Elite: Dangerous

Posted by on Dec 15, 2014 in words | 0 comments

Way back in the 1980s, I had a school friend living round the corner with whom I spent many hours playing David Braben and Ian Bell’s space trading game Elite on his dad’s insanely powerful 128k BBC Master. To that point, there hadn’t been a computer in my house so I’d only ever used BBC Model B’s at school. Aside from Castle Quest (and later Exile), Elite really fills my first memories of using computers in any way.

I don’t know especially what it was that attracted me to Elite so much. Or I do, and it was everything! At the time Star Wars and Star Trek were among the biggest cultural influences on boys my age, so the content was ripe for sparking imagination; my mind’s eye making the Elite universe seem a solid, colourful living thing, rather than the jagged white lines and dots that represented it on screen. Exploration in my Cobra, the excitement of making a good trade and avoiding the pirates, the outside chance that every hyperspace jump might lead to an encounter with the dreaded Thargoids, bounty hunting, or even partaking in a bit of piracy myself and running the gauntlet of the Vipers policing the solar system. The possibilities were practically endless.


A little later, a family friend who was a teacher and knew that I was interested in computers, took me along to some kind of educational technology trade show where Acorn were showing off their new Archimedes computers. They were using another David Braben game, called Lander, to demo the hardware. Although I didn’t know they were produced by the same guy, I might’ve guessed; except this time the polygons of the ship and those making up the landscape were filled with colour, and there were trees and water. It looked absolutely gorgeous.

I don’t know exactly how long it took me to persuade my parents to buy an Archimedes after that, but I know that it was the leap from what I’d experienced in the wireframe graphics of Elite on the Master to the vibrant look of Lander which made me realise how quickly computers were evolving, and I knew at that point that I needed to have one. Yes, to play with, but also to better learn how to use it. I played the Archimedes version of Elite a lot on that machine. It had solid, filled polygons like Lander, so it looked great! As much as I played, I also taught myself BASIC from books and magazines, learned about RISC OS, and I spent a fair bit of time trying (and failing) to make a Harrier jump-jet simulator with a package called Flight Sim Toolkit.

It is ultimately because of Elite that I gained a degree in Computing Science and ended up in a career in IT. Over the years, I’d occasionally fired up BeebEm and played a bit of the original; dreaming of a modern version of the game that had so sparked my imagination. While more modern games might’ve looked better, and even offered “sandbox” gameplay, there wasn’t anything that offered the total freedom of “here’s the universe; go do what you want”. I realise that isn’t for everyone; some people garner far more enjoyment from structured gameplay. Conversely, there are those who like a big box of Lego bricks without any instructions. Elite isn’t for everyone, but I loved it.

Ironically, it wasn’t until recently – just a few days before I met David Braben at a conference where we were both speaking – that I realised that for a number of years people had been asking me about my unusual choice of pets, and I’d been giving the wrong answer. I kept snakes for about 10 years and I would frequently be asked what got me interested in them in the first place. I would always answer that I wasn’t sure, but I was fascinated by their movement or some such waffle. It took until Elite: Dangerous came on the scene before I realised the source of Cobras, Pythons, Fer de Lances, Anacondas, Vipers, Asps, etc (the ships in the game) in my sub-conscious!

I wonder how many of my other decisions in life have been influenced by this marvelous game?


The nice thing about this modern version of Elite is that I’ve been able to follow the development from an early stage, and as a backer on Kickstarter, I actually contributed to its creation. Had the game gone down the traditional publisher route, I would still have been among the first to buy it on the 16th, but this way I feel far more invested in the title.

At this point I’m playing a pre-launch build on a daily basis and I’m having a ball! It’s only going to get better after launch, when the story begins to unfold. I’ve already primed myself for some of that by reading some of the new fiction that has been licensed by Frontier and authored by Elite fans who pledged at a sufficient level on Kickstarter to obtain that license and the support from Frontier Developments to expand the canon.


Right now, I haven’t decided whether Commander Jonoble is going to be a trader, explorer, miner, bounty hunter or what. At the moment I’m making an epic journey to Lave, the system where everyone began their Elite adventure in the original. Along the way I’ve fought off pirates (occasionally being rescued by the authorities, not that I needed it!), l made enough profit in trades to buy more weaponry and a fuel scoop so that I could fill my tanks by skimming stars, and I’ve learned by trial and error just how close I can get to one before my ship blows up. It’s been a blast, literally! I’ve also learned not to accept a mission to retrieve some commodity for a space station without any idea where to obtain it (coltan, I’m looking at you!).

David Braben’s Frontier Developments studio releases Elite: Dangerous on Windows on 16th December. It feels exactly like the game that I’ve been wanting to play for years.

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The Wishlist: 2014 Xbox One game releases

Posted by on Jul 22, 2014 in words | 0 comments

The Wishlist is home to our tech desires. It may be improvements to existing things, or something that doesn’t exist yet, but we really, really want.

Every year after the E3 Expo, I go through the list of new releases for the rest of the year and make a shopping list. This year it’s all on Xbox One, since I’ve already purchased the one PC game that I’m interested in (Elite: Dangerous) via Kickstarter. Some of these are purely because I want them; some are to play with my son…

The Golf Club Game – When I was in junior school a number of the boys in my class were discussing their best scores on the local 9 hole par-3 course. When challenged to submit my best round into this contest, I had no idea what my best round had been – it certainly hadn’t been stellar – so not wanting to be the worst, I plucked a number off the top of my head without any real thought. It was an improbably good score, and would’ve made me the best golfer in the school if not the city, so when my grandfather met me at the school gates to pick me up, my class mates were quick to ask him if I’d been telling the truth. He was just as quick to back me up, and then we said nothing more about it. Since then, I’ve played far more rounds of virtual golf than real golf. I actually preferred Links to Tiger, but I’ve enjoyed them all. This year there’s a new kid on the block and I’m really looking forward to giving it a go. You can get the PC version from Steam Early Access, and the Xbox One and PS4 versions are going through the submission process now, so it’s likely to be out in a few short weeks – it’s been really interesting following the progress of the game’s development at thegolfclubgame.com.

FIFA15 – I played every FIFA game until a few years ago, when I basically ran out of hours in the week for playing pretty much anything. Since I started to claw that gaming time back, I’ve focused my sports gaming on basketball, especially the last two excellent releases of NBA 2K. Recently though, my son has been playing FIFA on the Xbox 360 and the demo of FIFA14 on the Xbox One. He’s a fan, and looking at this new version, I quite fancy a bit of two player footie.

Disney Infinity 2.0 Marvel Superheroes – We love practically anything Disney in our house, so the only thing that stopped us getting the original Disney Infinity was the lack of an Xbox One version. Now that it’s coming to Xbox One, and with Marvel content in tow, it’s a no-brainer. Pre-ordered! This is likely to be my first disk-based game purchase on Xbox One (if I could digitally download the accessories, I would!).

Halo: The Masterchief Collection – I know that I’ve already played 2.5 of these games, but in advance of the release of Halo5: Guardians next year, it seems like a good idea to go through again and play them with better visuals. I’ve never been a big online Halo player, but it’s fun to jump into from time to time.

NBA 2K15 – As I said above, the last two versions of this have been excellent. Plus I love NBA basketball. Plus the coming season looks to be very interesting with the return of LeBron to the Cavs. There’s no way anyone could talk me out of this one.

Some might say that my list is missing a “Triple-A” shooter or two, but the fact of the matter is that I’m still enjoying Titanfall (and have some DLC yet to come from the Season Pass to keep that fresh for a while longer), and I’ve barely played any Battlefield 4 yet, even though I got it at launch (when it was losing the fight for playing time to NBA 2K14 and Zoo Tycoon*), so I won’t be getting a new Battlefield or Call of Duty game this year. I’m not interested in Forza Horizon 2 because I only recently picked up Forza 5.

Some games that deserve a mention as possible purchases at Metro Redux (which looks excellent and has a low pricetag), Project Spark (although I’m not entirely clear on the pricing structure) and some of the games that are further out and may feature in a similar post a year from now: Rainbow Six Seige, The Division, Quantum Break, Halo 5, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Crackdown.

* Yes, Zoo Tycoon – it’s excellent!

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The Wishlist: Improvements to Xbox One

Posted by on Jun 22, 2014 in words | 0 comments

The Wishlist is home to our tech desires. It may be improvements to existing things, or something that doesn’t exist yet, but we really, really want.

This time we’re talking about Xbox One. It’s been a few months. There have been a small number of game releases since launch, along with some system updates, but what do we feel needs to be improved on Microsoft’s latest console?


I’m planning to largely do my game purchasing by digital download this generation. Microsoft have said that they hear people’s complaints about the negative pricing on the digital downloads (which is countered somewhat if you top-up your Microsoft account with pre-paid cards from someone like cdkeys.com, where they can be purchased for around 20% under face value) and they plan to investigate different pricing options, but the thing that annoys me more than the price is the lack of pre-orders for digital downloads. It wouldn’t be difficult for them to allow you to pre-purchase a digital copy of a game, which could be downloaded to your Xbox One in the background before the launch date, but only made visible to you when the clock ticks round to launch day. That means you don’t have to wait until midnight to trigger a download and then wait to play the game, which is better for you, and also better for Microsoft because the load on the servers can be spread over the days leading up to the launch of a new title.

While pre-ordering would be a new feature, my next wish is fixing a bug feature that I regularly face with the system as it exists today. I have a young son who likes to play games, but frequently hands me the pad to show him how to do something. Xbox One cleverly suggests that his pad has disappeared. When playing LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, we’re always having to tell the console to keep playing as him, or hide the controller behind a cushion when he passes it to me. Things have been even worse when playing NBA 2K14 with 6 people sharing 4 controllers. The pads weren’t even changing hands during a game, but the Xbox frequently lost track of which controller should be playing for which team, and ended up thinking that there were more controllers in play than were present in the room (it only ever had 4 available, but started referring to them as 5, 6, 7 and 8 after a while)!


So I had the Xbox One on pre-order for a good 6 months prior to launch (but I suspect I was still slower than Jon!) and I was pretty excited by all of the information coming out about the console, leaked or otherwise. Now my gaming habits have changed significantly over the last 10 years where I went from an avid PC only gamer to dabbling a little bit with consoles to gaming almost exclusively (but admittedly not very much a week any more) on consoles. In the last generation of consoles I had a Wii, Xbox 360 and a PS3 but found I used the Xbox the most frequently. I found the experience of using a PS3 for online gaming to be painful. There was something so neat and easy about the online communication experience with the Xbox. You make an account, add friends via their email and then from that point on can see when they are online, can send them messages, chat with them, join their games, invite them to your games or even have private chat sessions while playing different games. The experience was great, it just worked (and lets not even talk about the Wii online experience!). I was therefore somewhat disappointed when I first used my shiny new Xbox One console and tried to join in with a friends game of BF4 only to find that the chat, party & friend experience had turned into an utter mess!

So what when wrong, surely when Microsoft were building the Xbox One they knew they had to carry all of this functionality forward? Well in theory they did, in practice however the new “appification” of the Xbox core functionality was rather woeful. Chat didn’t work properly, you would accept an invite only to be booted out of the game you were in & get stuck in “audio limbo” unable to talk to your friend. Now don’t get me wrong I can see why moving this sort of functionality out of the OS and into an “app” makes sense – you can iterate the apps much quicker than you can when they are baked in, you can get more flexibility that you had previously and it helps drive forward the ecosystem as a whole by making sure the OS has certain API’s built in that eventually other third parties will be able to exploit to build better experiences.

So what is on my wishlist? Well as you might have guessed a lot of fixes to make the chat & party join experience as seamless as it was on Xbox 360! I have seen the news that they had supposedly fixed this but I’ll wait and see and make my own mind up…

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OneNote goes free, adds awesomeness!

Posted by on Mar 17, 2014 in words | 0 comments

I have a terrible memory, but because I use the heck out of OneNote, that’s not a problem.

OneNote is one easily top of the list of applications that I couldn’t live without, and yet a huge number of people who have Microsoft Office installed on the PC in front of them have never bothered to open it. Part of that is because when it first appeared, it was marketed as a great companion to one of those Tablet PCs that hardly anyone bought. I’ve always maintained that you didn’t need a stylus or a touch screen to make the most out of OneNote. It’s just a really good way of storing information in a well organised and easily searchable way, and with your notebooks synchronised across all of your devices, it keeps all of that as accessible as could be.

Microsoft MVP Thomas Maurer tells us why OneNote is awesome on his blog. Even though I’ve used every version, I discovered some great tips from this post.

Microsoft has kindly made OneNote permanently free across all platforms, including a new Mac version. You can go and get it from http://www.onenote.com/download – I urge you to give it a try.

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Continuing to use Windows XP – how much of a risk is it really?

Posted by on Mar 14, 2014 in words | 4 comments

In my post “Get the hell off Windows XP! NOW!”, I talked about why it’s probably not safe to keep running Windows XP when Microsoft end support for it on 8th April 2014. I talked there about vulnerabilities and exploits, like the IT guy that I am, but what are the real risks if you’re someone running Windows XP at home, or on a work computer supplied by your employer?

There are a load of answers to this, some of which are worse than others, so let’s look at a few options. Some of them are a bit scary – that’s on purpose, but I’m not just being sensationalistic – I just want you to know so that you can make an informed decision as to whether you need to do anything. Look, it’s likely possible to carry on quite safely if you’re running with the computer properly locked down, and you’re taking every precaution in using it (using a modern browser, don’t run Java, don’t run as admin, etc), but making sure that it’s really hardened against attack isn’t easy, and only time will tell if it can be done at all. When you’ve read this, you need to decide if you’re confident in taking that chance.

There’s every chance that someone out there has found a way to get some code of their choosing to execute on your computer, taking advantage of an as yet undiscovered loophole, which Microsoft aren’t going to close. As soon as someone malicious can execute code on your computer, it isn’t your computer!

Your computer could become part of a botnet, set to work sending spam emails, or trying to take down other systems by flooding them with network traffic.

That doesn’t hurt you yet. What else..?

Your files could be lost or held to ransom. If you’ve got your only copy of anything on your computer we need to talk anyway, but lots of people do. Let’s say you’ve got all of your family photos on there. The fact that you’ve got all of them in albums on Facebook isn’t a great backup. There’s a possibility that some enterprising soul could install ransomware on your computer; encrypting all of your files and demanding that you pay them real money to give you access back, otherwise they’re gone for good.

Your best defence against that is to have multiple copies of anything that has value, so that if anyone does take control of your computer, you can flatten it and start again, with an operating system newer than Windows XP. The fact that you have physical access to the machine still gives you an edge over the remote attacker, but only if you have backups.

Side Note: Doesn’t up to date anti-virus/anti-malware software protect me against this stuff?

Maybe. If you’re going to pin your hopes on “maybe” then we might as well not be having this conversation.

So we’re at a point where you may lose something of value. Perhaps you’ve got some software that you purchased and can’t easily retrieve again, or your collection of mp3s, or the sentimental value of your digital photo collection (which is by far the most valuable digital content that I own personally). Maybe they won’t touch your files. Perhaps they’ll just watch what you’re doing and collect your passwords with a key logger. If you do your online banking on that computer, you just gave them access to your bank account. Oops. They’re also in your email and social networks. Do you have anything in there that you want to keep private?

That’s at home though. What about at work?

So the same applies – if somebody else can run code on the computer. They can own the computer. Does your computer hold, or have access to, anything that’s of value to your company, or its customers, or its competitors. Would your password give somebody access to anything that could harm the organisation? Does your manager’s password? We know the CEO/COO/CFO have access to that stuff. Are they using Windows XP too?

Not to be dramatic, but can you foresee a situation where someone could get access to your systems and do enough damage to the company that it loses a stack of money, or a stack of value off the share price, or get a massive fine for leaking confidential data, or loses the confidence of its customers? Would the company be able to bounce back, or would you and your colleagues be out of work?

If you’re working for a company that is planning to carry on using Windows XP after 8th April, have you asked the management whether they’ve considered the risks of this? I know I would. You need a job more than you need those family holiday photos, right?

How certain are you that some script kiddie isn’t going to spam all your contacts, steal the music collection that you took years to build, ransom your own files back to you, then wipe then off your hard drive anyway for a laugh even after you’ve paid up, upload your fruitier selfies to a revenge porn site, and use photos of your significant other to catfish your best friend, sell your company’s secrets and client list to its competition, meanwhile opening it up to litigation from said clients and regulators, making your stock options worthless and leaving you looking for new employment?

Don’t worry though, it probably won’t happen.

It’s up to you.

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Get the hell off Windows XP! NOW!

Posted by on Mar 7, 2014 in words | 0 comments

One month from today, support ends for the Windows XP operating system, and Office 2003.


This is why…

There are still a lot of people running Windows XP. There are bad people in the world who try to find vulnerabilities in Windows (and Office, and anything else with a decent user base). Those people know that any vulnerability that they find is only useful to them until it is patched. If they keep their newly discovered vulnerability to themselves until after 8th April 2014, it’s not going to be patched, so it will be useful to them forever (until people stop using Windows XP)! Therefore, it’s incredibly likely that people have been stock-piling zero day exploits for months if not years, waiting for this.

So, in case it isn’t clear yet, let me summarise: If you are running Windows XP this time next month, it is likely that very soon, someone with bad intent is going to take control of your computer (unless it is completely isolated from everything else).

The good news is that you have a month to do something about it. The bad news is that, depending on the size of your organisation, that pretty much makes it a DIRE EMERGENCY! Stop reading blogs and do something about it.

These links might help you:

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