The Music of Civilization

We all know what music I’m referring to here – the marvellous and uplifting Baba Yetu choral music that greets you in Civilization 4. I don’t know how much it cost Firaxis to commission and record that music, but it gave Civ 4 a priceless sense of grandeur.

Civilization has always had an odd soundtrack. 4000BC starts with generic ‘tribal’ music that, after a few thousand years, changes into more martial ‘Roman’ music, then perhaps some ‘Gothic’ music. When you finally reach the Renaissance, you get some decent melodies from classical composers, but the era is sadly too brief and you end up with weird modern classical music until 2100AD.

They’re supposedly improving things for Civilization 5, but frankly I don’t think that the soundtrack is at the top of their priority list, and I have a bad feeling that they won’t be calling upon Christopher Tin (Baba Yetu’s composer) again. It was lucky they called him at all – it seems the collaboration is partly down to the fact that Soren Johnson, Civ 4’s lead designer, once roomed with Christopher Tin at Stanford.

Anyway, I’m a big fan of Christopher Tin’s music, so I’ll keep this post brief and leave you with some of his finer pieces (not just Baba Yetu, which I’ve written about before):

Civilization 4 Intro Movie, with a piece called ‘Coronation’.

The Dubai Fountains, set to the music of Baba Yetu.

Kia Hora Te Marino, a companion piece of Baba Yetu from Tin’s new album, Calling All Dawns.

A Civilized Education

I’ll say it: I don’t think Civilization is all that educational. It’s more educational than most videogames, certainly, but that’s not saying a lot.

There are four arguments made by the pro-educational camp:

Firstly, that Civilization teaches people about technologies, cultures, buildings, leaders, and of course, civilizations, from all over the world and across the sweep of history. I’m fairly sympathetic to this view, and I admire the game’s expansive worldview – it makes a real effort to include civilizations other than those already familiar to the West.

However, I question exactly how much any player takes away from the game – it’s not as if you need to read the in-game encyclopaedia (the ‘Civilopedia’) to perform well, and the entire point of the game is that you get to play around with history – it’s not as if you’re learning about ancient Chinese or Persian battles. I’ll grant that a motivated student of history might read up on all the game’s historical articles – but once you find that student, the job’s mostly-done already.

Secondly, that by playing the game, Civilization helps people understand concepts like the scarcity of natural resources, the importance of geography, and the impact that small decisions can have across centuries (basically, it’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ in game form). Again, I’m not sure if people actually take away these concepts from the game unless they’re specifically pointed out to them. In some ways I think that Civilization presents a very deterministic and mercantilist view of history, one with constant advancement being the norm; the role of chance and of total disaster is papered over, in the (very understandable) service of gameplay. Maybe this chimes with a particular Western (or perhaps American) view of history, but it’s not something I recognise from reality.

Thirdly, that Civilization is a powerful tool for teachers to provide context to history lessons. This is actually a pretty good idea – not one that I’ve seen in practice or know much about myself, admittedly. I can see how a good teacher could use Civilization to think about counterfactuals like “Why is my country the size/power it is now, instead of what it is in my game?” and to illustrate some of the ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ concepts. I don’t know if a single teacher could do this for a class of 30 students, but if you lowered the number, or perhaps played a few democracy games, it could work very well. One can imagine a game of Civilization providing the spine for an entire term’s worth of activities, from art and language to science and politics; I’d sign up, for sure!

Lastly, that mods to Civilization (community-created modifications or expansions to the game) can give players very good lessons in specific subjects. In 2007, Telefilm Canada funded the imaginatively-named The History Game Canada, a million-dollar expansion of Civilization 3 that lets you play as one of nine civilizations, including the Algonquin, Mohawk, French, and English, to rewrite the country’s history and explore various counterfactuals like:

“What if the Huron had displaced the 5 Nations Confederacy rather than the other way around?” or “What if the French had retained Canada, and the English colonies to the East and South had failed to prosper?”

Civilization 3 was the clunkiest and most frustrating game of the series, so I am in no hurry to try this out, but it sounds very enticing, and potentially a real improvement on dry, didactic history lessons (though not cheap, of course).

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find many other overtly educational mods for Civilization, which isn’t surprising, since good mods can require surprising amounts of graphical assets, text, code, rules, and design (I speak from bitter experience after having attempted a couple of total conversions in my youth). It takes a remarkably motivated and skilled teacher to make the effort of designing a custom map, arranging all the cities and units just so, and tweaking the rules to fit the context – but it does happen, as demonstrated by Shawn Graham, who made a mod called The Year of the Four Emperors, aimed at teaching his undergrad students about the events after Nero’s assassination in 68AD, and how someone other than Vespasian might have won out.

Given that Civilization 5’s lead designer, Jon Shafer (who you might remember as the Minister of War in Apolyton’s ISDG team), cut his teeth in the modding community before he joined Firaxis, I think there are good days ahead for modders of all kinds – but it’s never going to be easy to create an educational scenario with accuracy and depth.

Summing up, it’s a bit of a mixed bag – I don’t think Civilization imbues players with any real historical knowledge or understanding, but I do think that it’s an incredibly powerful tool in the hands of smart educators and modders who have specific lessons they want to convey.

When you consider that, in their own words:

…It cannot be overstated that Firaxis has never set out to make an “educational” game

the fact that Civilization is lightyears ahead of most games (including many ‘educational’ games) is an impressive feat of game design.

Democracy Games

Here’s an article I wrote in late 2003 an epic ‘Democracy Game’ in Civilization 3 I was part of. If you’re already familiar with Civilization, you can skip most of the Just One More Turn… section – the good stuff begins again at All Talk.

A Clash in Civilization

It’s a busy time in this nation’s government. At the same time as chairing talks on the placement of new settlements along the disputed eastern border, the Minister of the Interior is trying to defend his share of this year’s budget against the hawks in the Ministry of War. Diplomats from the Foreign Office are generating headaches throughout the government with their disturbing news of conflict in the south. While the political parties bicker over an official response, worried civil servants are hastily drawing up contingency plans for the nation’s defence and negotiators dash from meeting to meeting in a Sisyphean effort to mediate peace between the foreign countries.

This could be a timeless description of politics anywhere in the world, except these politicians have never met face to face before and the worst harm that could come from war is bruised egos.

The year is 610BC, and it’s just another turn for the nation of Apolyton to play in the first ever Intersite Democracy Game of Civilization 3, possibly the most cerebral, complex – and unknown – game on the Internet.

Just One More Turn…

Civilization is a turn-based strategy game with a lineage as distinguished as some royal families – at least in computer game terms. Unlike the Intersite Democracy Game (ISDG), it’s well known to gamers around the world. In Civilization, players take control of a band of settlers in 4000BC and raise them into an advanced civilization while dealing with all the challenges history has to offer – wars, disasters, revolutions – the usual. Yet Civilization isn’t just a war game; while you can win by conquering the world, you can also win by a cultural or diplomatic victory, among other ways. In this respect, Civilization 3, the latest version, is as far beyond other strategy games such as Age of Empires as they are from action games like Quake.

The attraction of Civilization for its millions of players lies in how every new game is unique, yet still poses the same challenges of striking a fine balance between expansion and consolidation, research and defence, and conquest or peaceful diplomacy. `Just one more turn’ is the mantra of Civilization addicts, whose ranks include the author Iain Banks and economist Prof. Brad DeLong. Banks has based at least one of his books around Civilization and has spoken ruefully about physically destroying the game CD to end his addiction. One player has commented, “I can honestly say playing Civ has been the one single activity which I have done most in my life after sleeping.”

In 1991, Civilization 1 was developed by Sid Meier at Microprose and received universal praise. Since then, the game remained under the supervision of Meier, who followed on with an even more successful sequel in 1996. Five years later, Civilization 3 was released in 2001 by Meier, now at Firaxis, following a legal tussle concerning the use of the lucrative ‘Civilization’ name in other games. Each sequel has added refinements on to the original, such as the territory borders, culture, unit hit points and experience, but the core theme of the game has been left untouched.

Controversially, multiplayer capabilities have never been built into any Civilization game. This was reasonable enough twelve years ago, but its continued absence in Civilization 3 angered many players. Firaxis claimed this was because Civilization has always been intended as a single player experience, but a more cynical explanation may lie in the fact that multiplayer capabilities have always been made available after each games’ release – for a price.

Despite this annoyance, there’s a thriving online community of Civilization fans numbering almost one hundred thousand. These fans aren’t your normal game players who might shrug when they encounter a rule that doesn’t seem to make sense. Instead, Civilization fans would (and have) run exhaustive simulations within the game to determine the exact equation governing the rule, and then argue at length about its worth. However, the very complexity of Civilization and the unpredictability of the game’s formidable AI mean that it’s simply not possible to reverse engineer it and play the perfect game; there’s always an element of intuition and luck, which suits the players just fine.

All Talk

With over three million posts among the fan sites, it almost seems like the players prefer talking about Civilization to actually playing it, and it’s not without truth, either. While the game’s play by email feature makes it easy for players to take part in not just one but several games concurrently, there’s still a maximum of eight players per game, which isn’t any more than what you might find in a typical board game. Handily, the Civilization Fanatics Center, one of the largest fan sites on the Internet, came up with a solution that satisfies fans’ dual urges of playing the game and talking about it at the same time: They invented the democracy game.

A democracy game is just like a normal single player game of Civilization, except with over a hundred people sitting beside you arguing about what to do. Surprisingly enough, democracy games don’t descend into a free for all; instead, detailed constitutions and an elected government have ensured that the games proceed smoothly and every player can contribute their opinion. Since 2002, democracy games have been successfully exported to other websites and strategy games, such as Alpha Centauri, a Civilization spin-off game.

A progression of the original idea is the intrasite democracy game (also known as the Play the World democracy game, after the name of the multiplayer expansion pack), the first of which began last year at Apolyton. In intrasite games, instead of players assuming the role of just one civilization, eight teams of players control eight different civilizations, each with their own government. Apolyton’s intrasite game has already become legendary owing to the incredibly heated and personal arguments that have risen between teams. Continue reading “Democracy Games”

One More Turn

It’s the mantra of any Civilization player – just one more turn. Whether you’re exploring uncharted territory, or researching a new technology, or anticipating a Wonder of the World that’s about to complete, there’s always a reason to play one more turn. And once you’ve played that turn, there’ll be another, and another, and before you know it, you’ve blown way past dinner time, bed time, seriously-it’s-bed time, and you’re looking at your watch thinking, “I know it’s 4am, but I’ve come this far so I might as play for the x more turns it’ll take me to finish building my spaceship/invasion fleet/United Nations.”

I’ve spent too much time on Puzzle Quest, I played Diner Dash until I felt like I could re-order entire restaurants using the power of my mind, I’ve stayed up far too late messing about in Team Fortress 2 – but Civilization trumps them all. I have never played a game quite as compelling as Civilization.

There’s a term for how games achieve this kind of fixated behaviour: the ‘compulsion loop’. It’s very simple:

  1. You play the game
  2. You achieve some goals
  3. You get awarded with new content
  4. GOTO 1

You might claim that this is facile – that by this loose definition, all games contain compulsion loops – but the fact is that most games aren’t engineered around compulsion loops. Story-based adventure games like Uncharted 2 or Halo 3 may well have short-term goals and new levels and environments being awarded to the player, but they typically don’t come on a fixed schedule. Instead, they can be frustrating and time-consuming to achieve, and are easily deflated by poor pacing and writing. Not that this makes them worse – I don’t think the job of a game is to simply be compulsive – but they don’t keep me up until 4am.

Now, if you want to see pure compulsion loops in action, just check out any of Zynga’s games on Facebook. Farmville is basically a compulsion loop dressed up in plants, with goals being doled out on a player-controlled schedule and new content (crops, buildings, decorations) always tantalisingly within range. Mafia Wars is even better (or perhaps worse), because it drops the pretence entirely and is just a compulsion loop written out in numbers and text. You don’t need any skill to play these games, you just need to be able to click your mouse enough times to fill up a bar.

Viewed through this prism, it’s clear why Civilization is so compelling; every single turn of the game is a mini-compulsion loop. In every single turn, like clockwork, you move units, you achieve tangible goals, and you get new content. The game keeps you playing until you’ve have seen everything and done everything that the world has to offer.

There is a real difference between Farmville and Civilization, though. After playing Farmville for a couple of months, a friend told me, in a tone of undisguised self-disgust, that he felt like he’d wasted part of his life. I know how he feels – I played Farmville for a month and I feel like the experience was completely worthless, even though at some points I was scheduling my life around when crops were due to ripen.

Contrast that with Civilization, where well-played games will remain fresh in the mind for years – and yet even the meanest, most boring game of Civilization will contain something memorable. It might be the desperate last defence of a doomed city, or a particularly sneaky piece of diplomacy, but there’s always something you feel pleased about achieving. Civilization has a depth and complexity and meaning that Zynga’s toys can’t touch. The fact that it contains mini-compulsion loops feels more like an enabler of that richness, a way to manage that complexity, rather than a cynical trick to keep players hooked.

Of course, there’s one more big reason why Civilization, even with in its most Farmville-beating, sleep-depriving, anti-social nature, is not so bad: it always has an end.

Civilization and Storytelling

I’ve only ever written fan fiction twice in my life, and both times it’s been for Sid Meier games.

Nurturing a civilization from a band of illiterate settlers to an empire that’s trading goods and blows across the world tends to make you feel rather attached to your people, and it’s hard not to be personally offended when the sanctimonious Americans team up with the Zulus and backstab by landing an army of knights and cavalry on your home shores. From there, it’s only a small step for you to start imagining the newspaper headlines flying out across your nation and the whispers of rebellion in your threatened, remote outposts.

The freedom that Civilization affords players is not unusual when compared to other sandbox games, most notably Will Wright’s SimCity and The Sims, and there’s no shortage of fanfic for those. But I think there’s something special about the structure and complexity of Civilization makes writing fanfic irresistible.

Civilization has quite a bit of structure – it has a fixed beginning and end, with a set of basically linear paths that players must proceed down in order to win (or at least have an interesting game) such as researching technologies, founding new cities, etc., and these paths map pretty well onto what people are taught about history and politics in school. The game’s broad span of time – from 4000BC to 2050AD – also gives it a far greater scope than strategy games like Europa Universalis or Anno 1404, which concentrate on much narrower historical periods. There’s nothing wrong with that, but chances are that you’ll find something in those 6000 years that will spark your imagination, whereas if you’re not into WW2 or Renaissance sea trading, it’s that much harder to conjure up stories, let alone write any fanfic.

It was precisely the fact that games of Civilization go on for thousands of years that I wrote my first bit of fanfic, called ‘Ad Astra Per Aspera: Three Generations of the English Union’, based on an epic game of Civilization 2 that I’d been immersed in. I can’t read it now without wincing at the heavy-handed data-dumping, but what still surprises me is the effort I went in to making the story sync up with the actual gameplay. For example, here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

Andrew laughed out loud, shaking his head. England had been negotiating with France for as long as he could remember about the ever-shifting border agreements. As England’s western borders extended inexorably outwards, eating up the territory once held by the French cities of New Salamanca and Tlacopan, French troop incursions had increased constantly. It wasn’t too surprising; France had pretty much neglected the cities they’d taken back in 1715 during the Second Aztec War, allowing to remain as backwater provinces.

England, on the other hand, had promoted the expansion and improvement of the city infrastructures of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Xochicalco, known as the ‘New Territories.’ These were three of the new cities on England’s western border that had been liberated during the two Aztec wars. Today, they were thriving metropolises with over a million citizens apiece and intensively irrigated and mined land. France’s nearby cities could only offer less than a fifth of that population, and far less satifisying cultural attractions.

Yet still France complained at the result of each of the border discussion conferences, even though they grudgingly accepted the outcomes. Lately though, in a show of defiance, they had begun to conduct military exercises close to, and sometimes within, England’s borders on the hills and mountains that straddled them. Despite the overwhelming superiority of the English armed forces, if not numerically then technologically, the English were quite worried. And it appeared that, as Andrew listened to the show with interest, the President had decided to do something about it.

Gripping stuff, no? But this excerpt demonstrates a couple of interesting things. Firstly, I’d clearly checked over the dates and places quite carefully to make sure I had my story straight, which was quite a bit of effort. Second, it shows the rather odd way in which I’d been playing this particular game. Continue reading “Civilization and Storytelling”

Mssv gets Civilized

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m dedicating Mssv to the strategy game series Civilization, in anticipation of Civilization V’s coming out in September. Civilization’s sheer depth and replayability has made it one of the most beloved strategy games in the world, and its longevity means that I’ve literally grown up with it.

Each game of Civilization 1 began in the same way – with you in control of a single Settler in 4000BC. Over the next 6000 years (which equates to hundreds of turns), you build cities, temples, marketplaces, barracks, roads, ships and armies, all the while researching technologies such as Bronzeworking, Mathematics, Physics, Gunpowder, Electricity and Fusion. In other words, you build a civilization – your civilization – and you can win a number of ways, by conquering the world, sending a spaceship to Alpha Centauri, controlling the United Nations, becoming incredibly rich, etc. Even now, the scope and ambition of Civilization is impressive, but at the time, it was breathtaking – a true strategy game that had no equal.

Civilization1BoxArt

We first bought a copy of Civilization when I was 9. As such, I’m pretty sure that my brother and I were not among the target audience, and we did all sorts of ridiculous things like building bunches of cities right on top of each other. Despite these fatal flaws in our strategy, Civilization was a real favourite of ours – I think it was the freedom of the game that was attractive, even though we’d inevitably get massacred by technologically superior Romans after a couple of thousands years. Most of the time we’d play it at home with horrible EGA graphics, but occasionally we’d get the treat of going into our dad’s computer lab at university and playing it on glorious 256 colour VGA graphics – sometimes on a massive 20″ screen!

Civilization was released back in the days when games publishers were happy to pack huge amounts of bumf into game boxes; you’d expect to see maps, stickers, trinkets and weighty manuals in any half-decent game. Civilization had a particularly dense manual full of detail and historical information which I loved reading, even though I didn’t entirely understand it. The manual, along with a tech-tree poster, was also used for copy protection: the game would ask you various historical and technological questions. We answered so many times that we memorised most of the answers, so I suppose it was somewhat educational (but more on that later).

The other oddity of Civilization 1 was the fact that you could rewrite the text in the intro movie. The intro movie (more accurately, an animation) described the formation of planet Earth from dust and rubble, the gradual cooling of the surface, the appearance of a stable biosphere, the rise of plants and animals, and the eventual evolution of humans. It was daunting stuff and really quite cool the first couple of times you saw it, but after a while you started memorising the words and irritably hammering the keyboard in order to skip the movie when the game engine had finally finished generating your random world. But by changing the text, you could have planet Earth turning into a molten ice cream, or something. Oh, the hilarious times we had!

Each release of Civilization has pinned itself into my memory, along with every surrounding detail of the time. Civilization 2 was released when I was 14, both OMC and OMD were on constant repeat on the radio, I properly discovered the internet, and I spent a large chunk of the summer solidly playing my favourite game. Good times.

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I was in my second year of university when Civilization 3 came out, and so had absolutely nothing stopping me from regularly playing until dawn, other than the fact that it basically killed my computer. Civ 4 followed in 2005, back when I was deep into making Perplex City at Mind Candy, and I didn’t have quite as much time to play it as the others, although on rainy afternoons I’ll be known to fire up a game at 3pm and finish it twelve hours later. The graphics might have improved, the game engine refined, the brilliance of Civ 2 and the frustrations of Civ 3 both moderated, but the addictive and joyful formula still remains.

And so Civilization 5 is here, almost twenty years after I first played the game, and I now have a computer setup that my 9 year old self would have boggled at. The only thing that might disappoint my younger self is the fact that it’s still pretty difficult to do multiplayer – maybe they’ll sort that out this time.

Anyway, in this series about Civilization, I’m going to be looking at addictiveness, ‘Democracy Games’, education, music, Alpha Centauri, and more. I might even fit in a quick (hah) game of Civ 4 and write up an after-action report. But first, I’m going to start with Civilization and Storytelling.

The Binding of a Book

Like a gamer to Starcraft 2, I can’t help but be attracted to articles about the death of books, and even better, the death of long-form reading. There’s something about the desperate handwringing that pushes almost every intellectual button I have, from impassioned but futile appeals to the past, to lurid depictions of how new technology will destroy civilisation.

The art of slow reading from the Guardian is a particularly fine and well-written example – and notwithstanding the odd assumption that everyone used to read long texts all the time, and that all of that reading was worthwhile (rather than being on, say, potboilers and pulp) it actually has some very good points about how the internet can distract us from long-form reading. In fact, towards the end I was worried that the article might be missing an essential component, but thankfully…

…Though John Miedema thinks iPads and Kindles are “a good halfway house, particularly if you’re on the road”, the author reveals that, for the true slow reader, there’s simply no substitute for particular aspects of the paper book: “The binding of a book captures an experience or idea at a particular space and time.” And even the act of storing a book is a pleasure for Miedema. “When the reading is complete, you place it with satisfaction on your bookshelf,” he says.

Yes, apparently the binding of a physical book is something that can capture an experience or idea in a way that a weightless, ephemeral eBook never can hope to. And once you’ve finished an eBook, all you can do is touch the ‘Library’ button on your iPad, a nagging sensation of dissatisfaction pulling at your mind as the virtual book flies back into your virtual bookshelf; if only it was physical, the experience would be so much better!

What’s ridiculous about these kinds of arguments – Miedema’s one being a classic – is that they emasculate the very thing they’re trying to defend. Are we supposed to believe that books are so fragile that transferring their text into digital form is going to totally ruin the experience? That having the convenience of buying and reading any book, anywhere, is outweighed by the fact that we can’t slot it into our bookshelves? Books are made of sterner stuff than that, and they’ll survive digitisation just fine.

That’s not to say that I’ll be rushing to get rid of all my physical books, and I still buy physical books; sometimes because they’re cheaper than eBooks, and more rarely, because I like them as beautiful objects. I recently spent $65 on a limited edition of Ted Chiang’s novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects. There are only 400 copies of this edition; they’re signed, numbered, cloth-bound, with two-colour foil stamping withan exquisite attention to detail from the publisher and the author; and of course, the story is supposed to be really good as well.

So I’m certainly willing to spend way above the odds for a physical book – not because reading it is more satisfying than an eBook, but because it’s written by an author whom I admire very much, and it comes in a package that is as well-crafted and unique as a handsome vase or a sculpture. Yet if I read it on my iPad, I’m sure the story would be just as good as if I read it on paper.

Total Fail at the Kinect Galleries

Update 3rd Sept: Shortly after I made this post, I got a nice email from someone running the Kinect Galleries campaign telling me they took the problems very seriously and were working to make sure they didn’t happen again – from the comments on this post, it sounds like that’s happened! I also went to the galleries again, this time with an appointment, and found the staff to be much more helpful.

As for the Kinect itself, it’s certainly fun – just like an arcade game or the old PS2 Eyetoy games – but I experienced some worrying problems with navigating menus and the response time in games. At £130, I am not convinced that it’s great value for money given that you can buy a Wii bundle for the same price; time will tell though.

Apple

Yesterday, I went down to Covent Garden to check out the new Apple Store there (the largest in the world). About 300 people were queuing to pick up the iPhone 4, which is pretty astonishing given that it’s been out for a month now, but non-iPhone buyers could bypass the queue and go straight inside.

As we walked in to cheers and high-fives from a receiving line of Apple employees (who were mostly there to keep up the spirits of the iPhone queuers), we saw three floors of Apple products, all displayed with exceeding taste and set out in perfect proportion. MacBooks and iPads were set up just so, and if the crowds weren’t there, I think it’d be a very nice environment to test and buy Apple stuff. If you weren’t sure what you wanted, scores of staff were circulating in distinctive bright blue shirts were there to help.

The Covent Garden Apple Store, then, isn’t really much different from any other Apple Store in the rest of the world – it’s just bigger, and will print a proportionately bigger pile of cash.

Microsoft (Kinect)

On the way to Bloomsbury Square Garden, we passed by a nondescript building on Russell Street bearing some ‘KINECT GALLERIES’ banners. They didn’t look particularly Xbox 360-like, so I wasn’t sure if they had anything to do with the Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect addon, but a nice man at the door asked if we wanted to have a go on the new Kinect experience, so that confirmed things (for anyone walking right by him, at least).

Inside, we were drawn into a pretty large gallery space, all white bare walls with the occasional big screen TV and poster declaring how we do so much stuff with our bodies (e.g. our big toe holds half of our weight when walking, apparently). I didn’t immediately see any tell-tale signs of Kinect consoles around, so we walked down a long, long, long corridor to emerge into a strange basement divided up into three fake living rooms.

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In each living room was a genuine Xbox Kinect setup – finally, what we were looking for! A couple of the rooms had one or two people having a go on various Kinect demos, like dancing or Kinect Sports, with various friends/parents/partners observing at a distance. We hung around a couple of the setups for five minutes, trying to catch the eye of the Kinect staffers, but they were busy chatting amongst themselves and surfing Wikipedia, and were definitely ignoring us (as seen below).

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Eventually one of the demo rooms became free and I spent 30 seconds trying to navigate the menus of a dance game. A young staffer rapidly zoomed over and asked me if I’d made a booking; since this was the first time anyone had ever mentioned bookings, I said no. She told me that unfortunately people could only play if they had booked, and while they obviously had a no-show on this demo room, the next people might turn up soon, so I couldn’t play. Not even for a minute. But if I went upstairs reception, maybe I could make a booking there?

So we went all the way back along the long corridor, went upstairs, went to the reception that we’d walked past on the way in (not that there was anything or anyone telling us to stop by it) and unsuccessfully waited a couple of minutes for someone to become free to talk to us. In any case, I saw that the entire day was booked up, so the whole visit was pointless.

When we left, feeling pretty annoyed about Kinect and everything to do with it, we politely told the door guy about our troubles. He suggested that we try a go on the public demo unit in the main gallery; we told him that it didn’t look very public to us, and in any case it was very occupied by a couple of families. Oh well.

There are so many things wrong with the ‘KINECT GALLERIES’ experience that it’s pointless to mention them all. Microsoft clearly has no idea how to run a good show, they clearly have no-one who particularly cares (since it’d be easy to send in a mystery shopper or just spring a surprise visit) and god knows that the Kinect needs a good show.

The fact is, our experience was just fucking awful. I don’t swear on this blog a lot, but there you go – it was that bad. Sure, I’ve seen worse campaigns, but probably not ones that cost this much or are so important. You wonder if they even realised they’d opened up almost at the same time as the multimillion pound Apple Store right around the corner; an unfair comparison, I know, but an inevitable one.

I was given a postcard inviting me to ‘Come and play or book a place online’ for the KINECT GALLERIES on the way out, but I feel sufficiently pissed off at the whole experience that I’m not sure whether I want to go. Good one, Microsoft – and I say this as someone who likes the 360.

(Actually, I just checked out the Facebook page for booking a place online, and it is equally awful since it requires you to have or sign up for a Windows/Xbox Live ID before you get to do or see anything useful.)