SimCity4 players who don't just play the game. They play and talk about the game, and some even do mods (which can equally mean modifications or modules, they mean different things, but both are apt descriptions). A few of these guys create buildings and make them available to the community. None of these guys are hired by Maxis or its parent company, Electronic Arts. But the community out there just likes doing this - it's as much a part of their gaming lives as actually playing the game.

Given the scale of computer games today and the increasing demands players now have regarding game realism, I don't find it a surprise if I'm ever told that game companies struggle to replicate close to total authenticity when put under the double crunch of budgets and deadlines. These are real companies, and from my days in "the profession", I've heard enough arguments about how budgets really matter to these companies. And I know that the cutthroat nature of the industry means that companies are always in a rush to meet deadlines. That's one recurring lesson I've heard at software development lectures. Reality proves as much; nowadays it is not uncommon for game companies to release incomplete games and post patches months later for users to download, sometimes at a small fee (well, small compared to what you pay for the game itself). Creating, say, a big and accurate database of all the football leagues in Europe (never mind the world) is a labour-intensive exercise that costs time, if not money.

That's where the players enter the picture. If companies find it beyond their abilities to deliver total realism or near-perfect accuracy on their own, then the presence of these volunteers, who are equipped with editkits made available by the software companies themselves, has to be the ultimate godsend. I think it's pretty clear today that there's a big pool of players out there not content with just playing games. They like to look underneath the hood and make their own modifications or additions to the games. A few new buildings here, some additional data there, that kind of thing. Okay, so they probably can't write a full game on their own - that's for the programmers and software architects - but these people have their own skills and can bring in their own touches.

I am increasingly convinced that the future of game development is such that software companies cannot expect to ignore their customers as people who can give back to the game. While it would be unfeasible for, say, Electronic Arts to hire me to do nothing but write more realistic scripts for the UEFA Champions' League or come up with newspaper articles that look like newspaper articles, who's to say that I can't look for like-minded people and we work together to fill in the gaps in skeletal databases and create the football leagues that Electronic Arts just didn't have the resources to compile on their own? And who's to say that software companies can't recognize our efforts and do something so simple as host these modifications on their websites, or otherwise incorporating these efforts into their next big official patch? I mean, what stops them, apart from perhaps a potentially justified unwillingness to recognize work without forking out some money, and forking out money is always troublesome?

Earlier this year, when Avalon Hill produced their 4th Edition of the board game Axis and Allies, the production team apparently sought the advice of master player (and, I think, financial consultant) Don Rae on what they could do to improve their game. Don Rae being the typical super-obsessed veteran guru he is, he gave feedback that was from the perspective of die-hards, who play among themselves in elite gaming clubs and have probably clocked upwards of 300 games each (which is no mean feat for A&A - a game can easily last seven hours). The eventual changes adopted by the developers were a disappointment for the die-hards (although I can see why they adopted those decisions), but the fact that the team consulted a well-known expert in playing the game signals that they realize both the value of player (rather than customer) feedback in itself and the effort these players make in taking the game apart and studying it down to the last detail.

I'm not sure if this is an isolated incident or if it's going to be part of a greater trend among game makers. Certainly it'd be very good if the latter was the case. At the very least it means that the modding communities no longer have to remain underground (vis-a-vis the developers). Stretched to the extreme, developers and players could combine to make really great games, as well as make games really great. If you ask any half-serious gamer, in their heart of hearts that is what they ultimately want. Gamers today are not nearly half as passive as they used to be.

gambitch [ 8:40 AM]

Sunday, August 22, 2004

The main show is going into overtime, but that's okay, because I doubt it will happen as often in future years.

Anyway, this gives me the perfect opportunity to organize my thoughts on what happened on the previous leg of The Amazing Race 5. No doubt many people would already know by now that Charla and Mirna were eliminated, but that's hardly the whole story of this leg.

Maybe it's just me, but I'm relieved that Mirna has finally been bundled out. It's great to have a competitor like her in this Race, but there were times when she was being too openly conniving and irritating. Okay, so Charla had a personal axe to grind because everyone was looking down on her, but Mirna was different. She was just, to put it mildly, being a lawyer outside her office. And either she had a bad case of eyebags or she really botched her makeup. It was getting to a point when I almost wanted to tell her "Dear, can you maybe cut back on your makeup?" But I digress.

The big drama in this race was without a doubt the airport fracas, when Mirna tried to prevent Colin and Christie and his entire temporary alliance from getting any flights on GulfAir. She tried to take advantage of her fluency in a whole bunch of languages to persuade the man in the GulfAir office to not sell Colin et al any tickets, a request the man mysteriously granted. I don't quite know why, but I shouldn't think that any airline agent should act in such an openly wicked manner just because a total stranger asked him to. And if the man was just play-acting for the camera to play along with Mirna, there was no footage to prove it - though I'd really love it if the man was actually fooling Mirna.

As it happened, Mirna picked up her retribution for that wicked demand when she tried to be too clever and switched to a different connection - one that turned out to be delayed, sinking her, Charla and the Bowling Moms (who teamed up with them - I can't quite figure that out). Okay, so they caught up a bit because Brandon and Nicole and the twins got a bad bus. But that initial bit of damage had already been done.

It's great to see the teams arrive at Kilimanjaro, the second highest peak in the world if I remember right. I'm not sure why they haven't yet made fuller use of that fact, but I'm sure the producers have a little something up their sleeves for the opening phase of the next leg. Still, the Detour and Roadblock were quite okay, and fully illustrative of the way of life these poor Africans were going through. The chairs these people sat on, made of very well-finished if simple wood, are practically luxuries to these folks, so we should really not complain about the cushions not being soft enough, or other such crappy complaints. I'm a wee bit surprised no one went for the honey option (I've once been to a bee farm, and I've seen this on TV in Taiwan too, and it's not that bad), but given that they didn't seem to waste too much time, that's fine.

I've not had ostrich egg before, never mind a full serving of one scrambled ostrich egg (equivalent to two dozen chicken eggs!), so the Roadblock was really quite a tough one. Add to that the absence of any oil or pepper, and it's really the raw stuff. It looked tough; hardly easier than the caviar Roadblock back in Russia. Seeing Colin almost break down trying to eat his way through this Roadblock, you know the tension is just going up in this race. The super-tight finish in the end between Charla and the twins (not sure which was one doing the eating) in scrambling to finish the eggs was solid drama. I wouldn't mind either team going out, really, but it was still great television.

So looking through the teams, we still have the Bowling Moms (who are riding just a bit too much luck!), we still have the twins (who have been nowhere near as manipulative as they believe they can be), and we still have the ditzy devout Christians (who are a bit too goody-goody to be really racing here). At least one of the teams here have to go out, preferably two. Given this lineup it is hard to imagine Colin and Christie, and Chip and Kim, not being in the Final Three. So it's only a matter of who will join them. Cold logic says Brandon and Nicole are the best placed to take that last spot, though I have a sneaky feeling the twins could steal that spot at the last gasp. You can see I'm not favouring the Bowling Moms, and I've been dreadfully wrong on them before, but they can't ride out their luck to the end of time, especially when it's getting to that nerve-frazzling second half of the Race when alliances are rare.

We can at least be assured that the last legs will be good-spirited, now that Charla and Mirna are gone. The biggest conflict point of the Race has thus disappeared. What we are left with are five teams who will be competitive, but will generally compete in a fair and gentlemanly enough way. Sure, people will be crafty and clever, but they won't be openly abrasive and pushing people around. It's great that a race like this has people like Chip; he reminds me very nicely of Ken and Gerard back in TAR3. They were competitive but nice enough folks, who never had to play nasty.

Where will the next leg go? From the scenes in the trailers, it looks like they're still stuck in Africa somewhere, and have to drive a car. Will they transit out to another African country? Perhaps. They might even manage a trip into Europe; or at least that's the impression I'm left by one scene that looks like it was shot in the busy streets of some mid-sized city. Well, we'll know next week!

gambitch [ 11:10 PM]


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