Thursday, May 31, 2012


Last year's breakout indie hit Frozen Synapse now has an expansion pack available, and it looks entirely stellar. Take a look at the trailer:
Frozen Synapse: Red

Then, after you've seen the trailer and cannot deny it's overwhelming buy-me-immediately power, the Frozen Synapse website is here.

The Big Meet: The Finals

Saturday, 9 AM.

As soon as we arrived at the track, we started looking for the list for the 100 meter finals. At first, one of his coaches told him he made it, but that turned out to be incorrect. Eli was ninth.

That was a letdown, especially after he was told that he had made it, but the standing broad jump started in 15 minutes, so there was no time to think about it.

I've always enjoyed watching Eli do the standing broad jump because he is so graceful. His balance is so dead-on that he always lands cleanly, and his jumping ability is ridiculous.

Having said that, he was again competing mostly against kids who were quite a bit taller than he was. I fully expect this to be a temporary thing, because I'm over 6 feet, and we did a hand measurement a couple of years ago (which is freakily accurate, apparently) that indicated he would eventually be about 6'2".

Of course, that wouldn't help him now.

There were about 40 kids in this event, and Eli was scheduled to jump about halfway through. One kid his size jumped decently, but all the other leaders were relatively huge. They had no technique whatsoever, and managed to jump a long ways because of their leg length.

The leading jump was almost 7 feet. That doesn't sound very far, but stretch out a tape measure in your living room and try to make that jump from a standing position. It's not easy for a grown-up, and I couldn't believe that fifth and sixth grade boys were jumping that far.

Eli's jumps were so precise and flowing that if they gave style points, he would've won easily. Still, his 6'8" jump put him in second place.

With lots of tall kids still to jump.

"What do you think?" He asked. "Can I hold on for the top six?" He'd score two points that way.

"I'm not sure," I said. "That was a great jump, but there are some skyscrapers lined up back there." I laughed.

"Seriously," he said. "Those tall kids just lean and then throw their feet out so that they don't land on their face."

"Start thinking about the 50," I said (it started in thirty minutes). "There's nothing more you can do here. Good job."

"I'm going to go get my spikes," he said. He'd jumped in regular shoes, but had a pair of track shoes for the running events. He wandered off toward his team tent.

About 15 minutes later, I walked onto the infield and he came over.

"I think if I get a great start, I might have a chance," he said.

"I know you're going to run faster than you've ever run before," I said. "That's the best feeling ever. That's what you want."

"Plus," he said, "if I can just beat two kids, I'll get sixth and score points!"

"Keep your head still," I said. "Don't stop running before the finish line. And have a great time." I hugged him and walked back across the track and into the stands.

In truth, he had no chance to win. The other kids were bigger and faster. But there were almost no fifth-graders in the finals of any event, so just getting there was quite a moment. There were several hundred people at the meet, and everyone would be watching this race.

When they lined up, I noticed two things. One, lane eight was empty, which meant he only needed to beat one another runner to score points. Two, the kid next to him (unlike all the others) was his size.

I saw Eli and this kid sizing each other up. Clearly, there were two races here, and the one I cared about was taking place in lanes six and seven.


Eli got an excellent start, but so did his instant rival, and as they tore down the track, they were dead even. At about 30 yards, they took a look at each other, still running at top speed.

Duel on.

With seven kids in a race lasting seven seconds, it was visual chaos. They were so close at the finish that I couldn't tell who won the "mini-championship." There was also a big kid in one of the lower lanes who looked like he might have finished behind Eli.

"He got me," Eli said when we met up, a little discouraged.

"Dude, that was unbelievable," I said. "I have NEVER seen you run like that."

"But I moved my head," he said.

"Eh, stuff happens," I said. "You still crushed it. How did it feel to be running that fast?"

"It felt great," he said, brightening. "But I really wanted to beat that kid."

"Maybe you did," I said. "And if not, it doesn't take away from how you ran."

We saw the kid Eli had raced against standing at the concession stand with his mother. He was beaming, and I heard him say, "I can't believe I beat him!"

Which was okay. Track is track. If you get down there sooner, you earned it. Eli walked up to him and said "Good race," and they chatted for a little while. "Nice kid," he said when he walked back over. "And freaking fast!"

We had just sat down in the stands when they started announcing the standing broad jump results. "Oh, no," Eli said as they announced the winner, then second, then third. "I'm dead."

He wasn't, though, because then they announced him in fifth place.

"Four points!" he said, high-fiving me. And with that, the day was golden. Not even a snafu with the results in the 50, which delayed them past the end of the meet, could dampen his spirits. He'd scored points. In track terms, he was a made man.

When I picked him up from school on Tuesday (we still didn't know the results of the 50), he bounded up to me. "Guess what?" he asked.


"FIFTH!" he said, laughing.

"No way!" I said.

"Way," he said. "I did outlean that kid, and I beat somebody else, too. Another four points."

"Eight points," I said. "I guess it was a good decision to put you on the scoring team." He laughed.

"Ready to go play hockey?" I asked.

"Let's GO!" he said.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Big Meet

This spring, Eli 10.9 decided he wanted to run track.

Given that he's already in about 16 different sports, this seemed impossible. However, practices were Saturday morning, and he only had to go to three of them to qualify for the track meet.

Well, I'm sure you know how this story ends up. And after thinking about it, track didn't seem half-bad. After all, it's is a non-contact sport, and if there's anything Eli needs, it's fewer injuries.

Track was perfect.

The end-of-season track meet included 21 schools, and Eli was in the 5th/6th grade division. Since he's a very young fifth-grader (birthday July 31), and since so many people have their kids start school year later now, he would be competing against some kids who were almost two years older than he was.

"Man, I'm going to get smoked," he said.

"Dude, you are so fast," I said. "I don't know how fast those kids run, but I know how fast you run. Those guys better have strap-on rocket packs."

He laughed.

"Do you really think I have a chance?"

"Unless Usain Bolt shows up," I said.

Eli was in three events: the 50-yard dash, the 100-yard dash, and the standing broad jump. And he was the only fifth-grade boy selected for the "scoring team"--basically, any kid in fifth or sixth grade could be in the track meet if they went to enough practices, but only a limited number could actually score points for the team. In the world of fifth and sixth graders, it was a big honor.

The track meet started on Friday afternoon, and while he warmed up, we talked a bit.

"Just do one thing for me," I said.

"What?" he asked.

"Keep your head still," I said. "Don't bob. It makes you feel like you're running faster, but it actually slows you down."

"Got it," he said.

"And don't forget that you have one big advantage," I said.

"I do? What?"

"Your lean," I said. "Most kids lean early and wind up slowing themselves down, but your lean is perfect. I've never seen a better one."

He smiled. "I practiced that," you know.

"Oh, and I almost forgot," I said. "Track meets are as much about conserving your energy as they are about running your events. It's hot, and there's lots going on. Be sure to drink plenty of liquids and don't blow all your energy chasing people across the football field."

He laughed. "Got it," he said, and walked off toward his team's tent.

Track meets have a very pleasant rhythm, one that I've always enjoyed. Nothing's ever really in a hurry at a track meet. Some event is always happening, but the pace is always measured. It's relaxing--well, except for the 90 degree heat, wind, dust, and sweat.

It's relaxing like the Old West was relaxing, I guess.

When Eli's first event (the 50) was called, he got in line with the other kids by heat. I told him on the drive up that he shouldn't be upset if he didn't do well, because he hadn't put in the time, but I knew it would still matter to him.

He was the smallest kid in his heat, and when the gun sounded, he flew. Incredibly, though, he was in third all the way down the track, well behind the first place runner. He gained on second place, almost getting there, but he ran out of time.


I walked down from the stands and met him walking toward me. "Oh my God, I got SMOKED," he said.

"Man, don't feel bad about that," I said. "That's the fastest I've ever seen you run."

"Really?" he asked.

"Really," I said. "You looked like you wearing that rocket booster."

"Well, no finals for this," he said. "I just want to at least score ONE point for the team."

"You still have two events left," I said. "And I want you to remember something."

"What?" he asked.

"This feeling," I said. "I know you're hurt, but I know from hard experience that there is no greater fuel than disappointment. Every great athlete, every great person, uses this to drive them higher. So remember."

"I will, Dad," he said, setting his jaw as much as a 10.9 year old can.

It doesn't sound like much, finishing third in a sprint, but it was stunning, at least to me. In all the times I've watched Eli in sports, there's almost never been a situation where he couldn't change the outcome through whatever it is that he has inside him that other kids don't have. And I know he felt the same way, judging by the look on his face. It was hard for me to see him that way.

His next event was over an hour away, so he went back to the team tent, hung out with his friends, and watched them compete in other events. We sat in the stands, baking.

The disembodied voice of the P.A. announcer is a constant presence at track meets. It comes and goes, almost lost in the wind, and it's almost like radio static. Plus, and this always true, all P.A. announcers sound exactly the same. All of them.

So we're sitting there, kids are running past in some event, and the announcer is calling out names. I'm not really hearing them, just knowing that quite a few have been read, and then I hear Eli's name.

"What was that?" I asked Gloria.

"I think that was the finals of the 50," she said, with a big grin.

"It was," said a man sitting beside us.

"He made it!" I said. I immediately started walking down from the stands, and when I looked up I saw Eli half-running toward me. He was laughing. "I don't believe it!" he said, giving me a high-five.

"That was a fast heat," I said. "And I think you may have outleaned that other kid at the finish."

"Now I've got a chance to get a point," he said.

"And you still have two more events," I said. He walked back across the track, bouncing with each step, and some of his friends ran up to congratulate him.

His heat in the 100 didn't start until almost 8:50, which is when he'd normally be going to bed. He still ran well, though, finishing a strong second in his heat.

"Can we stay and see if I made it to the finals?" he asked at 9:15.

"Sorry," I said. "You've got the standing broad jump in the morning at 9:00. We need to grab some dinner and get home so you can rest."

Which we did.

TOMORROW: day two.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rant On

Sports Illustrated has an excellent new article titled To Cheat or Not to Cheat, and it's about four similar pitchers who were all drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the early 1990s and all played together in 1994 at Fort Myers of the Florida State League.

The four pitchers--Dan Naulty, Brett Roberts, Keith Linebarger, and Kevin Legault--all had fastballs clocked at around 88 miles per hour, which is enough to get you drafted but probably not enough to get you to the majors. Here's a description of Dan Naulty from the article:
Dan Naulty was the tall, skinny Miracle, a 14th-round pick out of Cal State Fullerton in 1992 who stood 6' 6" but didn't throw hard. Twins scout Larry Corrigan clocked him early in his senior year at 87 miles per hour and never again at even that modest speed.

Here's what Naulty's first experience in professional baseball (in the low minors) was like:
Naulty pitched six times for Kenosha, starting twice. He gave up 22 hits and 11 earned runs in 18 innings. He arrived at a quick conclusion: He wasn't nearly good enough to become a major league pitcher. "I didn't have the speed," he says. "I didn't have the location. I didn't have the size. I had the height. That's all. That's essentially why I got drafted."

So what did Naulty do? He started cheating. Steroids--lots of them. Here's what happened:
In four years Naulty gained 50 pounds and added 10 miles an hour to his fastball.

That 10 miles an hour transformed Naulty from a no-hope minor leaguer into a major-league pitcher. 130 appearances in 4 years. His combined salary in those four years? $759,000. He also won a World Series title with the Yankees.

Those poor, honest bastards who didn't cheat? Zero major league appearances. 5 combined seasons in AAA.

How many of them would have made it to The Show if they had taken the steroids route as seriously as Naulty did? With 97 miles per hour fastballs, or even the low 90s, they might well have all made it.

Instead, Naulty did, because he was a cheating dick.

That's the particular part of the Steroid Era that makes me go all Hulk Rage. The players who cheated (and let's be honest--at some point, half or more of the players in MLB used during their careers) were getting a leg up by pushing honest players down. The guys who didn't cheat were getting passed by all the guys who did.

I used to write about steroid in baseball occasionally, and inevitably, I would always get one or two e-mails loudly proclaiming that steroids didn't really improve performance. Seriously. They always had some exotic explanation for why home runs were off the chart, or why washed-up pitchers on the downside of their careers (hello, Roger C) suddenly got 5-8 miles an hour back on their fastball.

There still hasn't been a full accounting of the Steroids Era in baseball, and there never will be. Major League Baseball doesn't want one, won't allow one, and is just hoping it will go away.

That might work for some people, but probably not those three pitchers who played with Naulty.

In the SI article, of course, Naulty "redeems" himself. He finds God (by joining a Christian prayer group during his time with the Yankees, and amusingly, half the members of that group later admitted to using PED's or failed drug tests). He becomes a better man. Etc. Here's a great quote:
It's a funny thing," he says. "I thought I was going to be a millionaire playing baseball, and I ended up using all the money to try to heal myself.

I only hope those other three guys could afford therapy.


Eli 10.9 downloaded an app for his iPod that takes what you've said and translates it into another language, both written and spoken.

"Dad, what should I say?" Eli asked. Gloria was in the kitchen, listening.

"I'd recommend 'my pants are on fire'," I said.

He tried it, but the program didn't recognize his voice.

"Let me try," I said. Remember, I use Dragon Naturally Speaking for much of my writing (ulnar nerve issues). My voice was recognized with no problem.

"That was hilarious!" he said after hearing 'my pants are on fire' in Japanese. "Do another one!"

"Let's see," I said. "Okay, I've got one: 'your butt is enormous'."

"Great," Gloria said. That was also quite entertaining in Japanese.

My last suggestion: 'someone peed in my pants'."

Monday, May 28, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire #7: Coming Around

Big things going on this week in the development of a little game.

First off, first down measurements, which were a "stretch" feature as recently as last week, are now in the game.

Here's how it works. Before fourth down, if you gain exactly the number of yards needed for a first down, you get the first down. On fourth down, though, there's a first down measurement. The animation of the chain stretching is quite nice, and there are dozens of possible positions for the chain, so every measurement will feel different. There's even a referees hand holding the ball in place, which is something only a football nerd could appreciate.

Yes, it's inconsistent to only have first down measurements possible on fourth down. However, it would be worse to have the measurement so frequently that it lost its inherent drama. This way, every measurement has impact, because it results in either a first down or a change of possession.

I'm very pleased with how everything turned out, and I can't wait until someone has to endure a measurement in the fourth quarter of a close game. Watching that chain stretch is quite dramatic.

I also reworked the subroutine that determines the volume of the crowd loop. It's more dynamic and more noticeable now, and much more responsive to changing game conditions. Again, I know this is a card game, but I want you to feel like you're inside a stadium, and a dynamic crowd is what makes it feel alive.

The pregame broadcast was also improved. There are basically four "wheels" of phrases--one each for running, passing, defense, and special teams (in relation to your opponent). There are 25-30 phrases on each wheel, depending on the ratings difference in each case, and everything on one wheel must sound natural when combined with anything on the other wheels. As I read that, it doesn't sound difficult, but in practice, it can be very tough, particularly because certain words and phrases are easy to overuse. It sounds quite a bit more natural now, and since the pregame broadcast gives you important information about your best strategies in that game, it needs to be well written.

Last weekend, I started working on help screens. My original idea was to have one for offense and one for defense, but John Harwood correctly pointed out that it was much more logical to structure the information into two screens for each, which is what I've done. Here's the first screen for offense:

It was Fredrik's idea to use the referee character as a guide, and as usual, he was spot on.

I have three screens left, but all the text is written--I just have to arrange the visual elements and text on their respective screenshots, and that will only take about an hour per screen. So by the end of this week, help screens will be fully incorporated into the game.

Last thing, and this is sort of a milestone: my bug log is at zero. Everything that I know to fix is fixed. I know that John Harwood will find a list of 50 things by Wednesday, but for now, the list is empty.

That doesn't mean I'm done--there are still a bunch of things that need to be polished and enhanced--but this is the best that everything has worked as a whole.

A Beautiful Piece of Writing

This is one of the most oddly affecting eulogies I've ever read:
Johnny Tapia Died, Died, Died, Died, Then Died, And Lived Hard In Between

Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from Shane Courtrille, and this is a mesmerizing series of photographs, both brilliant and frequently heartbreaking: 50 Years Ago: The World in 1962.

From Eric Harzman, a series of links about collodion or "wet plate" photography. It's one of the oldest photographic processes in existence, and these links are mesmerizing. First, a description from Wikipedia: Collodion process. Next, a video about Ian Ruhter, a current photographer who still uses this process: Silver & Light. Finally, the photographs themselves, and they're stunning: photographs.

From Dan Willhite, a tribute to mathematician Amamlie Noether: The Mighty Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of.

From Jeremy Fischer, a video of the Ross sisters, who were quite the famous contortionists in the 1940s. Also, and these are haunting images, it's Normany 1944--Then and Now.

From Sirius, and this was news to me: 30 February - Yes, you read that right.

From Eric Higgins-Freese, and this is quite fantastic: Measuring the Universe. Also, and these are highly entertaining, it's Photographs of people being blasted by wind in the face are priceless. One more, and this is nothing short of incredible: The Real Power of the Phantom Mind.

From Robert McMillon, and these are quite amusing: 50 People You Wish You Knew In Real Life.

A Costello Who Wishes To Remain Anonymous sent in a link to an amazing story (DQ Film Advisor and Nicest Guy In The World Ben Ormand, please read): How One Response to a Reddit Query Became a Big-Budget Flick.

From Michael M., two terrific links: Europe History Time Lapse Map. Next, a 121 megapixel image of Earth.

Matt Sakey's latest Culture Clash column is titled The Magic in the Machine, and it's excellent reading as always.

From Paul O'Hagan, and this is quite fascinating, it's Paper with good sound quality.

From Jonathan Arnold, and this is a tremendous counterfeiting story: The Ultimate Counterfeiter Isn’t a Crook—He’s an Artist. Also, and this is fascinating, it's Sleeping with the Enemy:
What happened between the Neanderthals and us?

Ever want to see a 360 panoramic view of the Cistine Chapel? Thanks to this submission by Jefferey Gardiner, you can.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a poignant series of images: Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The English Premier League: High Drama

This is a little unusual, but Dave Tyrrell sent me something so tremendously enthusiastic that I'm using it in full. And it's a detailed account of the last weekend of the Premier League, but more than that, it's human drama. Here's Dave:
Heading into the last round of games in the English Premier League, the destiny of the Championship was far from clear. The top two teams, Manchester City and Manchester United, were separated only by goal difference after 37 matches. Whichever one recorded the superior result today would win the title, but if City matched United, they would come out on top.

The final fixtures looked easy to call - on paper. United were away at Sunderland, whose own season had long ago petered into mediocrity and 'oh well, there's always next year'. City were at home to Queen's Park Rangers, the team with the worst away record in the division...and who needed the points themselves, to try and prevent relegation to the tier below.

Games are not played on paper. Let us spin forward 90 minutes. United have won at Sunderland, by 1-0. But allow me to digress a little on the subject of my own team, Man City. A team I have followed for 35 years, travelling the length and breadth of England to follow. They have two known qualities - the loyalty of the fans, and the extent to which the team can find new and inventive ways to let them down. They haven't won the Championship for 44 years. As someone once said "If City were 6-0 up with 2 minutes to go, their fans would still be watching the game with their fingers over their eyes..". But in 2008 City were taken over by the Abu Dhabi royal family. They are now the richest sporting club in the world, way beyond the NBA, NFL etc. A highly priced, talent-laden squad has been assembled. Surely these people cannot succumb to the curse of 'Typical City' ? Surely ?

After 90 minutes at the Etihad, the score is.....Man City 1 QPR 2. As it stands, United have won the title. The degree of antipathy between the fans and the clubs is legendary - it makes Red Sox v Yankees look like a hippy love-in. This is a disaster of Biblical proportions - to have lost the title on the final day. To the Forces of Darkness. To the people you will face next day in work, or on the train.

But wait ! There are 5 minutes of injury time. And 2 minutes in, City striker Edin Dzeko heads an equaliser. United's game has finished, and their fans are starting to celebrate. Among them are people with radios and phones pressed to their ears. And then, their heads turn as one to Sunderland's giant scoreboard, where the result appears. Manchester City 3 QPR 2. A stroke of brilliance by City's talisman, Argentinian striker Kun Aguero, who's father-in-law is the legendary Maradona, has smashed a winner past the QPR keeper. 48,000 people are hugging each other in the stadium or shouting their relief to the sky. 44 years of hurt have been blasted away in one glorious, sky-blue second.

It is often said that people are too quick to ascribe significance to sports, over and above that which is due to them. In my more lucid moments, I agree with that analysis. But in the 5 minutes between 4.48pm and 4.53pm, on Sunday May 13th 2012, I ran through almost every emotional state possible. And it made the 35 years I had spent following City, and enduring the taunts of friends, neighbours, colleagues, all worthwhile.

Apologies for the length of this essay. Those of you who have suffered this far may wish to click on the links is a side-by-side montage of the reactions of the supporters of both teams, and one is the action as described on Sky Sports in the UK.
side-by-side montage
Sky Sports coverage

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

MLB 2K: The Deathening

Take-Two, too absolutely no one's surprise, didn't mention MLB 2K in their earnings conference call yesterday.

In other words, it's dead.

The third-party license is expiring, the game has been absolute shit for years, and a Do Not Resuscitate order has been issued.

You might be wondering why this matters.

It's an awful game, and it's going away. That's a good thing, right?

The thing is, you have to consider the history. And if you do, it's a sad day.

The MLB 2K series has descendents that go all the way back to the mid-1990s, starting with World Series Baseball on the Genesis. That game was a huge leap beyond what other baseball games were like in that era, so much so that I've always believed it was the spiritual descendant of the legendary Earl Weaver game.

It was developed by Sega.

When the much-maligned Saturn was released, almost nothing went right for it, but World Series Baseball '98 was a landmark achievement. The graphics were incredible for the time, the commentary was tremendous (Gloria will still laugh out loud if I say "It's a HIGH fly ball"), and believe it or not, I played a full 162-game season with my then-beloved Texas Rangers. Remarkably, I lost in the first round of the playoffs to the hated New York Yankees, just like the real-life Rangers did.

WSB had a wonderful sense of pace. The games went quickly, but still had a wonderful atmosphere and plenty of flavor. It was one of the best baseball games ever made.

When the Dreamcast (what a great console) was being developed, and EA snubbed the platform, Sega bought Visual Concepts (which had developed NHL '95 as well as Madden '94 and '94) to develop sports games. I believe that was in 1998.

Visual Concepts then released a series of the best football games ever made, but they also made a few stellar versions of World Series Baseball (in conjunction with Blue Shift). Light years ahead of the competition graphically, they were "real" baseball games, not arcade fluff.

Worthy successors, in other words.

In 2005, Sega sold Visual Concepts (and it's wholly-owned subsidiary, Kush Games) to Take-Two. Take-Two decided to create a new baseball franchise--the MLB 2K series--and Kush became the developer.


To me, Kush was always the gaming developer equivalent of the cat in the nursing home who goes and sits on the bed of the resident who was about to die. Every sports series they were involved with crashed and burned.

MLB 2K was no exception.

After a reasonably promising debut with MLB 2K5 (Metacritic score 81), the march toward mediocrity began. Actually, it wasn't a march--it was a sprint.
MLB 2K6: 66
MLB 2K7: 71
MLB 2K8: 70

Like I said, there was a proud legacy here, one that was being ruined.

Visual Concepts took over development for MLB 2K9, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Except nothing changed.
MLB 2K9: 64
MLB 2K10: 76
MLB 2K11: 69
MLB 2K12: 66

Man, that is just sad.

Worse were the bullshit excuses that VC had every year for releasing late alphas. It was just embarrassing, and for those of us who did know the history, more than a little sad.

Even more painful was to see the NBA 2K series steadily improve each year. How could one dev team for VC so obviously have their shit together while the dudes down the hall were knocking over their spit cups on a daily basis?

Well, it's over now.

At least there's still one excellent baseball series around. MLB The Show has been terrific for years, even though I think at times it lacks the energy of some of the earlier, classic franchises. So while Sega's legacy of excellence has been killed, the legacy of excellent baseball games in general, which stretches back 25 years now, is still intact.

And even though I don't play baseball games anymore, I somehow find that a relief.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Eli 10.9

Eli 10.9 is getting older quickly. So are his friends.

"Are you kidding me?" he said recently. "Kids are saying new dirty words EVERY DAY now. I'm like, 'What does THAT mean?' "

I remember those days, saying "damn" at the Tetherball pole during recess and being threatened with teacher notification.

On Mother's Day, we went out to a reasonably fancy restaurant with Gloria and my Mom, and at some point while waiting for our food, both Eli and I had our elbows on the table. This led to an etiquette discussion, where I posited that the prohibition was probably due to something obscure two centuries ago (as it turns out, I was close), and that my elbows were staying on the table. "Yeah!" Eli said. "We're elbow brothers, Dad."

"No," I said. "We're El-bros."

"ELBROS!" he said, laughing so hard he fell sideways in the booth. We now have a secret Elbros handshake, which naturally involves elbows.

During his Field Day at school last week, his P.E. teacher was talking to the kids in the gym about the day, mentioned that they would have snacks and drinks at one point, and that they shouldn't drink too much Gatorade or they might get sick to their stomachs. It was a good idea to warn them, since you don't want a bunch of kids barfing in the gym.

"You realize that at the same age boys begin sex education and learn about vaginas, they still need to be told how to snack?" Gloria asked, laughing.

Today, I took Eli to Dave & Buster's after a physical therapy appointment(more on that tomorrow). We decided to eat at the on-site restaurant, and when the waiter brought the check, Eli waved me aside and said, "I've got this." He picked up the check, looked at it, then said, "Ups, no I don't."

By the way, I ordered a salad called The Lawnmower. Here's what it looked like:

That's unfortunately not what it looked like in the menu picture, which showed perfectly precise rows of ingredients. Since I'm sure there is some never-diagnosed shit going on in my brain, something about the perfect rows of food appealed to me in semi-mystical ways. What I received, though, was a positively medieval mess in comparison. But if anyone ever opens up a Lawnmower Restaurant, I will eat there every day.

You Need To Watch This

I strongly believe this is the funniest thing you'll see all day:
Kyrie Irving in Old Man Costume Plays Street Ball

Monday, May 21, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire #6: Two Weeks of Hell, the Soundscape, and Help Screens

The headline feature turned out to be a nasty, nasty bit of work. It was one of those things that are fairly simple to get working, but adding depth was sharply painful.

First off, take a look at the graphics blank that Fredrik designed:

Totally nifty. The original version he sent had images and story titles in the empty boxes, but I realized that all of that content could be dynamic, so he sent me a set of images that could be used in those locations, and I wrote ten possible headlines for each image. So it's not just the headline and sub-headline that are dynamic--it's the entire newspaper page, basically.

This is what happens sometimes--you start working on what seems like a little feature, but it gets more interesting as you work on it, and then suddenly it's integral. In this case, I realized that a newspaper headline after each game was a core component of the reward system instead of just a cute little bit of fluff.

That means that the headline feature will probably expand to include a headline at the end of each season, as well as a headline after the user plays the offseason GM mini-game.

Okay, so let's take a look at what the finished product looks like. I was playing a tough game on the road, burned through my Big Play presses on defense early in both halves, and resorted to running the ball to take more time off the clock, so passes were rare. Here's the headline (you can click for a larger image):

Since the passing stat had the highest deviation from what would be considered "normal", it was the subject of the sub-headline. And the headline is a Yes reference (which is obvious to you old schoolers).

Now that headlines are in, the last significant piece of functionality I'm considering adding is first down measurements. I like the drama, and it would be a nice homage to Front Page Sports Football, but I haven't quite decided yet if I'm going to do it.

Moving forward, I have some decisions to make about the soundscape. Since Fairway Solitaire is the gold standard for games of this type, I've paid close attention to how the game handles sound effects. Basically, everything that happens in Fairway Solitaire is tied to a sound effect. It's quite impressive, really, and I conceptually like the approach, but doing that in this game will be difficult.

Primarily, it's difficult because I want all the sound effects to be football-related. I've done that in many areas of the game, but certain simple events (like the user successfully matching cards) will happen so many times that it's difficult to come up with a universal sound effect that won't make people want to scratch their eyes out.

Plus, the crowd volume is dynamic based on the game situation, so as you match cards, the crowd volume is slowly going to rise. But it's not in huge steps, because then it wouldn't sound like a real crowd. So I have some decisions to make about sound that may functionally go against what I conceptually like on a blank sheet of paper.

The other big item is to design a help screen for both offense and defense, an overlay that appears the first time you play the game. It will explain the game mechanics, then give you an option to turn off the screen going forwards.

That almost sounds like an afterthought, but it's very important to me that the game mechanics can be explained with just one screen for offense and one for defense. So I have to be precise with how I explain things, and the screen must have a natural flow that make them easy to read and understand.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Links!

Leading off, From Pete Thistle, and this is an amazing story: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran.

From Steven Davis, and this is quite fantastic: Transforming robot effortlessly turns into a car. Also, this is tremendous, it's Playsurface: an open-source multi-touch computing table.

From Jonathan Arnold, and this must be the coolest wedding ring ever: hand-forged from a meteorite. Also, and this is absolutely insane, it's Russian trucks crossing a river.

From Sean Redlitz, and this is one amazing kid: Ashima Shiraishi, 11, Conquers Difficult Bouldering Climbs.

From Manchester City fan Dave Tyrrell, so you already know what's coming: City vs United The Last 5 minutes of English Premier League 2011-2012.

From Brian Witte, and these are stunning photos: driving from England to Mongolia. Plus, questions about the trip are answered here.

From Jeremy Fischer, and this is entirely ridiculous: 5-year-old Hannah cracks Master lock in less than a minute.

From Sirius, and this is entirely fascinating:
"Cow shoes" and bicycle tracks.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Of Note

Here's a website I just saw: Pocket Tactics.

Description: Pocket Tactics is the home of strategy gaming for Android and iOS devices, updated every weekday.

Why should you take a look at this site? Let me answer that question by listing, in order, the games currently mentioned on the front page:
--King Of Dragon Pass
--Scotland Yard
--Empire Of The Eclipse
--Call of Cthulhu
--Legion of the Damned
--Neuroshima Hex

Talk about five stars and an A+ for subject matter.

Also, Gaming Trend is sponsoring a Diablo III giveaway. The Collector's Edition, regular edition, and even the artbook, so if you just can't wait for Torchlight (or better yet, if you want to have both), head over to GT and enter.

Another Interesting Kickstarter Project

I was supposed to mention this on Monday, but it got lost in my e-mail. There's a very cool Kickstarter for a game called Deepworld: A Cloud Based Multiplayer Crafting Adventure, and it's definitely worth a look. Here's a description:
Deepworld is a 2D crafting adventure game with a persistent, online sandbox universe just waiting for you to explore! It's built in the cloud, so you can join up with your friends at any time to journey through the depths, create new worlds, or visit other players' fabulous creations - on your Mac, iOS devices, and PC (and hopefully Android, too!)

Plus it has a very stylish look, visually. The Kickstarter closes really, really soon (like 90 minutes, damn it), so head over there quickly if you're interested.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Stuff In Trouble: Sony

Sony recently released annual earnings, and they were nightmarish.

Sure, there were extenuating factors, but take a look at this:

If you're too lazy to click on that, here are the basics. Sony lists six primary categories (not including the PS2) in the "Key Consumer Electronics" category. Here is a year-over-year sales comparison:
LCD TV's: -12.5%
Video cameras: -15.4%
Compact digital cameras: -12.5%
PC: -3.4%
Playstation 3: -2.8%
PSP: -30.9%

That's zero for six. To be fair, Sony was only forecasting aggressive growth in LCD TVs (20%) and PCs (15%), but man, those are scary numbers.

Even scarier, take a look at the forecast for the new fiscal year:

Two years ago, Sony bet the company on LCD televisions. Today, they're forecasting a 10.7% decline in sales. Now their growth drivers are supposed to be PCs (+19% in a fiercely competitive market), smart phones (+50%, same), and the Vita (lumped in with the PSP, so it's hard to calculate the exact growth rate, but it's huge).

Sony can't compete with Apple at the high end, price-wise, because Apple is totally dominating that space and has customer loyalty that Sony can only dream about. And Sony can't compete below that, because Samsung and several other companies produce feature-rich, lower-cost products than Sony can't or won't make.

What the hell do you do when there is no space left in which you can become a dominant player?

Sony did announce a joint venture with Panasonic to produce OLED panels, but Samsung and LG will both have products hitting the market by the end of this year, while 2015 is the target date for the joint venture.

Like many of you who are close to my age, I remember the days when Sony drove the market. They created entirely new products, then convinced people that they needed them. That kind of innovation certainly drove customer loyalty--a product with "Sony" on the front usually meant that it was best in class.

Over time, though, the market has changed. More players. Far more competition on both features and price. And it doesn't appear that Sony is able to respond effectively.

They do have, however, a highly profitable insurance company.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Great Energy Crisis of 2012: Officially Over

I wrote a few weeks ago that I was very concerned about Eli 10.9 because his energy level had seemingly been halved. It was bad enough that we thought he might have mono, but after the bloodwork came back negative, we decided to give it a few weeks and make sure he was going to bed on-time each night. His bedtime had been drifing by 20-30 minutes, which doesn't sound like much, but it was worth a try.

It didn't happen overnight, but today I realized that he's finally back to normal. We stayed after school and worked on corner kicks/penalty kicks (his tournament semifinal is finally being played on Thursday), then he went to hockey and played as well as I've ever seen him play. He faced about 70 shots in an hour of 3-3, against very skilled players, and he only gave up 5 goals, all of which were on second and third shots. Plus a coach was shooting on him when the puck was at the other end (cross-ice), and he was stopping him, too. He was hyper-quick, which is how he plays when he's feeling right.

"That was really fun," he said when he stepped off the ice.

"I think you're back," I said. "One hundred percent."

"I'm back, baby!" he said, smiling.

Look out, world. The Enthusiasm Engine has returned.

Yes, It's One More Action Park Story

I know I said we were done with these stories, but one more came in that was so good it just has to be read. From someone who wishes to remain anonymous:
I also went to Action Park when I was younger, probably half a dozen times. Loved it, and it was always the highlight of the summer. It seemed like we'd either do Action Park or Great Adventure each year, and while I hugely enjoyed Great Adventure, I'd always vote for Action Park.

I have a particular fond memory of Surf Hill, which was a multi-lane water slide where you'd grab a mat and dive head first down the slide. At the end of the slide was a little pool of water to stop you, but if you were going fast enough you would blast through the water and continue beyond, where the end of the slide sloped up sharply to a roughly ten foot vertical wall that was there to make damn sure you stopped. My friend Leroy, who was a good 250 pounds, could build up a really good head of steam and render the initial water hazard inconsequential, and would actually begin to ascend the wall before his momentum finally halted and he slid back down.

At the end of the slide and above the wall was a walkway where you could watch folks riding the slide, and if you leaned over the guard rail you could actually touch the top few inches of the wall. Seeing how far he was getting, we thought "hey, I wonder if Leroy can actually fly OFF the top of the wall and land on the walkway, or maybe we can grab him as he reaches the top and yank him over the rail?" It eventually dawned on us that pursuing either of these ideas was likely to end badly. So we settled for trying to grab his mat. For a good half an hour, Leroy determinedly rode Surf Hill over and over to try to get up the wall as high as possible, while we would try to grab the mat out from under him at his apex, sometimes coming within inches of doing so. He finally had that one perfect run where he built up so much momentum that the end of his mat (along with his head and shoulders) cleared the top of the wall before he dropped back down, with me ripping the mat away from him at his peak. It was absolutely brilliant. No park employee even seemed to notice, and certainly no one tried to stop us.

I remember a friend briefly dislocating his knee on one of the high speed water tunnel rides, I believe it was called The Cannonball, with his knee popping out on one turn and popping back in on the next. As you can imagine, he chose never to go on that particular ride again.

I had my own incident in the Tidal Wave Pool, which I've only recently learned had earned the nickname "The Grave Pool". I won't go so far as to say I nearly drowned, but let's say I very nearly began the process of drowning.

With this being my first (and as you may guess, only) time in the pool, I foolishly swam out to the middle of the deep end, only vaguely aware that nearly everyone else around me was floating on one of the boogie boards available at the pool. And then the waves started, they were far more significant than I was expecting, and it was quickly obvious I needed to get the hell out of there. Since I was in water over my head and in trouble, my instinct was to reach water where I could stand, as quickly as possible, so I began swimming towards the shallow end, rather than swim sideways to the ladders. But this was a mistake. The waves just kept pulling me back and I was essentially swimming in place. I wasn't a competent swimmer, and soon I was exhausted, and no closer to safety. I was beginning to have trouble keeping my head above water, I didn't know when the waves would stop, and I wasn't sure what to do next. Then I locked eyes with a lifeguard at the far end of the pool who was watching me intently, and I realized he was considering coming in after me. The overwhelming desire to avoid the embarrassment of having to be rescued gave me a second wind, at least a mental one. Silently willing the lifeguard to let me get out on my own and fueled by nothing more than the sheer determination to avoid being the center of a spectacle, I swam as hard as I could to one of the side ladders, still being knocked around by the waves but now moving perpendicular and at least getting somewhere. After another minute that seemed more like an hour, I dragged myself up the ladder and lay completely exhausted at the edge of the pull, barely able to move for several minutes, and feeling like every muscle in my body was utterly done. I have honestly never, ever felt as utterly drained as I did after getting the hell out of that pool. Such is the nature of youth though that after my brief recuperation period, I brushed myself off and went about enjoying the rest of my day at the park, dismissing the experience as if nothing had happened.

At least until later that summer when I read that a boy a few years younger than myself had gone under, and was pulled out too late. He had drowned exactly one week after my visit.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire: Grinding

I was hoping this wouldn't happen, but I'm wearing down. Trying to balance everything has become nothing short of insane, really, and I'm just trying to hang on until things settle down.

This is probably a symptom of 90% Disease. Gridiron Solitaire is at least 90% done at this point, but that last 10% will be very challenging. Polish. Game balancing (which has already been done, to a large degree, but I still want it to be better). Refinement.

Headlines are a good example of the refinement category. They're working now, with 400+ possible main headlines and almost unlimited combinations of sub-headlines. But out of all of those headlines, do any of them not display properly?

That sounds easy, at first glance, except the sub-headlines are generated in a more complex manner. Here's an example:
"Opportunistic defense grabs " + intCPUTurnovers.ToString + " turnovers in " + userscore.ToString + "-" + cpuscore.ToString + " win"

Looking at the headline in that format, it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, so to speak. I've gone through the code several times, but I'm sure that I've made more mistakes than I've found so far.

I'm glad I wrote so many headlines (Paul Costello and John Harwood contributed some as well), because seeing the same headline over the course of the season will be very unlikely, but it makes it much harder to test.

Headlines are one example of a feature that will need a good deal of refinement, even though the code has been written. And refinement isn't nearly as much fun as blazing ahead, writing code for new features.

The schedule this point includes another few weeks for polish, then I'm going to send out the "friends and family" beta when we get back from Eli's goalie camp in mid-June (Grand Rapids, Michigan, hello). A wider beta is on tap for late July.

I have some decisions to make, though, in terms of distribution.

The simple approach is to just do it myself, sort of in the Vic Davis vein. The downside, though, is that there's no publicity from the distribution portal in that scenario, and having a little assistance on the publicity end from a distribution partner could make a huge difference in how many people know the game even exists.

There are so many trade-offs involved with any option I choose that nothing is necessarily optimal. The good thing, though, is that even in a worst-case scenario, the game is going to be available, even if I have to homebrew a solution.

After Fredrik sends me the background image for the newspaper and I get everything formatted properly, I'll put up a headline.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Links!

DQ Fitness Adviser Doug Walsh sent in a link for which I have no words: Deb 'Spoons' Perry Does The Black Keys. Believe me, you desperately need to watch this.

From Jeremy Fischer, and this is absolutely stunning: Living Infrastructure. Also, and this is quite amusing, what happens when a lion sees a baby wearing a striped jacket?

This is an entirely fascinating link from Steven Kreuch: I’m the Guy Who Made Snack Bags So Impossible to Open.

Chris Pencis sent in two excellent links: first, a wonderful website called Open Culture ("The best free cultural & educational media on the web"), which demands an immediate bookmark. Second, one of the videos available on the website: The Physics of Unicycling (created by a partnership of MIT and Khan Academy).

From Jonathan Arnold, and this is a fascinating story: In National Archives thefts, a radio detective gets his man.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and these photographs are amazing: Off The Grid. Also, and this is fascinating, it's lost lakes of the Empire State Building.

From Sirius, and this is quite intriguing: A new wind energy concept.

From DQ WPF Official Advisor Scott Ray, and this is remarkable, it's Microsoft Research shows dual views on existing LCD displays.

From Scott Gould, and this definitely belongs in the strangest headlines category: dolphins died of drug overdose after rave.

From Joel Hulsey, and holy cow: Skywalking: a dangerous new photo fad popular among Russian teens.

From Dan Willhite, and this certainly changes my perspective: Not such a wet planet: Picture shows how all the water on Earth would fit into one 860-mile-wide ball.

From Michael Gilbert, and this almost makes Action Park look tame in comparison, it's terrifying Russian thrill ride.

From Dave Prosser, and this will cause plenty of dinosaur "pull my finger" jokes: Dinosaur flatulence may have warmed Earth. Also, and it's a blast from the past, it's The Floppy Disk Means Save And 14 Other Old People Icons That Don't Make Sense Anymore.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

One More Action Park Story

From Dan Spezzano:
I went to Action Park twice a summer, at least. I even went there as a counselor for a day camp. The slide that was kind of like the cannonball that dropped you into an ice cold lake was the worst ride. I swear that water was so cold you almost couldn't swim. However, my injury story comes from the Alpine Slide.

I was tooling down it when just moments in I figured out the very helpful hand brake wasn't catching anything. I was starting to move really fast--maybe 25-30mph--and couldn't slow down. I didn't want to purposely crash because the side of the track was littered with white rocks (I kid you not--rocks outside the track). So I decided to ride it out.

That's when I saw the turn coming.

About halfway down, you reached the big bank turns if you were on the "fast" track. No way was I going to hold that turn. Before I could even think, I was thrown, with sled, off the track and into the air, landing in some brush about 20 feet away.

I have no idea how high I went. I just know if I went another 15 feet or so, I would have been thrown into a tree. In later years they cleared that area, so I imagine someone actually did hit a tree at least once.

I loved Action Park. Lucky for them there were no cell phone videos back then.

Road To Enlightenment

DQ Reader Dirk Knemeyer has a very interesting Kickstarter project for a board game called "Road To Enlightenment." Here's a description:
A continental struggle for prestige: religion, science, art and warfare
Road to Enlightenment gives players control of great scientists, artists, philosophers, religious leaders, politicians and military leaders, bringing them uniquely and individually to life.

You play as one of the great monarchs from 17th and early 18th century Europe representing one of the seven top powers of the era: Austria, England, France, Poland, Russia, Spain or Sweden. Your objective is to be recognized as the most prestigious monarch by producing the most admired art and culture, lead the continent in scientific innovations, spread or resist the spread of Catholicism, and attempt military expansion beyond your historical borders. All of this is accomplished by marshaling 134 historical "luminaries": important historical figures covering every relevant domain of human achievement during the period.

That sounds very, very interesting.

For more, here's the Kickstarter page: Road To Enlightenment.

Torchlight II

Finally, something to be excited about.

Diablo III is releasing next Tuesday and I couldn't care less. Zero interest. I know this is heresy, but I thought both Diablo games lacked personality.

Of course, I did play all the way through the first Diablo, and I didn't really understand that it lacked personality until I played a game called "Fate." It was only then that I realized what I had been missing.

Travis Baldree designed and programmed Fate, and it will always be on my list of all-time favorite games. It's also absolutely my favorite game in the "Diablo" genre.

Well, hold on. It's my favorite game unless the next game Baldree made--Torchlight--is the favorite instead.

I think you're seeing the general trend here. The games Travis makes are jam-packed with personality and humor, in addition to being extremely (and I mean EXTREMELY) well-designed.

I was able to spend a few hours with the Torchlight II beta in the last few days, and it's another terrific game. It's still firmly in the Torchlight canon, but the super-saturated environmental palletes of the first game has given way to a more subtle, slightly pastel look, which is tremendously striking.

Animations are outstanding and combat is incredibly fluid. The design consistently facilitates the player experience, because everything in terms of character management is logically laid out and easy to find. It's just an ultra-slick, ultra-polished piece of work, and it should have absolutely no problems finding a foothold in the market, Diablo III be damned.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Last Call

I'm reading a book right now that is a must-read for anyone who is interested in history. Or human nature.

It's titled Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, and it's one of the most interesting non-fiction books I've ever read. Prior to starting this book, I vaguely knew about Prohibition, but also assumed that because it lasted a relatively short time, it was inconsequential.

Boy, was I wrong. Totally, totally wrong.

Women's suffrage? That happened as a build-up to the Prohibition amendent. Income tax? The same--that 40% of federal revenue obtained from liquor taxes needed to be replaced before the Prohibition amendment could be passed.

It's absolutely incredible how many things we take for granted today happened because of Prohibition. Even the 12-mile territorial limit was initially enacted because of Prohibition.

Reading about how Prohibition shaped history makes for utterly fascinating reading. Plus, the wording of the 18th Amendment made getting around the amendment into a challenging strategy game. There were three exceptions: hard cider (so farmers who were vehemently in favor of Prohibition could still get drunk off their asses on cider year-round), sacramental wine (boy, a lot of people suddenly became Catholics), and "medicinal purposes" (the AMA had declared alcohol to be of absolutely no value in treating any condition in 1917, but miraculously, in 1921, they suddenly discovered plenty of conditions that alcohol improved).

Like I said, it's fascinating reading, and on almost every page I see something that blows my mind. It's also incredibly well-written and thorough.

If you've enjoyed any of the books that I've recommended in the past, then go purchase this immediately. You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Tuesday Potpourri

Holy cow, it is completely insane here today. Soccer, hockey, adult work-related stuff--it's a tornado.

Eli 10.9 had his big track meet last weekend, and I'll tell you about it tomorrow, but today, some potpourri.

Cory Banks wrote an interesting story over at the entirely indispensable Gamers With Jobs titled Blue Light Special: How GameStop’s Used Game Sales Affect The Industry. In particular, he notes that according to an interview conducted in 2009 with Gamestop's CEO Paul Raines, "70% of trade credits from used games immediately go into sales of new software."

The entire article is well-worth reading--I highly recommend it--but that's really THE number, isn't it? If Gamestop is telling the truth, and that number is correct, it's very hard to argue that used game sales do anything but stimulate new game sales.

Having said that, though, is Gamestop legally required to tell us the truth? And could there be more than one truth here? What I mean by that is whether it's possible that the way Gamestop defines the question helps give them the answer they want to display.

An example: note that Raines said "70% of the trade credits from used games..." That sounds iron-clad, right? Well, not exactly. What about trade-ins that are sold for cash? The last I heard, they deducted 20% of the trade-in value, but there must still be a decent number of people trading in games for straight cash. That wouldn't be included as part of Raines's narrow statement.

It swings the other way, too. There's nothing stopping a consumer from trading in a piece of hardware (even an iPod or iPad) and using the credit toward new games. That's an uncounted bonus effect for gaming companies.

The only conclusion I can draw from the conflicting claims of the gaming publishers is that their words don't mean as much as their actions. And their actions indicate that, on the whole, they consider a relationship with Gamestop to be a net positive.

Here's some big news: Andreas Illiger, the developer of the entirely wonderful Tiny Wings, recently mentioned in an interview   (thanks, Touch Arcade) that his next game is almost completed ("a few weeks"). It's another iOS game, but there are no other details.

That's huge, because Tiny Wings was a perfect little bit of fun.

I've also been playing two iPad games recently that were originally released on the PC--Rebuild
 and Pandemic. In Rebuild, you're trying to save a city from zombies, and in Pandemic, you're a disease trying to wipe out mankind.

Lighter fare, these.

I've mentioned them both before in their PC incarnations, and the ports are both absolutely terrific. I actually prefer these versions, particularly on the iPad, because the touchscreen and large screen size make it incredibly easy and convenient to play. You can't go wrong with either one, and the prices are ridiculous ($0.99 for Pandemic, $2.99 for Rebuild) compared to the entertainment value.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire #4: Determinism and Uncertainty

Today, we're going to talk about this:
The Big Play mechanic is the element in Gridiron Solitaire most responsible for making it more than just a game of solitaire. To explain why, let's first talk about determinism versus uncertainty in games.

Almost all games (both games in real life and computer games) have a high degree of repetition. The repetition is necessary for the game to be comprehensible to the player. Rules shape the game in ways that produce that repetition. The best games, though, have enough variation inside that repetition to be consistently entertaining.

In solitaire-type card games, the variation is produced by the cards themselves, and the staggering success of these kinds of card games is a testament to the amount of variation in a 52-card deck. That variation, in combination with the rule set, makes solitaire quite addictive.

When I was first writing design notes for GS, I felt that the inherent variation in a card deck would mimic the variation in gameplay that occurs in a real football game. What I needed, though, was a way to make the player have a stake in the variation--in other words, create decision situations where he could affect his own fate in a more substantial way.

Also, these decisions had to be fair. Forcing a player into a decision where he is certain to fail is not a decision at all.

That's where the Big Play came from.

Here's how it works. As an example, let's say that it's fourth down and you have 16 yards to go for a first down. You find and play several card pairs, but then you look at the board and realize there are no pairs left, and you still need 4 yards for the first down.

Without another card, you have no chance of getting that first down. So you hit the Big Play button.

Two things can happen, at first--another card can be dealt (good), or an event can be triggered.

If you get another card without triggering an event, that's great. The card might make a match with another card on the board, and the Big Play button is still visible, so you could press it again if you needed another card.

Let's say that you did trigger an event, though. Triggering an event creates the possibility of several different things happening, and these "things" range from very, very good to very, very bad. And you find out what's happening via the scoreboard, which will display a multi-line message describing the event.

If you call a running play for example, you might see a sequence of messages like this:
"Power run up the middle..."
"Hit hard by a blitzing linebacker."

Those are two separate messages, and each one will have a moment on the scoreboard. Here's how a sample message looks:

The text messages add a ton of football-specific details to what's happening during your game. You get to "see" moments of the game as they unfold. And you don't have to press any buttons to move through them--they are independently paced.

We'll come back to the messages, but let's quickly look at the variety of things that can happen when you trigger an event. If you call a pass play, here's the possible range:
--a card is dealt (but the Big Play button is disabled for the rest of the play)
--the pass is completed for a touchdown (very rare)
--the pass is immediately completed (no multiple matches needed)
--the pass is incomplete
--the quarterback is sacked
--the quarterback fumbles
--the quarterback throws an interception.

In other words, if you don't press the Big Play button, everything is very orderly. You play cards, you gain yards, you end the play. Nothing bad (except not gaining enough yards for a first down) can happpen.

It's also impossible to win a game that way. Absolutely impossible. I mean, you can't win a real football game without taking any chances, right? And if you don't take some chances in Gridiron Solitaire, you can't win, either.

So you press the Big Play button, and then lots of real football things can happen. And you'll get to see the description of what's happening, presented at a pace that increases the drama.

The Big Play is carefully balanced to make the challenge fair. On offense, each time you press the Big Play button on the same play, the chances of triggering an event go up. Events are more likely to be either play-ending or negative, they become more likely each time you press the button.

Remember, though, that it resets after each play. So what you did on the previous play has no effect on the next one.

The chances of triggering an event are also affected by your team rankings versus your opponent. Games will play out differently based on your opponent.

Okay, back to the messages. If you're wondering if you'll be seeing the same ones over and over again, the answer is "no." The message system is set up on a wheel principle, and the wheels are compatible with each other. On a pass play for example, there are 34 different messages describing the play that has been called (types of pass routes).

Don't freak out--you don't have 34 pass plays to pick from. You just press the "Run" or "Pass" button. But the messaging system creates a fuller description of what's happening.

If you haven't completed the pass yet when you press the Big Play button, there are 34 additional second-level messages that are all compatible with the first-level message. Combined, that's over 1,100 possible messages.

Oh, and if you have completed the pass, but have gained less than 15 yards, there are 34 more messages there. And 34 more if you've gained more than 15 yards.

That's over 3,300 unique combinations of messages for pass plays alone. So you will see the same message, occasionally, but it shouldn't happen very often. Plus, it's easy to expand the number of messages, so I'm hoping to add to that number over time.

There also 3,300+ combinations for running play messages, and there are messages for defense, Hail Mary's, onside kickoffs, and all kinds of other things. If you include all the messages in the game, there are over 8,000 in total. When you're reading about an event, it will hopefully increase your immersion in the game without feeling repetitive.

Even with the messaging system describing events, though, the game only takes about 15 minutes to play.

I wrote about the headline feature last week, and here's an update: it's going to kill me. It's based on the same wheel principle as the messaging system, but it's also responding to what happened during the game. So I have a Main Headline that says something like "NEVER TOO LATE" or "THE PANIC ROOM" or something else that is hopefully clever, then a sub-headline that conveys additional details ("Lobsters Passing Attack Keys 24-17 victory").

To make this work, though, I need lots and lots of main headlines. Hundreds of them. So all the code for the sub-headlines is written, but I'm still grinding through the main headlines, which have to be created "by hand" instead of being generated.

By next Monday, I'll hopefully have a screenshot of a headline that was generated in the game.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Friday Links!

Leading off, from Mitch Youngblood, a terrific story: Walk the Prank: Secret Story of Mysterious Portrait at Pentagon. Also, and we've obviously wondered about this since we were kids, it's What Really Happens When You Swallow Your Gum?.

From Steven Davis, and I have to think this could contribute to "irregularity", it's A Bathroom Situated Atop a 15-Story Elevator Shaft. Also, and these are tremendous, it's Whimsical Street Art by Filthy Luker. Next, and these are fantastic: Ridiculously Imaginative Playgrounds by Monstrum. One more, and it's terrific: My Time with Hugo and the Automaton.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link that will remind some of you of a childhood moment: Riding in the Back of Pickup Trucks – A Bird’s-Eye View. Also, and this is an incredible story, it's Japanese Castaways of 1834: The Three Kichis. One more, and what a fantastic idea: John Peel's Record Shelf.

From Sirius, and this is amazing, it's Strange organism has unique roots in the tree of life. Also, it's The Greatest Machine Never Built.

From Jonathan Arnold, and I almost let Eli do something like this, but got overruled by "The Man": Start with a white room.

From Don Barree, and this is both an important discovery and difficult to watch: New Challenger Video: Rare Footage Of 1986 Disaster Uncovered.

From Keith Schleicher, a bizarre story: Philadelphia man closes missing child case after finding himself on website.

From Scott Zolnoski, and this is quite incredible: Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?.

From Eric Higgins-Freese, and this is quite remarkable: Hide Yourself Like an Animal—Instantly.

From Frank Regan, and this is a fascinating story: Never surrender: The Lonely War of Hiroo Onoda.

Lastly, from Chris Meyer, and this is spectacular: a gull-eating octopus.

Thursday, May 03, 2012


Miles Jacobson, studio director at Sports Interactive, recently wrote a guest op-ed for Game|Life.

In short, it was excellent.

Jacobson wrote about piracy, but instead of using piracy as an excuse for unsubstantiated rants, he gathered data, and cleverly. Take a look:
...we released our Android game a couple of weeks ago. It went straight into the top 20 in many European countries, both in the “paid app” and “top grossing” charts, and a 4.4/5 rating. Which sounds like a pretty good start, right?

Because of the fragmentation, we created a handful of “skins” for the game to cover the majority of device resolutions. Once a player has installed the game on his phone, the handset senses which resolution the phone can handle and downloads the appropriate skin.

...As our sales passed the 10,000 mark, I asked to see the figure for skin downloads; it was up to 113,000. Because every installed copy of the game — legitimately bought or not — needs a skin, we were able to make a pretty direct comparison between our sales figures and our actual user base.

I like to believe the best in people, so I imagined to myself that everyone who bought our game downloaded it twice; once for their phone and once for their tablet. Even if this were true, that still means a piracy rate of 83 percent. But it’s not true — the majority of people who bought it downloaded it once, the rest downloaded it illegally.

Once you gather legitimate data, a discussion about piracy becomes possible. Without data, it's just a bunch of philosophers standing on soapboxes in the town square.

In this case though, Jacobson is level-headed and thoughtful, and his editorial reads as an honest discussion of the issue.

Console Post Of The Week

Fom Chris Kohler of Game|Life:
Microsoft is about to launch a subsidized Xbox 360 package, in which the hardware will cost $99 but be tied to a two-year subscription plan, according to a report Wednesday.

The bundle will include a 4 GB Xbox 360 model and a Kinect sensor and be sold at Microsoft Stores, The Verge said. It will require a $15/month subscription to Xbox Live and there will be an early termination fee.

Clever bastards.

I checked the price of a 4GB Kinect bundle on Amazon, and it's in the $280 range. Two years of Xbox Live is another $90 or so (again, based on Amazon prices). $370 in all.

With this new Microsoft deal? $459.

By that measure, it's not a good deal for consumers. In another way, though, it's really not bad at all. $15 a month? That's two lunches (and not somewhere expensive, either). $100 down and two lunches a month? That will seem totally doable for many people who wouldn't spend $300 in one pop.

Plus, and I think this is important, this is a familiar economic model to anyone who has a cell phone, which is basically everyone now.

Oh, and why you're here getting the Kinect, would you like to add a new Windows phone? It uses the same interface and would only change your monthly payments to X. Or a Windows tablet. Same interface.

Microsoft has the right idea here. But they also need to offer consumers a loyalty discount. Buy a Kinect 360 and and a Windows phone at the same time, and you'll receive a 10% discount. Or 20%.

Unless you're Apple, selling hardware doesn't make you money. Selling CONTENT makes you money. Get more content-selling devices in the hands of more people, and you can make more money.

Want to check on whether a new game or demo (or anything else) is available on Xbox Live? Check your Windows phone, buy it from your Windows phone, and have it downloaded to your 360 by the time you get home. Check the leaderboards. Maybe even play mini-games from Xbox Live on your Windows phone. The opportunities for cross-promotion here are enormous, and the more integrated these platforms are, the more opportunities there will be.

While Nintendo and Sony are floundering (and Sony seems downright paralyzed), Microsoft appears to be moving forward, and in my mind, they have correctly identified the future.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Pictures On The Wall

Before Eli 10.9s soccer game last week, he walked around the area bordering the field with his teammates. That's when they found this:

That's a pole vault runway and pit, carved out of the woods. There was sand at the front end of the runway, so reverse the starting direction and you had a long jump pit.

It got stranger.

"Dad, we found graves back there," he said.


"A bunch of graves."

He did, too. Less than 30 yards from the pole vault pit:

Eli and his teammates were baffled.

"That's actually fairly common," I said.

"Are you kidding?" he asked.

"Not at all," I said. "That cemetery is for all the pole vaulters who didn't make it to the pit."

Well, that's almost plausible.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Eli was having a mysterious energy outage. In the last 10 days, though, he's slowly returned to (almost) normal.

In the game played beside the Eccentric Reservoir Of Death, they were missing their leading scorer, and Eli scored the only goal in a 1-0 win.

This week, they had a game on Tuesday, and if they won, they would tie for the regular-season championship. That was a big deal to Eli, because it meant they would get their team picture put up at school.


"There hasn't been a soccer picture put up for years," he said. "We're just not very good."

"Boy, that changed this year, didn't it?" I said.

He laughed. "And I feel almost completely normal again," he said. "I can't wait to play."

"I can't wait to see what happens when coach sees you play at full strength for the first time," I said.

I've been watching Eli play soccer for seven years. I've never seen him dominate like this before.

He's a midfielder, and he was the hub for every possession. If the other team got to midfield, he stripped the ball and passed to a teammate. If his team had the ball, he'd be involved in the break. His passing was sensational--quick, accurate, and always to the right position.

He weighs forty or fifty pounds less than some of his teammates, but he was totally dominating the game.

Near the end of the first half, his team was leading 1-0, and a ball came to his feet just outside the box. When he takes a hard shot, the ball makes a thumping sound coming of his foot. No one else on his team makes that sound, and I can close my eyes and still tell when he's shooting.

This time, he crushed the ball and put it in the top left corner of the chance. The goalie didn't even move.

At halftime, I walked over to him while he was getting a drink and put my arm around him. "That's the best half of soccer I never seen you play," I said. "Your passing was fantastic, and you were getting back so fast on defense. How does it feel to be yourself again?"

"Really good," he said, smiling. "Really, really good."

In the second half, he almost scored twice, then added an assist near the end of the game. Final score: 4-0.

"If we win the tournament, we get TWO pictures on the wall," he said.

The More Things Change

I found one of Eli 10.9s pair of shorts in the laundry today, on top of some of my clothes, and when I moved the shorts, stuff fell out. I took a picture of what I found:

Two pens. A plastic sword. A robot. A piece of paper. A tiny, round shield.

That could have been stuff in a little boy's pockets in the 1960s, although the robot might have been a soldier. In the 1920s, the pens would have been pencils.

Otherwise, not much has changed in a century. The world might be totally, unfathomably different, but little boys still leave the same things in their pockets.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Your Action Park Stories, Plus One More From The Wayback Machine

I am always of the opinion that less of me and more of you is a good thing, so here are some epic stories stories about legendary Action Park (hit the link if you didn't read it on Friday). Plus, one more terrific story about the "old days" of computing.

First off, from Chris Mattos:
Thanks for posting that article about the looping water slide at Action Park. Being a 40-something, lifelong New Jersey resident, it should be no surprise that I visited Action Park on several occasions during my younger days. The rides at Action Park were quite literally one bad idea after another, but we didn’t care because there was absolutely nothing like it…anywhere. While I saw the looping water slide on my last trip to Action Park, it was never open (fortunately for me), but immediately recognized it as a really dangerous ride, even in a place where dangerous rides were the norm.

Action Park was built on a ski resort, so they had the convenient mountains to allow gravity to fuel many of their rides. They also had ski lifts to bring you to the top of the mountain. During the summer, these brought you to a ride called the Alpine slide. This ride consisted of you riding a sled down a concrete track all the way down a mountain. The sled had only one control…a brake. And I’m not particularly sure if anyone ever used it. Also, keep in mind, that Action Park was primarily a water park, so most everyone would be dressed in some sort of swimsuit. So you essentially had a near naked person, riding an open sled down a concrete runway at near break-neck speeds. Chaos ensues. Now, to my 18 year old self, this ride was an absolute thrill and was my favorite ride at the park, but looking back, I can’t believe they actually let people ride that.

Next, from Geoff Engelstein:
I was one of the few that actually went on that thing back in the 80's. It was ridiculously dangerous.

First off, Action Park in general was dangerous. There was no thought to safety when designing the rides, and we never left there without some injury and a trip to the nurse - although it was usually just my sister ripping the skin off of her arms after flipping over on the Alpine Slide at 30 MPH.

One time I went there with college buddies during one break or another, and they had just built 'The Loop'. Being stupid college kids (even going to MIT didn't prevent us from being stupid college kids) we egged each other on to try it. Fortunately for all of us it was not open. When we asked they were 'fixing' something.

Then, on the way out of the park at the end of the day (the Loop was near the entrance) we saw that they were opening it up and a few people were climbing up the tower. All of my friends decided NOT to go on it, but I, for some reason, decided to prove my machismo by getting on line.

There were maybe 3 people ahead of me. The first two went through OK, but were not too excited after getting off. The guy in front of me was a little heavyset, but they let him go through anyway.

He jumped into the tube and slid into the darkness.

And never came out.

Eventually the guys running the ride decided they better see what was going on. They went down and pulled open the trap door on top of the tube at the bottom, and there he was, stuck at the bottom and screaming. He had slid up the far side but not made it over the top, and slide back down and there he sat. He didn't realize there was a trap door above him -- and I'm not even sure it was openable from the inside, knowing Action Park. He just had to lay there in the dark with water rushing down the tube all around him until they got him out.

Then it was my turn. You'd think that at this point I would simply climb back down the steps. You'd think the fact that I was a freaking Physics Major would clue me in to the serious design flaws here. But no. I figure I'll go for it -- I was light enough that I would make it all the way around.

So I jump in. I slide down and up over the top. At the apex of the loop I was fast enough to get around, but not fast enough to stay 'stuck' to the top. So I fall down onto what has become the bottom part of the tube at the top, hitting face first. I then slide down the back side of the tube, but as I round the 90 degree point what was the bottom of the tube becomes the top of the tube and I fall down again, this time landing on my back.

I am then deposited unceremoniously into a shallow pool at the exit.

I lay there for a few minutes trying to get the will to stand up and get out. Finally I do. I was totally bruised and my back was thrown out for at least a week. I decided not to go to the nurse, and just slinked out with my friends.

They never demolished the Loop until the whole park came down years later, but I never saw it open again.

Here's one more from DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh:
I used to go there every summer as a kid growing up in NJ and I VIVIDLY remember that Cannonball Loop ride. I was there that one summer it was open and the stories that surrounded that ride were phenomenal – and horrifying. It was its own urban legend generator. No matter what ride you were waiting in line for, much of the talk was about so-and-so drowning/dying/getting stuck in the Cannonball Loop. Us kids loved to tell of fat guys getting stuck and then being crushed by someone coming down behind them. Of course, much of the stories were exaggerated, but everyone knew people died on the rides there. And at least one member of every family that seemed to go to the park would come home bruised or bloody, including my own. If only my father had a better lawyer...

As a 12 year old, there were numerous rides at Action Park that I was scared to death of, but none moreso than that Cannonball Loop. Even my adolescent mind knew it was a non-starter. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve sat and pondered the thinking behind that ride’s design, even as an adult. In fact, I’m pretty sure that ride – and some of the others at Action Park – were what first taught me that companies didn’t always have my best interests in mind.

Comparing Action Park to Hershey Park over in PA or Great Adventure in NJ (no self-respecting New Jerseyite would ever call it “Six Flags” though technically it’s the largest Six Flags in the USA) was like comparing a PG movie to one rated XXX. Nobody mentioned Action Park without hearing someone within earshot say, “I can’t believe parents would take their kids there.”

Let’s see... there was another “Cannonball” ride that was very short, had a near-90-degree turn (upon colliding with my father separated his shoulder) and dropped you about 15 feet over a spring-fed ice cold lake. I’m pretty sure that’s where the heart-attack occurred.

Nearby was a “Tarzan Swing” that also dropped you into a spring-fed lake of bone-chilling water, only this one was lined with rocks. It was completely up to you to release from the rope at the right moment, or risk landing on the rocks. No joke.

There was 1980’s technology worked into a near-vertical waterslide that towered about 8 stories in the air. They finally installed a retention curtain over the top 20 feet to keep people ON the slide. People were freefalling for about thirty feet before touching the slide.

The alpine slide (responsible for fatal head injury) was little more than a concrete chute that you slid down the mountain at. Nothing strapped you to the sled; nothing kept the sled on the track. My father, again, built up incredible speed on that alpine slide, came around a corner, and found himself bearing down on a lightweight boy stuck in the track. My father had no choice but to intentionally crash himself, otherwise risk colliding with the boy at over 25mph. He could have killed him, but instead opted for severe road rash along his entire side, and a few bumps from rocks off the track.

I can go on, but you get the idea. Action Park was THE PLACE for masochistic thrill seekers and it was lightyears ahead of its time for amusement rides. It was something you had to see to believe.

Lastly, one more story from the Wayback Machine, and it's entirely wonderful (submitted by Maxime Tremblay):
Although I never had an Amiga, I had the chance to receive one of the greatest gifts I’ll ever remember (besides my trusty “big-wheel” tricycle): A Tandy 1000 SX computer. It was in 1987 and I was only 8 years old. My mother wasn’t entirely trilled by this, since she thought the thing had been too expensive, but my dad kept saying that this machine would change the way we worked and looked at the world forever.

So we kept it.

I didn’t know what to think at first as this wasn’t a NES... Why didn’t dad just buy me that instead, he’d had saved a lot (and I could've played Final Fantasy)!

Then, he bought a game... It was on a floppy disk with a decidedly deceiving printed label. That label had nothing to go for it, just a name written in gray over the yellowish background of the label: King’s Quest 1 it said.

I knew nothing about English, as I’m a French Canadian from Québec. Even worse, my family knew nothing about it as well, being from a fairly secluded area. The walls of text that this game threw at an eight years old kid seemed daunting at first, but I had a weapon. Which kind of weapon would that be?

Of course, I’ll tell you. It was my Harrap’s French-English dictionary, which mom kindly bought seeing my dismay staring INTENTLY at these walls of texts with a pencil and a sheet of paper trying to find words I could understand which would help me out finding the meaning of these cryptic (at the time) sentences...

There you know, I learned English with Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, King’s Quest, The Black Cauldron, Gold Rush!, Police Quest... I finished them all.

Of course, this could be an opus to all of Sierra’s games, but let’s not go there.

Oh, and one last thing (A Steve Job’s moment?). The sound of a Tandy 1000 SX reading a floppy disk is engraved into my mind. That computer still works and is at one of my uncle’s. When I go see him, he’ll know I’ll need some time. I need to hear that buzz again, it’s just not rational. Maybe it what religious people feel when they go to in a pilgrimage.

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