Choosing the Right Components: The Case

When you start to look at PC components  the range of parts available seems bewildering. Even the differences between pre-built models can seem impenetrable. Intel, AMD and Nvidia all use note entirely straight forward numbering systems where the performance difference between products is not always clear.

It is quite easy to decode the naming schemes, although it takes time to learn. Websites such as Logical Increments or groups like BuildAPC Reddit provide guides and advice on choosing parts and how to find the best bang for your buck. Of course, you still have to take a lot of time and care to select the components that will work best for you. I’ve been looking at the various components and getting up to speed with the modern PC market for several months now and with the exceptions of the processor and motherboard, which I’ll finalise after the release of Intel’s new Haswell processors, I’ve made my choices.

The first component I chose for my computer isn’t generally something you would pick first: the case. In many ways, the case is a non-critical component: all it needs is sufficient ventilation to cool the processor and the graphics card, something to keep dust out and mounts for the various components. It doesn’t even need to be new – the standardisation of the ATX motherboard means that cases that are nearly 20 years old should comfortably hold modern components (albeit with a bit of bodging).

I remember PC cases in the 90s being uniformly beige, generally boxy and normally uninspiring. Concepts like airflow didn’t play a big part in the design of these cases, which often came without dust filters and with a tangled mess of wiring. So it was surprising to find out that cases now look like this.

While Corsair’s Graphite series cases are pretty unique, they are representative of modern cases. The beige is gone. Now cases are built from high quality aluminium or steel, power supplies have been relegated to the bottom of the case to keep them cooler, there are trays underneath motherboards to allow for the neat routing of cables and there are modular internal components allowing you to customise a case to your needs. Importantly, the ‘designer’ cases no longer look like glowing, plastic monstrosities but take their design queues from companies like Apple and BMW. It’s a different world.

My first preference for my own system is Obsidian’s 600T in white because it looks like a Star Wars Stormtrooper’s PC, however building a full size ATX system just isn’t practical while living in a London houseshare. If nothing else, I will need to move it at some point and I’m not prepared to drag 30 to 40 kilos of PC across the city on public transport. So, I’m compromising by going for a Mini-ITX system.

BitFenix ProdigyThe main advantage of a Mini-ITX system is it’s size. The motherboard is the fraction of the size of an ATX board. You do lose some features as a result of this, but enthusiast quality ITX boards are more then capable forming the basis of a good gaming and home media system. A lot of ITX cases are extremely cramped and designed for use with low power processors and integrated graphics processors, so an ITX gaming system does need something a bit roomier and with space to ventilate a graphics card and a decent processor.

Thankfully BitFenix, one of the more innovative case manufacturers, have brought out the Prodigy. It looks like a squat Mac Pro and can fit all but the largest graphics cards but it’s small enough that it can be easily carried in a sports bag or similar. It also supports water cooling, which I find amazing. Ten years ago, water cooling was the preserve of madmen and the elite overclockers, now it’s almost standard, even in cases this small.

Small but powerful and versatile – it’s all I really want in a PC.

The End of a Console Era

Xbox ConsolesThe video-game market has changed vastly since 2005. In the eight years since the Xbox 360 heralded the start of the seventh generation of video-games, we have seen the launch of the PS3, Wii, Wii U, PS Vita, iPhone, iPad, Android and the 3DS. Steam has become one of the most powerful content distribution platforms in the world, allowing independent developers and small studios to rapidly reach a large audience and a plethora of kickstarted projects are challenging the dominance of not just the major publishing houses but of the console manufacturers themselves.

Now, with the AMD-based PlayStation 4 due to launch at the end of the year and the successor to the Xbox 360 due to be unveiled on the 21st of May, we stand at the start of the eighth generation of video games. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

Since the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 launched, both systems have changed considerably. Microsoft and Sony both pushed updates to their consoles taking advantage of built-in internet connections to turn them into digital media centres, where you could access the internet, watch TV, read about the US Presidential election or play games. It also allowed both companies, although particularly Microsoft, to put adverts, often paid for by other companies, front and centre on the household television screen.

In terms of the next generation, it sounds very much like both Sony and Microsoft want to ensure that their respective consoles are the centre of the home (in contrast to Nintendo who promote the fact that the Wii U can play some games without the use of a television allowing family members to engage in different activities together in the same room). Partnerships with major content providers and interoperability with handheld consoles and smartphones are being trumpeted.

There is also a hint of desperation in the air. Sony recently acquired Gaikai, a company which specialises in streaming games over the internet and is working with a number of big name independent developers to promote their new console as an easy development platform. Both Microsoft and Sony have been dogged by rumours about the consoles requiring constant internet connections while playing games as an anti-piracy measure, despite the fact that large swathes of Europe and America, core markets for games consoles, don’t have reliable internet connections.

The desperation isn’t surprising. A large swathe of the world is still seeing low or negative growth, outgoings are rising and incomes are falling. Yet videogame publishers and manufactures still have to persuade people to pay for £50 games and £300 consoles. If rumours are anything to go by, they could shortly be trying to sell us consoles using near off-the-shelf components for £400 or £500 instead. These systems are unlikely to have full back compatibility with their predecessors due to the difficulty emulating their complex PowerPC-based processors on mid-level x86-based hardware and both are expected to come with motion controllers as standard, potentially limiting their usefulness in smaller homes.

My response to this is disappointment. I love my Xbox with a passion. It’s been my primary gaming machine since 2007, when it became too expensive for me to upgrade my PC’s ageing socket 754 Athlon 64 processor, AGP Geforce 6800 GT graphics card and the motherboard at the same time, but impossible to upgrade the components one by one due to socket 754 and AGP being phased out. I want to be able to keep playing all of my games on a successor console, preferably one I can transfer all of my save files to easily, I want graphics which exceed the standard of current mid-to-high level PCs and I want it to be worth the money I’m paying for it. But it doesn’t seem like the next generation of consoles will meet these criteria, especially with the corporate attitudes which gave rise to the ad-flooded upgrade of the Xbox 360 dashboard.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 19.10.04Its’s a different story for PC gaming though. The way in which Valve have managed Steam, with aggressive sales, low priced bundles of games from large and small developers, pre-loading of unreleased software and competitive pricing has created a fertile market for mainstream and indie games. Indy developers now have a real income stream, with games such as FTL and Dear Esther seeing success to rival triple-A retail titles. There is real competition in the market, with new games such as Skyrim, Tomb Raider and Watch_Dogs selling for £10 to £15 less than their console versions. The Steam model is so strong that it’s inspired successful competitors such as GOG, who specialise in packaging older games so they work on modern computer systems and selling them for $5 to $10.

It seems that the initial outlay for a PC against the next generation of consoles is now worth it for access to the massive, cheap library of games, the competitive new releases, the competitive graphics and the potential to build a comprehensive gaming and media centre in one box. It’s not a complete escape from Microsoft – Windows is still the best OS for gaming, but at least it doesn’t have ads.

I think my mind is made up already. I have a £600 build picked out on PC Part Picker which I plan to write about soon. It’s not a final build, but something I plan to amend as the new Intel Haswell processors and motherboards come out and as nVidia and AMD release new graphics cards. I’m aiming to build it towards the end of this year and then maintain it at a good standard from there on out.

The Best Hangover Game – Civ4

A while ago, the Guardian’s Games Blog did a piece on the best videogames to play when hungover. I rather disagree with some of the selections: the vivid colour pallet and slightly unwieldy controls in the Nintendo DS remake of Super Mario 64 make it a rather distressing experience when you are trying to hide from the infernal daystar. On the other hand, space-goth styled Eve Online needs too much number crunching and carries a high risk of losing your valuable in-game ship to player pirates if you don’t pay attention. Much to my distress, the brilliant Harvest Moon series of farming simulators has been concentrated on the GameCube, Wii and DS for the last seven or eight years, preventing me from using them as a hangover cure without investing in a new console.

I don’t begrudge these selection though. I’ve played all three games and enjoyed them and I understand why they often feature amongst people’s favourite games. My problem with the Guardian article is the omission of what is possibly the best game to play when you are hungover: Sid Meier’s Civilization IV

Civ 4 is a good game at the best of times, with the addition of it’s expansions – Warlords and Beyond the Sword  – it is an excellent game. It takes a number of features which were introduced in Civilization 3, but which didn’t work well as well as they should have – such as culture, borders and resources required to build units – and refined them. It also re-examined a number of the best features of Civilization 2, a game which regularly features highly on lists of the best video games of all time, and improved them, making managing individual cities far more interesting and some much needed personality to diplomacy. Civ 4 also a certain something over the more recent Civilization 5, although it’s hard to nail down exactly what “it” is.

What makes Civ 4 an excellent game for dealing with the morning after is its sheer simplicity. The game can be controlled using only the mouse and the screens feature clear menus and text, allowing you to slouch away from the screen to your heart’s content. Aspects that you don’t feel like dealing with, such as building roads, micro-managing cities or planning tech research can be semi-automated, allowing you to concentrate on your favourite aspects. If you are feeling particularly delicate, you can even turn off features such as the barbarian invasions to make the game easier (although it’s more fun to desperately rush the building of the Great Wall to prevent the barbarians getting near your cities).

With a random map, Marathon game speed (giving you 1,500 turns to complete the game) and playing against 11 other civilisations, a game can go on for most of a day. This should be more then enough time to either win a technology victory or to shake off the hangover, whichever comes first. The time flies past as you start to plan ahead and wait for your resources to accrue, only to have a neighbouring civilisation take over the iron resource node that you so desperately needed to build Swordsmen so you can take over their cities. You will feel accomplished when a carefully crafted military strategy works out and or when an opposing civilisation’s city swears allegiance to you on the basis of your advanced culture. You will find yourself muttering “One more turn…” as you forget about how bad your stomach feels, which is exactly why Civ 4 is the best game to play when hungover.

On Steam, £15 will buy you copies of Civ 4, the expansions and the remake of Colonization in the Civ 4 engine for both Mac and PC. An absolute bargin for hundreds of hours of gameplay.

Acknowledge the Fact of the Union

Guardian Front Page 27-07-12

The front page of the Guardian on the 27th of July is a page with an interesting contrast. It is dominated by a half-page picture of Jennifer Saunders and Jonna Lumley in the guise of Patsy and Eddie from Ab Fab with the Olympic torch and a gushing article by Jonathan Freedland, extolling joys of being British, discussing how the Olympics will bring Britain together as a nation and suggesting that hosting the cream of the world’s athletes will show us the place of Britain in the modern world.

Towards the bottom of the article is a rather chilling piece, overshadowed by the glitz and the glamour of the Olympics, but potentially far more important as the regards the future of Britain:  the announcement by three Irish Republican paramilitary groups that they are forming a new IRA and plan to increase the now sporadic terrorist attacks in Ireland. An account, later in the paper, of how the message was delievered to the press – on a country road, in the dark, miles from Derry – makes chilling reading after so much positive work has been done thanks to the Good Friday Agreement.

It is not difficult to see why previously isolated groups in Ireland feel the need to come together, despite their seemingly disparate aims. The Real IRA, vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs and the handful of smaller post-Provisional IRA have sat and watched for several years as first the Brown and then the Cameron Government promoted an agenda which emphasised Britishness, culminating in the joint celebration of the Diamond Jubilee and London 2012.

Both the Jubilee and the Olympics have been positive events for the UK as a whole. While the Jubilee is partially responsible for the continued negative growth of the British economy, it has resulted in investment in a number of communities in the UK, the creation of new forests and given a lot of people an enjoyable day off work. Likewise, the Olympics has helped to sustain jobs in construction and engineering in London, should increase tourism to the city and will leave a legacy of new sports facilities, albeit a legacy concentrated in the south of England.

However, those living in the UK have repeatedly been told that these events are about Britain.

This ia a problem because a large number of those living in Britain do not identify as being British. This include Scots and Welsh who don’t believe in the independence of their home nations, a large number of those living in Northern Ireland, a significant and growing percentage of those living in England, some migrants and descendants of migrants and foreign nationals living in the UK, such as Edinburgh’s large North American population.

There is plenty of evidence which backs this assertion up, including this datablog article from the Guardian, which gives a simple visual oversight indicating that an overwhelming majority of those living in Scotland, Wales and Nothern Ireland regard themselves as being Scottish, Welsh or Irish rather then British. Even in England, it’s about 50-50 between those who identify as English and those who identify as British. Surveys carried out by IPSOS-Mori and YouGov regularly show that a majority of Scots consider themselves Scottish rather then British, with a growing trend in England for English to identify as English.

In Scotland, England and Wales, being called British if you don’t regard yourself as being British just leads to an insulted look and a quick correction from some, while others brush it off (although they probably won’t sing God Save The Queen). In these three nations, civic nationalism has prospered, creating inclusive nationalist movements like the SNP and Plaid Cymru. That said, overt “Brit-ification” of major events can still lead to a feeling of alienation.

In Northern Ireland, nationalism is a different beast. The conflict spans generations and combines religion with nationalism. It’s less then twenty years since parts of Ireland were still active warzones, peace walls are still in place throughout the country and marching seasons remain a flash-point for violence. Being called British or being told you are British is a deadly insult to many in Ireland. Yet, with royal visits to both Northern Ireland and the Republic and the visit of the Olympic torch to Derry (or Londonderry as the BBC repeatedly referred to it), with the blanket coverage of the Jubilee and the London Olympics, with the glorification of the British military following the conflicts in Afganistan and Iraq, that is what Irish Republicans are repeatedly being told.

This over promotion of British-ness, rather then acknowledging the strengths and uniquenesses of the component nations may well be a contributing factor in the decision of these Republican groups in Northern Ireland to coalesce. Northern Ireland does have other problems – high unemployment, the need for considerable investment in housing, scars from the Troubles – which will have contributed to this move. It could also be that the remains of the militant Republican movement have become so small individually that they need to band together for strength, especially if they feel the need to use intimidation tactics.

There is no point in continuing with behaviour which at best causes discomfort to a hefty slice of the UK population and at worst antagonises a significant minority. Instead, we should all acknowledge the strengths and uniquenesses of the components of the UK, acknowledge the fact that the UK is four nations united by two acts of union and act like a modern, inclusive country. Making reference to Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland will not lead to the dissolution of the UK, but it will lead to a better, more cohesive society.


The Great FPS Grift

I blame Call of Duty. I think a lot of other people do as well.

Don’t get me wrong, I own copies of a lot of first-person shooters, including Call of Duty 1, 3, 4:MW, World at War and Black Ops and I’ve played all of the entries in the CoD series other then 2. I’ve enjoyed playing all of them, although the plots in nearly all of them are utterly forgettable. Other then a few exceptional scenes, the series as a whole is reasonably inoffensive, with considerably broader appeal then games such as Manhunt .

Since Call of Duty 4 came out in 2007, they have also been multiplayer juggernauts, regularly featuring as the most played games on Xbox Live and Playstation Network. This, in turn, has led to a yearly schedule for new releases, allowing game publishers to continue to profit through the introduction of new features and new multiplayer modes, and more recently online passes which mean that a person buying a second-hand copy of the game must pay an additional fee before being able to play their game online.

Last year, not long before the launch of CoD: Modern Warfare 3, Activision finally announced the holy grail of long-tail charges: Call of Duty Elite. Serving partially as a subscription model for additional downloadable maps, Call of Duty Elite and the competing Battlefield 3 Premium service are based on an additional $50 payment, on top of the $60 RRP of their respective games. Both offer subscribers early access to new maps, new ways to monitor their in-game stats, limited perks (additional weapons, different uniforms, clan levelling etc)  and variety of fluff, from videos about the game hosted by a former US marine to online copies of strategy guides.

The FPS genre has become a race to see how much money can generated from any one game. With Call of Duty Elite and Battlefield 3 Premium opening the door to these sales methods, I’m worried that similar things will be introduced into RPGs and fighting games, likely under the guise of an alternative to the ‘free-to-play’ model.

Gouging players through additional services sold in addition to the already expensive game is not a sustainable economic model. While it can increase player investment in a particular game, it creates a two-tier player base, freezing out casual players who don’t pony up for the extra guns and gizmos. It also risks harming future sales, when heavily invested players continue to play an older game instead of moving on to a newer – this can be seen with CoD: Modern Warfare 2 remaining one of the most played Xbox titles despite the release of not one but two successor games.

If the major publishing houses genuinely want to get more money out of people for their games, they should be looking at reducing the prices of their games and selling more of them. They should also ensure they are giving a feature-rich product, bug-free product that consumers are willing to pay for.

Video Games & Mental Illness

Every two to three months, someone manages to come up with evidence which links video games with negative health effects, be they mental or physical. It’s so predictable that you could set your calendar by it. The resultant outcry is equally predictable, with sensationalist tabloids (usually The Sun and the The Daily Mail) making ill-informed arguments about the evils of gaming while many gamers respond with equally ill-informed comments about how journalists don’t understand them and how they’ve never seen any negative effects personally.

I have to confess that the rubbish printed by the tabloids doesn’t bother me that much. After all, an occasional story in which a tabloid news paper is wrong about the cause of  medical conditions is a drop in the ocean compared to the list of things which they’ll happily claim will cause cancer. The fact that gamers (and games industry lobbying groups) are so quick to deny that games have any negative effect at all disturbs me more. After all, very few activities if taken to extremes, even if only by a few individuals, cause absolutely no negative effects.

Take for example a recent study by Douglas Gentile. Professor Gentile has a PhD in Developmental Psychology and heads up Iowa State University’s Media Research Lab. He has spent more than 30 years studying media and psychology and has a list of peer-reviewed articles as long as my arm. One of his latest studies is a paper based on a survey of nearly 1,200 American youths which shows that a small, but significant number of the surveyed youths (specifically 8% of those surveyed) have pathological symptoms which may be characterised as addiction. The paper can be found on Gentile’s personal website, here and in the Journal of American Academy of Paediatrics.

A quick glance at it reveals some interesting tipbits. For example, depending on the way that the results are interpreted, up to 20% of the respondents may be characterised as having pathological symptoms of addiction, although since some of these symptoms are comparatively minor (missing chores, planning to play games in advance) and that this larger figure includes individuals who answered “sometimes” as well as “yes” to the questions.

More interesting is the percentage who answered yes to what I’d view as as the more serious symptoms. 2% of respondents said they had stolen video games or money to pay for video games. Questions on whether or not respondents became bored and restless when attempting to cut down on the amount they played and whether or not respondents had unsuccessfully attempted to cut down on the time they played for also received a positive response from 2% of those surveyed. These statistics are largely meaningless individually however, as one or two potential symptoms on their own is not indicative of addiction.

What is important, rather then merely interesting are the conclusions which Professor Gentile comes to in the closing paragraphs of the paper. Firstly, he notes that there are limits on the survey and study due to the methodology. Secondly, he notes that considerable further study is needed in the area of the long-term effects of video games on individuals and that his study only serves as a basis for further research. Finally, he notes that this study does suggest that there is a high possibility of there being mental health issues related to high levels of video game use in a small number of individuals.

For video games journalists, industry bodies such as the Entertainment Software Association and the moronic commentators on CVG to contend that this report is “flawed” or indeed, completely wrong, demonstrates an astonishing ignorance of academic process and genuine, albeit small, risk posed by video games to a minority of people. It is important to recognise that such risks do exist, so that those at risk can receive support they need. It doesn’t mean that the game-playing experience of the majority needs to be affected though.