This is somewhat off-topic here, pertaining as it does to software in general, not just games; though in my defense, the article that prompted it, called How Technocratic Hyper-Rationalism Has Birthed Right-Wing Extremism, does turn out to be about games in the end. But games are software, and software development has been going through a massive crisis lately. Two, actually: one of burgeoning complexity, and one of relevance. And this ties into a bigger trend — pointed out by the aforementioned article — of people focusing more and more on the shiny toys while forgetting the who, the what and the why.
I ranted against techno-utopianism before: the childish belief that more shiny toys will somehow cure all the world’s ills by their mere presence, when it’s not the toys you have, but how you use them. (Look at the hubbub surrounding clean energy and self-driving cars when the Paris Metro has been automated and nuclear-powered for decades — and yes, nuclear is cleaner than coal.) Or that computer algorithms are somehow objective and unbiased, a notion recent case studies have thoroughly dismantled, but one technocrats love, for obvious reasons: it justifies the status quo in which they rule the world.
In the software industry, this attitude took the form of successive technologies being touted as panacea. In turn, we were sold structured programming, logic and functional programming, OOP, UML, XML. More recently it was frameworks, and now everything is package managers and deployment systems.
Aah, that’s better. I actually have a few links for you this week. But first, let me announce that Adventure Prompt now comes with a proper demo you can play. It’s not much, but it highlights all the important features of the engine. Not so much the feel of the authoring system, but that would be hard with an inherently interactive app. Special thanks to Kevin C. Redden for all the research on backpacking that I didn’t have room to mention in the game, and to everyone else for the interest.
In other news, my friend Sera is at it again with an article titled The Woman On The Cover: Becoming A Woman In A Man’s World. It may not sound like it’s about videogames at first, but believe me, it is — though it’s an issue that impacts all of society. As the owner of StoryDevs was writing just recently:
It’s fundamentally immoral to pretend our communities are apolitical. Silence is always a vote for the status quo, one that continues to be cruel and divorced from humanity’s best interests. If we’re to fix the issues at hand we need to be talking about them in all communities, not denying they exist or redirecting people to other places because “we don’t do politics here”.
Politics is always on topic in art spaces because the arts have always been affected by politics. And the times in history that the arts have been most endangered has often coincided with injustices against marginalised groups and political upheaval.
Amen to that. But for now, let’s move on.
Earlier this autumn, I mentioned a PICO-8 clone in development. In the mean time the project went through a name change, and now people are actually using it to make games. Which makes me feel a lot less guilty for not getting around to it myself.
Last but not least, I was just wondering how NaNoGenMo went this year, when this overview of one particular participant group crossed my Twitter timeline. And there’s quite a bit to see in there.
Until next time, keep an eye on new game-making tools.
Seven years ago, I discovered MUSHes and MUCKs, also known as text-based virtual worlds. I stayed for the community, but what drew me to them in the first place was online building: the ability to build text adventure settings interactively, in the same environment and in the same way one navigates the same settings: by typing commands at a prompt.
Since then, I dreamed of bringing that unique quality to interactive fiction somehow, but could never think of a way to make the concept compelling enough, especially compared to the sophistication of modern authoring systems. So the idea stayed in a corner of my mind.
Fast forward to this spring, when I had an idea for a kind of text-based RPG with interactive fiction elements. As explained nearly a month ago, part of that failed concept found new life in a Twine game prototype. But then I got around to playing Robin Johnson’s Detectiveland, and something clicked. This! This is what I was looking for: interactive fiction with a proper world model, except with a button-based interface instead of a parser (which just isn’t friendly to touchscreens… or attention spans). And because this UI is equivalent to a two-word parser, the simplified world model of MU*s would be a good match instead of a letdown. Moreover, Detectiveland has been incredibly popular, revealing a demand for retro, stylized text adventures closer to classic Scott Adams titles than baroque Inform 7 epics.
Imagine the following scenario: you’re prototyping a game, and for now all you want is to put a colored box on the screen. It should be a simple function call, right? Wrong. For one thing, you can’t just draw anything you want, it has to come from an external image file. Which is in a complex, multi-layered format that can only be created with large specialized software suites, most of them expensive, and requiring semi-professional knowledge to use at all. Then there’s the code itself: you have to unpack the file, pick only the parts you need from it, and set up the display just so before sending any data to the screen…
Thankfully, various people have created more friendly wrappers, that let you load a 3rd-party image and blit it to the screen with just a couple of function calls. Then you discover that the image format you’re using does not, in fact, work on another operating system, contrary to what the library documentation claims…
A while later, a consortium of vendors releases a portable API that does, in fact, let you draw directly to the screen. Except it takes telling the machine exactly how to line up each pixel so that they form a box, for every color channel separately. And then you have to funnel the resulting data through the pathway described above…
Ridiculous? Absurd? Implausible?
Hello, everyone! Last weekend being Ludum Dare 35, my good friends Chip Caramel and Jimun couldn’t pass up the opportunity. And their new game looks especially fun, so you’ll forgive me for giving it a plug.
In unrelated news, a new mini-scandal swept up the industry in the past week. Yet another huge argument about working conditions, specifically crunch. Out of all the bloggers I follow, however, only one stood out. I give the stage to Emily Short.
I will add that you never actually need crunch. If you’re a decision maker and you have to drive your developers into crunch mode, you screwed up the release schedule. And the most likely reason is, you got overambitious. Probably against repeated warnings, too. And now they have to pay for your unchecked greed? With their well-being and personal lives?
No. Just no. Leave us alone.
To end on a more lighthearted note (ha ha… sob), it turns out that the average web page today is as large as the original Doom. And it’s not nearly as entertaining or revolutionary. Or, to turn the comparison on its head, that’s how much they could do 23 years ago with the amount of bytes a modern website requires just to show you a pretty picture, a few words and a “subscribe to our newsletter” popup. Seriously?
Luckily, public opinion is slowly but surely turning against this bloat. And if we can do better in web design, we can do better in games.
Sometimes experiments just don’t pan out the way we expect them to. But you know, that’s kind of the point. And sometimes the actual results are more interesting than those we were expecting.
I was going to write the article promised in the previous newsletter, but instead I found myself adapting the new mobile UI from the Deep Down prototype to an older game of mine: Glittering Light. Here’s the result after a few days:
So much for doing everything on a dumb drawing surface. Why should I reinvent the GUI wheel when the browser gives it to me for free? Just so it would be more like in other environments? Well, it’s not. It’s a browser game, might as well embrace that. It allows me to inline the credits and proper instructions, have a high score table, and as a bonus the buttons actually work in mobile browsers as well (unlike touch events, which should but don’t). Getting mouse events relative to the viewport was a bit of a problem, but now I can use a secret weapon: jQuery. As for that infamous delay when touchscreens simulate a click event, there’s a reason this game is entirely turn-based…
Experiment “write games using a standard GUI toolkit” is a success. Next, to embrace the paradigm more fully.
In completely unrelated news, my friend Sera alerts me to the fact that the Oculus Rift will cost nearly double the promised amount, and that’s on top of the already expensive gaming rig it needs to be at all useful. Dear Silicon Valley hipsters: some players make sacrifices to indulge in their hobby (and make you rich). Show a little respect. Oh, and you might want to look at a little competitor called Google Cardboard, which only costs a few dollars (by virtue of being make of literal cardboard), works with common smartphone models, and — check this out — is an open design, so buyers aren’t tied to a single manufacturer that might discontinue the product line or even go out of business at any time.
Sure, Cardboard is probably a toy in comparison. But it also has room to improve in leaps and bounds, with minimal investments that will be distributed across countless enthusiasts the world over. Good luck keeping pace.
Until next time, beware of overengineering.
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.
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.
Hello, everyone. I could divide this week’s links along several lines, so it’s hard to decide. Let’s start with the latest link I acquired: via @twinethreads comes the news that the word hypertext is 50 years old, and Ted Nelson’s interview answers are fascinating, especially about interactivity — my favorite topic as of late. And since I mentioned Twine, here’s an inteview with Chris Klimas, who talks briefly about the platform and the community around it.
Still in the famous names department, over at Boing Boing the one and only Anna Anthropy talks about game-making tools. See my own comments on the other blog. And because interactivity and books seem to be the key words this week, a shout-out to Chris Meadows of Teleread writing about electronic literature. Elsewhere, one of my favorite webcomic authors reminds people that imagination is the best graphics engine. If only modern games would leave anything to imagination…
Now for the business side of gaming. At The Escapist, Shamus Young explains how Spore could have been better, and his indictment of modern business stings. Along the same lines, The Daily Dot presents a survey according to which adult women are now the largest demographic in gaming. Guess who doesn’t seem to have caught on yet. And on a slightly different note, PC Gamer has a story on how GOG rescued 13 Forgotten Realms games from licensing hell. Good thing they’re persistent, eh?
Last but not least, I spent most of this week working on Bast, an experimental implementation of the programming language proposed here and here. Not that I have a need for it right now, but maybe you’ll find it inspirational. Thanks for reading, and see you next week.
People are funny. It’s the height of summer, everyone’s on vacation, yet for once I have a full newsletter. Let’s start with a couple of headlines about consoles — one about the fate of the OUYA, the other about vintage consoles still selling in Brazil. It’s almost as if getting the best out of what we already have beats always chasing after new toys nobody asked for! Naaah… ya think?
On a related note, PC Gamer has a feature on how full motion video is making a comeback, now that we know to use it for its strengths rather as a technological gimmick. At last, people are starting to figure it out. And while on the topic on how to use tech well, here’s a comprehensive overview of color in games.
Last but not least, Jimmy Maher has a write-up titled The 14 Deadly Sins of Graphic Adventure Design, which is really about much more than that. Such as interactivity being the whole point of games, or being familiar with the state of the art in whatever genre you are creating.
But these days I’m working on an entirely different kind of game. See you around.