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Happy New Year - Another year older...



I (Richard H) take the opportunity to indulge myself in a little year-end editorial and pick out some of the personal highs and lows of the past twelve months. Warning: may contain rambling, digression and woeful inaccuracies.


Is it over already? What happened this year?


2011 a year where the most wanted man in America was shot (along with 4 other people that nobody seems to remember) by US Navy SEALs. A year where governments attempted to convince themselves they have any kind of control over economies despite the billions spent on technology and infrastructure to remove people out of the loop. I call blasting away mountains to improve packet travel time by mere milliseconds pretty compelling evidence of the forces being thrown into this new hi-tech computer based trading war. When the speed of light is too slow to make money over the competition and shortening your cable by removing hillsides is the difference between profit and loss what chance do governments or people have in this trading scenario? And it's all happening without much talk or opposition.


The 'adventure' in IRAQ was laid to rest with US President Obama announcing US troop withdrawal. The British army was there in the first half of the previous century and didn't fare much better, although the suggestion that using poison gas on rebels in the north was not acted upon, that was one of Winston Churchill's bright ideas curiously. Always seemed ironic that.


Freedom swept across the middle east, starting with Tunisia as despot after despot was felled in popular uprisings. You'd be forgiven for thinking it was some sort of Facebook game.



Earthquakes and devestation


Japan moved 20 meters westerly and horrific scenes of coastal devastation were broadcast live as the resulting tsunami from the massive undersea earthquakes swept away generations of familes, homes and soon after any remaining nuclear power comfort zone.


Japan has never been a stranger to holocaust, scenes and stories of annihilation and devastation are popular in Japanese culture, see the opening scene of Akira. This is something they have lived through time and time again. My late father-in-law was a Hiroshima survivor, sponsored by US scientists after the war he became a US citizen and then a notable scientist and Quaker. He told me once of thanking Oppenheimer (at a conference) for ending the war in his country, how awful must things have been when getting nuked and loosing your family was in retrospect the better option? It's something I can't even begin to think about without breaking down in tears.



Game devs want more pie


It was the year every game studio and his dog decided they wanted a slice of the Mincecraft pie without any consideration of what makes it so popular. The phrase "just like Warcraft" was replaced by "just like Minecraft", or if you're an unethical developer, "Just like Farmville".


Unethical is a strong word to use but I'll use it for any type of game that preys on innate human weaknesses to make you play them rather than well designed gameplay. This can be aimed at a lot of games that exist in the social arena. I blame a large part of this down to the adoption of the "Monthly Active User" metric being used as a key performance indicator (KPI) for IP acquisition and exploitation.


Another example of game success passed around developers is "Angry Birds". What they often don't realise is Angry Birds was not an out of the blue success, the creators had built up experience working on around 50 games between them prior to launch. The game mechanics are stupefying simple, any programmer or user of Little Big Planet can put such a game together. It is no more sophisticated than Gorillas (shipped as BASIC source code with MSDOS 5 see wiki), it is a single player artillery game. But everything surrounding the mechanics is a finely tuned presentation based on their collective game experience. It takes experienced designers to make Angry Birds, not programmers.



Indie because we say so


Somehow the meaning of 'indie' became fluid, when news of companies like EA announce the formation of an indie studio to engage social and mobile spaces it has one reaching for my "WTF?" stamp. In what way is this indie? Indie is folks trying to democratise games in a way big studios have been blocking for years, indie is independent thought in the game-space or some pretentious twaddle like that. Indie is not trading on skin deep looks, big bucks advertising budgets but game mechanics and freedom to experiment. Freedom to fail.


Start-ups being handed hundreds of thousands of pounds in government grants could be said to be independent. Certainly this year saw many studios spring forth from magic money with little to show for it, and some priced beyond reason. It smells of the dot com boom bust of the early 2000s. Studios are good at being handed funds (in the words of Lord Stark) 'when it's safe'. Hey investors, how about taking some risks on real projects? We could have done this bloody game in half the time, does that smack of enough bitterness? Yes I'm bitter. OK that's enough, better now. Moving on to some of the personal gaming highs this year.



Video game highlights of 2011


Shogun 2 - Creative Assembly

Magika - Arrowhead Game Studios

Assassins Creed Revelations - Ubisoft


Most of the games I had time to play this year (and that's not many) were a mixed bag. To be fair even Assassins Creed was a face-roll fest (not much skill required) but managed to keep one going through sheer story and production value. At the opposite end is Shogun 2, Creative Assembly's triumph combining many elements they've tinkered with in previous games and spades of neat game elements into their two tier strategy game packed with historical facts.


Magika is a hilarious indie action game where blowing yourself up in interesting ways seems par for the course. It came out of nowhere and fair to describe the tone of the game as something you'd get if you threw Reservoir Dogs, Lord of the Rings and Monty Python into a blender. Thanks guys for the laughs.


Honorary mentions: Battlefield 3, Portal 2. and Kerbal Space Program. That latter being great fun if you're into building your own monstrous launch systems and killing space crews in spectacular fireballs.



Video game disappointments of 2011


I bought 'em, played 'em, felt gutted.


Test Drive 2 Unlimted - Eden Games


Wow, after the brilliant but only slightly flawed first game they didn't need to do very much to make the second game a winner. It was like the anticipation of a new Star Wars film (The Phantom Menace), in the words of Harry Plinkett, how hard is it to screw up? It's like mashed potato, just add water. Well they managed it IN SPADES by populating the game entirely with really awful people. I don't want to play these characters, I don't want to interact with these characters. One forum poster dubbed it "Douche-bag simulator".




An honorary arrow in the knee because Oblivion with a face-lift seemed cool at first, erm how much was spent on this? Disappointment still ringing from the hours I put into Oblivion only to find the openness of character development can result in halting any progression after xxx hours. They filmed this live action trailer which could be for anything, my step-son suggested that it could work as a dandruff commercial, see for yourself...


Let me know if you hit the same wall in Skyrim.



Batman Arkham City


I finished the first Batman game a total of FIVE times. I can't think when I've ever bothered to do that with any other console game. Finishing ONCE is a rare thing.


Arkham City lost me after a weekend of play. Too much freedom and visual clutter spoiling an otherwise masterfully visualised city environment. Riddler on the Roof, he's painted dayglow green **** everywhere to solve his collection meta-quest. And worse, there's really no logic to some of the puzzles, (the rooftop chicken run with the magnetic ball for one), I can absorb bullets but I can't rip open a chicken run to grab the ball and stick it in the hole? Put me in the game like you did with Arkham Asylum please, but ill-considered content like this kept taking me out. Sometimes less is more. The artwork is amazing and the laser effects best I've ever seen, a real visual treat with jarring game elements that kill pacing.





I had to mention this. Still not out yet and my internal build seems so close yet needs more cowbell. I was really looking forward to seeing a beta released around now and spending my time apologising in public forums and working on improvements. What happened is a series of poor choices on my part which I wouldn't choose to do again. Problem that a normal team could rally around is too much for one programmer to deal with (such as the much needed engine occlusion bug which broke a key avionics sub-system). Another mistake was getting pressured into announce a release period which was just setting myself up for disappointing people when problems arose. I broke my own rule and paid the price. While I still feel bad about that I love the team even though they probably hate some of the choices I made, I can't disagree. Will the release meet expectations? Probably not. Will it fly? You bet. Besides my wife said she'll cut off my bollocks if I don't release it soon or get a decent paying job. Can't argue with that either.



Video and film highlights of 2011


Everything is a Remix


If there was ever a documentary that shows how ridiculous, damaging and outdated modern day copyright and patent laws are, Everything is a Remix is an entertaining documentary series in 4 parts. Everything around us is a remix of some tool, idea and material. Without the freedom to copy, transform and combine existing ideas and technologies creativity is stifled and with it western economies. How different our world would be today if the same level of litigation was around at the time of the industrial revolution.



Sons of Guns - Discovery Channel


Once you get past the gratuitous 'gun porn' flag waving aspect what I love about this series is the sheer love and enthusiasm from the employees of Red Jacket Firearms featured in the show. Sure they love to blow stuff up and you might question the sanity and choices made (as do the employees from time to time) but the company is not run as a democracy (insert discussion here). Now airing the third season it's perhaps the most popular show on Discovery HD. It had me yelling, "I got a guitar GUN!" Cracks me up every time.


Cowboys and Aliens (imdb)


The film was better than the title. Reminding me a little of an old b-movie Valley of the Gwangi (imdb) it was a reasonably fun and gritty take on the what-if monster genre.


Super-8 (imdb)


A charming revisit of what an 80s Spielberg movie would be if made today....set in the 80s. Yes we wore those clothes in school. And if you have a 5.1 surround system then the train crash scene will terrify your neighbours. Written and Directed by J.J Abrams.



Cool science stuff


Energy from paper, discovery of hundreds of 'earth like' planets around nearby stars, the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson and Mentos in diet coke. Granted the last one is a bit late but is the only practical experiment I actually conducted in the kitchen. I did clean up though.


Here's hoping that next year science will bring us phones and portable computing devices that can keep a charge for more than a few hours.


Oh and the amazing new bulletproof liquid armor from BAE systems would be handy in the field. Currently it requires 10 pints of Newcastle Brown Ale to feel bulletproof and lightweight however field tests show the subject to be less than agile.





(or I'll hit the UNDO button at midnight and we'll have to try all over again)




Parting quote:


"Goodbye. Goodbye to all the 87 software houses who are no longer with us . . . hello multinationals with your contract lawyers and your cut-price rotten little programs ..." - The Pi-man's end of the year message to fans circa mid 1980s





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