Sunday, December 16, 2012

A gamer's guide on how to install linux

Summary: You do not have to read everything in this guide, just the summaries.
Although he's the Linux mascot, I've never
seen this guy on a distro image...
With Steam coming to Linux, the open source platform is becoming ever more attractive to gamers. I was able to figure out Linux, mostly because I studied computer sciences (I had to) and I have enough patience to actually read all the manuals out there.

A lot of people are not in my position and therefore do not try Linux. It's scary for them, because they do not know what they are getting themselves into. There is no need for them to sink that much time in trying to learn Linux, because they can just as easily sink money in Windows and Mac to have a working computer. This is a shame, because Linux can be easily explained and learned.

I made this guide to be as complete and clear and yet as short as possible with the focus on gaming. I did this for 3 reasons: (1) We gamers are not known for our attention span, (2) when I started out I was annoyed by the walls of text and slow youtube movies that wasted my time trying to help me with very simple actions and (3) when you've finally got something to work, you'd want to wind down with a game, right?

Not counting the intro, I've divided this guide in 4 parts: getting, installing, using and gaming (in) Linux. I summarized every part in a small "Too Long; Didn't Read" at the beginning of every part, for when you just want to 'get on with it'.

This tutorial assumes you know how to burn a disc image to a DVD, how to change the boot order on your motherboard and what a hard disk partition is. We will focus on making a Linux-Windows dual-boot, so that if you are having trouble getting your games to run on Linux, you can always switch back without reinstalling.

0 - Before we start: Is Linux for you?

Summary: Take some time to dive into Linux.
Let's take some game analogies to see if you are fit to use Linux. As with anything in life, Linux is not for everybody. You have to be prepared to tweak your system a bit to satisfy your needs, as no distro will cater exactly to what you want. Fortunately, you can also do this in games.

If you are an avid Minecraft or World Of Warcraft player, do not think twice, you are probably going to like Linux. These games are pretty console-line heavy when you want to enjoy them to the fullest. If you have used the console in ANY game without too much trouble, you have tackled the biggest Linux hurdle: the terminal.

You do not need to be very command-creative to be able to like Linux. If you've ever made a custom level or tweaked your game's files to cheat a little, you've still got the right mindset. Linux will not try to sell you its features Instead YOU have to actively search for them. You need to want to try stretching what you can do with your operating system.

Do NOT attempt Linux if you are scared of exploration and the accompanied potential failure. Learning Linux comes with trial and error. You will probably ruin a computer (or virtual machine, more on that later) when trying out Linux. If this is the case, let me fix that for you: don't be scared, mistakes are normal. There, now everyone can try Linux.

1 - Getting Linux

Summary: Download an Ubuntu disc image here. If you tried it and don't like it, move to another distro. Check for an overview of other distro's at distrowatch.
The current Ubuntu logo
My first mistake with Linux was expecting I could type "download Linux" in Google and start right away. There is not just one Linux (although technically they all have the same kernel). There are countless different distributions (distro for short) and versions. They all have a different community and their composition can vary A LOT. If you thought the difference between Windows 98 and XP was large, just wait until you compare Arch and Debian.

This list gives you an idea of what you can expect.
  • Ubuntu; You'll hear most about this one. It has the biggest marketing campaign and claims to be the most user-friendly. It has great support, but as of writing people are not being too happy with the new interface. That's okay, since there are a lot of different versions with a different interface, like Kubuntu, Xubuntu and Lubuntu.
  • openSUSE; A linux distro especially made for the corporate world. It's nice but you will notice it assumes your computer will be used by more than one person. It will ask for your password more often than Ubuntu and its community is not very focused on media and gaming.
  • Arch; For the more experienced Linux user who wants to do anything to his/her distro, this one keeps it down on the safety-mechanisms. If you've got leading edge and cutting edge, Arch is bleeding edge. It comes with the warning that you should not update 24 hours prior to a moment when you really need your computer. An alternative to Arch is Gentoo.
  • Fedora; Fedora tries to be a bit more safe with the bleeding edge. Every version of Fedora has a stable core and tries to test new bits on that core. If something is broken, wait for the next update and it should work again. It's a lot of fun if you want to try new stuff, but do not want to get stuck fixing everything yourself.
  • Sabayon; Some distro's want to be original, some just take an existing distro and dump it full of packages to give you a complete out-of-the-box experience. Sabayon is one of those distro's. It has 3 versions of every kind of program you could think of and is mainly a big pile of packages. Other distro's in this genre are Poseidon and Ultimate Edition.
  • Puppy; Some times you need a small OS for a small hard drive. That's where minimal distro's are for. Puppy linux is not the smallest and definitely not the prettiest, but still the most popular with just 100MB needed for install. Other examples are SliTaz and Damn Small Linux.
  • Mint; I currently use Mint to write this post, so I can't leave it off the list. ;) It's based on Ubuntu (which in turn is based of Debian) and focuses on having a stable OS with a nice interface.
I have used all these distro's at least once, but there are a lot more available out there. Check distrowatch for more distro's and experiment for yourself! If you want to know which distro's are similar, check this distro map from wikipedia.

2 - Installing Linux

Summary: Try out your distro in a live environment and practice installing Linux on an empty partition next to Windows on an old computer or in Oracle VB. When you use it on your main or old computer, burn Ubuntu on DVD-RW, boot from said DVD and follow instructions on screen.
It's not the installing of Linux that is the hard part, it's the preparation. Before you even think of installing Linux to your main computer, I recommend you practice on an old computer. If you do not have or want an extra computer lying around, you should practice on a Virtual Machine, like Oracle Virtual Box.

VM's are nice, because you can install from a disc image straight to a virtual computer. Unless you are using a VM, I suggest you stock up on some rewritable DVD's and burn some of your favourite distro's on them. Re-use the discs of distro's you don't like or are out-dated. Do not use recordables, I found out you will run out of them very soon.

It's also possible to burn a distro image to USB stick, but be aware that not all distro images can be booted when burned to USB and that not all (old) computers can boot from USB. Most distro images are hybrids (USB and CD) and there are ways to get disc-only images on USB drive (like LiLi and Pendrive linux), BUT save yourself a hassle and just burn to DVD.

Before you start to install Linux next to Windows, make sure you've got an empty partition. It will be wiped. Back up all the data from that partition. Next make sure your computer or VM boots from your DVD drive before the hard disk. Now you're good to go.

IMPORTANT PART: Installing Linux is relatively easy: Insert disc (or load image in VM), wait until the installing environment starts up and follow the signs saying "Install <distro name>." Note that most distro's have a live environment in which you can try out the distro without installing. 

Usually Linux installs make sure it can be installed next to Windows, Windows doesn't, so make sure Windows is installed first. You can still fix the Master Boot Record if Windows is installed first, but save yourself the trouble.

3 - Using Linux

Summary: Linux is not Windows. Be prepared, but if you read only the summaries, have fun exploring! No, seriously, have fun!
If you think you know how an operating system works because you know Windows in and out, you might get yourself in a pinch. Windows is not like Linux, but you can still learn to use it without too much trouble. Go explore for yourself, it's fun. If you want me to hold your hand, here is a list of things that are a bit different.
  • Interface; Where Windows has just one kind of point and click interface per version, Linux has room for more than just one per install. If you don't like the interface of your distro, just install another one and select it when you log in. The most used ones are KDE and Gnome, but if you don't like them you can go to XFCE, LXDE, Cinnamon or MATE.
  • Terminal (command line); A common story about Linux is that you have to use the terminal. This is not entirely true. You do not have to use the terminal, but if you know your way around with it, it saves you a lot of headache. It is the difference between strolling through menus searching for that one button that solves your problem (visual interface) and just telling the computer what you want (terminal). Here is a list of useful commands and if any of them don't work, try 'sudo <command here>'.
  • Directory structure; Forget everything you know about drive letters and the windows directory structure. Chances are your data is cluttered around it on stations, like D:\, E:\, and so forth and your OS is installed in C:\windows\ and all other stuff . Linux on the other hand is installed in /. Your 'my documents' are available in /home/<user name>/. Your other drives with games and movies are only available if you 'mount' them to a directory. Usually these drives are mounted to /media/<drive name> or /mnt/<drive name>/. Note that Linux uses forward slashes for directories instead of back-slashes.
  • File system; Just so you know, Windows can't read the Linux file systems (ext2, ext3, ext4), but Linux can read Windows's (FAT32, NTFS). That's also why a partition gets wiped when you install Linux on it.
  • Installing software; Linux works a bit different with installing new software. These are the 3 main ways of installing software ordered by ease of use.
    • Repository; Think of an app store on your smartphone as a paid-for repository. Note: Linux had repositories decades before Apple came with their app store. The repository holds an online storage of all packages that have been compiled especially for your distro. You can use a package manager, like synaptic or pacman, to search and install packages from your repository. They will not always be up-to-date, though.
    • Binaries; If the (version of a) package is not available from your repository, you can download binaries from a website. Depending on your distro, these are files with a .deb (Ubuntu and Debian based) or .rpm extension (for distro's like Fedora, SUSE and other Red Hat based). The package manager will handle them and needed dependancies for you.
    • Compile from source; This means you get the program's code and build it for your distro yourself. Use a terminal for this! Download the code, unzip and execute the soon-to-be familiar dance of "./configure; make; make install" in the code's main directory. Make sure you can satisfy all dependancies yourself!
  • Drivers; As with the terminal story, the driver story is partially true. Not every piece of hardware is compatible with Linux. The newest hardware always takes a while before it is usable in your Linux distro and some developers do not even bother with Linux. That said, since the switch from Windows XP to Vista a lot of hardware suddenly is not compatible with Windows anymore. However, the hardware that was compatible with Linux has stayed compatible. I've already found some (not even that) old hardware that works instantly with Linux, but not with Windows 7. If you want to know if a piece of hardware, like a printer, is compatible with Linux, google its driver before buying.

4 - Gaming on Linux

Summary: It's like modding, just a little bit different.
This will be your best
friend when using Linux
Since this is a gaming blog, I will not go into detail with utilities like LibreOffice or GIMP. Most utilities will be pre-installed with your distro or available in your repositories anyway.

I have to be honest here. Gaming will not be as easy on linux as it is on windows. It is possible to run all your windows games on linux after some fiddling about. However, if you want to wind down and enjoy a new game, you might not want to tweak with linux for an hour. Here's where a lin-win dual boot might come in handy. That said, the Linux games market share is growing very fast since Desura, Steam and indy developers are more and more releasing their games for linux.

Here's a list to get you started on running games on Linux:
  • WINE; Wine is an abstract program interface that lets you run MS Windows programs on linux and mac. Just open any .exe with wine and it is most likely to run. Wine is usually available in repositories, but it might be better to get the latest version from their site. Be careful! Some cheat detectors in multiplayer games might classify Wine as a cheating program of sorts.
  • DOSBOX; Your favourite DOS emulator works just as well in linux as in windows. Play almost all DOS PC games released ever!
  • SCUMMVM; Play all your favourite old point and click adventures.
  • Desura; It's quite rare to find games released natively for Linux. This site does not cater to Linux games exclusively, but it has quite a lot of native Linux games.
  • Open Source games and engines; Some games are paid, some are completely open source. You repository is full of them. These are some notable open source, moddable games.
    • Sauerbraten; The Unreal engine of Linux. First person shooter with quite a community
    • Spring Engine; A RTS engine based on the design of Total Annihilation. Many mods are available giving you quite a couple of RTS games to play.
    • Doom; Look in your repositories, the original developers at Id left you a present. You need the original files to play.
    • OpenRA; Command and Conquer on Linux. It even works with the files of the original C&C and Red Alert.
    • OpenTTD; Transport Tycoon Deluxe, updated with a community, multiplayer modes and HUGE environments. Original files not needed to play, but still optional.
  • Console emulators; Console emulators are in a bit of a moral gray area, since console published games were not meant to be copied. Still, it is your right by law to do with your old games as you like and luckily Linux has enough emulators to let you play thousands of games with little effort.
    • Mednafen; An emulator that successfully emulates almost every console up to 1995 plus some more. Most likely to be in your repository.
    • Gens; One of the better Sega Genesis/Megadrive emulator
    • ZSNES; If you've emulated SNES in windows, ZSNES will be familiar to you. It's in your repository.
    • Mupen64; Great Nintendo 64 emulator. Not in your repository.
    • PCSX/PCSX2; Emulate Playstation 1 and 2. If they run slow, make an image of the disc.
    • GMAMEUI/Advance MAME; The Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator is available on linux in many forms. These two versions were easiest to use for me.
  • Steam; Valve's Steam is now available for Linux. Some avid Linux users don't want it on Linux because it is a kind of DRM and it would close down the system. While they might have a point, I still like Steam's service and it will bring games to the Linux platform, so it is on this list.

5 - So now what?

Summary: We're done, go enjoy your system
If I missed something or things have changed since writing, please let me know in the comments. Most of this post is quite general, but I will try and update this post when necessary.

And that's about it. This should give you enough pointers to work with Linux and install games on it. If things don't work out, remember Google is your friend and someone somewhere might have had the same problem. The communities are big, you will not be left out.

Monday, October 29, 2012

We should play more REAL simulations

With Medal of honor: Warfighter coming out, the discussion about games being bogged down to one genre and being less interactive has fired up again. IGN has flamed the new MoH installment and Total Biscuit uses the new MoH to show what has gone wrong with the FPS genre. I will not say the internet is in great peril, but game fans are not tranquil either.

A medal of hono(u)r. Shiny, but I would
not want to go through the trouble
getting it...
The problem with the internet is that, when people are disgruntled, everyone is pointing out the problem, but not giving an active solution. Sure, "Do not buy MoH: warfighter" might be a good solution, but it is not active. If people buy it accidentally ("ooh, 90% off!"), the solution is lost and the evil corporation grows stronger. An active solution would be "burn all copies of MoH:WF!" This doesn't work, because that means you have to buy all copies before you can burn them, giving the evil corporation more money in the process. Fortunately, I have an active solution that might just work. You just need to look at the bigger picture.

Go play simulation games. Yes, even Street cleaning simulator. I know what you're thinking: "Why? What would it do? How does it help?" It's a difficult dilemma, but let me answer in one sentence: "WHY CAN'T YOU PEOPLE ASK ONE QUESTION AT A TIME!?"

Let me back up a little; I am not a big fan of simulations or simulation games. They miss rules that make me feel I achieved something. I have never really played Minecraft and Terraria ultimately seemed pointless to me. I like games who go nuts on action and occasional wackiness. Transformers: war for cybertron and Saints row 2 are some of my favourites , but I don't stick to action, as the Final Fantasy series and Okami are also on the same shelf in my collection. What these games have in common is that its creators know how to make a nice game by applying rules to a certain environment.

See? Can easily win gamespot's GOTY award.
What games like MoH:WF do wrong is that they mix up rules of the game with rules of an environment. This is not a weird appearance, since both sets of rules need to be determined by the designer. To illustrate: Risk has a different order of taking turns than football (soccer AND rugby variant included). You don't go kicking around pieces on the Risk board and you don't say to the football opponent it's not his turn to kick the ball. These are both obvious, since the abstractness of risk facilitates turn-taking and the closeness of football makes you take the ball from your opponent. MOH:WF gives you a realistic environment and then tells you when it is your turn to do something. Total Biscuit said it best: "As an elite operator I'm immune to bullets. What am I not immune to? Uneven tiled floor!"

This is where simulation games should come in. Simulations are just the environment and a setting. You have to make up the rules. A good simulation does not judge you for going out of bounds. When I played DCS A10-C warthog, I could do whatever I wanted. If I did a quick and dirty startup or made a 180 barrel roll, the simulation did not care. I got the washing machine flying without breaking it, so that was OK. The fact that a 180 barrel roll in a simulation is way more difficult than in an arcade game makes it all the more awesome. Also, Train Simulator 2013 did not judge me for making the biggest train ever (and I want to show it off):

When a person is in an environment with nothing to do, a funny human psychological element starts to kick in. They start to make their own rules or do whatever they want. This is what separates playing a video game from actual human play. It is also the reason why minecraft got so big, you can build whatever you want. People train their abilities and have fun. I stated earlier that fun and learning are closely connected. This also explains why MoH:WF is not fun: you are not training, you are just doing as told.

DCS A10C warthog... I meant to do that, really!

What I'm trying to explain is this: games should be environments with loose rules in which they let the player do their thing and occasionally reach a goal. If games do not meet this requirement, they do not engage human play and they are not games. Simulations are here to remind us what the difference is between environment and game. You want to shoot your gun, fly that plane or race that car without someone bothering you.

Also, if you buy more simulation games, this genre becomes more attractive to develop, giving the market more reminders on how an environment should be made. This makes restrictive games less attractive, because statistics will show simulations are sold more. You don't have to play your collection of simulations for this to have effect. You will have tweaked the statistics and have something to fall back on when you see the next FPS disaster coming along.

Panic and fear come from not being informed. Fear turns into anger and that is what you see at every big release of game schlock that still seems to sell. People don't know why it is popular and can not give an alternative for it. That's why you have to buy and play simulations. You'll have knowledge of what is wrong with the schlock, you'll immediately have an alternative and you cranked manager's statistics more favourable to intelectual classiness. If you miss flying games, play DCS A10-C warthog, if you hate Call of Duty, go play ARMA2 and DayZ, and if you want to know how you REALLY make a zombie game, go play Trains vs Zombies 2.

Friday, October 19, 2012

For Science! For real!

If you are reading this, you are probably from reddit or the Escapist. I am pretty sure, since this blog does not get much monthly hits and the hits I do get are usually image searches for a philips screw driver. Let me say welcome and thank you. Thank you for helping me in my research on educational games, or more specifically: "How to teach software design in the form of an educational game."

Arthur, the mascot
So, how did it go? Well, I was just minding my own business, trying to write my thesis and then suddenly I have to present my research in Switzerland and I win an award in Austria for best gamification paper. I'll admit it sounds better than it actually is. Switzerland was just a poster presentation in the hallway at the end of the conference and the paper for Austria, although it mainly described my own research, was mostly written by one of my superiors. Nonetheless, I am proud of the achievement. Thank you for making it all possible.

If you know what I am thanking you for, you've only seen the tip of the iceberg. If you don't know what in blazes name I am writing about, let me explain. A couple of months ago I released a freeware game, called "the Art of Software Design". With it came 2 surveys, one to be taken before the game and one for after playing. This was part of the research I needed for my paper, but that is not the only thing I did. For a full research you need some preliminary reading (I look at A), a hypothesis (I think A gives B), you need to test the hypothesis (I'll do A), the test will give data (Ooooh, I now have C) and from that data you can draw conclusions (I say C is B, so I am right).

I am going to tell what all the other things I did for my research were . I am going to try to put it in very simple terms. If you are not interested, stop reading, accept my thanks for your cooperation and go read something else. If you want to see the full research, software and extra papers, go here. If you are still interested in this blog post you can, ofcourse, just read on. Ready? OK, go!

What did I first know?
My teacher wanted me to make a game that teaches software design, because software design has a big dullness stigma. A game might spark some interest in people who don't know what they want. I wanted to make the game fun. To do that, as a scientist, I had to find out what 'fun' actually is. The few people who have read my blog might remember my post about 'addiction does not equal fun.' Back then I ranted about the fact that game developers make a game as if they make a maze for rats. Instead of giving the player the possibility to do their thing, they want the player to do everything the way the designer intended. I said once before that games like NFS most wanted are rigged. The best part of research is that you can really dig out a subject you personally want to know about, even if it is not completely in sync with the demanded research. Just like an ice-cream man can serve himself some ice-cream, I served myself some information.

I'm learniiiing!
When making a game, most developers only look at the addiction part, but not at the learning part. When you play a game, you learn the controls, mechanics and features and you want to get better in those. People want to create their own style when playing. Even if the information is not useful, they still learn from a game. My problem starts when what you do in the game does not matter anymore. A lot of games make you lose on purpose and on that moment you are not learning anymore, you are just pushing buttons because a screen tells you to. If you ever wondered why quick-time-events are so annoying, this is the explanation. Pushing buttons when told does not make you learn, you don't practice a style and therefore you are not having fun.

My game was to be fun and educational. So I wanted my players not to become rats in mazes, I wanted them to learn and create their own style with software design. If you start researching the essence of learning (or just read this link) you'll find that in order to learn, the student/player has to have some kind of emotional connection with the thing he or she learns. In other words: if the teacher is entertaining, the kids pay attention. This is why an educational game, when done right, can teach a lot to the player. This is also why learning things, when done right, can also be fun. Education is not necessarily dull at its core. People want to do and learn things, just for the fun.

Long story short, I condensed the essence of fun and learning into 3 points that need to be balanced when making a (educational) game. They are:
  • Tolerance; Don't punish the player too hard, but don't be lenient. Too little tolerance (or too much punishment) makes the player want to stop playing the game. Too much tolerance and the player does whatever they want and nothing is learned.
  • Variation; Don't give too much similar situations to the player, but don't give them something completely new every time either. Too little variation makes the game dull, too much variation and the player does not understand what the game (or learning subject) is about.
  • Deviation; When the player gets stuck, they need to be able to go to a different problem, solve that and get back to the earlier problem to solve it with the new knowledge they got. With too little deviation, they get stuck, don't play on and don't see the rest of the game. With too much deviation they will avoid parts of the game, because they don't feel like doing that one difficult part.
With this information I knew how learning could be fun, but I did not know enough about software design to actually teach it. I dived into a big pile of books, picked some subjects that would be possible to implement and build some mechanics around them. If you want to know what the subjects are and what they do, go play my game already. It is way easier and faster for you to play the game than it is for me to write it all down here and make you understand.

How did I do the science?
With all information and expectations in place, it was time to make the game and test it on people. This is easier said than done. Making a software design model is easy to translate to an environment. Some concepts are easy to translate, like coupling, some concepts are challenging to put into a game, like data flow, and some are so vague I needed 3 different takes on the subject before I got the mechanic right (cohesion). If you don't know what I'm rambling about, again, play the game.

Eventually I was able to make a game. This was not the version you got to play. I first tested it on some people in so called 'speak out loud' tests. These tests are as weird as they sound, people played the game and had to actively say what they were thinking whilst they played the game. It's weird, but very effective. I was able to fix a lot of bugs and counter-intuitiveness from the game.

After I fixed the game, it was ready for global release... or at least on reddit and the escapist. I made a pre-game and a post-game survey which players had to fill in before and after playing the game respectively. In the surveys I would ask questions about the subjects and the idea was that after playing the game people would know more about the subjects after playing the game.

I just forgot about one factor: the average attention span of a person on the internet. Barely one out of five people who did the pre-game survey pushed through to the post-game survey. It was a set-back, but luckily I could still use the data and I already had the speak-out-load results. It was time to make something out of my findings.

And then?
The whole thing with science is that you can not know what the results will be beforehand. If you did, you probably tweaked your results and you would be a lousy scientist. This is why it is so hard to get research funding and why you should never trust research funded by companies when it says that those companies are right on some subject.

For Science! Muhahaha
As with all research, also with mine things went wrong. There were still some nasty but rare bugs that broke the game on some points. This might explain why a lot of people did not do the post-game survey and not everyone could recall all subjects after playing that game. In hindsight, I should have implemented some netcode in which I traced people's actions.

Then again, netcode would have taken a lot of time to make and, as with all things in life, my paper had a deadline. The game was already hard to make as it was intended. I wanted multiple solutions per puzzle (variation) and a nonlinear way of going through puzzles (deviation). This meant i needed to put a lot of time creating and testing every puzzle and also that I needed a lot of puzzles. Let's just say I did not have a lot of time to do anything else besides level creating when I should be doing sciency stuff.

How did I smugly say I was right all along?
With all things considered, the research was a success. Why? People DID learn software design. At the speak out loud tests people started talking in software design terms within a couple of puzzles. When looking at the surveys the more advanced subjects were not always learned correctly, but that was because they were not practiced enough within the game. Most people were positive and we were able to reach out to people interested in software design and computer sciences, which was our main goal.

The best data I got from this research is signs that the puzzle structure was right when looking at the point of deviation from earlier. At the speak out loud tests people got stuck on certain puzzles, solved another one and returned to the previous puzzle to solve it. Note that I only saw signs, but can not claim that it really works, because for that I need to speak-out-loud-test much more people.

My research was presented at 2 software design conferences. One presentation was done by me, the other by one of my teachers and he got the award. In the end the research was a success thanks to all you fine internet people. Thank you for playing my game and I hope you enjoyed learning about software design.

Also, keep an eye on the art of software design website. There will soon be an expansion of 3 big puzzles and I will also publish the source code.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Orcophobia, or why 40k's Spacemarines are wusses

Let me sing my all to favourite song: I do not have a lot of money, I don't pay for games full price and I tend not to pirate my games. As such, I only play games when they are not so recent anymore. I only get to play recent games when they get a heavy discount soon after launch. This usually means there was something terribly wrong with the game. Imagine my surprise when I got to play Warhammer 40,000 Spacemarine.

This hedge needs some trimming.
Warhammer has a vast universe and a lot of dedicated fans. Dawn of war is one of the most beloved strategies of all time and Warhammer 40K has the honor of introducing the first Spacemarines before DOOM even came out. That last fact was probably the reason they created the 40K Spacemarine game into a shooter. Why did the original Spacemarine fail, even though it is a common staple in current game pop culture? I will not beat around the bush: the Spacemarines are total wusses in this game.

There is a lot more wrong with this game, but pussy Spacemarines is the biggest problem. It all stems from paint-by-number game design they probably copied from gears of war. Mind you, I have never played gears of war, I've only seen it, but it looked pretty similar up to the camera angles. To sum up the numbers of gears of war, a shooter needs:
  • Strong men in oversized armor
  • A dehumanized enemy
  • A mission to somewhere
  • Drama
  • Gore
And that's about it. For the dehumanized enemy the designers went straight to the orc race in the 40K universe and did not bother to check if that was a viable option. I know from the dawn of war series there are the Eldar and some religious fanatics, which I found fascinating, but apparently the designers did not. Again, I haven't played it, just saw a friend play it and even I know more than the designers, since they only threw orcs at me for the entire game. It's not that they wanted to restrain the player from slaying humans. The game has a PEGI 18 rating, you can do anything you like with that, but I'm still only slaying orcs. Nonetheless, lack of variety does not have to break a game's immersion, but then other things start to fall apart.

In a game the player and the protagonist need to have the same motivation, in Spacemarine it is a motivation for killing orcs. Orcs have broken through some borders and are now wrecking everything in sight. There were people on the places in the areas of the game, but they were all wiped out by orcs. If there still are people, you are usually to late to save them. You might gain a bit of ground in the story, but you might just as well lose it in the next scene. This hopelessness is meant to make you hate the enemy. If it was done right, it would, but let's compare both sides, shall we?

The Spacemarines or Ultramarines:
  • Motivation: "We fight for the honour of the emperor!"
  • Fly around in advanced ships
  • Full, heavy body armor
  • Well organized and strategic
  • Developed a perpetual energy source.
The Orcs:
  • Motivation: "Waaag!". No seriously, they call their motivation 'waaag'
  • Fly around in jet propelled meteorites called 'Rok'. Again, this is actually in the game.
  • Armor? A stove is good enough
  • Strategy: "Oi wont SHINY! Get Shiny! Spoicemarine not get shiny!" This is screamed at you during a scene in the game.
  • Research department: "Red paint makes stuff go faster." Actual upgrade in dawn of war.
Waaag! Mind you, spell it with 3 a's.
It would be nice if it was played silly, but they throw in constant drama with a "this is serious, you guys!" mentality. How, in all that is holy, did the orcs get the upper hand in this war? Strength in numbers only gets you so far. The Spacemarines are superior in strength, research and individual intelligence. The only reason you can be on the losing hand is shear incompetence and that is when the game starts to fall apart. Ever been rooting for the monster in a horror film when it's running after the damsel in distress? This is that situation!

Things get on their worst when the game tries to remind you how brutal the orcs are. In a flying scene, orcs take some of the aircrafts in your fleet down. Allegedly, a lot of men die. Tragic, if it weren't for the orcs flying by a rocket attatched to their backs and banging on the planes with wrenches. Everywhere else in the game you walk through devastated buildings, which are apparently raided by orcs. They could've done that, but the audiologs that are lying around also state that the workers weren't able to work together. They might've broken the stuff before the orcs came, you know.

Then there is the awkwardness when you find out that all the labourers you were meant to protect were practically held there as slaves. This is briefly brushed upon and it is meant to be normal. It's OK, it is all for the emperor! By the way, I never got to see the emperor. He's this unseen entity which justifies slavery and war. Living in a democracy, if I played for the glory of Kim Jong Un, I might have felt less awkward.

To make the marines look more incompetent, we have the jetpack sections. Someone thought it was a good idea to include jetpacks, since that game mechanic does well in polls. The jetpack sections are pretty awesome, but every section ends with the marine dumping the jetpack casually with a weak excuse, like too little room to fly or it suddenly being out of fuel. The protagonist can kill hordes of orcs with a single jetpack blow, but does not hold on to it, because it has just run out of fuel. You don't dump such a mighty weapon! You hang on to it in case you can get more fuel!

The incompetence reaches new heights when the Spacemarine party infiltrates one of their own facilities. In the base, turrets are shooting anything that moves, including you. Even though he is lower in rank, the scientist in your party orders you to go to a certain room where he can access the control systems. He turns of the turrets, which was unnecessary, since I blew them all to pieces. Destroying turrets was a pretty tedious task, since they don't come near me, being turrets and all. The scientist assures me all turrets are deactivated... up until this room. The next room is still full of bloodthirsty turrets. That was when I stopped playing.

The Tyranid is made from the same stuff as nightmares
It baffles me how a designer can get so much so wrong. When researching warhammer, I stumbled upon the Tyranid race. Those are scary! Why weren't they in this game? The box tells me I can "Experience the rich & violent brutality of the Warhammer 40,000 universe." It's not really rich, since only 2 races are in this game. Also, the box told me I can be a fearless Spacemarine. The Marines are not fearless, they are stupid and incompetent, because they got run over by some green men.

Whenever a gamedesigner gets to finish his work, s/he needs to take a look at the bigger picture and seriously consider if the "show, don't tell" rule can be applied. No matter how fearless you say your protagonist is or how evil the antagonist should be, if you reel a bunch of whiny brutes against a bunch of bloodthirsty clowns, you end up with Spacemarines looking like wusses. That's why your game is discounted.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Despite innovation, games have become less accessible.

There's this massive multiplayer online game called "All Points Bulletin" or APB for short. It started out as a pay to play game with a paying pattern similar to that of World of Warcraft. Unfortunately it didn't sell too well, the creator went broke and the assets were bought up by someone else. Who that was, I didn't care to research. This party then made APB free to play, with buyable aesthetics, which was a great way to open it up to the big crowd and get back their investment. At least, in my opinion that is.

APB has a Grand Theft Auto like gameplay and as you might recall: I love that kind of gameplay. I stumbled into it a couple of days ago and I thought to give it a go. This is what happened:

I install the game and wait for a good half hour to download it completely through Steam. When that's done, I have to create an account at the studio's servers, because I can't use my steam account in this game. Mind you, my Steam account is eventually linked to the studio's account, but this is not the same as using the Steam account to log-in. To do this, I have to start up the game again. I am finally at a menu to start a game and now I have to choose a server. When I choose the server, I get the message that my "character will be permanently linked to this server." I don't know what it means, but the game gives me a character to create, so I do that. I get a confusing map which gives me possibilities to spawn in the GTA-like city, so I click away and nothing happens. It seems I can only spawn in very tiny indicated places on the map. My bad, now let's begin. Then there's a loading screen of 2 to 3 minutes.

After an hour of fiddling around since I clicked install, I am finally in the game. I get spammed with a lot of messages, barely half of which make sense to me. The game wants me to join a group, but I want to save that for later and check out the game mechanics. According to the story of the game, I am part of the criminals who wreak havoc through the city, so I steal a pick-up truck and do just that.

I gain up speed, jump around a little over bridges and then the inevitable happens: I accidentally hit a criminal. He didn't look where he was going and didn't see me coming when he crossed the road. Insert dead chicken jokes here. I shrug it off, just like in GTA, and drive on. Then the loading screen comes up and after a minute I get a message.

I was kicked from the server.

I checked, this wasn't on my back
I didn't die, someone decided I didn't play the game properly and prohibited me from playing it. If I were to call their imaginary help desk, I would have been made fun of. I should have read the manual or follow the extensive tutorial. Through my years of gaming I have learned that that is the sensible way to approach a game.

Yet, I got a nagging feeling: is it stupid of me not to comply to the game's expectations or have the game and its creators stupid expectations of me? The reason I ask is because, although APB is free to play, the majority of games seem to follow the trends it is modeled after.

For the argument, let's compare the start-up of APB to Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers from 1985 or any Atari game from before that. You go to the store, buy the game, insert it in the console, hit the power button and BAM! You're in the menu, select start and you can play. If you're a PC gamer add "insert floppy, type the program name" to the list and you've probably got the same result. In Super Mario Brothers you walk, jump and shoot, just like in APB (adding a car to the mix), only Mario got you started faster. The first time playing any game from that era probably made you die faster than I got kicked from the APB server, but I can still make the following point.

Games are heavily inaccessible nowadays. Games from the 80's and 90's also were in a way, but for very different reasons. Games from those era had heavy game-play and interface issues and were not fully accepted as a medium back then. Today we have those issues practically worked out and the medium has become more and more accepted, but some new issues came up by making these games more innovative.

Step by step, these are the issues we as gamers face today which we didn't have before:

Digital Rights Management

Very accurate description, too bad of the spelling.
It's a cliché to start with this one, but it had to come up anyway. You can't borrow or lend a game anymore. If someone is interested in a game a friend is playing, s/he must buy it, provided the store carries it and the price of up to 60 dollars is not too steep for him/her. With borrowing, a game gains a member to its community, but the publisher and studio don't see any money for it. I understand why it is there, even if 1 out of 10 or maybe even 50 is willing to buy a game full price instead of borrowing it or buying it second hand, the creators make more money. It's a pity they gain less fans, but in the end, they need to pay their mortgage.

If it were about movies, you show your collection to someone and if they have interest in one, you let them borrow it, provided they are a good friend. You can't do that to games anymore. Codes have locked your game to a specific account that is tied to you personally or to your PC or console , which brings me to my next point...

Everything wants you to have an account

Not that there is anything wrong with the concept, but as the audience's experience learned, everything is hackable and no form of security is air-tight. I am not comfortable with every game to ask me to make a new username and password.

The problem is that you can't be sure what happens with the information. Am I being monitored for terrorist behaviour? Will I be harassed by commercial third parties? What happens to my credit card information? I am trusting random people, who I have never met, with things I wouldn't trust my second next-door neighbour with. This is not something I have to get used to, this is just asking a lot of trust from the player just to play a game.

A lot of paid, and practically all free-to-play games, want me to make an account, even if I got them through Steam. I'm a computer scientist, my environment consists of people who are comfortable with using a computer and they all like to game. I am the only one with a Steam account, apart from one friend who studies psychology. Even if the game is free to play or the people are willing to shell out the money, they are not eager to give their personal information to anyone, even if it's just a username and password. I know these account systems exist to enhance multiplayer, but nobody in my direct environment wants to go through the dedication of making an account to do that. This brings me to my next point.

Multiplayer with people you don't know and no-one else

So if they all play Diablo 3, they all call Blizzard instead
of eachother
This is what I call the fake social aspect of a game. Multiplayer used to include giving a second controller or half the keyboard to a friend or playing over LAN. So called couch multiplayer has never been widely implemented over all genres, but is now practically extinct. LAN playability is also disappearing and you can only play with other people over the provided servers nowadays. As I said above, the bar to participate in a game is pretty high due to the DRM and mandatory account creation, so the people you are playing with are probably not your friends from your direct environment.

Let's say your mom, grandfather or less dedicated gamer friend wants to play a game with you, just to see what's up. If it's Super Mario Brothers, you give them the Luigi controller in less than a second. If it's Red Alert, that came with 2 gameplay disks, you set up a second computer and set up LAN in a minute. If it's APB, good luck setting up a new account and asking their credentials and all.

The idea to let the creators handle the multiplayer is to make software pirates buy the game to gain the full experience. The problem is that by doing so, they unnecessarily take away work from the community. This costs them extra money and by the time the game has run for a couple of years, the servers are shut down and the multiplayer is lost forever.

Granted, they make more money, but they reach less people. Mario was easily accessible and is recognized even by people who don't call themselves gamers. World of Warcraft, for example, makes tons of money, but there are also a lot of hardcore gamers who actively choose not to play it and therefore will not recognize even the most played characters.

I must admit I might be biased. I am cursed with not being able to actively connect with people on open chat rooms. I have no trouble in real life emotionally connecting to people, but on-line I am ignored or I tend to accidentally scare people into timidness. My real life friends don't seem to have this problem (I asked), but I usually have great difficulty adjusting to an online community. There is never someone around to teach me the ropes or to start a co-op mission with, so I generally get bored or annoyed and leave the game. This is an awkward segway into my next point.

Overly long instructional levels at the beginning 

Yeah, this is an integral part of gaming nowadays
I couldn't fit this one in around the other three points, so now it's last. If you have the time, take a look at this video. It's a "let's play" of the game "Bulletstorm", a game that rewards the player not by how many kills s/he gets, but in what bizarre manner the player kills their opponent. Somewhere around the 8 minute mark the player says something along the lines of: "So when can I get to style-kill?" This is a very typical exclamation that comes with most games these days. A game has a certain selling feature, but the player doesn't get to it before a significant amount of time has passed. In this tutorial time the player is introduced to all features of the game at once.

I could try and succeed in writing a whole book on why these tutorials are so long, what went wrong and how to fix it, but I'll try to summarize it. Anyone, gamer or not, is familiar with the mechanics of moving, jumping and shooting in a game. Everything else must be found out in a way, be it in a short tutorial or manual or by the player randomly smashing buttons. It goes wrong when the tutorials are way to elaborate or when they are explaining basic things like moving, jumping and shooting.

By the time the tutorial gets annoying, something is wrong in the game design. The designers tried to sell their features as too exotic, too many useless features are added or something else entirely came up. The reason 'why' is not important, the effect is that the player needs some patience before s/he can play the game. If the tutorial is too subtle and its introduction comes with too long movies, the player feels s/he is playing a different game from what was promised. Patience takes dedication and the more dedication is needed, the higher the accessibility bar.

So what now?

The game industry, and especially the triple-A studios, are not going to change their market model soon. The way it is structured now brings them more money than when the community was self-supplying and less observed. There might be a way to get some tasks back to the community and with it the accessibility, but it has to be done effectively in a way that also makes money. Seeing that the restricting model only works effectively for big studios and publishers, I think a nice indie developer will soon come with a good model that works in the communities favor.

Until then, I have to try and get the hang of APB...

Monday, May 21, 2012

Diablo 3's marketplace is pointless, stupid and makes the world a worse place to be

As the title doesn't suggest, I am all for innovation and new ways of experiencing games, but what the title does suggest, I don't approve of everything that passes as an innovation. The marketplace of the recently released Diablo III is one of them. I haven't played it and I never will, because supposedly your character can find items in the game and then you can sell it in a marketplace for real money. This, in my opinion, is utterly pointless to a level that I don't want to be any part of it. Why? Well...

Girls! I've come to devour your boyfriends!
Let me first point out what I DO approve of. I approve of a game being enhanced with new, different parts. I am happy to pay a bit extra for downloadable content, if that broadens my experience of a single game. A lot of people are negative of the so called DLC, but back in the 90's, when I started gaming, physical expansion packs were hot items you really had to search for. Making them downloadable is good for the customer, so s/he doesn't have to search, and more money goes to the studio instead of a greedy publisher. Granted, it's unfortunate sometimes DLC is already on the purchased medium, but this generally happens with publishers I never wanted to purchase from.

I wholly approve of a community making its own content for a game. I love how the fanbase of games like Trackmania, Team Fortress 2, Skyrim and many others make a lot of content for other fans to enjoy. This can be in the form of mods, extra levels or even some aesthetics to add to your already full game. These are usually free, but fans could just as well make money off of it. There have been fan made mods that went on for sale. Fans making money with their favourite game is more than awesome in my book.

Although it's a bit dubious, I still approve of people selling content they found in games to other people. A lot of clandestine setups have been made where players mined, fished or found a lot of in-game goods and sold them on E-bay. This might break a game with a big community and therefore game designers are generally against selling your in-game 'loot'.

Here is where the pointless part starts. In a game you get things by a counter going up over time, when mining for gold for example, or a randomized algorithm that drops an item for you, like in Diablo when weapons with certain damage stats are dropped. Wouldn't it be a lot faster if you could just fill in the height of the gold counter or the stats to that weapon? Why yes, it is. If you are playing to pass time, this timed counter and random drop are part of the experience, but when you are doing it for the money, it is just a very inefficient way of filling in an Excel sheet. Imagine you had to fill in your yearly income one euro/dollar/yen at a time. Pointless, right? So if you are selling your loot on E-bay, more power to you, but there are better ways of earning money. Like filing someone else's taxes!

Death and taxes, now also not avoidable in video games!
So Blizzard, the creator of Diablo, is just doing what the community is doing all along, but now the picture has changed completely. With other online games, the player can't hack into the server and treat him/herself to infinite golden pieces, but its creators can or it least they should be able to. Instead of the creator going to the marketplace, filling in some Excel stat sheets and making the resulting loot available for auction, (pause, here comes the important part:) they let the player run around in a multi million dollar hamster wheel and make them sell it. Let me rephrase that: Blizzard is making you fill in its annual income one dollar per click at a time. Another rephrase: They can make the most epic weapon in the world, but wait until a randomized algorithm creates it and let the finder sell. Even worse: they can sell it only once.

I have no idea where in the game this is...
Can I emphasize enough how pointless this is? This is not content generated by the players! With community made levels, the game mechanics can be pushed to their limits. Mods can add new features to games. New aesthetics can bring variation to a game. Of all the things Blizzard could choose to let the community make money with, why did they have to choose randomly generated content? This adds nothing to the game, except the genuinely frowned upon "pay to win" aspect.

There was an episode of Extra Credits, one of my favourite web series, philosophizing what it would be like if players could make a living playing Diablo 3. Although I like the idea, would you really want to make money off of a game knowing the creator can do the same as you by typing a bunch of numbers instead of crawling a dungeon for hours on end? This way, I really wouldn't. What's the point?

I could ramble on about how pointless it is making money off a game this way as a consumer. I could make unfunny jokes about the old Soviet Russia where streets were cleaned with groups of 50 men, just so they would have a job and it still makes more sense then earning money through Diablo 3. I could go into the subject of people laughing at "bitcoin", since it is a currency with no value other than what you want to pay for it, just like the loot in Diablo 3. I could make a joke about paying bankers huge bonusses is just as sane as paying Diablo 3 players for their loot. I will not go into any of this or similar subjects, since other people can probably do it way better than me.
So yeah, this exists... A human hamster wheel...

Blizzard, I will not run in your hamster wheel. It's not even a hamster wheel, since that eventually improves the physical fitness of its user and Diablo 3 probably doesn't. I don't care how evil the bad guy is. I will not waste my time trying to sell something your randomized algorithm just happened to spawn. I will not wait for my XP counter to slowly crawl up when I slay just another monster for the millionth time, just so I can sell my useless avatar. I will not make money for you in this way when you have the power to do the same in an instant.

I have better things to do and so do your 3.5 million customers. These things might not change the world and they might even be futile, like posting on this blog. But even if this post has no readers, at least I have some piece of mind.

I will not run in your hamster wheel.

You probably rigged it anyway...

Monday, March 12, 2012

My problems with western RPG's

Since Mass Effect 3 came out last week and a lot of complaining about DLC's and endings came with it, a nasty feeling came creeping up my spine. I don't care about any of it. I don't care about the game, I don't care about the Mass Effect fans and I don't care about what happens to our earth in what is claimed to be the most important sci-fi universe of the current generation. I am just unphased by it all, just because I could never get into western RPG's.

Look, miss, even if you wear that helmet,
you'll have everything protected,
except your vital organs...
I'll admit that the reason for me to write this blog post was triggered by a three parter episode of Penny Arcade's Extra Credits about JRPG's vs. WRPG's. When I watched it I realised why I was able to have fun with Japanese role playing games, but had problems with it's western counterpart. If I seem to be rambling in this post, watch those episodes and you might understand my brain spins a little better.

I'm not saying I can't play all WRPG's. I've had a lot of fun playing the Quest for Glory series. I also don't fully praise JRPG's without criticism. I am not always happy with the feeble and annoying pubescent stereotypes presented in JRPG's, but these are all topics for a different post.

To let me explain my problem, let me list the recurring naggings that get under my skin in every western RPG:
  • The beginning of the game: Chaos! Destruction! "There is no time to explain!" and then the next hour is a tutorial, explaining how to play the game. Even worse: it breaks immersion by pointing out buttons in dialogue. "Use the action button to talk to me"
  • The protagonist: It's always 'you' playing the game. It might be called role playing, but the protagonist should be modeled after the player. I will not go into discussion what defines the 'self', but if I can model the protagonist to myself, then why are all these characters forced to be in my party? I already have terrific friends and an awesome family. Why can I never model these characters to represent my real life friends?
  • The futility of choice: So, I can choose any skill I want, right? Which one to choose? Oh, you have a suggestion ready for me? So, the game can be played for me by the game itself? Then why do I have these choices?
  • The lack of focus: So the galaxy/empire/rebels are in grave danger? Good! Let's go on an adventure! Wait, why do I have to sweep the floor? Is this other sidequest even necessary?
  • The abundance of dialogue: Hi there, how are you doing? Yes, I know all about the evil bad guy, 3 other people told me about him. Yes, it's nice you have a daughter. If I don't listen, will I miss something? Not sure... Can I play my game now? No? Well then, let's wait five minutes before we interrogate the next person... Do I really need to click all those dialogue options?
  • My motivation: Can someone explain why I'm on this adventure? If you need help so badly, then why do you depend on a so called chosen? Will it make a difference if I stay at home and let all these soldiers do the work for me? They are professionals, right? I am not that special, I assure you! I get clobbered by the nearest cave troll!
Oh dear, I'm sorry I said that about WRPG's!
Please! I'll make it up to you!
No doubt I have made WRPG fans go into a fanboy rage for bashing their favourite genre and you know what? They are right! I am jealous of you people! You can explore fantastic worlds and experience great adventures! I can't do that, I'm solidly rooted in reality. No, please don't "get a grasp on reality", you can do that when you're retired. As long as you have a little personal hygiene, you can leave reality for what it is and travel back and forth between your fantasy world and here.

What I understood about WRPG's is that you should be able to tweak your protagonist character in such a way that it will suit your play style or at least you'll have more freedom than in a JRPG or any genre outside RPG's. I never take a predetermined path, one time I am a wizard, the next I am a tank. Diferent as they may be, I always try to play with a "no shit, let's save the princess", but it always comes back to bite me. Every character in the environment wants me to do everything, except following the main plotline.

Maybe it's the way the available WRPG's are written, but I can't put my personal gripes aside. It's not like I haven't tried. I am really eager to explore vast new worlds, but with every game and its universe I eventually got frustrated for different reasons. Let me give you my RPG resume and what my reactions were to them:
  • Neverwinter nights; First as a sorcerer: "I have no idea what I'm doing! Why are all these enemies falling? Oh, wait, I seem to be hitting them with an ice rod..." At the end of the first mission my squadmate tells me he was "afraid to die and wants to go home". THOSE ENIMIES WERE FRIGGIN EASY, MATE! One step outside and this lady comes up to me. She needs help, but annoyingly doesn't want to tell me what's wrong. I finally go on a mission and get killed by the first enemy... Let's try a different play style...
    "Me orc! Smash!" Ok, the first 10 people say my teacher spoke highly of me. How did a mentally retarded animal like me get through adventurers school? Never mind, killed again, uninstall... 
  • Mass Effect 1; I really wanted to get into this one. The fans are loyal and the universe seems very interesting. I casually got a spaceship, went to a nearby ice planet and saved an insect race. Woohoo! Go Shepard! I guess... It all felt empty. No choice I made felt like it had some kind of gravitas. Also, the RPG elements felt like they didn't do anything. Why am I even talking to all these people? Why am I scanning all these mute aliens? (weird sidequest) Anyway, I got killed by pirates when I went to the next planet. I didn't feel the need to save the universe after that.
  • World of Warcraft; Hold on, I have to pay monthly... I hear stories of people rotting away behind their computers, because of WoW. The combat looks like you take turns... I can tolerate the graphics, but why do you want me to play this?
  • Knights of the old republic; Found it for 5 bucks in the discount pile. It seems to be one of the greatest RPG's of all time, let's try it. "I'm being attacked by the Sith! Let's attack them back! Oh, wait, first I have to save Bastilla, but before that I have to sneak past a guard, before that I have to win a race for a gang lord, but he wants me to steal an engine for it... now I need to fight a giant beast first... Can I save the princess now? No?" Forget it...
  • The Witcher 1; Again, what am I doing? Is everything dying around me? Good! Hey, I'm randomly meeting random best friends. Now I'm talking to a female... Wait, what are they doing? No, Wait! STOP THAT! MY GIRLFRIEND MIGHT BE WATCHING! Anyhow, I need something from the other side of the map... It's not there... another side of the map?... Also not there... I've no idea what I'm doing or where I should be going. Forget it.
  • The Quest for glory series: A friend introduced me to this. I played this for hours on end. It's fun, humorous and I understand the full character sheet. The characters only want something from you when you approach them, nobody claims to be your best friend. Finally time to breathe and take on an adventure... See? I can enjoy WRPG's!
Finally! Free of work and/or MMO grinding.
I refuse to try harder than I already do. All the games listed above have received at least 4 hours of play per game. If I can't get into it after that, then I have more important and or more fun things to do. I have recently finished games I enjoyed in 4 hours that might have cost more money, but I feel like I wasted less, because those 4 hours made me happy. If I need to get through a lot of frustration then somewhere along the line a failsafe kicks in that tells me I need to spend that energy on something useful, like work or studies.

One reason I don't like game reviews is because different genres appeal to different people. I am not a person that can get invested in western RPG's, even if they get high scores. It's a shame, because it is a genre with a lot of depth. Maybe if the dialogue wasn't so obnoxiously long or maybe if there was a little less drama, then maybe I could get into it more.

As for now, I'm just happy the bad ending of ME3 feels like someone else's 42 problems beyond a final frontier in a galaxy far, far away.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Oh dear, tablets...

So, I was at the Blackberry Devcon the other week... Yeah, not the most exciting to write about, but a man needs to keep his blog active in some way, right? I had a great time at the con and the people from RIM tried really hard to win developers over to develop for the new Blackberry playbook. They even went as far as to give us our very own playbook, FOR FREE! I now have a Blackberry playbook. :)

Blackberry Playbook! Toys!
I don't have much to say about the con, except that they convinced me that the blackberry userbase is enough alive to make a third kind of tablet viable in the current market. The userbase might be small, but they spend more money and are more focused on quality. A 1 dollar app for android can be easily sold in the blackberry store for 3 dollars, just make sure it does what it should. This is news you want to hear as a developer, because you have a higher chance to make more money with your app.

While the Blackberry playbook is fine and dandy, i couldn't help but get a creepy feeling about the current tablet and smartphone market. Yes, the ARM processor, found in most tablets and smartphones, can perform phenomenally on a very low power usage and the multi-touch screens are fantastic for giving an intuitive interface. The problem is that the focus in marketing is pointed to the software.

Shouldn't have bought a tablet, mate.
Those things are expensive.
One thing all tablet manufacturers don't let you know is that every tablet is able to run the other's operating system. In layman's terms: the I-pad can run android and the other way around. They have roughly the same hardware and specs. All the apps in all three stores do the same. There are video players, music players and games with roughly the same gameplay. (Search for Fruit Ninja and marvel at the clones.) For every platform someone else makes an app that does the same as a popular app in an other or even the same store. The consumer might want originality, but in the mean time the clones keep the money coming.

The irony is that tablets have great hardware potential, but the software that's used for their marketing only restricts their possibilities. Here is a list of things I tried with tablets that took more trouble than needed or didn't work at all:
  • file management: I'm used to throw my files around as much as I like in a folder structure I want. Sadly, every tablet insists you use your apps to handle only their specific formats. There are file managers around, but most of them have a different opinion on if the system folder is part of the personal file folders.
  • Playing shared videos: This should be the number one reason to have a tablet. You want to watch your videos from your clunky computer in the comfort of your couch, right? Sadly, if you have shared files on your network, you can't access those files through your tablet. Technical reason: no tablet has a decent samba client. I got movies copied to the tablet under android using command-line ssh, but if you are a tablet user, you probably don't want to know what that means.
  • Flash: Do I need to say more? Thanks to a disagreement between Apple and Adobe, the industry standard for movies and online games is dead in the water for mobile devices. Yes, HTML5 is better, but developers are still trying the learn the ropes on that one.
  • Installing downloaded programs: You know when you are using a PC, there is always at least one little program you use that you got from this obscure site. It does everything you want and is hacked together by someone who had the same idea as you and had some spare time. That scenario is impossible on the tablet (except in android, but there are not a lot of android tablets). You have to get everything from the app store/market/etc. Worst part: people are deliberately making loads of money with free open-source programs that are probably not written by them.
  • There is no Red Alert or any RTS on any tablet! For shame!
Doesn't this scream 'TABLET!' to you?
My frustrations run even deeper on technical levels, but they get me on a long ramble. For my tech-savvy readers who want an example: I threw in the towel when I found out the Blackberry playbook has a SAMBA server, but not a client. If I want to watch my videos, I have to go to my computer and put them on the tablet, instead of the other way around.

I sincerely hope the tablet hype doesn't turn into an economic bubble. There is no independent programming community on the tablet. All apps are still made on a PC and distributed through 1 store per platform. This makes the tablet platform dependent on the PC platform and the distributors. If developers abandon the PC and try to force consumers to switch to tablets (like windows 8 tries to do with their interface. Yes that is for the PC) the consumer computer market will be dependent on the few people who know how to handle a PC. There will be a grave shortage of developers and the few that are available will be extremely expensive. Fortunately, that is just my doomsday theory. Personally I don't think it will come that far, because the shortage of developers will be obvious before the consumer has switched completely to tablets.

People have rightfully gone into a fit (just one, but very common example) about others who claimed that the tablet will be the sole way of computing in the future. It won't, the tablet only fills a niche. 5 years ago we only had desktops and big laptops. Now we have netbooks and tablets to suit more specific needs and the latter fills the need to read, watch and game from the couch. I don't have a need for a tablet, since my PC and netbook fit my needs pretty well. The Blackberry playbook is the only tablet I will ever own and I got that one for free.

When the I-pad was introduced, people listened way to much to the praises of Steve Jobs. Because the guy 'got shit done', people were intimidated. He was gonna remove your PC from your house! The thoughtless cheering from apple fans only made things more intimidating. Because of this, the market hasn't really had the opportunity to evaluate the tablet for what it really is. It's a tool, but not the future.

As with everything he did, Steve Jobs steered a whole market to thinking that some new gadget will be the next big thing. With it he brought a plethora of emotions to everyone who did or did not want to listen. He threw us head first in a direction that made us do something different and gave him a lot of money. I don't celebrate the death of Steve Jobs, because he seemed to be a nice guy, but I am glad he finally shut up.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Game development, how you could get there...

Since I've gone through the trouble of listing my real name on this blog a few months ago, it might be time to tell a bit about a project I'm working on. It's a game and I'm very proud of how I got to that project. But first, let me tell you how I got there.

Take the power into your own hands,
just take those stupid gloves off first.
As a kid, I always liked video games, but after I graduated the Dutch equivalent of high-school, I wanted a challenge that would give me something in life. Note that  my majors in high-school were physics, math and chemistry and I was young and reckless. I started studying languages and cultures of Japan at the university of Leiden. I was doomed.

I didn't fit in at that study and I was thinking of switching, but there was this one time I spoke to a professor about the absence of video games in research at the faculty of arts. She told me I should give it a shot. Long story short: my BA paper for Japanese studies was about "The narratology and character relations in Japanese video games".

Why Japanese and computer sciences?
answer: Akihabara
I finished my BA in Japanese studies, but didn't feel like doing a master. Now, because Leiden university has a lot of different studies in all fields, I was able to go back to exact sciences and start a bachelor in computer sciences alongside my Japanese studies. I finished my first year of computer sciences together with my BA.

In the meantime I started chatting with the professors at computer sciences. This time I would do something very serious! I would go into the field of artificial intelligence! My BSc paper: Calculating and predicting the game Five or More. I guess it was games again... queue silent celebration.

I started my master in computer sciences a year and a half ago. Not even a couple of months into the master I got an E-mail from a professor asking if I wanted to run for an internship at some company. At this internship I would develop a piece of software and I could do a research on the development process. This company was called gaming works and they play games at companies to show good and bad parts in working relations. I suggest you click their link, these people do really cool stuff and go around the globe. I had to develop the software part that calculated things in one of their games.

Since most of my study career was about games, I wanted to do my Master thesis on something serious this time. I learned during my internship that I really enjoyed software development, so I wanted to research something in that field. The conversation with my professor went like this:

"Doc, I've finally seen the light! I want to do something in software development. You said something about risk assessment ans severity last class? I want to research those subjects!" I said when I barged into his office. I was doubting for months and was finally ready to get my act together.

"That's alright, you can go in these directions," he said calmly whilst he put some print-outs on his desk.

"Great! I'll take that one!" I said, pointing eagerly at the paper about risk assessment.

The professor hesitated. "You know... You could do that, but I've also got this subject for you..."

As it turns out, I'm now researching how to teach people software development through playing a video game. I'm developing the game. It's a research about games... again.


It might look like I'm bragging (and maybe I am), but I want to share a lesson I learned from all this: keep talking to people. The phrase "it's not who you are, it's who you know" is often used in a negative context, but I learned that it can be put to your advantage with little effort. With most of my professors I only chatted a couple of minutes total over the years, but they all knew I had a passion that had a lot of research capabilities: video games. I became a go-to guy for video games and the only thing I had to do for it is casually talk about what interested me.

If you want to do something in video games and you're even just remotely passionate about it, talk about it with everyone, especially your superiors. This goes for superiors in work AND education, but also isn't limited to the subject of video games. If you're a office worker at a bank and you have a passion for flowers, if your superior knows about it, you'll probably be helping the next florist set up shop with a loan.

Networking, now with blue noise gradient!
Talking means networking. Most of your network will not know what to do with your skills or passions, but you'll only need 1 person in their network to ask for a certain skill or passion and you're set. Make sure you speak out in classes and meetings if you feel strongly about something. Don't do this to impress, because everyone else will hate you if it's for that reason. Speak out to show people your stance and skills in situations where it's applicable and necessary.

Having said that, don't attract attention if the situation draws on your shortcomings. A lot of politicians are guilty of this. You don't look pretty when you stand up and start shouting something along the lines of "We don't need water! It doesn't even have a taste!"

Having also said that, don't hesitate to ask for explanations. Asking questions shows your interest and stance on a subject. The answer to the question can also show that a person might be capturing the audience's attention with a bag of hot air.

If you are already into gaming (or something else) and you are still left out for any reason, there are always specializations. You can specialize in AI or physics when programming, or sprites and 3D models when you're an artist. Make sure you are the go-to person in whatever comes to you naturally.

Competition improves prestige, but hampers
personal excelling.
However, be careful you are not doing something someone else is doing already. By the time you do, it can't hurt to learn something else too. I tried to set up a game development project over a year ago and it was really hard to find good artists. Mind you, there were a lot of good artists, but most of them only wanted to do concept art and didn't want to deviate from it. If more of them were willing to go a little beyond their field and make some textures or static background sprites, the search would have been a lot easier for me.

If any beginning concept artists are reading this, here's a little advise: Concept art is part of pre-production of a game, which is a very uncertain stage. Make sure you do something alongside of it which is also needed later in the production cycle. If you stick with a game longer, it will look better on your portfolio for recruiters and you'll meet more people in different fields which in turn will give you more job security.

Getting the subject back to my latest project: keep an eye on this blog. I am going to share stories about the development of my own educational game that, to the contrary of similar products, should be fun AND educational. I hope this post will give readers some advice on their career.

Also: thank you, all you new readers. I got over 1300 page views last month for no apparent reason. I haven't really had a lot of comments (1 in total on all posts), but thank you all for visiting.