Games Geek / Technical

Response From Gas Powered Games

In response to my letter to Gas Powered Games regarding Supreme Commander:

Hello Gianfranco,
Supreme Commander is still a ways away and in development. At this time I
am unable to answer questions about portability or platform support. Look
for more info in the coming months.

Greg Stackhouse
Gas Powered Games

Well, at least it is a response. B-) I really do hope that the game gets ported to multiple platforms. It would be a shame if it was stuck on Windows.

Game Development Marketing/Business

Chicago Game Dev Meet-n-Greet

Last night was the a Meet-n-Greet for the Chicagoland game developers at Gameworks in Shaumburg. People from the Chicago Indie Game Developers, the Chicago chapter of the IGDA, and DeFrag were there. There was also the special guest: James C. Smith of Reflexive Entertainment.

It was quite a turnout. Attendees ranged from aspiring game developers to more established names. We spent a good amount of time just talking to each other. Actually, it was more like yelling at each other over the televisions, music, and arcade game sounds. Still, it was great talking to people.

I even saw someone I knew. Shawn Recinto recently incorporated his own game company. I remember brainstorming with him and a bunch of people when we were all going to work on a game project together. I left the group after I felt the project was too ambitious and didn’t like the direction it was going. He’s working on making mobile games and showed off a Frogger clone he had made. We exchanged some interesting ideas for game design and development.

Eventually we moved to the nearby Starbucks, which was relatively quiet, although I think the acoustics are terrible for big groups. People showed off demos and others asked questions.

Joe Sislow of CosmoOSe showed off an integrated circuit board that could be used for arcade games instead of hard drives and other devices which may get jostled during shipment. He talked about how inexpensive they were to make and that some interesting games could be made with them. Lower development costs and the ability of CosmoOSe to do field testing should allow for some innovation to enter into the arcade scene once again. I talked to him later about potential innovation in real time strategy games and found that he was a Wizardry fan as well.

Action of Curiosoft showed off his Einstein gameography work-in-progress. There were now some particle effects and a new game mechanic that I thought was pretty cool. It really looks like a game that could teach people to think differently.

I didn’t get the name of the person from TC Cons, but he showed off some games he made using Game Maker. He also mentioned making a horseshoe game that still sells fairly well because it is the only horseshoe game in existence. What a niche! He referred to himself as a second generation “new” game developer since he has made games in the past but now finds himself learning about game development again.

James C. Smith showed off some developments on Big Kahuna Reef. He mentioned that people liked making levels for the game and that he was trying to make it easier for those level makers to decorate their designs. He was also talking about making a word game to complement the match-3 game.

People suggested books and mentioned articles. They talked about games they’ve made and business models they’ve tried. It was really cool to talk to so many more people than from previous meetings. I felt that there were some people who didn’t get to converse much, but hopefully that will change next time and as Chicago builds its online game development community.

Games Geek / Technical Personal Development Politics/Government

What Games Taught Me

I grew up watching television and playing video games. I read books, but not as often as I do now. Somehow, I managed to get honors in high school. If games only allow me to “learn how to shoot cops”, how do so many people who play video games get good grades?

On Game Girl Advance’s Kids Can Learn to Read and Shoot Cops, the question came up: what can games teach us?

I would think that, if the game really gets a young, innocent, prelapserian child interested, then it also makes that child investigate the world of the game further. They might learn something about recent American history.

But maybe this is just me. Am I wrong? As a curious, unofficial poll, what new SAT words or useful skills did video games teach you folks? Have games taught you anything that makes you feel smarter or a better person? Any Trivial Pursuit questions answered correctly because of video games? To paraphrase Senator Schumer, can Johnny learn to read while shooting cops?

For the record, I did get a Trivial Pursuit question correct. Towering Inferno was one of my favorite Atari 2600 games, and I learned years later that it was based on a movie. While playing the DVD Trivial Pursuit, I listened to a mock pitch for a movie that sounded somewhat similar to the game I played. I got a piece of the pie for it. B-)

I also learned what scurvy was due to playing Illusion of Gaia. I remember looking up information on it because the idea of a lack of Vitamin C causing a disease was quite “out there”. Was it just made up for the game, or is it real? I had to find out. I had to learn.

I learned resource management. While I know of at least one person who hates strategy games (“Give me a mission, tell me what to do, and I’ll do it, but keep that crap away from me!”), I loved the intricacies of playing Ghengis Khan 2, Nobunaga’s Ambition, and P.T.O 2, all made by Koei. Real time strategy games like Total Annihilation and Starcraft similarly stressed the importance of resources. When I pack for trips or make plans for events for my LUG, I understand the importance of logistics. Not having enough pizza, underwear, or Medics can make or break your plans.

I also learned about the real-world people featured in the games. Nobunaga’s ambition to unify Japan was real. MacArthur’s famous “I shall return!” and the strategic importance of holding the Philippines were real. The political struggles, the balancing of Army and Navy resources, the value of allies and supply lines and research and intelligence…hundreds of hours watching the History Channel or reading history books doesn’t compare to the experience of watching a turn play out in front of you and knowing that what you did has an impact on the outcome.

What’s more vivid in your mind, reading about how North America was colonized by England, Spain, Holland, and France, or actively trying to keep peace with the Iroquois tribes nearby your main towns while preventing a competing nation from making landfall on “your” shores? Colonization introduced many of the major figures involved in the conquest of the New World in a way that history books just couldn’t.

Even games like Super Mario Bros taught me to tackle problems from multiple angles. You couldn’t find all of the bonuses or power-ups if you didn’t try hitting blocks that “weren’t there” or jumping into a pipe rather than over it. Thinking outside the box was normal in video games.

Games taught me how to be an organizer. Games taught me how to be efficient with limited resources. Games taught me how to experiment with new ideas or methodologies. Games taught me how to work well with others. Games taught me the importance of planning. Games taught me that my decisions can have multiple outcomes and affect many people.

Unfortunately, some people think that all I could have learned from video games is how to be dangerous and destructive.

To be honest, I did cause natural disasters like tornadoes and earthquakes in order to destroy my SimCity, but I distinctly remember cleaning the city back up and making it better than ever. B-)

Game Development

The Hero’s Journey

Yesterday I posted about the importance of heroes and how actions define who we are. The post was more philosophical than anything else, but Gamasutra had an article that fits into the theme quite well: Into the Woods: A Practical Guide to the Hero’s Journey.

It talks about how to make great stories, and obviously it is geared towards game development. Still, it demonstrates how important heroes and mythology are to the development of a person.

In The Cry For Myth, Rollo May points out four areas where myths are still active in modern life

  • Myths give us our sense of personal identity, answering the question, “Who am I?”
  • Myths make possible our sense of community. We are thinking mythically when we show loyalty to our town our nation or our team. Loyalties to our friends or community are the result of strong myths that reinforce social bonding.
  • Myths are what lie underneath our moral values.
  • Mythology is our way of dealing with the inscrutable mystery of creation and death.

In college, I took a class about mythologies of the world. It was one of the more interesting classes I took. I already knew that most cultures had a Flood story, but I actually got to read about the individual myths in this class. I read about the different creation stories. There are some major differences but also some incredible similarities between seemingly different cultures.

I once read somewhere that there are many stories that are going untapped in game development. There are plenty of worlds based on Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings or Medieval knights, but what about African or South American stories? Why aren’t there more games about The Tortoise and the Eagle or ambitious buffalo demons named Mahisha?

And even if we don’t try to make a story directly based on an existing, real-world myths, can’t we do a better job of borrowing ideas from them?

Personal Development

Who You Are

It is always eye-opening to read about someone’s history. How did events affect them? How did they become who they are? “Batman Begins” is a great film because of such interest, and biographies on J.D. Rockefeller and Benjamin Franklin tend to be popular as well.

Steve Pavlina’s Meaning of Life series starts by documenting how one person can change his/her outlook on life. He talks about questioning his long-held religious beliefs when he was younger and being unsatisfied with the (lack of) answers from those around him. He went from straight-A’s to a disinterest in college studies. He started to steal for the fun of it. After almost getting a 2 year jail sentence for grand theft, he was expelled from school for low grades.

This story is a stark contrast from the Steve Pavlina who is passionate about personal growth and graduated with honors and awards within three semesters.

Yet it is the same person. And it isn’t uncommon. I was raised Catholic, and I’ve heard plenty of stories about saints who were the worst sinners in their time. People go from living in the streets to becoming incredibly wealthy. Others are born into wealth and can become destitute or depressed. Many people never do any more than coast through life and stick with the status quo.

Steve Chandler said that we need heroes. They show us what is possible. Without heroes, we don’t know what we can do. If everyone is mediocre, then no one worries about doing their best. “Just enough” is perfectly fine. Apple’s “Think Different” campaign was great because it talked about how the people who make a difference in the world are those who don’t simply accept what everyone else thinks is good enough.

Steve’s story is great because it demonstrates that no matter how bad life gets, you can always improve it. Who you are depends on what you do, and it is clear that we can all be great. After all, many have shown us how already. It is just a matter of carrying out the appropriate actions.

Games Geek / Technical Linux Game Development

Letter to Gas Powered Games

I just received the latest copy of PC Gamer and saw Supreme Commander listed on the cover. I was a big fan of Total Annihilation, and I couldn’t wait to read about SC.

These days I run Debian Gnu/Linux as my main operating system and I would prefer to not have to boot up Windows just to play a game. If the game is only available for Windows, I’d be less inclined to play it. Are there plans to release a Linux-based port of the game? If not, will the game be designed and written in a highly portable manner so that such a port could be written by others without too much effort?

Thank you for your time,

I just submitted the above message to Gas Powered Games, founded by Chris Taylor. Taylor was the creator of Total Annihilation, which is still my favorite real time strategy game. Today I found the latest PC Gamer magazine waiting for me when I got home. On the cover was Supreme Commander, which is his newest RTS. Atari owns the rights to TA, but SC is considered the “spiritual successor”. A big thank you to THQ for publishing it when others are insanely turning it down.

A lot of people say that the RTS genre has stagnated, but Chris Taylor apparently has the goal of actually adding strategy to the mix. Apparently you can play from multiple levels: tactical, which is what you find in most RTS games, and strategic, where you can get a high-level X’s and O’s look at the war. Besides the actual war and battles, the units will also match the epic scale. You can have normal units running amongst the legs of the massive units, and according to the preview, the battleship won’t fit completely on the normal screen. Nuclear explosions usually don’t look all that impressive in most games. Even in Empire Earth, which had the most impressive explosion (the screen went blindingly white), the blast radius only affected a small area. Original War had a really impressive weapon that actually left an area contaminated for a little while after the explosion, but it still wasn’t very massively destructive. But in SC, apparently nuclear weapons will live up to their name.

Part of the fun of Total Annihilation was just the excitement of blowing up so many things. It was far from mindless, but there was a lot of action going on. You could have multiple fronts in a massive battle with a large number of opponents. Plus, it was highly expandable, and people are still making mods and units for it.

Supreme Commanders is looking to make a big splash in the RTS genre when it hopefully gets released next year. It might finally be a real time strategy game that employs actual strategy so that the naysayers of the genre can be happy.

And having a Gnu/Linux port would be really nice. It would be unfortunate if it was restricted to only Windows and Mac OS X.


Ok, I’ll Be Selfish

Kathy Sierra, an author from the Head First series of Java books, has made an open post where anyone can comment and trackback, no matter how off-topic or shameless. So, I’m taking advantage of it. B-)

Well, to make it more useful, I’ll say that I wouldn’t mind seeing Head First Game Development, but I’d prefer C++ in my game dev books.

General Politics/Government

Legally Blog

I found out that the EFF has published a Legal Guide for Bloggers.

Whether you’re a newly minted blogger or a relative old-timer, you’ve been seeing more and more stories pop up every day about bloggers getting in trouble for what they post.

The difference between you and the reporter at your local newspaper is that in many cases, you may not have the benefit of training or resources to help you determine whether what you’re doing is legal. And on top of that, sometimes knowing the law doesn’t help – in many cases it was written for traditional journalists, and the courts haven’t yet decided how it applies to bloggers.

But here’s the important part: None of this should stop you from blogging. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Internet bullies shouldn’t use the law to stifle legitimate free expression. That’s why EFF created this guide, compiling a number of FAQs designed to help you understand your rights and, if necessary, defend your freedom.

A great guide, especially for people who aren’t supposed to be getting paid to blog but do. B-)

Game Development

We Can’t Talk Yet Since We Have No Words

I’ve talked about the book Difficult Questions About Videogames already, but I have found quite a few more resources regarding the language and vocabulary we use to talk about games.

I’m still reading through the book, but I have to say that I am disappointed in the quality of the writing. The people who put the book together said that they wouldn’t do much more than publish the results, but could they at least have made it less painful to read? Simple spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and others could have been cleaned up and still “kept it real”. It is still an interesting book to read. It is just not as enjoyable as it could be.

In any case, I’m now fascinated by the development of a common language to use in game development. A number of the articles will point out that video game language has so far been coopted from film, but film language isn’t always appropriat or available. Sure, there are certain terms to use to describe how a game looks. And there are terms to explain the narrative in role-playing (roleplaying? role playing? check google to see that there doesn’t seem to be a consensus here either) games. We can talk about technical aspects easily. But what about words to describe how items increase in power as a player goes through a game? Or how a game can provide you a situation and the player can create a plan based on it and the actions the game provides? These ideas are abstract and can be applied to many games in different ways. They’ve only recently been identified and given formal names.

Design patterns have sped up software development research by providing a standard way to talk about software. When someone talks about Singletons or Proxies, everyone knows exactly what he or she is talking about. Similarly, algorithmic analysis allows us to talk about the difference between algorithms that take constant, linear or quadratic time to complete based upon the input.

When it comes to game development, however, we seem to have very little to say that allows us to talk to each other. For example, what I mean by gameplay is different from what you mean by gameplay, so saying that Game X has better gameplay than Game Y is meaningless. Of course, it doesn’t stop people from having arguments about it.

I will be watching this field of study carefully, and hopefully I will be able to make my own contributions.

Game Development

The Benefits of Game in a Day

I loved participating in Game in a Day, and I gained a lot from the experience. For one, I have created a game that I can continue to work on until it is a finished product. I added a few more game development blog links to my list. Also, I learned quite a few new things as well as finally understanding things that I already “knew”:

  • I still have a lot of C++ to learn.
  • I still have a lot of Kyra to learn.
  • Nothing helps more than proper planning.
  • Hacking is a lot more fun with a good plan.
  • I need to remember to make clean before packaging a project. There is a big difference between 500KB and 2.2MB.
  • After a successful build, not checking in the code before attempting to add a feature is just asking for trouble.
  • Too much Mountain Dew is bad.
  • Not planning for snacks/eating/showering is even worse.
  • It is a lot easier to see that death marches can result in a lot of uncommented code, even with the best of intentions.
  • Eating your own dog food is great for revising your design since you can find out what doesn’t work quickly.

That last point is in reference to an article by Joel Spolsky. He basically talks about the importance of actually using your software to dig out bugs and usability problems before releasing them to the public. Eating your own dog food. While I was programming, I was testing. One problem I found was the arbitrary restriction of only four directions for movement.

When I created the control scheme, I didn’t want to waste time making four more images for diagonal movement (even though it would have been a few more minutes of copy, paste, edit, and encode to .dat file), so I made the movement restriction match the images in the game. Perfectly fine, right?

After a few iterations, adding a different feature or otherwise working on unrelated code, I found myself getting frustrated. When I built the program and tried to run it, I found that the controls were just plain irritating! At one point I decided to make the simple change so that the player character can move in all 8 directions. It wasn’t huge, but that tiny difference made the game less unbearable.

My ability to create improves every time I use it. All the theory and facts I’ve learned through books and tutorials are nice, but they don’t compare to the experience of actually making use of them. FuseGB may not be a great game, and I’ve definitely made some mistakes developing it, but at the very least it has provided me with a lot of experience to help in future game development. As Gilbert Chesterton says, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”