Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Future history

I first came across the term 'future history' inside the pages of an Asimov novel - most likely one of the Foundations and almost certainly a reprint, probably containing one of the man's excellent introductions. Apparently it was coined by Heinlein as the title of a short story and was then co-opted by John W. Campbell (who else?) as an actual term.

By 'apparently', I do of course mean 'according to Wikipedia'.

It's something I've always enjoyed reading as well as writing - hence my vast collection of notes, historical timelines, character bios and maps for Evinden (though I suppose that isn't a future history, rather a fantasy history). Even for the 'Detective' stories that I wrote as part of the creative writing course we did last year (links on the right!) I worked out a simple history, both of the world and the character: The progression of robot development, the rise of anti-robot sentiments, how the detective's parents had effectively had their lives made irrelevant by the robotic march, thus fueling his hatred.

I find it fairly essential with sci-fi, as the kind of sci-fi I like to roll around in is all about ideas, often relating to technical advances or discoveries, and you simply can't do it without knowing what's what. This isn't to say that characters, story and structure aren't just as important - probably more so in most cases. But you can have the best characters in the genre and it won't matter one jot if they're emoting within an empty world, or - even worse - and inconsistent or clearly made-up-on-the-spot world.

The reason I'm gabbing on about this is that I spent a brief part of this afternoon indulging in some flagrant future history writing for the FXhome Film Project, carefully filling in the fictional details of the story's mining operation (well, prospecting operation, to be precise). Tomorrow we're opening up some of the design to the community to see if they can come up with some cool visual concepts, and I felt this background was essential for them to have a context, given that we're not releasing the actual script at this stage. I can't wait to see what they contribute.

On another note, we went to the gym this evening for the first (proper) time. Good god it was knackering. Fun, though, and I'm looking forward to the next one. Good to be focused and regimented from time to time, methinks.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Plot hole diary

The big experiment begins this week - can we crew the film project partially with community members? It'll be interesting to see what happens. Completed this round of video interviews today (the one with the writer went extremely well - he's a very enthusiastic chappy), although I'm still waiting on the director to get me his in the post. Alas, the making-of budget doesn't cover flight expenses for me to go down there in person. ;)

In even more exciting news - I've finally resolved my Evinden plot hole! It all came about due to a idea that came to me rather suddenly and inconveniently while writing a recent chapter. Bearing in mind I'm over halfway through the book now (probably...), this idea was awkward in that it fundamentally changed the relationship between a couple of major characters (and, thusly, it also changed much of their impact on the story and world), which isn't normally something I'd want to contend with having already written so much. I couldn't get the idea out of my head, however, as it's simply a rather delicious plot twist - not in a Sixth Sensey kind of way, but more in an undermining-a-character's-faith kind of way. It's a mean, unpleasant plot twist that should make the reader wince with sympathy while simultaneously giggling with evil glee (actually, that might only be the prerogative of the writer).

The trick was that the plot twist rather invalidated a couple of earlier chapters, including a major sequence involving the introduction of the Tarn character. Typically, this introduction has always been a particularly favourite scene of mine, having been present in every single draft of the novel (and, prior to that, the film script). But, as they say, sometimes the scenes you love the most are the ones you need to cut.

Having wrestled valiantly to resolve the plot hole created by the plot twist via some cunning retcon, instead I've opted to completely re-write that earlier section of the book. I think it'll actually be for the better, resulting in a much more realistic couple of chapters at quite a crucial part of the book. That the favourite scene has been there from the beginning is probably a good indication that it hails from a time when the story - and my writing skills - were considerably less advanced than they are now.

It's all worth it, though. The plot twist is awesome. You'll see, one day!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The new project revealed

At last the FXhome Film Project has been announced, so I can finally talk about it! I'm heading up the behind-the-scenes stuff, hence the previous blog about video interviews. The first one with Josh went up with the announcement and there will be lots more to come in the next few weeks, starting with crew intros this Thursday. All quite exciting! As for the film itself, we're currently trying to confirm studio space, as we've got a few options, each with their pros and cons...

There's other exciting news, but I'll try to get Leiali to post about that...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Video interviews

I conducted my first proper video interview today. And, no, the amusingly rushed Zurich interviews don't count.

Of course, I've done my fair share of interviews while at FXhome, chatting away to various indie filmmakers all over the world. But almost entirely they have always taken place via email - which is a pleasant, easy way for interviewees to consider answers without feeling under pressure. It also enables them to formulate a decent, detailed and cohesive reply that is to the point and resists rambling on and on (well, unless it's the Atomic brothers, of course! But that's why we love them).

Video interviews are entirely different proposition, not least because I'm face-to-face with my subject and they're caught in the lens like a startled rabbit in the headlights. The main problem is that it leaves you far less editorial elasticity, especially if you're intending to remain an off-screen, implied interview presence. Ideally I don't want to have to include the question itself, or cut to lame reaction shots of myself nodding and stroking my beard: I want the interviewees to do the talking and guide the video piece from start to finish in a sexy, natural manner.

Which, inevitably, requires some rather carefully chosen questions. It's all about leading them down a particular route in order to provide editable footage. Easier said than done, considering that you have no idea what the interviewee is going to say.

The first interview went extremely well today, with Elly delivering some spiffy answers that ticked all the boxes. She was eloquent, funny and honest and her personality really shone through, which was great. Nils performed his own interview and, despite some sound issues, should also slot in nicely - he filmed it next to a ridiculously epic bridge somewhere in Sweden (hence I couldn't be there in person), which was rather impressive.

Next up is Josh tomorrow. Which should be interesting. :)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Bioware pull a fast one

Remarkably, Bioware/EA have changed their DRM policy on Mass Effect and Spore, following the furore over the 10-day check system. Reading between the lines, I can't help but think that Bioware deliberately announced the system in order to provoke the inevitable uproar, so that they could then present evidence to EA in order to have it altered. Given that they're now owned by EA, they probably didn't have much say in the matter, unless they could actually make a decent case.

Bioware staff carefully focused all the discussion into a single topic, and even went as far as advising people on how best to complain, carefully steering the response down the path required. While still retaining plausible deniability.

Clever stuff, really. And I'm now chuffed as it means I can buy the damn game...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Bioware/EA turn DRM up to 11

Bioware/EA have decided to employ a hugely draconian DRM system on the forthcoming Mass Effect, which rather aggravates me, given that it was a must-have purchase for me until the SecuROM anti-piracy gubbins was revealed this week.

In a nutshell, after the initial Internet activation (fair enough), the game needs to perform further Internet checks every 10 days, otherwise the game will cross its arms and sit in the corner in a huff, refusing to play with you until you do what it says. Ethical and privacy issues aside, the pracctical flaws in this system are pretty self-evident, with the only potential result being a) an increase in piracy and b) a drop in sales. Surely not quite what Bioware/EA wants?

Interestingly, it's extremely similar to the oooold anti-piracy system we used at FXhome, although ours was only turned up to 8-or-so on the Annoying-O-Meter. It required an Internet check every 6 months-or-so (can't remember exactly what the time interval was), otherwise it would cease to function.

The results?

1. Our software was pirated almost instantly anyway.

2. Many of our legitimate customers were inconvenienced when the check occurred.

3. Customers without the Internet were simply unable to purchase our products.

4. Many customers simply didn't purchase because they objected to the system, for various ethical/practical reasons. Reasons that, in retrospect, we agreed with.

There were literally no benefits. At all.

And so we dropped the system. We still have anti-piracy systems in place on our software, but it is much less intrusive and doesn't do silly timed checks and lock-outs. Piracy of our software hasn't increased - in fact, it would seem to have reduced a little, if anything, despite our current products being more popular and well-known than our old ones. I suspect this could be because we're no longer provoking them with a 'challenge', and because we're no longer pissing off potentially legitimate customers.

If there's one thing more annoying that the bastard pirates that cause this problem in the first place, it's short-sighted publishers resorting to dubious Orwellian tactics to try and 'solve' it. As with most aggressive, retaliatory action, all it tends to do is provoke.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Guardian knows stuff

The Guardian recently ran a rather inciteful piece on gaming, which you can read here. As you peruse the article, you'll no doubt notice the worrying lack of sensationalism; the clearly misguided lack of panic and fear; the disturbing amount of understanding and genuine research that has gone into Bennett's writing - in an unprecedented move, the woman actually played some computer games before writing about them. The deeply concerning conclusion is that a professional journalist has actually had the gall, the sheer rudeness, to treat gaming as a serious subject!

Still, The Guardian being The Guardian, the article will no doubt be completely ignored at best, or outright dismissed at worst, with the rest of the mainstream media sticking to their mission of demonising the medium of games. The politicians, after all, do need some kind of material to get their teeth into in order to rile up the plebs.

What never fails to amaze is the inability of politicians and journalists - both, presumably, enjoying at least a basic knowledge of cultural history - to identify that this has happened over and over again. It's happened at the dawn of every new form of art/entertainment. The poor old world of music has to suffer it again and again as new, 'threatening' genres emerge. And every time - every single time - the usual process of hegemony absorbs the new upstart and within a few years it is either diluted beyond recognition or entirely accepted. That those making all the noise fail to recognise this fairly obvious trend makes you wonder why anybody listens to them at all.

Anyway, all this is a prelude to me saying that I'm intending to stick my nose into gaming journalism a bit more this year. I'm not entirely sure how yet, of course, but it's something I'm going to investigate. Time to broaden my readership, methinks.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Northumberland 2008

Northumberland 2008
We returned on Friday from our week's holiday to Northumberland, where we had travelled to see castles, walk through gardens and take in some refreshing sea air.

As you can see from the photo album above, we certainly got our fair share of all of those. First we had to contend with a 6-hour drive from Norwich to Dunstan, where we were staying. Twice as long as any drive we'd attempted before, I was a little intimidated by the distance but, in the end, if wasn't a problem - especially with Leiali taking up a good 2 and a half hours of the journey time.

While the cottage we stayed at wasn't anything special (and which had a kitchen so miniscule that it managed to make our one at home seem large in comparison), it was ideally placed as a central HQ for exploring the area. It proved to be a packed week, but here are the highlights:

Lindisfarne - A bit further north, this island is only accessible by a causeway that spend half the day submerged beneath the sea, thus requiring careful checking of the tides so as not to get stranded. The drive across was consequently rather exciting, as we timed our arrival to coincide with the causeway's appearance. On the island itself is an old ruined priory and the castle itself, perched up on a rocky hill. Intriguingly it had been used as a holiday home during the early 20th century.

Bamburgh Castle - The best thing about a castle-based holiday is that it doesn't really matter what the weather does. If it's sunny, great; if it rains, then it just makes everything more atmospheric! Bamburgh was a good example of this, as the fog rolled in off the sea during our visit and had entirely enveloped the place by the time we'd finished looking around its plush interior. This resulted in some great photos and a spooky walk over the dunes to the beach. Standing on the beach, looking out to sea, with all your surroundings past about 50 metres blanketed by a thick white fog is quite a memorable experience. It would have been easy to get entirely lost, if it weren't for the useful navigational hint of the roaring waves!

Alnwick - In contrast to the authenticity of Bamburgh and the ruined history of Lindisfarne, Alnwick felt more like an attraction created by Disney. The gardens, which have apparently received a huge amount of lottery funding lately, were a largely soulless affair, with most of the garden rather sparse and dead, with spring having not yet reached Northumberland. As such all that remained for viewing were a series of elaborate water fountains - which were, admittedly, extremely spiffy. Each highlighted a particular behavioural aspect of water and they were really quite fascinating, particularly the 'vortex' whirlpool. Overall, though, it was all a bit gimmicky and antiseptic. Alnwick castle was better, with parts having featured in the Harry Potter films, but there was still something rather staged about the whole thing. Rather too many photos of the current owners and inhabitants, lounging about in their posh, inherited luxury, for our liking, too! :) I did have my best Cake of the Week at Alnwick, however.

Cragside - The major highlight of the week for me, Cragside is an astounding place built by one Lord Armstrong in the 19th century. Armstrong was a highly innovative engineer and entrepreneur and the house and grounds show this at every turn. Most notably, the house was the first in the world to enjoy full electrical power, thanks to Armstrong's harnessing of hydro-electricity via the multiple lakes dotted about the grounds. Remarkably the building also featured a three-storey elevator! The grounds were equally impressive, including a 6 mile drive around the perimeter that reminded me ever-so-slightly of the tour in Jurassic Park - though less deadly, thankfully. An inspiring place that unfortunately can't hope to be properly represented in our photos.

Howick Hall - Earl Grey tea was invented here. Which may not sound like the most exciting of facts, but I'll admit to the tea being extremely good - and I'm by no means a regular tea drinker. The massive gardens were refined and tamed in comparison to Cragside's exciting wilderness but were nevertheless most enjoyable, with the Silverwood rohdedendron forest being particularly beautiful (it also sounds like a location in World of Warcraft, which makes it instantly cool). We had a particularly relaxing river walk here, aided by the sunny weather.

Warkworth - The final castle of the holiday is a generally well-preserved site on the coast at Warkworth, a pleasantly picturesque little village. Although the motte and bailey had long since collapsed, the keep itself was in good condition. With the help of a fantastic audio guide the place really came to life and was a satisfying conclusion to the week.

All we have to do now is win the lottery, thus enabling us to buy Cragside and go live there.