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The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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5:58pm on Monday, 15th October, 2018:

Boring Lecture

Anecdote

I was preparing a lecture today about game company organisation and production that was so boring I fell asleep near the end. Heaven help the students when I actually deliver it.

Hmm, Heaven help me, come to that, as I may well nod off on my feet.



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11:33am on Sunday, 14th October, 2018:

String

Anecdote

There was some slight progress today in the interminable refirbishment of our living room. Having finally decided where the TV may go (note: not "will go", just "may go"), my wife was annoyed to find that our very long satellite TV cable was not quite very long enough. I had to buy a 10-metre extension, which arrived yesterday. Today, I had to run it under the floor to get it to the opposite wall where it should be if that's where the TV is going.

There was an access hole already at one end of the room. When we had our new radiator installed (which was leaking mid-week — I had to tighten one of the nuts to stop it), the plumber cut another access hole at the other end. We simply had to run the cables through from one hole to the other one 5 metres away.

That wasn't easy. I had a 2-metre length of pipe I used to push a thick piece of old cable under the floorboards to a third, very small access-point mid-way between the others (where a radiator vertical pipe had been taken out) and then push it from there to the far hole. I used stiff cable so that it wouldn't get caught so easily on the rough concrete base. Once that was through, I tied some string to it and pulled it back. I then kept pulling on the string so I could make a loop. This enabled me to pull the TV and speaker cables from one hole to the other one at a time.



Amazingly, it worked. I was thinking I might have to drive a remote-controlled car underneath the floorboards or something, but for once my DIY improvisational skills were up to the task.

The hardest part of the whole exercise was finding somewhere that sold balls of string.



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6:18pm on Saturday, 13th October, 2018:

Swiss Album

Anecdote

I bought some playing cards on eBay recently, and they arrived today. Prices have been steadily increasing, and packs that would have cost £30 five years ago are going for £75 now, so I was quite fortunate to get these for a reasonable amount.



They're Album Suisse patience cards number 30 by C. L. Wust of Frankfurt. Wust sold a lot of playing cards featuring Swiss costumes and cities, as did Dondorf; I already have some of these, because they're very common and a lot of them have made it to the present day. This was the first time I'd seen this particular design, though, which dates from around 1900.

The thing is, it's completely impractical. For a pack of cards, you want all the cards to be different — but only on the front. You want all the backs to be identical. The backs here are all different. Play a few games with these and you'd know that when you saw Bern it was the Ace of Hearts.

Still, they're great for doing mentalist tricks!



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11:31am on Friday, 12th October, 2018:

Challenge Week

Anecdote

It's Challenge Week again! This is when the Department of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering splits its first-year intake into groups and has them work on a subject-relevant challenge for a week. Last year, when we piloted it, we won an award; OK, so it's only an award internal to the university, but we still won it. This year, we've run it again. I'm a big fan of it, as I think it really does help first-years get into the swing of things and get to know other people on their course, so I'm happy to be part of it. It's fun, too!

The challenge for the games students last year was to make a board game on the theme of Vikings. This year, it was on the theme of Mythology. I did explain in my opening talk that living religions shouldn't be counted as mythology even if some of their stories are thousands of years older than what we do regard as mythology, but I still had to stop three groups from putting Hindu scripture in the same mix as Greek, Roman and Egyptian myth.

Because we have close to three hundred Computer Science students, some of them had to do the games challenge instead of the programming one. This meant that several of the game design groups were made up of people on Computer Science degrees rather than Computer Games degrees, but as it happened they were all up for it (there were a couple of disengaged groups last time round). We had 12 groups doing board games in all, each one with around 6 members, at least on paper; some didn't show up, which is indeed one of the reasons we have Challenge Week — so we can track the missing ones down and find out what's wrong. Today, the groups will give short presentations about their game, and those who made a meaningful contribution to creating it will receive a pass mark. Those who didn't will receive a fail mark; basically, because all the games are functional, this means those who didn't show up fail and the others pass. There's no gradation: you either get 100% or 0%. Challenge Week as a whole is worth 10% of the first year marks, so this is our sneaky way of giving 10% to as many of our first-year undergraduates as we can and so reduce our appalling first-year failure rate.

As with last year, it was interesting to watch how individual groups managed to reflect in their game design some artistic statement of which they were completely unaware.

For example, I was looking at one group's preliminary design on the first day and I knew I could expect trouble. The game was asymmetric: one player was the hunter and the others were the hunted. The hunted needed to get to the other side of the board and the hunter was trying to stop them. Sure enough, on day 2, one member of the group approached me and said he was being shut out by the others, who were accusing him of trying to block their ideas and make them use his instead. I had a word with the group as a whole and they took it professionally; they were all if not friends then at least colleagues at the end. The game was an exact statement of their group situation, though.

Another group was comprised of computer scientists. Their game was very unsophisticated, but they were happy with it and enjoyed making it. Each player had their own sub-board, which they moved along by rolling dice. When they got to the middle, they waited until someone else got there too then fought them in a battle that was basically Top Trumps. The winner waited for the next person to get there and this continued until there was only one left. The thing is, although you might expect them to have implemented the first phase by using a track with numbers on it, that's not what they did. Instead, as you moved along you left a trail of tokens on the board. Thus, by the time you'd reached the middle, you'd filled in the whole of your board in tokens — maybe a hundred of them. The boards were a metaphor for a week spent making a game: these non-games students were figuratively filling in time.

A third group was made up of students who were also not gamers. They had ideas for games, but these were all simple mechanics taken from other games. None of them really fitted together. The design they eventually came up with was about making mythical monsters out of body parts (head, torso, legs). The idea was to make some kind of Frankenstein monster out of these disparate parts and hope it could beat the boss monster at the end. That completely nailed their group dynamic.

I should say that until I pointed it out, none of these groups even knew they could say something through their game designs, let alone what they actually were saying through them.

Another group was made up of game designers who gelled quite well. Naturally, their game was co-operative. There was a mythical Japanese snake that was going around devouring villages; the players had to go to villages and make sake there, so that when the snake arrived it would drink the sake and lose a head (which is apparently mythologically correct). So, hmm, a snake? That's a flowing line: it represents Challenge Week. The villages are the different game-design sessions we had. The players had to work together to defeat the snake head-by-head (make the game session-by-session) until they'd defeated the beast (Challenge Week) in its entirety.

This was unusual for a group of games students, because games students tend to argue with one another. If everyone is a game designer, everyone wants their idea heard and most of the ideas are actually good — they just take the game in wildly different directions. I once did a game design exercise in Cologne and a group of four game designers spent four hours reaching no decisions at all. Last year in Challenge Week, we had two designer-heavy groups that ended up making games where the players are gods, each of which has its own special powers. This makes sense, because designers are the gods of their games, but if they have to work together to make the game they lose that divinity. Therefore, they assign it to themselves as players. We had the same thing happen this year with one of the groups made up of games students. The general gameplay was a bit plain and by-committee, but the design of the gods was imaginative and exciting.

Groups with non-designers in them tend to make games in which the players are heroes rather than gods, because they see themselves as battling heroically to complete the task rather than creators of realities. I was therefore surprised to find one such group did have players playing as gods. When I queried why they were playing as gods, it turned out that one of its members actually was a games student and that using gods instead of heroes was his idea. This was another game with oodles of pieces on it, occupying the board and filling in the time. It had the additional feature that if you knocked someone out then you got their land and pieces, a positive feedback loop that brought the game to a swift conclusion once someone beat someone else. This was saying that once it was obvious what the outcome would be, there was no point in continuing: just get it over and done with. That was pretty well what the Challenge Week game design exercise was to them: fun while they were doing it, but once it was over they could go off and do what they were really here to do. OK, that's fair enough. Of all the games, though, this one was the one that got the most emotional reaction from the students when they playtested it, so I'm hoping that at least the games student among their number might pick it up and play with it some more.

There was one group of designers that was quite high-powered. They spent several hours arguing about what the game should be like, but rather than retreating into "let's all be gods" pushed through that to "let's allow players to play how they want to play". The result was a very flexible, almost sandbox game that you could win by aggression, stealth, alliance, exploration — it really was quite neat. I didn't get to see it playtested, though, because I kept having to go off and teach MSc students at critical junctures. I'd like to know more about the underlying mechanics, because it did seem to have a lot of depth to it, and as the team is going to tweak it some more for fun I may yet get that opportunity.

There was a group of non-designers with four members that spent most of their time squirrelled away in the nearby cafeteria. Their game had a circular (well, hexagonal) board with a point in the middle that everyone had to reach from their own individual starting point on the map edge. OK, so the middle clearly represented the end of Challenge Week (you just had to get there, you didn't have to do anything once you'd got there) but there was something not quite right about the way the players started out as far from each other as possible. There were event cards to pick up along the way, which either advanced your own progress or hurt that of one of your opponents. When I asked if the cards could hurt your own progress and was told they couldn't, I realised what had happened. The group had started off quite fractiously, with everyone able to recognise that other people's ideas weren't particularly great, but not having the experience to come up with better ones themselves. Eventually, they crystallised about a design which resonated with their situation and so was acceptable to them all. They got along really well after that, which is the only state I'd seen them in (because of their cafeteria location preference). When I suggested that it looked as if they'd had some big arguments but they weren't acting as if they had, that's when they explained that they had indeed spent the opening hours having (civil) arguments, but after these had been resolved they all got along swimmingly well.

I didn't get to look at the gameplay for all the groups, because three workmen came in yesterday at 10:45 telling me they needed to fill the room with chairs for a hundred biologists at 11:00. We were expecting to have the room the whole day. I had teaching in the afternoon, so that was the last I saw of the groups all together. I don't doubt that the games I didn't probe could also yield some artistic statement from their group, though. There was one group made up of computer science apprentice students who had been together for a month already so knew each other well; they created a game in a Eurogame vein, with resource management and so on. I'd have liked to have found out if this connected to the company they worked for, or whether the game they made was a reskinning of an existing game, but I didn't get the chance.

This kind of reading of games is quite easy to do, although of course it's quite easy to overdo, too — seeing things that aren't there. I'm surprised there isn't much about it in the Game Studies literature, although that rarely looks at gameplay as a vehicle for delivering an artistic payload (even though it's the only thing games have that no other artistic medium has). Maybe I'd write a paper about it myself if it actually counted towards the Department's contribution to the Research Excellence Framework. Not being Computer Science, though, it doesn't. Yes, CSEE, It's all very well having a Research Incentive Scheme, but for people who can't publish in the narrow list of journals it decrees, it acts as a Research Disincentive Scheme.

Hmm. I don't work only for Essex University now, though, do I?

Maybe if I repeat this exercise at the Gotland Game Conference, it'll actually be worthwhile and I can help someone else get a publication, too.



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7:12pm on Thursday, 11th October, 2018:

Leaping Later

Anecdote

The university's poster with pictures of people and where they come from has now been filled in. Here's the result:



Assuming that the proportion of students who don't think putting their photo up is uncool remains constant across all nationalities, then this is a representative illustration of where they come from.

I'm surprised that so many students come from North America. I'm not surprised that pretty well all UK students come from near London. I'm not surprised by the number of students coming from Europe or by whereabouts in Europe they come from. I'm surprised that there are hardly any students from Africa. I'm not surprised by the vast numbers of students from Asia. I don't think anyone would be surprised by the tiny number of students from Australasia.

Maybe next year they should expand the section for India, China and Indonesia and put Australia and New Zealand in a corner somewhere.



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7:37pm on Wednesday, 10th October, 2018:

Pond Life

Anecdote

They're digging up the pond at the end of our road, probably as some kind of dredging exercise. It's either that, or a mechanical digger has fallen into it.



There's a heron in the picture, too, which seems to love the mud but flies away when a camera is pointed at it.



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7:32pm on Tuesday, 9th October, 2018:

Challenging

Anecdote

It's Challenge Week for the first-year students, so what better way to start than to have a man juggle knives while walking over my colleague Vishuu?



The fact that Essex University didn't make it to the national news last night will have tipped you off that the juggler didn't drop anything and will be back to try kill Vishuu again next year.



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5:28pm on Monday, 8th October, 2018:

Federation II

Comment

I've just heard that Federation II is closing down, after 30 years of operation.

The reason given by its author, Alan Lenton, is that he's getting close to age 70 now and he's finally starting to feel the strain of maintaining the game. The official closure notice also cites issues to do with security certificates and GDPR rules.

For those of you who don't know, Fed was one of the "big five" MUDs of the 1980s, along with MUD, Shades, Gods and MirrorWorld. It was the only one to make it to AOL in the boom years, and was always loved by its players. There's a 1990 review of it (by me) on my web site here.

I doubt that many MMO journalists, let alone MMO players, remember Fed. So it is with pioneers. It's a shame it's closing down, but a joy  — and a testament to its developers and players — that it's managed to last as long as it has.

Sigh.

I'm surprised Alan is nearing 70, though; I thought he was permanently in his 30s.



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5:01pm on Monday, 8th October, 2018:

The Good Bit

Comment

At the end of yesterday's opening episode of Dr Who, they showed who's going to be in later episodes. This took some time. During that time, they played the theme tune.

This went on a bit, and I was really looking forward to a return to the good bit. The good bit has been cut from the theme tune in recent years, but this went on so long I felt sure they were going to play it. They didn't, though. The good bit, if you don't remember it because they haven't played it for so long, can be heard abouty 48 seconds into this clip.

Other than that, the new series opened really well and the new Doctor was great! Finally, finally, we have one with a Yorkshire accent.



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4:43pm on Sunday, 7th October, 2018:

Final Cut

Anecdote

I mowed the grass this afternoon, for what I hope is the last time this year. I don't understand why it keeps growing back: it knows I'm going to cut it if it grows, but it just keeps on growing regardless. Hmm, maybe it likes being cut?

This time, there were a lot more twigs and spider webs (and indeed spiders) in my hair than there usually is after an afternoon's mowing, so I do have a sense that the seasons are moving on. The days will soon be dark and miserable.

The fact that lectures start tomorrow supports this.



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3:07pm on Saturday, 6th October, 2018:

Plant

Comment

This plant is in our kitchen window.



It's an ugly-looking brute. It keeps sprouting new ugly-looking tendrils to make itself look even uglier.

Fortunately, it's near the kettle, so I may be able to kill it with steam if it gets out of control.

Hmm, then again, maybe steam is what sustains it back on its home planet?



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5:30pm on Friday, 5th October, 2018:

Stemmed

Comment

The new STEM building on Square 1 of the university does look rather good, even if it took rather longer to complete than expected.

Here are two pictures of it: the top one was taken 29th January this year; the bottom one was taken this afternoon.



What I particularly like about this is that it shows that underneath its flashy skin, the STEM building looks just as much of a forbidding, concrete eyesore as the rest of the university does.

I get to teach in it for three days next week, so I'm hoping it doesn't fall down until after I'm finished.



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4:51pm on Thursday, 4th October, 2018:

Skylight

Weird

These are the skylights built into the floor outside the new STEM building at the university.



They're to let light into the floors below.

As you can see, they have dots on them. This is so that people can see that they really are glass and not gaping holes.

The word is that they're going to be replaced by frosted glass soon, though, even though the building has been open barely a week. It turns out that if you're underneath them and look up, the dots don't really do much to prevent you from getting a glimpse of what lies beneath skirts passing overhead.

I'd have thought that this is the sort of thing that would have been covered in the first "working with glass" lecture at architecture school, but it seems not.



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5:05pm on Wednesday, 3rd October, 2018:

Leaping

Comment

It's that time of year when Essex University puts a map of the world on a poster and gets students to put up photos of themselves showing where they're from. It's done now, before the first-years realise that engaging with the university isn't regarded as cool.

This is what it looks like this year.



I suspect some of those maps may be less densely-packed with images than others. I can see why they wouldn't necessarily want to have all the components to scale, but I'd have thought it might have been determined more by where the most students are from than by how big continents can be displayed.



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5:15pm on Tuesday, 2nd October, 2018:

Trained

Anecdote

I went to London today for a meeting, along with three of my colleagues. They were getting on the train at Wivenhoe.

I could have got on the train at Wivenhoe, too, because I was visiting my mother first thing and she's only about 15 minutes away. However, I would have had trouble parking and would have had to come back to Wivenhoe, too. I therefore decided to join them on the train when it stopped at Colchester.

So, I left my mother's with about 50 minutes to drive something like ten miles. The queue to get onto the main road wasn't bad at all, and when I got onto the dual carriageway I breezed along until maybe a mile from the exit. Then, both lanes slowed to a crawl.

The problem is that one of the main traffic roads in Colchester, Cowdray Avenue, is being widened. It's being widened because it's a bottleneck. Closing off two lanes in order to widen it makes it even more of a bottleneck. Turning two double mini-roundabouts into two roundabouts makes it worse. People are avoiding it. They're going on the A12 instead. The queue to join the A12 from the direction I was coming had backed up and was now over a mile long.

Still, plenty of time. I could have walked to the train station from where I was and still made it. Sadly, I was in my car, not walking, and the traffic was slow slow slow. I got off the dual carriageway and joined the cars of people going to work or dropping their offspring off at school. The minutes ticked away. I watched as traffic lights changed and our line didn't move.

Eventually, I got close enough that I could see the trains at the station, including the one I was supposed to be getting on (when the one my colleagues were on came up behind and was coupled to it). Getting to the station was another exercise in patience, and not getting out of the car and shouting at the person blocking us all off who had decided that the keep-clear, yellow cross-hatched lines didn't apply to him.

I finally got to the station, ran (yes, ran) to buy a ticket , found there was no queue (well there would have been if I hadn't run in front of someone else heading for the ticket booth), purchased my return (quite hard when out of breath) and then ran for the train.

I made it just in the nick of time. It was 8:37 and the train was due to leave at 8:38.

Huh. It turned out there'd been a lineside fire at Bethnal Green and the train was cancelled. I took another train ten minutes later and met my colleagues at Stratford.

If I'd been late, of course, there would have been no lineside fire at Bethnal Green. It's good to have that kind of power.

When I got off the train on the journey home, there was a man being fined for not having a ticket. He was complaining that it was unfair he'd been stopped two days in a row. The ticket inspector said, "That's because you didn't have a ticket yesterday either".



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