A new Bowie album? How delightfully unoriginal!

So there’s a Bowie studio album at number one. How very 1993/1984/1983/1980/1974/1973/1973.

Time to reminisce.

As a young and impressional youth, my first single was “Are ‘friends’ electric?” by Tubeway Army. By today’s standards, judging by the fetuses screaming for Justin Bieber, I was a later starter at 13. There had been a brief error of judgement with a David Soul single, but I discount that as due to my adoration of Starsky and Hutch (that’s the excellent original TV series, not the lame recent film). I also don’t tell anyone about that, even though I still have the 7″ single…whoops.

Tubeway Army of course led to Gary Numan, the Human League, Bauhaus, even early Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. Around this time my brother moved back in with us for a while. He’s twenty years my senior, and so as a small child he was almost like an uncle, being at work and getting married and all that grown up stuff. But he was wise and cool. He drove an Alfa Romeo, knew all there was to know about football and had a job that took him to America. He was also a massive Bowie fan.

I can remember being so dismissive when he drew comparisons between Bowie and the stuff I was listening too. How could they not be completely original, these masters of the synth and studio?

He knew how to win me over. He played me some of the first record of the double album Stage. A highly polished ‘live’ album that is a wall of synthesisers and catchy tunes mixed with doom-laden anthems. He was so right, Bowie had done it all before. I didn’t disown my previous heroes, but I certainly looked upon them in a new light.

Then of course Scary Monsters came out. Game over. He’d out played them all, and roped Steve Strange into his video. Genius. To the record store to blow all the pennies I’d saved for the next Human League album to buy Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Heroes, Low…the list went on. How long had he been churning out this stuff?

Enough of his previous work and my devotion to it. What of the new album?

Well there’s not an original note on it. It’s derivative. It’s reusing old ideas and reselling them to both the new and old generations.

But it’s reusing HIS old ideas. There are hints of so many previous Bowie songs it’s hard to keep count. It’s like meeting an old friend after years apart, sharing a pint and finding that you still have the same sense of humour. 

It’s a great album. He is a still a genius.

Looking forward to the next number one album in 2033.

Hey, the controller’s got a light on it! Cool!

After waiting eagerly for the PS4 announcement last night, what can I say?

No really, what can I say that won’t sound like I’m just not bothered?

Besides the disappointment of the Dual Shock 4 controller (yep, it really does look like an old controller with a touch pad and light gaffer-taped on), and the fact that we didn’t actually see the beast (my bet is it looks like a PC at the moment BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT IT IS), the demos were mind numbing. Pretty, but mind numbing.

We had ‘Knack’, which looks like Kameo on steroids. Cute, but no game changer. We had another Killzone, which looked pretty, but is just another FPS judging by what was shown, and worse that that the opening scene was SO clichéd it was beyond parody. We had Drive Club, a Gran Turismo replacement launch game to show off shiny cars.

OK, Media Molecule has some wacky sculpting and puppetry tools that looked fun, and Second Son looked like a well put together demo, but what’s new?

There was a lot of talk about ’emotion’ again (hasn’t there always been at a PS launch?), and nothing getting between the player and the game. It seems to me that Sony’s willingness to take risks and truly push gaming is long gone. The recognition that their unique console architectures are just too expensive and hard to programme and reverting to a PC-like architecture seems like an admission of defeat. And the nervous, stumbling presentations didn’t have the swagger and humour of previous launches (I still talk about the ‘rubber duck’ demo for the PS3).

The graphic power is clearly up there, with some nice character demos etc. but that’s not really enough any more is it?

The bit they started with, the ability to share video and your screen with some nice quick compression/decompression seemed to be their only attempt at a ‘USP’. And would that make be buy a new console?

This could be the first Playstation I don’t buy. Which given the happy hours that I spent the One, Two and Three I find a bit sad.

Fun. And Games.

This year I’m teaching a module again that I used to teach many moons ago: History and Conventions of Computer Games. It was actually called H&C of Video Games way back then, but that’s progress for you! It’s a first year module for the BA and BSc games students. When we first introduced games into the curriculum it was the days of the PS1, and students had to design a Doom level. Today they use UDK. Now that IS progress!

For the first session, I reintroduced something that I used to do when the module first started: a session playing games. I know what that sounds like, but this actually serves some very useful purposes. First off it’s a bit of an ice breaker, hopefully getting people to discuss the games they’re playing. Gamers tend to have strong opinions about different games and even entire genres, so it’s always good to see where people’s allegiances are. They also have to fill in a ‘review’ for every game that they play that hopefully gets them to think a bit beyond the initial knee jerk reaction. Always good when they might be playing something outside their comfort zone, and hopefully at least one game they’ve never even considered playing.

When choosing what games to include, I wanted to try and make sure that most people will play at least one game they haven’t played before. This is of course quite difficult with some of the hardcore gamers that the courses attract, but to help with this it’s useful to raid the archives. This then presents its own problems fo course.

Digging through my cupboard at home and the equipment store here, I gathered together two original Xboxes, two PS2s, two 360s, a GameCube, a Dreamcast and an N64. These together with the PS3 in the room meant plenty of variety of kit. The next problem was setting it all up.

Tech support did a great job of swapping out the existing monitors and putting some in with composite inputs. This was fine for everything except the Dreamcast and the N64, which wouldn’t drive the composite inputs (don’t ask me what the point is of putting in a composite input that only supports a minimum resolution, cost cutting I guess). After sorting this problem, the final hurdle was a failed Dreamcast drive. Luckily our very own TV star Kaye had a replacement tucked away that she could lend me. It’s good to have plenty of game geeks about!

Next, what games to choose? I wanted some that everyone had to play and a few wild cards that people could use if they wanted to. I ended up with a few compulsory games: Goldeneye (N64), Armored Core for Answer (PS3), Space Channel 5 (Dreamcast) and one of Hello Kitty Roller Rescue (Xbox) or Spice World (PS1 game running on a PS2). Scattered about we had XIII, Manhunt, The Getaway, Vib Ribbon, Pokemon Stadium, Panzer Dragoon Orta, Viewtiful Joe, Soul Calibre 2 and a few others. So a fairly elective mix.

So what did they all think?

Well it was no surprise to find that Spice World came out the lowest overall score (2.1/10). It would be kind to say that this isn’t a great game, and got poor reviews when it was released (IGN scored in 2.0 and Gamespot 2.3). A cheap attempt at a cash in on the back of the Spice Girls success would sum it up well. Worth seaking out as a bad example though if you need one.

Hello Kitty did surprisingly well (5.3, compared to IGN 6.0, Gamespot 7.0). It’s not a bad game, although it wouldn’t win any innovation awards. It does use some well established game mechanics to do a simple job well.

Dividing opinion dramatically were Goldeneye (5.6, compared with IGN‘s score of 9.7 and Gamespot‘s 9.8) and Space Channel 5 (4.2 overall compared to IGN 9.2 and Gamespot 7.0). I loved both these when they came out, but interestingly I feel that SC5 has aged better. This is probably because it doesn’t take itself  too seriously and the simple cartoon graphics on the Dreamcast have aged better than the once awesome graphics of GE on the N64.

That and the controls! SC5 is basically a rhythm game and so uses the buttons sparingly, whereas the controls for GE are instantly compared (unfavourably) with modern FPSs. The N64 controller with its the innovative standard analogue stick seemed great at the time, but the combination of buttons and the stick to look/move/strafe now seems clunky to say the least, a point made by several of the students. I also found myself searching for the ‘crouch’ button several times when reliving the good old days.
A surprise was the way people took to Armored Core (5.5, 7.8 from IGN and 7.0 from Gamespot). To me, this game exhibits the worst features of a game that comes along late in a franchise. It seems to make huge assumptions about what the player will already know about controlling a mech or the game objectives, and whilst there are tutorials if you choose to do them, these are long and poorly structured. That was my opinion anyway.
But a number of students who had never played similar games took to it quickly, seemingly more forgiving of it than they were of Goldeneye. This could be because the graphics are so far advanced that people spend time looking at those rather than giving up after a few minutes and so get further than they might otherwise. There’s also the familiarity with PS3 controller which helped people find their way around the complex controls relatively quickly.
Maybe my rose-tinted view of Goldeneye and my inability to just pick up and play Amored Core means I’m getting old.
Did I say maybe?!



BBC Future Media open evening

Tuesday, after popping over to the LSx Open Cafe (the first time in 5 years of invitations, and well worth finally getting there), it was off to Media City in Salford for the BBC Future Media ‘open evening’.

It was a good chance to chat to some of the team who work on some really nice projects such as the new Tivo ‘connected Red Button‘ and the iPlayer apps for various platforms. We also saw some of the tech that’s being developed for multiscreen viewing and some ‘proper’ engineering for sync’ing HD signals over using standard ethernet connections. They’ve been doing a lot of work about using IP networks for everything, which will cut costs in terms of specialised distribution hardware. They were preparing for the first live trial of the their ‘halfRF‘ project that squeezes HD signals into a tiny bit of RF spectrum making wireless cameras much more viable. For the real geeks out there, there’s some more about halfRF here.

It was also good fun to play with the Xbox Kinect interface to the iPlayer.

This has been out for a while, but I hadn’t played with it before. It’s not quite ready to replace the remote yet in my opinion, but it’s a nice toy to impress folk if you want that Minority Report look. Of course, I’ll be mostly using the Tivo and the new Red Button to get to iPlayer, so I can’t see myself booting up the Xbox very often just to use the iPlayer. Maybe I should move the Xbox to a different room…

After the demos, there was a chance to attend some talks by some of the staff and developers there.

There were some really good sessions,and it was a shame that they overalapped and each one only ran once, which meant missing on some of them. I particularly enjoyed the Behaviour Driven Development from Jack Palfrey and Agile project management from Craig Pointon. Andy Wilson was also there talking about training at the BBC, including the MSc in Software Engineering & Internet Architecture that we’re working on with them, but due to clashes I missed that talk (sorry Andy).

All in all, half a day well spent. Looking forward to the next one!

BAF 2012: pop-up books, soap carts, power stations and Chuck Jones. Not your average animation festival. – Part 1

What a festival! I guess it may just be because I managed to make it to more sessions than in recent years, but I thought this year’s BAF was one of the finest. The quality of the sessions and the variety of the subjects covered made it a fascinating week. I made it to most of BAF Game for a change, and a few of the main festival down at the Museum. So here are some of my highlights.

The festival kicked off with Stewart Gilraytalking about resurrecting the Oddworld brand. Abe’s Oddyssee was one of my all time favourites on the original Playstation. The charaterisation was superb and I had real empathy with the character, to the extent of getting very upset when there was a particularly nasty plant that kept eating Abe!

The reworking looks superb, and it was pleasing to hear that they were shying away from producing a touchscreen edition for tablets as the control system doesn’t suit. I can understand the desire to produce tablet and phone versions for a lot of classics (not least to make some money, but also as a challenge), but unless you revise some substantial parts of the interface, they just don’t work. Yes, GTA is playable on an iPad, but it’s nowhere near as easy or fun to play as on a console. It was also fun to hear that there were five games in the original vision, each of which added a new character to those of previous games, resulting in five playable in the last one. Let’s hope they all come into existance!

Either way, the re-imagining of Abe’s Oddysee, Nice ‘n’ Tasty, looks ace.

Jennifer Schneidereit and Philip Tossell from Nyamyam talked about Tengami, a beautiful Japanese-inspired game that has its game mechanic based on the ‘pop-up’ book.

This has some really original ideas in what was basically a platform/adventure cross-over, and the design tools that they demonstrated showed some creative problem solving to get this game into a playable state. Whilst the game looked great, and the playable sections they showed were great, I guess my question is longevity. How do you keep up the wonder of the the initial ‘page-turn’ with the pop-up mechanice, and how do you keep it from becoming repetitive? It’s clearly aimed at touchscreen devices, and games for these tend to be a bit more cerebral than action-based, so I’m sure it will find a market, but I’d want to play more before handing over my cash I think.

The ‘pop-up’ book metphor continued into the next talk from Joel Smith from Sony. He talked about the harry Potter Book of Spells game that uses the Sony Eye and Wonderbook to create an augmented reality game that changes the ‘Wonderbook’ into the Book of Spells from the Harry Potter stories. Players then take on the role of apprentice wizards and use the Move contollers as wands to cast spells, etc.This looked like a great deal of fun, I just need to find an excuse to get this as I’m not exactly in the target age group! It will be interesting to see how well the interface works, the children in the demo that they showed seemed to be engaged with it, but I guess they wouldn’t be shown otherwise.

Well that covers the pop-up books, but what of the soap carts, power stations and Chuck Jones. You’ll have to wait for those…

Bradford via Bournemouth, London and Salford. Quite a couple of weeks.

Busy, busy, busy. Good job Nicki’s not about to have our second child any day (oh, hang on…).

First of was a trip to Bournemouth for the Media Education Summit, which helpfully dovetailed rather nicely with the Bridging the Gap conference, rather well summarised in this video yes, I know it says Teesside University, and they did indeed organise it, but it was held in Bournemouth).


Both events were blessed with some great speakers, from Ian Livingstone once more extolling the virtues of a good education in coding to the Guardian’s Paul Lewis giving an insight into the new connected world of journalism and how social media has radically altered the role.

We were there to present the Media Working Academy at Bridging the Gap, specifically a case study of how some of our students (with some valuable guidance and input from Darren Bristow from Quba) helped GfK try out some ideas for their e-magazine and produced a tablet version of a paper-based publication. The best thing about this project (besides the nice things that GfK’s Aoife McArdle said about the work) was that the students have gone on to work for GfK. You can’t get a better recommendation of quality than that!

Once that was fully absorbed, it was off the the BBC Trust for the Audience Council England meeting. It’s the start of a ‘new year’ for this, so it was mainly to catch up on what the pattern of work will be over the next year, but it was interesting to hear how Ben Cooper‘s decision to replace Chris Moyles with Nick Grimshaw would hopefully stop old fogies like me listening to the Breakfast Show and get that average age of the listener back where it should be! Ralph Rivera and Andy Conroy gave an insight into Future Media at the BBC, and suffice to say there’s some exciting stuff coming off the back of the excellent developments across all four screens for the Olympics. It’s one of the few parts of the BBC that has escaped relatively unscathed from DQF, and although (as Anthony Lilley said at Bridging the Gap) the iPlayer “isn’t enough”, there’ll be more things in the pipeline that will made similar step changes in the way people consume the BBC’s outputs. Watch that Red Button!

Finally it was over to Media City to kick off the Audience Council part of the Trust’s review of the BBC online provision. We again heard from Andy Conroy, this time abley supported by Laura Ellis (Head of English Regions New Media) and Saul Nasse (Controller of BBC Learning). It will be intersting to see how this goes, with such a diverse spread of content and users covered by the generic term ‘online’.

So what happened to March?

It seemed to fly by and I have no idea where it went. The last time I posted it was all about struggling to pull together the proosal for the new academic calendar (that’s been to ASPC, LTC and Senate and been approved), the impending academic review (we’ve had the panel meetings and are waiting for the report) and the BCS accreditation visit (which went well and we await the written feedback).  And of course the City Park opened, which whatever you think about it has transformed the city centre and it’s a joy to see so many people out there enjoying the recent good weather.

If that’s not enough for one month, we’ve had the opening of the excellent Life Online gallery and TedX Bradford at the NMeM, another BBC RAC meeting, and Spurs have gone from Champions’ League certainties to Europa League hopefuls and back again.

In the middle of all this, we’ve moved offices. As you may know, I was in a shared space with the staff support team in the basement of Horton D (hence the original title of this blog). With the reclading of the building (which has gone very smoothly and looks great), we had to find temporary accomodation for the Student Support Office. This gave us an opportunity to rethink how we use our space. The position of the recruitment office was far from ideal (up some stairs and along a corridor), especially given the amount of traffic on applicant visit days. Given where we were located, i.e. in the ‘basement’ which of course is actually at ground level (don’t ask, it’s one of the challenges of labelling floors in buildings that are built on hillsides) and so had easy access, it made sense to use this forced temporary move to use that space more effectively. Hence the Recruitment Office is now using that, both as office space and to hold receptions and recruitment events. We’ve now moved to the fifth floor. So time to rename the blog. The Student Support Office is temporarily where Recruitment were, and when they move back we’ll continue to use that space for supporting our partnership work (someting that was originally located with us in the basement).

As with all these things, the disruption is substantial, but the move seems to have gone very smoothly with all parties happy with their new space. Which is something that is often tricky to achieve. So thanks to all involved, both in terms of those moving and the tech support team that made it happen, for such a slick operation.

As well as the cladding operation, those of you who used the small entrance door facing the Richmond Building will have seen our new ‘porch’ being constructed. The ‘official’ entrance to Horton D is round the back up the curved steps facing the Chesham Building. No doubt this fitting perfectly in the architect’s vision at the time, but now that we get a lot of traffice to and from the Richmond Building, and in these days of more awareness of access for those with mobility problems, it really didn’t make sense. Now the building work is complete we need to populate that space to make it more interesting, which will hopefully happen over the next few months.

Besides hoping that the warmer weather will drive away any more snow, there’s much to look forward to in April. The Bradford International Film Festival has a superb line up this year, with a wide variety from the obscure masterpieces to classic cartoons. If you’re in Bradford while it’s on, there really is no excuse not to pop along to something. There’s another ACE meeting, which are always interesting and lively. And of course there’s the usual day-to-day expected and unexpected challenges.

I expect come May I’ll be looking back asking ‘what happened to April’?!

So little time to blog, so many things to blog about…

It’s quite frustrating that I seem to have so much to say, and so little time to be able to say it. Of course, that’s all a matter of opinion.

What with the ongoing work on the academic calendar, the impending academic reviews, etc., etc., it’s a busy time. Then there’s the recent reviews of the Asian Network and Syndication that I chaired for the BBC Trust’s Audience Council England, and a thousand other things that I didn’t have time to write about. I think the report should say ‘must try harder’.