December 31, 2004


by peterb

I started this weblog last January. Originally, it was just meant to be a place for me to keep my notes on my Final Cut Pro projects. My "real writing" was meant to go on the (now defunct) Tea Leaves project of the Danampersanderic art collective. But that project somehow didn't take off, and I found myself putting more and more content here. Before I knew it there were actually readers.

It was a month later that I published a document meant to summarize my philosophy of writing for this space. It's still on the sidebar today. The quick summary is: longer, in-depth articles. No "hey, look at this neat link!" items. Keep confessional, overly intimate, or personal details about myself to a minimum, or better yet eliminate them completely. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, no "blogging about blogging." If you want to find a weblog where the authors incessantly talk about Movable Type vs. WordPress, or how great or stupid RSS is, or how blogging is going to change the world, you can go practically anywhere else. I find these topics intensely boring. I want to write about stuff. I don't want to write about writing stuff.

All rules are made to be broken, on occasion. Since it is the end of 2004, this is a good point to suspend the "no blogging about blogging" rule, for one day. I'd like to take a moment to look back at how this space has grown in the past year, and how it will develop in 2005.

Readership has increased dramatically over the past year. What started as a URL handed out to a few friends now gets about 30,000 page visits a month. Lots of people read us via an RSS newsreader, or through bloglines, livejournal, or some other aggregated feed. Eventually, I may need to deploy a new host to handle traffic. At that time, I may transition the site to the (already reserved and working, although not publicized) domain name

In terms of topics covered, the site has a strong emphasis on games with discussions of food, culture, and computers and software development topics coming not far behind. The other topics -- racing, filmmaking, and photography -- have become unusual digressions. I'm inclined to leave them as such, rather than formally eliminating them.

Early on, I decided that the unwritten goal for frequency of posting was "one good, reasonably long article per weekday." No excuses, no "I don't have time to post today" items; silence is preferable to weaseling. We haven't been 100% successful in meeting this target, but we've been closer than I thought we'd get when I set the goal. This has been good in many ways. First and foremost, it has kept me writing at a furious pace, which means I'm continually honing my writing skills. That was always my secret goal for having this space. I think it also benefits the readers. It would give me a warm and fuzzy feeling to know that there were even two or three people out there who say to themselves, once a day, at work, "Hey, I should check and see if there's a new article at Tea Leaves." I have a day job that takes precedence over the weblog. But I look forward to writing an article each night. If there's someone out there who looks forward to reading it, that's super cool.

Having the "one article per weekday" goal has had some negative effects too. It means that I've published some articles on topics that I was only borderline interested in. Worse, it has pushed me to publish articles that weren't ready; they really needed more work. This has had both micro effects (the occasional typo or clumsy phrase that my volunteer editor yells at me for the day after I've posted) and the occasional big effect (where I take what was meant to be a more in-depth article and instead chop it down to be "one day's worth" of posting.) That latter problem hasn't happened as much since psu started contributing.

And bringing psu on board was a superb thing. I look forward to reading his articles eagerly, and in more than just an "oh, phew, I don't have to meet tonight's deadline" sense. We agree philosophically on many things, yet our interests are just divergent enough to give the site more breadth without having strict conformity of opinion. In the coming year, I hope to bring at least one more author on board, if I can find someone whose style, areas of interest, and willingness to write frequently mesh well with mine. My interests in this are somewhat selfish: as the principal behind Tea Leaves, I feel obligated to provide an article a day. But since this isn't paying work, I'm realistic about my ability to maintain that pace with so few writers.

So it's a tricky balance. I have a sense that having a few more writers would improve the quality of each article (because of reduced pressure to "just post it, already"). Having too many writers could reduce the thematic consistency of the site. I'm not sure where, exactly, the line is. But I'm going to continue looking for it.

Even though I view Tea Leaves as a place for writing (as compared to a place for "discussion"), I do read all of the comments and appreciate them, even when I don't necessarily agree. The most surprising thread of the year for me was in the article about Idlewild, where Snow White and Little Bo Peep yelled at me for (in their eyes) being an insensitive, child-hating clod. On the constructive side of the fence, the comments on the article What Programming Language brought up some interesting points and opinions. I really wished I had thought of some of the items readers came up with in the discussion on Software Development Considered Harmful. So thanks to all of you who participate regularly, or occasionally, and I hope you keep reading -- and writing -- in 2005.

I'd also like to specifically thank psu for joining me in this little exercise; my volunteer editor for being completely willing to point out every awkward sentence, verb tense disagreement, and boring part of every article I write; and the folks on CMU CS Zephyr for their useful feedback, helpful suggestions, and not stabbing me in the neck every time I post another URL.

See you next year.

Posted by peterb at 10:43 AM | Comments (0)

December 30, 2004

10 Things I Like

by psu

I have a reputation, perhaps deserved, of being generally grumpy and hateful. In the spirit of the Holiday Season, I thought I would try and dispel this notion by listing many things that I like, in no particular order.

Solis Maestro

I had a cheap Pavoni burr grinder that I had used for the last 5 or 6 years for my home coffee needs. I don't need much from a coffee grinder. I make coffee with a french press or a moka pot. So all a grinder has to do is go from super coarse to medium fine easily. The Pavoni always worked fine, except for the layer of fine coffee dust that it spewed everywhere. Finally, after years of abuse, coffee stopped falling into the burrs, so I decided to get something new.

It may seem strange to spend more than $100 on a coffee mill, and it did seem strange to me at the time. But the Solis is really a thing of beauty. You can set it from french press coarse to Turkish Coffee fine in one easy twist. Whatever the setting, it generates coffee grounds of a uniform fineness without spraying dust and without a huge amount of static, even in Pittsburgh winters. It's also easy to clean, so it won't sit uncleaned like the Pavoni did for 6 years.

Rose Tea Cafe

Rose Tea has gone from a purveyor of an odd Asian drink craze to simply the best Chinese food in Pittsburgh period. The home style Taiwanese food that they serve here is actually good enough for me to want to go even if I've recently eaten my mom's food. In fact, it is much like my mom's food, which is why it simply rules.

Chopstick Inn has a larger menu, but IMHO it is not as well executed. Here are some dishes that Rose Tea does that are so good they will make you weep with joy:

- Shredded pork with pressed bean curd.
- Any of the whole fish
- Taiwanese Chunk Chicken.
- Pork Stomach and Duck Blood.
- Beef Stew (the stewed beef is actually cooked long enough).
- Taiwanese style rice cakes (just like mom's).
- Chinese greens that are always cooked right. Not just every other time you go.
- The pickled cabbage appettizer
- The Taiwanese sausage appetizer
- The soy sauce eggs (just like mom's).

All this and good prices too. I used to rate Chinese places in Pittsburgh by how many different sauce colors they had on their menu. It is therefore something of a watershed to have a place in town that has two brown sauces that are completely different in flavor. There is finally real Chinese food in Pittsburgh. Go get it.

P.S. If I catch you in P.F. Chang's, I'll kill you with my bare hands.

My G4 Powerbook

I do almost all my computing on my laptop.

- Photography
- Writing
- Coding

That's pretty much it. If the software I worked on weren't quite so large, I would not even use the G5 tower at work. But I've gotten used to the fast build times. The fact that I use this machine basically 24/7 and it has not failed in two years makes me like it. It's also silent, except when it gets hot. I love that.

Airport Express

It's a power brick that gives you wireless network anywhere there is an ethernet tap. What more could you want?

The modern game console

As I discussed in more detail elsewhere it's just not possible to go wrong with console game machines these days. The current set of consoles are better than their PC counterparts in almost every way and an order of magnitude cheaper. You can buy all of the major brands (GameCube, Xbox, PS2) and a few games for each for the price of that graphics card and monitor you need to play DOOM 3. So I did.

Counterstrike and Xbox Live

Halo 2 and Half-Life 2 may be prettier and feature excellent single player gameplay, but nothing is more fun to me than a few rounds of Counterstrike with my Xbox Live buddies against bots. Xbox Live makes creating and joining the game session quick and painless, and the intense pace, team based gameplay (always with headsets) is simply too good to really pass up.

Counterstrike:Source on the PC is prettier, but leaves the gameplay unchanged, and the current server browser system is so bad that it will make a strong man break down into uncontrollable weeping. The other day, tilt and I tried to get into a game together (I have a PC at work I use for this, it's a long story). Here is how it went:

- We both fire up the game.
- We search for servers.
- We log on to the "friends" list.
- He makes a server I cannot see.
- Niether of us is online for the other.
- Look for a common server to join.
- Can't do *name* filtering on the list of 350000 servers.
- Dance around for 20min. By pure luck, get into one server by accident, but the game ends.
- Even though we are both live and active in a server, neither one of us is listed as online in the friends list.
- Spend 10min trying to get to another server. Fail.
- Decide to play Xbox that night.

I am never playing any online game that isn't on Xbox Live or some other similarly centralized service. Life is too short.

My Stove

A couple of years ago, we got a new kitchen. As part of this work, we replaced the old underpowered cooktop with a new shiny overpriced cooktop. This stove is a wonder of the modern world. Unlike others I looked at, all five burners put out roughly the same range of heat. Most other cooktops have "high power" and "low power" burners, which sucks. Most others especially suck because they put the high power burners on the left side of the stove, which is simply wrong (that's a long story).

My favorite thing about this stove is that on the one hand it can put out enough heat that I never have to worry about my saute going flat because I add a bit of cold stuff to the pan, and on the other hand, you can turn the stove on at the lowest simmer it will do and the burner will light at precisely the level you want. No hiccups. Since I got this stove, for reasons I don't completely understand, a lot of dishes I make involving long simmers suddenly started to work better. Now, I don't really believe that the stove did this for me, but it certainly made it easier for this to happen.

For reference, this is a DCS CT-365 five burner gas cooktop. Here is a google link in case the other goes bad.

Google Mail

Finally mail done right. No stupid folders, just fast search. This is the future way of all things.

The Bruckner Symphonies

Of all the great warhorses in the Classical Canon, I think these are the most compelling. Bruckner wrote huge expansive and abstract meditations that are infused with an intense spirituality. Nowhere in music is there a stronger mix of the intellectual and the emotional. If you can sit in a concert hall and not get chills when the orchestra hits one of the massive brass chorales in the later (6th, 7th, or 8th) Symphonies, then you are emotionally dead.

For The Record

My favorite record store on the planet. This store has been in the middle of Amherst, MA for almost my entire life. It started out as an annex in a larger store, but soon became a standalone entity. I love it because the people who run it know what they are doing and have an encyclopedic knowledge of what they carry. They are not the biggest store on the planet, but they stock the most consistently excellent collection of music in all areas that I have had the pleasure of browsing. The guy that runs the Classical section is particularly wonderful and seems to know exactly where every single classical recording in the store is and when it was ordered or when it will be ordered or how many copies they have in stock on a given day.

For The Record is a testimony to the local shop run by people who love music and records more than they love money. The prices are also much better than average.

Posted by psu at 10:25 AM | Comments (5)

December 29, 2004

Grand Bereft Auto

by peterb

Here are some things I hate about the Grand Theft Auto games, in no particular order.

  • The stupid hip-sway on all the female models makes me embarassed to be seen playing the game. It's like the graphical assets were created by a 12 year old British public school boy who had never actually seen a female. The most basic grounding in anatomy would tell you that if a hip moves like that, it must have been broken.
  • Worst. Aiming. Ever. Even worse than in Metal Gear Stupid.
  • Typical braindead broken console save point implementation. Yet more proof that mediocrity is the gold standard in the videogame market.
  • In a similar vein, the amount of busywork required when you fail a mission in order to retry it is maddening.
  • I think the missions are puerile, sophomoric, and stupid. But that's OK! Because I can explore this huge virtual world and ignore the missions. Except I can't, because two-thirds of the game is locked until I do "enough" of the Beavis-and-Butthead type missions.
  • Did I mention how idiotic the save point implementation was? I can't remember, because I just saved my game and the save point system is so hideously awful that it has given me brain damage.
  • "We're going to produce a game where you can pick up a hooker, have sex with her, and then beat her to death with a club to get your money back, but we'll cave to public pressure and remove mention of Haitians from the game, because we don't want to be racist against Haitians. However, in the interests of free speech, we will maintain all the racial slurs against Jews, Blacks, Italians, and Cubans."

Things I like:

  • Nice work on the soundtracks, especially the radio DJs, who manage to make me laugh even when they're offending me.
  • In Vice City, I like the motorcycles a lot. The motorcycles might be the only reason I actually try to play the game every so often.

That's about it, I think.

Posted by peterb at 05:08 PM | Comments (1)

December 28, 2004

Thurston Searfoss Interview

by peterb

Thurston Searfoss and Devoted Fan

Excerpts from an interview with Thurston Searfoss, author of The Lost Admiral Returns. We recently published a comprehensive review of the game.

peterb: "How long was the development cycle for the game?"

Thurston: "It's been about 4 years, part time. I do a number of other different jobs. So a lot longer than I would have liked. I'm a part time developer, marketer -- the whole works, for good or bad -- so I have to switch to alternative tasks, and then I get very frustrated at how long it takes to do anything"

What development environment and tools did you use to create the game?

"For tools, the usual C++ environment. A lot of them are actually older, so I'm actually using fastpath for file formats, that kind of stuff. I'm having to use DirectX, of course. I evaluated a couple of 3D engines but rejected them in favor of building a 2D sprite system, where I'd have more control."


"This is a downloadable product, so I needed to keep the download size reasonable, around 15 megabytes. That's pretty hard to do when you increase the resolution past 800x600 or when you start going in to 3D. And it just makes it 100 times easier to get reasonable views."

Who do you perceive as the primary audience for your game? People who played and enjoyed the old QQP Lost Admiral, or new players?

"A big part of it is aimed at the core original audience of all of my original games. At the same time, the core and essence of Lost Admiral is a very simple game; it's meant to be given a chance to be a breakout. the actual [user] interface has proven to be an obstacle to that. So I'm actually in the middle of rewriting parts of the interface to lean towards the mainstream expectations of the game."

Why did you build your own UI, rather than using standard Windows (or some well-known toolkit's) GUI elements?

I had to make the decision early on. [Windows] is a standard, but it doesn't cater to games that well, because what the heck does "edit" mean? So no, I prefer to have an in-game menu. By the same token, I try to keep all the interface elements simple."

I found it very easy to make mistakes in-game; for example, I'll try to select a ship by left-clicking on it, only to realize a moment later that I've just given an order to some other ship to move.

"In all my games it was very standard to left click to move and right click to select. The selection box was meant to indicate how far out you could move, and I guesss I never revisted the other side."

How long does it take to 'balance' a new scenario?

"The actual maps go back to the original game, so those aren't really an issue. The new material I have these days are these missions. The next mission we add to the game will be Bismark, Beachhead, and then Convoy, which is actually in the spirit of the north atlantic convoy. Each one of those is going to be very strongly WWII themed. For the missions I trust my instincts, and my actual users are the testers. Because of the in-game update system, any balance problems that are discovered can be fixed very easily. Players will complain about certain things, so that's good feedback.

Partially this works because missions are designed to be randomly created, just like the random map is created. So you have the core very balanced game, which has been balanced to work with random maps and then on top of this you blend on each and every mission with its own challenges. Right now there is a small chance you might get, for example, an unfair 'Secrets' mission, where the objective it too far away. So the question for me as a designer is how many more safety checks do I put in to detect situations like this?

What's the most positive, surprising thing about the game now that it's done?

"The way that the missions really do create a totally new breath of fresh air in the way the game plays. The core game is extremely rich, as you know."

They're a great way to make the game about more than just victory points.

"The new missions actually complement the new core of The Lost Admiral very well, once you get into them. They become a different set of victory criteria totally separate from the VP struggle, to the point where it's a trade-off, balancing which can you get away with. Can you get away with not taking that last city to finish 'The Trouble Next Door?" Or are you going to blow your VP total if you don't divert a ship to take a city?

It makes for a richness of strategic decisions. 'He's got one sub over there; I don't have any destroyers in that region. If I move a destroyer over there, I'll eventually get his sub, but can I afford to do that?' You don't just get a free lunch."

What games, other than your own, have you been playing lately?

"Tons of board games. Not many computer games, actually. So many of them are real-time strategy, and there's only so much you can do with them. It basically devolves into a puzzle agame: which units do you have to build, and then how quickly can you deliver them? It loses that chess-like feel. I've tried some of the remakes of some classic games -- Hearts of Iron, for example -- and they seem to fall pretty flat."

When you started building Lost Admiral Returns, did you expect more people to want to play against the computer, or against other people?

"When I put my first beta version out, players could only play against each other. I ran into a lot of technical issues with more advanced [network] connections. So I wound up disabling that and going back to the tried and true AI. My surveys repeatedly show that most strategy gamers prefer to play against the AI. No one is saying 'I'm going to return this game unless it goes multiplayer.' So there's a bunch of code in there that is disabled; it's disabled in the sense that it's unmaintained, so it probably needs to be reimplemented if we're going to get it back in to the game."

You've said on your web site that you plan on working on updates of your other classic games, The Grandest Fleet and Conquered Kingdoms next. Will the development cycle for those take 4 years also?

"Based on the engine work, the development time for the next products should be tremendously reduced. It should be 10 times easier going in to Conquered Kingdoms and The Grandest Fleet to deploy them. As long as the engine is not seen as so antiquated that no one wants it, to be quite blunt, it should be good.

The real issue is that I've been throwing my home on this project, so I have to balance my books and pay the bills. So how much can I fine-tune the biggest downfalls of the game (user-interface issues) and figure out who is it going to appeal to? Only gamers? Or does it have enough interest for any gamer? So the biggest hinge point for me right now is whether financially whether people will support me enough to go forward."

What level of sales do you need, realistically, to make continued work on these projects viable?

"To start balancing the books, 200 units/month or so. I'm beginning to wonder if the 'try before you buy' model makes it too easy for people to not spend the money. If you buy a game for money the pressure on try-before-you-buy games is to be '30 days, full access.'

Who puts that pressure on you?

"The download sites. It used to be, also, word of mouth. So far, for Lost Admiral at least, it isn't like an arcade game, so most people if they do like it, they do buy it. Its more a question of the user interface, and for some people, the graphics. So that's another weakness in my marketing model right now -- what is the reasonable limit for a number of days?"

Frankly, 30 days is longer than it takes me to get bored of most games, so for me, at least, I'm probably less likely to buy something if the trial period expires after 30 days than, say, 2 weeks. But I don't know whether or not I'm typical. Although I really appreciate having all the features active -- that makes me more inclined to buy a product, because I know exactly what I'm getting.

"If anything, in my haste to get it out the door, I simply took the easy route and left all the features active. At some point I may start boiling that down to 'here's a very small but good taste of it, and buy it to get the rest."

Thurston, thanks for your time.

It was nice talking to you.

Posted by peterb at 09:18 AM | Comments (0)

December 27, 2004

Signal To Noise

by peterb

Today, I cancelled my satellite TV service. I have no more broadcast or cable TV.

I hate saying that, since I've met so many people who get so in-your-face about not watching TV. You know the type. All you have to do is mention that, say, you saw the football game last night, and wasn't that a great interception, and these people will literally pounce from half a room away, rushing over to inform you, for the eighty-sixth goddamn time, they they wouldn't know, because they don't watch TV. They're too busy reading books and doing macrame and yoga and running their own business selling homemade homeopathic herbal tea.

For me, the decision isn't really being driven by some sense of cultural superiority, but simple economics.

For a long time now, I've been watching basically two things on TV: The Daily Show, and various forms of motor racing on Speed Channel. That's really about it. It's not that the other stuff on TV "isn't good," or even that I wouldn't necessarily like it. It's just that it has to compete with other forms of entertainment that I find more compelling: movies, downloaded foreign TV shows, video games, and books. Add to this the fact that the better segments of The Daily Show show up for download semi-regularly on BoingBoing, and the fact that the winter is a racing wasteland (except for the upcoming Paris-Dakar Rally), and the equation becomes fairly clear:

I'm paying $50 a month for the privilege of not actually watching any TV. That's $600/year. If you asked me explicitly "How much is it worth to you to watch The Daily Show and all the F1 and MotoGP races?" my answer would be "significantly less than $600/year." So this is a case where the economy of scale of TV delivery works in the exact opposite way that I want. Let's say a satellite provider carries 150 channels. They want to deliver those 150 channels to me for $50/month. Really, I just want Speed Channel and Comedy central. I'm willing to pay, say, $10/month for just those 2 channels. Too bad. I'm out of luck, the satellite provider is out of luck, and instead I'll be looking to download video of races a day later, online.

Maybe my $10/month simply can't be captured -- perhaps the cost of sales to someone like me is prohibitively high, and it's not worth trying. It does seem like a strange failure, though. My impression is that as the internet accustoms us to content that is more and more specifically tailored to our desires, it is becoming a more common failure.

How much TV do you watch? How much are you paying? Is it worth the money to you?

Posted by peterb at 01:58 PM | Comments (4)

December 25, 2004

A Very Retro Christmas

by peterb

The wonderful gift of the Atari Anthology (more on that tomorrow) inspired my relatives and I to talk about (and play) some other retro games on various emulators. When I fired up Richard Bannister's Mugrat, I got the following splash screen...

Colecovision Easter Egg

...complete with animated snowflakes and "Winter Wonderland" playing in the background. Since I don't think the Colecovision actually had a clock and battery, I can only assume this was Richard's easter egg, specifically for mugrat. In which case: Thanks, Roger! Joyeux Noël to you, too.

And, since this is an entry about an obsolete 8-bit game console, it feels somehow appropriate to note that this is the 256th article on Tea Leaves. Thanks to everyone who both reads the site and writes for it, for keeping it interesting and fun for this entire year.

Posted by peterb at 10:30 PM | Comments (0)

December 24, 2004

The Long Dark Hallway

by psu

As I mentioned earlier I bought Half-Life 2 last week. Here is a short meditation on why the game is perhaps the perfect shooter.

First Person Shooters are characterized by fairly simple gameplay:

1. Enter area.
2. Kill everything that moves before you die.
3. Exit area.

Ultimately, no matter how dressed up a shooter is with narrative, cut scenes and interactive non player characters, the key to the game's success is how well it delivers on this core mechanic. Shooters are at their best when you are runing down a long dark hallway and using your bad-ass skills to cut your enemies to pieces.

I have a soft spot for Half-Life. The original Half-Life was the last game I played before my current descent into addiction. It is also generally credited with expanding the role of narrative in a shooter. The game is played as a series of narrative episodes all told from the game engine without separate cut scenes, and always from the point of view of the player. At its best, the game combines this narrative style with great level design to give you at least the sense that the story, such as it is, is just unfolding in front of you as a result of your actions in the game. The fact that the game sort of falls apart in its last act doesn't really detract from the fact that everything leading up to that point was brilliant.

After Half-Life, shooters and action games took on more elements of interesting story telling (Halo, Max Payne) and more open ended gameplay (Far Cry, GTA, Deus Ex). It's now fashionable to tout interactive environments, uncanny AI and complete freedom of gameplay as a set of holy grails that once obtained will usher in a new age in gaming glory.

But I don't think this is so, and I think Half-Life 2 is a small bit of proof that I am right. Half-Life 2 is brilliant precisely because it is not open ended, but completely linear and scripted. One minute the goons will be chasing you over a rooftop. The next you'll notice an open window near a ledge and you leap in just in time to save yourself from the rush of the drone army. You feel like a brilliant bad-ass. As the rush subsides, you realize that the game led you there. This happens over and over again. The game has perfected a technique that Half-Life got right once in a while, which is to take you down a long dark hallway that is cleverly disguised as "the real world".

Half-Life 2 builds this illusion using state of the art rendering and flawless pacing and level design. City 17 is full of beautiful light, texture and a palpable "sense of place." There was never a dark hallway this pretty. The place looks wide open, but the areas are cleverly designed to frantically direct you in exactly one direction, which is towards the end of the mission. You hardly ever find yourself wandering aimlessly through the game world with no idea where to go. This is in stark contrast to, say, Halo 2, where you could get lost even in the middle of the most frenetic action set piece.

The other tool that Half-life 2 uses to keep you running is some of the best human character animation I've ever seen anywhere. Humans in the game walk, run and fall like real people. But the faces are pure magic. Character's mouths move like they are really talking, and the faces really project a sense of feeling and emotion. It's cool how they carefully look at you as you move around them. All of this makes you forget is that most of your interactions with non-player characters who are not trying to kill you are completely scripted.

The result of this design is a game that puts you right on the rails of its story and doesn't allow you to fall off. You run, you hide, you shoot, the story moves forward. It's perfection.

My only complaint is that they didn't hire the guy that implemented Halo's level loading code, so your time in the game world is broken up by too many stupid load screens.

Other people who agree with me and said it first

Here tilt gushes in much the same way.

Here the Game Brains guys do the same thing.

Posted by psu at 11:33 AM | Comments (0)

December 23, 2004

Part of the Problem

by peterb

This week Salon published an especially depressing The Year in Games article, full of various commentators saying obvious and, for the most part, untrue things.

My favorite had to be the "he's usually smarter than that" Greg Costikyan talking about how there's "no indie games industry." I'd be willing to bet that any random game by Ambrosia software has sold more copies, than, say, any Nokia N-Gage game. Would it be accurate, therefore, for me to say "there's no mobile gaming industry?" Or is the metric for whether an industry exists not whether you book any revenue, but just whether a company is spending money?

The other aspect of the article was how it's pretty clear that pretty much none of the commentators -- except for Costikyan -- have ever played any game that wasn't given to them by some PR flack as a freebie. Halo this, Half-Life that, and their version of being "edgy" was recommending Namco's Katamari Damacy . And the guy who said the best game of the year was the unplayable -- but oh so corporate -- Ninja Gaiden made me weep bitter tears of blood.

Stop asking why games aren't innovative. They are. It's just that the games you're choosing to play aren't innovative.

And if you want to know why that is, just look in the mirror.

Posted by peterb at 08:41 AM | Comments (0)

December 22, 2004

Christmas Update

by peterb

For those of you taking off for the holiday, have a great time doing whatever it is you'll be doing. I plan on continuing to try to update regularly through to the New Year. If you're travelling, drive safely, and please remember to drink only homemade egg nog, never the store-bought stuff. You have my permission to use pasteurized eggs, if you worry about that sort of thing.

Posted by peterb at 08:47 PM | Comments (0)

December 21, 2004

Ask the Game Geek, Part 2

by peterb

Here's another game that I vividly remember playing, but could not recall the name of. A little research has helped me figure it out, however. (Yes, I've updated this article since last night, when I still didn't know the name and was bemoaning my fate).


AWACS (Click to enlarge)

It was an Apple ][ game. My memory of it was as follows: The game was played on a map of Europe, with the Soviet Union on the east and West Germany and environs on the west. Soviet fighters and bombers would appear on the map, identified by little call signs ("Tu-26" "Mi-25" "Su-11"). The planes would begin flying towards their western targets. In response to this, the player's job was to select an appropriate airbase and dispatch a fighter plane from that base to intercept a given Soviet plane.

It was similar in some ways to NORAD, a very clever missile command clone, which involved intercepting missiles rather than planes. But in my memory, all you were doing was choosing which planes intercepted the Soviet planes, on a sector-by-sector basis. You didn't actually steer them, whereas in NORAD there was an actual dexterity requirement. This mystery game was, essentially, a simple air traffic controller game.

I liked it.

Some lucky searches showed me that this game was called AWACS, and it's a little more complex than what I describe above. The ways in which my memory diverged from the truth are interesting.

AWACS is Missile Command in concept, but a bit more interesting in implementation. Specifically, you should move your AWACS plane close enough to the radar contacts so that you can identify them; some of the radar contacts are friendly, and shooting them down is frowned upon. You don't actually "steer your plane" around as much as you move a "window" of viewing area over a map of Western Europe. When planes are nearly centered, their blueprint shows up at the bottom of your screen. Rather than launching fighters to intercept, as I remembered, you just hit "enter," and the closest base launches a missile at the nearest contact. If the plane reaches a base, the base is destroyed (I lost Prague within the opening seconds of a game I played this morning. It's quite challenging.) The reason I remembered launching fighter planes is that after a while, your own bases start launching planes on their own, and you need to identify them so that you don't accidentally shoot them down.

You can obtain the disk image for AWACS here, but the fastloader is incompatible with the operating system on the disk image; boot your emulator with a dos 3.3 image and then load the game disk into a second drive and run it there (try BRUN AWACS,D2).

Posted by peterb at 10:01 PM | Comments (2)

December 20, 2004

The Lost Admiral Returns

by peterb
The Lost Admiral Returns

The Lost Admiral Returns

The best game I've played in my recent spate of reviewing is, without question, The Lost Admiral Returns. You've heard the clichés applied to other games: easy to learn, hard to master. This time it's true.

Some purists divide games into two camps: those that involve random chance (typically through rolling dice), and those that don't. The latter type are sometimes called "pure" games. In my experience, people who are better at games prefer purer games, because their gigantic brains help guarantee them the win. They aren't cheated of their victory by a random roll of the dice.

Because I'm actually pretty unskilled at anything that involves more planning than figuring out what I should have for lunch, I tend to lose at pure games, which means I usually don't like them as much. The Lost Admiral Returns is the exception that proves the rule. Let's review the basics of the game.

The Lost Admiral Returns is played on a hex map depicting water and land; pieces move only on water. Cities, with attached ports, are based on land, and are worth victory points. In order to own a city (and thus accrue victory points from it), a player must have a troop transport stationed in the harbor of the city at all times. A city with no transport in the harbor is neutral, and no one gains points from it.

At the end of a turn, up to two friendly ships can share a hex without negative consequences. If ships from opposing teams occupy a hex at the end of a turn, they fight. Ships can move a certain number of hexes per turn; if they enter a hex with an enemy, they must stop. In addition to the two types of troop transports, there are PT boats, destroyers, submarines (both submerged and surfaced), aircraft carriers, cruisers, and battleships. Normally, you can only see enemy ships if they are in the same hex, so the fog of war is heavy and thick. Aircraft carriers can detect enemy ships -- except for submerged submaries -- up to two hexes away.

There is no die-rolling here. Rather, combat is very rock-paper-scissors. A submerged submarine can do substantial damage to a battleship, but the battleship cannot hurt the sub at all. A destroyer can sink a submerged sub in one shot, but the sub can barely dent the destroyer. A battleship can squash a destroyer like a bug; a destroyer barely tickles a battleship. Combat is resolved nearly automatically. There's a little animation of the ships shooting at each other, but there is no dexterity involved (except the occasional need to click on a ship to indicate that you want to target this enemy rather than that one.) Movement between the player and the computer alternates in turns. It can be a bit of a burn to attack a battleship with your sub, only to have the other player move a destroyer in to take you out on the next turn; of course, you're trying to do the same thing to him as well.

Gameplay is fast-paced, for a hex-based wargame, and addictive. I constantly find myself saying "Just one more battle before bed," which is a sure sign of incipient dependency.

Soon I will make Webelo

Soon I will make Webelo

Battles are wrapped up into a somewhat baroque but fun "career mode," wherein you have an overall rank (based on how many battles you've fought) and class (expressed as a colour, based on how well you've done in those battles). So a blue ensign has fought more battles than a gold master mate, but the latter did better, on average, in his fights. As you finish battles, little medals begin to decorate your career screen. It makes a cub scout's heart glow warmly to see these little merit badges accumulate. If you needed any proof that war is really about boys and their toys, it's right here.

There are nine pregenerated maps, and a nice variety of options to generate random maps. There is also a campaign mode, called "Save the Admiral," where you fight a large number of set-piece and random battles. Sprinkled in among the games, particularly in the campaign, are additional missions where you are responsible for more than simply amassing the most victory points. For example, in the "Secrets" mission, you need to perform reconnaissance on certain hexes deep in enemy territory. The "Fishing Territory" mission requires you to defend certain sea hexes from enemy incursion. "Death By Duel" requires you to try to destroy certain enemy ships with certain designated ships in your own fleet. In order to win a mission battle, you have to make your victory point quota and fulfill whatever the terms of the mission are. Completing the mission successfully usually isn't hard; getting enough victory points usually isn't hard. Doing both at the same time is surprisingly hard.

Completing battles -- again, particularly campaign battles -- gives you a variety of rewards that you can use in future combat. For instance, there are a variety of points that can be used to buy special abilities for a flagship (that can be used in only one battle) -- move faster, better radar, and so on. There are also "power plays," that can be used if you want to even up a tough battle a bit -- the "traitor" play, for example, causes several enemy ships to mutiny and join your side, whereas the "spy" play reveals some of the enemy's ship positions to you. When I first read the description of these abilities, I thought they were a bit cheesy; some sort of way to reward the player by letting him cheat.

But it turns out that the computer players accrue these rewards also. In the last game I played, the computer played both "traitor" and "spy" plays against me. So as far as I'm concerned, the gloves are off.

Planning for battle

Planning for battle

The setup for a battle is one of the most well-designed parts of the game. For every battle, you must determine which ships you're going to purchase with your initial allocation of points. First, you can blow it off completely by just clicking "Auto Buy," and letting the computer pick for you. That's a great optimization for a busy player who wants a comparatively quick game. If you want to, though, you can reasonably spend as much time picking your weapons as you do actually playing the round. You set a mission for each victory point (capture, attack, raid, defend) and set a monetary budget; then you can assign ships to that port's mission. It's both fun and disturbing to watch your carefully laid plan completely unravel after the first few skirmishes.

The Lost Admiral Returns is not an online game; all battles are against the computer. The AI can be set to one of ten levels; I found level 1 to be trivial to beat, and have slowly been ratcheting the difficulty up. So far, I just barely managed to defeat a level 5 opponent, so the difficulty ramp feels about right. To the best of my knowledge, the computer isn't cheating. After each battle, you are given the option to post your scores on the internet and see how other people did on the same map, against the same AI you played. That can be pretty humbling.

So, there's a lot to love about The Lost Admiral Returns. The game concepts are simple to grasp, but provide a lot of tactical depth. The opponents are strong, and there's a sense of reward for progressing through the game. Are there any downsides to the game?

Well, there's basically one problem. It's not a huge problem, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it. When I started up the game for the first time and got into the tutorial, I said to myself "Wow, this game looks exactly like the old game The Perfect General, from QQP, from way back in 1991." See, I hadn't paid any attention to the word "Returns" in the game's title -- this is Thurston Searfoss's update of the original Lost Admiral game, also published by QQP. The game feels the same. It has the same little almost-but-not-quite square buttons and the same sorts of hand-drawn icons. Tooltips pop up in hand-coded dialogue boxes that are not generated by any toolkit you've ever seen before. The UI would be considered advanced, if this were a DOS game written in 1990. But it's not 1990.

This is not a problem specific to The Lost Admiral; in fact, let's take a brief detour to talk about the subject.

It is pretty much par for the course for game designers who know nothing about Human-Computer Interaction to throw away the style guide for whatever platform they're coding on and instead develop their own unique interface for their games with visual, tactile, and response time characteristics unique to their game. This drives me insane. For some truly pathological cases, try the following examples: Fire up Windows and move the mouse around a little. Get the feel of it. Now start up Deus Ex, or Europa Universalis and move the mouse around. It will have a completely different feel -- in Deus Ex, the cursor movement feels slippery, like you're driving on ice. Europa Universalis' mouse control feels like you're driving through deep mud; you have to move the mouse twice as fast to travel the same distance as in Windows proper.

Most games have to have some user interface specific to the game ("clicking here does this," "moving the joystick does this"). But this specific act of throwing away platform standards and building your own behavior for every single aspect of user interaction disturbs me. Therefore, I will call it "overcreating a UI". Maybe overcreating a UI makes sense in certain situations (for example, your game is going to be ported to a bunch of different platforms, and you want them to look consistent across all of them). But on the whole, this feels like a morass for game developers, where they have a mission ("design and implement a game that's fun") and then sign up to overcreate a UI without thinking about whether it's really appropriate. In the early 1990s, a number of companies actually designed their own extended memory managers rather than using Windows or existing DOS memory infrastructures. Origin's memory manager for Ultima 7, for example, made the game amazingly painful to play. I think in years to come, games with overcreated UIs will be seen the same way.

It's one thing if you've got an HCI expert on your team who is going to help you create a UI that's as good as Windows or OS X. But most smaller developers don't have that expert. So by developing their own custom buttons and cursor-movement code, all they do is make their game look more distinctive -- which may be good -- and subtly irritate all their users on a subconscious level, as various UI elements act almost, but not quite, like the elements they use in 90% of their other activities.

And that's the big drawback of The Lost Admiral. It has a massively overcreated UI. This is constantly with you as you play. Apart from the obvious issue of the buttons not being pretty drop-shadowed Windows buttons, there are other annoyances. The game is full of tooltips which pop up as you scroll the mouse around the screen, sometimes obscuring what you actually want to read. The game pauses and continues during the computer's turn without waiting for user input, but displays a box with a "continue" button for three quarters of a second, just long enough for me to start moving the mouse to try to click it. To select ships, you have to right-click, which changes the display in a manner so subtle as to be imperceptible if you're not paying close attention. Then, to move a ship you left click. I've made bad moves in a couple of battles because I accidentally left-clicked and sent a ship sailing off into somewhere it was never meant to go. Compare this to the UI in Panzer General. When a unit was selected, the hexes to which it could move to were normal and all other hexes were practically opaque. It was extremely visible. This was an instant visual cue to the user to Be Careful. Also, in Panzer General if you clicked outside of the permitted movement area, you deselected the unit; in this game, the unit will move as far as it can towards wherever you clicked.

None of these interface issues ruin the game. The developer is aware of them, and is working on addressing the most pressing ones (which you'll read about in the next few days, when we publish our interview with him). I highlight them only because the gap between the superb game design and gameplay and the dowdy, hand-rolled interface is so stark. If there's anything that will turn players off the game, I think it will be the interface.

Lots of information on The Lost Admiral Returns is available at the game's web site. There's a very generous 30 day trial period in which you have pretty much full access to all of the game's features. If what you've read here interests you, I encourage you to download the demo (for Windows PCs only, unfortunately) and give it a try.

Posted by peterb at 06:59 PM | Comments (3)

December 17, 2004

2 Risky Games

by peterb

One of the mainstays of computer gaming over the years has been translating board games to videogame form. Boardgames are a popular pasttime in their own right, and their constrained playspace and (hopefully) unambiguous rules are a nice change for the developer: there's a whole class of game design and balance issues that you just don't have to worry about. It's all about implementation.

One of the more popular games for translation is the simple and addictive wargame Risk. There are innumerable versions of this game for every possible platform. Today, I'd like to talk about two new games that fall in to this class. Lux is Sillysoft's faithful implementation of Risk, and it runs on Mac, Windows, and Linux. War! Age of Imperialism is not a Risk translation, but a translation of Eagle Games' board game of the same name. Its conquer-the-world nature makes it close enough to Risk that I'm comfortable discussing it in the same review. War also runs on the Mac, Windows, and Linux platforms.

Actually, I'd like to make one brief digression before I start looking at these games. Last April, in my review of President Forever, I asked why so few developers used SDL to produce multi-platform games. It seemed like a no-brainer to me. A number of readers discussed some of the drawbacks of SDL, and it made for interesting reading. This year, I would estimate that almost half of the games in the Independent Games Festival are multiplatform (not always via SDL; War and Lux are both written in Java). This is a dramatic sea change, and one that I hope represents the start of a trend, rather than the crest of one.

Let's start with Lux. I begin with a warning: Lux is simply a Risk clone. If you like Risk, you'll like Lux. If you don't, you won't.

Lux (click to enlarge)

Lux (click to enlarge)

So given the preponderance of free Risk games, why would you pay $20 for this one? Well, it's a very good implementation, and it has some features that most of the free games lack. There are a few things I liked about Lux. First, the computer opponents. The AI in most Risk games is terrible. Lux's AI is very configurable, and the hard AIs are challenging, although they seem to be much better on the 'standard' map than on some of the variants. The maps are pretty, and as I've mentioned in previous articles, I'm a sucker for a good-looking map. The combat effects are nice and shiny; the game is very easy on the eyes. In addition to the maps that come with the game, there's an active community that is developing unique maps to play on (I liked the Roman Empire map, personally, and the Middle Earth one looked like fun also).

Another significant feature in Lux is online play. It used to be that playing any independently developed game online was an exercise in patience and typing in IP addresses; we live in a better world now. Just click "show network games," and you're presented a happy little list of games in progress that you can join. I had fun joining other people's games just to kibbitz and watch.

Lux's demo lets you play full games on a small set of included maps for a few weeks, so you can really get a sense of the game. You can't use the plugin manager to install other maps, but if you connect to an online game using a map you don't have, the game magically installs it for you. That's a nice touch. I liked Lux. If you like Risk, it might be worth $20 to you.

War! (click to enlarge)

War! (click to enlarge)

War! Age of Imperialism is a more serious game than Lux. The game is more slowly paced than Risk, which is not in and of itself a vice. Unlike that simpler game, whose primary mechanism is "plop down a huge number of armies and sweep across the board," movement in War is more deliberate. During each movement phase (there are two per turn), you can attack at most one province per army. This assumes that your army can reach the province in question, and if you want to survive it's in your best interest to attack a single province with more than one army (in a nice touch, you get a "combined arms" bonus for attacking with combinations of infantry, cavalry, and artillery). These limits make conquest -- at least in the early part of the game -- a far more gradual process.

However, military force is not the only mechanism you have at your disposal. You can dispatch special "explorer" units in to neutral territory to try to convert the natives. Depending on the resistance they encounter, this will often be a cheaper path to success, and will leave the province's resources intact for exploitation. Resources, once exploited, serve to generate resource points, which can in turn be used to buy military units, or cities, schools, factories, and other structures. Lastly, there is a technology tree that may be researched which can have dramatic effects on your empire's fortunes.

Unfortunately, not all of the slowdown is due to the game mechanics imposed by the board game. The game has quite a few phases. In a very understandable attempt to be helpful, the application pops up dialogue boxes at the start of each phase, explaining what it is, and what it's for. So far, so good. The dialogue boxes even have a "click here if you don't want to see this message again" box. Even better. Unfortunately, if you're playing against the computer, the game will display each of those boxes once for each player in the game. Which was enough to drive me absolutely insane.

It's clear that the developers are targeting the online market more than the standalone player, so it wouldn't surprise me if the single-player demo wasn't as much of a concern to them. But it was still a letdown.

Also unfortunately, the demo only lets you play the first seven turns of the game against the computer. This is enough to get the feel of the game, but not actually enough to understand the strategies that are likely to be successful in the long haul. In my short 7 turn games, I had the best luck when I completely ignored all of the complex economy and industrial rules and simply sent a combined-arms strike team rampaging across the continent. Which kind of turns the game into Risk. Maybe that strategy would prove flawed in a real game against real opponents, but without a more substantial demo, I have no way of knowing.

This ties in to a conversation I was having with an independent developer earlier this week. Figuring out the right amount of time and features to put into a demo is tricky. Put in too little, and users don't buy the game because they aren't sure if they like it. Put in too much, and users don't buy the game because they don't have to. It seems to me that figuring out where to draw the line on the demo might, in fact, be the single most important marketing decision an independent game developer can make.

Indie game week may have ended, but I still have more games to review, and so I will be extending it until I am satisfied. Next week, look forward to reviews of The Lost Admiral Returns, Avencast, and Gate 88. See you on the other side of Sunday.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 07:16 PM | Comments (0)

December 16, 2004

Game Stores

by psu

I went to buy Half-life 2 this afternoon. Up the hill from where I work, there is a huge EB Games. What I forgot is that every time I go in that store I have a crappy experience. So I ended up getting the game at a smaller local chain store across the street called The Exchange. Since this is Indie game week, here are some thoughts on why EB Games blows.


Every big chain game store I've been in just feels to me to be motivated primarily by profit. They could be selling you chips and widgets to do anything as long as they made enough money at it. Very rarely can you get good prices on first or second run games, or even used stuff. The local EB has Disgaea selling used for $10 more than I can currently purchase it at Fry's, and $25 more than the same used title at the Exchange.

The Exchange wants to make a profit so they can stay open, but it doesn't feel like they are relentlessly attempting to squeeze every possible cent out of the existing market. They offer a reasonable selection of merchandise at reasonable prices with no bullshit.


I hate the staff at the EB. I hate talking to them. I hate listening to them talk to other customers. I hate their attitude. Admittedly, I have experienced more tolerable staff at other stores, but comparatively speaking, the staff at the Exchange seem to be normal kids who like records and stuff and like working in the store. The people at the Exchange also don't look upon their customers with disdain.

At the EB today, I listened to the clerk there lie to a customer in the following way:

Customer: How reliable are these console machines?
Clerk: They have a three month warranty. They are designed to break. We offer extended warranties so you can get get the machine fixed when it breaks.

This is just a bald-faced lie to try and upsell the guy on the fake extended service plan with which EB wants you to flush your money down their toilet.


EB and their friends over at Gamestop have this cool scam. Whenever something new and cool is coming out, they convince you to give them your hard earned cash early on the premise that the manufacturer of the new and cool item will completely blow their sales projection on the item and immediately cause a huge shortage of supply and that they are the single outlet in the entire distribution chain that will actually have product available on launch day. This is called "pre-ordering". I suppose it must make them a lot of money and get those crowds of freaks outside the store at midnight. But it does nothing for you and me.

Here are my two presell stories.

A big game this year was Halo 2. Halo 2 generated something like 2 million preorders. People were nuts to get the game, lining up for hours at midnight. How did I get the game? I walked into a Target at 9am on launch day and picked a copy of the "limited edition" Halo 2 off a pile of 200 copies of Halo 2 that they had set out on a table. I could have just as easily walked into the Exchange and grabbed one, but they were not open yet.

Another big item this year was the Nintendo DS. In my trip to the EB today, the same clerk told the following lie to the same customer right after the lie about extended warranties:

Customer: Why can't I buy one of these?
Clerk: No one can buy those. We're only selling to people on the list. No one can get them.
Customer: What about this one?
Clerk: That's just a demo. If you look around, none of our stores will have any of these. You and the rest of the planet just have to wait.

Meanwhile, last weekend, I saw Nintendo DS systems coming off the shelf at the local Target like hot cakes.

A related note: those new small PS2s have been hard to get this year too... does EB have a special supply? I think not. They are sold out just like everyone else.

The point is, EB Games is just one of a billion distribution outlets in the modern gaming world, and presell is just a sham to get you to part with your cash early while getting nothing back in return.


Finally, here is what really confuses me. This EB store is huge, yet they don't really stock that many games. They seem to just stock 50 billion copies of the big games, and hardly anything else. They really don't have that much more than the small store across the street or the games part of a Target or Best Buy store. I went in today looking for a couple of not so obscure PS2 titles (for the new thin PS2 I scarfed at Target this weekend while EB was sold out) to go along with my Half-Life 2. They didn't have either one. EB basically doesn't stock anything that won't make a sufficient margin. Nothing off-beat. Nothing old. Very few bargains.

So I went over to the Exchange, and found HL2 and one out of two Playstation games mixed in with the old PC games, stuff for the Sega Dreamcast and N64 and even the SNES.

EB Games is over for me.

Posted by psu at 08:20 PM | Comments (7)

December 15, 2004

The Witch's Yarn

by peterb

I'm a huge fan of text adventures -- the name "interactive fiction", it seems to me, is way too general, since it could cover any number of similar-but-different media -- but they are possibly the most unapproachable genre in the world of computer games. There's a lot of really interesting work being done with the medium, but it's pretty much impossible to get anyone who does not already accept the strictures of the form to try them more than once. You can always get someone to try them once. Inevitably, within less than a minute, the new player will try to examine some item that is just part of the "scenery," or guess the wrong word, and they decide that this is stupid and they don't need to further subject themselves to the medium.

In one sense, that's their loss. In metaphorical sense, though, the author of the work just lost a reader because it wasn't obvious how to turn the pages of the book. Anyone who has ever watched a new player play a text adventure knows exactly what I'm talking about.

>> Grab plate 
I don't know how to grab. 
>> Lift plate 
I don't know how to lift.
>> get plate 
I see no plate here. 
>> get platter 
I see no platter here 
>> get dish 
Which dish do you mean, the green plate, the blue 
plate, or the red plate? 
>> red 
I don't know how to red. 

Presumably, some authors choose the text adventure medium specifically because they like its constraints, and want those pages to be hard to turn. For those authors, the above scenario really isn't their problem. Others, however, may simply be trying to tell a story, and don't care about the idiosyncrasies of (say) the Inform parser. For these people, a different system might be appropriate.

The Witch's Yarn

The Witch's Yarn

The Witch's Yarn is, essentially, a "choose your own adventure" book, in the form of a computerized stage play. It is available for both Windows and Mac. Rather than controlling "a character," the game is presented as a series of scenes, with you as the 'director'; you queue up characters, items, and events, and then watch the drama unfold. Characters appear and disappear from the stage, speak in text baloons, and otherwise expound on the plot (which I won't spoil here, but centers around a witch who is trying to interact with the "mortal world" by openin a yarn store.) The wordsmithing is better than you see in most adventure games -- I'm including text IF here -- but let's be frank, this is a videogame, not a Henry James novel. The main characters are believable; the supporting cast is very caricature.

There have been other tools that let people develop "choose your own adventure" style games, but the system used for The Witch's Yarn seems particularly polished, at least from the user's point of view. Helpful prompts explain how to let the story progress (without dictating a choice). The game is always implicitly saved, so just quitting at any time will always allow you to pick up where you left otf. If you make a mistake and steer the story to an endpoint, the engine allows you to undo the previous choice, or roll back to the beginning of a chapter. The graphics are simple; it looks like cues can trigger simple animations. It's unclear to me how much scripting the engine allows. At least in The Witch's Yarn the effect is that of being shown a play performed by Colorforms stickers.

I'm being a little unfair when I describe the game as simply a choose-your-own-adventure book. It's a little more complicated than that. Rather, the cues you introduce have an effect on the game state; the same cues introduced in a different order can yield different results. So in the second chapter, for example, the main character's emotional state is bouncing around based on what cues are introduced. Some cues (for example, an aggravating visitor) make her angry. Some make her depressed. Some make her happier. Send in too many "angry" cues in a row, and the story comes to an end. So at least in this chapter, I started thinking of the protagonist not as an actor, but as my little pet finite state automata, and I found myself trying to draw a mental state diagram of all possible transitions.

This cueing system, actually, feels to me very much like what Emily Short did in her artwork Galatea. The player conversed with a character in the game, based on topics the player introduced, the game would take a different course. In that work -- which was text based -- you basically had to guess-the-trigger. In The Witch's Yarn, the cues are all presented to you on a silver platter. Other than that, the underlying concept is the same.

The engine that underlies The Witch's Yarn is called CineProse. The press release from the publisher, Mousechief, has an interesting paragraph that cuts to the heart of the issue:

We believe that current adventure games do not address the constraints of the casual game market. In our user testing, the majority of a sample population was unable to perform basic control over the main character. That´s why we re-invented the genre specifically for this market. Thus, the CineProse style of adventure game was born. Subsequent testing of computer novices showed that 100% of ages 8 to 78 were able to pick up and play The Witch´s Yarn.

There are things one can quibble with, here. It's arrogant to talk about "re-inventing" the genre when multiple other publishers have "re-invented" the same product, using the same mechanism, albeit not as slickly. And the people who are producing adventure games for the people who already play adventure games are not going to stop what they're doing and start licensing CineProse: the increased usability it provides is at the cost of eliminating whole classes of user interaction that experienced players of the genre have come to know and desire. But let's zoom up to the 50,000 foot level and acknowledge: they're right. The casual game player finds the interface of the typical adventure game bewildering.

The question, then, is how close to the bone can you strip an interface and still be left with something that is fairly characterized as an "adventure game." That's a bigger question, and not one i have an answer for.

The full version of The Witch's Yarn is $20; I didn't buy it. My calculus went something like this: "Hey, this is a really neat story, and I'd kind of like to know how it turns out. It seems like an interesting play. But it's not that much better than some of the IFComp games that came out this year. Those are free. Also, $20 would get me a ticket to a community theater performance of some other play that I haven't seen. I don't think I want to pay $20 to see how this turns out; maybe if there was more game here I would, because then there would be more of an intellectual challenge. I think this one is a no-go for me."

So it's a conundrum. I estimate I would have spent about $10 to see how the story ended. Any more than that, and you start asking yourself questions like "Why don't I buy a book, instead, which will be longer, probably better written, and can be read away from my computer?" Despite the fact that I wasn't willing to shell out the lucre, I think that Mousechief has correctly identified a need and has built what seems like a polished product to serve it. The real question to me is: what will happen with CineProse? There's a few ways it could go. It could remain as Mousechief's internal engine for their adventure games, it could be licensed to other publishers for use in their games as well, or it could be given away for free to all comers.

I've spoken briefly with the developer, Keith Nemitz, and he does indicate that he intends to license the engine, and that there would be no fee for noncommercial projects. This could be a very viable business model. I've talked mostly about text adventures as being the alternative here, but graphic adventures have their place as well, and as Ron Gilbert has described in detail, the economics of producing them are gruelling. If the CineProse bundle of Python scripts, SDL libraries, and application software is basically marketed as "produce your adventure game at a third of the cost of what your competitors are doing," then Keith may do very well indeed.

Giving away the tools for free to noncommercial projects seems like a smart decision to me, particularly if Mousechief can figure out how to monetize it. Off the top of my head, I'd imagine "give the dev tools away for free, but require that the 'player' be purchased by the users to view the entire works" might be workable. I'm really not going to pay $20 to read one potentially bad short story. I might pay $40 to be able to read many, if I know for a fact there are some good ones in the mix.

I feel bad saying that The Witch's Yarn isn't my cup of tea, because it's an attempt to look an entire genre in the eye and say "What you're doing doesn't work for most users. We're going to try something completely different." I respect that. So despite the fact that I didn't buy it, I still think you should visit their web site and download the Windows or Mac versions, and try it for yourself. And let me know what you think.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 06:38 PM | Comments (4)

December 14, 2004

Star Sonata

by peterb

There is nothing new under the sun.

Nearly every videogame (or, for that matter, board game) one plays borrows mechanisms from one or more previous games. Innovation is rare. When we describe a game as being "novel" what we're often referring to is a novel way of combining elements of previous games. I often complain about corporate games that blow their budget entirely on graphics and sound, but part of me understands why: it's easier to innovate visually (or, to a lesser extent, in telling a story) than it is to develop a brand new type of gameplay that is still fun. So the big game companies are simply spending money where it will be most effective at distinguishing their product from the pack.

The one sentence description of Star Sonata is: "It's nearly identical to Escape Velocity, except it's online." But of course, most people have probably never heard of Escape Velocity, so then I have to explain about the early 1980's game Elite and how the space opera genre developed. So instead of talking about Star Sonata directly, let's start at the distant end of this ball of yarn, and reel it in.

In the dark old days of mainframes and minicomputers we had, of course, various "Star Trek" style games which involved flying around a (text rendered) galaxy, shooting klingons. There are also Spacewar and its descendants, which are among the earliest games played on a graphics display.

The true genesis of what I'm calling the "space opera" genre was also the genesis of one of the most successful game companies of the 1980s, Brøderbund. Doug Carlson, a practicing lawyer, wrote Galactic Empire for the TRS-80 in 1979. It was a clever and engaging game, and is still very playable even today (at the end of this article I will give links to versions for playing on Macs, natively, and on other platforms by emulation.) That game was one of four, collectively referred to as the Galactic Saga.

Galactic Empire took place in the star cluster RS-232 (groan if you want to). There were 20 inhabited worlds in this system, each of which could be identified by its starting initial. To this day, their distinctive names -- some historical, some invented -- linger in my memory, consuming valuable neurons. Alhambra. Bok. Ootsi. Javiny. Farside. The goal of the game was to conquer all 20 worlds via military force; you began on Galactica, a mid-size, medium-tech world with 200 ships. Each world had a potentially different population size and technology level; the larger the population, and the higher the technology level, the more difficult it was to conquer the planet. Once a planet was yours, you could levy taxes and manpower from it and have it build ships for you. For purposes of our present discussion, the following facets are significant: Galactic Empire is the first game that I'm aware of that had a "galaxy" of planets which you had to jump to; in other words, interstellar space was not significant. You didn't simply fly around until you reached a destination, but rather moved directly from play area to play area.

The next game in the series, Galactic Trader, was built on the same engine, only instead of being a game of military conquest, the goal was simply "amass a billion dollars." Each planet buys and sells a variety of commodities. Commodities originate at certain planets; the further away from that planet you are, the more you will be able to realize when you sell it (or, for a better deal, trade it for different commodities). The elements introduced in Galactic Trader will be seen in nearly every space trading game for years to come: hidden information (you don't know the price of a good until you visit a star system), imperfect information (the price can change when you're away), an economy with overhead (buying a good and then immediately selling it in the same place will always cause you to lose money), and automated tracking of information (the computer in Galactic Trader will keep track of what prices goods were selling for at each system you visit, although the information may be out of date. This was actually introduced in the previous game, although there it was used to track population and technology level.)

The final two games in the series, Galactic Revolution and Tawala's Last Redoubt were variations on the theme of the first game, but with more complex victory conditions. I mention them here simply for the sake of completeness.



Fast forward to 1984: Ian Bell and David Braben introduce Elite for the BBC Micro computer (and quickly follow on with ports to many other 6502 based platforms, such as the Apple ][ and the Commodore 64). Elite is a game of space combat and trading. When not docked at a space station, the view is from the cockpit of your vessel; the game is rendered using polygonal 3D graphics, which was impressive at the time (Bill Budge had released a 3D vector graphics kit for the Apple ][ at around this time, but Elite looked much spiffier). Other games, of course, provided 3D views of spaceflight, both before and after. But what Elite brought that is relevant to this discussion is a merging of that with the trading concept of Galactic Trader. Also, since Elite involves space combat, making money so that you can upgrade your ship is critical. (In Trader, upgrades are simply about additional cargo capacity. In Elite they are a much more urgent matter).

The problem with Elite is that it turns out that flying through a real(ish) 3d space is (a) hard, and (b) boring. The first time you try to dock with a starbase and realize that, yes, you really do have to line up just perfectly and match your rotation with the docking bay, and not hit any other ships, and... well, let's just say that although it has a devoted following, Elite is better appreciated as a fond memory than as a game. Which is a shame, because there is a lot of game there, and the only thing that kept many people from playing it more were the actual mechanics of flying around.

Which is why, 20 years later, people are still producing games that are basically "Elite, but without the annoying 3d docking/combat sequences."

Probably the least famous of these is Galactic Trader for VMS, no financial or code relation to the Brøderbund game of the same name. This game takes the mise-en-scene, plot, and concept of Elite -- right down to the actual ship names -- and places it in a text-only, menu-driven user interface. Which, if you're old and slow like me, is great. Dexterity is completely removed from the equation (although, in typical VMS fashion, now you're constantly querying help pages to remember the one and two character sequences you need to enter to undertake various operations.) This version of Galactic Trader is still around, and is worth at least trying for novelty's sake (see below for links).

Escape Velocity

Escape Velocity

The pinnacle of the Elite-clone category is Escape Velocity. Originally a Mac-only game, it has now been ported to Windows. EV gets the balance exactly right. Gone is 3d combat; in it's place is a simple 2d plane on which ships manuever and, sometimes, shoot at each other. Docking is as simple as moving your ship over a spaceport (or planet) and hitting the "land" key. EV also has its own (interesting) plot, rather than simply using the elements from Elite, and it is expandable via user-written modules and scripts. It's a great game. I've been playing it for years.

Every time I talk with someone else who played EV, the topic eventually turns to online play. "Wouldn't it be great if you could play EV online?" people ask? I've been noncommittal when discussing this. I enjoy online games as much as anyone, but I don't believe that online play automatically makes all games better. I like cumin, too, but it tastes sort of funny on ice cream. Some games are better played offline.

So now that you know the history of space opera games, I can say: "Star Sonata is like Escape Velocity, only online," and you'll know what I mean. This isn't the only possible geneology -- we could talk about VMS Empire, which begat Civilization, which introduced the tech tree which has an impact in this game. Or we could trace a line from Empire to Reach For the Stars, which was the inspiration for Spaceward Ho, which was in turn shamelessly ripped off by Microprose for Master of Orion. But although all those games do have some influence here, I think the line I've described in detail is the most relevant one.

Star Sonata

Star Sonata

Star Sonata has a lot to recommend it. The graphics are both pretty and low-impact, so even on my comparatively low-end system, it looks great. The starfield is dual-layered, with the layers scrolling at different speeds when you move, creating the illusion of depth fairly effectively (if I recall correctly, Armada for the Dreamcast used a similar technique.) The game starts you in a small tutorial sandbox so you can play around without risk while you adjust to the controls. In short order, you are introduced to your weapons systems, the concept that you can only shoot something you have "targeted" or selected, the trading interface, and ship (and neural) upgrades. In no time at all you are out of the sandbox, and in the large, threatening, and confusing galaxy. In the context of a space opera, "large, threatening, and confusing" is a compliment. I spent my first hour in the game just jumping to random star systems, checking out space stations, and fleeing any combat I saw (there is no fuel for hyperspace jumps, so the only cost for exploration is your time).

The neural upgrade mechanism is interesting, and I feel a little conflicted about it. The idea is that each time you earn a level, you gain a number of character points that you can spend on training points; these points can apply to skills like piloting, weaponry, as well as some more advanced skills. When the time comes to purchase (or salvage) upgrades for your ship, you discover that any given item you could try to equip comes with a "rating." You can only equip or use items that are rated at your skill level or below. So there are actually two gates you need to pass before you can put the megahuge laser on your ship: you have to get the money, and you have to earn the skill points. But you can only earn skill points by levelling up. And you can only level by earning experience points. And you can only earn experience points by destroying other ships. So while I don't mind the idea of skill points per se, here's yet another example of where a game's progression system has a major impact on the narrative flow of the game, which is disappointing. In Escape Velocity it is perfectly possible to "role play" as a peaceful trader, amassing income, buying faster ships, with better shields, running away from combat. In Star Sonata, that's not really a reasonable path.

One innovation that is extremely clever is the introduction of "slave AIs". When you reach certain skill levels, you can purchase extra ships beyond the one you pilot, and an AI for the ship. Then you "train" the ship in what you want it to do (for instance, "go to this system, dock here, buy so many units of baobabs, undock, go to this system, sell the baobabs and buy nuclear waste, repeat...") Although I've seen macro systems in other games, this is the first space opera where I've seen it done. And it feels right: it fits the universe, it fits the game, and it's clever. Star Sonata deserves kudos, if only for this feature.

The game plays slower than EV; this is a good thing. Given the requirements of shipping packets around the country to keep all the clients synchronized, maintaining an EV-like pace would guarantee that only those lucky enough to be lag-free would have a prayer of doing well. Thankfully, that's not the case. The game feels a bit more contemplative than EV in this respect. There's a lot of flying, a lot of waiting, a lot of travel time. But somehow, it isn't annoying: it fits the genre. One thing that doesn't fit are the trade goods; the inclusion of "crack whores," among the trade goods, while perhaps entertaining to some, will probably just appear juvenile to others.

Star Sonata impresses me. I probably won't play past the demo period, simply because my short attention span means that I am constitutionally incompatible with anything approaching the time commitment of a MMORPG. But the download of the fully-featured demo is free, so if you like space games, I think it's worth your time to check it out.

Additional Resources

  • The Star Sonata web site has the demo available for free download.
  • If you're interested in the sort of game I described here, you owe it to yourself to try out the superb shareware game Escape Velocity. Available for both Mac and Windows PCs.
  • You can download the original Brøderbund games for use in your favorite Apple ][ emulator here. If you have a Mac, you might want the updated "tribute" OS 9 ports (they run fine in OS X under Classic) of Galactic Empire and Galactic Trader, instead
  • You can play the text-only VMS version of GalTrad here, or just telnet to

Posted by peterb at 05:17 PM | Comments (4)

December 13, 2004


by peterb

Welcome to this week's first article focusing on independently developed games.

The funny thing about being a ninja is how really, it's all about the basics. Sure, sure, you can learn advanced jutsu to channel your chakra into a deadly weapon, or distill a lethal poison for slipping into the drink of the man you've been hired to assassinate. There's the parties with other ninja, the endless fashion parade of simple black clothes and ever more expensive accessories ("Oh, didn't I show you my new shuriken? It's titanium.") Despite all the glitz and glamour of the ninja world, though, when you're on a mission it inevitably comes down to the simple things your first teachers tried to teach you: speed, agility, and intense concentration.

N is a simple, addictive, and elegant game for PC, Mac, and Linux PCs. It is, at it's heart, a descendent of Lode Runner, itself based on Apple Panic. The premise is simple: you are small. The world is big. The world has gold, and lots of things that can kill you. Get the gold. Don't get killed. That's it.

If that sounds familiar, it's because these sorts of games are also the precursors of Donkey Kong, and thus also of the Mario games. The genre is named after their most easily identified feature: they are platformers. N is a throwback to the game in its purest form.


N (click to enlarge)

N is primarily a game about motion. One of the most strange and wonderful things about it is the cognitive dissonance between the time that you first see a screen shot and the time that you first play the game. Seen as a screen shot, N is ugly and uninspired. Your avatar is a stick figure. The palette consists of different shades of gray, black, and the occasional (tiny) red spot, and the yellow pieces of gold. It looks, in screenshots, like something a 12 year old might draw on a history notebook in a really boring class.

But then you play, and your ninja begins to move.

He glides with elegant panache across open floors. He leaps impossible distances, swinging his little stick figure arms forward and back in time with the jump. He climbs up walls and scrabbles up and down ledges. He falls from a great height, and reaches out and drags his little stick figure limbs against the wall to slow his descent. He is lithe. He is nimble. He is beautiful. He does his best to navigate treacherous mazes and avoid lethal ninja-killing robots. He has no offensive abilities. His only weapons are grace and speed.

The controls are sensitive, with an "aftertouchy" nature that is not immediately apparent at first. After a few levels, you'll be making in-flight adjustments and making jumps that seemed impossible at first. The animation is great, the collision detection precise, and the various ragdoll movements that occur when you die -- in many, many gruesome and entertaining ways -- look disturbingly realistic, given their stick-figureness.

I can recall the exact moment that I decided that I loved the game. I had finished most of a level and had a clear path to the exit. There were a few bags of gold left, but they were in an incredibly dangerous spot. Trying to get them would have been foolhardy and arrogant. The sane thing to do was to head straight for the door. "The hell with that. I'm a ninja. I do not fear death." Leaping down into the crevice, I slowed my fall against the wall, narrowly avoided the proximity mines, grabbed the loot, and only then exited the level.

Now that's what I call fun.

N was written by two guys from Toronto over a six week period. There are no cinematics, cutscenes, plot twists, dialogue, or other extraneous material. The game application also includes a built-in level editor (somewhat hidden beneath debug menus -- read the documentation). N is an in-your-face slam at those who insist that the only way to improve games is to create a "more realistic virtual experience" (also known as "spending more money and thought on art and sound asset development than you do on gameplay"). N isn't just a great little game. It's a great little tutorial on what a game is, stripped down to its essential elements.

It's a lesson that other game developers should heed.

Additional Resources

  • Download N for Windows, Mac, or Linux here. The game is absolutely free. Think about that the next time you discover you've shelled out $50 for another bloated, horrible, and unfun corporate game, such as Black & White.
  • The N User Map Archive has levels created by users that you can download and try yourself.
  • There's a superb interview with the developers at, wherein they talk about some of the collision detection and physics/ragdoll algorithms they used, as well as the challenges of developing a game in Flash. Definitely worth a read.
  • N placed 5th in the web/downloadable category of the 2005 Independent Games Festival.

Posted by peterb at 09:12 PM | Comments (1)

December 10, 2004

Indie Game Week

by peterb

Next week will be Independent Game Week here at Tea Leaves. Ron at Grumpy Gamer is having his own micro-protest wherein he is not playing the blockbusters. In solidarity, all next week I will be highlighting and showcasing Windows and Macintosh games produced by small teams for not a lot of money. Games will be featured because I think they're fun; I'll be focusing on games that are comparatively new (however much I might want to evangelize System's Twilight to you, the goal here is to showcase games that were developed recently, not "old classics".)

If you have a game you think is worthy of consideration, feel free to drop a line to blog @

Posted by peterb at 04:58 PM | Comments (4)

December 09, 2004

Cooking Rice

by psu

Occasionally, people ask me about cooking rice. I always say:

"First you get out your rice cooker."

At this point, they might ask, "Well, what if I don't have a rice cooker?"

In that case, my answer starts:

"Well, first you go buy a rice cooker."

I will state without proof that if you ask most people of East Asian heritage how to cook rice, the first thing they'll tell you is to get a rice cooker. This is because they don't know how to make rice because their parents had a rice cooker, and their grandparents had a rice cooker, and their relatives all had rice cookers, and all their friends families had rice cookers. Here is why. This is how you cook perfect rice with a rice cooker:

1. Put rice in the cooker.
2. Maybe rinse it if you are supposed to.
3. Fill with water up to the appropriate line.
4. Turn on the cooker.
5. Go play Halo 2 until the cooker pops.

This is all I know about cooking rice. In fact, many of my most disastrous kitchen debacles involve trying to cook rice on the stove. I just don't do it anymore.

One final note: please none of that crappy pre-cooked rice. Get nice California rice. Minute Rice is a crime against humanity and Uncle Ben's should be grounds for criminal prosecution. I'll hurt you if I catch you.

One more final note: perfect rice is sticky, but with a light fluffy texture. The rice should stick together though, since this facilitates consumption with chopsticks. The main reason Uncle Ben's is a crime is the fact that the rice does not stick to itself. Why anyone would do this on purpose is a mystery to me, but the rice I get in most non-Asian restaurants is like this. The Italians have it right though, with their risotto.

Where to buy a rice cooker

Here is a nice cheap one from Amazon.

Here is an expensive one from Amazon. Use this for Sushi Rice.

Posted by psu at 08:07 PM | Comments (7)

December 08, 2004

Magician's Choice

by peterb
Branches That Don't.

Branches That Don't.

I've been playing a bit more Icewind Dale II recently, and I have gotten a bit further in to the game. The game is so soulless and uninteresting that it takes my breath away. Only a committee could have taken such a simple concept and turned out something so completely lacking in fun. As I plow through the same Forgotten Realms setting as the Baldur's Gate games, using the familiar D20 rules that I enjoyed in other games, I am overcome with ennui and want to lay down and take a nap (or, more accurately, play BGII or bg1tutu instead.)


If you've ever played a Japanese RPG -- and really, with the success of Final Fantasy, who hasn't? -- then you have probably noticed the Magician's Choice. The magician's choice is where someone asks you to make a selection ("pick a card, any card!") but whatever you choose, you are guided to pick the card the magician wanted.

That magician's choices happen in games is not surprising or upsetting in the least. Narratives, if you're not reading Burroughs, are about telling a story, which necessitates starting in one place and ending in another. American games, following the pattern of Wizardry and Ultima, have traditionally been very laissez faire about forcing players to take a particular path. If the player want to wander around in random places killing monsters or exploring, he can. Arguably, that's the point of this type of game. Bethesda's Morrowind is the most modern example of this school of thought. Japanese games tend to be a lot stingier. The minute you defeat the boss of a given area (and of course there has to be a boss, heaven forbid there be anything original), you are either unceremoniously booted onward and upward, or simply subjected to artificial boredom until you leave.

So the question isn't whether you'll be given a magician's choice. You will be. The question is how well the magician executes the force. If the magician is good, as were the authors of Planescape: Torment, you won't notice it. If the magician is bad, as are the authors of Icewind Dale II, you can't notice anything else.

Forcing can happen on a macro or micro level. The classic Infinity Engine games followed a pattern that worked pretty well. The player began in a very narrow area where choice was comparatively constrained, but soon found himself in an immense sandbox with an overwhelming array of choices (the city of Athkatla in BGII, the city of Sigil in Placescape: Torment). On a macro level, the magician's choice was still in play -- you're trying to get 20,000 gold pieces, find your kidnapped friend Imoen, learn your identity, and so on -- but on a micro level choices could be made which had no impact on the plot and which served no point except to add color and depth to the game. This was especially true of Torment, the best RPG of the 1990s. For me, at least, there was never a moment when I did not believe, completely, that the world I was in was bigger than my role in it, and that I would probably never discover everything about it.

Five hours into Icewind Dale II, I'm pretty sure I know everything there is to know about it. The constrained choices aren't just on the macro level. Practically every step you take is predetermined. "I, the game designer, will force you to walk down this twenty-five foot hallway before you can walk down that twenty-five foot hallway. I will provide no explanation for this; the pile of logs in your way will just magically disappear at the appropriate time."

This wouldn't annoy me nearly as much if I were playing a Japanese RPG, if only because I would expect it. But using the Infinity Engine for this sort of scripting feels akin to using kobe beef to make Old El Paso Taco mix flavored tacos. It might taste OK on some level, but all you can think while experiencing it is: what a waste.

Posted by peterb at 08:22 PM | Comments (3)

December 07, 2004

More Software Engineering Terms

by peterb

From time to time, I share certain terms that I find useful in my space-age-au-go-go career as a software developer. This is one of those times.

Idimpotent - An operation is "idempotent" if it can be safely attempted multiple times. An operation is "idimpotent" if it should be idempotent, but instead it brings your system to a crashing halt if you try it twice. (Variation: idemimpotent).

Implementation detail - This term is usually used to describe the requirements of any given project.

Trivial - Any piece of software ("We need a library with a simple API that solves the halting problem") that must be implemented by some other team.

System tests - A term used to describe the delivery of product to users.

Frozen - As the ship date of a product approaches, it enters the "feature freeze" period. This means that new features are added to the product only if they are really, really cool.

Reproducible - If a bug does not occur every time the unit tests are run, it is not reproducible, and may be closed.

Unit tests - Pieces of software that thoroughly exercise, at a bare minimum, at least 5% of a given software component.

Regression tests - Comprehensive tests that you expect other people to run when they make changes to the codebase.

Sophisticated - Hard to use.

Simple - Doesn't do anything useful.

Efficient - Does not do anything useful, but it not does it very quickly.

Debugger - A crutch for the weak programmer who is not sufficiently 3l33t.

Comments - See "Debugger"

Other useful software engineering terms can be found here. Thanks to Stewart Clamen, Benoît Hudson, and psu for helpful suggestions and editing.

Posted by peterb at 06:47 PM | Comments (0)

December 06, 2004

Magic Missile

by peterb

I recently started re-playing the Baldur's Gate games -- the originals, for the PC -- as well as the somewhat newer Icewind Dale II.

What motivated this was a little bit of hackery over at the Pocket Plane Group called bg1tutu. Put simply, this is a project which takes the Baldur's Gate data files and converts them so they can be played with the Baldur's Gate II engine. It's a neat hack.

There's a similar mod which lets you play BG II with the Icewind Dale II engine, but it seems to have been abandoned midway through implementation, so I haven't tried that yet. bg1tutu is still being actively developed.

What you "win" by playing Baldur's Gate 1 in the BG2 engine is a slightly more sophisticated, but less well-balanced game. You have access to the "prestige" classes out of the starting gate, so you can play the original Baldur's Gate as a Kensai, or an Assassin, or what have you. And of course you get a number of the interface enhancements -- you can browse your inventory and remain paused, for example. Or travel while looking at the map.

There are also a number of modifications to BG1 made specifically to be run in the "tutu" version, which adds some interest to the game as well.

The install procedure is hairy, and the wrong combination of mods can send you scampering back to the very beginning; I eventually settled on keeping a "virgin" BGII install on my drive so I could revert and start over without too much pain. Is it worth the hassle? Well, probably not. But I'm a sucker for a neat hack, and I had fun playing around with it.

I also finally tried Icewind Dale II. This brings D&D 3rd edition rules to the Infinity Engine. So far -- I'm still in the prologue -- I'm unimpressed. The palette is dull and uninteresting -- even compared to similar locales in similar games -- and 90% of the prologue is spent doing boring FedEx quests.

What is amazing to me is how well the Infinity Engine holds up nearly ten years later. The great rush to 3d, as epitomized in Neverwinter Nights, has added precisely nothing interesting to the genre of dungeon games -- it's the same game, only now the user has the hassle of having to also manipulate the camera. It reminds me of the Great Leap Backwards that Monkey Island 4 was, with its hideously ugly and hard to control "true 3d nature." Graphically intensive, ugly to look at, and more poorly written than the first two Monkey Island games. Congratulations, guys! You hit the Trifecta!

A construction kit that let users create their own Infinity Engine scenarios would produce more playable and fun games than what we have in Neverwinter Nights. When I played the tactically brilliant but flawed Temple of Elemental Evil I thought to myself "Once I'm done playing this game, I'm done with it forever. If there was a construction kit, other freaks could make scenarios that I could play." Time and again, this has proven to be true -- you can still find scenarios for Warlords II on the net, for example.

But it's hard to make money off of empowering the users. So it is the exception, and not the rule.

Every so often, I imagine a project to make a clean-room, free library implementing the D20 tactical combat rules. The whole shebang: spec out a high-level API, crank out implementation specs for at least two different languages, recruit some people who are willing to spend too much time doing the implementation, and have a small team that does the simplest possible complete application using that library (think a single "rogue" level with preset starting characters and monsters).

Manipulation and display of graphic and sound assets, scripting NPCs and encounters, plot -- none of that would be part of this library. Basically, this would be a little nugget to give away to game developers -- corporate or independent -- to use to make D20/D&D type games for me, er excuse me, I mean "for the public," to play. What percentage of the development of D20 videogames is spent debugging the rules, combat resolution, and spell effects? Use this hypothetical nonexistent library. How much complexity did you just remove from your product? (Since my library is hypothetical and nonexistent, I get to assume that it doesn't have any bugs.)

I think about this sometimes. And then I wake up, and I go into work, and instead of writing libraries for games that will never get written, I do what I'm getting paid to do, instead.

Posted by peterb at 07:26 PM | Comments (4)

December 03, 2004

Picoreview: ESPN Basketball 2k4

by peterb

This is last year's ESPN Basketball game, and you can pick it up for about $7, or less, from any number of game stores. It's essentially the exact same superb game Sega was making for the Dreamcast 5 years ago, except now I can play it on Xbox Live and have my 76'ers humiliate psu's mispronounced Celtics, 60-36.

Posted by peterb at 10:19 PM | Comments (1)

December 02, 2004

Generational Digital Stupidity

by psu

Dear NPR,

Your recent series of radio stories entitled "Digital Generations" is clearly the most ignorant, juvenile, cliched and simply lazy reporting that you have done all year, and that includes the coverage of the election. Where to start.

Let's start with the profile of the "digital child" and his "digitally challenged" parents. This piece presents us with the wide brush generalization that "kids these days" have some sort of subconcious connection with technology that their parents simply do not understand.

Let me clue you in. Remember all those strange anti-social people you knew in high school who seemed to understand all those hard subjects like math, and science? You know, the smart nerdy types who dressed badly? Well, we own you now. The digital child has existed for at least the last twenty five years (just ask my parents). It's true that we used to be a splinter group, but let me inform you of something else: there are millions of us and we are now reaching our 40s. The idea that technology is only for the young may appeal to the insecurities of the clueless baby boomer demographic, but it is simply completely wrong.

Who do you think creates all these toys that the kids are playing with? Just who are all those people working at Apple and Sony and Microsoft who seem to understand this stuff? They are me and millions of other people who understood how to use the machines decades ago while you lot were sitting around smoking dope and skinny dipping in the mud at Woodstock proclaiming just how groovy and cool you were.

I was going to let you off the hook for the digital kid piece, since it had the sounds of Halo 2 in the background. But then you go and run this profile of David Henley who utters those words that are most popular with the set who like to feel themselves superior and elite for not being able to run a machine that any five year old can understand, namely: "Technology makes it all too easy".

I would ask Mr. Henley, who I gather is a potter: does he use a wheel? Has he, in the past, used mass produced materials, or has he always taken spade to soil in his backyard to collect the best clay? In the story he admitted to using a felt tip pen in his past. I'm sure he feels ashamed now at taking such a shortcut, and would in the future only put ink to paper using only a hand-sharpened premium goose quill, if indeed, he would allow himself the use of paper or ink at all.

For some reason the notion that creative work on a computer is of lesser value seems to be unduly popular among people who are completely ignorant of how the machines work (a letter you ran just before the profile of Mr. Henley tried to make the same tired point). I would like to not so respectfully disagree. The idea is simply wrong. It is not a clever and humorous opinion to hold to give balance "for the other side". It is a position that can only be taken out of ignorance and stupidity. Not only that, it is insulting to the millions of people who do creative work every day on these machines.

I'd like Mr. Henley to walk up to the animators at Pixar, or the motion capture people and digital artists at Weta (think Gollum), or the photojounalists who cover every major modern news event, and tell them that what they have achieved was "too easy" and "not creative". The notion is just so mind bogglingly moronic that I can't really even grasp it.

Any artist with a shred of intelligence and integrity knows that the tool you use to create the artifact is at best only tangentially related to the final quality of the artifact. Cameras, microphones, computers, typewriters, pottery wheels and pens are all just tools that make the physical act of creation a bit easier. But, they don't make creating the art any easier. The art comes from somewhere else. It does not come from Photoshop.

So, in all, since this is a family forum, a big raspberry to you, NPR. Here's hoping you people wish for a brain for Christmas so you don't spend next year being quite so stupid.

Posted by psu at 10:18 AM | Comments (0)

December 01, 2004

Chasing the Dragon

by peterb

It was just last week that my friend told me he was going to build his own computer. I asked him to understand in advance that in the weeks to come, after he put it together and it either didn't work or suffered from a string of ongoing stability issues, I would mock him cruelly. But I would be doing so out of love.

Last night he IM'd me: "OK, you can start laughing now."

I really do feel his pain, because the same thing happened to me. For whatever reason, a few years ago, I convinced myself that putting together a PC at home from assorted parts would be "fun." And it was, up to a point. I researched carefully, and religiously followed the recommendations of the best of the hardware sites -- you know the one, let's call it "Tom's AnandTechnica Extreme." The parts came in, the pieces went together, the power went on, and I had a fully operational computer, all set to play the latest games of the day. And it was a little cheaper than a Dell!

Of course, it locked up about once an hour. So I spent several weeks de-tuning it until it was slow enough to stop locking up. I knew to do this because of the support forum, filled with thousands of other people who followed Tom's AnandTechnica Extreme's recommendation, who were suffering from the exact same problems, who eventually figured out through the process of elimination that the soundcard needed to be in slot 2, and you should only use these certain USB ports, and yadda yadda yadda.

This isn't unusual. It's par for the course. Just ask Tilt. Marvel at his plummet from the peak of wide-eyed optimism into the pit of despair.

The whole concept of "building a computer" is iffy. You're not building anything. You're assembling some parts where all of the interesting engineering has already been done for you. There is nothing technically challenging -- or even interesting -- about doing so. Anyone with a grammar school education, enough dexterity to handle a Phillips-head screwdriver, and a grounding strap can do it. "I put together my own computer" (if what we're talking about is a mainstream Windows or Linux PC) is as impressive a technical achievement as "I installed some software from a CD-ROM."

The reasons people (including my past self) give for building a computer fall into three categories:

  • It's fun putting something together with your hands.
  • It's cheaper than buying the equivalent performing hardware from some manufacturer.
  • I can squeeze more performance out of the machine if I do it myself

The first argument is the one I have the most sympathy for. It's the one that actually makes the most sense; if you're going to spend a lot of money to create something that is inferior to what you can buy ready-made, it had better be fun to put together. But this argument never stands alone; it's not like people want to build computers and then go on to the next project; they want to build them and then use them for stuff, and there's the rub. If "fun putting something together" is one of your motivations, you would be better served by doing the following:

(1) Buy a Mac (or a Dell)

(2) Buy some Legos.

(3) When you want to put something together, build stuff with your Legos. When you want to use your computer, start up your Mac or Dell.

The "cheaper" argument only turns out to be true if you are willing to discount all risk of hardware failure any time within the warranty period that would cover a ready-made box. And if you're willing to discount the shipping costs and hassle of dealing with separate vendors. And if you're willing to assume that your time is worth nothing. Lots of people are, in fact, willing to do these things. There's a kind of blame the victim mentality among the home-tuner crowd. The assumption is that if your homebuilt machine crashes, you must be doing something wrong. That's sort of right: what you did was buy a bunch of parts that were never QAd by any serious vendor to work together for any substantial period of time, believing that it was a smart thing to do. Hardware is tricky. Just because some system survives long enough to run a graphics benchmark for Bladehunt: Deathspank 2: The Revenge does not mean it's stable enough for use day in, day out, for years.

The performance argument is similarly an argument of false economy. Yes, you might indeed squeeze out a few extra frames per second than the roughly price-equivalent machine from Dell. Or, you could just wait about 30 days, and the next revision of the same Dell will outperform what you would have built yourself. The rate of change of performance in hardware you can obtain by just waiting a little while dwarfs the gains you'll see by assuming greater risk in assembling your own. If you buy a preassembled PC, maybe Big Computer Company will sell you a lemon. If that happens, you send the whole thing back to them, at their expense, and wait for the working replacement. If your home-built hotrod has a problem, good luck sending individual components back (restocking fees, anyone?)

People like to analogize computer assembly hobbyists to guys who tinker on cars. In my experience, there's a stark difference (in addition to the people who work on cars, generally, being more knowledgeable in their domain than people who assemble computers). Every guy I know who is serious about cars is completely clear-headed about whether or not a given car he is working on is actually drivable. You never see one of these guys saying "oh, yeah, the rear axle breaks if I drive it over 55, sometimes, but on the whole it's reliable transportation!"

I don't really expect to influence anyone with these observations. I still get the latent object sickness from time to time. Fortunately, my friends keep trying to assemble their own computers and encounter the obstacles I've described. This helps remind me that I shouldn't do it again. So if you want to go ahead and roll your own, go ahead. When you are in the depths of your depression, trying to figure out why everything works fine until you try to play an MPEG movie, and then the machine reboots itself (Hi, ewm!) I will be by your side, mocking you.

Mocking you with love.

Posted by peterb at 09:34 PM | Comments (10)

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