The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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11:23am on Saturday, 18th April, 2015:

Last Time


This graph appeared in the Liberal Democrat election literature that came through our door yesterday:

Jeez, Liberal Democrat election literature! I know you're in favour of increased public spending on education, but that doesn't mean you should treat everyone as if they were uneducated! The size of those graph bars bear almost no relation to the numbers written on them! Besides, even if they did and all the people who voted Labour last time voted Liberal Democrat this time, it still wouldn't win your man the seat. Slightly tilting the graph to the left to foreshorten the apparent height of the Conservative bar is a less obvious but no less dishonest trick.

It's incredible how in this election each party manages to put me off wanting to vote for them whenever they're trying to win my vote.


11:01am on Saturday, 18th April, 2015:

Real Life Politicians


Vicar: Do you, Ed Cameron, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?
Ed Cameron: I'm greatly in favour of the institution of marriage.
Vicar (prompting): "I do."
Ed Cameron: I stand before you today as someone who has always supported the idea of the family being at the core of British society.
Vicar: Er, so do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?
Ed Cameron: Let me be clear about this. I believe that everyone has a right to marry whomsoever they choose.
Vicar: Please answer the — wait, what, even children?
Ed Cameron: Marriage is one of the cornerstones that makes this country what it is.
Vicar (sighing): I now pronounce you man and coalition partner.


1:36pm on Friday, 17th April, 2015:

Pump Action


Following today's riveting staff meeting, I went for lunch. Nothing appealed to me at the canteen (where I usually eat) so I went to the diner instead for a burger.

I eat my burgers old-school: bread, burger, ketchup, bread. They don't add the ketchup to the burger at the counter though, they only add the more expensive sauces. So, after I bought my burger I went to the ketchup dispenser to lather it in whatever the stuff they put in those things is.

The ketchup dispenser is pump action, like a hand soap dispenser only the size of demijohn. I opened up my burger, put it underneath the nozzle, then pumped.

Nothing happened.

Hmm. I tried again.

Again, nothing happened. The pump was going down but nothing was coming out. I figured it was maybe empty, but then again it could have been recently filled and the tube inside wasn't yet full of ketchup.

I pumped it again.

BAM! Ketchup shot out at all angles with the force of a jet hose. What hit my burger bounced off. The rest of it went either on the side of the dispenser or on me. I had a great scythe of it across my chest, penetrating deep into my jacket and shirt. With its being red, it looked as if someone had emptied a shotgun on me.

If being looked at by other people is a measure of popularity, at that moment I was the most popular person in the diner.

I guess that I wasn't the only person to pump the ketchup dispenser. Other people had done so before me but given up. Nevertheless, in their attempt they had put the air in the bottle under pressure. I just happened to be the unlucky person who added enough extra pressure to blast out whatever obstacle was blocking the novel.

I ate my burger on the way to my car, looking for all the world like an extra from a slasher movie. I drove home filling the car with a ketchupy smell that will take days to dissipate. I needed a shower when I got home. My shirt and jacket are in the wash.

I wouldn't care so much but it wasn't a particularly great burger.


1:38pm on Thursday, 16th April, 2015:

Slightly to the Right


We received some more election literature yesterday, this time from the Conservatives.

On the left, what our sitting MP, Bernard Jenkin, normally looks like in his publicity pictures. On the right, what he looked like in the pamphlet that arrived yesterday.

I think his barber must be a Labour voter.

Notice how he leans his head to the right so you can tell he's Conservative, but not so far that you might think he's UKIP.


8:13pm on Wednesday, 15th April, 2015:

Afternoon in Uxbridge


I went to Brunel University today to give an afternoon workshop on game design. It's a portable workshop I've run before — not always for students, but I do give it to the IGGI PhD nunch and have a shortened version for my second-year students. Basically, it's a game system that the students instantiate a game for (much in the way that you could create a Top Trumps game for a genre of your choice). It's not a regular game system, though, as the sting in the tail is that it's based on the first-order predicate calculus; relational database queries are also based on this, so if you can formulate a game idea using this system then you can easily slot it into a database.

The Brunel students were a mixed group, ranging from first-year BA undergraduates to MA students. Frankly, I couldn't tell which was which, as they were all enthusiastic. They were split into four groups, one of which actually managed to get a playable game. Two of the others were close to playable. The fourth would probably have been brilliant if they hadn't taken so long hammering out the workings of time travel and ended up designing 8 overlapping games instead of just one, but hey, they seemed to get something out of it. Overall, they did really well, especially with the storytelling aspect of what they were creating. I don't know what they teach them at Brunel, but it seems to be effective.

Hmm, actually I do know what they teach them as I used to be their external examiner.

The Brunel games design course, which is so games design that it's a BA (unlike the BSc we have at Essex), is very strong. Two thirds of the original team (which is to say two people) decamped to Falmouth to set up a new games degree there with a massive chunk of EU funding behind it. Brunel responded by putting the other third in charge and then multiplying him by a factor of six (so, hiring another five people, some of whom are game studies types and others of whom are designer types). Their course is so different from the usual fare that employment in the games industry for graduates is something like 30%-40%. This is exceptionally good: most universities will struggle to place even 10% of their graduates in the games industry. We're traditionally around the same mark at Essex University, although in recent years we've sent more students on to do postgraduate degrees in games so we're probably not that high any more. Also, we have only around 20-25 graduates per year whereas Brunel has 40-45, so their absolute numbers are higher than ours too.

Anyway, it was a enjoyable workshop for me if not for the students. Even better, I was paid for it. Win!

Things you don't want to hear at 8:30 in the morning about 3 seconds after having paid £54 for a train ticket that would cost you £34 half an hour later: "Trains to London are subject to cancellations and delays following an overhead line problem at Romford". That's just so you know my day wasn't all fun and games...


10:45am on Tuesday, 14th April, 2015:

Instant Death


Most of my ancestors go out of their way to be uninteresting, but sometimes one of them makes a real effort to impress.

So, my paternal grandmother had the maiden name of Hewitt, and came from a mining family (there's nominative determinism for you). Her great-grandfather was one Joseph Hewitt, who died aged 68 in 1868.

68 was a pretty good age for a coalminer to reach back then. His son died aged 44 and his grandson died aged 62, both from lung diseases. This isn't how Joseph Hewitt died, though. He died in a spectacular enough fashion that a coronor had to investigate. Amazingly, the coronor's report survives. Here it is:

(Note: a corve is one of those mining carts on rails, like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

You have rheumatism, you walk with a stick, you catch a ride in a coal wagon to save yourself a half-mile walk, you put your stick down but it starts to shake out, the guy behind you rescues it, you stand up to get it back off him, you smack your head on a bridge, you die instantly. The death certificate, which I also have, actually says that: "instant death".

Now why couldn't my other ancestors do things like that? It would be much easier to track them down. Hats off to Joseph Hewitt!

(Hmm, I could probably have phrased that better).


7:55am on Monday, 13th April, 2015:

Big Day


Today is a big day.

It's our 30th wedding anniversary, but that doesn't make it a big day.

Maintenance work by UK Power Networks means that our house will have no electricity between 8:30am and 5:30pm, but that doesn't make it a big day.

Series 5 of Game of Thrones begins. That's what makes it a big day.

Got to get your priorities right.


2:07pm on Sunday, 12th April, 2015:



Last week, I was asked (by Morgan Ramsay) if I'd write something about bind-on-pickup and bind-on-account items in MMOs. I said I would when I next had time and nothing obvious to write about, which appears to be the case today.

So, objects in MMOs didn't used to work the way they do now. MMOs had wacky physics models in which dropping an object wouldn't cause it to evaporate on contact with the ground. Other people could pick up stuff you dropped. Imagine what kind of a crazy universe you'd have to live in if that were possible in real life!

OK, so this is indeed how Reality works. Textual worlds worked the same way, because if you want to make players feel that the virtual world is real, it's easier if said players don't come across unrealistic behaviours. It's bad enough that they have to will themselves to believe that magic works; if they also have to will themselves to believe that mundane physics is magical then that's unimmersive.

Now, it's fine for textual worlds to have objects lying around on the ground, but for graphical worlds it's costly. First of all, you have to store in your run-time database the locations of whatever trash people have left lying around, which clogs it up in a way that doesn't happen if you have a node-based world (as text worlds generally do). Secondly, someone has to create a model of the object so that you can see it on the ground (at least for 3D worlds).

Now both these are tractable problems. The first one can be solved by having objects rot (despawn) after a few minutes. The second one can be solved by having lots of objects that are reskinnings of each other or by hiring more artists. At a pinch, you can just have a "there's something here" symbol that people click on to see (as a 2D image) what that thing is.

Being able to drop objects on the ground wasn't just for reasons of verisimilitude — it had gameplay potential. You could use objects as markers to map mazes, for example, or as traps or bait. If you're being chased by a wolf, then throwing a dead chicken on the ground might distract it (I know it would distract me). It was also possible to trade objects this way, although trade windows (graphics) and the GIVE command (text) were superior. Nevertheless, for 3D graphical worlds the cost of creating models for everything you wanted players to be able to hold in their inventory was large, so the movement away from being able to drop them was inevitable; besides, if you can't see that the giant moth you just killed was carrying a shield, you're less likely to think it's as stupid as it actually is.

Although dropping items became unfashionable, trade was still important: trade (whether through a trade window or through an auction house) is vital if you want your game to have an economy — which you generally do, although they're not actually essential. In any case, transferring objects between players was seen as being A Good Thing beyond merely oiling the economy. It meant that low-level characters could have access to better items when high-level characters upgraded. You would sell your +4 sword once you got your +5 sword, so a lower-level character could use it. This was called trickle-down, and was seen as a way of redistributing wealth. It wasn't without problems, though.

Firstly, it was possible to give extremely powerful objects to low-level characters (called twinks). They could cut through monsters that were supposed to be challenging as if they were made of butter. What's more, they could do the same to other characters of their own level in PvP. The solution adopted for this was to put limits on what objects players could use, so a sword intended for level 50 content couldn't be wielded until you were level 40, say. I personally don't like this approach: if you can wield a sword, you can wield a sword — the level of the sword shouldn't make much difference. What does makes a difference is your degree of skill. I'd have much preferred for a level 10 person wielding a level 50 sword to get only a minor advantage (because it's sharper, say, but they're not skilled enough to exploit this properly). However, by now the ill-conceived shift of stats from character to equipment was well established, so it wasn't an option. If you're only as good as your gear, then to stop people from becoming too good you have to limit their access to too-good gear.

The second problem with trickle-down was that characters accumulated at the high end. This meant there were more players selling high-level things than there were buyers for it. Coupled with the inflation that typically accompanies levels (1GP at level 20 could seem a fortune, but at level 60 could seem a pittance) and the higher-level objects were practically given away. This annoyed high-level players who felt that their uber-elite armour ought to be worth more than next-to-nothing, and it also meant anyone could have over-powered gear if they sought it out. To fix this properly, gear should have been damaged more in combat (it's usually combat gear we're talking about here) and have a half life before it disintegrates beyond repair. You can imagine how popular that would have been among the players, though. The introduction of bind-on-equip and bind-on-use mitigated this by allowing players to sell stuff they found but didn't need, while preventing them from selling things they had used but no longer needed. It's a hack, though (as are BOP and BOA).

The third problem with trickle-down was that sometimes it was trickle-up. In worlds with meaningful penalties for getting killed, why would you send your main character into a dangerous zone when you could send in an alt whom you didn't mind getting killed? Having died on your alt a few times obtaining something stealthily, you could then pass what you got on to your main. This became less of a problem as MMOs relaxed death penalties to the current slap-on-the-wrist levels, though.

The fourth and final problem with trickle-down was what eventually brought about BOP: trickle-sideways. Some objects in MMOs are very powerful and rare. You can only get a shot at obtaining them every few days, success is not guaranteed, and even if after 4 hours you down the boss that may drop what you want, there's a good chance it won't. Ah, but what if someone else already has the item you want? They could give it to you! Hmm, but why would they do that if it's so powerful? Well, they might exchange it for real money. What happened, then, was that people started to farm rare items in order to sell them to other players. This increased the supply of the rare items (adding some imbalance, although not show-stopping amounts) and also competition to fight the bosses that dropped those items. There could be scores of people camping a location, waiting for a boss to appear so that they could attack it. Most of those people would be farmers, who were in effect imposing a toll on the regular players: if you want this rare object, that you could get far more easily if we weren't here, you'll have to pay for it. Shifting the bosses to instanced content removed this camping aspect of the problem, but it meant that farmers didn't have to compete with each other — each group could have its own, private boss to kill. This greatly increased the supply of rare objects, which then sometimes did create imbalance by a show-stopping amount.

In response to this, highly-desirable objects were made bind-on-pickup. This meant they couldn't be traded. If someone had one, the only way they could get it was to kill the boss that dropped it. This restored the supply to its intended levels and removed at a stroke the quite legitimate complaints coming from some players that other players were buying success. The related issue of uniqueness (objects that you can only have one of) came later, and in turn led to special currencies for buying BOP objects so you could grind possession of them if the drops didn't go your way. That's another story, though.

Bind-on-account was an innovation that allowed players to transfer goods to their own twinks, but not to those of other players. It breaks the fiction of a world even more, as an account is a concept from a reality external to that of the virtual world itself and is therefore not something that is meaningful within it. You do occasionally get some scant cover, such as the legacy system in Star Wars: the Old Republic, but it's never persuasive.

My own view is that BOP is a necessary evil in the current MMO paradigm, but that the current MMO paradigm is in dire need of an overhaul anyway. The issues that BOP (and BOE and BOU) addresses can be solved in other ways — large numbers of small-population servers rather than small numbers of large-population servers, for example — and as a result the worlds will become more realistic, persuasive and therefore more immersive than they currently are.

Putting the equivalent of biometric passwords on swords makes no sense. Putting it on armour makes more sense (because armour should only fit people who are roughly the same size), but the way it's implemented using BOP it either fits you so well that you can't even give it to someone else or it will fit them even if they're a female gnome and you're a male orc (because BOE makes it conform to the shape of the first being to don it).

If you want to visit another reality, it has to feel like a reality. BOP, BOE, BOU and especially BOA interfere with this, which is why ultimately I'd like to see them all go.


1:40pm on Saturday, 11th April, 2015:

Rather Wet


When I went into Sainsbury's this morning, a few spots of rain were falling from the sky. I had an umbrella in the car (in fact I had two, come to think of it), but who needs an umbrella for just a few spots?

When I left Sainsbury's forty minutes later, the rain was so hard it could have stunned any small, woodland creatures caught in the open. I waited a minute to see if it was going to ease up, but it was relentless. Given another 20 minutes it might perhaps have gone, but I had stuff in my trolley that needed to be in the freezer back home.

My car was only about a hundred yards away, if that.

I decided to go for it.

Less than a quarter of the way there, I was soaked to the skin. This wasn't just rain, it was driving rain, with wind whipping it up from every direction and drilling it into me. Only my shoes held out: the rest of my clothes capitulated as quickly as an England cricket team. Apart from my feet, my entire surface area was wet. I've come out of a hotel shower less wet than I was in Sainsbury's car park this morning.

It got into some of the food, too. I hadn't realised quite how disgusting a baguette can get when it's been subjected to water damage. The seeds on my wife's seeded bread came off and are currently adhered to the bottom of the bag I put them in. I'm glad I didn't buy a newspaper or I'd have a papier maché relief of whatever I'd put it next to.

It's hard to push a trolley while wielding an umbrella that's being caught by the wind, but maybe next time I'll try it anyway.

My car seat is still damp, three hours later. So's my jacket: there'll probably be mushrooms growing on it tomorrow.


4:41pm on Friday, 10th April, 2015:

All the Same


This was pushed through our letter box this afternoon:

Our constituency is so Conservative that even the Labour candidate is Conservative.

One of his supporters featured inside the brochure is called Dianne Dallender-Jones.


10:07am on Friday, 10th April, 2015:

Unidirectional Talk


I gave a talk yesterday evening to Chris Weaver's game design group at MIT. As I and MIT are separated by a distance of some 3,302 miles, we used Skype.

I'd spoken to Chris over Skype a couple of days earlier, and I ran an echo test just before the call was due, and it all worked fine. However, when we connected for the talk, I could barely hear him. I looked at the call settings and I could see the volume coming in was fine, it just didn't make any sound in my headphones. I could get other sounds in my headphones, and I'd been playing Rise of Venice for an hour beforehand, but I couldn't hear much at all. We tried reconnecting (and in my case rebooting Skype) but to no avail. One of the MIT students talked me through changing the call settings, which did make a difference: I couldn't hear anything at all after that.

So it was that I spoke for something like 45 minutes while being able to see my audience but not hear them. It was weird. I enjoyed the talk myself, but had no idea how it was going down with the students. I couldn't tell if they were amused, bemused, bored or enthralled. No-one in camera shot snuck out, though, which I took to be a good sign.

I was only aware of having made one faux pas, when discussing designing games for a particular demographic of which you're not yourself a member (as the class was designing games for children in the 4-6 years age range). The first demographic that came into my head was "gay people", because I've had discussions on this very topic with gay people so have an inkling of some of the issues. That wasn't the faux pas, though: the faux pas was that I was talking from my own perspective and so referred to them as "them". This gave the impression that I assumed that all the students were non-gay too. I should have made it clear where I was coming from and said "suppose you're not gay" at the start. Sigh.

I probably made several more faux pas, but as I couldn't hear the audience gasp with alarm am blissfully unaware of them.

The Q&A at the end was effected by having people type questions into Skype at which I could give rambling responses at length. This is where the fact I was talking to MIT students became apparent, as the questions were rather thought-provoking. The fact I was talking to Americans was also apparent, because the students typed with their faces right in front of the camera so I got a great view of the dazzlingly white teeth that most Americans seem to possess.

On the whole, it was a little odd giving a talk with only visual feedback, but I suppose deaf people have to live with that day in, day out.

I never did find out why Skype messed up, as an echo test immediately afterwards worked just fine, too. It was probably caused by nothing more serious than our respective government security agencies listening in.


3:17pm on Thursday, 9th April, 2015:



I had two things to do in town today: get my hair cut; pay a dollar cheque into the bank. The former took less time than the latter.

Look, Lloyds, if you don't want people going into your Colchester branch, just say so.

They play music while you're waiting in line, too...


1:19pm on Thursday, 9th April, 2015:



My appointment to see my GP about getting an appointment to see an opthalmologist was today.

I say "was" because my GP called in sick this morning so the appointment was cancelled. The next available appointment is next Thursday at the same time. That's convenient in that I can re-use the post-it note on the family calendar, but inconvenient in that it's ANOTHER WHOLE WEEK OF WAITING.

I realise that doctors come into contact with a lot of ill people, so it's hardly her fault that she's ill. Nevertheless, it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that conspiracists are using me as a test case.


2:54pm on Wednesday, 8th April, 2015:

You Had Mail


This is what email headers used to look like back in the day:

Then, I was richard@uk.ac.essex; now, I'm not even richard@essex.ac.uk...


4:34pm on Tuesday, 7th April, 2015:



On the left, our magnolia last year; on the right, the same magnolia this year:

It would appear that my wife's threats to cut it down and shred it to matchwood if it didn't perform this year hit home.


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Copyright © 2015 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).