Friday, March 29, 2013

Friday Links!

From Michael M., and this is such an ingenious idea: clean art. Also, and this blew both my mind and Eli's, it's Giant anaconda photographed underwater in Brazil. Twenty-three feet, in case you're wondering, and there's also a video.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is the most interesting Internet survey I've ever seen: Internet Census 2012: Port scanning /0 using insecure embedded devices . Also, an anarchist community in Washington state in 1901? That would be Home. Next, and this is just an incredible find, a 55-minute documentary: 1968 Thelonious Monk NDR WDR.

From Francis Cermak, and man, I have fond memories of this game: EA's NHL '94 remains landmark game after 20 years.

From Paul Adams, and if you like Prince, this is epic: Original Live Recording of Purple Rain (First Avenue 1983). That's the version used on the album as well.

From DQ Reader My Wife, and these are terrific: The 50 Most Perfectly Timed Photos Ever.

From Robert McMillon, and this is staggering: Unfit for Work: the Staggering Rise of Disability in America.

From Jonathan Arnold, and this is just fascinating: Mystery of Prince Rupert's Drop at 130,000 fps.

From Sirius, and the first image at this link is stunning: Lake Baikal in winter.

From Griffin Cheng, and this is remarkable: Snapshot of a two-faced Tatooine world.

From Eric Higgins-Freese, and I wonder if these games will be backward-compatible: Pennsylvania stadium aims to please fans with urinal video games.

From Frank Regan, and this is a fascinating article: The largest computer ever built.

From Shane Courtrille, and this is a bizarre and fascinating story: Meet the Man Who Sold His Fate to Investors at $1 a Share.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

LEGO City: Undercover (Impressions)

We have a Wii U, but there hasn't really been a good reason to have one. Until now.

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first.

"This game should be called 'LOADING CITY: Undercover'," Eli 11.7 said. He's right. The loading screens are excruciatingly long.

Cars handle like pigs, just like in Grand Theft Auto.

Everything else. Seriously.

This is one of the most coherent open worlds I've seen, far more coherent than any of the Grand Theft Auto games. It's also jam-packed with interesting locations and events, which clearly indicates a meticulous, careful design.

Without a doubt, this is also one of the funniest games I've ever played. The writing is absolutely stellar, and so is the soundtrack. Hell, everything is stellar here. It's a whimsical and exuberant world, and everything is lighthearted, as you'd expect from a LEGO game.

It's also a huge game. We're at 5% completion after about 4 hours, and I'm almost sure that the 100% only represents completing story mode, not sandbox mode, where you can roam anywhere and do anything, once it's unlocked via the story.

In just a few hours, we've jumped off waterfalls, soared over a canyon in a motorcycle, done more brilliant car jumps than I can even remember, and absolutely had a full-on blast.

I've played previous LEGO games, and always had issues with the linear nature of the gameplay. They were always interesting, but after a while, it all seemed so repetitive. In this game, though, the missions are more varied and interesting, and when we're in sandbox mode, there are no missions at all. Playing as an undercover policeman instead of a criminal also turns out to be all kinds of fun--far more fun than being the bad guy all the time (as in GTA).

If the Wii U had launched with LEGO City: Undercover as the pack-in game, with its 50+ hours of gameplay, I think the reception for the system would have been entirely different. It's that good--a silly joy to play or even watch.

This game isn't getting nearly the attention it deserves, but Traveller's Tales has made a brilliant open-world experience.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

BioShock Infinite: Impressions

I've put 2 hours into BioShock Infinite (360 version), and impressions are vexing.

Here's why.

This is a fantastic, imaginative, beautifully realized world. It's stunning, and there are certain obvious influences (The Prisoner, for one) that are simply brilliant. I don't use the word "breathtaking" very often, but this world is breathtaking.

It's exhilarating to walk through the world. It's dynamic, it's vibrant, and it is so full of life. It's the greatest world ever created for an adventure game.

If only it was an adventure game.

After experiencing this beautiful, wonderful world at length, I suddenly had to start shooting. That's when I discovered that the greatest gameworld ever created for an adventure game was being used in a bog-standard, utterly unimaginative first person shooter.

After being entirely immersed and utterly engrossed in the deeply beautiful world, I began shooting everyone in site, searching their corpses for cotton candy and pineapples. And ammo. In this fully-realized world, I'm hunting through garbage cans for food, and no one seems to notice. I'm running and gunning and it is unbelievably, unbearably empty.

Here's an example of the fracture. In the 360 version, whenever there's on-screen information (presented as an overlay, not in the world), you get it in a font and style that is totally dissimilar to the world. Achievements pop up at the stupidest times, always dragging you out of the atmosphere, and there's no way to turn them off.

It's lousy, because everything else is so great. This incredible, unforgettable world was built, and then someone said, "We have to make an FPS, because we can't sell 5 million copies of an Adventure game." Or 5 million copies of an RPG, for that matter.

Actually, there is one nuanced, wonderful design touch not related to the gameworld. When you want help figuring out where you need to go, you can push up on the D-pad, and a subtly glowing arrow points you in the proper direction. It's not a lengthy arrow, it's not intrusive, it doesn't last for long, and it never pops up when you don't want it to. It's an elegant, excellent bit of design, and I've seen nothing else like it in the interface or the gameplay so far.

I'm still playing, and I plan on continuing, because the world is just so fantastic. But this world makes me want to be Robert Ripley, not Rambo.

If only I had the choice. What a shame.

Lincoln and What He Probably Didn't Say

Nick Youngblood sent me a link to a site called Quote Investigator. There's a lengthy discussion of the origin of the phrase Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt, and it's quite interesting, so if you fancy yourself a word detective, go check it out.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

High Stakes: BioShock Infinite

From the New York Times:
Mr. Levine and a team of 200 have been toiling on the game, the third BioShock installment, for more than four years.

The estimated cost of the project is upward of $100 million, not including marketing expenses, which could add another $100 million, analysts said. That is considered a large budget even among blockbuster franchises like Grand Theft Auto, Halo and Call of Duty.

That figure has been denied, of course, but I don't think it's unreasonable. And it means the break-even point for this game is what--six million copies?

There's going to be a day when someone puts out a $100 million game with a $100 million marketing budget and it sells 100,000 copies. It's madness, really, when gaming companies become craps tables instead of ecosystems.

And if BioShock Infinite has a $100 million marketing budget, what will Grand Theft Auto V have?

I know there's an end point here in terms of budget, and it can't be that far away, but I don't think it's going to happen until one of the mega-projects fails in spectacular fashion.

I'd love to know what the budget was for Ultima IV (1985).

I actually bought BioShock Infinite, believe it or not, and I'll have impressions up in a day or so.

Also, veering wildly off topic, you should go read this: EA and the Future. It's the only compelling description of a sustainable future for EA that I've seen in the last five years, and it's written by Mitch Lasky, who EA should hire immediately as their new CEO. He clearly understands what's happening in the industry, and what needs to be done to survive.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Gridiron Solitaire #48: The Rabbit Hole

I've been struggling with font sizing for the main and sub-headlines for months now.

The central problem is that while many things in a WPF application scale automatically, text isn't in that category--at least, not when the window loads. If the text fits after the window loads, then it will scale properly if the user resizes the window.

So it's a multi-stage problem. One, size the font properly for headline text (which is dynamic), then be sure it's still sized properly at a variety of user resolutions.

I'd been hacking through this for quite a while by hard-coding font size based on string length. So if the headline has 17 characters, the font size is X, and if it's 19 characters, it's X-2. Or something.

That hack creates its own problem, though, because different letters are different widths (unless I used a fixed font, which doesn't look good at all). So a 17-character headline, depending on the content, has a variety of possible widths.

At some point, I had to figure out a way to fix this. Headlines can't be clipped, no matter the situation. It's a good example of how clunky WPF can be (even though it's entirely brilliant in many other ways).

So I was thinking about this last week and I realized that there was (seemingly) a simple solution: why not measure the actual width of the text, based on font size, and if it doesn't fit into the actual width of the hard-coded headline label, reduce the font by 1 point and measure again. Keep measuring until it fits.

Geez, I should have realized that a couple of years ago.

Conceptually, that's a simple solution. And obviously, there should be a simple tool to measure the string, right? Well, not quite. There's an easy tool for a WinForms application (it's called "MeasureString"--imagine that), but it doesn't work in WPF.

I fought this for at least ten hours trying to shoehorn various tools into working. All of them almost worked, but none of them actually did. It was a gigantic rabbit hole.

Then I tried to brute force it in a different manner, as long as the results would be the same from the user's perspective, but in the end, the individual character width broke the brute force solution (as it had with different brute force solutions previously).

DQ Visual Basic Advisor Garret Rempel is extraordinarily patient in these situations, trying to assist me in navigating through the shoals of my own stupidity. He gives hints like a good adventure game--starting out at a high level, then getting progressively more specific if I'm still unable to get something working.

This time, I went through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's entire Five Stages of Coding, and finally he sent one specific line of code (it was a long line, though) that made the one bit work that I needed. Then everything else worked fine. I'd had the right concept, and had everything modeled correctly, but without that one line, it was just a pile of wonky bits.

Once that worked, though, everything started going very quickly. Fredrik finished the retirement image, so after 30 seasons now, the coach (you) retires (with a customized headline, depending on how the team did in those 30 seasons), and you see a lovely image of the coach in retirement.

I also added five different halftime band samples, so instead of one crappy one, there are now five selected at random, and they're all a big upgrade. There's also a tremendous "blah blah blah" version of the Canadian national anthem, if you're playing at home in the Championship game.

Initial team ratings have also been revised to give individual teams more distinctive styles, and they also more closely reflect the spread of team ratings after a full 30-year franchise.

The to-do list is down to fourteen items, which is the lowest it's been in quite a while.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Friday Links!

Leading off, from TEGLM (more links from him later), and this is important: Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project: how you can help save historic space data.

From Sirius, and this is stunning: Fossils show primitive birds had four wings. Also, and this is mind-blowing, it's Consider once again a "pale blue dot".

A load of interesting links from Michael M. this week: Google sends Street View car into Fukushima dead zoneInvisibility Cloaks May Shield Buildings From EarthquakesInvisibility Cloak Could Shield Ships, Oil Rigs From Rough Waves (two invisibility cloak links in one week--new record!), and 
6 Board Games That Ruined It for Everyone.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this could be huge: The Graphene-Based Super Capacitor. Next, and this is very cool, it's Space Glider - FPV to Space and Back! This is stunning: The Stained Glass Mapparium. One more, and are seal pups ever not cute? Seal Pup Slip n' Slide (surfboard remote camera). One more, and Triggercut, you should check this out: I analyzed the chords to 1300 songs for patterns. This is what I found..

From Meg McReynolds, and this is entirely fantastic: Harry Stamps Obituary.

From Geoff Engelstein, and this new technology is changing how performance in the NBA is analyzed: Lights, Cameras, SportVU is changing basketball.

From C. Lee, and believe it or not, this is fascinating (and no wonder my handwriting sucks): Tips for improving your handwriting.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, and this is very cool: NASA Voyager 1 Encounters New Region in Deep Space. Also, and this is an amazing story, it's Hyeonseo Lee: My escape from North Korea.

From Steven Davis, and you have to see these paintings, because they're incredibly striking: Federico Uribe Paints with Reused Electrical Cables.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

This Week's Badass: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

"Out of my way, Ruth Bader Ginsburg!" I bellowed. I was in the living room doing push-ups, with Eli 11.6 laughing next to me.

There was an article today about Justice Ginsburg (one of my favorite SCOTUS justices) and how she works out for an hour with a personal trainer twice a week. That's impressive enough for an 81-year-old, but then there was this:
...she cranks out an impressive number of push-ups during her twice-weekly workout sessions with personal trainer, Bryant Johnson."Now I'm up to 20..." she said.

I've been doing 10-15 push-ups a day, just to do some kind of upper body work, because my workouts now are almost all lower body. And I somehow tricked myself into feeling decently about doing 15 push-ups, which is sad, but I didn't know it was sad until I read the article about Ginsburg.

Now, an 81-year-old is pushing me forward.

How many push-ups did I do tonight? 21. And the worst part is that I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have made it to 30. So if Justice Ginsburg gets any stronger, I'm in big trouble.

Here's the article, by the way: Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Supreme Court Justice Who Can Do More Push-Ups Than You.

Eli thought it was quite funny that I was trying to beat an 81-year-old, 5' 1/2" woman at push-ups. And it was, but it's not as funny as if I had done 19.


Travis Baldree, who didn't even make his first game until 2005--and has still put out three more excellent games in this century than Richard Garriott--has started a webcomic called "flap". Anything Travis does is worth keeping an eye on, so have a look here: flap

Dear Mr. Garriott

note from Mr. Richard Garriott:
"[O]ther than a few exceptions, like Chris Roberts, I've met virtually no one in our industry who I think is close to as good a game designer as I am. I'm not saying that because I think I'm so brilliant. What I'm saying is, I think most game designers really just suck, and I think there's a reason why."

And now, a note from Mr. Abraham Lincoln:
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

I'm not going to belabor the point, but when he hasn't put out a decent game in twenty years, it might be a good idea to back off the chest-thumping for a while.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What the...

It was 90 on Monday. I have no idea why. It will be 120 in June, at this rate.

Last night, it was even stranger. At 3 a.m., I woke up because I heard thunder. Then I heard what sounded like light rain. Then heavier. Then it became this wall of sound.

Eli 11.7 woke up, too. "What the heck is happening?" he asked. I took him downstairs and opened the front door.

"It's SNOWING?" Eli asked.

"Hail," I said. "I've never seen so much hail!"

It was incredible. In ten minutes, we were buried in pea-sized hail. I've never been in anything even remotely like it in terms of density.

This morning, I took a closer photo:

Sorry, that's a little blurry, but you can see the individual pieces of ice.

There were also an incredible number of green leaves on the yard, knocked down by the ice.

A beautiful riot of color.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Coin and the Ankh

Todd Brakke e-mailed me after the post on Richard Garriott/Ultima/Kickstarter/etc. last week, and he corrected me:
You didn't get that coin in the box for Ultima IV. Ultima IV came with a small pewter ankh (that I used to wear on a chain around my neck way back when... the chain rubbed away at the loop in the ankh to the point that I had to remove it before the pewter snapped). Anyway, the coin actually came with Ultima V . For years I carried it around in my wallet, only to lose my wallet shortly after moving to Indy back in '99. I was more upset about losing the coin than anything else in there, though my ex actually tracked down a full boxed copy of Ultima V on eBay that included the coin, which I now keep in a small tin in my bedroom. Won't make the mistake of keeping it in my wallet again.

That's a great story, and he's absolutely right. I actually have that ankh in my study--somewhere, and it's the only reason I know what the ankh symbol even means (life).

I think there were so many of us (from that decrepit era) who were incredibly attached to the Ultima series and  carried those trinkets around as totems.

Frozen Endzone

This came out of nowhere in the best possible way:
Frozen Endzone is a turn-based futuresports game from the creators of asynchronous strategy game Frozen Synapse.

That's from RPS, by the way, and they have a nice preview here, including a trailer.

This is a brilliant move, I think, for lots of reasons:
--they retained brand identity with "Frozen" in the title.
--gameplay seems to retain some elements of Frozen Synapse's AI, but in a unique setting. And different gameplay rules will create a different experience.
--the visual look evokes a bit of what I always thought a next-gen Speedball would look like.
--players already run more naturally than they do in Madden (ha!).
--they waited until they had something substantial to show before announcing the game.

I highly recommend reading the preview, because it has a ton of details, but this looks like a terrific idea and potentially a fantastic game.

Best News of the Day

Eli's goalie friend Jack Campbell got called up to the Dallas Stars today.

Eli had been meaning to write Jack a letter, thanking him for helping him, but I guess he'll be sending that letter to Dallas, not Austin, which is very cool.

I told Eli last week (after we saw him play on Wednesday night), that we'd try to go see first NHL start, no matter where he was playing. I didn't think it was going to be less than two weeks later, though, and Eli has his house tournament this weekend, so we may be watching on t.v. instead.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Gridiron Solitaire #47: Improving Subsystems

After thinking about simulation for another day or so last week, I came up with what I think is a reasonable system that's far more accurate than what I was using previously. It goes like this:
--decide which team wins (based on pointspread win chances generated by ratings comparison)
--generate a winning score (random initially, but influenced by offense/defense net rating)
--generate a winning margin (this is a random number, then looked up in a table of the historical distribution of winning margin in NFL games for the last 3 years)
--subtract winning margin from winning score to get a losing score (with an additional sanity check to weed out odd scores that are historically rare)

With the new system, simmed games now have scores that are more representative of historical NFL scores.   The scores are not as reflective of team ratings as they could be, but the process used to determine which team wins is much more accurate now, which is the most important element. And the scores look realistic, with oddball scores appearing no more often than they have historically.

I also rewrote the stat generation engine, which is now more accurate as well.

There's a long list of tasks from last week that were checked off, but they were all small (even if they took quite a while to do).Plus a little new flavor (nice surprises on the Team Hub screen for Thanksgiving and holiday weeks). Plus the help screens and the dynamic help for new players has been revised to reflect the gameplay changes of the last few months.

I simmed several 30-season franchises last week, and the new AI is helping teams develop specific personalities over time. It's helping me understand how important it is for each time to have their own personality, which isn't really true when new leagues start now. So I'm going to adjust the initial ratings for each team, and each team is going to have a distinct element. For instance, here are the possible team profiles:
--strong offense
--strong run
--strong pass
--strong defense
--strong run def
--strong pass def
--mixed strong
--strong overall
--weak overall

With 16 teams and 9 profiles, there will be a wide range of team styles when a new league starts now. Almost every team will have at least one rating of 8 or higher, and most teams will have at least one rating of 4 or less.

This week, I should finally have the reward in place for someone who completes a full 30 seasons. Newspaper headlines when a new league starts of concludes, plus a nice reward screen of the coach in retirement. It's not much right now, but it ties everything in the game together for the first time.

Other than that, the start date for the second beta is approaching rapidly. If everything goes well this week, it may begin as soon as Friday.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Friday Links!

Leading off, from Meg McReynolds, and these are entirely beautiful: Wonderful, Inspiring Minimalist Science Posters.

From DQ Visual Basic Advisor Garret Rempel, a tribute to a Canadian icon: Stompin' Tom Connors dies at 77. Here's his signature: The Hockey Song.

From Steven Davis, and this is quite incredible: In Peru, Engineers Make Water Out of Thin Air. Also, and this is spectacular, it's There’s Amazing Drumming, Incredible Drumming, and then the Top Secret Drum Corps. Also, and I've never seen images like these before, it's Terrifying Volcanic Lightning Photographed by Martin Rietze.

From DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh, and this is tremendously striking: Her Morning Elegance. And here's how it was made: Her Morning Elegance - Behind The Scenes.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and I didn't know live footage still existed: Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie Hot House.

From Scott Gould, and I didn't even know that Santa had a punitive counterpart, but he does: Krampus.

From Matt Kreuch, and this is tremendous: Dad hacks Donkey Kong so daughter can play as a girl.

From Phil Honeywell, and this is a treat: Breaking the 4th Wall Movie Supercut.

From Robb, and this is spectacular: water appears frozen in sine wave.

From C. Lee, and this is both interesting and disturbing: Doubts about Johns Hopkins research have gone unanswered, scientist says.

From Jaby Jacob, and this is a heartwarming story: My Parents' First Car - 1948 Plymouth convertible. Also, and this is brilliant, it's Punoff 2012 Jerzy Gwiazdowski.

From Sirius, and this will be incredible if true: Possible support for panspermia.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

3Doodler and Shroud of the Avatar

Steven Davis sent me a link to the Kickstarter for a 3D-printing pen called "3Doodler". Here's a description:
Using ABS plastic (the material used by many 3D printers), 3Doodler draws in the air or on surfaces. It’s compact and easy to use, and requires no software or computers. You just plug it into a power socket and can start drawing anything within minutes.

As 3Doodler draws, it extrudes heated plastic, which quickly cools and solidifies into a strong stable structure. This allows you to build an infinite variety of shapes and items with ease! Most people will instantly be able to trace objects on paper, and after only a few hours of practice you will be able to make far more intricate objects.

That hit a nerve with me, because I immediately went and backed the Kickstarter. It's a brilliant idea, and I can only image how artists (and kids) will make use of this.

It's also a good example of a Kickstarter that goes thermonuclear. The original goal was a very modest $30,000. The current total is $2,240,166, and there are still 10 days remaining.

The Kickstarter page is here, and there's also some detailed information here: The World’s First 3D Printing Pen that Lets you Draw Sculptures.

Richard Garriott also has a Kickstarter up for a new game titled "Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues." Part of me has been hoping this would happen, and part of me dreaded that it would happen.

I still have this on my desk:

That's the coin that came with Ultima IV, which I purchased in 1986. Twenty-seven years later, I still keep the coin close. So if there is any single series that I am entirely, absolutely bound to, it's Ultima.

I also know that the last excellent Ultima (for me, at least) was published in 1992.

Since then, Garriott made one disappointing Ultima (VIII), one absolutely terrible Ultima (IX), Tabula Rasa (failed), and he spent $40 million to go into space.

Want a cloth map for this game? Try the $125 funding tier. Want a coin? That will set you back $150, although you'll also get the map.

The entire, slightly vainglorious Kickstarter pitch can be boiled down to this: "I was the best RPG game developer back when computers had 64k of memory." I exaggerate, of course, but the pitch certainly has that vibe.

So here's possibly a salient question: has anyone else made an excellent game after twenty years of disappointments and absence?

Nothing would make me happier than if this game turned out to be absolutely outstanding, and I ate large plates of crow. And maybe that will happen, but I don't see much here on Garriott's side. I would actually have felt much better if he had acknowledged the Morrowind series, which is unquestionably brilliant and certainly the spiritual successor to Ultima. Instead, he acts like RPGs stopped moving forward the day he stopped designing them, and that's too bad.

Kickstarter: Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Eli 11.7 and the Goalie Fraternity

Eli 11.7 hasn't been lucky the last few weeks. Cast on his hand, the flu for a week (he's not sick anymore, but he's still not fully recovered), and none of the things he likes to do during spring break, like play tennis.

Tonight, though, we went to a Texas Stars game.

You may remember the post about Jack Campbell (Stars goalie and future NHL player) and Eli having such a good time when Campbell came to one of Eli's practices. So Eli wanted to stand by the tunnel where players walk off the ice and say something to Jack as he came off the ice, hopefully getting him to sign his cast.

Kids always stand outside the area, which is roped off on each side, so waiting for players isn't unusual. Most of the players are incredibly nice, bumping knuckles with every kid as they walk past.

I didn't expect Jack Campbell to remember him without his pads on, but I didn't know how to gracefully explain that, so I just hoped for the best.

At the end of warm-ups, Campbell skated off, and as he was walking up, Eli said, "Jack! Would you sign my cast, please?" He stopped, he signed, they chatted for a few seconds, and then he said, "Great to see you, Eli," and walked up the tunnel.

Jack Campbell has a levitation effect on Eli. I don't think his feet touched the ground the rest of the night.

The coolest thing is that Jack never treats him like a little kid. He treats him like a fellow goalie, which completely inspires Eli. It's one of the nicest things I can ever imagine an athlete doing for a young player.

Nilstorp started in goal, but he got slashed early on in the second period (or something--it was hard to figure out exactly what happened), and Campbell came into the game. And proceeded to play lights out, with seventeen saves on eighteen shots, and the Stars won 4-3.

We talked on the way home about goalie technique. "So there are two broad categories of goalies," I said. "Engineers and artists."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, some goalies understand playing the position at a very technical level. They take an engineering approach to the position--very methodical, very precise, and very detailed. Tomáš Vokoun is an engineer. Now who's an artist?"

"Fleury," he said immediately.

"Right," I said. "Huge amounts of energy and passion, and brilliant, but not nearly as technical, and his technique isn't strong. And the best goalies are what?"

"Both," he said. "Jack is both."

"That's right," I said, "and so are you. Everyone who sees you play comments on your technique and your athleticism. You're the only kid your age I've ever seen who has both qualities at such a high level. I don't know where you rank right now, but because you're a super freak, your upside is huge."

Eli noticed tonight that Abbotsford's goalie, Barry Brust, had a few goalie tics. Some goalies have a ton of them (Braden Holtby, for one), but most guys seem to have at least a couple. Eli noticed that Brust had two. One, during stoppages in play, he would start tapping his pads repeatedly, in rhythm. Eli swore that he  tapped them thirty-three times (Brust's jersey number), then he'd stop.

The second was even more interesting. When Brust felt comfortable during play, he would retreat to a specific spot and stand there like a statue. Wouldn't move an inch, until the puck started coming in his direction. Here's the pose:

Brust stood like that for up to forty-five seconds during play, not moving a muscle. It was something to see.

Here's a nice picture of Jack Campbell in action, by the way:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Ubisoft is releasing Assassin's Creed IV on October 29.

It's over seven months until the release of the game--seven months!--but I've already seen a TON of television commercials for the game. The same commercial, at least fifteen times (on ESPN or the NHL Network--I can't remember which one).

That's more commercials for one game in the last two weeks than I've seen for all other games combined.

Seemingly, Ubisoft is shoving large stacks of chips into the pot here. They are going very, very big, and it's worth watching to see if this game can--in any way--match the aggressiveness of the marketing.

I mean, I like pirates, and that's the hook (yes, I made that pun) for this installment. So I'm certainly curious, but based on the amount of early advertising, Ubisoft's break-even point is going to be staggeringly high.

SimCity V (one week later)

Eight reviews of SimCity V appeared on March 4 or 5. These were all, presumably, gaming journalists who had been given early access to the game on a private server.

The review scores were 100, 95, 94, 90,90,88, 80, and 80. That's an average score of 89.5.

Since then, another twenty reviews have appeared. Here are the scores, in order:
90, 80, 80, 80, 75,70,70,70,69,60,60,60,50,50,50,40,40,40,20. That's an average of 60.7.

I'm not Sherlock Holmes, but that certainly doesn't seem right, does it?

Why would anyone review a game that requires a persistent online connection without playing the game in the wild? If you don't, you might give a shit sausage a 9. Embarrassing.

It's been quite a train wreck since the game launched. Within days, "company memos" were leaked  that put a brave face on the situation. A cynic might suspect whether the memo was leaked accidentally on purpose. Then Maxis General Manager Lucy Bradshaw, in the course of explaining what went wrong, added this:
"An online interconnected world has been part of our design philosophy since day one," she said. "It's the game that we've been wanting to create since SimCity 4 as we've wanted to explore the dynamics between cities as they exist within regions. Real cities don't exist in bubbles; they specialize and trade resources, workers and more. 

"With the way that the game works, we offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers so that the computations are off the local PCs and are moved into the cloud. It wouldn't be possible to make the game offline without a significant amount of engineering work by our team."

Well, except that people have been playing for up to 20 minutes after losing their Internet connection. Then Rock, Paper, Shotgun was contacted by an anonymous SimCity developer today:
The servers are not handling any of the computation done to simulate the city you are playing. They are still acting as servers, doing some amount of computation to route messages of various types between both players and cities. As well, they’re doing cloud storage of save games, interfacing with Origin, and all of that. But for the game itself? No, they’re not doing anything. I have no idea why they’re claiming otherwise. It’s possible that Bradshaw misunderstood or was misinformed, but otherwise I’m clueless.”

...“It wouldn’t take very much engineering to give you a limited single-player game without all the nifty region stuff.”

When developers are defecting from the company line (and I haven no reason to think that RPS has anything less than an accurate source), there's blood in the water.

Well, if you get caught in a lie, there's only one thing to do: tell a bigger lie. So I think what will happen tomorrow is that Maxis will claim that Bradshaw didn't actually say what she said. They'll focus on how SimCity V can't even be truly experienced in offline mode, which is why one doesn't exist. They won't explain how people can play for 20 minutes without an Internet connection, and they'll claim the anonymous developer is either misinformed or bitter.

I saw a comment (I think it may have been at RPS, but I'm not sure) where a user said "I wanted to buy a game, not a service." That is a perfect description of the problem here, at least for most of us. We wanted to buy a game, but EA didn't want to sell us a game. They only wanted to sell us a service, and in a semi-delightful bit of irony, the damned service doesn't even work.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Gridiron Solitaire #46: Simulation

I spent part of last week play-balancing the offseason, which went reasonably well. There are still a few tweaks needed, but the consensus was that the offseason is fun now, and challenging. And I have the league totals for ratings balanced for a 30-year dynasty without having to artificially trim or inflate ratings if they creep beyond a certain level, because the individual team budgets balance everything.

For the individual player, the budget is a control, plus the chances of a card busting increase with the number of wins the player had the previous season.

There's still a little work to do, to get it just right, but it's 90% of the way there in terms of balance, and I'm very happy with that for now.

I'm taking a look at various subsystems in the game, trying to improve them, and I worked on the game simulation engine last week. It was pretty primitive (and this was in its second iteration). Basically, I compared total team ratings, added home field advantage, used that to weight the odds, and then generated a random number to find out which team won.

To generate score, I had a table of all winning/losing NFL scores for several years, with about 1280 entries in each table. Putting every score into the table created a natural distribution of the scores. I generated a random number from 1 to 1280, looked up that position in the respective table and took the value as the score (for the losing score, if it exceeded the winning score, I genned another random number until it was smaller).

Like I said, that was pretty crude, but it did wind up with actual scores. The problem with generating scores at random (without the table) is that you can wind up with all kinds of scores that are almost never seen in a real football game.

The scores were so random, though--because there was no ratings influence--that it bothered me. And I felt like the sim results in terms of wins/losses needed to reflect the differences in team ratings more closely.

So I started studying how pointspreads reflect win chance, based on historical data. The win chance increases with a larger pointspread, but not in a linear manner.

That helped me understand what I needed to do. So now I calculate the difference between home/away ratings, add a home field advantage, and create a pointspread. Then, when I generate the random number to determine which team wins, I use the pointspread probabilities.

This is far more accurate, because in games with large ratings discrepancies, the chances of the better team winning are reflected in the pointspread. Before, it was a linear increase, but now, it accurately reflects historical data.

[And if this is all gibberish, it's me, not you. Eli 11.7 had the flu all last week, and he was down for the count in a way I haven't seen him for years. So it was a worrisome and exhausting week, and I'm still running on vapors, because now it's spring break. I'm ground down to a fine powder at this point.]

Okay, let's move on to score selection. I was particularly unhappy with how that was being done, because it didn't reflect ratings at all. Now, when a position in the table is generated via random number, that's only the initial position.

Let's do an example. Let's say the random number is 800. That position in the score table might correspond to 31 points. The position in the table is then adjusted based on the net offensive totals (total offense of team X - total defense of team Y). I find out how many positions in the table are above (if net offense is positive) or below (if net offense is negative), then calculate the adjustment.

So let's say at position 800, there are 480 positions available above it when the net offense is positive. So I take a percentage of the 480 positions (theoretically up to 40%, although the range is much more likely to be 1-15%) add add it to the original position, then retrieve the score.

That may not sound like much, but I just want to have an influence. So if the score originally generated is 24, a highly positive net offense number might move that upward to 28, or maybe even a little higher. Over the course of the season, that might be a +5 influence in net score for a team with a strong offense.

I go through the same basic procedure for the losing team, although the initial score that gets generated is below the score of the winning team.

Obviously, this is still limited. Trying to generate scores entirely based on ratings, though, creates its own problems, particularly using a 1-10 ratings scale. It would be very difficult to avoid a ton of very similar scores, and I don't want that.

I'll probably take one more pass at this, at some point, and I think I know what I'll be doing. What I need to do is generate a table that includes the winning margin of those 1280 games. Then I can generate a random number, modify it based on the net ratings difference, and use that number as the position to look up in the table.

Oh, hell, who am I kidding. I'll probably do that tomorrow. Then I can move on to something else.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from Sirius, and you have to see this: Meet Ravi, the Rubik’s Cube Juggler. Also, and these sound entirely delicious: Gourmet apples.

Next, and this link from Chris is an immediate bookmark: OCEARCH Global Shark Tracker. Yes, you can track the movements of individual sharks.

Jay Roe sent in a follow-up article to my drink lid/wobbly table post last week: How to stabilize a wobbly table. Mathematicians study everything.

From Jonathan Arnold, and these are beautiful: Shattered Glass Animals.

From Darrel Raines, and this is amazing: Cities at Night: An orbital tour around the world.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and someone had to do this: OREO Separator Machine #1. Also, and this is a remarkable short film: The 3rd Letter. Also, and this is absolutely tremendous: Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Arthur C. Clarke - God, The Universe and Everything Else.

From Francis Cermak, and this is a terrific article about Steve Sabol: How One Man Gave the NFL Its Modern Mythology.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, and this is incredible: First ever photo of alien planet forming. Also, and this is a wonderful story: Sports Illustrated Kids 2012 SportsKids of the Year.

From Brad Brasfield, and this is terrific: The Ocarina of Time Travel, Extra Dimensions and Branching Universes.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Not Us, But Us (update)

Jon Hui reminded me that there's a long article in the New York Times about the book titled The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, and it's an excellent read.

Several of you let me know that Gabe Newell may already be planning to do some of the things I mentioned yesterday:
"If you think of a game like Left For Dead - which was trying to put you into a sort of horror movie - if you don't change the experience of what the player is actually feeling then it stops being a horror game," Mr Newell explained.

"So you need to actually be able to directly measure how aroused the player is - what their heart rate is, things like that - in order to offer them a new experience each time they play."

It's not connected to an F2P game (yes, I used "FTP" about ten times yesterday, because "to" starts with a "T", but I'm stupid)--yet--but it's definitely the future. I do wonder if Valve might be a few years early with this kind of interaction, though. It's definitely happening, but I don't think it's going to happen now. Soon, though.

JF Boismenu also sent in a link to a story about "mirror neurons" and how they contribute to empathy (which is tied in to manipulating our emotions, although in this case it's in reference to The Walking Dead).

I think this is going to all move very, very quickly. Gabe may be early, but he's not way early.

Mini-Console Post

I just wanted to note what Sony has sold in the last month:
-- Sony sells DeNA shares for $438M
DeNa is a "Japanese mobile portal", according to Joystiq.
-- Sony agrees to sell US headquarters for $1.1 billion
That was a 37-story building on Madison Avenue, by the way.
-- Sony sells Tokyo office building for $1.2 billion

It doesn't take calculus to figure out that Sony needs cash. Their problem is that it's very expensive to issue bonds when your credit rating has been reduced to junk status, and servicing the debt would become considerably more costly, so they're turned to selling assets instead.

There's also a problem with selling assets like buildings, though. Both of those buildings, since they were in downtown NYC and Tokyo, are going to continue to rapidly appreciate in value. They're giving up future value--quite a lot of future value--to raise cash now.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Not Us, But Us

Let's start with a few excerpts:
"So I started asking gamers how frequently they would like to play this or that, trying to figure out which games they would find boring," he said. The answers he got were inconsistent. "They liked unique games, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the other hand, mundane games would never get them too excited, but they could play lots and lots without feeling they'd had enough." 

This contradiction would come to be known as "sensory-specific satiety." In lay terms, this is the tendency for innovation to overwhelm the brain, which responds by making you feel satiated really fast...The biggest hits--owe their success to gameplay that piques enough to be alluring but doesn't have enough distinction that says to the brain: Enough already! 

Are these excerpts from an exciting new book about gaming? Well, not exactly. They're modified excerpts from a book about food. Here are the actual excerpts:
"So I started asking soldiers how frequently they would like to eat this or that, trying to figure out which products they would find boring," he said. The answers he got were inconsistent. "They liked flavorful foods like turkey tetrazzini, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the other hand, mundane foods like white bread would never get them too excited, but they could eat lots and lots of it without feeling they'd had enough." 

This contradiction would come to be known as "sensory-specific satiety." In lay terms, this is the tendency for big distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by making you feel full, or satiated, really fast...The biggest hits--be they Coca-Cola or Doritos or Kraft's Velveeta Cheesy Skillets dinner kits--owe their success to formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don't have a distinct overriding single flavor that says to the brain: Enough already!

It's titled Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, and it is an absolutely fascinating, meticulous researched book. As I read it, though, I realized that the author was describing the present and future of gaming as much as he was describing the history of food. All it takes are a few edits here and there, and he's talking about what gaming is becoming.

He's also describing FTP games perfectly, because they're not a big experience. Like food, they're one bite at a time, and the only purpose of the present bite is to get you to want the next one. At no point does an FTP game want you to be fully satisfied.

Another concept in the book is the "bliss point":
 ...Moskowitz initially set out to learn how to maximize the power of sugar in foods, conducting the same kind of taste tests he designed at Harvard. With the resulting data he created graphs that, he noticed, looked like an inverted U. They showed that our liking of food rose as the amount of sugar was increased, but only to a point; after that peak, adding more sugar was not only a waste, it diminished the allure of the food.

So much of modern food research, by individual product, is finding the bliss point.

This gave me a scary thought (at least, it's scary to me). Ten years from now (hell, maybe five), there will be an FTP game that tracks how we play and dynamically adjusts gameplay for each of us based on what it calculates as our bliss point--in gaming terms, the level at which we buy the maximum amount of content.

That's done on an aggregate level now, but the knife is fairly blunt. Just wait --that knife is going to get very, very sharp.

This book also made me realize how closely related tobacco, food, and gaming really are in terms of behavioral modification, particularly for FTP games. Philip Morris bought Kraft and General Foods in the 1980s (Christ, that was practically money laundering, wasn't it?), and is it really impossible to imagine them buying Activision someday? What better platform to influence the eating habits and behavior of young consumers?

By the way, if you're interested in human behavior and/or food, "Salt Sugar Fat" is phenomenal. It's a mandatory read.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

SimCity V

Let me just say this: I love SimCity.

SimCity was a seminal experiences in my gaming history. I'm sure I put 200+ hours into SimCity 2000, in particular, and it was a game we all played. If you were playing games in 1994, you played SimCity 2000.

Releasing a new version of this game was guaranteed to be an absolute slam dunk. There was no way to mess this up. Even though I have very little time to play games right now, this game was going to be the exception. I was #1 in line.

There was no way for EA to mess this up.

Then EA announced that even for single-player, an online connection was always required. Like everyone else, they had an elaborate rationale for why this was necessary, of course never mentioning that it was primarily to reduce piracy.

Would the online requirement make this a better game? No. And that's the problem.

Still, I was in, and I DESPISE always-on DRM. Don't want anything to do with having to install Origin. Still,  I was in, although I was almost touching the fence.

I built massive cities in previous versions of the game. I built a city the size of Tokyo. Then I saw the map sizes for SimCity V. Basically capped out at 300k for a single city, and that's if you're incredibly efficient.

I'm paying $60, at least, to build the 63rd largest city in the United States? I'm paying that much money to build Stockton, California, or St. Paul?

That put me on the fence. Seriously, an always-online requirement and map sizes one-tenth as large, and that just moved me to the fence? What is wrong with me?

That's the emotional connection I have with the game.

I almost stayed up last night because the game was apparently unlocking at midnight or something. Didn't quite make it, but I figured I'd get it this afternoon. Then I saw the article over at RPS: Gamers Line Up To Play SimCity, along with a screenshot from the game and this absolutely unforgettable bit of text:

Let me translate the rest of the original text into a more accurate version:
Your DRM server is experiencing very high volume. You are now in a DRM queue. The play button will become active once DRM is available. To possibly reduce the authentication delay, select another DRM server.

I am off the fence.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Gridiron Solitaire #45: Finally (Finally)

Yeah, it took a few more days, actually.

First, I wound up removing all text that indicated card ratings. It just didn't look right, and it was marring the layout, which I was very pleased with otherwise. However, that introduced another issue: without text, how could I communicate the value of the card that was +/-2, depending on the outcome roll?

New look:

Instead of numbers, value is now shown via stars at the top of the card. Much cleaner, and I have a universally positive reaction to stars. I wish my life had more of them, the kind that the elementary school teachers used to peel and stick on papers for good grades.

Also, if you look at the middle card, you'll see that biohazard symbol to the left. That warns you that the card can go negative as well as positive (and I'm adding the little help referee with a dialogue box to explain that).

Next, Fredrik finished the final accountant image for the reveal. Here's how he looks:

He's watching the draft on television, with the adding machine smoking in the background. If you enlarge that image, you'll see a terrific amount of detail in the accountant's face (no surprise, because Fredrik is so talented).

I also rewrote the CPU AI for the offseason last week. The original AI was solid enough to work, and probabilities were shaded for teams to improve their worst ratings over time, but lots of what happened was based on the randomness of the rolls.

I wasn't happy with how teams evolved over time, because I didn't feel like enough teams had distinctive styles. So I rewrote the AI to have them use the same system as the human player does now--they get a budget, and they buy cards based on their budget. Cards can go bust, just as for the human player, and their priorities can change based on how successful they are as a team.

Here's how CPU priorities are determined, and it's really simple. There are basically two strategies: "same" and "new". With the "same" strategy, teams will improve their best and worst ratings first. With a "new" strategy, they'll improve their two worst ratings first.

How does a team determine its strategy? The chances of a team defecting to the "new" strategy rise with each loss, so a team with 12 losses has a much higher chance of defecting than a team with 3, for example.

There's more to it than that, but it's a basic outline of what's going on now. And it should mean that teams develop distinctive styles, as well as more teams with at least one very high rating, which makes it more like teams in the real world.

Now that the offseason is really, REALLY done, I've revised the help screens, and I'm starting on the dynamic help for offense and defense this afternoon. I'm slowly working myself into a stronger position as the major changes have taken place. Now I just want to optimize the sub-systems (like the sound engine, where I'm going to make one more pass) and get ready for the second beta.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Friday Links!

From C. Lee, and this is a fascinating bit of history: “A Great City’s People Forced to Drink Swill” … 50 years later. Also, and this is shocking: As Families Change, Korea’s Elderly Are Turning to Suicide.

From Aaron Ward, and this is an amazing piece of technology: A keyboard that rises up from flat touch screens.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is a fascinating video about color, it's Is Your Red The Same as My Red? Also, and this tremendously affecting and poignant, it's To This Day Project. Also, and this is a wonderful, touching animated film: My Strange Grandfather.

From Sirius, and these are nothing short of incredible: Close-up card tricks.

From Dan Willhite, and this is irresistible:Eddie the slam-dunking sea otter at the Oregon Zoo. Also, and this is excellent, it's Departing Space Station Commander Provides Tour of Orbital Laboratory.

From J.R. Parnell, and this is both long and left me speechless: Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us. This also left me speechless, but in a good way: Alice Finch Builds Massive LEGO Hogwarts From 400000 Bricks.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, and this is a story about quite a badass, it's The Runner: Fauja Singh ran his first marathon at age 89 and became an international sensation. Now 101 years old, he will run his final race on Sunday in Hong Kong -- and try to find peace with a Guinness World Records slight.

From Nate Carpenter, and this is brilliant: 'Speed Painter' Takes Stage in 'Anderson's Viewers Got Talent'.

From Jeff Fowler, and this is utterly cool: j.viewz playing Teardrop with vegetables.

From DQ Reader My Mom, and these images are beautiful: Must-See Photographs February 2013.

From John Willcocks, and this is quite brilliant: How big is space?

From Robin Clarke, and this is quite incredible, it's Goats Yelling Like Humans.

From Kez, and this is just crazy: Polar bears and dogs playing. Plus, and this might be even crazier: Chinese Entrepreneur Offers Canned Designer Air to Citizens Suffering From Smog. One more, and it's a tremendous animated short: The Reward.

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