Archive forJanuary, 2013

My code works, I have no idea why.

So, I almost missed blogging this week because I’ve been working on a proof of concept engine.  Put a 8 hour gap between these two images and you pretty much have my Sunday:

This isn’t entirely true.  I understand most of what’s going on, although I don’t have as much understanding of Flash’s layering process as I think I need.  (I spent an hour trying to figure out why something wasn’t working.)

My project at the moment is creating a basic S/RPG in Flash.  It’s a fairly simple project, but it’s giving me a good way to test a bunch of different concepts that will hopefully make other projects easier.  XML map parsing and stage scrolling is the biggest one.  I was pleasantly surprised to see how easy that was.

Experimenting like this is really fun.  Right now I’m using square tiles.  When I get this working, I’m planning on duplicating my codebase and converting into a hex map.  Drawing the hex map will be easy, but then converting the movement logic could be difficult.   I actually intended to start with hexes, but I decided to start with something a little closer to what I know.

That said, what I know is kind of diminutive.  My only real finished “game” to my name is a Battleship game I created for my C++ class final just over a year ago.  When C++ class started, I was trying to write Tetris in AS3 from a mixture of what I already knew and tutorials.  I basically finished Tetris, but I shelved it to devote full time to class and never got back to it.  I only had block removal left, and I have no idea where the code is today or I’d finish it just to say it’s finished.  I think it’s sitting on the Linux 2.5″ HD that used to be in my laptop.

So, coding a little S/RPG will be a good project.  At the moment it’s borrowing assets from another game and doesn’t actually have any gameplay or I’d post a link.  I plan on trying to finish core gameplay before I draw any original assets of my own, just as I don’t want to derail myself.

I’m torn on time management, as well.  I still have several major projects floating around I need to get finished.

I mentioned it in the “What are you doing?” thread, but I partially escaped from my computer business job, but there are some limitations.  The way I got out of it was I got my dad to take it over and do the work again.  For the most part, this means I’m out from under it, but some of the major projects I have floating around are computer business projects, so I need to get those finished to finalize my escape.

And then there’s just the fact that my escape is for the most part provisional.  I need to get my game dev work where it’s bringing in money, which is part of why I’ve been putting off other, technically more important, projects to get something- anything- playable built.  I technically have a year, but I’m trying to get there sooner than later and also to show solid forward progress to keep family tension low.  (the joys of living at home. ~_~)

My engineering project got sidelined to work on this, but I need to get back to that soonish.   Time management will be the end of me.  ヽ( ̄д ̄;)ノ

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Staying Creative

After having to get up early, I took a looong nap after getting home.   This is probably one of the first blogs I’ve written in years where I’ve actually gotten a decent amount of sleep!  Downside is this blog is going to take until the wee hours to finish.  Ah well.

One of the most odd, and awkward parts about being creative is… well… just the simple act of being creative.  My creative process is somewhat of a trainwreck, and currently needs to get jumpstarted after a few years of telling myself “I’ll never get what I want so don’t bother”.  I’ve been sort of just satisfying myself with derivative works and what if questions.  The matter was made more complicated when a few things combined to result in me being way too “systems focused”.  While useful, by itself it isn’t enough.  I need to get back to where I can create complete original ideas again.

Something that’s helped get me going again has been being inspired by the Maker Movement.

For some context as to why this inspires me, I should point out part of where I come from: One of the unusual things about the way I grew up is my parents were largely the type who reacted to almost everything as “That’s too expensive”.  It took years for me to become aware of what they actually meant: “That’s not worth that much money to me”.  This condemnation was usually followed up with the comment that “You can make that yourself.”

As a child, once I got over the fact I’d been told no I had a predictable one word response to this: “how?”

And so my parents would teach me what today we refer to as DIY skills.  Since from 4th grade on I was homeschooled, learning how to do some of these things ended up as a “class”.  Sometimes they’d find a local small business workshop where you could see people work, or get lessons directly from them.  By the time I was highschool age, I’d done my own sewing, created lace, learned the basics of woodworking and wood carving, had made my own nails, had written a few simple pascal programs, had a reasonable knowledge of electronics, had fired pottery, and the list goes on.  I know just enough to be dangerous with most things and enough to produce quality products within a few areas.

Some things were in the realm of magic to me even still.  Somewhere in all of that “You can do this yourself” the difference in polish convinced me there was this strange magic barrier between “what I made” and “what I buy in the store” where special magic happened to make it look good.  With time, I eventually realized the barrier I imagined was actually just a matter of technique and tools.  Where I was hand carving by eye, they were using math I hadn’t even reached in school to precisely design tools to either mold or cut away materials to shape.

Over the years, I’ve had little tastes of what it would take to build electronics or quality products.  In my family IT business I purchased a PIC microcontroller for a customer once, and briefly got to play with and study it; and on occasion I have had to do some building touchup after running network cables, learning some of the finishing exterior touches to the scraps of carpentry I knew; and went back to school to learn java and C++;  started to build the foundations of technical knowledge, beginning to grasp what it took to “finish” work.  Forming some friendships with people who’ve made it past the amateur barrier, I also learned how “just behind the finish and polish” is the same crude work as what an amateur produces, but somehow it still felt like creating something of quality was out of reach, still hidden behind a curtain of magic.

Roughly mid 2011, I was introduced to The Ben Heck Show by a RL friend named Greg.  The episode he showed me demonstrated CNC Milling, and the seeds of what was possible in a garage were planted in my head.  Another episode showcased Arduinos.  I had known intellectually about these things, but the expense of a CNC machine and my experience with the expense of the PIC controller and flash software had deterred me from even looking into them.

Not too long later, a client who I’d known and worked for over a decade came to us with a project that was completely out of the normal computer repair: He had an invention he wanted to make.  Had any other client asked that question, I probably would have turned them down, but because of who it was, we began working on it.  We networked with a few other people and over the year and a half we’ve been involved- as time allowed- I taught myself techniques I’d never imagined learning before (Multithreading an app on a 16mhz Arduino with RAM measured in kilobytes?  crazy stuff.), and bought equipment I never would’ve dared buy otherwise.  Last week I milled out my first wooden part and while it turned out about as bad and unusable as you’d expect a first part to turn out, it’s got me excited in ways I haven’t been in years.  I’ll probably have a working prototype by the end of the week.

Over the last year and a half, as I’ve worked on the project, I’ve been encountering “Maker culture” and it continues to amaze me.  The way it parts the magic curtain of commercial quality and brings the techniques from the warehouse to the home office is just awesome.  One of the things maker culture encourages that we all too often forget?  Is disassembling stuff for reuse.  At least where I live, use and dispose is the norm.  Looking at “hacker projects” where people have salvaged parts from broken equipment and given them new life is inspiring, but the learning potential in these projects?  astounding.

This doesn’t use the same kind of creativity that I need for making games, but I find that doesn’t really matter that much.  The mind is like any other muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets.  So I’ve been looking at different kinds of DIY projects I can do as I go with the idea that trying to make something will help me foster the kind of thinking I need to successfully code my games.  I keep coming up with fun and interesting projects.  The contraption my client has me building is possibly the most “active” project, but I also want to build a larger CNC and at some point build my own CNC Lathe and a 3D printer.  I spent a few hours tonight looking at LED signboards to learn how you’d build one because of a possible use for one that sprang up.  At a more basic level, I want to remake my desk as the drafting table I use for a desk is too small and being something we got for $10 at a thriftstore, it doesn’t really work that well, anyway.  One of my long standing projects that I just haven’t been able to devote the time or effort to is I’ve been planning on making a DIY touch-table for D&D play.

Some of the business opportunities the Maker Movement has created are also amazing to me.  It reminds me of pre-industrial tradesmen.  In many ways it hearkens back to the business models of that time – a skilled craftsman setting his mind to solving a problem and moving on to the next problem.  Some people have been fortunate enough to be able to live comfortably with their maker projects.  One that I read about recently was the story of OpenROV, where the creator went from knowing nothing about electronics to being able to build his own ROV.  His project is relatively successful, and he’s now able to live off his project.

I love that idea that a lone guy can make a living as a tradesman, but Maker Culture goes a step farther.  They have “hackerspaces” where you can go to learn skills from other people.  Some places even have available machine shops and workshops for fabrication, and hold lessons to teach people the art of building things.  Although my city doesn’t have one, I wish it did.   The opportunities and ideas that the maker/DIY movement provides are simply astounding.

I really have more I want to write about, but it’s 8 AM and I see daylight, so I think I’ll crash.  Blogging about my the near miss disaster of my job situation will have to wait until next week.  (I think it had a happy ending, but I’ll know better next weekend anyway!)


Random Scribbles

Most of the week I had some stuff in mind to talk about in terms of just hobby stuff, but Friday a huge chunk of my plan came crashing down and left me terribly depressed.  As a result, I just didn’t feel up to writing anything creative yesterday or today, and I really don’t want to subject anyone to depressed ramblings about what happened until I finish figuring out what actually happened.  (edit: Phew.  Back in business… I think.  I’ll ramble about that next week.)

So, instead, I sat down and forced myself to finish a drawing to post instead.  Botched it royally, but not so bad I won’t post it.  (of course, it’s not seeing my pixiv until I fix it in photoshop, but still.)

SAO’s Lady Sakuya:




Game Design: Target Audience

Welcome to week two!  Last week I touched on Narrative and talked a little about how a distinct sense of  identity benefits a game.   While there’s still a great deal of information to cover on that topic, I don’t want to get too in depth on any one topic as I start up.   This week I want to explore the various effects of  designing a game for a target audience, then shift gears for a few weeks and get off into some of my other interests.

To start with, I want to point out that this is a disagreeable topic.  Many target audiences have highly polarized members, some of whom- but not all of- are exclusionists by nature.  They know what they like, and more than ignore what they don’t like they readily will trash or argue against what they don’t like in gaming forums, stores, etc.  Whether these represent a vocal minority or are the average member of a target audience is generally up to debate.  I’m also afraid to try to draw any sort of east vs west comparison for this as for all I’ve read and learned about Japanese culture, I’m really not confident I understand the Japanese gamer enough to comment on their audiences, so I will largely keep this one to what I know.  Since the easiest place to start with something is to glance at its history, let’s take a look at the beginning.

The earliest of games had a target audience that would define gaming for decades: Nerds.

This was a matter of practicality.  The earliest games were played in the research labs of the companies or colleges that developed them.   Surprisingly, the mainstay genres all emerge relatively early on, by title count if not by year:  The first game was a war simulation, followed by ports of tabletop games, then a sports game, followed by some early touchscreen games (via light pen), then arcade shooters, followed by the first space exploration game, flight simulators, text adventures, the RPG, shortly after the MUD, and finally the Platformer as the latecomer.

As an aside, I was pretty surprised to find touchscreen gaming predates arcade video games, and the hands off gameplay of Mouse-In-The-Maze reminds me of some of the “those mobile games aren’t games!” complaints I heard early into the smartphone era.  I also for some reason had it in my head that Pitfall predated Donkey Kong, although some cursory fact checking brought me back to reality.

The target audience of most of the above were nerds, as a matter of practicality.  The technology to play these games at the onset was largely limited to the research labs of large tech firms and colleges.   They were played on mainframes or oscilloscopes juryrigged to electronics to make them do stuff.  Once the first “modern” arcade game hit, the number of target audiences went up by one: arcade gamers.  Then Consoles were invented, Atari crashed, Nintendo and Sega happened, the personal computer became a thing, Sega crashed, Sony and Microsoft stuck their noses in, eventually we get to today where there are dozens of target audiences, each with their own preferences, wants, and needs.   We have moved beyond the time of nerds, although gamers still have a bit of a reputation as nerds as a consequence.

Usually a target audience will share a genre or several genres with other target audiences.  For example, in America, the line between the target audience for Sports games and the target audience for Console FPS shooters is generally a very blurry line.  It is not uncommon to spot Halo and Call of Duty beside NFL, Baseball, Basketball, etc. games on an American gamer’s shelf.   The target audiences for these games are actually driven by a mixture of personal interest and social cliques, and typically the developers of the games themselves tend to be members of the target audience themselves.  Of course, there are exceptions, such as Movie/TV series licenses.  Aside from very choice IPs like Star Trek line up with developers who are also longtime fans, most developers hate making movie/TV games.

Another kind of overlap isn’t overlap at all.  Consider the FPS gamer of the 90’s and the RTS gamer of the 90’s.  Typically, you couldn’t look at an american gamer’s desktop without seeing at least one RTS and one FPS shooter.   (and as I started fixing people’s computers around ’96, that’s largely a personal anecdote.)   One would generally be inclined to think these were two separate audiences, I believe they were actually the same target audience –  the competitive gamer.   They were generally interested in the newest way to compete against each other, and were always interested in competing on more than one level.  Many of them would push for newer, better, stronger, faster computers for every edge they could get, and the developers would always release new titles to take advantage of these games.  The string of Quake games, Unreal Engine games, Crytech games, all pushed graphics and more graphics, usually amounted to deathmatch only tech demos, but that is exactly what the target audience wanted – more head to head competition.

On that note, some target audiences are also unusual.  Quake, Unreal Tournament, Farcry, and Crysis also had game developers as a secondary target audience: the games themselves were commercials with the goal of getting developers to use the game engines for their own projects.  Unreal Engine and Crytech are popular middleware engines, easily cutting 1~2 years of development time off many game projects.  I picked on Unreal Tournament as a game last week for being a tech demo, but the death-match tech demo trend had a critical role in introducing the benefits of middleware to an industry where few studios had the time and money to drop on developing their own 3D engine from scratch.

Since Target Audiences tend to have either overlap or “a specific interest”, I think designing for a single target audience is actually a bad thing.  Many of the most memorable games in history are cross-genre titles.  Often times if you mix two genres together, you get fans of both.   As the 2000’s got underway, we saw every genre start to adopt RPG mechanics and become more interesting for it.  The rise of RPG mechanics also saw many games which previously lacked a story mode realize the importance of one, and so the competitive FPS games of the late 90’s began to fade.  Many of those same competitive gamers are today playing MOBAs, which can safely be called the fusion of the Arcade, RTS, and RPG genres.

I actually believe that while a game may be made for a target audience, the target audience is usually different from “the audience they get”.  Further, I believe that great games are born not of targeting a specific target audience, but taking the desires and needs of many audiences and making something new, that doesn’t really want any specific audience but rather to create a new one.  Emphasizing the earlier tech demo point, Unreal Tournament managed to be just that outside of the normal marketplace – by targeting both competitive gamers and game developers themselves it helped create the middleware market we know today.  (which really does make it difficult to judge fairly.)

Nintendo actually fell afoul of this not too many seasons ago with the Wii, coming so close to getting it right, yet opting to “fire” their own target audience and attempt to build a new one.  As one of the angry, bitter gamers who went into that year expecting a revolution only to get fired, I am still shocked that years later Nintendo’s leadership now thinks they made a mistake.  Objectively, even as a disenfranchised core gamer, I can’t say they made a mistake in looking beyond their existing audience, so I’m baffled they could come to the conclusion they have.  As was the oft given reason for the decision, many of the “Core gaming audiences” are actually impossible to satisfy in the long term, as to fully satisfy them requires increasing difficulty in an exclusionary way.   Trying to introduce a new gamer to a game series that prides itself on being Nintendo Hard can be almost impossible.  (As I’m sure most of the people on this site can appreciate, try showing an American fan of shooters a recent Touhou game.)  In that light, the decision to create a new audience makes sense, even: Less work, more gain.

And against all odds, Nintendo succeeded in creating a new audience.  The metrics telling us that are everywhere.  However, as the author of the article I linked points out:  What they actually failed at was giving this new target audience something to play that wasn’t Wii Sports/Wii Fit/Wii bowling.   While the Wii had many mechanical mistakes such as the lack of HD, consumers typically only hate mechanical mistakes if they actually get in the way of something.  How much more successful would the Wii have been had it not fired it’s old audience, and simply added to it?  Could the old audience have said “Hey, you’re new here, I love that game too, you ought to try this one as well, I love this one.” and made all the difference?  Perhaps Iwata gets it more than he lets on with his comments, as Nintendo’s theme this time around is reconciling the two target audiences.  Perhaps Iwata just chose to phrase things the way he did because he was talking to investors and not gamers.

Creating a new audience does not mean having to fire an old one, like Nintendo did.  As an example, Portal didn’t exclude the First person shooter audience of the day.  It welcomed everyone that gave it a try, using the FPS audience as a building block.  (You will recall that Portal came bundled with two of the most anticipated FPS games of the year it was released in.)  Further, Indie games as a whole have been creating a new audience out of necessity.  While individual indie games are aimed at a specific genre, the target audience is distinctly different – it’s anyone that will play it.

In closing, Target Audiences (And genres both) are great starting blocks, but like with all tools, they can’t be given too much or too little focus.  In the end, people play games to have fun, and we should be focusing on just that, the fun of it.  Next time I’ll be talking about either art or engineering, with a side of career stuff, I feel like I’ve tiptoed on eggshells too much with game stuff.