Grand Thieves & Tomb Raiders book review

Round about the same time I watched Micro Men, I picked up a book called Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders, which proved to be a compelling account of the story of British computer gaming from bedrooms to boardrooms.

Back in the mid-1970s when two chaps from Hornsea (East Coast, represent) were dabbling in the creation of the Multi-User Dungeon – the pre-precursor to what we now know as the MMO – home computing was just getting on its feet as the afore-mentioned Micro Men made their bid to corner the market. While Chris Curry grew frustrated at his inability to get into the living room from the classroom, Clive Sinclair was still pissing about with his C5 transport instead of taking advantage.

But both men benefited from the games created by a generation of coders who had emerged from their bedrooms with some very special programming skills, like the fun and addictive Dizzy series by the Oliver twins, or the mind-blowing possibilities of space travel created by David Braben and Ian Bell’s Elite.

Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders book

Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders tells the story of these men and women as they went from amateur status to running some of the UK’s most ambitious software companies throughout the 1980s and 1990s. As well as the successes of the likes of Codemasters, who made a lot of money by annoying Nintendo at one point, there are the failures of companies such as Imagine Software, whose strident over-ambition resulted in their shutdown – captured during the filming of a BBC documentary about the booming industry.

As the US took hold of the market by luring the best of British talent Stateside there were still some success stories to be written – the book’s eponymous featured games being just two of the Brits’ best from DMA and Core respectively.

What strikes me the most about reading this book is the reactions of the British public and press as they gaze upon these wondrous programmes with awe. I’m familiar with a good deal of the games covered during the late 80s and early 90s (he said, showing his age) and I would have had that same enthusiasm for the games myself. Shown these very same games, people just a couple of years younger than myself (he said snobbily) would’ve snorted with derision at the comparatively basic games being wowed over back then. But there was a massive leap round about the time of the SNES’ release, that jump to the Super FX chip which brought Starfox to our living rooms, and our jaws to the floor.

The guys who invented that chip? Yep. British. But you’d have to read the book to find out more of British video games’ fascinating history, which has great interviews with many of the industry’s major players, then and now.

Indie Game: The Movie review

Watching Indie Game: The Movie gave me hope that there’s more to gaming than glorified roster updates on FIFA, and bigger guns on Call of Duty releases.

It follows three game development companies and their creators at various stages of producing and releasing their independent games, free of creative interference but saddled with financial pressures as they pull all-nighters, fret over marketing and reflect on their experiences.

Indie Game The Movie review

Edmund and Tommy are a couple of guys working on a game called Super Meat Boy. They want to create a game that’s a direct homage to the stuff they grew up playing. Phil is the visionary behind a game called Fez which allows you to experience a mix of 2- and 3D gaming, while Jonathan is filmed looking back on the time he spent creating Braid, the positive impact it had on the gaming community and his own insecurities about fans not ‘getting’ the message he wanted to put out through the game, philosophically and artistically, despite its extremely positive reviews.

I’ve been left pretty soured lately with two things about video gaming: the big-business industry having its wicked way with hardworking talent, and the strange punchline that games journalism is becoming, where everyone is walking on eggshells around each other.

The reason I loved this film so much is because it provides an honest look at both sides of the coin. The drama that’s seeping into the lives of J-Blow and Phil Fish, one a misunderstood artist and the other dealing with the rockstar mentality of indie cred; and the honest portrayal of two clever and conscientious guys fearful that their hard work will be for nothing in the bigger picture.

In this film I see Jonathan Blow as the wise head on the youthful shoulders. His role is as a spiritual mentor who’s seen everything that the other featured companies are going through and much more besides. He comes across as insecure because his previous attempts to reach out and understand the way his work is viewed by others backfired on him, so he’s careful and softly spoken about his lot in life.

Phil Fish has a long way to go just to bring it back to ‘misunderstood’. His acrimonious split from a business partner has him hurting too, as does a break-up and a family medical drama, but he still comes across in the film as a little arrogant to me. He’s obviously under a lot of pressure during the course of this film, especially as he prepares to exhibit at PAX – without even being sure he’s legally allowed to thanks to the ex-business partner – but from what I’ve read about the man’s poor attitude since the film’s release, maybe there is something more to it.

But my favourite story of the three has to be the Meat Boy boys, because they are just so in love with what they’re doing, that by the time the love is beginning to run out, it floods in from everywhere else as their new legions of fans get involved in sharing their love for the game online, which is just the tonic for our heroes’ flagging spirits.

Tommy is an excitable dude when he wants to be, and it’s really sad when things begin to get away from him. He’s clearly in a physically and emotionally bad way at one point and I really just wanted to give him a hug. Edmund is an absolute inspiration as he tells the story of the game he’d previously created, Aether, as a response to the loneliness he used to feel as a geeky kid with family problems. I was really moved by this as, once again (emo alert) it’s something I can really relate to. I just really wanted these guys to win one. I’m really glad they did. Spoiler alert: Super Meat Boy is an immensely successful and popular game. You might have heard of it.

I’ve also got to give special praise to the soundtrack, which is just effin’ gorgeous.

Jim Guthrie has done a beautiful job here of setting the mood throughout each scene of the film, and it’s been pretty much looping on my iPod at work.

I’d definitely recommend Indie Game: The Movie to anyone curious to know what happens under the surface of the gaming industry and how these guys get on under the radar of major studio operations, left to their own devices to sink or swim on their own merits. Call of FIFA is but the tip of the iceberg; here’s the rest.

Oh, and here’s an amusing trailer remix if you like action movies too.

New contact details!

Status

Yep, I thought it was about time I stopped sponging retweets off the old A Guide To Geekdom Twitter account, and got myself a new email address.

For all things tweety – follow @AlpSig5

And for reviews, feedback and offers of free money, email alphasignalfiveATgmail.com.

And don’t forget the Facebook page and Tumblr account, both of which I should probably update more often.

AS5 Twitter pic

Right, I’ll be off for another frustrating round of FTL now. Cheers!

Worry Wart comic review

Worry Wart is an autobiographical comic written, drawn by and starring Dani Abram, whose other work Razarhawk has also been featured on this blog.

But while the star of that comic, Kitty Hawk, is rather the badass adventurer fighting monsters from inside a robot, this title is something entirely different; an honest and touching look at battling one’s own monsters.

worry wart comic dani abram

Dani was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder a few years ago, and while she struggled from day to day between treatments and juggling her work and social lives she also drew a comic diary to keep track of the biggest obstacles and sharpen her focus on getting better.

And it’s a great read. The comic diary is an especially bold form of expression as it’s a mix of honest imagery and even more honest dialogue that’s bound to make any normal person fear the idea of laying it all out there, but Dani bravely borrows from the spirit of the comic hero she helped create in Kitty Hawk to speak up – and readers will be all the better for it.

I really like the art in this book too – the ever so slight caricaturisation that Dani uses in illustrating the people in the book for me is a great touch in saying that these things don’t just happen to her, and as long as other people can see themselves in her shoes then the art should try and help that feeling along, which it does brilliantly.

As well as personal anecdotes on the big challenges which faced her, Dani also writes about some of the treatments she tried such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and various herbal products, as well as the physical and mental exercises she could take in order to feel less anxious and even a couple of apps and websites that helped her. It’s all laid out in great detail and Dani makes a great effort of showing how trying each thing affected her and whether or not she felt it worked.

worry wart dani abram comic

Mixed in with the saddest and most sympathetic moments are some unexpected bits of humour, adding an extra bit of personality into Dani’s character and making the reader care even more for her story.

And it is fortunately a happy story, but you really ought to find that out for yourself, as Worry Wart is a very moving look at what I can also personally say is a horrible thing to happen to anyone. And I probably wouldn’t feel brave enough to say that myself without having the inspiration I found in these pages.

You can find Dani’s blog here and order Worry Wart from the store.

BBC Micro Men – TV Review

The somewhat overly-dramatised story of Sinclair and Acorn Computers in the 1980s, starring Alexander Armstrong and Martin Freeman.

It’s an amazing thing, technology. As I discovered that I could sync up my Galaxy S3 mobile phone with the YouTube app on my XBox 360 to make searching for videos a much simpler experience, it’s interesting that I did all this in order to watch a docu-drama about the birth of the affordable home computer in Britain during the early 1980s.

BBC Micro Men TV Sinclair Acorn

Micro Men was a programme first shown on BBC Four in 2009 about the battle between two British companies to dominate the newly-established home computer market. As components got more affordable and the country’s finest minds got together to make computing more than the niche market for hobbyists it previously was, two distinct figures emerged to make it their own.

Alexander Armstrong plays Clive Sinclair, the eccentric genius inventor, and Martin Freeman plays Chris Curry, his loyal employee. Along with a good supporting cast this is a humorous re-telling of the British computer boom with plenty of geek out moments for the real footage of products and games spliced in.

When the National Enterprise Board refuses to continue backing Sinclair’s vanity projects, he suggests that Curry takes control of a shell company that Sinclair obtained some years back in order to focus on raising more money through more conventional products. When Sinclair doesn’t give his blessing for Curry to pursue a microcomputer called the MK14, Curry breaks away and set up his own firm in order to continue the purer project.

This sets the scene for a head-to-head contest between the two companies, Sinclair and Acorn – firstly with the race to have their working products used exclusively on BBC television for an educational programme, and then to dominate the market which the television coverage helped open up.

BBC Micro Men Alexander Armstrong

If you’re looking for the cold, hard facts about the race for financial and technological innovation in the 80s then you won’t find them here. But such is the surreal nature of proceedings as Sinclair throws phones through windows with a string of expletives, and Curry toasts his success with two young ladies sipping champagne in the back of a limo – but it’s very nicely played in such a way that it is almost believable due to the actual scale of their achievements and failures.

For the record, this is probably my favourite ever work of Alexander Armstrong – I thought his sketch shows with Ben Miller were only okay and he’s now absolutely everywhere on TV which is far more than I can stand – but his portrayal of Sinclair is just sharp enough to rein in the hyper-realism of events unfolding.

I really enjoyed watching Micro Men as a re-telling of big moments in geek history and a funny one to boot.

My Influential 15 Video Games

In which I make a list of 15 lifelong gaming inspirations. Only 15.

I was taking a stroll along the interwebs earlier this week when I discovered The Influential 15 listed by Isey at ihaspc, and decided to try and formulate my own list of the 15 video games which had the most impact on my life. One of the few rules specifically states that I can’t take too long figuring it out.

But think about it: only 15 games?

Sadly, I broke that rule by a good hour or so as I tried to jog my memory by googling and youtubing various sources. Although I was happy with my original 15, a cursory bit of research blew almost half of them out of the water so I am glad I took the time, really. I wanted more entries from the ZX Spectrum and Amiga; the two platforms on which I played my earliest games, as well as to take out stuff from the current generation; the Mass Effect trilogy and Fallout 3 are some of my all-time favourites but I think I only have that appreciation in the first place because of my current tastes.

This list is much more important than current taste. So here it is – in chronological order of release and not necessarily when I played them.

 

Chuckie Egg 2

ZX Spectrum

1985

Chuckie Egg 2 ZX Spectrum

Although the prequel is more fondly remembered, I have some fond memories of my own with this game. Released in 1985, I associate it closely with Saturday afternoons when the football scores were being announced on TV.

 

Postman Pat

ZX Spectrum

1988

Postman Pat ZX Spectrum

An obvious spiritual predecessor to the Grand Theft Auto series, the game of the children’s TV classic had you racing against the clock to make postal deliveries to the good folk of Greendale.

 

Treasure Island Dizzy

ZX Spectrum

1988

Treasure Island Dizzy ZX Spectrum

The second in the series of adventure games starring the heroic egg. This particular one was absolutely impossible to solve which is why it sticks so well in my memory.

 

Tetris

Game Boy

1989

Tetris Game Boy

Because, Tetris! And also for all the reasons given in my Tetris post over at Geekocracy.

 

Super Mario Bros 3

NES

1991

Super Mario Bros 3

Try all you like, but in a list like this you’re only going to name either the plumber or the hedgehog, not both. I’m calling it: I’m a Mario guy. This is the first game I really remember having to struggle to beat, and I still don’t think I ever have. Better go bust out my SNES when I’ve finished here.

 

Flashback

Amiga

1992

Flashback Amiga

The first real mystery of a game that I remember playing; with alien intrigue and some evil cyborgs, plus a unique graphic style and plenty of combat rolls.

 

Sensible Soccer International Edition

Amiga

1993

Sensible World Of Soccer 96-97

A football game that didn’t take itself seriously, and therefore absolutely the most fun one of all time, it’s actually been added to a list of All-Time Important Video Games by a panel of boffins from American universities. SWOS is still rock bloody solid though.

 

Frontier: Elite II

Amiga

1993

Frontier Elite II Amiga

My dad read a lot of sci-fi books, and all those covers of exotic alien planets and cool spaceships are a fond memory. This was the first game I ever played that opened up those doors to a universe full of possibilities. Especially when I learned how to land a ship safely.

 

Super Mario Kart

SNES

1993

Super Mario Kart SNES

It was between this and Road Rash for an ultimate racing game, but the fact that I still play updates of Mario Kart and the sheer amount of fun I had with the original makes this the clear choice.

 

Quake

PC

1996

Quake PC 1996

The first time I got a really good look at what was out there on home computers was Quake, and it was quite a jump for my 11-year old mind to make!  I much preferred its sequel when released, but this and Duke Nukem 3D really did a number on me in terms of ambitious first-person shooters.

 

Tekken 3

Playstation

1998

Tekken 3 Beach Ball Mode

While Street Fighter 2 was obviously the beat-em-up benchmark a few years previously, I think that Tekken 3 is a little more accessible and fun thanks to its superior hardware on the Playstation, plus the characters were just cooler.

 

Tony Hawk’s Skateboarding

Playstation

1999

Tony Hawk's Skateboarding PS1

We’ve covered this recently; this game was the precursor to my whole mid-teens in terms of music, culture and clothing. If it weren’t for this game and MTV’s Jackass, I wouldn’t still have a bump on my right foot that, ever so occasionally, cracks and puts me in agony for days.

 

The Sims

PC

2000

The Sims PC 2000

I can’t have been the only one with an addiction to this game at the turn of the millennium; but that was the beauty of such an ordinary-sounding game. Wish fulfilment was a big deal for players of a certain age; and having already had the chance to shake up theme parks and entire cities, the shift to attaining domestic bliss was a natural progression. I may revisit this game in the near future on the blog.

 

WWF Smackdown 2: Know Your Role

Playstation

2000

WWF Smackdown 2 Know Your Role

I’d played a lot of wrestling games before this one, but Smackdown 2 offered a new depth of customisation that the others were lacking. I loved being able to create a wrestler and run through an entire year’s worth of storylines and Pay-Per-View stipulation matches as the same guy; even if some of the storylines began to repeat themselves before we’d even hit Summerslam.

 

Grand Theft Auto 3

Playstation 2

2001

Grand Theft Auto 3 GTA3

One of the most notable early examples of what you could do with a sandbox game; I found the first two games somewhat lacking but this was an amazing example of reinvention that turned the franchise into what it is today. Also, Fernando is one of my personal heroes.

There you have it; 15 games that I like to think had a fair old impact on my life. I’d be interested to know how many of these are in your own top 15!

Who Wants to Work for Valve Games? Everybody, Ever.

I know that working for the company who put out the Portal and Half-Life games would be sweet, but apparently being a Valve’er is held in even higher regard than you’d think.

When asked by International Game Developers Association (IGDA) “what developer/publisher would you most like to work for?” Valve came out on top of the list – despite there also being the possible answer of “for my own company”, which came second.

Yep, you read that properly. Out of 2,200 developers surveyed in the whole industry, more people would like to work at Valve than start up their own development company.

Valve games logo

To be honest, I can understand why. From what we see in gaming news – lawsuits between companies over who’s to blame for badly-received games, fans expressing their rage over the exact timing of ‘timed’ exclusives, and even where the worst games are buried – it takes a lot of work to start up a games company when there’s so much competition and so many hair-trigger-temper players just waiting to bury your reputation – and your stock value – with one below-average expansion pack.

So when it came to the crunch, the majority of respondents went for Valve instead. And why not? Here are three things that really set them apart from the rest of the games industry:

  • They’re privately owned. So immediately Valve can draw its own map, and make the games it really wants to without pressure from investors and corporate backers to rush a game out for Christmas, or do yet another instalment of Call of FIFA.
  • They’re flat – or at least, they claim to be. As a non-hierarchical company, everyone at Valve is on a level pegging – even founder Gabe Newell, apparently. This obviously doesn’t mean that people don’t take charge on the big issues, but it can be merely a case of the most experienced person making those decisions rather than any chain of command. To my untrained and non-corporate eye, this seems pretty ideal.
  • They created the Portal and Half-Life games, for god’s sake. Isn’t that enough of a reason to make a company stand out? Plus, if you ever did get a job there you’d be well-placed to call a meeting which consisted simply of you scrolling through slides of Gordon Freeman standing next to a big fuck-off number 3. Now that’s good business strategy.
Half-Life 3

“Only got the one slide to show us, Vincent?”
“Well, yeah, but I think it gets the message across nicely. THREE!!!”

And if you needed any more persuading, the Valve employee company handbook is one of the greatest pieces of business documentation I’ve ever seen. And I should know; I’ve written a fair few myself. Read it and be inspired. And keep nagging your Valve employee friend to make Half-Life 3 if you have one.

The Top 10 games developers from that survey by the IGDA:

  1. Valve
  2. My own company
  3. Activision Blizzard
  4. BioWare
  5. Ubisoft
  6. Current employer
  7. Nintendo
  8. Naughty Dog
  9. Double Fine
  10. Bethesda Game Studios

WoW: Warlords of Draenor Gets November Release Date

The next World of Warcraft expansion promises…time travel?

If you’re reading this and you haven’t yet given up on the soul-sucking chore that is apparently playing World of Warcraft, you’ll be keenly aware of the announced release date for the next chapter in the never-ending story. (Not that one, although any quests involving riding Falkor would be pretty sweet.)

WoW Warlords of Draenor announced

Announced at BlizzCon 2013 by Chris Metzen during the opening ceremony, Warlords of Draenor will have been a year in waiting by the time it’s released – long enough for the diehards to break the whole thing down repeatedly, and certainly long enough for the fair-weather fans to decide if they want to spend a long time maxing out their characters ready for the next ten levels.

Yes, if you’re in it for the long haul, you’re finally going to reach Level 100. A century; which must be how long it feels like between expansions, but with this Blizzard have also announced their intention to release more regular updates – once per year according to Greg ‘Ghostcrawler’ Street, lead systems designer.

“We find that expansions are what bring players back to World of Warcraft,” he explained. “Really good patches will keep them, but they aren’t as good at bringing players back to the game.

“We really want to get to a cadence where we can release expansions more quickly. Once a year I think would be a good rate. I think the best thing we can do for new players is to keep coming out with regular content updates.”

Anyone with an eye on the subscribers will know that the base always jumps up a bit in the lead up to a new expansion, before tailing off again once everyone has either a) completed the new quests and levelled up in quick style, or b) got sufficiently pissed off enough at the daft difficulty spike to stop trying.

And the new storyline could be enough to pique the interest of long-lapsed players, as the events played out at the end of Mists of Pandaria lead to the creation of an alternative timeline which prevents the destruction of the orc homeworld Draenor which occurred at the end of Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal.

That’s as spoilery as I’m prepared to go at this point, but I’m sure you all know the story if you’re reading this.

By going back on their own lore, Blizzard could lure in some of the older generations of Warcraft players but risk the wrath of others. We’ll find out in November what the community makes of this but until then, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments box.

Christopher Evan Welch will be missed on ‘Silicon Valley’

I definitely had to give Silicon Valley a go when I first saw it advertised on Sky Atlantic; a sitcom about a group of programmers trying to make it in the cut-throat tech industry, created by Mike Judge.

And although the first couple of episodes were pretty slow going, I have to admit I’m absolutely loving it now – but now that the programme has lost its single funniest character it’s going to be a tough few weeks while I try to get my head around the tragic death of actor Christopher Evan Welch and how it will change the show.

peter gregory silicon valley

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Welch acting in anything before, although going by his IMDB page it’s quite possible that he’s just one of the people that makes you point and say “that guy…” whenever he pops up in something else – the first example that springs to mind being…that guy…y’know, the one who was in Bones and 24 and House and Damages and…

But his portrayal of eccentric tech billionaire Peter Gregory is absolutely amazing. He steals every scene he’s in and plays that type so well – an undoubted genius who never learned how to be sociable with it – that the rest of this first season will be all the poorer for Welch’s death.

According to fellow cast members on a Larry King interview, Welch was 48 when he died of a heart attack having recently been treated for lung cancer – a sudden shock when everything was looking brighter. Welch looked in good enough shape in the programme that it had to be sudden – and it was sudden for me too to find out the reason for his reduced role on IMDB after I’d had enough of saying “that guy…” but was laughing so hard in the process.

 

(I strongly recommend you watch this scene too; it’s even better but sadly unembeddable. Yep, that’s a word now.)

For Welch, I can finish that sentence now: “that guy…was an incredible performer.”

Silicon Valley has quickly become one of my favourite programmes, and a good deal of that was down to Christopher Evan Welch. It’s really sad to lose him especially as this was more than a good bet for his breakthrough performance.

Rise of the Tomb Raider will be XBox exclusive

New Lara Croft game won’t be playable on PS4 or PC any time soon.

Do you remember last June, when Sony and Microsoft showed off their next-gen consoles, and gamers took opposing sides based on which hardware looked better, and which had the better game incentives, and which had the better casual setup?

Remember when the game franchises started getting divvied up between the two, and people were forced to make their final decisions on which console to opt for – that is, if the final decision wasn’t both?

Well, this is a bit of a bummer for anyone who thought that the resurgence of gaming icon Lara Croft was good news for both sides of the next-gen divide, as a pre-Gamescom announcement from Crystal Dynamics head honcho Darrell Gallagher confirmed that next winter’s Rise of the Tomb Raider will be an XBox exclusive.

Rise of the Tomb Raider XBox exclusive

It isn’t known at this time if the game will be launched for both XBox One and the XBox 360, but it’s certainly bad news for any gamer who went with the PS4 this time around. The first in the rebooted series of Tomb Raider games has sold over 6.5 million copies to date – that’s for XBox, Playstation and PC, mind – and was met with great critical success too.

Writing on the official Tomb Raider Tumblr blog (Tomblr?), Gallagher clarified the decision.

“Our friends at Microsoft have always seen huge potential in Tomb Raider and have believed in our vision since our first unveil with them on their stage at E3 2011. We know they will get behind this game more than any support we have had from them in the past – we believe this will be a step to really forging the Tomb Raider brand as one of the biggest in gaming, with the help, belief and backing of a major partner like Microsoft.

This doesn’t mean that we’re walking away from our fans who only play on PlayStation or on PC. Those are great systems, with great partners, and amazing communities. We have Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris coming to those platforms this December, and Tomb Raider: The Definitive Edition is available on PS4.”

Offering your support to a fledgling developer in return for console exclusivity is one thing, but having sold a million copies in 48 hours, does a franchise as phenomenally popular as Tomb Raider really need that extra support? I can’t help but feel the Playstationers are getting a raw deal here. Getting the sequel to a Lara Croft game whose dialogue and plot were by some accounts “cheesy and forgettable” [Gamespot] and “the weakest parts” of the game [IGN] isn’t going to satisfy the fans who were hooked on Croft’s character development in the proper reboot.

It could be that at some point down the line, Sony will be able to release Rise to their consoles, as the definition of ‘exclusive’ hasn’t yet been made public – but with the console war still raging on, XBox could be on their way to closing the gap with the news that Canon Lara is for Microsoft players’ eyes only.