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The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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12:02pm on Saturday, 25th October, 2014:

Scanning Error

Anecdote

In Sainsbury's today, I was trying to use the hand-scanner to scan a pack of mince and it wouldn't scan. I tried it on a bunch more and it didn't scan any of them. It worked on other stuff, just not the mince.

While I was trying it, a woman — I'd guess she was in her late 30s — who was also getting some mince (a different size, so hers scanned) asked me "are you having trouble there?". She used that particular tone of voice people use when talking to old people who are confused by new technology.

OK, she meant well, so I just explained that none of the packs I'd tried were scanning and so the code probably wasn't in the database, and we went our separate ways. However, it's really the first indication I've had that not only am I starting to get old, I'm starting to look old, too. My future of being patronised starts here.

I wouldn't care, but personally I don't think I look much older than my dad.



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1:48pm on Friday, 24th October, 2014:

Allergens

Weird

This sign is up in Zest, the café where I pay £2.25 for a hot chocolate every day:



Allergic to vegetarians? Don't eat anything marked V!



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6:52pm on Thursday, 23rd October, 2014:

Decomposing Words

Anecdote

To the workmen taking apart the 5-metre long wooden structure with ESSEX carved into it in enormous letters: start at the X end, not the E end. That way, when you'd removed two of the letters, it'll say ESS.



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4:45pm on Wednesday, 22nd October, 2014:

Cohort

Anecdote

I've just finished interviewing the last of the eight games students whom I've been allocated this year as their tutor. There were supposed to be nine, but one didn't show up. The point of the interviews is basically to make sure that none of them are at risk of giving up and going home: we lose quite a lot of students to homesickness, course too hard, course too easy, no friends, love-life issues, financial problems and so on. These tutor/tutee interviews are to make sure everyone is settling in so we can get them help if they're not.

Fortunately, few people in Computer Science have those kind of issues - they're mainly a social sciences and humanities thing. We tend to know in advance which of our students are likely to experience problems settling in, because it's usually down to their having an already-identified specific learning difficulty (eg. Asperger's syndrome). This means that I can flat out ask my tutees if they're going to jump out of a tower block and they'll laugh, rather than think about it.

I don't normally get to interview games students, as tutor/tutee allocation has traditionally worked by listing lecturers in alphabetical order in one column, students in alphabetical order in another, then giving each lecturer a block of 8-10 students in order. This has meant my tutees have had names beginning with A, which means most of them are from Arab countries, the governments of which have sent them to learn about telecommunications or electronics rather than games. I know nothing about telecoms or electronics, so haven't really been able to engage with them. This time, they've broken it down by module type instead so I got games students only. Yay!

I've only spoken to these eight tutees of mine this year, but if they're a representative sample of who's on the games degree then we've got a really smart intake. They're switched on, they understand games, they know what they want to do and why they want to do it. Most of them seem to me as if they have a definite future in the games industry - and some of them may well make their own future in it whether the industry likes it or not, they're very driven. I'm hugely impressed! I'm also kinda worried in case when I get them next year they'll find my module too wishy-washy; I may have to increase the intellectual content above its current level. Then again, I may have already had to do that as I don't know what the current cohort of second-years is like.

Oh, and two of the eight students I interviewed were female. I don't suppose that this means a quarter of the games degree's students are female, but if it does then we're halfway to what the ideal figure should be.



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9:41am on Tuesday, 21st October, 2014:

Electronic Age

Comment

Before we had email, we had mail. Before we had ecommerce, we had commerce. Before we had ebanking, we had banking. Before we had ebusiness, we had business. Before we had ecigarettes, we had cigarettes. Before we had ebooks, we had books.

Why didn't we used to have bola?



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2:24pm on Monday, 20th October, 2014:

Clouds

Anecdote

There were some unusual clouds over Colchester first thing this morning:



Well, unusual for Colchester. Other places probably have those spirally-looking things the whole time.



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11:31am on Sunday, 19th October, 2014:

mud.uk

Anecdote

In an attempt to bring UK domain names into line with those of the rest of the world, Nominet is issuing .uk names to people who have .co.uk names. You have 5 years to claim the .uk equivalent of your .co.uk one, then they'll be made available to everyone.

As the proud owner of mud.co.uk, I am entitled to buy mud.uk, so I've done so. I could have saved myself 5 years of fees by waiting until the last moment to do it, but that would entail my remembering that I had to do it.

Now begins the task of changing every use of mud.co.uk on the mud.co.uk site to mud.uk .

Hmm, maybe I'll just change my business cards...



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5:24pm on Saturday, 18th October, 2014:

Eh up

Comment

I saw this T-shirt advertised in today's Guardian:



Yes, that seems reasonable to me.



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4:26pm on Friday, 17th October, 2014:

Nominative Determinism

Weird

A van just parked outside our house with the following written on the side: "Matt Black Painter and Decorator".

Bit of a narrow range if you ask me.



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7:47pm on Thursday, 16th October, 2014:

Product Type

Anecdote

I tried to buy some typewriter ribbons today for my mother, but Staples didn't have any. I had to order them off the Internet instead.

I don't know how many of them they sell, but the kind of people who want typewriter ribbons aren't likely to be the kind of people who use the Internet, so I don't suppose they do a roaring trade.

At least I didn't have to check out the antique shops, anyway.



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3:06pm on Wednesday, 15th October, 2014:

Tutees

Anecdote

Every year around this time, I have to speak to my advisees. Well, they're called "tutees" now, and I'm their "personal tutor"; this is intended to convey a closer relationship than what is the actuality, though, as I don't meet my tutees every week and discuss their work as might happen at Oxford or Cambridge. No, I just meet them when we're forced to meet or when they have a question they need answering. In the past 5 years, only one student has had a question they needed answering and I never had another meeting with the others after the first (or, in many case, including the first).

This isn't surprising, as the main purpose of the meeting seems to be to ensure that students aren't either about to give up and go home or throw themselves out of a tower window. It is good to meet them, though, and I think it does help them settle in a bit knowing they do have some backup even if they don't use it.

In previous years, the way the tutors have been allocated to tutees is as follows: list the lecturers in alphabetical order; list the students in alphabetical order; allocate the students to the lecturer in chunks of (total number of student divided by total number of lecturers). I may be only part-time, but I still get the same number of tutees as everyone else. Anyway, the problem with this approach from my perspective is that being near the top of the alphabet I got students whose names began with A. That's a problem because surnames beginning with A are dominated by students from Arab countries (where many names begin with Al); that's a problem because the governments of those countries don't send students to the UK to study games, they send them to study Electronics or Telecommunications. I wound up getting students taking courses about which I knew nothing. I may as well have had Psychology or Literature students.

This year, though, it seems I have students who are studying games. The four I've seen so far are, anyway. What's more, two of them are female. What with current industry standards being what they are, I don't suppose they'll remain female for long — but hey, it's two more than I had last year. All four of the students seemed pretty good, and two were very switched on; the other two may switch on once they make a few more friends (Computer Science departments are not well-known for being magnets for extroverts). I'm quite pleased at what I've seen so far, though.

I have another five students to see next week. Fingers crossed I don't get people who want to study embedded systems or lasers then, either.



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2:25pm on Tuesday, 14th October, 2014:

Grey Area

Weird

This new Earl Grey tea I'm trying has a rather odd flavour. Let's have a look at the ingredients.



Ahh, that'll be the flavouring, then.

This really is all the packet has to say about what's inside it. Whatever it is, it doesn't taste of Earl Grey...



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7:15pm on Monday, 13th October, 2014:

Bye Bye, WildStar

Anecdote

I've just cancelled my subscription to WildStar.

Normally when I start an MMO, I'll play it all the way through to the level cap, so people can't accuse me of "not playing enough to get it". With WildStar, I've given up at level 26 (out of 50).

The game has a lot going for it. The world itself is engaging and utterly joyous, which is reflected in its happy, lolloping animation and quirkiness. I really liked the atmosphere. That's what I'm going to miss most about stopping playing: it had a great sense of world.

I didn't, however, like the interface. It was finicky and I couldn't tell what things did what. Some world items were just there as furniture and others were really important. There were also things that were really important to other people but not to me, so when I tried to interact with them I couldn't do anything. At the HUD level, my bag was hard to organise, my skills annoyingly hard to swap between, and when things didn't work it tended to tell you that they didn't work but not why they didn't work. Text on the map would overwrite itself, the quest log went out of its way to show me quests I'd picked up a while back that I wasn't intending to do .. bleah ! I could go on, but as a general rule any MMO that when you want to log off makes you hit three separate buttons each saying "exit" on three separate screens has issues, and WildStar does just that.

There were other things I didn't like, too...

Combat is all about dodging telegraphs. These aren't traditional telegraphs where you get a circle or a circle segment or a rectangle that slowly fills up and you have to move out of the way or suffer the consequences. No, these are multiple telegraphs that appear all over the place, flicking their harm and safety areas in an instant, with little opportunity to get away. You basically have to eat them, interrupt them or learn the pattern for every type of mob so you can pre-empt them. It's not a fun core mechanic. Some times, you can't even tell which mob is producing which telegraph, they're so chaotic. Now this does play into the game's overall design aesthetic of controlled off-the-wallness, but until you've learned where not to stand you get slammed, and once you do learn it's a doddle. Either way, it's unsatisfactory.

Oh, and there are stuns. In a normal MMO, getting stunned is a pain because you can't act. I was quite pleased when I read about WildStar's approach, in which you get to break the stun yourself. I was less pleased by what happens in practice. You get stunned, it takes a split second to realise it, then you have to look at the diagram on the screen and read which key it is you have to press to break the stun. It's one you have your finger near, but to me my fingers aren't on WASD, they're on forward, rotate left, backward, rotate right. I actually have to read the S as an S and then type it in order to escape. This does not give me a feeling of empowerment.

The economy: I was broke for ages. I didn't have enough money for repairs, let alone for buying gear upgrades. The world was awash with vendors, all trying to sell me things I couldn't afford. Crafting was useless to me: by the time I'd accumulated enough components to make something, I was too high a level for it to be worth using. Now I knew there was something wrong, because when the fee for getting reincarnated in situ after a death is more than 10 times what you have in total it rather implies that. I sold stuff to vendors but got little back. It was only when I discovered that the auction house was an NPC, standing around among a bunch of other nondescript NPCs with click-me functionalities, that I could sell stuff for meaningful money. I got a hoverboard for faster transportation. Yay! I didn't have enough for anything else worth having, though. I'm sure that if I'd read the right craft guides or experiemented in the beta I could have made a mint, but I like to come at new MMOs straight. It wasn't at all obvious what I should be making, who would buy it, nor what parts I would need to make it. So, I made some clothes; I took them to pieces for the parts so I could make some more clothes; I repeated until I ran out of cloth; I took apart drops from mobs or quests to make more cloth. Eventually, I couldn't make any more clothes because the cloth I was getting from dismantling the items I found was too high-level for my skills, but I didn't have enough money to buy lower-level cloth to level my clothes-making skill up. When I tried to sell the higher-level cloth, no-one wanted it. It was as if I was the only lo-level tailor around. For my other skill, I made some components that were useful for buffing items with the right slot on them, but I only ever saw two such items (from group quests) and no-one else seemed to be in any great need of them either.

I do have to say, though, I really liked the way that the auction house allowed buy orders as well as sell orders. I moaned about the fact that WoW didn't have it the whole time I played that game, so I was very pleased to find that WildStar does. On the design side, WildStar does so many things right where other MMOs do it wrong; I just wish the interface was cleaner so I could tell what the blazes they were...

One of the new ideas in WildStar involves letting players choose from a number of paths based on the Player Types theory developed by some guy named Bartle. Sadly, they didn't ask Bartle about it, otherwise he would have told them that actually they were pandering almost entirely to achievers (although the socialiser path was a clever idea for those who like a healing vibe). For my character, I chose the explorer path as that involved grabbing lore boxes called datacubes. I was aware that this would involve tedious jumping puzzles (because apparently there's a belief among developers that there's nothing explorers like more than tedious jumping puzzles), but as it happens I'm actually good at tedious jumping puzzles. What I didn't realise was that some of these datacubes were in areas that you can't realistically get to unless you're in a group. I don't know where the idea that explorers like to group came from, but it meant some of these datacubes were inaccessible until, I suppose, explorers get to high enough a level that they can solo low-level group content. What's that? Why didn't I find a group? Because it was so hard to find a group that on several occasions I levelled up twice while waiting, that's why. If I did get a group, the quest was worth nothing to me and the blue gear I received was worse than what I'd picked up at random from a higher-level mob.

Oh, so why didn't I join a guild? I never saw a single invite. I guess I could have spammed "looking for guild", but if a guild's not proactive about recruiting then it's either full or on the way out...

At the purely practical level, I found the game very tough to play. The quests were on the whole too difficult for me. Why? Well, I'd made the mistake of speccing myself as a healer in the hope that this would get me into groups. That didn't work out, because at low levels you don't really need healers for groups and as I rose in levels I could have been a self-healing tank and still not found anyone with whom to group, people just weren't forming them. Anyway, what it meant was that I'd spent skill points on healing abilities that were of little use in solo play. I had to change to more of a ranged DPS and do quests two or more levels lower than my own (easier, but the XP gains are much reduced so progress is slower). As for quests, well there were some fun chains, and refreshingly many were quite charming and original in their narrative. I did find doing them in the right order a challenge, though: as with Rift, I came across some quests that only really would have made sense if I hadn't already done later ones.

All the above complaints are par for the course, though. I find similar things in most MMOs, so although it looks as if I'm slagging off WildStar, actually I rather like it. It's pretty well a modern take on WoW circa 2004, so is harder-core than most MMOs and it has appealing self-consistency. I looked forward to my play sessions. Why, then, have I decided to cancel my subscription?

There are two reasons.

The first reason is that when you die and resurrect, the resurrection device says something to you mocking your demise. This is not what you want to hear. It gets old very quickly. Normally, player-level complaints don't get to me as I look at things as a designer; this is why I'd have been fine playing despite the other annoyances that I mention above. This particular feature, however, was too much. It's bad enough being killed through no fault of your own, but having your nose rubbed in it repeatedly and repetitively is a jaw-dropping misreading of the player experience.

The other reason I decided to stop was that I had an instanced quest to do. Now I'd actually liked the earlier instanced quests I'd done, even though it wasn't always apparent what I was supposed to do in them and it usually took several attempts because they were hard for someone specced as a healer. This instanced quest, however... It told me that it had automatically adjusted its difficulty level to take account of my level and the level of the rest of my party (if I'd brought anyone in with me, which I hadn't). I couldn't get past the first trash mob. It beat me to a pulp every time. Now in a normal quest, I'd have gone away bruised, levelled up, come back and tried again when I was in a better position to win. That wasn't going to happen here, though, because whenever I levelled up, so would the instance and so would the mob. I would never be able to beat that mob. I'd have to restart as a new character and spec as a heavy DPS or tank not to get stomped into the ground.

I loathe dynamic difficulty adjustment. I don't want the MMO deciding for me what is or isn't a challenging experience. I don't want to have to game the AI to get past it. That's not gaming, that's meta-gaming. That's not immersion, that's immersion-busting.

No no no!

So that's why I cancelled. Sorry, WildStar, I did like almost all of you, but what you said with your design there was just too much.



Bye bye.



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3:01pm on Sunday, 12th October, 2014:

Capturing the Centre

Comment

Here's how the UK's main political parties are trying to woo voters with their statements on immigration:

Labour: "We're as racist as you are."
Conservatives: "You're as racist as we are."
Liberal Democrats: "Some of our best friends are racist."
SNP: "We're racist in a particularly Scottish way."
Greens: "We're going to let more racists into Britain"
UKIP: "The rest of the world is racist against Britain."

Hmm, I may be being a little cynical there.



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12:14pm on Sunday, 12th October, 2014:

Pole Hole

Anecdote

Last weekend, the wooden fence post that the gate to our back garden latches onto sheared off at ground level. It looks as if it as caused by water damage.

I spent an hour this morning trying to get the remainder of the post out of its concrete housing, but to no avail. It must be about a foot deep and I managed to get down maybe three inches:



The problem is that the wood is all soggy and flexible, so I can't get any purchase on it. I screwed a six-inch screw into it and when I pulled on it it just slid out. I tried to drill it out, but all the wood fibres are running upwards and they just move when drilled, they don't come out. Worse, horrible ooze the colour of Caramac rises up out of the holes if I drill too deeply (as in, more than about six inches). I managed to get down as far as I did by using a cold chisel to separate the wood from the concrete then hammering it into the side of the wood to lever it out. This isn't going to work for much longer, though, because I won't be able to get the angle.

I can see three kinds of tool that might get it out:
1) A monster corkscrew, with maybe a two-inch diameter.
2) One of those circular tools people use for making boreholes in soil.
3) Something like a screwdriver but with movable flanges on the side that will go down smoothly then bite into the wood when pulled back out.

Dynamite would also perhaps work.



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