Your Sinclair – The Rock & Roll Years

One of the best things about the internet is that you’ll occasionally stumble across a site that feels like it was tailor-made to make you happy.

In the past I have bemoaned the fact that the Sinclair Spectrum, Britain’s first popular home computer, never made it big here in the States. This is only natural, really, since it wasn’t released here until after the Apple II and Commodore 64 had already asserted their dominance, and by that time the Spectrum seemed like “too little too late” even though it was cheaper than either of those models.

So finding a website that allows me to vicariously live through the heyday of the Spectrum was wonderful. This website is devoted to the now sadly defunct Your Sinclair magazine, which was to the Sinclair was The Rainbow was to the Color Computer and Run was to the C-64. It was chock-full of reviews, editorials, and hardware and software projects, and eventually started shipping with a cassette full of demos with every issue.

And as if that weren’t enough, the site’s maintainer is also in the process of creating retrospective videos for every year of Your Sinclair‘s existence, and many of these are already online.

Go Speccy!

Name That Game 22!

Huh…why do I smell cheese?

Oh.

Commander Keen!  My favorite!

Now, this game isn’t quite as bad as some of the others I’ve presented, but Lord knows, it wasn’t good. I’d suggest that it might be a difficult one to guess, except that I know I’ve got at least one reader that will recognize it right away, and will probably hate me for the reminder 🙂

Name and developer, please. Your reward will be to have your name written in the stars, as soon as such star-writing technology becomes commercially available.

Weird

Last night I saw Planitia in my dreams. It was beautiful.

Unfortunately, I saw it because someone else had written it and beaten me to the punch.

I think my brain might be trying to tell me something.

Notes on the April Austin Game Developers Meeting

Okay, a bit of backstory. Austin Game Developers was a group that held monthly meetings for game developers in Austin, and I went to those meetings whenever possible for years. That’s where I heard that excellent talk by Phil Steinmeyer about his work on the Heroes of Might and Magic games and the Railroad Tycoon series and the subsequent creation of PopTop.

But about a year ago AGD lost it sponsor and could no longer hold meetings. Things looked bad for a while, but Austin Game Developers finally managed to respawn as the Austin chapter of the International Game Developers Association. And they just held their first meeting a month ago.

Unfortunately I didn’t know about it, so I missed a talk by one of my favorite programmers, Mike McShaffry. Grrr….

But the grapevine did its job and I heard about this month’s meeting, which would feature a three-person panel talking about how to make video games fun. The panel? Richard Garriott of NC Soft, Harvey Smith of Midway, and Chris Cao of Sony Online Entertainment.

(Yes, yes, I know, go ahead and make your “Sony Online? What the heck do they know about making games fun?” crack.)

The meeting was held at Midway’s Austin studio. Just getting to the front door of Midway is an epic-level challenge, as construction has turned the parking lot into a maze. But once inside I was greeted by a very nice-looking game development space. Clean and well-laid-out, with lots of big conference rooms (one of which sports a beautiful projection TV). Big lounge and kitchen space, big offices. But it doesn’t feel too corporate – it definitely feels like a game studio, with Xbox 360s in practically every room you visit and posters, concept art and toys all over the freakin’ place. The only exception – tiny, tiny cubes. It seems that Midway Austin is growing.

When I arrived the Mingling Period was well under way. I saw several friends of mine whom I hadn’t seen since…well, the last AGD meeting. One of them was the Fat Man; it was great seeing him again. And I discovered that several of my friends whose fate I lamented in one of my video blogs ended up at Midway and seem to be doing just fine.

Then they fed us. The food was good but too spicy for me. I got a free alcoholic beverage and asked for a rum-and-Coke, then I put another can of Coke into it and it was drinkable. (Not trying to slight the bartender; please recall that alcohol doesn’t taste very good to me.)

So there I was, drink in hand, listening to some very good game developers speak. Frankly it was the most fun I’ve had in months, and I’d forgotten how much I missed going to those meetings because I always feel recharged and excited about game development afterwards.

Each person on the panel gave a short presentation on what they thought “fun in games” meant and then the panel took questions from the audience. It was fascinating to see how different these three guys were in their philosophies.

Chris Cao was first. His presentation was shortest and highest-level. His basic message was that you can make fun games by having fun making games and fostering an environment where crazy thinking can happen. He said that one of the imagination-building exercises he used was having every member of his team – no matter what their actual duties – make a board or card game so that they all understood the entire game-making process.

Richard Garriott was next. His presentation could not have been more different than Cao’s; the first slide Richard presented said, “Research, research, research!” Richard’s point was that “fun” is hard to define and a real “lightning in a bottle” quality, so the best thing to do was use rigorous procedures and follow basic rules of software design so that the fun could come out unmarred, if it were there. He talked a lot about things like not obscuring what would have been a fun game by making the actual software too hard to use. He also talked about the tropes that gamers tend to respond well to and understand, like numerology and symbolism.

Harvey Smith was last. His talk was closer to Garriott’s than Cao’s, but he had some unique things to say. He didn’t shy completely away from defining “fun” like Garriott did. Instead he presented a concept by Marc LeBlanc, another designer, called The Eight Kinds of Fun. Harvey seems to definitely subscribe to this philosophy and says that the first step to making games fun is to define which of the eight types you’re going to try to provide for your player.

Once all the presentations were over, they took questions from the audience. Some questions drifted away from the topic but nobody seemed to mind. Richard Garriott got the biggest laugh of the night when he responded to a question about game development funding and return-on-investment by saying, “I made Akalabeth in six weeks after school. The cost of development was zero. It made me about $150,000. That’s effectively an infinite return-on-investment, and somehow it’s all been downhill from there.”

Afterwards we retired to the large conference room with the beautiful projection TV I mentioned earlier to play some Guitar Hero II. The Midway guys had completed the experience by decking the room out with disco balls and strobe lights. It was awesome. Fat challenged me to play a song competitively against him; I accepted, sure that I was going to go down to ignominous defeat. We played “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, and to my great surprise I kicked his ass even though I’d never played the song before.

And he calls himself a musician…:)

Final note: the official wrap-up of this meeting on the IGDA Austin site is here, and you can download the slides for all three of the presentations from that page. You can also see me if you really really want to; I’m in the third picture. I’m sitting in the front row and wearing a black shirt. I am apparently amusing my friend Jamal Blackwell by doing the hand jive.

Planitia Update 15

I was pushing really hard to get Planitia out by April 30. This was at least partially because I wanted to win the informal “Make Something by April 30” contest going on in the Gibbage forums.

Now, if it’s possible, I am still going to try to cobble a working something together to enter in that competition. But if I can’t, I can’t.

Because I am pushing the due date back one month. Planitia will now be done on May 31.

Now, you may be asking, “What prompted this, Viridian? Why did you push the date back?”

All will be revealed…in time.

Planitia Update 14

I’ll be doing an update daily until the game is released.

I’ll be honest – ODE really messed me up. It wasn’t just the wasted time; I also seemed to lose all my momentum on the project when I couldn’t get ODE working right. And then I started having problems with the terrain that I couldn’t seem to get completely right, etc…

But the good thing about working on a project like this is that there’s so many different things to do, if you get stuck on something you can just switch to something else. So last night I started working on the GUI.

GUI programming is technical and tedious but not really hard, so it’s a perfect change of pace. I’ve already got all the screens planned out and I almost have all the GUI elements added to my framework.

My framework supports four functional GUI elements:

Buttons – Working

Scrollbars – Not working yet

Radio Buttons – Working

Editable Textboxes – Not working yet

In addition, it supports three non-functional (decorative) elements:

Bitmaps

Panels (drawn boxes, either empty or filled)

Static Text Labels

All of these are working.

The great thing about this is that it’ll make the product look a lot more professional and complete…even though it isn’t 🙂

I am hoping to get the final two GUI elements implemented and all the GUI screens set up tonight, so that this weekend I can get back to the main gameplay programming.

Eve Online

At the behest of a friend, I tried Eve Online.

Eve is dense and slow. It feels like playing a spreadsheet from the get-go, as character creation is far more complex than someone who just started playing the game five minutes ago can possibly understand. What did my final stats mean? No idea! What were my final skills? No idea! What can they be used for? No idea!

It took about two and a half hours to get through the tutorial – and you must go through the tutorial. No, the game doesn’t make you, but if you don’t you won’t have any idea what the hell is going on.

Those two and a half hours were probably the least fun I have ever had playing something that presented itself as a “game”.

For one thing, you have no direct control over your ship. No joystick control here, no. No fancy flyin’, just right-click a point in space on the convenient list and choose “Approach” and you’ll fly there. That’s it.

Combat? As far as I can tell, it’s fully automated – and it’s standard MMO combat dressed up in sci-fi trappings. To fight you fly towards an enemy, lock on target and turn on your gun. If your ship and equipment is superior to his, you win. If not, you lose. That’s it.

Travel in the Eve universe is even worse. Imagine having to endure a gryphon ride in World of Warcraft every time you change zones. That’s how Eve is. I began to groan every time I was given a mission that required me to fly to a new solar system because I knew I’d be sitting there doing nothing for ten minutes while the autopilot flew the ship.

I gave this game two and a half hours to present me with something exciting or compelling and it completely failed. I’ve got thirteen days left on my trial, and I would rather work on Planitia than play this game again.

Dear God in heaven, first we lose Privateer Online for Earth & Beyond and now this? Can nobody make a real massively-multiplayer outer space combat/trading game? Is it just not possible?! That’s the MMO I really want and nobody will freakin’ make it! Why?

(Sorry Nathan.)

EDIT: Okay, what did I like about Eve?

I liked the fact that it wasn’t Yet Another Fantasy MMO.

I liked the fact that the entire game takes place on one server. When you meet another Eve player in real life you can actually find him in the game guaranteed because there’s only one server.

I liked the fact that the client is only about 700 megs in size and there’s no significant patching after installation before you can play.

The game is quite pretty.

Nathan pointed out to me that the density and pace of the game keeps out the 1337 kiddies, and this was borne out in my play experience last night. I didn’t see any chat in any of the channels that wasn’t mature and on-topic.

If everything took about half as long to do as it does in Eve then I would probably love it.

Planitia Update 13

I am so glad I bit the bullet on Planitia’s design. I’ve gotten so much stuff done since then.

Planitia is coming together.

The biggest problem I’ve got right now is that my terrain textures, frankly, suck. Anybody know of a site with good free terrain textures? None of my searches have turned up anything really usable, unfortunately.

EDIT: Thank you guys for the texture links. Maybe I can hack up something from something I find. Of course, part of the problem is that everybody is into photorealism for textures and I’m looking for something a bit lighter and more fantasy-ish.

In fact, if I had my druthers, Planitia would look exactly like this:

Planitia is coming together.

I guess it’s kind of silly to desire art direction when I’m not an artist, huh?