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!

Exercise Tips, 2018 Edition: Do what you like and be opportunistic

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My 7km running route around Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh

I used to hate exercising when I was younger, but managed to get into a place where I run or swim outdoors 3-5 times a week and generally enjoy it. Here’s what I found helps:

  • Try to exercise every day rather than just 3-4 times a week. You won’t (and shouldn’t!) exercise every day since things will come up, but ideally you’ll end up exercise most days.
  • I work from home now, but when I lived in London I would always try to combine my commute home with a run to save time and money. This is more practical in some locations than others, but the principal holds.
  • Do whatever kind of exercise you like. It’s more important that you do something rather than nothing.
  • Be opportunistic, especially if you live in a place with changeable weather. It usually doesn’t rain all day. When it comes to running, if you can get used to running in the rain – which may require some special clothes – you’ll be able to work out more regularly. Some of my most memorable runs were in the pouring rain in Hampstead Heath, when I gave a comradely nod to the sole dog-walker out there as I passed him.
  • Don’t obsess about statistics and calories. It’s not an exact science. Again, something is better than nothing.
  • Good shoes matter for running. Nothing else does, other than some kind of sweat-wicking T-shirt. It’s worth going to a dedicated running shoe store to get some advice; many of them have treadmills and cameras to analyse your gait.
  • The Apple Watch is surprisingly good at run tracking. Its other exercise features are mixed; I like the daily stand reminders and the 30 minute activity ring, but “Daily Coaching” notifications are infuriating bad and, frankly, dangerous. You can turn them off by opening the Watch app on your phone, then going to Activity > Daily Coaching.
  • Don’t overdo it. Pushing yourself too far is counterproductive. The only times I’ve really hurt myself while running with sprained ankles or falls was when I was tired or on the brink of illness and went for a run anyway because I “had” to.

On Mayonnaise

An exquisite disquisition on mayonnaise from Metafilter’s Nanukthedog:

Alright. I’ve been a high end cook/chef and I’ve also worked for as ‘Big Mayo’ a company as you can in the world. I know mayo inside and out – from making it in small batches, to mass production and sourcing, to which demographics and some indication as to ‘why’ those demographics buy it.

So first I’ll talk about what mayo has in it and why mayo is what it is. It is the quintessential definition of mise en place. There is not a single unnecessary component to make it what it is. It is culinarily perfect – even if you don’t like it. Mayo, like making wheels for a bicycle, is an art form of craftsmanship. The ingredients are simple: eggs, oil, mustard, lemon, water, salt, and spice. You can make it with a ridiculous amount of junk in it like pureed avocado or sriracha or Frank’s (on edit: Hot Sauce), or chopped up pickles, or vinegar or what have you… but if you can’t combine the first set perfectly – somebody is going to taste ‘something off’ and not be able to figure out what it is.

… Here’s the thing: big mayo makes this stuff surprisingly similar these days. There was a period where they stopped, but unsurprisingly folks have come around to understanding that their changes changed both the flavor profile too much, as well as were things that made people walk away from the product. So mayo has largely gotten back to its roots. I am of the belief that mayo requires egg – which means that you can have avegan mayo substitute, but calling something mayo that is vegan is questionably honest and causes me to raise an eyebrow to your understanding… Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that there is anything wrong with a vegan product, its just the misleading equivalent of ‘frozen dairy product’ being equated with ice cream. I think you can get some great tastes with sandwich spreads, but thickening salad dressing emulsifications does not make you a mayo without the base ingredients.

… The numbers didn’t lie. Mayo is a full on red-state established food product. Even ‘light mayo’ is red state. If you want to attract blues – Olive Oil and Organic. Everybody loves squeeze mayonnaise. The quantity consumed will be much lower in the blue states, but – full stop – they don’t consume nearly the same quantity.

The fall-off for traditional, store bought mayo purchase is a death curve aligned to the baby boomers, with millennials purchasing some, but then only the ‘squeeze’ form factor for (assumed) sandwiches. For those that bought, the purchase cycle by unit was uniform across demographics, but looking out actual ounces – the older you were the bigger the containers that you bought and the less-healthy your containers were.

Edinburgh Fringe 2018: Brief Reviews

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Owing to work and travel I haven’t seen many Fringe shows this year, but here’s what I did see:

  • The Half: Well-performed tragicomedy about a comedy double-act (both women) reuniting after a decade. Very much about what it’s like to be a woman in theatre/comedy.
  • Afternoon Concert at St. Michael and All Saints (Free): The Roxburgh Quartet played Dvorak’s “The American” and some Mozart (I think). Not bad; good first violin, but the cellist was weaker.
  • Museum After Hours: A medley of 15 minute samplers from comedians, poets, and circus acts.
    • I enjoyed SHIFT‘s cyr wheel acrobatics – or at least, what little I could see of it due to the dreadful staging (not their fault). Pro tip: unless your circus performers are on stilts, you better have raked seating or an elevated stage.
    •  Jay Lafferty had great delivery but spent her time dunking on obvious/tired subjects (millennials, Brexiters, rich people, health and safety, gluten intolerance).
    • Ben Target‘s physical meta-comedy was met with aggrieved incomprehension from the mostly-aged audience; I thought at least half the jokes were pretty great, which is a good hit rate.
    • Solid acrobatics from Tabarnak. Shame it was all over in just five minutes.
    • My highlight was Toby Thompson‘s lovely and funny poetry, whom we saw on Kate Tempest’s recommendation. I’ll try to catch his full show next week.
  • Once Upon a Daydream: Adventurous family-friendly mix of live action, music, and animation by a Taiwanese company. There are many good bits but the “miserable single woman seeks happiness through love” theme was tiresome.
  • First Snow / Première neige: The most Canadian thing I’ve ever seen. ‬‪Deeply earnest, mulingual, multicultural, multinational, fourth-wall breaking, overly concerned about its place in the world, with good acting, important story, and confused execution. You can tell this is devised theatre.

There’s no question that Twitter’s self-inflicted mishaps and dreadful behaviour has driven people to Mastodon, but I also think that the move towards blogging and a slower, more artisanal form of short-form updating is fundamentally a reversion to the mean.

Which is to say: even if @Jack (Twitter’s CEO) wasn’t an utter asshole, I think people would have gone to blogging/Mastodon anyway. He’s just massively accelerated the migration.

In this reading, the fact that Mastodon is slower, less connected, and has more characters, is indicative of a desire to move away from the brain-melting shit-heap that Twitter has become. It turns out that blogging wasn’t dead, and there is still a place for longer-form personal writing on the internet.