To be able to play in a vampire game as a vampire, you need great writing.
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Why it sucks that there are so few vampire videogames

With the cancellation of World of Darkness, the chances of a second good vampire game seem small.

When CCP cancelled their World of Darkness game it became apparent that whatever slim hope there had been for a second good vampire video game was dead. Not the good kind of dead where it would still be running around after dark biting necks in a sharp suit, the bad kind of dead with sadness and regret and a period of reflection.

There has of course been only one good vampire game in the history of video games, this would be Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. There are games with vampires in, there are games where you play as them, but nothing has ever come close to Bloodlines. The fact that Bloodlines is an amazing game isn’t news, the game was released in 2004 and though its brilliance was not immediately apparent it grew on people. Fan made patches and mods transformed a buggy and technically troubled game into something working much closer to how it was supposed to and despite retaining some fairly serious flaws it remains unmatched in many areas. There have been other games based on Vampire: The Masquerade, but none of them came close.

Vampires have never lent themselves readily to video games. A vampire is supposed to be a manipulator and a thinker, but also a romantic, a rogue, a creature of passion and desire. Count Dracula didn’t walk through a series of corridors with ten different guns each more deadly than the last on his person, even if he did have regenerating health. Unlike zombies, who could have almost been invented to cater for the itchy trigger fingers of modern gamers, vampires are a more minimalist monster. Some RPGs such as Skyrim allow you to turn into a vampire but this is not fully realised in the way that it might be in a totally vampire centred game. Action games like the Castlevania and Bloodrayne series feature vampires heavily, but mostly in the capacity of bosses and neither features a vampire as protagonist.

In order to play a vampire as a vampire ought to be played in a game you need something that most video games can’t handle at the best of times, great writing. You need writing that ties the narrative into the systems of the game to allow you more ways to approach situations. Bloodlines has this level of writing and one of the many oft remarked upon features of the game is that you can play with a huge degree of freedom and in many different ways. Though the vampire clan system in the game looks at first like choosing a class in a traditional RPG it carries much more weight than merely choosing the manner in which you’ll be fighting your enemies, it is actually in a way choosing an entire approach to the game, and the differences between the clans can be extreme. It is fair to say that no game has ever allowed for such a radical change in play style as Bloodlines demands from those who play as a Nosferatu.

For that sort of diverse approach to work the systems of the game have to be backed up by the writing and it has to be done seamlessly, and this was something that Bloodlines did. Who your character was would affect reactions from other characters and what your character could say to them. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but what it means in effect is that every encounter with every character has different ways it can play out with different consequences based on who you are playing when it happens. Games these days will consider how different branches play out based on choices, but usually this is based on a fixed character and irrespective of their abilities. Writing a game that lets the players play as the sort of vampire they want to be is a huge undertaking.

With that in mind it is not hard to see why CCP’s take on the World Of Darkness ran into trouble. In electing to go for an MMO format with thousands of players in one city CCP picked the most difficult approach possible given the source material. With so many players, each one looking to find their own path through the game, development would have been mindboggling complex. With EVE Online this was easy, here’s a universe, here’s a spaceship, fill your boots. In a city of monsters the problems of finding things for players to do without compromising the tone of the game become that much larger. For one thing given the player numbers and the size of the game world there would have inevitably been a sense that the city was in the grip of a permanent Twilight convention. How to stop that huge mob of players simply turning their vampire powers loose and creating something more akin to a gothic City of Heroes than the brooding RPG at the root of it all must have been a very difficult question.

Past that you have the problem of how to integrate the game system into that kind of scale, and make it all look good, and make it all play well. The source material from which the game was derived depicts a world in which vampires are rare, living in tiny groups, a far cry from the huge numbers of them which would have to inhabit the same spaces in World of Darkness.

While we may never find out which hurdles brought down World of Darkness it is impossible not to admire the ambition. Will there ever be another great vampire game? It is impossible to say, but it is discouraging that so few people are even trying. In a world where zombie games have become so common that it’s not unreasonable to start stockpiling ammunition and canned goods it would have been brilliant to see another monster on the scene. Alas CCPs effort has failed, but with any luck somebody else will be along soon to take a bite at it.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times