Friday, January 23, 2015

YouTube in Spectro-vision

Friday, January 23, 2015 0
I appreciate this is all a bit 'first-world problems', but what is it with the recent trend for people to upload to YouTube full episodes of TV shows and have them play back in a diminished rectangle, making space for a perennial title surrounded by a worthless vacuum? It's like playing a Spectrum game where the coders had to compromise on the size of the game-play window because the little 8-bit computers didn't have the processing muscle to interpret and re-draw a full screen array of animation. All that's missing here is a status console/HUD displaying our high score, remaining lives and energy bar.

Take Channel 4's The Undateables, pictured below, for instance. This is exactly what you see if you maximise the screen. It's painful to watch on a decent-sized LCD monitor, so imagine what an endurance test it is on a 4 inch phone screen.

It's not entirely clear if this is being done by the programme's producers, or third parties, though as these are the only episodes to survive Google's copyright infringement cull, it suggests the owners of the channel also own the rights to rebroadcast the show on YouTube.

Either way, what precisely does it achieve? Is it to deter people from inserting shows into their own web sites, pretending they're called 'Differently-abled Dudes Struggle to Find Love' and claiming they produced them? Maybe it's a disability-inclusion, box-ticking exercise catering for viewers with Alzeimer's. I know I often forget entirely what I'm watching so this kind of perpetual reminder is really helpful, and surely it must save carers up and down the country countless minutes of elucidation.

But wait, it gets worse! The screen shot below is taken from the BBC 1 show, 'Waterloo Road'; an overly sanitised, politically correct school drama in the Grange Hill mould, only with all the edgy bits sanded off and wrapped in cotton wool.

Instead of the title of the show, we now have a static image of some of its 'stars', which takes up even more screen real estate. If perma-titles are for viewers with Alzeimer's, this abortion of a YouTube presentation must be for those of us who are illiterate as well as having Alzeimer's.

I'd be fascinated to know what went through the mind of whoever thought this would be a good idea. Answers on a dinner ticket to....

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Is that a thing?

Thursday, December 11, 2014 1

I really wish it wasn't!

All of a sudden, everywhere I go I keep hearing the trying-too-hard-to-be-droll phrase, "is that even a thing?" or "apparently that's a thing now". In grown-up, human-talk it equates to, "I didn't know that existed" or "is that real?".

I Googled it and learnt that this irritating memes' earliest outing is thought to date back to a 2001 episode of the American sitcom, 'That '70s Show'. In which case, why has it taken so long for this Valley Girl argot to cross the pond and infect our UK shores? Where's it been hiding all this time, and can it be shipped back on the next boat please?

Friday, November 21, 2014

You have received a secure message

Friday, November 21, 2014 0
One of the most efficient and logical ways of getting a message through to someone has to be to send them a quick email. Now that we've all mastered the art of sending and receiving email, where do we go from here? Tell you what, let's make it ridiculously long-winded and complicated so as to cause maximum frustration for the recipient. Why the hell not?

The worst offender in my opinion has to be National Savings and Investments, a government-run organisation already notorious for their bureaucratic bungling. These are the people responsible for administrating the management of Premium Bonds, which in the UK is a kind of safe lottery where you enter a monthly prize draw without ever risking the loss of your stake money.

If you choose to do this online you'll be notified of any prizes you've won by email, only they won't simply tell you, "congratulations you're a millionaire". Of course not, that would be too easy; instead they'll send you a message to inform you that you've received a secure message you can read by logging into the Premium Bonds web site and checking your Premium Bonds inbox. Whenever this happens I sense the announcement should be ushered in with a fanfare of trumpets to mark this magnanimous occasion... and each time I'm disappointed.

Just a quick matter of entering an easy to remember username and password then? Not a chance! You first need to know your eleven character long NS&I ID number (not your 'holder's number', that's something different again), which can be found on a paper document you received in the post however many years ago you first started investing in Premium Bonds. Then you need to find the randomly generated password they chose for you when you signed up (and can no longer remember), and select certain characters included in it from a drop down box rather than just typing it into a text field.

If you forget any of these details, don't worry, you can download a form, print it out, complete it and snail mail it to NS&I, and they'll send this information to you, also by snail mail (because phone or email isn't secure)... no doubt using an address you vacated five years ago despite filling in your current one on the form. What about the terrorists hiding under your bed? They could pounce on the letter and steal your life savings, identity and soul before you've even wiped the sebum out of your eyes. Didn't think of that one did you NS&I?

If the web site doesn't then time-out, insisting you start again from the beginning, you can then navigate to your Top Secret, Super-Special Premium Bonds Inbox. Yes, the one you only use for receiving Premium Bonds related correspondence with roughly the same frequency as we witness a solar eclipse on each Friday the 13th during a leap year.

You persevere with this rigmarole merely because there's the faintest prospect that you might have won a cash prize, only to realise that when you've jumped through all these hoops, they're actually getting in touch to tell you that line 63 of page 717 of their Terms and Conditions tome has been updated. The chances are an i has been crossed or a t dotted somewhere, though obviously nothing has changed that actually makes a difference to anyone's life, other than the fact you're now older and have less time left to enjoy on this planet.

Are there any worse examples? Feel free to share them below.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

GamesMaster the Database

Thursday, August 21, 2014 0
Can you imagine what sort of sad individual would take the time to catalogue every single review, preview, Consoletation Zone plea, news item, feature, and contestant that constituted each of GamesMaster's 126 episodes, spanning 7 series and 6 years? To transcribe every game played, every game platform, every winner and loser and proud Golden GamesMaster Joystick recipient? Surely they'd be locked up for even contemplating it?

You've watched the TV show, you've read the magazine and got the t-shirt. Now tinker with the database! Mark my words, GMDb will be more huge-er-er-er than IMDb... albeit on a much, much smaller scale and quite a bit less Hollywoody.

What's so nifty about having all this data in a searchable and filterable format is that you can produce fascinating (pretty too!) tables of figures showing the number of joysticks won by celebrities and non-celebrities, the number won by series, and the overall total.

The same goes for game platforms. Come on, you must at some point have wondered how many Amiga games were featured in GamesMaster challenges throughout its run, and desperately craved to have that information at your fingertips and broken down series by series? Haven't you dreamed of a time when you'd be able to see at a glimpse the popularity of platforms through the evolutionary gaming epoch that was the 90s? Their emergence, and eventual demise? No? Just me then. Can you tell I work in finance?

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I'd appreciate it if you could have a play with it, make sure everything works, and report any inaccuracies so I can fix them. I'm also open to suggestions for improvement.

I've already uploaded a church-load of screen grabs, but wasn't planing on capturing every single moment for posterity. If you would like to suggest any others you think should be included, I can arrange that.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Meet the JoystickMaster

Monday, August 18, 2014 0
As witty and talented a raconteur as he is, we've all heard Mr Diamond talk about GamesMaster, "quite literally" until the cows come home, ease themselves into your favourite recliner and put their hooves up on your coffee table, but what about the people who made a major contribution to the show, yet never get so much as a mention?

Enter stage left, Richard Sekula, the man behind the GamesMaster Golden Joystick (refer to the first part of my GamesMaster retrospective if this is unfamiliar territory). I managed to track him down and he was gracious enough to agree to answer some very geeky, burning questions.

I'll let him tell the story in his own words...

DK: Could you start by telling me a bit about your involvement with Spectravideo, how you knew Dave and how your golden joysticks came to be the GamesMaster Golden Joysticks?

Richard: To be honest I am not sure that I can offer any additional information to what you have already (accurately) related but I am happy to confirm the following.

Quite rightly you mentioned that I was the sales manager at Spectravideo from 1984 to 1986 (two complete years in fact) and it was my job to sell as many joysticks as possible!

Initially we were tasked by Bondwell in HK to establish the ‘Quickshot’ brand and in the first year we sold over a million Quickshot 2 joysticks which was going some in those days.

Because of a change of management structure in Bondwell HK, Spectravideo dropped the Quickshot franchise and decided to develop the ‘Quickjoy’ brand in conjunction with a few senior ex-Bondwell managers which led to a major launch campaign to evangelise the new brand.

If my memory serves me well I am pretty sure that I had initially met Dave when he was involved with a games magazine carrying out reviews – I can’t be sure about that so don’t quote me on it! We might have even organised a competition with him to give away joysticks as prizes.

Dave contacted me when he had joined the team putting together GamesMaster and discussed the idea of giving away a joystick to competition winners but it needed to be something ‘special’.

At Spectravideo we had been working on presenting a ‘Golden Joystick’ to those distributors/stores that had reached certain targets for selling Quickjoy joysticks.

The conversation with Dave was a case of good timing and we made a decision to keep the Golden Joystick exclusively for the GamesMaster show in the beginning and it was only after the first couple of episodes that we handed out a very limited number to our top-performing distributors. I believe GEM Distribution may still have theirs in a cupboard somewhere!

The joysticks were certainly not gold-plated otherwise we would have had them all back haha! The factory used an electro-plating process which at first we thought was going to look a bit naff but they turned out really cool.

I can’t remember exactly how many were produced in total but they were very expensive to make and the finances just weren't available to make them in big numbers. If there were more than 20 in total I would be surprised. Wish I had kept one myself now!

I remember being invited to the first filming of GamesMaster in a very gothic-like church somewhere in Stepney in East London – it seemed a very dark and foreboding setting for a programme aimed at younger audiences but it worked obviously.
DK: That would be 'St Paul's Church for Seamen' based on Dock Street, London. I've included some trivia on this - and for all the other set locations - used throughout the show's seven series, in the second part of my GamesMaster retrospective that will be online soon.
I do remember Dave getting dressed up in a monk’s outfit to hand out the Golden Joystick award and the hood being so large you couldn't see his face. I am sure that was deliberate but he could have been as famous as D Diamond!

DK: True, Dave became the gaming equivalent of a rock star, helped very much by exploiting his unique (partly choreographed and exaggerated) persona. He's now working as a tattoo artist in his own studio in Torquay.

Richard: Jeez I spent some time myself in Torquay a few years back in the boat business – I am sure I would have recognised him – does he still wear a bandana haha?

DK: Small world, eh. He launched 'The Revolver Tattoo Rooms' in 2007 and it's located on the corner of Market Street and Castle Lane. No, his hair has grown back now, and anyway, the bandana was the 'Games Animal's' trademark, he's now 'The Pistol'. Each to their own!

I seem to recall meeting Dominik at another studio in West London but I think that was for another games/tech show that he was involved in(?). It couldn't have been as successful as GM.
Dominik Whitehouse. Int veg brilliant?
DK: Dominik also starred in 'When Games Attack' in 2004/5 so you could be thinking of that, except this was all filmed on location rather than in a studio. Maybe he had a cameo in someone else's show.

Richard: My recollection was he was doing something after GM but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was – I am sure it was less game and more technology. I seem to remember they wanted to feature our Robot Arm on the show(?)

DK: That takes me back - I didn't own one, but remember the ads during the robot craze. I'm stumped with regards to what the show might have been though. Readers are welcome to leave any suggestions in the comments below.
I also remember having many dealings with Violet Berlin but I believe that was mainly for the Bad Influence magazine.

Anyway I am just name-dropping now and showing off my memory skills!

DK: Did you notice a spike in joystick sales as a result of them appearing on GamesMaster, or did viewers not seem to catch on to what they really were?

Richard: The joystick market was well and truly established by then and some keen-eyed people may have spotted that the Golden Joystick was indeed a ‘gold-plated’ Quickjoy but I would say direct benefits were not that obvious. We did however milk the situation with our high street customers and distributors and played the PR card heavily with them.

DK: I noticed you left Spectravideo quite a while before GamesMaster first aired. Did you still have professional ties to them in 1992, maybe as a freelance consultant?

Richard: Yes I did as a freelance consultant as you say until late 1994. I was also helping them launch the Logic 3 brand at the time and they called upon my services again in 2001-2003.

DK: Not a question, but I imagine you'll be stoking the rumour mill all over again with your comments regarding the number of joysticks that were manufactured. I wonder if the producers could really be so cruel as to award kids with a joystick and then snatch it back off-camera to be recycled. I have read a few 'anything goes if it makes good telly' stories as told by insiders.

Richard: I wouldn't be surprised to be honest – the numbers quoted in the article do seem a bit ambitious to me and we were very restricted by what the factory could make for us as ‘freebies’ i.e. not many.

DK: Were you also responsible for manufacturing the 'sword in the stone' style joysticks that were presented to triumphant contestants in series six?

What were they exactly, and how did the design switch come about? I've personally never seen a picture of one of these outside of GamesMaster so suspect they were never actually released into the wild.

He's got a big one!
Richard: No I think somebody in the production team decided they needed a different type of award by then but I have no idea where they got that one from.

DK: How about the special edition, 'jewel-encrusted' joystick awarded to the winners of the Team Championship contest at the end of series three? Were these just craft shop sequins glued on by the GamesMaster producers?

Richard: Beyond the original Golden Joystick I didn't have any involvement with any of the following 'evolutions'. I would suggest that if the basic shape of the 'jewel-encrusted' joystick looks identical to the original we supplied then I suspect your theory about sequins may hold true!

DK: Were you into games at all back then? Were you a fan of GamesMaster?

Richard: Sort of got into games because my two young sons were fanatics at a very young age especially at the time of Mario and Sonic. I also have fond memories of Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy and Lemmings. Space Invaders is still up there too. I watched all of the early episodes of GM to make sure we got some good exposure!

DK: What are you up to these days? Any plugs you'd like to make?

Richard: I have several different business interests now (not gaming) and I never lost my ties with the Far East – certainly too much to mention! Thank you for the offer anyhow, much appreciated.

DK: Finally - and I've saved the biggie for last - a quandary that still triggers heated debates, and violent riots even, amongst retro gamers; joypad or joystick?

Richard: For me Joystick, no contest. Remember Streetfighter, Daley Thompson and all of the classic arcade games that required a good, sturdy shaft for a high score – ooer missus. I remember when we saw the first pads that came over from Japan where the joystick it seems had no place in the world of gaming. We didn’t believe they would ever take off – the rest is history as they say and even we had a huge success with the Quickjoy ProPad. Flight Sim guys wouldn't be seen dead with one though.

DK: That's the correct answer! I managed to dig up what's likely to be the most comprehensive 'best retro joystick' survey on the web. Several of your models made the cut including the number one spot. I've either owned or had a dabble with the majority of these over the years. I'd love to start a collection of my faves, but worry that I wouldn't know when to stop.

Well I'm sure you'll agree this has been a fascinating insight into an iconic memento that many a nineties child would have sold their soul to own, even if they weren't made of 22 carat, solid gold!

Thanks again for setting aside some time in your busy schedule to elucidate upon the subject; it's much appreciated.
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