December 14, 2005

Dollars to Donuts

by peterb

It's hard for me to remember the first game I played on a personal computer. Arguably, "Dancing Demon" by Leo Christopherson, for the TRS-80 Model I might qualify; that would have been in 1979. I don't recall there being a lot of actual gameplay there, but I remember thinking it was very, very cool. On the heels of that would have been various text adventure games — Zork, certainly, among others — that I played while camped out at the local Radio Shack. Later in 1979, I remember seeing (and becoming addicted to) George Blank's Santa Paravia and Fiumaccio, a game that is still fun and playable on modern platforms, even today. This game is, ironically, the precursor to many of today's "God games." Such as Civilization IV.

The first game I played on a computer that I actually owned was, if I recall correctly, NORAD for the Apple ][. That would have been in 1982. It was pirated, of course. I'd send a tenner to the authors of it, but I can't, because I don't know who wrote it, and apparently neither does anyone else. If you know, please leave a comment and clue me in.

NORAD was a simple game. At its heart, it was a variant of Atari's classic Missile Command, but it had a style all of its own, a style that was pure home computer. You didn't just have three missile bases, you had ten, numbered 1 through 0, one for each city you were protecting. Cities could take several nukes before they were completely destroyed. To launch an anti-ballistic missile, you typed the number corresponding to the base you wanted. You could steer the missile, up to a point, with the arrow keys. And when you hit the space bar, the missile exploded, hopefully taking out the incoming enemy ICBM with it.

The audio in the game was masterful for 1983. Everything was scratchy and irritating, fingernails-on-a-blackboard, static and razor wire. The action was frenetic and the scenario devastating. It was, and still is, the perfect home computer arcade game. I spent many hours saying "Just one more game" over NORAD. In the end, isn't that one of the signs of a great game?

Incidentally, I never once had it lock up or crash. Welcome to PC gaming.

If you have an Apple ][ emulator (find one here, for Windows, or here, for MacOS), you can download and play NORAD today. Try it out and let me know what you think.

Posted by peterb at December 14, 2005 11:57 PM | Bookmark This

I guess that's one way to pull rank.

Posted by Thomas at December 15, 2005 10:24 AM

1979? I was seven. I'm not even sure I'd heard of a computer.

I guess I have to add Santa Paravia to my "find this and play it" list.

Posted by Troy Goodfellow at December 15, 2005 12:57 PM


Regarding Santa Paravia, Try this link, for Windows:

or this, for Mac OS X:

There are also versions for Palm.


Posted by peterb at December 15, 2005 03:37 PM

Much obliged.

Posted by Troy Goodfellow at December 15, 2005 04:36 PM

Hmmm, at least the Mac OS X port seems to be missing a certain je ne sais quois. Someone try the Windows version and let me know how it is.

Posted by peterb at December 17, 2005 09:40 AM

I once had a problem with World of Warcraft back when it was in beta. The computer would just reboot itself, sometimes a few minutes after I started playing, sometimes half an hour in. Other games I was playing at the time worked fine, however. At first I thought it was some bug in the client. However, the World of Warcraft client was not a buggy mess. Turns out my computer just wasn't cooled well enough and was overheating. WoW had just passed some threshold of taxing the system that other games weren't passing. Who knows if it was the CPU or the video card that was succumbing to the heat. It may have even been one 3 out of 4 times, and then the other the 4th.

There are multiple points of failure in a modern PC environment, and when playing a game, the game software is only one of them. It's certainly not the first possible culprit I look towards. This is the PC gaming that I am welcoming you to. Although it appears from your recent comment here that you do not have a PC, so perhaps I should have originally told you that I hoped you enjoyed your visit.

With Civ 4, a game that so many people are playing crash-free, I would like to know what sort of methodology you used to determine that your crashes were due to the code's bugginess. That is, if you can stoop to the level of someone whose first TRS-80 game experience was not until the Model 3.

Face facts: you goofed your review. It would be at least OK, if you hadn't been so vehement in telling people not to buy what is a top contender for the best PC game in recent history. It would be somewhat understandable, if you weren't continuing trying to defend it with some bizarre argument that a 25 year-old closed-platform computer that only let you use 6 colors in hi-res mode didn't crash.

Posted by Matthew Gallant at December 19, 2005 08:52 AM


Obviously, I disagree with your assessment. The really funny thing, of course, is that if people actually bother to follow the links you cite to support your contention that "the forums are not filled with complaints about bugginess," they will discover that, actually, the forums are filled with complaints about bugginess. This, of course, is entirely consistent with your demonstrated ability to not actually read the things that you write about.

The support forum, for example, makes a great read:

To help you along, since you weren't able to find these issues with your elite search-engine skills, I'll intersperse URLs to some of the more recent comments in my reply. To prevent this from getting too long, I'll confine myself to just problems mentioned in the past few days, rather than cutting and pasting URLs for each of the, let's see, 1,077 threads in the forum. That's more than half the number of threads in the "general discussion" forum, incidentally, which I think says something.

"2 diff PC's-same install error: Feature Transfer: C++ Runtime Libraries 7.1" -

Obviously, a bug support forum is going to have more problems reported than other places. Therefore, I encourage people to check it out for themselves. Then they can decide whether I am overstating the case, or whether you are dismissing real problems simply because you haven't seen them for yourself.

"Crash to Desktop after 2 turns" -

And let me be clear that "I haven't seen these problems myself" is a fine bit of information. Just like "I tried to run the game, and it crashes reliably for me every couple of hours" is a fine bit of information. It's when you try to generalize from "I, Matthew Gallant, haven't seen it crash" into "peterb is a psycho hose beast because he claims the game crashes, when clearly it never does, ever" that you cross the line from "concerned reviewer" into "wingnut."

"CrashDump: CvGameCoreDLL" -

"Anyone else waiting for a 'stable' patch before they buy the game?" -

Your comments about how the problems must be because I'm not cyber enough to debug my Windows box I dismiss out of hand, as will anyone who has read enough of my work. Deploying quality applications on heterogeneous platforms is hard. "It's hard to do it right" is fundamentally a lousy reason to release inadequately Q/A'd software. To take just one example, Microsoft releases products, on a regular basis, that dwarf the complexity of Civ IV, and manage to do a better job of it.

"Bug Reports Center" -

I am glad -- truly, I am -- that your Civ IV experience has been enjoyable and bug-free. But the suggestion that the right thing for a reviewer to do is to ignore the bugs they encounter during a review, especially when those bugs are being encountered and reported by untold numbers of other people is beyond ludicrous. It is sociopathic. Your job, as a reviewer, is to describe the product as you find it, not to desperately scramble to make up excuses for it. If you're not up to describing the true state of the product, and just want to punt, shrug your shoulders and say "Gee, computers are hard. Let's go shopping," then maybe you should look for a new line of work.

"Game Crash - Any Help Appreciated" -

The meta-point, as psu would say, is that this is an example of why cutting-edge PC games are -- in the long run -- d00med. That you think it is reasonable to suggest that one needs to earn the right to play them by, presumably, firing up w32dasm and analyzing the various device drivers on one's system, is a good example of this. It is, in fact, a reasonable assumption to make that if I am running on an operating system with protected memory, and I meet the minimum specs _that the publishers of the software put on the box_, that the game will not crash. We are, as you point out, no longer living in the world of TRS-80s. Software publishers are given a protected sandbox to play in. If I use _the hardware you recommend_ and I still encounter problems, it is _your fault_.

Some publishers don't want to accept that responsibility. The industry response to this so far has been to talk about "recommended specs" and "minimum specs"; this is a pathetic joke that avoids addressing the complexity of the problem. The matrix of video cards that have to be tested and qualified is huge. There is not a clear continuum of "better" and "worse" video cards. Instead, it is a dense matrix of cards from different manufacturers, each with unique bugs. The "minimum/recommended spec" is an attempt to try to say "We tried it on this card, and it kind of worked, even though it sucked, so you should buy it and not complain when it sucks or crashes." My well of sympathy for companies trying to benefit from this is dry. If you only Q/A your game to run on NVidia cards X (revision A), Y (revision Q), and Z (revision T), then _put a notice on the box_ saying "Only supported for cards X (revision A), Y (revision Q), and Z (revision T)." Or only make cutting-edge games for consoles, and on the PC only deploy games that use mature features that work well on a wide range of cards. Which is what I think will actually happen in the long term.

Posted by peterb at December 19, 2005 10:51 AM

So your response to me asking how you figured out your crashes were due to poor game coding is to call me a sociopath and link to some isolated bug reports that include some guy who can't get the game to run on a Tablet PC? A talent for hyperbole isn't in demand anywhere except maybe IGN, just so you know.

I'm not saying that everybody except you is playing the game fine and with no problems. I'm saying that if the game was truly as buggy as you purport it to be in your review, those forums would be on fire. They're not. I count eight threads in the Bug Reports forum with a timestamp from today. Compare that with the General Discussion forum. Case closed. You should have seen the Play the World General Discussion when it was released. Everyone was upset. Everyone.

This game has minor bugs and performance issues. But it certainly does not have any easily replicable crash bugs. It's stable as far as PC games go. Go ahead, give me a save game and instructions on how to make it crash. Borrow whoever's computer you used to do the first review if you have to. I double dare you.

And even if it wasn't stable, I don't know how you think a comparison between a huge, hundreds of millions of dollars project like WindowsXP and a game with less than 25 credited programmers is in any way apt.

Ultimately, if you have a problem with Civ 4's stability, you actually have a problem with PC gaming in general, and making out Civ 4 to be unique in this regard is shoddy. Super shoddy.

It's OK, though. It's your first review, and I doubt more than a couple hundred people will read it anyway. As long as you learn something from it, probably no harm done. I wouldn't put it in a portfolio, though.

Posted by Matthew Gallant at December 19, 2005 02:05 PM

Ooooh, ad hominem AND an appeal to authority. I'm convinced!

Posted by Eric Tilton at December 19, 2005 02:48 PM

Wow. So most PC games are crashy pieces of shit?

Awesome. It sounds like so much fun.

Posted by psu at December 19, 2005 03:08 PM

Really, it's the combination of "Civ IV as released was not crashy! But if it was, that's OK!" that sort of makes my head spin.

Posted by peterb at December 19, 2005 03:18 PM

Where did I say that most games are crashy pieces of shit? I'm reasonably certain that peterb is the one saying that Civ 4 is a crashy piece of shit and I'm the one saying it's not. Hundreds of thousands of people have bought Civ 4. It would be blindingly obvious if the game crashed all the time, but there's only very isolated cases of it crashing at all, with no evidence that it's even the game code being the source of the crashing.

And where did I say it was OK if it was a buggy mess? I only said it wasn't anywhere near appropriate to compare a PC game's bugginess with that of Microsoft Windows. One cost millions of dollars, the other hundreds of millions. When I'm judging games for this year's Independent Games Festival, I don't assign a score for graphics based on how the game looks compared to Quake IV. That would be really dumb. So don't compare XP's stability with a game's.

You guys are burning down straw men that aren't even there, that's how poor your argument is.

Posted by Matthew Gallant at December 19, 2005 03:49 PM

Matthew, you wrote all that needs to be said in one sentence: "It's stable as far as PC games go." Your argument rests on the idea that while a game may have "minor" problems, so do most other PC games, and thus the problems are part of the platform and ought to be overlooked in a review.

I am inclined, however, to side with peterb. When I buy I game, I am buying the promise of fun. If anything breaks that promise, regardless of whose fault it is, I'm not going to be happy about it. It does me little good to know that the game's developers are innocent and that the real culprit is the instability of the PC gaming platform. All I care about is that I'm not having fun.

Thus I don't want reviewers to factor out stability problems on account of the platform. I want to know about the total experience: game + platform. If PC gaming gets to the point where every single game is plagued by frequent, irritating problems, I want every single game review to say so.

Posted by Tom Moertel at December 20, 2005 02:42 AM

Tom: hear, hear!

Posted by Andy P at December 20, 2005 12:09 PM

"You guys are burning down straw men that aren't even there, that's how poor your argument is."

This from the guy who's throwing a temper tantrum in the comments on a stranger's weblog because his FAVORITEST GAME EVAR didn't get a good enough review, and has decided that insults and screaming are a perfectly good substitute for evidence and facts.

You've never even *heard* of irony, have you?

Posted by Nat Lanza at December 20, 2005 03:59 PM

The thing is, Tom, is I wouldn't characterize the problems as "frequent". The major issue these days is copy protection schemes like SecuROM and SafeDisc, not games always crashing. At the end of the day, I wouldn't blame poor game coding first if I had a unreproducable random crash.

And at the end of that same day I would like my PC games reviewed by someone who is familiar with PC gaming, or who at the very least actually owns a PC. Critics need to be somewhat current with what they critique.

Posted by Matthew Gallant at December 20, 2005 04:23 PM

I must say, maybe this has overall been a waste of time, but at the very least I've learned entirely new connotations of "temper tantrum", "screaming", and "sociopathic" that I heretofore couldn't have even imagined. Could any of you recommend a good anger management course? No, I don't suppose you could, you sparkling paragons of tranquility.

Posted by Matthew Gallant at December 20, 2005 04:51 PM

I have to say, I'm impressed with your ability to complain about "strawmen" while simultaneously criticizing people for things they didn't actually say.

To take just the most recent example, that's twice now that you've implied that I don't own a PC. I understand exactly where you got the idea. You read something I said, overgeneralized it in your head, and then treated your own fantasy as fact.

This is pretty much par for the course for every interaction I've had with you since our little contretemps six months ago. For someone who claims to make their living from words, you sure are sloppy with them.

But what do I know. I'm only a software engineer.

Posted by peterb at December 20, 2005 05:59 PM

Well, actually, I only wanted you to confirm that you do in fact have a PC. But maybe you can tell the class now why you want someone to tell you how Santa Paravia for Windows is. Couldn't you just try for yourself?

And since you're a software engineer, why'd you dodge my request for the methodology you used to determine that your Civ 4 crashes were being caused by Civ 4? I'm not in the field myself, but I do have a Bachelor's Degree in C.S., so you can use jargon if you want.

Posted by Matthew Gallant at December 20, 2005 06:44 PM

A critical point that is being missed here, by some, is that whether or not Civ IV is *at fault* is immaterial. If the game crashed, even though the box said it would not, then that's bad.

It's true that there are a myriad of issues that could have caused that crash that are arguably not within the control of the engineers that make the game. If this is the case, they should have narrowed the requirements on the box.

If they can't actually test the game well enough to do this, then they should not engineer the game to require features of the OS or its various services that are buggy (uselessly shiny graphics, for example). Or, they should build the game on a platform that is easier to test for.

They picked the sandbox they are playing in. If they don't have the resources to do it well, they can't come crying back too me and say life is hard. I will tell them to piss off and go play xbox.

Obligatory xbox vs. pc story:

I played KOTOR on my xbox, and it was a fun game. My wife was interested in it, so I bought her KOTOR to play on her PC laptop. I carefully made sure that she had a beefy graphics card and all that, and it seemed fine.

We fire up the game, and in the character creation screen, all the heads and torsos and body parts are all disconnected.

It turns out this happens because ATI ships two different types of graphics cards that are nearly identical in hardware, but have different drivers. KOTOR works with the "consumer" cards but not the "professional" cards. Or some such nonsense.

Do I care that it is ATI that is screwing me here and not Bioware? Not really. They are both at fault as far as I am concerned. One thing I am sure of: no PC games.

Posted by psu at December 20, 2005 07:24 PM

Hi Peter, I thought I might do sort of a blind taste test with your review to see what other people thought of it. The lead designer of Civ 4 even pops in to apologize about the Civilopedia.

Posted by Matthew Gallant at December 21, 2005 09:35 PM

Thanks for the link. It was an interesting read. There was certainly a lot of fair criticism there, and I'll take some of it to heart. I think the criticism that strikes home the most is that talking about focus. I think it's reasonable to describe some aspects of the review as being overly laundry-listy. Hopefully I'll improve that aspect in future pieces.

The people who disagree with me about interface, well, I think they're wrong. Sure, we can always learn to work around the infirmities of a poor UI design. That there are workarounds doesn't make the UI good. I'll take the fact that the Civilopedia is being revised as acknowledgement that it doesn't quite serve its intended purpose, yet. I look forward to seeing the revisions. I'm sure Civ IV will be a better game for them.

Posted by peterb at December 21, 2005 10:24 PM

I'm at a bit of a loss re: what the hell you guys are arguing about? Let me see if I can break this down:

- PCs are impossible to support robustly. TRUE. The reason is that given a near infinite number of combinations of drivers, patches, hot fixes, security updates, and hardware, it is literally impossible for any developer to guarantee that their software will run on anything but the handful of machines in their office.

- It is the developer's fault if it crashes. SOMEWHAT. The developer (and publisher) must make choices and decisions designed to simplify the play experience for the user. Some developers decide to go cutting edge -- you can argue (and I would agree) that by doing so they have a higher probability of encountering Random Fucked Up Shit. Other developers are more modest and will run on any pretty much anything that boots, in exchange for not providing a more compelling experience to the hardcore players. This isn't a "good" vs. "bad" situation, it's just a set of choices made.

That said, some developers just suck and their games are slow and buggy even on their machines, but that's neither here nor there.

- PC gaming is DOMED for these reasons. NO. PC gaming is DOMED for many reasons, and these are just some of them.

It is patently stupid to say that PC developers should just move to another platform if they can't hack it, because that would effectively mean zero software for the PC. The platform's success is largely due to its anarchy and openness, and with that comes pain. Should developers try to mitigate this? Of course. Many do, but not matter how hard you try, someone will have some piece of shit early gen Creative SB that had to be manually configured and doesn't actually support hardware mixing even though it claims it does, etc. etc.

Posted by at December 22, 2005 10:44 PM

I really hope PC gaming is not DOMED at all. It sounds painful and ungrammatical. Perhaps it could be doomed, instead.

I know, I know. Cheap shot. Sorry.

Posted by Thomas at December 22, 2005 11:34 PM

What's the word I'm looking for... oh yeah, "opinionated tosser". Doh, that's two.

Still, doesn't matter what forum you go to there's always one jackass who knows he is right, you're all wrong, he's got a bit of paper says he knows more than your gramma and, hey, guess what, Civ4 does crash.

Get over it.

fwiw, mine scraps out after about 40 minutes playing pushes the mobo temp up to 58C, alarms go off, lights flash, PC shuts down. Can play other games, SWG, BF2, HalfLife, Doom, for literally days and nothing like that happens. It's not a tried and tested process but I think it does point to Civ4 doing something unexpected, 'specially as my machines are well above their recommended spec.

Posted by Quintin Makepeace-Lowe at December 31, 2005 10:28 PM

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