Canadian Travel Notes: Toronto & Ottawa

The Canadian National Exhibition (aka CNE/”The Ex)

My understanding of state fairs comes largely from longform pieces in magazines like The New Yorker by people like David Foster Wallace, so it’s hard to compare the CNE in Toronto with others. My expectations weren’t high, but it still felt more soulless than I’d imagined.

For example, I’d had a vision of rows of little indie food stalls each offering only a few weird and outrageously unhealthy dishes. In reality, most food options were larger and from bigger chains, which is perhaps not surprising given the scale of the event but still disappointing. Overall, it was fine: I had a noodle burger and a funnel cake with soft-serve ice cream. In retrospect, we should’ve tried the comparatively-deserted ribfest instead, but it was a bit out of the way and we only came across it later. I imagine it’s much busier in the evenings.

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The indoor lantern festival, Legends of the Silk Road Come to Light, was quite pretty in an obvious way. Someone in China has clearly figured out that westerners really like to look at realistic-looking lanterns, and decided to engage in a bit of not-so-subtle cultural diplomacy that a) takes a modicum of credit for all achievements made along “Silk Road” nations and b) encourages us to feel good about their dreadfully-named “Belt and Road Initiative”.

I’d like to know more about how these lanterns are made. It’d make for a good longform article, I think. I can’t imagine they’re especially challenging to make, and I would like to see more daring and innovation amongst the endless dragons and such.

There was a water skiing demo featuring a truly groan-worthy framing story about a wedding party. I guess these stories are a way for announcers to fill the silence and make proceedings seem more ‘approachable’? In any case, I was impressed by the announcer pre-emptively telling us that each stunt was extremely risky in case of its likely failure. One of the skiiers had a ‘water jetpack’ which was even cooler than my highest expectations. We also walked past the parkour, whose audience sounded like they were having more fun..

The flower competition was getting a bit wilted by the time we arrived. I occasionally entertain the idea of finding the least competitive category and entering, so I can add it to my bio.

The shops were generally bad and not worth visiting.

Ottawa

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First off, you must get the National Museums Passport! It costs only $35 and it’s worth it if you plan to visit more than one museum – which you absolutely should. Continue reading “Canadian Travel Notes: Toronto & Ottawa”

How to Get eBooks, Audiobooks, Magazines, and Newspapers from Edinburgh Libraries

Like many library systems, Edinburgh has an odd collection of digital resources for members, including multiple providers of eBooks, audiobooks, newspapers, magazines, and reference materials. Last week, I joined in the hope of getting access to some newspapers and magazines I read, and if you’re curious or also want to join the library, you may find this interesting.

How to Join

This is very easy. You can do it in person at any branch with some ID (e.g. passport, utility bill). You can also begin the process online by filling out a form, which will get you a temporary ‘UNREG’ number that gives you some limited borrowing rights. However, it doesn’t provide access to any digital resources, so you’re going to have to visit a branch with some ID anyway.

If you’re good at filling out forms online, you might as well start it on the web since it will save a little bit of time. Otherwise, just skip it and go to the branch – the process will only take a few minutes.

Once you’ve joined, you will have:

  1. A library membership number with the format B00XXXXXXXX (where the Xs are numbers)
  2. A four digit PIN code (absurdly insecure, but what the hell)

These two things will grant you access to all the digital resources you need. In some cases, they only need your membership number ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It’s typically not necessary to create logins for the resources, although in some cases it can be useful.

Digital Resources

I’m not going to detail all of Edinburgh Libraries’ digital resources, but here are some that I find particularly useful:

Overdrive has the single largest digital book library with around 5000 eBooks and 900 audiobooks. It also has the best apps. The Overdrive app is mediocre, but the new Libby app is well-designed with a good reading experience. It’s not perfect though – it didn’t sync my progress between my iPhone and iPad.

Pressreader offers almost 4000 magazines and 3500 newspapers. Most aren’t in English, but plenty are. These are exclusively print versions – you won’t get access to the online versions of the magazines or newspapers. You’ll definitely find something useful here, whether it’s British broadsheets like The Guardian and The Telegraph, or US papers like The Washington Post. There are also some very fine periodicals like The New York Review of Books and Bloomberg Business Week. You’ll want to read these on a computer or high resolution tablet, since most of the time you’re looking at PDFs (Pressreader’s text view is execrably formatted).

RBdigital has around 300 audiobooks and 130 British magazines, including Time, New Scientist, National Geographic, and Wired. It’s a smaller selection than Pressreader, but generally higher quality in the UK, and with back issues going back around 1-2 years. Its app has a surprisingly good text view, but overall, the app is not pleasant to use, lacking the ability to favourite magazines.

You can also get around 800 audiobooks from Borrowbox and 300 from uLIBRARY. Yes, it is absurd that these resources are so spread out – ideally, libraries should collectively demand a common API that makes things much easier for members to search for and browse titles.

There’s also full access to the Oxford English Dictionary, the British Newspaper Archive (millions of pages of newspapers from 1710-1955), The Times Digital Archive (1785-2011), and the John Johnson Collection, “an archive of printed ephemera”. These are a puzzle-setters dream.

Overall, I’m pleased with the resources available but disappointed by their fragmented nature. There’s a very limited number of eBooks – popular titles are there but you don’t have anything close to the selection of printed books in the library – so I imagine it’s really the audiobooks, newspapers, and magazines that will be the most useful to most people. And it’s free! So if you live in Edinburgh, take a few minutes out of your day and sign up.

Edinburgh Fringe 2018: Brief Reviews, Part 2

I caught a few more shows at the tail end of the Fringe, largely thanks to Lydia Nicholas’ science-tinged recommendations:

  • Lovecraft (Not the Sex Shop in Cardiff) was a fantastically funny and touching and scientific gig by Carys Eleri about the neuroscience of love and loneliness. It was very poorly served by its poster, which suggested a completely different show that had precisely nothing to do with the topics it was really about.
  • Toby Thompson was just as funny and lovely as he was before, although the full length show didn’t actually have that many more poems than his short 15 minute sampler. It did, however, have more listening to records and hearing him play the piano.
  • War With the Newts by Knaive Theatre had the most immersive, tech-driven experience I’d seen this year. It’s “a contemporary reimagining of Karel Capek’s apocalyptic science-fiction satire” and used its three actors and small basement to tell a sweeping story with genuine panache. I did feel that it began to drag towards the end – one particular speech was entirely too obvious and unnecessary exposition, and some of the audio was so heavily filtered it was completely incomprehensible – but it’s a real achievement for such a small team.
  • DollyWould was the quintessential bizarre genre-smashing Fringe mix of music, comedy, video, and personal storytelling about Dolly Parton and Dolly the Sheep. It was fantastic, and the less you know about it going in, the better.

Part 1 of my Fringe 2018 reviews.

Two Bit Circus and the Challenges of Next Generation Arcades

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Early concept art for Two Bit Circus

Since the introduction of consumer VR systems like Oculus and Vive, hundreds of VR-centric arcades have opened, hoping to attract punters by offering experiences that they can’t get at home because they can’t afford $1500+ VR setups and don’t have the space or custom equipment (e.g. force-feedback driving seats).

Some of these next-generation arcades are more than a few Vive headsets in a shop; they might have lots of expensive custom equipment, or even custom-made VR games that you can’t buy as a consumer. Two Bit Circus, a “micro-amusement park” opening in LA next month, combines VR with escape rooms with carnival games to reach the very highest-end of this trend. Supposedly, the entire experience will be united by a meta-game, discoverable with rabbit-holes like a secret payphone in the arcade, that has an overarching narrative. Yes, I remember when these were called ARGs myself.

The scope – and expense – of Two Bit Circus is extraordinary. It’s hard enough to make a single VR game, let alone several. And to link them with an ARG? It hasn’t been done before. That’s not to say it can’t be done, it just costs far more money than anyone is usually willing to spend.

When I tweeted out news about this, Chris Dickson (an expert in escape room games)  emailed me about Entros, a restaurant-arcade in Seattle and San Francisco from the 90s with ARGish elements. Entros folded after a few years due to inadequate sales and rising rents, and to my mind, it sadly typifies a long line of entertainment-bar-restaurant-VR-carnival hybrids that end up failing like late lamented DisneyQuest.

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DisneyQuest

Why do these ventures fail?

  • High capital costs: Cutting-edge hardware isn’t cheap
  • High maintenance costs because people keep breaking things and they don’t know how to put on VR headsets
  • High R&D and design costs that can’t be amortised amongst large numbers of venues (e.g. traditional arcade games, although even these are dying out), customers (e.g. videogames), or devices (e.g. game consoles and phones)
  • Inability to charge appropriate (i.e. massive) prices or motivate people to stay in expensive hotels (i.e. Disney theme parks)
  • Technology ages quickly and becomes uncompetitive with consumer offerings, meaning either more capital spending, or your arcade getting out of date quickly. This is a reason why traditional arcades have largely vanished.
  • Hard to attract repeat visitors without acquiring or developing a lot of fresh and affordable content (in contrast to, say, cinemas). If you can’t get repeat visitors, you need a constant flow of new visitors, which is doable although usually requires a healthy marketplaces and ideally, geographic hubs (e.g. Broadway, West End). If you make something extraordinarily good, people will travel just for your venue, like people who go on pilgrimages to Michelin-starred restaurants.
  • Difficult to scale a single location, so even if you’re super popular, you will cap out.

Other new kinds of site-specific experiences like escape rooms and immersive theatre face similar challenges: escape rooms may have lower capital and R&D costs since they usually don’t feature as much technology, but staffing costs are often can be higher and of course, return visits are even lower.

Disney’s theme parks (and associated hotels, malls, etc.) are the obvious exception here in so many ways – size, visitor numbers, profitability, and so on. Disney’s parks do a lot of clever things, like: exploiting existing popular IP (e.g. Toy Story) not all of which they originally developed or owned (e.g. Star Wars, Avatar); incubating new IP (Pirates of the Caribbean, the forthcoming Jungle Cruise movie); and generally keeping visitors excited about Disney and thus continuing to buy mountains of merchandise. It’s hard to see how you equal this without really high-quality and popular IP, not to mention skilled designers and engineers (“Imagineers”).

Big isn’t always better. Not every restauranteur should aspire to become McDonalds. But a healthy ecosystem should support everything from big chains to cheap and cheerful cafes and eye-wateringly expensive Michelin starred restaurants. What’s important is that there is room for everything, and that enterprises of all sizes can theoretically be sustainable – even if most restaurants do, in fact, go bust.

Possible Solutions

Use withered technology to reduce capital costs. Maybe VR isn’t the answer to these kinds of arcades and immersive experiences! Nintendo is great teacher in this regard, as is the old-school Exploratorium.

Similarly, use the real world as your venue. The Headlands Gamble uses the North Bay in California as its backdrop; Fire Hazard uses London. However, the lack of control and ownership over the venue results in higher risk and introduces logistical challenges (e.g. accessibility, bad weather, more time required to get around) and can impose a cap on visitor numbers.

Increase prices. Punchdrunk, Disney, and The Headlands Gamble ($600-$1800 for two days!) show how high you can go, providing you can prove value. I personally have an instinctive aversion to very high prices as I want the things I make to have a wide audience, but it’s a perfectly legitimate route, especially if you’re still developing the core technology and proving your concept. However, rich people’s taste for human interaction can mean that you never end up automating anything.

Use established IP to reduce marketing costs, and potentially content development costs. Secret Cinema and The Crystal Maze have done this to apparent success. However: you lose creative control, it cuts into your margin (it’s entirely possible you have no margin left, if you have no leverage), and the demands of the IP can compromise the overall experience (I’ve heard that strict adherence to Harry Potter canon has hurt more than one HP videogame; then there’s “we need you to tie this game to the upcoming movie, but we can’t get you the script until too late, and you can’t talk about the events of the movie”.) If you’re unlucky, you’ll end up making free marketing experiences and “brand activations” for shows like Westworld. It makes for good headlines but are the entirely wrong way to make a self-sustaining business with a product that people will pay for. Believe me: I’ve lived it.

Be a non-profit so you can win grant money and donations, and justify paying your staff less money – or none at all, since you can get volunteers. Yes, I’m talking about Meow Wolf. Non-profits typically suffer from lack of access to capital, though, slowing growth.

Sell extra stuff like merchandise, hotel rooms, books, etc.

Get repeat visitors. Everyone claims they’re trying to do this and I have seen little evidence of success. It may be that it’s completely incompatible with the current design of escape rooms and immersive theatre. Learning from videogames is essential.

Reduce tech and capital costs by using off-the-shelf hardware and, importantly, software. Various companies are trying to build VR or real-world experiential platforms to make it easier to  this kind of market, but most of them don’t have much money and seem singularly unwilling to share a reasonable (i.e. very high) amount of revenue with the creatives who, after all, are taking the vast majority of risk in setting up these venues and making new experiences. Platforms work best when cost of development is low compared to potential income. Witness Unity/Unreal or YouTube and Twitch. But potential income for location-specific entertainment is far lower than that of purely digital content that can be global; and that has lower capital costs.


Evidently, I don’t have very detailed solutions to these challenges yet, although I remain very interested and I have a few brewing in the back of my mind. I’ll finish by saying that the rumoured popularity of puzzle box subscriptions like Hunt A Killer (the name is both awful and yet brilliant) is telling. They have repeat customers, low capital costs, and it’s all done with ‘withered technology’.

Having tried a few out, I am not impressed by overall quality and not convinced of their longevity or broad popularity, but they hold a lot of promise.

Gamescom 2018 thoughts: Spider-Man, Starlink, Forza Horizon, Oculus, and more

A child was flooring the gas on a tractor simulator here, with full HOTAS-style controller setup. “I live my life a quarter acre at a time.”

I managed to play a fair few games here at Gamescom in Cologne in between business meetings. The first day – Tuesday – is solely for “trade visitors” rather than the general public, so the crowds weren’t too bad. That said, people in the games industry tend to like playing games, which meant highly-anticipated titles like Spider-Man and Smash Bros. still had 1+ hour long queues most of day.

In order of when I played them:

Space Junkies (Ubisoft) is a space-based multiplayer VR FPS with jetpacks. It’s about as fun as any other FPS, except it’s in VR, which makes aiming easier. It also had imaginative guns requiring two hands to operate that were fun if distractingly janky.

Due to space restrictions, we had to sit down in front of a PC, which meant you couldn’t look behind you – instead, you use the right thumbstick to rotate in 45 degree turns. While this may be the least-worst way of doing VR motion thus far, it’s still not great and it doesn’t help elevate an otherwise unremarkable game.

Next door was Transference (Ubisoft), a horror-themed walking simulator set largely in the real world. The art and graphics were impressive, and I enjoyed picking up stuff in the environment (postcards, letters, toothpaste, radios, etc.) and inspecting them, although this is an area where increased headset resolution will be massively helpful.

I wasn’t sold on the heavy use of full-motion video (FMV) to set up the story. There’s something vaguely B-movie about all game FMV, which is often delivered straight to camera, and while this wasn’t awful, it just dragged on.

Surprisingly, I found Transference even more nausea-inducing compared to the highly vertical environment of Space Junkies. There’s something about using a controller stick to walk around (rather than using your legs to walk) that puts me off, even with the 45 degree snap-turns. The fact that  you had to walk around a lot to pick up stuff and carry it between rooms really didn’t help matters, and while the Ubisoft attendant helpfully whispered hints in my ear, it really just highlighted the poor level/puzzle design.

So, I remain unconvinced that using a controller to navigating in an open world VR space will ever be entirely free of nausea for me, and after 15 minutes of play of both games, but particularly Transference, I was glad to take the (very comfortable) headset off. Perhaps a wider field of view (FOV) would help, and I wonder if you eventually get used to VR, especially if you’re a kid who’s grown up on it.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (Ubisoft) is like AC: Origins, but it looks marginally nicer and it’s in Greece. What else is there to say? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I managed to catch this game while the queue was short. Even better, when the attendants spotted my “Exhibitor” badge, they ushered me right in, perhaps assuming I was far more important than I really am. But karma came around when the console crashed just ten minutes after I started playing.

Starlink (Ubisoft) is the latest implementation of “Toys to Life”, most famously and profitably demonstrated by Skylanders. I was impressed by how versatile the toys were, and how well the fit together – you can choose between pilots and then slot a spaceship over them. The spaceships themselves are modular, allowing you to mix and match components between ships, and even turn wings and weapons backwards (not convinced this will have useful gameplay effects, however). The gameplay was basically Starfox… and the graphics were really quite rough compared to the ultra-HD gorgeousness exhibited by the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X.

Sadly, I didn’t get to drive in Scotland or Edinburgh on the Forza Horizon 4 (Microsoft) demo on Xbox One X. I really enjoyed the original Forza on the Xbox 360 and it’s nice to see it continuing to walk the line between realism and arcade gameplay, especially with the helpful rewind feature. But it’s not enough to make me buy another console.

Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session! (Bandai Namco) reminded me of my enduring love of  rhythm games. There’s not a lot to this one – you can hit the single drum in the centre or the rim, and besides things like drum rolls, that’s more or less it. There was a good selection of songs – I played Let it Go, the Totoro End Theme, Carmen, and some other classical song. It was the only game I played on two separate days, although that’s partly down to the total absence of queues.

The response on the drums felt a bit soft, and I thought the notation of hits against the drum rim vs centre didn’t really correspond with melody or, well, anything else. But hey, it’s a rhythm game by Namco, you know what you’re getting.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan (Bandai Namco/Supermassive) was available for demo on the same day of its announcement, which explains why there were no queues. Like Until Dawn, also by Supermassive, it has highly atmospheric and realistic graphics, with no free look, and consequently, very cinematic (and manipulative) perspectives.

I found the demo quite boring and lacking in context. The cheesy, stilted dialogue and the exceptionally slow walking pace didn’t balance out its use of the LA Noire mechanic of “inspecting objects” which I always love.

Ride3 (Milestone) had no tutorial and was impossible for me to play. I couldn’t figure out whether I should be tilting around corners or how much I should be breaking – and yes, I have played driving games before. This was the only game I had to abandon before the end of the demo.

Amazon Prime Video had an immersive “brand activation” experience promoting their Jack Ryan TV show, freshly imported and translated from New York Comic Con. It was not good. We had to a wait a long time for them to reboot the first task, a mediocre shooting gallery game. The second task involved us watching the Jack Ryan extended trailer (pretty transparent, I know) and answering questions about it. Unfortunately, all the questions were in German, despite the fact that we’d registered as English-speakers.

I guessed all the answers randomly out of four choices, and scored 48%. “How?” demanded one of the attendants as I walked out. “Guess that’s on a need to know basis,” I said, with a twinkle in my eye.

The popularity of this poor experience just shows how much people value live action ‘immersive’ entertainment…

Since I have an Exhibitor badge, I was able to queue up early to play Spider-Man (Sony/Insomniac) on Wednesday. The web slinging and general feeling of motion is excellent, and you really can zip around the entire open world with zero loading times or pop-in.

I didn’t quite figure out whether I should be holding down sprint/web button all the time, and my usual tactic of spamming attacks didn’t work on some enemies (probably a good thing). Good dialogue, good transition into QTE-powered cutscenes. Very much looking forward to this game in November.

What began as a fun force-feedback drive on F1 2018 (Codemasters) gradually turned into an unrelenting nightmare of spins and crashes. I can’t explain what happened: on the first two laps, I was literally outracing Lewis Hamilton, and then somehow I just couldn’t stay on the track. Maybe the game was was simulating tire wear or somehow I pressed the wrong buttons that changed traction control (everything was in German) but it was all I could do to reach the finish line with a shred of dignity intact.

Miscellaneous thoughts

  • Let’s face it, industry-led videogame conventions are weird. Most of the games are going to be out soon, there are plenty of gameplay videos online, so why wait in a queue to play for hours? The answer, of course, is that some young people love these games with the passion of a thousand stars and are willing to wait any amount of time to play them even for just 15 minutes.
  • Because I am a terrible person, there is no sweeter sensation than arriving at the convention hall at 8:45am and not only walking past thousands of the general public (10am admission) but also hundreds of trade visitors (9am admission) all desperate to get in. I used my extra time to visit the toilets while they were clean, and then to play Spider-Man.
  • The queuing process for all the games was well-organised with clear wait times.
  • The 10-20 food trucks served the trade visitors perfectly well on Tuesday, but were laughably inadequate when tens of thousands of the general public arrived on Wednesday. It is baffling how the organisers refuse to improve this. Do they not like money? Do all the visitors just go hungry all day? I’m not sure if you’re meant to pack a lunch…

  • I say this in all seriousness: the videogames industry has a drinking problem. Every event seems to involve vast quantities of free or cheap alcohol, and you can easily bounce between events from 5pm until the early hours. It’s not healthy in any measure, and we shouldn’t feel like the only way we can socialise is by getting hammered.

Bonus photos

Not sure what was inside here. Videos and concept art?
Mobile escape room!