No Time To Play

Weekly Links #97

by on Nov.22, 2015, under News, Review

Hello, everyone. As I was saying last time, the IFComp results were announced on Monday, and this year I was intrigued by several of the games for a change. Actually playing them hasn’t been so smooth. One is Windows-only, and I can’t be bothered to install Wine. Another has illegible gray-on-black text that also overlaps in places. (Does it perhaps expect a maximized browser window?) Yet a third runs in real time and doesn’t even pause after a screenful of text. Dear game developers: accessibility matters.

But there’s a gem or two among them — see my review of Untold Riches. I also tried Scarlet Sails, but gave up when my only available option was unacceptably stupid. Thanks for reminding me that a historical pirate’s life was short, squalid and painful.

Somewhat off-topic, right-wing military sci-fi has a tarnished reputation nowadays (which has made a lot of puppies sad, but that’s another story). Still, I used to enjoy the early Honor Harrington books when I was younger, so it was nice to hear that a Honorverse tabletop RPG is coming next year. What roleplayer hasn’t dreamed of commanding vast fleets in battle while dealing with political intrigue on the side, and even the occasional duel? Not to mention that from tabletop to videogames there’s just one step. We can expect more goodies from the franchise in the coming years.

In actual game development news, the authors of a recently Kickstarted game have published their early brainstorming process, and it’s an instructive read. Note the increasingly wacky and complicated ideas, none of which makes me want to even bother starting the game. That’s what happens when you set out to make one for the sake of it. If you don’t even care about your own driving idea as an author, how are you going to finish your creation, never mind getting your audience to give a damn?

In art, you must have something to say. Doesn’t have to be profound. It just has to matter — to you, the author. And as it turns out, most ideas that matter can be readily expressed in a non-interactive format.

I’ll end with a cool use of procedural generation, for once not to create game content, but the kind of fluff that makes the player believe they’re having an impact on the virtual world. Which, as Undertale spectacularly demonstrated in recent months, is a thing players are hungry for.

Until next time, consider what you’re giving your audience.

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Weekly Links #96

by on Nov.15, 2015, under News

It’s an awkward moment to post this newsletter: the Interactive Fiction competition is set to end at midnight, and the Procedural Generation Jam two hours after that. But then, once they’re both done I’m going to need some time looking at the entries, so maybe it’s better to leave them for next week.

For now, other news. After Prince of Persia, another gaming classic has its source code recovered and made public. Atari’s Star Raiders is now on the Internet Archive, in the form of a book full of 6502 assembly code. A few volunteers have started moving it to GitHub, but from here to being able to rebuild the game is a long way. Still, it’s one more bit of gaming history preserved for future generations.

Moving on. Nowadays it seems hard to believe, but there was a time when PCs didn’t come with built-in sound cards. Well, there’s a book out recounting how it all started, and it turns out the Sound Blaster won via business trickery, not technical excellence. Where did we hear that before? Oh yeah, it’s how Microsoft ended up utterly dominating the operating system market for decades. Still think capitalism has your best interests in mind?

Last but not least, I rant often enough against the dangers of always chasing the latest fad in computer graphics, so it warms my heart to see that artists from outside the digital realm understand the issue better than people who spent decades immersed in it. As the article points out,

The odd thing about games as opposed to more traditional mediums such as painting is how entire aesthetics are often considered obsolete as technology progresses. Imagine if cubism or impressionism were simply tossed aside with the invention of digital painting.

Oh, there is the occasional exception to that, such as pixel art, but we need many more such exceptions. And while my own experiment with low-poly art didn’t go anywhere, the potential is obvious. So consider it, maybe?

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Weekly Links #95

by on Nov.08, 2015, under News

O hai there. The long-awaited second edition of the Procedural Generation Jam started on Friday, but this year I don’t have any suitable project lined up. Been doing some 3D art in POV-Ray, maybe something can come out of that. Until then, here’s an article about generating stories about images with a neural network. It works surprisingly well; in fact I’ve seen much worse fan fiction out there written by human beings. And I can easily imagine all kinds of playful applications once this becomes mainstream.

In unrelated news, I just stumbled over a personal blog post about participating in a two-hour game jam. What jumped at me was the bit about small, single-color sprites. I’m no pixel artist, but when you’re working with 8×8 bit-maps there is only so much room for mistakes; that’s how I was able to make the art in Escape From Cnossus, still one of my better looking games despite being a literal 8-bit title. So yeah, let me say it again (and again): embrace constraints, they are your friends.

Last but not least, a link from last week but too good to pass up: the making of Duke Nukem 3D. My favorite bits were about the dangers of changing engines mid-development (which is akin to changing horses mid-race; remember what killed Daikatana?) and how the biggest problem with Duke Nukem Forever was that the tone and attitude just weren’t acceptable anymore by the time it came out; the world had simply moved on.

Never mind tech; is your game’s message able to withstand the test of time?

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Weekly Links #94

by on Nov.02, 2015, under Miscellaneous, News

Oh my. Late again and for once I have no excuse. So let’s get started.

I’m the kind of player who, when sitting down to try out a MMO, spends a lot of time choosing and customizing an avatar. Nightwrath always gets impatient, but come on. Isn’t the avatar supposed to represent me well? This is why this article about dress-up games caught my eye. Not so much the examples they give — Hero Forge is much more to my taste. But that would require going into details. Point is, dress-up isn’t just for kiddies.

Moving on. On the 30th anniversary of the NES launching in the US, we get an in-depth retrospective of the console’s development. And apropos of nothing, here’s a personal history of the text adventure, a thoughtful and informed write-up. Last but not least, it turns out White Wolf has been sold again, from one computer game publisher to another. It remains to be seen what sort of vampire games we can expect this time.

At last we get to a headline actually related to game development. Well, the concept of a complexity budget applies to all software. It just happens that games are often among the most ambitious software projects, and it tends to kill them very dead.

Don’t make that mistake. Keep it simple… son.

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Weekly Links #93

by on Oct.25, 2015, under News

Welcome, everyone, to another short week, and this time I don’t have any personal rant to fill the vacuum, either. On the plus side, for once all my links are directly related to game development, so that’s something.

Within a series of Back to the Future-themed articles, Juhana Leinonen asks, what if we don’t succeed? And it’s a very pertinent question, considering how people all too often use optimism as an excuse to not plan for their project simply not working out. Results vary from stubbornly pressing forward with an already failed project — a shambling zombie that’s expected to go on anyway because “that’s the original vision”, or worse, “we’ve already invested too much into it”, to bad blood ensuing and people leaving in a huff when progress grinds to a halt without any deliberate decision being made.

I’ll let you read the article for possible solutions. In the mean time, a blog called Kill Screen asks another fun question: is your game able to withstand a tabletop gamer? It makes some good points, too. After all, behind all the glitz a game is ultimately made of mechanics, and you need testers who can exercise them properly. But I never considered how much the mindset of players changes things, and I spent an entire childhood playing board and card games.

Last but not least, The Chi Scroller reminds us of the times when limited hardware led to limitless creativity, and the gist of it can be summed in these two lines:

What is left to push developers to think outside the box when the box is cozy and comfortable and doesn’t actually prevent them from doing anything?

Obviously not much, I say, and that is indeed a problem. Oh well.

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Weekly Links #92

by on Oct.18, 2015, under Miscellaneous, News

Gaaah! Almost forgot to write the newsletter on time again. Been busy, you see, with yet another coding project (still unrelated to games). Though who knows — the ability to focus on writing your game as opposed to wrangling your tools is increasingly important these days, so simplicity matters a lot. I’ll keep you informed.

This week @JuhanaIF points us at a postmortem of 80 Days that does a good job of relating the difficulties of making such a big game. And while on the topic of interactive fiction, Hardcore Gaming 101 gets around to reviewing Fallen London. A good way for me to see what has changed since I stopped playing… and what hasn’t.

Of direct interest for developers is this article on architecture in videogames. Once again it turns out that in order to make games (or, indeed, any software) it’s more important to know about the real world than programming. In this case history, geography and materials. And you know, I’m hardly an expert myself, but I find it baffling and worrying that an educated person today doesn’t know why the compass points matter when building a house. Are we so deeply invested in the myth that we have somehow “conquered nature”?

Last but not least, the Wall Street Journal is running a piece on how videogames are saving the symphony orchestra. Amusingly, they write about videogames as if we were still in 1985 (which says a lot about the kind of people they allow to make decisions in the newsrooms). But otherwise, it’s good to know that games have found yet another way into mainstream culture; I remember years ago when symphonic orchestras were arranging music from famous movies such as Star Wars or James Bond and thinking how cool that was.

Culture is culture, and that’s awesome. See you next week.

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Weekly Links #91

by on Oct.11, 2015, under News

Welcome, everyone, to another short week. I’d complain again about the usual stuff but you’re probably tired of hearing it. The big thing is of course the Interactive Fiction Competition, but I won’t cover it — plenty of mainstream outlets are taking care of that. Suffice to say, [Emily Short thinks] it’s the strongest edition ever, and that’s a huge compliment.

(Also it’s worth noting that Twine is powering the most entries this year, and nobody’s bitter about it for a change. Let’s hope the peace lasts.)

But frankly I’m more excited about the next big event this autumn. Set to start in less than a month, the Procedural Generation Jam is once again calling for participants, and organizer Michael Cook writes about his expectations. What can I say? I understand the sentiment, but the truth is I got into procedural generation for two reasons: one, because it allows me to express game content as code, which comes naturally to me as a programmer, and two, because that way I can actually play my own games, rather than knowing all the maps by heart.

(And yes, programming can be natural. Programming is a species of mathematics, and mathematics is a language for describing the natural world. So there’s no real contradiction.)

But don’t worry, hand-crafted worlds and stories aren’t going anywhere. Over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun we have a top of the best RPG worlds, while Hardcore Gaming 101 posts a retrospective of the Gabriel Knight games — both of them good reminders that quality writing makes a real difference. Which is especially meaningful to point out when literary games are all the rage these days.

But I’ve run out of content again. See you next week.

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Tools for the sake of tools

by on Oct.08, 2015, under Off-topic

Dear software developers, I like package managers and version control too, but this is getting ridiculous. An increasing amount of software is only published online as a git repo, so I must have git installed and know the first thing about using it even though my regular VCS is Bazaar. I also need npm installed even though I don’t use node.js, because plenty of Javascript libraries don’t seem to be available any other way anymore (you can’t just download them from GitHub and expect them to work). Python stuff, too, is starting to become pip-exclusive. Good thing I don’t code in Perl and Ruby; I would also be required to use cpan and gem on top of everything else.

All too often, what I want is a small library to help with a specific task, but instead you’re offering me giant frameworks caught in a mesh of dependencies, that would dwarf my application and make it extremely difficult to distribute. I want to write apps for anyone to just download and run, but instead you’re forcing me to think about ecosystems. I need to use my computer, and you’re talking about leveraging the synergy of the cloud. I ask for a hammer, you offer a hydraulic press factory.

Get a grip on reality, because you’re basically floating away like hot air balloons by this point. And talk to ordinary people for a change, because in your enthusiasm for technology you have forgotten it has to meet real needs, or else we’re just going to look elsewhere.

Yes, I’m a software developer myself, and I love my work. But all too often as of late I’m tempted to throw it all away and take up farming instead.

Wake up, while you still have something to wake up to.


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Weekly Links #90

by on Oct.04, 2015, under Gamedev, News

With my schedule messed up again by a death in the family and a fight with bureaucracy, I almost forgot it was time for another newsletter. The week’s highlights are a couple of articles about the so-called “indiepocalypse”, and how it’s way overblown: one relying on statistical analysis, the other on a look at history, and both drawing the same conclusion: good games still sell, bad games still tank. Nothing to see here, move along.

In other news, Techdirt alerts of even more game-breaking DRM changes on Windows. And for game developers, @gnomeslair points at a dialogue editor based on Twine. I wrote about alternate uses for Twine before; this is someone taking the same idea to its logical conclusion. And via the same source, here’s an article about the best games based on books — food for thought whether you’re a developer, writer or player.

Last but not least, I want to talk about a very personal writeup titled Video Games Versus Disability. Mind you, I’m able-bodied. But I’ve met blind people who play MUDs and interactive fiction because hardly any other kind of game works for them, and it pains me just to think of that. As for hearing… I remember playing Blade Runner back when my English wasn’t nearly this good (my spoken English still lags behind), and wishing for subtitles to help me along a little. Imagine being physically unable to hear the game at all. Come to think of it, try playing your own game with the speakers unplugged. Screen contrast turned way down. A metronome tick-tocking in front of the screen. The language changed to one you don’t speak well. These will give you just a taste of how some people experience not just games, but every waking moment of their lives. Can you make something they can enjoy anyway?

Until next week, think about those who Are Not Like You™. Thanks.

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Weekly Links #89

by on Sep.27, 2015, under News, Off-topic

Despite my best efforts, some weeks are really empty. For what it’s worth, I finished another toy: TB-40, a programmable calculator running Tiny Basic. It took twice as long to code as the other one, and sure enough it’s also twice the size. Not so much fun to use on mobile devices as I’d hoped, but oh well, it’s a learning experience.

More generally, I’ve been using GitHub a lot more as of late. It’s a very nice service even if you don’t use Git (I don’t), so in an effort to take better advantage of it I uploaded a few more of my older projects. Among them RogueBot, not that there’s much to it. But perhaps someone will find the code useful — in particular, the game-window.js microframework, a product of 5 years’ worth of practice making HTML5 games.

But enough about me. In a recently unearthed interview with Shigeru Miyamoto from 1998, the legendary game developer cautions against chasing realism in graphics. And while that strategy didn’t always work so well for Nintendo, you might remember how World of Warcraft took the world by storm in 2004 with blocky, cartoonish artwork that worked even on low-end computers, while everyone else was busy trying to hide the sharp corners with annoying bloom effects.

And because I already filled up a page of text, here’s a bit of humor to cap it off: How being a cat is like being in a videogame. Have a chuckle… and a good next week.

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