Monday, April 30, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire: Headlines

Before we get started, here's a development update. The additional functionality that I was adding to the offseason Human GM screen (discussed in last Monday's post) is now finished. It took a few days longer than I expected (everything does), because I tweaked some visual elements and added a little chrome, but it's completed and tested now.

This week, the big item on the list is the final significant feature I want added to the game: headlines. When you finish playing a game, and return to the Team Hub, I want a newspaper/web headline pop-up that notes the outcome of the game as well as a sub-headline that digs a little deeper into what happened. So, for instance, the headline might look like this:
Lobsters Rout Whales, 34-31
Dominant rushing attack keys victory

The process for determining the main headline is fairly straightforward-- take the final score, as well as the score by quarters, then evaluate that information  against a tier of events, from most to least important. The sub-headline, though, is considerably more complex, although it also uses the basic idea of a tier. Here's the tier I'm working with now for the sub-headline:
1. score in last two minutes to take lead
2. score in last four minutes to take lead
3. low score in rain or snow
--under 30 points total, neither team over 20
4. score by periods or half
--one half with > +14 or < -14 margin
--one period with > +14 or < -14 margin, no other period net > +3 or < -3
5. Stats
--rush
--pass
--turnover
--net rush
--net pass
--net turnover

Basically, those tiers are in order of importance, so if #1 happened in the game, it's the basis of the sub-headline.  If it didn't,  I move onto condition  #2, and so forth.

#5, stats, is where it gets considerably more complicated.  Each stat listed has its own tiers. I define a "normal" range, then give the variation outside the normal range a level rating based on the degree of variance.  So each of the stats winds up with its own level rating, and I use the stat corresponding to the highest level rating as the basis of the sub-headline.

If that sounded like gibberish, all I'm basically doing is identifying which stat was most unusual for the game, and thus most likely to influence the outcome.

If you're a football fan, it's very easy to look at a box score and know what most influenced a game's outcome. However, translating that into rules and writing code based on those rules is a different matter entirely. It's time-consuming.

Plus, there aren't going to be 20 possible headlines. At a minimum, there need to be many hundreds or even thousands. There's nothing worse as a player than seeing a feature in a game that's kind of neat, initially, but that repeats itself in short order.

That doesn't mean I'm going to write 500 or 1,000 separate headlines. It's very inefficient to do it that way. Instead, I'll have several levels of compatible phrases, all of which combine with each other to product appropriate headlines. It's possible to generate thousands of distinct headlines that way.

Why does this even matter? Why does a headline feature even need to be in the game? It's a reward for the player, for one thing. Plus, it's an outside evaluation of what the player has just done, and I think that makes people more competitive. When I win a game big, I'm looking forward to that headline describing my dominance. And if I lose big, I'm dreading the description.

Most importantly, it gives a player a sense that the gameworld world exists beyond him. It adds depth to the world. That's also why there is a league structure, and why I spent so much time developing a sim engine that generates "accurate" statistics based on team ratings. I want players to be part of a larger world that feels real.

There will also be a headline feature after the player plays the GM mini-game in the offseason. "FREE AGENT FLOP" or "DRAFT DISASTER" will be annoying, in a good way, and "TITLE HEADED TO MEMPHIS" or "THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT IN PORTLAND" (I just made those up, obviously--they're not actual headlines) will be a nice reward.

I'm anticipating that this feature will take 15-20 hours to code and debug (that's a full week, at a minimum). And yes, it's something that the player will only see for 5 seconds after a game or offseason. But the games I enjoy most pay an enormous amount of attention to details. I don't want what I make to be any different.

Next week: determinance and uncertainty as they relate to gameplay.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday Links!

From Matt Sbonik, and these are stunning images: Never-before-seen photos from 100 years ago tell vivid story of gritty New York City.

From Jim, and these are terrific: inside the controllers.

From Steven Kreuch, and this is a touching story of forgiveness: A teacher, a student and a 39-year-long lesson in forgiveness.

From D.F. Prosser, and these are wonderful: Creative Dad Takes Crazy Photos Of Daughters.

From Syndi Riley, and let me just say this: if you see a shark eat a two-pound can of coffee, swim away. Quickly.

From Griffin Cheng, and if it involves Game Theory, I'm in:
game theory in action in a game show.

From Keith Schleicher, and this is a great "slice of life in days gone by" story: Behold the water slide so dangerous it was shut down immediately.

From Meg McReynolds, and this is just fantastic: Stunning Footage of an Alien Planet: Earth.

Gridiron Solitaire artist Fredrik Skarstedt sent in a link to the Valve Employee Handbook , which must be the greatest place to work in the world.

From Jeremy Fishcer, and this is quite remarkable: IBM creates breathing, high-density, light-weight lithium-air battery. Also, and I don't recommend this as a career choice, it's snake noodling.

Closing out this week, several excellent links from Michael M. First, and these are stunning, it's New Titanic Pictures Mark 25th Anniversary of Discovery. Also, this is quite incredible: Little boy lost finds his mother using Google Earth. Finally, this guy should work for Southwest Airlines ("if you wish to smoke, please go outside the airplane" is a classic):Air Asia Safety Announcement.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Your Wayback Machines

You guys sent in some terrific e-mail in response to the Amiga 500/TV Sports: Football post yesterday.

First, from Dave Shcroeder, and this will be hard to top:
I bought my Amiga 500 closer to when it came out (around 1987). The game that made me have to have it was Cinemaware's Defender of the Crown. I distinctly remember the way some torches illuminated a brick wall...I had never seen anything like it. So I promptly sold my beloved 1983 Mustang GT in order to get one. It had the rear window louvers, the smoked headlight covers, the Lebra front end protector...all the gaudy add-ons that helped make the 80's Big. I was 21 and in my prime dating years (such as they were) but the draw of the Amiga 500 was such that I decided to drive my Mom's beat-up '79 Cutlass instead.

Man, I thought I wanted an Amiga. I was nothing!

Next is Jeremy Trim, and he has a wonderful memory as well:
 I have the same (or maybe greater) love for the Amiga as you described there. I too remember the first time I saw the Amiga on demo in a store called “Wizards” in the mall. It was showing a looping animation of one of those little contraptions with the balls hanging on strings, as one ball bounces into the group shooting the other ball swinging. I was mesmerized by the realism of those graphics. I probably spent countless hours standing in the hallway staring into the display window just watching whatever demo was currently running on those things. That store was an all Amiga shop, so going in I could find many Amigas, all running some sort of demo or other. I remember one showing still images in a sort of slide show.

I was in 8th grade, and I begged my parents all year for one. They finally gave in and I got my first Amiga 500. The first games I got the day I picked up the machine was “Space Ace” and “Impossible Mission”. I had to wait for my 1 meg RAM module upgrade to come in before I would be able to get Space Ace to run, but I booted Impossible Mission and when the disk finally stopped buzzing and whirring, I was greeted with “Another Visitor.... Stay awhile...... Stay FOREVER! HAHAHAHAHA!” That blew my freaking mind! My computer actually TALKED to me! it was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me up to that point in my life.

I can image the look on his face, because the first time I actually booted up TV Sports: Football, I'm sure my face looked the same way.

Next, from Jonathan:
Thanks for your write-up on TV Sports Football! I was 9, going on 10, when my Dad brought home our first IBM computer, along with TV Sports Football back in 1990. I was a gigantic football fan at that age and my only previous exposure to video game football was from Football on the Intellevision. Lets just say that TV Sports Football blew that game out of the water in every way. I was in football heaven. I played everyday after school and I remember walking to school the next morning and hearing the sound effects in my head. I have vague memories of editing the rosters many times and creating my own schedules and tournaments for all the different teams.

I played exclusively for a few years until my Dad picked up Joe Montana Football, but even then I always went back to TV Sports Football. I still have the box sitting on a shelf in the basement and I'm looking forward to telling my 2 year old son about the origins of my gaming career when he is old enough to appreciate it.

I remember the PC version, but it must have been hell to port, because IBM-compatibles were incredibly limited (at the time) compared to the Amiga.

TV Sports: Football was one of those games that was uniformly magical for anyone who played it.

One last story, and while this isn't an Amiga story, it's a terrific memory:
I'll never forget Star Control II. It was the first game I played with a SoundBlaster 16 card, and it absolutely blew me away. Gone were the beeps and bloops from the internal PC speakers. I'd never heard video games sound like that before (it didn't hurt that the game really DID have just an incredible score).

Of course, music was only part of what engrossed me. 'Engrossed' is a gross understatement: this game took my mind and imagination for ransom and heartily flipped off anyone who dared negotiate. The day I installed the game, I didn't leave the computer for something like 18 hours--not to eat, pee, anything. I kept a spiral-bound notebook full of notes, and by the end of the game I had scribbled secrets on every page, front and back. My character wasn't the only one on a crusade to save the galaxy from the Ur-Quan: that was ME in there, flying through quasi-space, discovering new worlds and freeing civilizations. If I found one of the fabled Rainbow Worlds, hot DAMN if that wasn't a discovery to get excited about!

By the end of the game I really felt like I'd completed a massive journey. My 14 year-old self had never played--no, ENDURED--anything quite like it. I know that's not rose-tinted glasses talking, either, because 20 years later I can honestly say I still haven't. And if that game had come out in this generation? I'm sure the temptation of the internet would be mighty hard to resist, when I got stuck. Would it be nice to have somewhere to turn? Sure, but it'd take away the triumphs of discovery. Online forums provide the camaraderie that only fellow geeks can share, but what if the journey is one you're meant to experience alone? And that awesome music? I'll admit it's awesome to live in the future where I can have that on my iPhone, but there was something to be said for having that tied to the game. Back then, if I wanted to hear the Yehat theme, that just meant getting to dive back in and immerse myself in the game again!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Wayback Machine

It's 1989.

I'm already gaming-crazy, thanks to playing Ultima IV on the Apple II, then Bards Tale 2 on the Apple IIGS.

Then, I walked into a Software Etc. one night, and they had an Amiga 500 on display.

The Amiga 500 was and still is the most advanced gaming machine in history compared to its peers. It was a quantum leap.

I didn't know that yet, though.

I saw a computer in the corner that was obviously a demo unit, and walked over to take a look. Here's what I saw:


It was the greatest thing I'd ever seen in my life.

Plus, the sound effects! They were amazing. It looked just like a televised football game, and it sounded like one, too.

The game, of course, was TV Sports: Football. 11-on-11 football. Full season football, with playoffs. Beautiful graphics. Wonderful animation. Incredible sound.

Because of this game, I had to have an Amiga 500. I didn't "want" an Amiga. It was much, much more than that. And I went into debt to buy it, and it was so totally worth it. IBM games of that era had EGA (16 colors) or even CGA (4 colors) graphics. And the sound was beeps and boops.

The Amiga 500? 4,096 colors. 4-channel sound. As Eli would say, the Amiga 500 was beast. Beast!

By the time I was done, I'd played over 20 full seasons and 300+ games of TV Sports: Football. I eventually played a ton of other games on the Amiga 500, but that was the first and always my favorite.

By itself, that doesn't sound so different from anyone who finds a game and plays it for 100+ hours today.

The time, though, was quite different.

The Internet didn't exist. There were bulletin boards, but I never went on them, because that required a modem, which was a space-age piece of equipment I couldn't really afford.

Because there was no Internet, games didn't have online strategy guides. Or wikis. Or anything. And because of that, exploring a game was a great adventure.

One of my best friends at the time lived in the same apartment complex, and he came over every night after I got home from work and we played TV Sports: Football for 3-4 hours. Every night, for months.

We discovered stuff.

The game had a playing field that scrolled, but we didn't know that at first. The first 100+ games I played, I never threw a pass that made the screen scroll, because I didn't know you could. You moved the passing cursor with the joystick to target where you wanted to throw the ball, and my target was always inside the confines of the screen.

One night, though, on the last play of the half, my friend moved the passing target and just kept moving it until it was off the screen and out of sight. Then he passed, and to our amazement, the ball kept moving when it reached the top of the screen, the screen started scrolling, and his receiver caught the pass over 40 yards downfield.

We talked about that for days.

Something else we discovered: linebackers could sometimes "squeeze" between defensive lineman prior to the ball being snapped, and if they could, they could then rush the quarterback without being blocked. You just found the hole, moved the linebacker back a little, and timed the snap.

In two-player mode, it added an entire new dimension to play, because it forced the person on offense to have check-down routes and all kinds of things that normally weren't needed. Plus, there was that second or two of dread after your buddy found the hole between the defensive lineman.

It was one of my favorite things in the game, and we found it completely by accident. There was no one to tell us--we didn't even know anyone else who was playing the game.

There was also a bug.

After touchdowns, a little cut scene with a dancing cheerleader would load from the 3.5" floppy disk. Every once in a while, this would white-screen the game, and there was nothing you could do but reboot.

This happened a few times during "critical" games, and I finally decided to contact Cinemaware. If I remember correctly, I spoke to a very nice lady at the company, described what had been happening, and she said they had a "patch" for that very problem and would send me replacement disks in the mail.

A week later, they arrived. That was a best-case scenario of how patches worked in the old days.

The white-screen problem was fixed, but something else was gone as well: sneaky linebackers. That "squeezing" feature had actually been a bug!

Back then, gaming was a voyage of discovery. Every game was a secret world.

Back then, I felt like Columbus. Now, it feels like we're all in one massive tour group, with guides everywhere to tell us where we should be looking.

It's not worse today, necessarily. Just different.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Assorted

Dan Spezzano let me know that he has started a new website called Maximum Pixelation, focusing on board games, but with PC and mobile gaming as well. I checked out the site and its pleasingly design, with plenty of content.

Last week I included this line in a post: "Christ, did used games kill Kennedy, too?" In response, reader Jamers Prendergast sent in this:


Draw your own conclusions.

Gloria sent me a link yesterday to an article  in our local newspaper about a new Austin gaming company: called Escape Hatch Entertainment. They have a Kickstarter project for Starlight Inception. Here's a description from the Kickstarter page:
You assume the role of a young space fighter pilot assigned to the star carrier U.S.F. Independence, deploying to hotspots throughout the Solar System during World War IV.

Starlight Inception is a realistic and relevant 1st person (both with cockpit and without) / 3rd person strategic and tactical space combat experience. It has a unique blend of action with an involving storyline. Features include ship based combat both in space and on planets and moons, interplanetary exploration, and multiplayer dogfighting.

You had me at extrapolated Wing Commander.

Weeds

Like I said a few weeks ago, I installed a palette of grass in our front yard.

The problem with new grass is that it has to be watered. A lot. It takes about half an hour to water the yard by hand, and that's the only way you see where more or less water might be needed.

Farmer stuff.

The grass looks like it's establishing okay, but there are weeds interspersed in the new grass. Pulling weeds is a pain in the ass--kneel down, pull out the weed, walk over to the sidewalk, put it in the weed pile. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Then, when you're done, pick up the weed pile, open the garage, open the trash can, put weeds inside.

Good grief. I didn't get a PhD in Lazy for nothing. Wait, because it was in Lazy, I guess I did.

Later, I saw Gloria in her study.

"Hey, did I tell you about my gardening innovation?" I asked.

"Noooo," she said.

"I needed to weed the front yard, but it's way too complicated," I said. "So I just pulled a weed, then put it on top of my car. When I was finished, I went inside and got ready for work. I came out, drove to work, and when I got to Einstein's, the weeds were gone."

"OH MY GOD," she said (a common refrain when I am describing my "innovation" to here). "Those weeds must be in the entire neighborhood now."

Not true, probably, since I mostly drive on a highway to work, but I feel like Johnny Appleweed. I can work with that.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Screen Four

This isn't totally final, but here's the "basic" final look:


(click to see a larger image)

I think this layout works pretty well. The banners highlight the actions you can take (in addition to just selecting cards), and Fredrik also suggested something that was very, very clever: blurring the background to make your options in the foreground jump forward in comparison.

This will probably be revised one more time (I'm still not totally satisfied), but it's close to being exactly what I. Now that I look at it one more time, I'll lower the pick stars so that their bottom lines up with the banner points. That will make the top look less cluttered and clean things up a bit.

Now that the layout is changed, I can go in and change the code-behind to support the new options. That sounds trivial, but the shaky way I code, nothing is trivial.

Gridiron Solitaire: a Tale of Four Screens

Today we're going to talk about the off-season mini-game as well as the development process. Let's get started.

Everything in the game needs to have substance. A decision without impact or consequences isn't a decision--it's just busywork. Busywork makes games feel repetitive and makes people quit playing them. I want Gridiron Solitaire to be the kind of game that people can play for months or even years, but for that to happen, everything must have substance.

The offseason, for example.

It would be simpler to just go from one season to the next with nothing in-between. The CPU team ratings already change each year, so it would be easy to do that for the human team as well. But who wants their team ratings to change without them having any say in the process?

So the offseason mini-game was born.

Here's the original concept: create a "franchise deck" with hundreds of different cards, each one of which represents a player who could improve one of your team ratings (run offense, pass offense, run defense, pass defense, or special ). However, the improvement isn't guaranteed--there's a "bomb" factor for each card, so it's possible that your team ratings might actually decrease.

That's what the real-world draft and free agency are like. Every player has an upside, but every player also has a risk. Also, the worse your team record from the previous season, the better your cards will be (representing a higher position in the draft). It's not absolute-- everything is based on probabilities--but in general, the worse your team played, the better your cards.

Each card has a +/-rating to represent their potential, as well as a grade (A through F) to represent the risk of playing the card.

Five cards are dealt, and the player plays three. There's one card for each team rating, and the ratings you don't play cards for automatically decreae their rating by 1 point (1-10 scale).

I know--that's a lot of information--so take a look at a screenshot:


To give the cards more personality, each one has a band name, with a positive and negative song from that band. And there's a player description (which is hopefully also full of personality).

I like this screen because because it's self-evident. Most people would come to the screen for the first time and have no problem playing the mini-game. Plus, to me, it's attractive. It's a reasonably nice-looking screen.

So I was very pleased with that, and the mini-game as well, in the first pass. After a couple of months, though, I started thinking more about the long-term player. In terms of gameplay, the mini-game is very vanilla. It's also not nearly as interesting as pro football in real life, where there's all kinds of wheeling and dealing in the offseason.

Well, that's not too hard to fix. I thought of two additional options: one, the player can move a pick from next season into this season (to give him four instead of three--BUT he'll lose one pick next year). Two, the player can improve the quality of all of his cards one letter grade in exchange for losing two draft picks next year.

No, you can't upgrade your cards and also pull in an additional pick from next season. Nice try, min-maxers.

This gives you some interesting options, particularly because the quality of your cards is loosely based on your team's record from the previous season. If you went 3-12 last season, your cards will most likely have higher letter grades (and a few +2 or maybe even +3 possibilities), so trading for an additional pick when the cards are strong is a solid strategy.

At the opposite end, if you went 12-3, your cards will be weaker, maybe significantly so. Improving all of them by one letter grade might well be worth the cost of losing two picks next season.

I think the additional options more fully reflect the pro football offseason, so that's good. And it makes the mini-game more challenging, with more decisions.

There are, however, complications.

Let's try laying out that screen to add the new options. Here's the first pass:


(that screenshot is taken from a layout testbed I use, which doesn't include all of the code-behind, which is why the cards don't have descriptions etc.)

Hmm. Setting off the additional options in their own shaded areas seems to work (and "picks remaining" is a good addition), but man, that screen is cluttered now--it has to be better looking than that. I know that in terms of functionality, this is totally unimportant, but a game is more than just its functionality. Plus, it's no longer self-evident.

I do two things at this point: send it to the project artist Fredrik Skarstedt and ask him for suggestions, and send it to John Harwood and ask him as well.

The next day (today), Fredrik sends me this:


The screen is still busy, but I really like the "banner" approach to the additional gameplay options. Very nice. Plus, it's very clever that he slightly blurred the background so that the gameplay options stand out more sharply. There's one thing I don't like, which is how close the banner points are to the cards (it makes me think that the banner option applies to just the card at which they're pointing). I'm also not sure about the shape around the picks remaining stars, even though it's quite stylish.

I think I can hybridize his vision and my vision into something that I want, though.

I send Fredrik's image to John, and he doesn't like the closeness of the banner points to the cards, either. He makes a very clever suggestion, though: cut a few words out of the text and make the banners a little wider. That would create more space between the banner points and the cards.

Combined, I think that will work. And I will put up the fourth screenshot later today, when it's finished.

This is kind of a typical example of how things have gone for me in the development process (once I learned enough XAML and VB.Net to actually program the damn thing). The mini-game probably only takes 2-3 minutes to play each offseason, but I've spent 30+ hours on the layout, the card deck, and the code-behind. I want every second that someone spends in the game to be both pleasant and interesting, and creating that experience can take a long time.

Okay, I owe you a screenshot. I'm going to start working on it now.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Friday Links!

Sorry about the late posting for European readers today--stupid Blogger auto-post has been hit-or-miss for the last few weeks.

From Griffin Cheng, and this is entirely mind-blowing, it's A quantum network built with two atoms and fiber optic cable.

From Peter Pseudonym, and this is a fantastic idea, it's Announcing the Liberated Pixel Cup: an epic contest for gaming freedom.

From DQ Visual Basic Advisor Garret Rempel, and this must be the single most fabulous coin in the entire world: Dinosaur - 25-Cent Coloured Glow-in-the-dark Coin. It's from Canada, naturally.

From Steven Davis, another ingenious "Design For Hack" in medicine. Also, and this is amazing, it's Young Kenyan Maker Develops Lion-B-Gone. One more, and it's tremendously clever: Silly Putty for Potholes.

From Jaby Jacob, and these Civil War-era images are absolutely incredible (and some are quite graphic--be warned):
The Civil War, Part 1: The Places
The Civil War, Part 2: The People
The Civil War, Part 3: The Stereographs

Wait, one more from Jaby, and it's wonderful: another example of the power of music .

He's back! Matt Sakey returns, and the new installment of Culture Clash is U Know U a Playa.

From Kez, and this is a wonderful story: boy with leukemia gets to be Batman for a day . Next, a classic headline: Bird poo tower could prove research goldmine.

From DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh, and this goes right into the Headline Hall of Fame: Forest Service may blow up frozen cows in cabin.

From Eric Higgins-Freese, and this is entirely outstanding: Magnifying The Universe.

From David Gloier, and this is quite amazing: Buried Treasure: World War II Spitfires to Be Unearthed in Burma.

From Brian Whalen, and this may take a while: How to build a Dyson sphere in five (relatively) easy steps.

From Rob Funk, and this is fascinating: Simple nests of apes are complex feats of engineering.

From Michael Hughes, and is probably the biggest and most stylish f-you in literary history: the end of the world of books.

From Sirius, and I'm speechless: Computers powered by swarms of crabs.

Finishing up this week, from Jeremy Fischer: Osprey--the ultimate fisher.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

PVP

That would be penis, vagina, penis.

Eli 10.8 is tired. He's been tired for about 3-4 weeks. Now, it's true that with Eli, "tired" is a relative term. For example, he scored two goals and had an assist in his soccer scrimmage Tuesday, then he went directly to hockey practice and had 70+ saves in one hour of 3-on-3.

He was, however, tired the whole time. And he's really been dragging in soccer games, with almost none of his regular energy. Gloria took him to the doctor on Wednesday, and he had blood drawn today, just to make sure that nothing is out of sorts (I think our general consensus is anemia, but that's just speculation).

We play tennis every Friday, and we go at it pretty hard, but last Friday, we only played for about 30 minutes. Eli was just dead tired, he wasn't enjoying himself, and we decided to quit and do something else that would be more fun. In the car, I started talking.

"Hey, if you don't feel better by early next week, I think you should go to the doctor," I said. "It's probably nothing, but it would be nice to make sure."

"Could it be serious?" he asked.

"I doubt it," I said. "Although it could be E.O.P.D.S."

"What?"

"Early Onset Penis Dropoff Syndrome," I said.

"WHAT?" I snuck a peek into the backseat and he was laughing so hard that he'd turned sideways. "DAD! OH MY GOD!"

"You didn't know about this?" I asked.

"Oh, COME ON," he said.

"Your baby penis is like your baby teeth," I said. "You get to a certain age, and it drops off. Then, your adult penis grows in."

"This is not happening," he said. "NOT REAL."

"Then you put it under your pillow and the Penis Fairy gives you money," I said. "You don't want to know what her hat looks like."

He was laughing so hard that he could barely breathe. "You are ridiculous," he said between gasps.

"I just want you to have all the facts," I said.

That's the "P".

Last night, the three of us were watching hockey together. Sort of.

"Trying to watch hockey here," I said. Eli had been talking nonstop for about 20 minutes.

"Sor-r-r-y," he said.

"Hockey talk is fine," I said. "Elfen castles and tunnels across Alaska are not." Gloria started laughing, because Eli will talk about anything once he gets started.

Silence for ten seconds.

"In health class, now we're talking about the 'female organs'," Eli said. "Oh my God-- it's so embarrassing."

"Are there girls in your health class?" I asked.

"No," he said, "but it's still embarrassing, even with just boys. And we can't giggle when they show us stuff. No giggling." He paused. "And tomorrow, we have to color in A VAGINA."

"So this was kind of my point," I said.

"What?"

"I'm trying to watch hockey, and the conversation is about--vaginas." Gloria and Eli both started laughing.

"Honey, I'm sure the girls are embarrassed, too," Gloria said. "They probably have to color in a penis."

"Outstanding," I said. "Now we're talking about vaginas AND penises."

There's the "V" and the "P".

By the way, Eli was watching a commercial last night, and when he saw a woman wearing a very unattractive dress, he said, "That dress is HEINOUS." He paused. "Is 'heinous' a combination of 'hideous' and 'anus'?"

"It is now," I said.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Day With No Pain

For you, anyway. Yesterday's post took so long to put together that I'm not putting up anything today except this.

Because I'm not writing today, though, good things are happening with Gridiron Solitaire.

I also just read a wonderful article on the untimely and tragic demise of marathoner and Olympic gold medalist Sammy Wanjiru, one of the greatest runners I ever saw. The article is in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, but it's not on their website yet, so unfortunately I can't provide a link. This passage, though, is staggering:
It's hard to come up with any measure sufficient to characterize the strength of the Kenyan marathon army, but try this: Sixteen American men in history have run faster than 2:10 (a 4:58 pace per mile); 38 Kenyan men did it in October.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Real Cost Of Bullshit

You may have heard a few weeks ago that both Sony and Microsoft are considering next-gen implementations that would eliminate the existence of used games. For some reason, this has been coined "the nuclear option".

In response to the consumer kerfuffle, THQ's Richard Browne weighed in, and he's all in favor of killing the used game market. Unfortunately, his logic was errant (in the places where he used logic at all).

Let's take a look, and I'm not quoting the entire piece, because it's quite lengthy (hell, even the excerpts are lengthy). Here's the first excerpt:
...if you want to hear about nuclear options, GameStop fired theirs first. A colleague of mine brought to light how bad this has become just the other week. He went into his local GameStop and was point blank REFUSED the option of buying the game he went to get new. After pressuring the sales assistant for a few minutes he finally got his new game - but only after the assistant got his manager's approval to sell it to him. That's the state of retail today, and it's not healthy for the consumer at all.

Yes, it's certainly fair to say that one anecdote from your colleague is representative of the "state of retail" today.

Next:
The real cost of used games is the damage that is being wrought on the creativity and variety of games available to the consumer, and it's directly a result of these practices. Developers and publishers alike now spend many hours working on constructs, systems and game design elements to try and eliminate the churn of a game. Whether this be online passes, copious amounts of DLC, or gating mechanisms, one thing is for sure - it doesn't benefit the consumer...But more to the point - do I really want talented studios spending their time designing and implementing this rather than polishing the game?

Wait, what? Because of used games, "talented studios" can't polish their games? Huzzah whah?

Look, I don't disagree that revenue models for companies have changed to focus more on post-purchase opportunities. And I agree that online passes certainly exist because of used games. But I have seen zero evidence that the massive money grab that is DLC is caused by used games, because there isn't any evidence.

This is the beginning of the "bogeyman" section of Browne's screed. The used games market is responsible for every shitty thing gaming companies do. Every single one. Used games cause it all.

Moving on:
The real cost of used games is the death of single player gaming. How do I stop churn? I implement multiplayer and attempt to keep my disc with my consumer playing online against their friends. It works wonderfully for Call of Duty - no doubt it can work wonderfully for me. The problem is, at what cost? Countless millions of dollars would be the answer. Let's take a great example, one of my favorite game series released on this generation - Uncharted. What on Earth was the point of taking the completely single player experience of Uncharted 1 and bolting on an entirely new game to Nathan Drake's second adventure? The multiplayer game (brilliantly executed as one would expect of the Naughty Dog team) had absolutely nothing to do with the single player experience, and from my perspective had absolutely zero interest from me as a consumer, and I'm not alone in that. I hate to think what it cost to make, refine, balance and tune - but I can guarantee it added a whole lot of zeroes to the budget, and made the P&L look a lot more challenging. And it's all aimed at stopping the game churn. Now a lot of people probably derived a lot of enjoyment out of it, and in Uncharted's case it seemed to have no material effect on the quality of the single player experience - but I'd say Uncharted is most certainly the outlier in this because few people have the resources of Sony and Naughty Dog.

This would be what I call "the arms race", and it has nothing to do with used games and everything to do with Call Of Duty and World Of Warcraft. COD and WOW are lifestyle games. If Gamer X has a limited gaming "budget" in terms of time, and he gets immersed in a lifestyle game, he's not going to play much else. Isn't it equally possible that Sony wanted to turn Uncharted into a lifestyle game instead of a simple experience because of the competition, not because of used games? And by the way, it WAS a simple experience: a 10-hour campaign, roughly.

This is a chicken and egg question, really, and while Brown argues that used games caused this, I can argue just as effectively that there are still plenty of successful games with lengthy and satisfying single-player campaigns--what's changed is that certain genres (FPS, in particular) have gutted the length of their single-player campaigns in the last decade. Why? Because they figured out that a rich multiplayer experience creates far more franchise loyalty as gamers play their game every day instead of exhausting a single-player campaign in short order. There's a social aspect to multiplayer gaming that can make a franchise much, more popular.

That has everything to do with the social experience and nothing to do with used games.

Continuing on:
The real cost of used games? Let's take someone like Tim Schafer. Tim works his genius in the video game medium primarily through selling fantastic stories in fantastic worlds, and primarily these experiences are single player games. Tim walks into publisher X and puts his latest, greatest piece of work on the table with a decent mid-range budget. It doesn't stand a chance. What you'll hear in response to that is that publishers are too risk averse. This simply isn't the case; publishers have to deal with P&Ls in reality, and they know the minute that pitch has finished that Tim's game will sell a few hundred thousand copies and then get endlessly churned.

Oh, come on. Tim Schafer is indeed a genius, but his games havne't sold that well, and there's no evidence that it was because of "churn". And in truth, both Psychonauts and Brutal Legend were incredibly creative but very uneven experiences.

As gaming has gotten more popular and become far more mass market, guys like Tim Schafer have been squeezed out. Publishers want big, big hits, not marginal hits. Tim Schafer has delivered a series of fascinating game, but you know what? He's not great with the 15-25 year old demographic. Know what is? Call of Duty.

There seem to be two major demographics being chased right now: bros (Call of Duty, Madden) and hos (the casual gaming market, for which women are a prized, prized demographic). Does that have anything to do with used games? No.

We've almost reached the end of Brown's piece. Hang in there. Next:
The real cost of used games? The variety of games out there is shrinking. Existing franchises that have been successful on a single player formula are being redesigned out of their element to introduce multiplayer features. Resident Evil is now a tactical shooter. Resident. Evil...So we now have a situation where risk is being eliminated from a publisher's purview. You simply cannot afford risk, since the console business has become a complete hit or miss scenario where hits are well rewarded but misses are potentially crippling. Is less choice and less variety of software beneficial to the consumer? Absolutely not.

Yes, the console business HAS become a hit or miss scenario, and used games caused this? No, they didn't--Activision caused it, because Activision became very successful financially as everyone else was floundering, so Activision's model was adopted en masse. Good grief, companies have even specifically cited Activision's success as a reason for the strategic shifts.

He continues:
The real cost of used games has been the destruction of the mid-tier publisher and the elimination of many an independent development studio who in the past conducted work in that space. With next generation budgets leaping yet again only the 'mini-publishers' - such as Epic, Insomniac, Bungie - can possibly survive externally to an actual publisher. Beneficial to the customer? No.

Seriously? They caused this, too, even though there's absolutely zero evidence to support this claim? Christ, did used games kill Kennedy, too?

As he's finishing up, though, he goes for the kill shot:
The rebuttal of course is usually the same. Used games fuel new game sales; this is GameStop's response and some buy into it. Of course, in reality it's pure conjecture without any evidence. If used game trading fueled new game sales then when used game trade-ins became the new standard a few years ago new games sales should have spiked. Of course they didn't; in fact game sales have stayed mostly flat or actually declined. The causation of that is primarily because not only is the GameStop line a complete fallacy, there's actually a worse truth, which is game churning isn't a one-off second hand thing but a multiple of a multiple. New game gets returned for used game which gets returned for used game which gets returned for used game...Give us no used games, give us digital access to software on the day it launches to retail. I don't think we'll see even a minor drop in sales; in fact, I think we'll see it rise. .

Wait, let me get this straight. So he talks about used game sales stimulating new game sales as "pure conjecture", but then everything he says is--wait for it--pure conjecture?

Richard Browne, you made my head hurt.

He made Chris Kohler's head hurt, too, because Kohler put up a terrific rebuttal in a Game|Life post titled Videogames Can’t Afford to Cost This Much. I encourage you to read it in its entirety, because it dissembles Browne from a different angle than I took, and it's incredibly effective (and correct). Here's the closing:
Why do people buy used games? Because they cost less money. Why do people sell their used games? Because they’d rather have money than the game. The number one reason, in that 2008 survey, why gamers traded in games was “The game is not very good.”

Games cost too much: Players don’t feel that it is a good value to pay $60 for a game and then immediately be hit with an additional $10-$20 charge for the rest of the content.

Games cost too much: The popularity of used videogames simply indicates that players are seeking to mitigate those costs from both ends, by buying low-cost used games and/or selling games back for store credit.

Games cost too much: Gamers are dumping more of their money and time into smartphones and tablets, where games cost a dollar or are free and are getting more and more entertaining by the day.

Games cost too much: Gamers are happy to pay $60 and up for the best-in-class experiences like Call of Duty or Skyrim, but they don’t have to pay $60 for B-games anymore. Let alone $90.

Games cost too much, and there are plenty of game publishers that are doing something about it. The ones who aren’t will just keep losing their customers.

To which I would like to add: BOOM. Headshot.

Chris e-mailed me asking about the used book market, where studies exist to support the idea that the sale of used books actually stimulates the sale of new books, and after sending him a link to the most commonly-cited study, I addded this (I'm about to italicize myself--I'm not sure that's wise):
I think the real problems are these:
1. Videogame developers have totally sucked in managing their budgets. Do you notice how not ONE company in this generation has said "We didn't spend wisely." Really? So 90% of these companies are losing money, and no one's been managed poorly? Of course it's everyone else's fault, not theirs.
2. There are only five kinds of games now: Yearly Sports Franchise, Yearly Modern Warfare Honor, Yearly Fantasy game. Christ, I can't even get to five! I'm exaggerating, but when everyone is basically putting out the same game, of course most companies are going to lose money. These games are so similar that they're all cannibalizing each other's sales.
3. It's not just that they want us to pay $60 for new games. It's that it's the same goddamn game every year now. Wait, not it's not--it's a little less game and a little more DLC every year. Seriously, we buy courses for Tiger Woods this year and have to buy the SAME COURSES AGAIN next year? Are you shitting me?

Of course the used game market has exploded. Why wouldn't it? Gaming companies, in many cases, have established an adversarial relationship with their customers. Publishers haven't given customers a good reason to care, so they don't.

I'd love to see what the railroads were saying as other forms of transportation ate into their business and they began losing money. I'm pretty sure the rallying cry was "FIND SOMEONE TO BLAME!"

Chris's response: Put that email up as a post.

Done.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire: Gameplay (Defense)

This week, let's talk about defense.

I wanted defense to use a different gameplay mechanic that offense, both for variety and to force the user to develop different strategies. Playing the same way all game long seems like it would be boring, and I don't want to bore people with this game.

I can do that here.

First, let's take a look at a screenshot:


That's what you'll see when the CPU offense starts a drive. Instead of each play being separate, like it is on offense, on defense you are trying to reach a combined card total over a number of plays.

In this example, because the CPU started on its own 30, you have four plays to reach the card total (longer drive, more plays), and every time you make a match, the Stop The Drive meter increments. The exact number of cards you need to play isn't shown, but get a good idea of the general total by how much the drive meter increments. So you get information, but it's not exact.

By the way, there is one way in which defense and offense are very similar. When the CPU offense calls a play, if you match their play call ("defend run" when they've chosen "run", for example), you get that seventh card slot. If they outsmart you, you lose it and only have six.

Let's take a look at a screenshot further along in the drive:


See the Big Play button? It's also changed from how it works on offense. On defense, you're allowed a certain number of big-play presses per half. You're much more likely to get a card (instead of an event), but you have a limited number of uses, and when you're out, you're out for the half.

This forces you to ration those big-play presses, and the number you have depends not only on a base number, but also on a rankings comparison with the CPU team as well as home field advantage.

Again, this helps every game feel different. Your best strategy in a home game with a ratings advantage is very different than when you're on the road and you're the weaker team.

If you fill up the meter, you've stopped the drive. If you run out of plays, the CPU scores. They also gain yardage on every play, depending on how many cards you played.

The CPU gets two kicks per half, just like you do, and if you're close to stopping the drive, they might preemptively punt or kick a field goal, depending on the game situation.

How does the CPU call plays? Like a football team. If the average yards per play is lower, they're more likely to run. If they're ahead late in the game, they're also more likely to run, because runs take more time off the clock. They're more likely to pass when they need lots of yards, when they're behind, and during the 2-minute drill.

Like football.

There are also a few other things you expect from a football game. Onside kickoffs. Hail Marys. Big plays for touchdowns (an unlikely but possible outcome of triggering an event). It has the variety of a real football game, which is why I hope people will play it for multiple seasons.

Speaking of multiple seasons, next week we are going to look at the offseason and the mini-game you play that will hopefully result in improving your team. I say "hopefully" because just like the draft and free agency in the real world, nothing is guaranteed.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday Links!

Steven Davis has other links this week, but this one is incredibly special: a nine-year-old buy who builds his own cardboard arcade. It's a wonderful story, and so is the ending: Caine's Arcade.

From Griffin Cheng, and this is amazing: Eccerobot. Also, and this is alarming, it's The Insane Experiment.

From Sirius, and it would be quite interesting to see one of these strolling through the mall, it's Researchers Unearth Largest Feathered Dinosaur .

From John Harwood, and this is a fantastic timewaster, it's 100 Games Cupcake Game.

From Steven Davis, and this is ingenious: DIY Machine Shop: Four Essential Tools You Can Build From Recycled Parts.

From Curry Mutton, and this will blow your mind: using a laser to light a firecracker inside a balloon without popping the balloon.

From Brian Whalen, and this is very clever, it's Alien: The Easter Edition.

From Matt Sbonik, and these images are incredibly striking: Modern Ruins, Portrait of Place.

From DQ Reader My Wife, another in what must be one billion cute cat videos: Cat loves Bearded Dragon.

From Dan Willhite, and this is not Photoshopped: Naica Cave.

From Jim, and this is more zombie whimsy: Map of the Dead: Zombie Survival Map. Also, and this is quite interesting, it's How Linux is Built.

Here's something that's both hilarious and entirely incredible: Can an Excavator Really Row a Freaking Boat?.

From David Gloier, and this is fantastic, it's Watch the world’s most complex Rube Goldberg machine in action.

Finishing up this week, it's Scott Moore and the Great Moonbuggy Race (that's a link for video footage of the race). If you have no idea what I'm talking about, then take a look here: Here Comes NASA's 18th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Goal

I think I've mentioned this before, but Eli's school soccer team combines fifth and sixth graders. There are two teams, and his team is all sixth graders except for him and one other boy.

He's used to being the star, but because he's younger, the coach has given him a complementary role. He's a midfielder, and only rarely gets a turn at forward.

It's been good for him.

His team is undefeated, and today they had their fourth game. The team they were playing was solid, but not scary, and the score at halftime was 1-0.

It was the worst half of soccer I've ever seen Eli play.

He's been playing soccer for six years--60+ games--and he had never played like this. He wasn't running, he wasn't challenging, and he won almost none of the 50/50 balls.

Before the second half, I walked over to him.

"Hey, are you feeling sick?" I asked.

"No," he said. "Why?"

"I've never seen you play like that," I said. "You were just standing there."

"I'm just so tired," he said. "I didn't sleep well last night."

I laughed. "When the whistle blows, do you know how many people care that you didn't sleep well last night?"

He laughed. "Zero?" he asked.

"Including you," I said. "You're the fastest kid on the field, but if you don't run, it doesn't matter. You have to compete."

The horn went off to signal that the second half was starting, and he jogged back onto the field.

For the first 10 minutes, he was much better. He attacked, he won the 50/50 balls, and he controlled the midfield. He was still tentative at times, but he was a different player.

With 15 minutes left, the coach switched him to forward.

For the first three minutes, his team never even got the ball to midfield. Without him to control the midfield, they couldn't get the ball. The other team scored and now the lead was only 2-1 (his team had scored again early in the second half).

A minute later, there was a loose ball near the sideline, the sideline near the coach (and us). Eli ran toward the ball, but not at full speed, and the other team got it, then the ball wound up out of bounds. "Eli, I need more out of you than that!" the coach shouted.

Eli looked like he had been scalded. He really likes his coach.

The next time there was a loose ball near him, Eli sprinted and took possession. He was further up the field than the rest of his team, and there were four defenders between him and the goal. He slalomed through all of them in a tight, precise path, then finished with his left foot.

The crowd was silent for a second, disbelieving, then they exploded.

It was breathtaking.

He high-fived a teammate, but there was no real celebration on his part. He just ran back to his position for the kickoff with a little smile on his face.

In the next five minutes, he set up two teammates perfectly for easy goals, but they shanked both the shots. They dominated the rest of the game, though, and won 3-1.

"That was some game," I said when we got to the car. "Least effective player on your team in the first half, most effective in the second half."

"That was a nice goal, huh?" he asked.

"It was," I said. "That wasn't why you were so good in the second half, though. You totally dominated the midfield, and you made a play every time you touched the ball as a forward. You worked hard. I'm very proud of your effort.

"I like playing forward," he said.

"I'm pretty sure you'll be playing more of it now," I said, laughing. "Tennis tomorrow?"

"Of course!" he said, smiling. "Why would you even ask?"

The Legend Of Korra

I've written many times about Avatar: The Last Airbender (note: the Nickelodeon series, not the shitty film), and the new series starts on Saturday. It's called The Legend of Korra/, it looks fantastic, and it premieres on Nickelodeon Saturday morning at 10.

Kickstarter: Match and Magic

Jeff Laflam, who I've mentioned several times in reference to his upcoming game Match and Magic, just started a Kickstarter project for the game. He needs $15,000 to finish the artwork.

I've played a beta version of Match and Magic and it's absolutely terrific, so I hope the project can get funded. The page is here if you'd like to contribute or are just curious about the game.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

EA (licensing correction)

Keith Schleicher sent in this:
The MLB license isn't completely exclusive. 2K Sports has a third-party exclusive deal. That means that if Microsoft had wanted to make MLB Inside Pitch (I believe that's the name of their baseball game they did a long time ago), they could do that. Nintendo could have done one for the Wii as well. It's probably a mater of resources and the cost of the license that they didn't create a baseball game.

Of course, he is entirely correct. I got the details of the deal mangled in my head, but the console manufacturers could still make MLB baseball games if they wanted to purchase the license. 2K was the only third-party developer who could make an MLB game. That was the degree to which their license was "exclusive."

Sony

A very good friend of mine sent me this a few minutes ago:
You need to write on Sony's preannounced loss.

I replied:
Hell, I have to write about it every three months, because they keep
doubling it.

Here are the basics:
TOKYO — Sony more than doubled its projected net loss for the past financial year to ¥520 billion, its worst loss ever, as an additional tax expense hurt a company already battered by heavy losses in its television business, a strong yen and natural disasters in Japan and overseas.

That's $6.4 billion dollars. And here's more:
Mr. Kato said that tepid sales of TVs, especially in the United States, Sony’s biggest market, were hurting profitability most at the manufacturer. But he also blamed the strong yen, which has battered Sony’s profitability abroad, as well as the lingering effects of damage from the tsunami in Japan last year and flooding in the manufacturing hub of Thailand.

Sony bet the farm on televisions. For fiscal year 2010, they forecasted 60% growth (which I roundly mocked), and incredibly wound up growing at 43%. That's truly impressive, even though it was well below forecast, but then Sony doubled down and forecast 20% growth (off a much larger base) for fiscal year 2011.

Here's the television unit ramp:
FY08: 15.2M
FY09: 15.6M
FY10: 22.4M
FY11 (projected): 27M

That forecast was revised after the holiday quarter when sales were actually lower than last year. And when I say "revised", I mean from 27 million units to 20 million, which is massive. So they bet the farm, and have apparently lost the farm.

It's not that Sony doesn't make nice televisions. They do. It's just that a bunch of other companies do, too, and Sony has never competed well on price--when they've been forced to, they fail. They need to be able to charge a brand premium, and there's just no real premium associated with the Sony brand anymore.

Ironically, if there is ever a company that should be able to capitalize on "synergy", it would be Sony. Sony music and entertainment streamed to Sony phones, televisions, computers, and videogame consoles. Sony creates entertainment and also creates the hardware for viewing that entertainment.

Right now, though, nothing seems to be working. Sony is basically a highly profitable insurance company with many unprofitable side-businesses.

I think the question right now is how is Sony going to change? Clearly, they can't continue along this path, but I see no clear avenue for them to succeed.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

EA Sports And The Rise Of The Screwmium Model

This is quite depressing.

10 years ago, there was a robust and thriving sports games scene, both for PCs and consoles. There were two or more companies releasing games for every major team sport (and golf).

In truth, most of these games weren't very good out of the box. Many, though, supported a high degree of customization via sliders. The PC versions supported modding, and golf course architect programs, in particular, added hundreds of courses to the PGA Championship and Tiger Woods series.

Great stuff.

Now? With only a few exceptions, we're dead. Exclusive licensing deals by sport have killed the industry. Fewer than half as many sports games are released now, and the dominant franchise in several sports is complete ass (Madden and NCAA, for just two examples).

Who bought all these exclusive licenses? With the exception of the MLB license (which was a bizarre, two-developer exclusive), it's been EA. For the ecosystem of sports games, EA has been The Death Star.

Now, though, I think EA is in trouble.

Exclusive licenses are a double-edged sword, particularly when you have more than one. EA has so many that they are not just competing against other gaming companies when they bid, they're also competing against their own bidding for other sports leagues.

An example.

Let's say that in order to win the exclusive license for Team Sports League X, EA needed to outbid another company, so they wound up paying significantly more than they wanted. No problem, though, because now everyone who wants to play a videogame of that sport has to buy from EA, right? So they can make it up.

Here's the problem, though. Team Sports League Y, whose license is up for renewal next year, sees EA pay 30% more for Team Sports League X. Hey, thinks TSL Y, we are far more prestigious than TSL X! So if TSL X's rights fees got bumped by 30%, for example, then TSL Y thinks their license should be worth 50% more, at least.

It doesn't have to be an exclusive license, either. They still have to pay for a non-exclusive license, too, in other sports.

So EA, in order to get all these exclusive deals, overpaid. And when all of these licenses come up for renewal, in essence, EA is bidding against itself. Every time they overpay, it's not a one-off--there are other sports leagues lined up to cash in on that excess.

How does EA handle this economically? By inventing a new model I call the "Screwmium" model. It's like freemium, but with all the good parts removed and "screw" put in its place.

Let's take Tiger Woods 13 as an example of this brave new model, and by "brave" I mean "shitty."

Believe it or not, there are more DLC courses available for purchase than there are included with the game. At $5 a course, basically, although you can buy "packs" and get to the $4 range. Oh, and guess what? None of these course purchases carry over, so YOU'LL BE BUYING THE RIGHT TO PLAY THOSE SAME COURSES NEXT YEAR.

Oh, wait, says EA. You can actually earn other DLC and those courses by playing the game. Yes, you can, if you're fourteen and homeschool. But I guarantee that fewer than 10% of players (and I bet it's closer to <1%) will ever unlock any sizable amount of content.

Plus, if you're not signed in online, when you play, you can't get those coins. You don't get coins for offline play. Oops.

I always buy NHL, because it's great. Then I buy another game every couple of years from EA Sports because I fall for the preview hype and bullshit. This year, I fell for "full Kinect integration" with Tiger Woods.

Great idea, in a design sense. In an execution sense, not so good. It's clunky to the degree that I would be amazed if anyone plays that way on a regular basis.

The entire game feels more like a comprehensive attempt to sell DLC than it does a golf game, unfortunately. And Tiger Woods on the PC back in the 2004 era looked better than the 360 version does now (nice use of the Vaseline filter, guys).

If you want the full experience, you're going to outlay $100+, and what you get for that money just isn't that good of a golf game. Incredible, really, and how many people are going to be willing to pay more and more just to get the same level of content as in the past? How in the world is this model sustainable?

The answer: it isn't sustainable, not even remotely. Maybe someone would pay $100+ for the "full experience" for a great game, but the problem is that too many of the EA Sports games just aren't that good. They suffer from Tiburon syndrome: everything works, to a degree, and everything works better after a few patches, but the experience just isn't cohesive.

Think it's just EA Sports games? Wait for the DLC list for Sim City 5. Just wait.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire: Gameplay (Offense)

So how do you play this game, exactly?

Once you choose your team (team names and colors are fully customizable), you'll be taken to the Team Hub screen:


Once the season is in progress, you'll be able to access all the information about your league from this screen, including standings, schedule, and statistics.

There is an option on the hub screen to simulate your next game, but let's say you want to play your next game. Here's what you'll see:


Yes, that is absolutely an homage to TV Sports: Football. More importantly, though, you need to pay attention to the text. That will give you important information on how your ratings compare to the opposing team. If you have a strong advantage in one area, it can (should) influence your playcalling.

To streamline the playing experience, the home team always wins the coin toss, and there are no kickoffs, so play begins at the 30-yard line. Since you're the home team in this game, you'll start on offense.

One of my priorities with Gridiron Solitaire was to introduce strategic decisions that actually mattered. One of the ways I do that is to have the human player call plays versus the CP AI.

On offense, you can choose either Run or Pass. The CPU calls Defend Run or Defend Pass.

Why does this matter? If you outsmart the CPU, you'll have seven card slots, like this:


If the CPU matched your play called, though, there won't be seven card slots. There will be six.

The CPU AI is very solid, too. So let's say you have third down and long. Normally, you'd call a pass play, but the CPU knows this. So do you call a run instead, hoping to get that seventh card slot?

Also, why would you care if you called a run or pass? Well, because they award yards gained differently. It takes 30 yards (not 10) to get a first down. When you match two cards on a running play, you gain 3 yards for the match.

On a passing play, you gain 6 yards per match, BUT you don't get any yards until your third match. It takes five matched cards for the pass to be considered completed, so on that third match (each match counts as two cards, in case I'm confusing you), you get 3 yards for that sixth card, then 6 yards for each match after that.

Basically, once you hit the third match, you're gaining yards at double the rate of a running play.

So why wouldn't you just call passes every time? For one, you get nothing until that third match, and that can be very costly. Also, if the CPU calls Defend Pass, you lose that seventh card slot.

So you have decisions to make, and those decisions matter. And I've done everything I could to make those decisions model real football decisions. The more yards you need in real-life football, the more likely you are to call a passing play. That's true in Gridiron Solitaire as well.

If you're wondering about the rules for making a match, they're very simple: within one rank and opposite color. So a "red three" matches a "black four" or "black two."

Let's say that you played all the matches you can, and you're out of options. See the "Big Play" button in the lower right-hand corner of the previous screenshot? You can press that. When you press the Big Play button on offense, several things can happen:
--another card can be dealt (in a new card slot)
--the play ends (no harm--it was going to end anyway)
--there can be a turnover
--very rarely, the offense can score a touchdown

Basically, you either get another card or an event is triggered. And those events are usually not in your favor.

The chances of an event are set up so that every time you press the Big Play button on a single play, the chances of triggering an event go up. It gets increasingly risky. Plus, the team ratings have a bonus effect on the chances of events being triggered (so that every game plays out differently).

When you do trigger an event, a little text box drops down from the scoreboard and describes what's happening. There are thousands of possible messages, depending on the situation, and they read like something a play-by-play announcer would say.

So how often do you need to press the Big Play button? Well, you don't have to press it all, but you also can't win that way. Deciding when to take a risk and press the button is a fundamental part of playing the game, and there's no single answer for how often it is needed.

An example: if it's the third quarter and you're ahead by 21 points, you might not press it at all. There's no way to have a turnover on offense by just playing cards--they can only happen when the Big Play button is pressed, although they don't happen often--so you might decide that the risk just isn't worth it.

If you're in the third quarter and you're behind by 21 points, though, you're going to need that Big Play button to have a chance to rally. You'll need the extra cards that a Big Play press might give you.

Plus, the cards are going to run hot for you at times, and at other times they'll be ice cold. That's just the nature of a deck of cards. So luck is also going to affect your level of need.

This is already running long, so I'm going to leave playing defense until next week's discussion. It's a different gameplay mechanic, though, so that you can't use the same strategy that you did on offense.

One note on the development front. I rewrote the sound effects engine last week to make the sound effects more dynamic. I created a spreadsheet with 700+ combinations of score/time remaining/field position, and the volume of a sound effect now responds appropriately in all those situations. I want you to feel like you're playing a football game as well as a card game, and the crowd sounds make the environment feel much more alive.

Thanks for reading and we'll talk about defense next week.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, one of the funniest and most clever videos I've seen in a long time: Masters as mini-golf.

Next, from Michael O'Reilly, an absolutely riveting account of a community that remembered the past and survived: Japan's 1,000-year-old warning.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this sounds like a brilliant documentary: Jiro Dreams Of Sushi Official Trailer.

From Connell Smith, and these are entirely wonderful: "What if..." Movies reimagined for another time & place....

From Steven Davis, and this is a wonderful use of technology: Superbright LEDS Save Lives Supercheap. Also, and this is fascinating, it's How Simple Ideas Lead to Scientific Discoveries. One more, and it's a fantastic idea: "Design for Hack" in Medicine.

From Derek Krause, and this is amazing: Sand Flea Jumping Robot .

From Brandon Reis, and this is both freaky and cool: Titanoboa.

From Jeremy Fischer, and this is a remarkable bit of research: Bacteria converts carbon dioxide into liquid fuel. Also, and this will make some of you positively giddy, it's Lego Battlestar Valkyrie.

From Griffin Cheng, and this is remarkable: A Blind Man Is Driving This Car.

From Frank Regan, and hopefully you'll never be here: Raw Video: Tornado Hits School Bus.

From Sirius, and these are entirely beautiful: Serrated teeth of the crabeater seal. Next, more beauty: Bioluminescent firefly squid.

From Jonathan Arnold, and this is fascinating: Everest Climbing Gear—Then and Now.

From Chris Pencis, and here's the results of an annual poll by The Consumerist: EA Is Your Worst Company In America For 2012. I bust EA's balls all the time, but they deserve credit for this: EA Responds To Hate Campaign From Homophobes.

Finishing up this week, from Juan Font, and this is a must-read: The longest anyone can bear Earth's quietest place is 45 minutes.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Best Birthday Cake Ever

New Star Soccer (iOS, Android)

I've written about New Star Soccer several times over the years. It's an engaging and quirky soccer career simulator that has a dedicated following.

I'm a member of that dedicated following, because it's my favorite career simulator in a sports game (all right, NHL is above it, but their budget is also 1000X the budget of this game, at least). If you want to be a manager, Football Manager is fantastic, but if you want to be a player, New Star is the franchise to enjoy.

Plus, there's a Grand Theft Auto (without the theft and the killing, obviously) element to New Star that is incredibly appealing. In addition to playing the games, you manage your entire life off the pitch. Which includes buying all kinds of things, going to the casino or racetrack, and managing relationships.

In short: it's a hell of a lot of fun.

So I was quite surprised when grumpy old bastard Dan Clarke let me know that there's now a version out for both iOS and Android, and even cooler, you can try it in an emulator here.

The gameplay is slightly different from the PC version. Instead of playing full games, you're given specific situations where you have a play to make. These moments play out in real time, but once the situation is concluded, the game continues and you're given an in-match summary until the next time you're involved.

It works surprisingly well, and also enables you to move through games more quickly. And the controls translate to the tablet without a hitch. It's quite addictive, so once you start a career, you won't want to stop.

The only feature I miss is horse racing, because you can bet on the horses in the PC game. It's a small price to pay, though, for the convenience of being able to play in the car while I wait for Eli 10.8 to get out of school.

There is no closing summary. Instead, this post drifts suddenly off into the distance.

No, Sir, There Is Not

I was sitting in P. Terry's on Tuesday, and there were two boys there who looked like brothers. One was about four or five, while his brother was a couple of years younger.

Their mother left the table for a moment to get something from the counter, and the older boy turned to his brother and said, "Is there PEPPER in your SNOT?"

Tiny Wings (iOS)

When I first wrote about getting an iPad 3, Scott Gould sent me this note about "Tiny Wings":
It is the shining pinnacle of mobile game design.

As it turns out, he was right.

First, here's a screenshot (thanks, Technabob):


Gameplay is extraordinarily simple. You gain momentum by pressing the screen when your little bird is going down, but you must time it so that you slide down the hills smoothly--otherwise, your momentum is broken and you lose most of your speed.

It feels like surfing or skiing, to a degree. And the sensation of speed is quite exhilarating.

The game begins at sunrise, and lasts until the sun sets. Every time you clear an island (when I say "clear an island", Dragon Naturally Speaking keeps thinking I'm saying "Nuclear Nylund"), the clock turns back just a bit.

The visuals are extraordinarily charming, the music sounds like an inspired mash-up of Orisinal and Vince Guaraldi, and it's just tremendously fun. I play every day for at least a few minutes, and Eli plays as well.

There's no iPad-specific version, but it looks just fine at 2X, so if you have any iOS-capable device, I'd highly recommend checking it out.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Thanks Very Much

For all the nice birthday wishes.

Gracie


This is a cat. Her name is Gracie.

Like all cats, Gracie is a unique collection of neuroses and baffling behaviors. If you pour ice into the sink, she will immediately jump onto the counter, sit down, and stare at the ice. For fifteen minutes. Never moving a muscle.

Gloria chews mint-flavored gum occasionally, and Gracie is wild about the smell. She will hop on Gloria's lap and smell her breath (from a distance of about 3 inches). She will also dig through Gloria's purse like a maniac if Gloria doesn't take the gum out. She's so little that she almost disappears entirely.

If Gracie's brother George goes to the garage for a few minutes, or goes to the Vet, Gracie acts like she's never seen him before. She will hiss at him for hours before things return to normal.

She is, in fact, both the smallest and the dumbest cat in the world. Every time she does something stupid, we say "N.T.B.," for the Not The Brightest.

She sleeps about 18 hours a day (always around us, never off on her own), which is high, even for a cat, and she gets no exercise, except for a two-minute period every week or so when she will sprint wildly up and down the stairs several times. We have no idea why she does it, and neither does she.

While Gracie might be incredibly lazy, though, sudden noises can make her jump three feet in the air. Literally. And if she's sitting near you, or on your lap, it can be dangerous. Just ask Gloria's nose, which Gracie almost broke one night.

Gracie's favorite hobby is knocking things off counters. Pens. Watches. Phones. Remote controls. Vases. Stacks of DVD cases. Her approach is meticulous, moving the selected item a fraction at a time with her paw, nearing the edge, until finally it goes over.

She's also the only cat I've ever seen who can morph into another animal. When she's playing, her face scrunches up, her incisors show, and she looks remarkably like a bat.

That picture at the top? We call that the "treat stool." Gloria started giving Gracie and George treats once a day, and if Gracie hasn't gotten her treats by early afternoon, she'll sit on that stool and stare at the pantry.

And wait.

Don't think you can outwait her. You can't.

She's also completely loving, especially to Eli:


That's her laying on Eli's arm. She likes to curl up with his arm around her and sleep.

As a bonus in that picture, look at Gloria's shoes.

She came in one day and said, "How do you like my new shoes?"

"What's up with the leash?" I asked. Please note that everything I said in this conversation was motivated by honest curiousity.

"Leash?"

"That strap around your ankle," I said.

"It's supposed to be sexy," she said, miffed.

"Do you know how surfers keep their boards with them when they ride big waves?" I asked. "They put a leash on the board and attach it to their ankles with a strap like that. Are you anticipating any explosive moments that might blow your shoes off?"

"Arrrrggggghhhhhh," she said, in a remarkable Charlie Brown impersonation.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

You'd Think That After Four Days, I Would've Explained This

Of course, I totally forgot to explain the origin of the phrase "I've forgotten what normal tired feels like", even though that was the title of four consecutive posts.

I'd like to say that's a rare lapse, but really, it's not. I can forget something walking from my study to the kitchen. Actually, I can forget it, remember it, then forget it again, all in the space of about 20 feet.

So here's where that phrase came from.

On the way home from McAllen (5 1/2 hour drive), we reached South Austin and saw a big theater just off the interstate. The Hunger Games had opened on Friday, and Eli wanted to see it right away, but we couldn't because of the hockey tournament.

It was about 4:45 p.m., we'd been up since 5:00 a.m. (6:30 game, remember), and we were all on fumes at that point.

"Hey, I bet they have a five o'clock showing of The Hunger Games," Eli 10.8 said. "We could see it here and then go home."

"Oh my God," Gloria said, laughing.

"There is not one chance in 10 billion that we're stopping to go see that movie," I said, "but I admire your enthusiasm."

That's not even related to the post title, but it's a story that illustrates Eli in a nutshell. He's always ready for one more thing.

After we got home, I was upstairs with Gloria, and she was unpacking some bags. "I'm so tired I've forgotten what normal tired feels like," she said, and we both laughed.

The next day, I put in a new front yard. Didn't see that coming, did you?

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Gloria asked me the night before. "We could still get somebody to put it in for us."

"I asked those somebody's, and the price quotes were outrageous," I said.

"But there's yard preparation, and laying down topsoil, and--"

"Look," I said. "It's grass. It's not fine china. It's resilient. I'll rake the front yard, slap it down as soon as the truck gets here, and water it every day. I've never laid down turf, but I played a lot of Tetris, and this is just playing Tetris with sod. I'm not paying somebody else to play environmental Tetris."

This was all fairly reasonable, except for one thing: nobody told me how much a palette of grass weighs.

The number, in case you're wondering, is about 2000 pounds. Eli was in school (we tried to do it during Spring Break, but it rained so much that they couldn't cut the grass), and Gloria had a work crisis, so it was just me in versus mode: mano a hierba.

I did get all the grass put down and lined up and watered. It was not easy. Well, the process was easy. The whole "my body has to do all this" was not easy.

It's been a week now, though, and there still have been no deaths. Mine or the grass.

Notes on Setting up Some Kind of Schedule

I'm looking forward to telling you about the game and discussing its features, but I'm also going to limit how often I write about it. I'd like to keep it fresh instead of boring you guys to death by writing about it constantly.

So going forward, Monday will be Gridiron Solitaire day, at least for a while. I'll discuss game features, gameplay, and the development process. The rest of the week, though, will be business as usual.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Beta Testing

I should have included a note about this in the original post.

Up to this point, there have been basically two testers, and they've done yeoman work: John Harwood and Paul Costello. They've tested dozens of different builds, suffered through bugs and crashes, and suggested enhancements and new features.

I still have a to-do list I'm working through before I'm ready for a wider group of people to playtest. I want to get those done before anything else happens.

After that list is finished (I think it will be 3-4 weeks, roughly), there will be a "family and friends" beta for about ten people. That will be all the feedback I can handle and process at that point. After another 4-6 weeks, I should then be ready to have a larger beta with 30-50 people.

During that period, I will be looking for a distributor, which is a wide open concept for me right now. Having an .exe with a game on it is very different from having an installable package, etc., so that's another learning curve I'll be going through.

The timeframe I'm using right now for the entire beta process is about 4 months. That could be wildly optimistic or terribly pessimistic--it's hard to estimate time when I've never done any of this before.

I will definitely put up a post when I'm ready for the wider beta, and if any of you guys are interested, just let me know.

Site Meter