New York

Just a quick note, I’m going to be in New York from today until Sunday, so if you’re nearby and would like to meet up, send me an email!

Portal: The Way Forward

I’m not a fan of puzzles, and I don’t like first-person shooters like Halo or Doom, either. Despite this, I found myself irresistibly drawn to Valve’s new first-person puzzle game, Portal.

The premise behind Portal is simple; you have a Portal gun that can create man-sized wormholes in walls, floors and ceilings that connect to each other. The best way to describe this is through a video:

Teleportation devices are not new to first-person shooters, and other games such as Prey have used wormholes before. What distinguishes Portal is that the wormholes are not simply opaque surfaces but actual holes in space through which you can see. I spent a couple of minutes marvelling at this when I first started playing Portal, walking back and forth to see the different angles through the wormhole (and yes, if you line up the wormholes correctly, you can see an infinite corridor containing infinite versions of yourself).

The other, more well-known feature of the wormholes is that they have ‘proper’ physics – they conserve momentum. Not only does this mean that if you jump into a wormhole on the floor and come out of a wall, you’ll emerge feet-first, horizontally, but it means that if you fall into a wormhole ten floors down, you’ll emerge out of that same wall at a much higher velocity.

By itself, the Portal gun suggests a wonderful variety of puzzles. Add in moving platforms, pressure-sensors, flying energy balls and automated drone-guns, and you what I am happy to say is an entirely original puzzle game. New puzzle games don’t come along often at all, and the ones that I’m interested in are even rarer, so even the concept alone is impressive.

Without good execution, however, Portal would be just that – an impressive concept. However, the designers did three things to avoid anything quite as depressing a fate as that. Firstly, the game had a very gentle difficulty curve; the first dozen levels were a breeze and introduced new game mechanics one-by-one – but you still had a sense of achievement on completing them.

Secondly, the puzzles were all well-designed and tested. Though some of the later puzzles had me thinking for ten minutes or so, I never felt as if I couldn’t figure them out, unlike puzzles in other games where solutions were sometimes completely obscure and unreasonable. This meant that I didn’t have to consult a walkthrough or look up a solution a single time during the game – for a puzzle game or FPS, this is unprecedented for me, and I was particularly grateful for it.

Most of the puzzles did not require fast reaction times, and those that did straddled the boundary between exciting and frustrating very well. In all cases, you were given plenty of time to sit back and simply consider the puzzle, wandering around the environment testing things out without fear of being punished by the game. Incidentally, I feel that this is the why Portal is so original and so successful; it’s a puzzle game rooted in a real world that you can physically explore and experiment in. It’s not abstract – you interact with the world primarily through the delightfully simple and instantaneous Portal gun, as opposed to the tedious barrel-lifting and button-pushing that bedevils so many other FPSes (including Valve’s).

Finally, they gave the gave a setting and story that suited the gameplay perfectly – nothing overwhelming, just a hint of science fiction and with a strangely twisted wit.

According to my computer, I spent just under two and a half hours playing Portal from start to finish. This may seem like an awfully brief game to be gushing over, but on the contrary, I was perfectly happy with its length. I very rarely finish computer games of any kind these days, either because they’re too long or too difficult, and I find this very annoying since some of the best gameplay is usually placed after the point where I give up. Being able to complete Portal in a reasonable length of time, under my own steam, was a refreshing change.

Some people may have the time and stamina to spare hours and hours playing a single game, but most people don’t. Right now, Portal is one of the most talked-about games online, and I think that reflects a desire not only for new gameplay, but also short games that can be finished in a few hours. I hope other designers learn from its example – I know I will.

Rock Band Exclusive: All Sorts of Merchandise

Improbably enough, I was on stage this afternoon with Alex Rigopulos of Harmonix (creators of Guitar Hero 1 and 2, and Rock Band) talking about how ARGs and music games were similar. During the course of the conversation, Alex revealed a few details about Rock Band which I am fairly confident haven’t been announced elsewhere. So, without further ado:

Rock Band will allow people to form bands over the internet, featuring avatars that you can personalise to a high degree. Yes, this is already known. But it will also automatically create webpages for these bands detailing their achievements in-game, the concerts they’ve played, their high scores, everything (similar to Halo). Even better, you’ll eventually be able to buy merchandise based on your band – imagine a T-shirt that has the avatars of all your band members on the front, with a list of your concerts and dates on the back.

Pretty sweet, eh? But how about a faux gold disc that has your band name and members on it? Or indeed, any number of bits of physical merchandise? Now, you could accuse Harmonix of just cashing in here, but I would disagree – people buy merchandise for books, TV shows, music, movies and sports – why not games? And why not have it personalised? I think this is a great way to bring games even further into the mainstream.

And remember kids, you heard it here first. Unless it’s been reported by another website earlier, in which case this post is pretty redundant.

(In other game fanboy news, I’m getting the chance to play Rock Band tomorrow, and I met the elusive Jade Raymond tonight at a dinner and drinks thing for speakers)

Free the Man Bookers!

I’m currently in Zurich at the GameHotel conference, so I don’t have much time to cover this, but The Times is reporting is talk of making all six shortlisted Man Booker prize novels available online for free. I say ‘talk’ because it’s not entirely clear what’s being discussed between the publishers, the Man Booker Prize and the British Council.

As the Book Standard writes:

A spokesperson for the British Council said: “It is true that the British Council is in negotiations with leading publishers to create an online collection of contemporary British literature including the Man Booker Prize winners in the form of e-books, which can be purchased.”

They acknowledged that central to this “innovative approach” would be making sure that authors are remunerated for their work. A pilot scheme is planned for 2008 aimed at audiences in India, China and Africa.

It’s more about creating an online collection of literature, and bringing British literature to new audiences around the world. They are not, as some people have suggested, ‘doing a Radiohead’ – that is, completely freeing up their novels. Indeed, the publishers themselves seem rather wary of the idea:

Mr Robertson [deputy publishing director of the publisher for Anne Enright] thought that a partial reproduction rather than an entire book was preferable. The news emerged as Enright, a 45-year-old Dubliner, became the 2007 winner of one of literature’s most prestigious awards for her bleak Irish family saga, The Gathering.

Well, of course! She just won the Booker, why make it available completely for free? A significant excerpt – say 50% – would do the job in making the book available to curious readers, and if they read that excerpt and want more, great. It’s the lesser-known authors who would probably benefit more from making their novels available freely – but that’s another story.

Anyway, the bottom line is that the publishing world has not suddenly turned into a bunch of hippies and there almost certainly will not be any Man Booker shortlisted novels online for free. Even if it did happen, the authors would certainly get paid, probably by the British Council.

Antimatter

After six weeks of silence, I’ve finally updated my After Our Time weblog with a post about Antimatter. It’s the sort of thing that would otherwise have gone here, so if you’re missing my posts about science, check it out.

Barclays OnePulse: A Tale of Woe

The bottom line: Barclays hates its customers, and doesn’t even know how to run its business.

A few months ago, I decided that I was finally going to move my current account away from Barclays to someone more sensible, like First Direct or Egg. Barclays is a big bank with a lot of branches, but those are the only good things I can bring myself to say about them. Given that queuing at banks is second only to queuing at the Post Office in terms of my personal hell, the number of Barclays’ branches is irrelevant. Thus online-only banks such as First Direct or Egg are far more suited to me, since they’d offer a far higher interest rate and probably better service.

I was gearing up to make the switch when Barclays announced that they were launching a new credit card in September; this credit card, the OnePulse, would combine a London Underground Oyster Card, a cashless card and a credit card all in one. This would, at worst, mean that I would have one fewer card to carry around – at best, it would prove to be a very fast and cool way of paying for stuff in newsagents and shops.

It was, in short, probably the only thing Barclays could have done to keep me as a customer. I cursed them, and signed up to receive email updates. Oddly, the first email they sent me was an advert for OnePulse (one would think this unnecessary).

On September 10th, they launched the OnePulse. Like a good geek, I eagerly visited the website to apply for the credit card. I discovered, unfortunately, that only new customers could sign up online – existing Barclaycard holders would have to call them. Naturally, this was irritating because I didn’t want to hang around on hold and it seemed a bit unfair to loyal customers, but I figured that maybe there was some computer database nonsense to it.

Two days later, I call them up. After waiting for ten minutes to speak to someone, I’m told that I can only apply for the card at a branch. More irritation – not only do I hate visiting branches, but why couldn’t they just say that on the website instead making me call, and wasting my time and theirs? Brooding, I decided to put the whole OnePulse thing on the backburner for a while.

(Incidentally, their website still tells you to call the number, instead of visiting the branch)

It was around this time that a very flashy and expensive advertising campaign sprang up all over London, telling everyone about OnePulse. Here was the card of the future, it proclaimed. This advertising campaign extended, of course, to branches of Barclays, which had posters inviting people to apply for the card inside.

A few weeks later, On October 4th, two things happened. Firstly, I’d walked past my nearby branch (50m away) about 100 times by now, which had also the posters taunting me. Secondly, I had a foreign cheque that I wanted to deposit, and it could only be done at a branch. I gritted my teeth and consoled myself with the fact that I could apply for the OnePulse at the same time.

I deposited the cheque and then asked about the OnePulse. This caused a little commotion since no-one knew what to do, and they went off looking for the application forms. One member of staff wearily predicted that they hadn’t received the forms yet. She was right – there were no forms. Perhaps I could try another branch, she suggested.

I decided not to point out the utter stupidity of putting up posters – which had been there for weeks – saying that you could apply for the card inside when you didn’t actually have any application forms, and just walked out.

Let’s recap. I am a person who is a perfect Barclays customer (maybe too perfect, because I pay my credit card bills in full every month). I really, really want the OnePulse card. And yet Barclays really, really want to stop me from getting it. They punish existing customers by giving them the run around, and force them to go to a branch, where they don’t have any application forms anyway. The notion of, say, posting these forms to people, or even just making sure that branches receive the forms and posters at the same time, seems completely alien to them.

As far as I can see, Barclays is a terrible company. It has terrible customer service. It manages to annoy useful early adopters, who could become evangelists, to the point of desperation. I cannot recommend anything they do, and this episode only shows how poorly organised they are, and how little respect they have for their existing, loyal customers.

Let’s Change the Game

Achievement

One of the most startling things about alternate reality games is what their players can achieve. When you have tens of thousands of highly motivated and tightly-knit players who urgently want to get to the next scene, even the most obscure puzzle can be solved, no matter what language it’s written in, or what specialised field it relates to; one of the players, one one of their friends, will know the answer.

Faced with this, ARG designers have become engaged in a deeper and more subtle game with their players, always testing to see how much they can challenge them while keeping things fun. In Perplex City, I saw players come together to write and publish a book in a matter of weeks, and contribute millions of computer hours to crack a desperately complex code. In other games, players have formed cross-country networks to communicate and analyse information with incredible speed, and travelled thousands of miles to help each other.

Given the right game and the right challenges, there are few limits to what players can achieve. And if people will give so much for something that is ‘merely’ a game, what more might they give for a game that also has a serious purpose?

A Game to Cure Cancer

Today, together with Cancer Research UK, I’m launching a new project, Let’s Change the Game, that will develop an ARG whose aim is to raise money for cancer research. Like other serious games, the ARG will also educate people about cancer and raise awareness of it, but unlike other serious games, its success will be measured directly on how much real change it can cause, through fundraising. Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading independent organisation dedicated to cancer research. Last year, it spent over £250 million purely on scientific research, supporting over 3000 scientists, doctors and nurses. That research benefits everyone in the world, not just those in the UK. Yet even that sum is just not enough compared to the task it faces.

Cancer Research UK receives almost all of its fundings from donations from the public. Through its TV ads, mailings, billboards, races and stores, it manages to send its message to millions of people across the UK. However, that message isn’t reaching young people as well as it used to. It’s not just broadcasters and advertisers that are suffering from young people moving away from the TV and traditional media – it’s charities as well.

Alternate reality games are a solution that combine every form of media into a powerful, distributed game, something that can reach young people, and everyone else who is familiar with new media. That’s why we think an ARG can help Cancer Research UK raise its profile among the youth, and raise funds from them.

An Opportunity

I am not going to be designing this ARG.

A Catch-22 situation currently exists in the ARG genre. There are precious few opportunities for aspiring game designers to gain experience in creating ARGs, and the ARG companies out there all tend to require experience. That leaves grassroots games as one of the only avenues available. While there have been some excellent grassroots games developed in the past, they demand vast quantities of time for development – which their creators willingly give – but also at least some money – which their creators often cannot spare. We want to help change this situation.

Let’s Change the Game is a competition where teams from anywhere in the world can submit their own game designs. The team behind the winning design, as chosen by judges who include Sean Stewart, Rhianna Pratchett and James Wallis, will then be invited to develop the game. They’ll have guidance and advice from the judges, plus the full resources of Cancer Research UK; that’s over 600 stores, monthly TV ads, hundreds of races and live events, and mailings going out to over 20 million people. It could be the biggest ARG, ever – and we’re giving new designers the chance to create it.

As for funding, I’m donating £1000 ($2000) towards the development of the ARG. It may not be enough, and hopefully we’ll get in-kind donations from other sources, but it’s my belief that this £1000 will be multiplied many times by the ARG into a much larger donation for Cancer Research UK.

A Scientific Experiment

Let’s Change the Game is an experiment. We don’t know how it’ll turn out. Much will depend on the quality of the game designs we receive and the dedication of the winning team. But if it does work, if it does raise money for cancer research, then this experiment will prove that games aren’t just distractions for the young or just a popular new form of entertainment – they’re a way to truly and unequivocally change the world for the better.

Visit www.letschangethegame.org for more information. The deadline for the first round of 500-word game designs is November 16th.