No Time To Play
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Weekly Links #226


Hey, everyone. It's another week when my actual news are more like big rants, and not directly about games either. Might as well tell you what I've been working on recently.

It's been four years since I made Attack Vector. Four years spent dreaming of the day when I'll make another try at one of my favorite game genres: the rail shooter, of which there aren't nearly enough out there. Ask anyone, they're likely to just quote the two big classics: Space Harrier and Starfox, both a major influence on my own game. Connoisseurs may be able to name Panzer Dragoon as well.

Well, now there's going to be another. Unlike my first attempt, the upcoming Sunset Flight has a proper graphics engine (usable for much more than just games) and superior performance. It's also just a prototype and proof of concept for a proper sequel to the original. Note the more limited sprites and colors: I baked some needless limitations into this version. But that's easily fixed.

And you know what? People have been going "wow!" anyway. Which makes me so happy. People still care about style, and not just raw polygon count. And we're talking 100 lines of squeaky-clean Python running on a ten-year-old CPU, that can barely push 2000 voxels per frame while keeping an acceptable rate. It's still double what the old engine could do on a much beefier machine. And imagine the same code rewritten in Lua, or for that matter C++. It's all pure math anyway, apart from the one callback that does the actual drawing.

Can't wait to show it off. Will let you know.

Much hype surrounds AI these days, and many people believe it uncritically, not realizing how little the hype is backed by reality. It's refreshing, then, to see Mike Cook take apart the recent accomplishments of some bots playing DOTA2. With his usual aplomb, he points out exactly what is genuinely impressive... and what isn't. Read the article for details; I'll just remind you that some years ago a different team of researchers made a bot that could play Starcraft well enough to hold its own against pro human players... and it also achieved that by limiting itself to one faction and one unit with which it spammed the map.

About the only progress I can see is getting a whole team of bots to work together effectively. But even that has ample precedent in artificial intelligence research. Meanwhile, getting a machine to understand its own goals and what it's really doing towards them is still as far out as sending a manned spaceship to Jupiter. Which, if you believe Arthur C. Clarke, we were supposed to have done twice by now.

Stop waiting for a HAL 9000, folks. It doesn't work that way.

This week The Digital Antiquarian continues to write about the MS-DOS era, this time with the first efforts that would lead to Windows in the end. And this quote from Charles Simonyi is especially telling:

Let’s say I go to a French restaurant and I don’t speak the language. It’s a strange environment and I’m apprehensive. I’m afraid of making a fool of myself, so I’m kind of tense. Then a very imposing waiter comes over and starts addressing me in French. Suddenly, I’ve got clammy hands. What’s the way out?

The way out is that I get the menu and point at something on the menu. I cannot go wrong. I may not get what I want — I might end up with snails — but at least I won’t be embarrassed.

But imagine if you had a French restaurant without a menu. That would be terrible.

It’s the same thing with computer programs. You’ve got to have a menu.

Bwahahaha! You think the worst that could happen is to get snails? Dude, you could get something you're allergic to, fail to notice, and DIE! No, when you go to a restaurant alone, you'd better know the local language, menu or no menu. That is how you avoid embarrassment. Even if you speak poorly, they'll forgive you, and help you learn. But put in some effort. It's only fair.

(It's still good to have a menu anyway. Of course it is. But for other reasons.)

Also: dear Jimmy, "a condescending caricature of user-friendliness" describes everything MS ever built. Microsoft Bob was one of those rare moments when their mask slipped, and they revealed exactly what they thought about people who bought their crapware. Corporations need their customers to be mentally challenged, see. Otherwise people wake up and realize how badly they're being scammed.

More on topic: you do realize that modern user interfaces still looking essentially like the Apple Lisa is a problem, right? We're stuck in a rut. Well, not all of us: browsers makers and mobile developers have been marching on. And in some ways, they've been going back to those other GUI styles from the 1980s that you so easily brush aside. Such as apps having one main menu, opened from a prominent button (much like Windows itself... go figure), with the others being contextual.

Speaking of which: ever heard of tiling window managers? Few people use them... but that's because few people ever get a chance to try. As for mouse gestures, most people find anything outside of single clicks hopelessly confusing. And no, putting controls at the top of the window is not in any way obvious, or inherently better. Also, about that stippled scrollbar set on the left side... do you recognize the early Unix GUI that came out at roughly the same time?

That said, it's again good to know more about the way things went back in those heady days. We need to remember these things. So go read Jimmy's work.

And that’s all for this week.Have fun!