On ten years of Custom PC

I’d like to do a post of great social and political import.

Ten years ago, I helped start a magazine. It’s still going, and the people running it now asked me to write a little bit about it. I was a staff writer on issue 1 of Custom PC and by issue 60-something, after five years, I’d become editor. I left two years after that, in 2010, so it’s been a while since I thought about CPC. But I got issue 1 down from the shelf and was reminded of the things we did I’d definitely do again, and of course, the many things I’d avoid if possible.
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We’re hiring

No, not The Wired Jester, but the two publications I work on – Custom PC and bit-tech. We’re looking for a staff writer! It’s a great entry into the world of technical consumer journalism, and it’s a full time role, based at our central London offices. Dennis as a whole is hiring quite a few people at the moment, including a lot of web development types. Full details on the corporate page.

Computex 2009

I was in the Far East all last week, first to Taiwan to report on the Computex trade show. We filed tons of stories on bit-tech (full list) and I also contributed a quick, more mainstream write-up for the BBC website. On the way back, I went via Hong Kong to visit an old friend, and rather serendipitously, arrived on the 4th of June, the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. I took plenty of photos, which I’ll post up once I’m over the jetlag.

In war games, killing is fun

[I wrote this for the blog I contribute to for work, over on bit-tech. I don’t generally cross-post stuff I write for work here, but the idea for it grew out of writing the Peleliu post, so I think there’s a good case to be made that it belongs here, too.]

Konami’s recently announced Six Days in Fallujah game rolls into town at the head of a of convoy of outrage over the fact it’s based on a very real and very contemporary battle of an ongoing war.  In a well-weighted editorial on Eurogamer, Rob Fahey nails why this outrage is nonsensical, and why it’s particularly unpalatable when it comes from the tabloid press:

“It’s not just the fact that the [Daily] Mail and others are essentially calling for the worst form of censorship, the blocking off of an entire event and saying ‘this is off limits, and may not be portrayed’ – something which would stab to the very heart of the freedom of expression our media should be championing… the thing that rankles most about this situation is the fact that this is a tabloid newspaper telling another medium that the way in which it’s handling current events is insensitive. I won’t need to remind any reader who walks past a news stand on the way to work, or flicks on Sky News or CNN in the evening, just how ‘sensitive’ the news media is in its coverage of war.”

The whole piece is worth a read as it eloquently defends the right of games to portray reality. Fahey’s defence of games isn’t totally blind though – indeed, he challenges those making games such as Six Days in Fallujah to engage more fully with their subject material:

“If a game like Six Days in Fallujah is to have any value, it must come from adding something to that discussion [of the war]. This isn’t about taking a pro-war or an anti-war stance – although both are valid starting points, there are countless others. It’s about making people think, informing them through their entertainment experiences, and commenting, as creators, on the media we create and the events we portray.”

Games based on real combat aren’t uncommon – the Call of Duty series has been at it for longer than the duration of World War 2 – and Call of Duty 4 is the most notable depiction of combat in Iraq gaming has seen so far (although, bless its little corporate socks, Activision has decided to tell players it was actually set it in unnamed MiddleEastistan). What makes Six Days in Fallujah interesting is that unlike other ‘real war’ games, it’s not an FPS, or an RTS. Instead, it’s a third person ‘action’ game.

The problem previous ‘real war’ games have had is that none has managed to rise to Rob Fahey’s challenge. This is because of the problem of fun, namely that war games – and FPS war games in particular – make killing people fun. This is because killing is the central mechanic of the game. If there was no killing in CoD 4, for instance, there wouldn’t really be any game left. You’d be able to run, reload, crouch and open doors, but really, those actions are solely there to support you killing people.
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Better iPhone earphones

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A work post, this – at the end of last year, Dennis bought Bit-Tech, and this year, Custom PC and Bit will be working together on quite a few projects. The plan is to share a lot of what we do behind the scenes to come up with articles suited to print and articles that really work on the web. The new issue of Custom PC, Issue 68, contains a couple of pieces by the Bit guys, and I’ve written a round-up of iPhone headphones for the site. Nice to be back – I previously wrote for Bit on a freelance basis a few years ago (difficult games, politics and technology and unique game controllers).

The Custom PC book: Ultimate Guide to PC Gaming

CPC UGTPCG

I’m pleased to announce the first ever Custom PC book, the Ultimate Guide To PC Gaming, out just in time for Christmas on the 4th of December. It’s everything you need to know about PC gaming in one 174-page book.

It went to press yesterday, so we’ll get copies in the office at the end of next week hopefully. A lot of work went into the book – and I’m really pleased with the design and writing in it. The internal design was inspired by the design of Factory Records sleeves, as I was recently given a book called FAC461 – Factory Records, The Complete Graphic Album, which features lots of the famous Manchester record label’s beautiful designs. We used a font very similar to the one found on the front of Joy Division’s Substance, and the bright colours and grids were developed from the look of some of New Order’s singles.

The writing’s aimed at a more mainstream audience than CPC is,the idea being that there’s a very strong line-up of PC games at the moment (WoW, Warhammer, Left 4 Dead, Crysis, Fallout 3 etc etc) but that people might be put off playing them because the PC is typically thought of as a difficult machine to use, especially in contrast to games consoles. Hopefully the book will succeed in demystifying PC gaming and showing what a rich, varied and involving experience it can be. It’s going to cost £7.99 and is available from WH Smiths and Borders. You can also buy it from Amazon.

Updated: The book’s official site is up now at www.custompcbooks.co.uk.

Talking about Windows 7

Warning! Awkward geekery ahead. Here’s me on the BBC website, talking about Windows 7. In short: it looks a lot like Vista, especially at this early stage – much of the stuff previewed by MS (and covered on the PC Pro blog) doesn’t appear to be in the version we had to play with. But it’s fast to install, quick to load and seems a lot less annoying, a lot snappier. So far, so good. Issue 64 went to press yesterday, maybe next week I’ll have some time to run some proper benchmarks, see how it is for gaming…

Digg and the art of the headline

Tony resigns

[The entry has been cross posted from my work blog]

When it comes to the web, there really aren’t many ways in which to gain readers for your site. Not that many practical and legal ones, anyway – sure, I could pay a dodgy bunch of Eastern European types to knock up a virus that sets everyone’s homepage to custompc.co.uk, and I could hire a team of skywriters to put our name above London.

Increasing readership online is fairly similar to increasing readership of a magazine in real life – although at first glance this isn’t the case. The New York Times has run stories about how search engines are changing the dark art of writing newspaper headlines. Instead of witty puns, the story goes, the importance of appearing high up the Google rankings means simplicity is more important. There is a truth to this: Google drives a lot of traffic, and while humans will understand a punning, tabloid style headine when they see it on the page, when people Google, they Google in simple, explanatory language. The headline in the picture above is a good example: I know it’s about Tony Blair’s resignation announcement, but if I was searching for that story online, I wouldn’t necessarily Google “beginning of the end.”

However, while Googlers prize simplicity, the art of headline writing lives on: submit a story to online news aggregators such as Digg or Slashdot, or even to one of the big blogs such as Engadget, and you tend to find that plainly worded stories die an obscure death – unless of course, the story itself, even worded plainly, is powerful enough to draw people in. I don’t think you’ll find anyone going through these sites extolling the virtues of the headlines in the way people do for the Economist or the Sun, because I don’t think the bulk of the submitters to Digg and Slashdot have honed their skills in the way sub-editors on big publications do; but the big stories on these websites do tap into their audiences’ interests in the same way ‘Gotcha’ et al engaged the Sun’s readers in the 80s.

The reason headline writing is still important on the web is that increasing readership in the online world, as in the offline world, basically comes down to increasing visibility and word of mouth. A good headline – which is both hook and synopsis for a story – does both. It pulls the reader in (visibility) and by reducing it to a soundbit, makes it easy to share (word of mouth).

That said, while headlines are important for getting noticed on sites such as Digg, there are a lot of other considerations which go into why a story makes it big or dies. Some of them tally with media experience in the real world. Stories on Digg stand a much better chance if they have a well-known source – large US sites such as Engadget, Gizmodo and mainstream media titles such as the New York Times contribute a lot – and stories will do better when they’re back by a well known digger. Case in point, our “10 Hardest Games” feature. I submitted it and garnered a woeful 4 Diggs; almost exactly 24 hours later, another Digger submitted it using very similar langauge, and it attracted 1,234 Diggs. To some extent, this mirrors what happens in print – if the Daily Telegraph prints a story, people will pay it more attention than if it appears in Bedfordshire on Sunday.

The audience on Digg is, despite the site’s efforts to expand its topics of conversation, generally very focussed, too: iPhone stories, Ubuntu plugs, anti-RIAA pieces pop up time and time again; but likewise in print, successful titles learn what their audience is interested in and generally tap into that.

And yet all this reasonable talk, is little consolation for the fact that so few people Digg our stories – or at least the ones we ourselves submit. Perhaps it’s just the case that we just need to get Custom PC more – tough, I think, because there are no shortage of tech sites out there (although most are a load of cobblers), because there’s a US-bias to the Digg, and because there’s always something that looks obscure and dull to me that’s hoovering up all the Diggs.

Still, we need to persevere I guess. If you fancy helping out, add me as a friend on Digg 😀