Articles I wrote in January

February 2nd, 2017

Last month was … busy. And exciting! I wrote a lot of words, and I’m actually quite pleased with a lot of them. I thought I’d present a quick chronological rundown, cos I’ve done a terrible job of cataloguing them anywhere else.

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I kicked off the year with two weeks’ writing for Minecraft’s website. I wrote about many different things, like the amazing WesterosCraft, which celebrated its fifth anniversary of building the Seven Kingdoms in blocks. I also looked at how a mini-computer built in redstone, and explained the nature of obsidian, along with some other pieces that haven’t gone up yet. I really like Minecraft.net’s redesign and how it celebrates what Minecraft players are making with a mature voice that takes them seriously. Good work, Owen and Marsh.

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A big complicated thing I wrote was for PC Gamer about how human sight works and what that means for the maximum framerate we can perceive. It was fascinating to research and write and it pretty much busted my brain.

The answer is complex and rather untidy. You might not agree with parts of it; some may even make you angry. Eye and visual cognition experts, even those who play games themselves, may well have a very different perspective than you about what’s important about the flowing imagery computers and monitors display. But human sight and perception is a strange and complicated thing, and it doesn’t quite work like it feels.

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I wrote a couple of Mechanic features, one on Darkest Dungeon’s 2D combat:

“We knew we wanted to get down and close to the characters and show them off a little bit,” says Bourassa, who led Darkest Dungeon’s art. And he certainly capitalised on that. Darkest Dungeon’s heroes and enemies are large, detailed and extremely characterful, all the better for showcasing his striking thick-lined art style. They stick in the mind; you get attached to their all too commonly short lives and share some of their dread of their monstrous foes, since up close they seem so vulnerable.

And the other on how Astroneer found the fun in crafting systems:

Astroneer does things very differently. In fact, I haven’t played with a crafting system that’s as deeply implanted in its game world. “This sounds a little too intentional, as if I had a masterplan, which I totally didn’t,” Jacob Liechty admits to me. “I had no idea what I was doing.”

Here’s the full list of my The Mechanic column, which comes out fortnightly. Next one? I DON’T KNOW YET aaghhh.

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For Glixel I talked to the great Iranian indie developer Mahdi Bahrami about how Trump’s travel ban affects him and fellow Iranian developers, and what that means for videogames in general.

“It breaks my heart,” he explains on a Skype call. “I feel like everything we were trying so hard for… And things were getting better. Iran having a nuclear deal with the US. For the first time in 40 years the foreign ministers of the US and Iran were directly solving a problem. And now, even if you’re a PhD student in the US, just because of this new order, you can’t go there. It’s like all the hopes we had for the past few years are just gone.”

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And for Eurogamer I talked to programmers and designers who’ve spent the past 20-odd years porting Doom to new platforms, charting an extraordinarily long-lived, creative and vibrant modding and mapping community.

Doom runs anywhere, and that’s down to the labours of a community of programmers that have been working on DOOM for nearly 20 years, ever since John Carmack released Doom’s Linux source code for non-profit use on 23rd December, 1997. “Port it to your favourite operating system,” he wrote in its readme.txt. “Add some rendering features – transparency, look up/down, slopes, etc. Add some game features – weapons, jumping, ducking, flying, etc.” Along with some other suggestions, he went over a few of his code’s shortcomings and his regrets, explained Doom’s fundamental workings, and expressed hope that a community would collaborate on an improved version of the game, signing off with, “Have fun”. And people really did. That source code is the progenitor of a vast body of mods, games, maps and years-long friendships. And in January, one of its longest-serving members suddenly quit.

February: MANY MORE WORDS INCOMING.

A year of The Mechanic

January 1st, 2017

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Just before Christmas Day the final Mechanic column of the year went up, a deep dive into the design principles behind the Dust District level of Dishonored 2 with Harvey Smith.

It also marked the first anniversary of the column. Holy heck! A whole year of it. I posted a quick rundown of its first six months or so here, and since then I’ve looked at Thumper, Crusader Kings 2, Sorcery!, N++, Rimworld, Grow Home and many more. I’m trying to maintain a great deal of variety and to tell stories about great games which many people don’t necessarily realise. I really hope people have been enjoying it.

Next year: more! In fact, there should be even more, since I’m going to be doing the same sort of thing for n0n-PC games on another major gaming site. More on that soon.

Britsoft reviews

December 27th, 2016

So, OK, Britsoft: An Oral History came out a very long time ago now. Since then, Read-Only Memory has published a whole new book, the fantastic The Bitmap Brothers: Universe. OK, sure, it was written by my good chum Duncan Harris and published by my friend publisher Darren Wall so maybe I would say this, but it really is a detailed, beautiful, insightful and fun book about an important group of game makers at a remarkable and formative time for the medium.

Anyway, hopefully it’s not quite too late to cite some reviews of Britsoft. People said wonderful things, and really got what we were trying to achieve. That means a huge amount.

Dan Whitehead at Eurogamer said it is:

chunky, exhaustive and academically robust … By opting for a more conversational, and occasionally confessional, style the book manages to be intimate and fun, even when discussing aspects of the business that should be dry and tedious. If you have even a passing interest in the chaotic and ingenious seeds that sprouted into the games you play today, this belongs on your shelf.

And he appreciated the way it’s all laid out in small but linked excerpts. What he liked was exactly what I was trying to achieve!

Keza MacDonald at Kotaku said in a roundup of the best books about videogames of 2015:

Anyone with an interest in the British games industry at that time would appreciate this

Ryan Lambie at Den of Geek said in an incredibly glowing review:

Pick a page, any page, and you’ll find something funny, strange or informative … That Britsoft is so easy to dip in and out of is largely down to the clarity of its layout … As a snapshot of a moment in time that will one day fade from living memory, Britsoft is an essential purchase.

Damien McFerran at Nintendo Life called it:

lavishly produced and a genuine joy to read

Chris Plante at The Verge said:

The book is exhaustive, much like the creative process. Editor Alex Wiltshire does a commendable job of organizing over 400 pages of transcripts and art in a way that isn’t overwhelming; its a joy to pick at from any angle rather than pushing through from beginning to end … In a world where works of art are delivered to our doorstep or hard drive fully formed, it’s helpful to have a reminder of what it takes to create something: blood, sweat, tears, tears, tears, and more tears.

Georgina Young at TechRaptor said:

Endless hours of interviews do not lend themselves well to the text format, but editor Alex Wiltshire makes it work surprisingly well. Not only does he break it down chronologically so that you can see how the industry has evolved over time, but also by theme, linking similar anecdotes on making music, mail order, or BASIC programming etc together. There is a lot of technical jargon but stories are told simply so that even someone with almost zero knowledge of how to develop games, e.g. me, can understand. 

Jamie at Retro Video Gamer said:

at £30 this is not a cheap book but it’s worth every penny

Stevie Gill at The Cake is a Lie said:

it’s certainly a hefty tome; the minimalist layout, purple and green colour scheme, and tinted monochrome photos brings to mind a 1980s school textbook, which I presume is the intended effect. Yet it’s a enjoyable and effortless read. The style is light and conversational, and the recollections are broken down into easily digestible chunks, frequently switching between interviewees to keep it fresh. While the accounts themselves are satisfyingly articulate, intelligent, revealing and to the point (no doubt the result of some skilful editing).

Hey, maybe all this gives me a hankering to get on a new book project…

The Mechanic

July 22nd, 2016

Each fortnight this year, I’ve been writing a game design column at Rock Paper Shotgun called The Mechanic. It’s all about putting games up on blocks, and taking a wrench to hack out their best features to see how they work.

I’ve covered Doom and Brutal Doom, Duskers and SpelunkyAlien Isolation and Invisible IncKentucky Route Zero and Super Time Force. And lots more besides.

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They’re all based on interviews with their designers; what I really like to try to do is to find a feature of a game that players might not be aware of and yet is central to why it’s good. What I love is to be able to explain how much thought and creativity went into something players may never have considered.

I like to cover indie games and big AAA games – if it’s a great game that has a really interesting thing about it which its makers would love to talk about with me, I’m all over it. Maybe you have suggestions, or maybe you’ve made a game that I could cover? Let me know!

In short, I love writing The Mechanic (thanks for taking it on, Graham). Look out for it every other Friday at 9pm, UK time. Next one is July 29.

Hear me talk about Minecraft

October 16th, 2015

Hey so I’m giving some talks on Minecraft soon! The first is at Gamecity on October 25, and then early in November I’m going to Sharjah International Book Festival in the United Arab Emirates, which is kinda incredible.

The talks will be based on the Blockopedia, where I look at the amazing properties of a few different blocks. Here’s the blurb!

To really master Minecraft, you need to know the science behind its many kinds of blocks, from birch wood to brewing stands. Alex Wiltshire, author of the Minecraft Blockopedia, will take you on a tour of the blocks that make up the world of Minecraft, including how grass grows, fire spreads, redstone conducts and beacons … beacon. On the way, he’ll uncover and share the amazing facts, delights and crazy secrets that lie behind this pixel land, and help you build and survive even better!

I’ve delivered talks like this before – like this one I did in Chester at the WayWord Festival:

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I have to say that I find them TERRIFYING because I’m pretty sure the audience of kids knows far more about Minecraft than I ever could. But they’re really nice about it, and when it’s time for Q&A, they mostly tell me more stuff about Minecraft rather than show me up. So, thanks, kids!

I edited Britsoft: An Oral History

September 28th, 2015

Very soon, a book I edited on the early British game industry called Britsoft: An Oral History will be released. This is really exciting!

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It’s published by the excellent Read-Only Memory, and it consists of interviews with some of the leading game makers from Commodore PET to Amiga, like Peter Molyneux and David Braben, Rob Hubbard and Mo Warden, Andrew Braybrook and Sean Cooper and many more. It charts the rise and fall of a movement in which self-taught British kids kickstarted an industry making games for home computers, from playing around in BASIC in the late 70s and early 80s to when the consoles and big international business took over in the early 90s.

It’s probably the biggest single thing I’ve ever worked on. The final manuscript was about 125,000 words, sculpted from some 850,000 words of interviews made for the documentary From Bedrooms to Billions by Anthony & Nicola Caulfield, plus a few extra ones I conducted.

When Darren Wall of Read-Only Memory asked me to edit it, he simply gave me a folder of rough transcripts and the direction to produce a “collection of ‘in conversation’ pieces”. This was daunting + perfect! Daunting because I faced a of wall of 850,000 words to turn into something you’d want to read. Perfect because the chance to shape such a great collection of voices with such freedom doesn’t come along often.

The make-or-break challenge was to figure out a structure. I wasn’t sure I wanted it to be simply a set of individual autobiographies, one after another. I wanted it to reflect a span of years and the things the interviewees felt were important. It had to be thematic and also chronological.

It all started to come into focus when I thought back to the Fighting Fantasy books I was obsessed with in the 80s, where you turned from passage to passage to choose your own adventure. What if the interviews were broken up into chunks, with page references so you can follow individual stories while reading from page to page to follow the grander one?

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That idea was cemented when I sat down to our first meeting with Darren and the book’s designer, Hugo Timm from graphic design house Julia. At the risk of sounding awfully effusive, it was the best design meeting I’ve attended, where everyone understood and wanted exactly the same thing. We all wanted to make something progressive, and yet simple and clean, something you can read from cover-to-cover and also dip in and out of.

I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve made. It has been hard work, but it looks amazing, and hopefully reads amazingly, too. I want to thank Darren Wall for taking me on to edit this book and for all his support, and Hugo for making it look and read so beautifully. And I hope you enjoy it. Y’know, if you buy it. (Please buy it.)

I wrote the Minecraft Blockopedia

September 30th, 2014

I wrote a book! It’s called the Minecraft Blockopedia and it’s a guide to all the blocks in Minecraft, with each entry examining their behaviour and uses, and it’s going to be published by Egmont on December 4.

It looks like this:

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Yeah, it’s hexagonal, which marks a rather dramatic debut as a book author, hey. Must’ve been a complete nightmare for Egmont’s production team. Or exciting. Probably a bit of both.

It got into the Bookseller, which I used to actually read back when I used to work in book publishing, wishing the things I was working on would get into its pages:

The book is hexagonal in shape to reflect the blocks in the game and was written by Alex Wiltshire, former editor of games industry trade magazine Edge.

The design and presentation – with foil and a slipcase so it can actually sit on bookshelves – is down to Junkboy, Mojang’s great art director. The entries are marked by a full-bleed isometric view of the block which looks fantastic.

Thanks to all at Mojang and Egmont, especially Stephanie Milton, Owen Hill and Lydia Winters, for taking me on to write such an amazing looking book. Especially as it gave me a chance to one-up my kids’ knowledge of Minecraft one or twice. (Admittedly, they contributed all sorts of details to it that I’d otherwise have had no idea about.)

Fiascos and the verge of the impossible

July 15th, 2014

I always thought Alessi were a pretty grotesque design company, making expensive objects that bastardise functionality and beauty. The classic: Starck’s Juicy Salif, an orange squeezer that appears to reinvent the way we extract juice from citrus fruit with elegance and simplicity, and which makes a whole fucking mess of it. And what’s this? Here I am beguiled by founder Alberto Alessi in a new interview with The Guardian. He calls Alessi customers ‘design victims’ (“Design victims are very important to our business model”) and calls another Starck project, the Hot Bertaa kettle, “a complete fiasco”, going on to say something amazing:

It’s very important to work on the verge of the impossible, without veering into products that people will not understand or buy. We must have one or two fiascos a year to retain our leadership in design.

Maybe that’s a pretty amazing attitude to have.

Fugazi is the message

April 9th, 2014

Fugazi have been archiving and making available to buy live recordings of their about-a-billion gigs, which is such a fantastic project, partly for the fact the whole thing plays so true to their attitude. Done themselves, and in this context:

There is a lot to be excited about in the ways we produce and consume music in 2014, but it’s often difficult to decipher where the music ends and the contextual media structures around it begin. The best thing about Fugazi, and the live series, is that the music is always the message. There are no Facebook or Twitter logos polluting its pages; no publicist blasting emails about how Dischord is revolutionizing music; no attempt to sell to a nostalgic market. For MacKaye, it remains a matter of completing a simple task demanded by a pile of tapes that captured a small slice of American history.

→ Fugazi’s sound and fury, now on demand

I made a website

October 15th, 2013

Soon after we moved to Bath in 2007, my wife started up her own cake making company called Baby Cakes. It’s turned out to be rather successful! Her cakes have been featured in American Vogue, she’s Stork margarine’s official baking expert and has judged national cake competitions, and she’s left a trail of many happy customers behind her.

Anyway, my small part in it is that I made her website. Actually I’ve made three of them now. We launched her latest back in spring this year; I built it on WordPress with the intention of really whetting visitors’ appetites by featuring big pictures and just a few words to describe them. It therefore benefits from some great photos of Hannah’s work by John Barwood.

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The main design challenge was that most pictures of cakes are portrait, which isn’t an ideal format for websites. I think the site solves it reasonably well, using panels to take visitors through the site and two side-by-side portrait pictures for galleries.

It really popped, though, when I found its two typefaces: Maiola for the main body text and titles, and Brandon Grotesque for navigation and caption text. Together I think they convey the sense of simple elegance and character I wanted to achieve. I’m pretty satisfied with it.