Waffle: Games On A Plane
'Waffle' are occasional columns of meandering thoughts, not intended to make any helpful points.
As the transport industry embarrassingly crawls along behind progress, we're finally getting close to a place where gaming on the move is viable. It's insane that what's been holding us back for so long is basically plug sockets.
Clearly there are many who have been gaming on the move for years. But they're those who can afford laptops of such epic prices as to make a mortal man cry, with battery lives not even long enough to complete Homefront, twice. Genuine opportunities to conveniently game, on non-bank-destroying machines, while hurtling at impressive speeds, are really only appearing now, I'd suggest. I made that really specific, because there's no internet access up here on this plane, so I can't check.
Flying to America on a secret mission for RPS, I experienced the most extraordinary good fortune in being upgraded to BA's “Club World” - their confusing name for Business Class. For those confused by BA's naming system, here's a handy guide (don't worry – we'll get back to games eventually):
World Traveller = Economy, or We Hate You Class. It's a class in which the airline (and indeed most others) puts those they look upon with disdain for either not being millionaires, or not working for a giant corporation who don't notice travel costs. Here you are crammed into a four inch wide seat, fed slops, and have your knees whittled away by the chair in front over the ten or so hours of your flight. Somehow tickets for this class still cost over £500, which apparently isn't enough for you to be carried with more dignity than cattle. Here you are provided with nothing at all in the way of electricity or happiness.
World Traveller Plus = Premium Economy, or We Hate You A Bit Less Class. I believe the role of WTP is to ensure those sat in WT are aware what they're not getting. There's nothing enormously special about it – they're the sorts of seats you'd hope for on a cheap coach – but at least you can sit down without losing a limb. Otherwise everything is the same. Occasionally you may find a cigarette lighter or weird, alien power socket, but in my experience they've never worked.
Club World = Business Class, or Hello Money! The leap up from WTP to Club World is astonishing. I'm not sure what “Club World” is supposed to mean, or how it conveys the opulence they want to offer. It sounds like the most ambiguous club imaginable. “We're all people on a world! Join in if you are too!” It belies the remarkable change of interest in you as a passenger, where suddenly the thousands of pounds your ticket has cost you buys you into a place where the chairs are made of bed, and the food is delivered in separate courses
As I type this I'm ludicrously reclined, my legs up on the footrest that only moments ago was acting as the base of my nap-site. I'm surrounded by complementary drinks and complimentary staff. Amazing things happen here, like people getting a cup of freshly ground coffee because they asked for it, not because the flight's one trip down the aisle with the treacle-tar pot had made its sorry way by. And most amazing of all, there's a plug socket.
First = First, or Shangri La. I've no idea what happens in there. If it's better than Club World, then I can only imagine each passenger is splayed out in a four poster queen-sized bed, being fed rich meats and mead by scantily clad elven attendants, while chamber quartets calmly strum Bach. I imagine they have plug sockets too.
What's exciting about the socket in Club World is it's not one of those odd emPower things – the little round port for which no adaptor is kept on board, and of which none has worked since 1994. I mean an actual AC socket (albeit Euro/US), into which, via a standard adaptor, I can plug my netbook.
My netbook is an HP/Compaq 311c, bought after Jim raved so enthusiastically about his. Its key feature being that it can play games thanks to the Intel ION chip. Yes, ION 2 is upon us, and I'm woefully out of date. But since I'm no more likely to write a tech column than I am to cough up a rhinoceros, those worrying that I might be about to talk about dated specs can stay calm. Da compooter make da pretty pikshurs.
Learning of my upgrade the night before my trip, I sprang into optimistic action. Giving the netbook a clean install of Windows 7, due to its having become sludgy of late (and this time remembering to partition off a chunk for Linux), and then set a selection of games downloading on Steam. What can this machine really do, and what can be satisfactorally played on the still somewhat confined space of even a rather special aeroplane seat?
I decided not to deliberately try to set it on fire with, say, Crysis 2, which it would obviously not cope with. But how about some 3D stuff from a few years back? I brought with me Psychonauts, King's Bounty: The Legend, Torchlight, and Portal. And I'm delighted to report it plays all four without a problem.
Portal is where it struggled the most, requiring me to turn down most of the options while still letting me play at the full widescreen resolution (1366 x 768). In that giant room at the end, the one with all the turrets, it was a little choppy. But certainly very playable. However, it did teach me the limits of my little infra-red Microsoft Optical 4000 mouse. Firing portals while running isn't something it's happy with. But I still saw GlaDOS off to her temporary grave, and very happy about it I was.
Psychonauts has always struggled without a 360 controller, but I didn't have time to set up the drivers before I left, and also considered that the site of me sat playing games with a controller on a plane might be the final clue everyone needed to realise I shouldn't be anywhere near such a class and have them revolt and put me through the nearest emergency exit.
But Torchlight is where I spent most of my journey, merrily chugging through the levels without having to watch my laptop battery empty so fast it made a noise. (If anyone might wonder how I managed this, after my recent divulging of a need to be doing at least two things at once, I came up with the most beautiful solution. In-ear bud headphones playing a podcast from my iPhone, big BA noise cancelling headphones over the top playing the sound of Torchlight. I'm good.)
Which means, so long as you're upgraded to a class you could never afford if you saved up for a year, gaming on planes is a completely viable option, even without lugging a bloody great Alienware laptop onto the plane, which would likely prevent its taking off.
Trains were of course far ahead of planes in thinking of offering a sliver of their electricity for those who've emptied their bank accounts for the pleasure of being in another place for a bit. And some, and by “some” I mean “almost no”, train routes have introduced wifi along their tracks.
That's what we really need. Plugs and wifi, everywhere. It's my understanding that a number of domestic US airlines have got the internet up in their jet-streams, but to the best of my knowledge this is rarely offered on international expeditions. But it's far from the norm, and the chances of its becoming commonplace soon match the speed with which such vehicles caught up with the concept of electricity.
With planes, such innovations tend to only appear with new stock, so while BA are adding shiny new 777s to their fleet with much more potential for the airborne gamer, it won't reach most places, and indeed on most airlines, until the older planes have all fallen out of the sky from old age.
So in about 2045, I reckon we'll all be able to enjoy a game on the move. Admittedly by then games will be played on devices fitted directly into our eyes, and the tech will be banned from aeroplanes because – despite no evidence whatsoever – the airline industry will have decided it interferes with the electronics on board, so it'll be useless. But those of a retro mind will be able to dig out their 32-core ION9 netbook and settle down to enjoy a game of the recently released Half-Life 3.