PSN Wishlist

With the continuing dearth of games to justify my PS3 purchase (I'm awaiting my copy of GTA4) I've been browsing the Japanese PSN store, which by all accounts is a little more luxuriously stocked than the US one, and playing a few PS1 classics. Most notably I am surprised at how playable, enjoyable, Crash Bandicoot 2 and 3 still are, despite the graphics being so rough the polygon edges poke your eyes out. All this got me thinking about which PS1 games I'd love to see available on PSN and which I'd buy immediately, again.

When this game was first released it looked fairly quaint, as it used the kind of 2D graphics we were used to in the SNES era, but in the end it means it has aged a lot better, visually, than most other PS1 titles. It’s very much an action RPG in the Zelda school of gaming. You play a young boy who can step into other people’s dreams and has to battle the usual types of villains Hell-bent on destroying or conquering the world or the dream world or whatever guff these types of games usually come up with. So it doesn’t quite have an award winning storyline, but it has everything that made Zelda fun: action battles, items that unlock new abilities and areas to explore, puzzles and dungeons. I remember it being a little slow paced, but immensely enjoyable. With the lack of more 2D Zelda games, this is pretty much the next best thing.
Alundra on MobyGames

If you don't have a smile on your face as the developer logo slides onto the screen before this game starts then you have no soul. "Whoopee Camp" the text sings in unison with the helium voiced choir. "Whoopee Camp" is officially, I state here, the best ridiculous name for a developer ever. I have no idea if this game sold well, though it obviously did enough business to warrant a sequel, yet sadly not enough to keep the developer alive.
Tomba, or as he and the game are called in Japanese Tombi, is the hero of the game, a pink-haired, grass skirt wearing freak with an appetite. The world is overrun by evil pigs. Who said game story writing was in the dumps? Aside from the charmingly madcap setting, this game is great because it is of that most delicious, and most rare genre, the adventure platformer. Playing in a solidly 2.5D world, with 3D graphics and 2D gameplay you guide Tomba/i through many side scrolling levels with a foreground and background playable area, and complete missions. Some are puzzles, some are fetch quests, but all are fun. Just for this game mechanic alone the title is worth another purchase!
Graphically it hasn’t aged that well, as with most 3D PS1 titles, but the game is still charming and bright and a lot of fun! The sequel offered pretty much more of the same which, in this case, is not a bad thing at all.
Tomba! on MobyGames

Ghost in the Shell
Though I am not a huge anime fan, much to the chagrin, I'd imagine, of the many Japanophiles who envy my position, there are a few that I really like, including the Ghost in the Shell films and comics. They are moody, cerebral and beautiful, yet the recent games have not really grabbed me. This PS1 outing, though, was supremely excellent for a variety of reasons, not least the anime intro where Major Matoko Kusinagi has some kind of orgasmic fit while wired up, leaking certain substances from certain areas that had a profound effect on the young man I was then.
The game itself puts you, if I remember correctly, into the mind of an anonymous new recruit which is then transplanted into a Fuchikoma unit, the spider-like tank, and sent out on missions. Using the left and right triggers you could do a cool strafing dash and, being a spider droid kind of thing, you could climb onto the sides of buildings and ceilings, which was at first confusing but later became second nature and a great way to sneak up on turrets. The first boss battle pitted you against a cloaked tank and the final battle, spoiler alert, took place on top of a giant skyscraper. But that was not the best of it. After defeating the last boss, in its dying moments it grabbed you and jumped off the building. What followed was a 40 second timer, sweaty palms and an initial "oh MY GOOD CHRIST!" exclamation as you rabidly tried to pump your bullets and any left-over grenades into the falling boss, hopefully killing it for good this time so you'd have enough time to grab onto the side of the building and save yourself. It was a bit of a cheat, but one of those defining moments in my life as a gamer that I won't forget in a hurry.
On top of that it had a pumping techno soundtrack, worthy of a separate purchase, and a training mode that was infinitely replayable for high scores. In my humble estimation this title was the best Ghost in the Shell game ever made, and though graphically it'll look quaint, if not downright ugly, I'd buy it again in a second on PSN, should they have the decency to release it, because I'm sure it is still playable to this day.
Ghost in the Shell on MobyGames

It’s madness to recommend old games for a system as shiny and new as the PS3 but the titles listed are all fantastic little games worth a second look, or first look if you haven’t yet. Besides, a generation this recent is often overlooked in the retro spheres. I hope they will become available to buy on-line but it might be worth keeping your eyes open at flea markets and second hand shops for these little gems.


I usually try to avoid singling out specific blogs or websites for praise and recommendation, as it's a little like choosing your favourite from a litter of bastard step-children who each have their own charms and harvestable organs, but as I have been asked on occasion to write more about Japanese indie and amateur games, of which I confess I know too little, I thought Engrish Games deserved some extra attention.

Written by a guy calling himself Dong (don't laugh) and possibly some translation software, this site lists various indie developers and their games, which of them have English sites and releases and, if they don't, instructions on how to play them. Needless to say, I am not the first website to point out this blog, but I thought it was such a worthwhile service that at least I could try and send more enthusiasts his way.

If you want to see what is happening in one section of the indie/amateur game development niche I think you'll find some excellent or at least interesting projects being worked on my some enthusiast somewhere. Specifically the schmup seems to live on in these circles, which is, if you ask me, a godsend. Do yourself a favour and check it out!

Secondly, Andrea Rubenstein of the Iris blog has finally started her game design course at HAL and has begun writing about her experiences. My first impression is that it seems very old-fashioned and traditional, in the way they start and end classes, which may prepare her for working life in the bigger, more traditional gaming corporations. I hope she can, and is allowed to, write a little bit about the syllabus, as I'm very curious about that. Having worked with a handful of game school graduates here in Japan, and looking at my own experiences, I still believe the only real way to learn the skills you need is on the job, but game development education has come a long way in just a short time, so this might not be the case these days. Also, having just hired a small smattering of (regular) graduates, I'd be interested to know if she is planning to go through those Hellish graduate recruitment drives that Japan enjoys every March/April, though this is still years in the future. This is definitely a blog worth keeping an eye on if you're inexperienced and have the urge to work in the Japanese industry.

Lastly, I have to point out to a charming new feature started in the Thwomp Factory blog, where one of its contributors tries to cook recipes featured in games in the same way they are made in those particular titles. The first comes from one of my favourite games, Harvest Moon: Magical Melodies, so it caught my attention. With so many industry pundits writing about the same old issues, it's great to see these fun and novel ways of enjoying games and writing about them cropping up on blogs like these; they remind me that games are fun, to be enjoyed.

These sites have been added to the sidebar for future reference.

Ikariam revisited

Since posting about it previously, addiction has set in something rotten and every spare minute I could muster has been poured into my Ikariam Empire, which is now a commendable size, with two colonies and a growing alliance of friends and colleagues. But some glaring issues with the game’s design have also become apparent, beyond the fact it isn’t finished yet in itself. Here are some issues I’ve come across that would be worth considering for any web-based developers.

No Invite
I am shocked and appalled there is no “invite friends” button on the site. I have to tell my friends via email to try it out and to make sure they join the same server as me, whereas this would have been much better done with a single button and standard invitation email. This would also allow for friends who join using the invitation to have an island somewhere in the rough vicinity as your own on the same server, and not, as is the case now, spread across the map at several days’ distance from each other. When I create an alliance I want it to be with the people I know, preferably, but that is only useful if we’re all in the same sector. An invitation process could easily bring new players to the game and make sure they are clustered fairly close together, for added fun.

If you have the misfortune to be neighbours with an aggressor who is more powerful than you, the game is, for all intents and purposes, finished. There is no way for the victim to build defense or an army large enough to combat the invader if the latter keeps hammering you. The only option is to research to a certain level and build enough to be able to join an alliance and hope they can sort things out for you, but if you’re a real low level player, even this could be problematic or at least very time consuming.
They do limit the number of attacks a person can unleash on any single village by 6 per day, which is still a lot and leaves the victim with absolutely no recourse to defend or rebuild. A better tactic would have been to limit an attack to one per every few days, giving the victim time to slowly, very slowly, build towards a defense, in either building or joining an alliance, and will force the warmonger to attack other villages while he waits for another chance, thus angering more players, increasing the chances of a joint retaliation and so making the risk of warmongering commensurate with the possible rewards. Alternatively, set up a mercenaries system, where big Alliances can be paid, maybe deferred, to help out a small starter village by pummeling someone who deserves it.

Obtuse rules
Apart from the constant attacking, which is called “bashing”, there is another rule called “pushing” where lower level players may not send huge amounts of resources to higher players. This last one seems a little odd but I guess it came from friends artificially strengthening each other’s villages or aggressive players demanding obscene amounts of “tribute” under the threat of invasion.
Though the rules are basically sound, if they are so problematic, why allow the player to do these things in the first place? If you want the number of attacks on a village to be capped at 6 per 24 hour period, a bad decision as I explained above, why not stop the player from being able to do so by having a counter which limits the number of attacks in this way? Why wait for the aggrieved player to report the aggressor to the moderators first? If players are finding ways to exploit the system it means the system is broken, and punishing the players may, in the short term, appease the victims, it doesn’t help build a friendly community. Build these rules into the game design and don’t rely on forums and “verbal” agreements.

It is undeniable there is a balancing issue with players who start on an island with the marble resource having a distinct advantage in the early and mid games. As pretty much all important buildings require marble to upgrade you can witness a seller’s market in your trading post with certain cheeky players demanding a king’s ransom for a tiny amount of the material. Of course, if you’re lucky, as I was, your neighbours are decent traders, so I was never in such a position, but it does happen. What is the point of being a tiny, defenseless village with a lot of research because the crystal resource was only good for upgrading your academy? A better balancing of buildings and upgrades and the resources they need could prevent this.

A problem in the mid game, continuing on into the long game are not so much the number of resources you need for upgrades, which do become immense, but the time it takes. Part of this is the fun of the game, where you set your tasks and let the game play it out for a while, but later on certain timeframes run into the days, rather than hours. An option to take workers away from mining and research and pour them into construction to marginally speed up upgrading would have been very welcome and adds a new level of tactical depth.

Part of the fun of this game, so far, is finding out together how things work. I’ve had long email conversations and witnessed long threads of forums about the game where a lot of the information is shared. “Did you know that when…” or “Oh, you need a …” type conversations are common and this sense of exploration of the game’s rules is actually a lot of fun, especially in a friendly community.
However, it is also a sign that your documentation or help system isn’t working. I think I have finally gotten to grips with the building and upgrade structure, what I need and when, how to split my populous between mining and making money and how to keep the plebs happy (wine!), but as for military actions…I am in the dark. What makes a good defense force? What do I need for an all out attack? When am I spending too much money on overkill when just a few ships would suffice? What are the real effects of spending huge amounts of cash and resources into upgrading my units? These kinds of things are costly to explore in the game itself, as an attack can anger other players and, if you’re unprepared, could cause devastating revenge. Beyond this too, what happens exactly when I upgrade my town hall? What effect does corruption have on my colonies? Too many questions are left unanswered for the average player.
Trawling the game’s forums is a good source of information, but, with the massive signature picks and the many, many subsections it’s not fun. A decent wiki or on-line guide, explaining in minute detail the ins and outs of all aspects of the game is necessary. Instead we rely on fan-made wikis and information, rather than a fully integrated and in-depth manual that delves deeper than what is currently there.

So far the tactic to charge players real money for certain types of incentives seems, well, flawed. There is simply no compelling reason to pay money for a few of these temporary perks, certainly not later in the game when you have resources growing out of your backside. Maybe one off payments for an instant but limited boost to certain resources for the beleaguered attack victim, or certain units which are strong but expensive and can only be purchased through the premium system. There are many opportunities here, but a small percentage boost to resource mining for a few days…just doesn’t seem worth it. Also, with the game still very much in development, players might not want to spend money on it yet, as too many things can change, including these premium elements.

So in my inexperienced opinion developers of on-line games should be aware of the following rules:
1. Don’t punish players for exploiting loopholes in your design. Make the game play as it is intended to play and don’t rely on the honour system. If you want players to stick by certain rules make sure there are systems in place to prevent the players from doing these actions.
2. If you’re relying on word of mouth and, especially, if you have a community aspect to the game, allow “invite friends” options and provide for, in the case of Ikariam, the close proximity spawning of invited players.
3. If you are going to rely on added content to bring in revenue, make sure the added content is worthwhile, and that you don’t offer it before the game is at least basically complete.
4. RTFM, and make sure this is an M available. A detailed Wiki allows players to skim through the basics but also to delve deeper into specifics. Exploring game rules can be fun, but it shouldn’t have to be a crapshoot.

However addictive Ikariam is, it is not perfect and it certainly isn’t quite finished yet (it’s a good thing I haven’t forgotten all my German!). That said, I still highly recommend the game, but the developers need to rethink certain issues and design elements before it grows from “great” to “excellent”.


"Twas like where you're from weren't never there. Where you're going doesn't matter. And where you are ain't no good unless you can get away from it! " – Hazel, Wise Blood

I consider myself a city boy, but that doesn't mean I don't need to escape it once in a while to avoid turning into a raving, homicidal maniac under the pressures of work, life and my commute. I did this when I was a Londoner too; escape the hustle and bustle, even if only for a couple of days, and drink in some green nature and relatively fresh air. This weekend I took a whirlwind trip down south again for a dip in the onsen, in a small hotel in Ito in the Shizuoka prefecture.

The weekend didn’t start well, with, thanks to the schizophrenic weather conditions this spring and my lovely colleagues, I developed a stonking bad cold on Friday. But come Saturday morning, I dragged myself out of bed with a fever, headache, clogged nose, bad cough and aching eyeballs to make the three hour trip by local trains, passing through Tsurumaki Onsen station, apparently the inspiration for the locale in Ghibli’s Spirited Away. Part of the way we had the pleasure of sharing a carriage with a gang of rowdy, drunk octogenarians. It’s heartening to know that at that age, in Japan, one is still expected to misbehave and be a loud drunk. I could easily grow old in this country.

The stretch from Atami to Ito and beyond is always a little sad. With boulevards and palm trees as well as the occasional seafront hotel it’s easy to imagine it was once the Japanese Riviera, where young couple in 1950s clothes and cars came to holiday. These days it all looks a little run down and, especially off-season, empty. And because these areas are basically regular Japanese villages with the occasional hotel, you can’t much get the “holiday” vibe. But the important things are the volcanic springs; this is the reason to go!

As it’s the off-season right now, just weeks before Golden Week, the national springtime holiday time, we had no problems booking the hotel, though there were several other couples and families there. What I enjoy most about these things is the tatami. As we opted to rip the tatami out of our apartment when we moved in, as they can be a bitch to keep clean and in good nick, I do enjoy occasionally loafing about in a yukata and lying around on the floor in traditional Japanese settings. The view from our surprisingly large room consisted of the mountains, the village below and the bay off to the east. We had chosen the room specifically because it had an onsen bath in the room, but as this turned out to be a regular plastic bathtub with lukewarm onsen water on tap, even though the large window did overlook a very nice view, we decided to go to the hotel’s larger, public onsen instead.

I fully expect to be contacted by the British Embassy soon to return my passport and forcibly denounce my citizenship as I have become far too adept at suppressing the feeling of shame and embarrassment of exposing myself in public. On my first dip the onsen was positively crowded with three other, Japanese patrons. Disrobing and walking to the showers as nature intended before slipping into a shared bathing experience went a lot smoother than before, I’m afraid to say. Don’t ask me if it’s true what they say about the Japanese, because I didn’t stare. At the end of my second dip I had a brief moment of solitude as one guy was just leaving and another was apparently shocked by my foreignness, though that did little to soothe the natural disgust I have of seeing my own flabby body in the altogether. Nevertheless, a piping hot spring water bath acts as a steam bath for my nostrils and for brief moments I could forget I had a crippling cold.

Dinner was served in the room, as is the custom, and consisted of the usual platter of Japanese dishes, beautiful and tasty. Ill or not, a dip in the onsen dictates a booze session, for which I had purchased several large cans of Asahi, as we sat and watched the television. It is strange how being dizzy from the hot bath, delirious from your cold and tipsy from the beer all work together to somehow make Japanese television more palatable. Before long I sank in a mouth-breathing slumber on a wonderfully soft futon. Sleeping the Japanese way can be very nice.

The next morning’s breakfast in the communal dining area was a bit of an ordeal for me. In the same way you could stumble across a one night stand as she’s out walking with her husband, and all you can think is “I’ve seen you naked”, in the same way was I acutely aware of the fact I had seen the flabby arses of every guy in the room. They apparently had no problem with this all, but then they are not British. It certainly didn’t make me any more comfortable thanks to the continuing nose-dripping and debilitating coughing fits. After breakfast we checked out, bought our usual omiyage, presents for the family in law, in the town and made our long way back.

And you may ask if it’s worth traveling three hours each way with a bad cold for a single night in a hotel in the countryside and a dip in a pool, and I say it absolutely is. Having a brief walk through nicely wooded areas, away from the crowds, is wonderfully calming, even with a pocket full of used tissues. My skin feels smooth and my body somewhat soothed thanks to the session in the volcanically heated spring water; it is absolutely wonderful to experience, despite the coughing. For anyone willing to build a new life in a major city like Tokyo, the occasional escape makes life, in general, somewhat easier to cope with. And with Japan’s countryside as beautiful as it is, I highly recommend a trip to the onsen for even the temporary visitor.

Reciprocal Love

You may well and rightfully ask what a grown man does calling himself a “Nintendo fanboy”, as I somewhat ashamedly do. Is it the quality of the games, the general fun-factor or the IPs? Well, yes, it’s all of those. But what delivers the icing on the cake is that Nintendo of Japan knows how to treat its loyal fans.

I am under no misconception that Nintendo is a massive corporation with a single aim: to make money. And boy, do they make money. But since hard-edged Yamauchi made way for lovable, cuddly Iwata as the reigning head of the company, since the launch of the family hit console Wii and the proliferation of fun, often highly polished titles Nintendo more than ever comes across as your best friend (unless you’re one of these uber-hardcore types). Never moreso than this evening when I, as a platinum Club Nintendo member, was presented by mail with this year’s special free gift that they send out around each spring. Last year it was a special calendar and the interim gift of a golden Mario statuette, which, considering it was totally gratis and unasked for, is much better than a slap in the face. This year it was, good golly, a Wii Classic Controller shaped exactly like a classic SNES pad (pictured above). Oh my! And remember, the only thing I had to do for this was to register my special codes that come with the many software purchases I make over the year, which gives me points which I can still, above and beyond this gift, spend on other free items.

Sony too have their little odes to its fans, though in a different way. They usually produce limited edition themed items, for sale, to the hardcore fans. Be it special editions of consoles or game-themed peripherals, it’s not quite in the same generous league as Nintendo, but still.

The real villains in this picture are of course Microsoft, with their inability to break through in the Japanese market in any significant way. What did they give me after they fixed my unreliable console? A free month’s subscription to a service I would rather not pay for at all in the first place. Aside from that? They offer their tiny band of crazy loyal fans with absolutely nothing special. If they want to understand the inscrutable Japanese gamer, free gifts and fan service is a very big deal here.

I am well aware that the global score of Nintendo’s fan service brings the average down somewhat. Just remember that the regional offices operate fairly autonomously so it doesn’t prove Nintendo loves Japan more, but merely that Nintendo of Europe doesn’t like Europeans all that much.

I can’t wait to try out my new controller, but it will have to wait till after I finish Metroid Prime 3, which, thanks to the surprisingly effective Freeloader I can now enjoy without the aid of a dictionary. Hurrah!

Emotional Design

I think the generally held opinion is that Japanese games have a more interesting visual style than those in the West, where they suffer from uninspired realism. This is of course not true, as there are plenty of Western games with their own distinctive style, say Team Fortress 2, Alien Hominid, Geometry Wars, and many others, but the initial gut reaction of many is that the Japanese have a knack. And it’s certainly something I believe myself. When it comes to interesting, inspired or downright crazy art styles the Japanese certainly seem to have a talent, which is probably, amongst other things, why Japanese games are still, to this day, much loved by Western audiences.

The Western industry thrives on buzzwords and the most recent one is “emotion”. Ridiculous speeches and opinion pieces by punters and industry insiders talk about how video games need to be infused with "more emotion", how they need to engage the player on a whole new level, to make them, Lord forbid, cry. The reason this trend is so prolific at the moment is possibly because a lot of titles focus mainly on technology, especially in these “next-gen” days. If a game plays a lot like a tech demo it’s probably because it is one, because developers know good technology can be licensed out for extra income. There are certain tricks of technology that everybody wants to show off, hence the sudden focus on realistic water, real-time occlusion shadowing and a massive increase in on-screen polygons and physics. Art teams have a wealth of possibilities and are often made to use each and every one of them because technology drives the industry.

But does it drive the market? I guess it does, to an extent. For certain titles the more real the graphics, AI and physics the better, obviously. A racing simulator with cartoony graphics won’t be as successful as one which looks hyper-real, nor would a flight simulator. First-Person perspective games are all about putting the player in the middle of the action, so suspending disbelief with realism seems natural. Sales and marketing will push he realism angle, because they believe it’s important. Programmers dictate what is possible and managers will want to milk that to the fullest, whether it is all appropriate or not. And don’t get me wrong, this trend has brought us some astounding games, both in gameplay and visual splendor. It’s a Good Thing™ generally.

In Japan, however, the industry is behind technically. And whether it is because of this or due to some cultural bent, visual design is approached rather differently here. In meetings and design sessions the focus is not on beauty and realism, in the technical sense of the word, but much more about the feelings it should evoke in the player.

Words like “kimochii”, “ureshii”, “kawaii” are often bandied about in these meetings. And though they are easy to translate their true meaning in these contexts is less so. Imagine a beer commercial, of which Japan has many. A guy picks up a dripping wet, cold pint of golden wonder, takes a few deep, audible gulps, wipes is mouth and goes “AHHHH”. That is often the feeling Japanese developers want to invoke. A kind of satisfied pleasure, a calming or soothing of the spirit, an elation. Imagine the player on his sofa, playing the game with a joyous grin or a satisfied smile. And this is not to say the Japanese are more “spiritual”, whatever that means, because they’re not really, but it does show a slight difference in approaches when it comes to design, and visual design in particular.

Sometimes visual design is luckily limited by the technical boundaries Japanese programmers can’t seem to master yet. With a more limited palette the artist can be forced to be more creative and investigate alternative styles to get the most out of the engine. A hyper-realistic Legend of Zelda game could, I suppose, be pretty cool, but the hardware on which it’s made simply can’t handle that right now. The Wind Waker’s scenes on the boat, as Link travelled on open seas, were immensely powerful in a way it couldn’t have been had they pushed the engine to beyond its capacity by rendering realistic water and skies. The Loco Roco game on PSP would in no way be better if they had managed to include real-time occlusion shading and nicely rendered 3D blobs with fluffy shaders. With a limited palette, either by necessity or choice, the artist is, paradoxically, more free to excel. In the West the artists have a set of shaders the publisher wants used, to show of how gorgeous the tech is, which is why we see so much glare, bloom, shiny metal surfaces and why so many, though not all, games that use the Unreal Engine suffer from that similar rusty look. More often than not, less is more. And great art direction will, at least critically, always triumph over well-crafted realism.

In the West the approach can often leave the intended player out of the loop. I’ve seen pretty cool characters changed, under publisher pressure, to more mediocre, bland ones. Visual design is often more along the lines of “make it more realistic” than anything else. And I reiterate, this is not always the case, obviously, but it feels as if the majority of high profile titles work on this principle. I think the West can learn a lot from the Japanese approach, where much is dictated not by the player experience, but by the player’s emotional reaction, however superficial, when confronted with the game. We don’t need to make players cry with heavy-handed emotionally charged scenes, nor do we need to push the envelope with deep moral questions; a simple courtesy nod towards what the player feels on a minute by minute basis should suffice to elevate the current gen into something deeply special for a lot of people.


I'm going to, with your permission, go outside of my remit here and comment on a game which is neither video nor has anything to do with Japan but is, nevertheless, eating away my time in tiny increments. I am talking of Ikariam, an on-line "Civilization Lite" that is played in your browser and has, despite my initial resistance, managed to suck me in.

At its base the game plays somewhat like Settlers meets Civilization for a nice cup of coffee. You sign up for free, pick a world and start a town. You upgrade buildings, build new buildings, research technologies and harvest wood and whatever natural bounty your island has on offer. The twist is, apart from being free and instant-play browser based, that the game is always on and actions take time. I come into work in the morning, check on my village, make some decisions, set an upgrade going and am then told it takes 3 or 4 hours. So I shut down my browser and get to work. When I check back at lunchtime the upgrade is finished and new orders can be issued. Don't expect to be playing this game intensively for hours on end, it doesn't work that way, which I think is where its genius lies.

What Ikariam is doing right:
- instant, browser-based play
You start up Firefox (or Explorer if you're not security or usability literate), type in the URL, sign up and within seconds you're playing a game. No intro logos, no downloads and installs, no driver updates and reboots, it's right there.
- totally free
You pay exactly nothing to play this game. There is a mass of functionality and gameplay right there without having to whip out your credit card. However, should you want to get a little more out of it you can, with smaller payments for extra items and systems that could give you an advantage. There is no going to the shops to pay an obscene amount of money for a product which may or may not hold your attention for, say, 10 hours worth of enjoyment. If you don't like it, then don't play it. If you do, play it. If you love it, pay some extra money. How can you, as a consumer, not like this business model?
- time investment / always on
This game does not require you to sit at your monitor for hours on end. You play it in short bursts of a few minutes spread over a day. When you have the time you check out what's going on, when you don't the game plays out in your absence. This is a great way to play games, if you ask me. It's great setting up some tasks and coming back a few hours later to see how things have progressed.
- other people
I am personally not a big fan of multiplayer gaming. You usually end up having to play with strangers or go through a tiresome process of organising all your friends to all play at a certain time and date. Ikariam does offer some scope for griefing, obviously, but generally I get a great sense of community. One aspect of this is the communal upgrading of your island's natural resources. By donating an amount of, say, wood to the forest it can be upgraded. The game keeps track of who donated how much and if you all band together you can upgrade your resources for the whole island's benefit. Seeing someone donating more than three times you have really makes you feel guilty and dig into your pockets a little more.

Is this the future, though? Maybe people have beardstroked about the browser game as being the perihelion of the video game future. It certainly has many benefits, both for the developer and the customer. For the developer it removes the need of publishers and thus a certain necessary loss of creative control in favour of the terror of our current business model's financial realities. This can of course lead to cheaper development and more risk taking but in the end even developers need to make money, so this may be an argument too far. Updates and patches are never sent out to the users as the game is played on-line, which makes the transition from beta to final product a little easier and also allows for easy expansion. Piracy is also, obviously, useless in browser games, as it's technically impossible for now and utterly useless for a free to play game. Micropayments for extra stuff could be a very lucrative system, if Korea is anything to go by, though you'd need a certain level of popularity to be able to retire on the proceeds, I'm sure.

For the customer too it's ideal. No need to buy extra hardware nor upgrade your PC, in the state things are now at least. There is no need to lug around a memory card as you can log in from any computer and pick up where you left off. And it's free, for as much as you'd like it to be. Ikariam seems to work on a system where buying some extra items with real money adds temporary boosts and bonuses, which can help you progress further faster. If Ikariam will earn a huge profit from this is unknown to me, but it certainly seems a sound way to go about it. Some Korean free MMOs have, reportedly, only a free to micropayment pick-up rate of less than 1%, which is still enough to make money, apparently. Adding advertising revenue to this model can also help. Either way, the customer can play the game and enjoy it while never having to pay a single dime/yen/penny for it, unless they really like it a lot, in which case a few dimes/yen/pennies can add to their enjoyment.

I hope Ikariam will grow into the massive success it deserves to be, especially once they deal with a few of the balancing issues where newcomers may be overwhelmed by long playing veterans. I'm also keeping an eye open on EA's efforts in this field and the many other publishers dipping their toes in. As consumers we will hopefully experience a rise in great quality, free games soon, and as developers we'll find new opportunities for businesses away from today's rather cripplingly expensive hardware-led boxed models.

Players can try to find me and shower me with free marble, if they are so inclined, on the IOTA server on sunny Houlios [23:82] > Shanksville. Seriously, send marble.

Trainmanship – surviving the Leicester Elbow

Aficionados and practitioners of the gentle art of gamesmanship may be jubilant to note that per pro yours truly the art of survival in the busiest of public transport systems has officially been accepted recently and named “trainmanship” by the Greater Tokyo Old Rotters and Gentlemen Club as a subset of Japanmanship due to the increasingly huge, as yet unpublished, amount of research on the subject, quod erat faciendum. A feat worthy of celebration, I think you’ll agree.

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Recently I was in yet another altercation involving the Leicester Elbow. In the same way London’s Leicester Square somehow attracts tourists to flock to it despite any obvious charms or worthwhile attractions, so does an elevated elbow, say one in the middle of an arm holding a suspended strap for support, attract the heads of those around it for no discernable or comprehensible reason, hence the “Leicester Elbow”. (see figure A)

Fig. A The Leicester Elbow

In my most recent case a demure and possibly drunk old salaryman had decided to wage war on my elbow by, eventually, doing backwards head buts with such force the crack of bone on bone was audible through even my earphones. I felt no pain, of course, but was irritated enough to not make any more space for the belligerent lollygagger as all he had to do was take a single step forward, back to the space he had previously occupied, for my elbow to no longer be an obstacle. This, in turn, prompted the man to turn around to have a word with me.

After having sampled and tested all manner of offensive and defensive measures it would seem ignoring the perpetrator is by far the most effective, but only if you can communicate that you are, in fact, ignoring him. This requires a passive aggressive non-activity which can be hard to convey, but the Leicester Elbow forms a unique natural solution, which I had cause in this instance to test with astounding results.

In turning to me the perpetrator sought eye contact which I was unwilling to lend him, as it would invariably lead to a cul-de-sac of verbal abuse. Instead I continued to stare at my mobile phone and moved my elbow ever so slightly as to make it occupy the space in between our heads through which the conversation was to be conducted. Not deterred the drunk merely tilted his head sideways to peek past my elbow and to reinitiate possible eye contact. To answer this move, I merely shifted my elbow ever so slightly back and again successfully blocked him from my view, never once looking up. (see figure 2) The dance can theoretically be perpetrated ad infinitum but in this instance it was repeated four times before the man got the message and meekly turned to move to a different space, far removed from this aggressively unwilling victim.

Fig. 2 The Sandwich Waltz

The lesson learnt is that simply ignoring the wrongdoer will yield no reasonable results so actively ignoring him while communicating loudly you are doing so, as with the Sandwich Waltz, is proven to be effective.

As a side note, the tactic did eventually lead to the man changing his position to near where another passenger would give up his seat at the following stop, allowing for the aggressor to sit in comfort for the rest of the trip while yours truly remained standing. So maybe it was not a victory in comfort, if it was one in the moral sphere of commuter survival.