Friday, June 29, 2012

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from "Curry Mutton", and if you have any affection for Van Gogh, this is a wonderful, wonderful video:
Starry Night by Vincent Van Dominogh. Yes, it's "Starry Night"--in dominoes. Seriously, the reveal moment in the video is entirely breathtaking.

Here's something that could be huge: Novel Brain Scan Can Detect Concussions.

From Steven Kreuch, and this is a long read but it's incredibly poignant and touching: Snow White's Scary Adventures Final Night.

From Sirius, and this is amazing: Known exoplanets . Also, and this is quite cool, it's Native American genes found in Icelanders. One more, and this is simply amazing: Cyborg system stifles your need to drink water.

From Brad Brasfield, and this is just beyond words: 80-Ruxpin Art Installation.

From Matt Sbonik, and these are just amazing: How times have changed in New York City! Extraordinary colour photographs reveal 1940s life in the Big Apple in all its glory. And here's the full archive: Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection.

From Robb, and this is tantalizing: Scientists: Research could make broadband 85,000 times faster.

From Dan Willhite, and this video of the ideal path (and process) of the Mars lander is entirely spectacular: Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror.

Here's a fascinating story about the new market inefficiency (potentially) in baseball:
How To Build A 21st Century Bullpen With Failed Hitting Prospects And A Radar Gun.

From David Byron, and this is quite remarkable: Were dinosaurs warm blooded? The bones point to yes.

From Jeremy Fischer, and this is amazing: Watch the Entire Mind-Blowing Skydiving Demo of Google's Project Glass.

From Griffin Cheng, and this is both chilling and entirely fascinating: The Secret Of Ozersk.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Futures (notes)

First off, Matt Solomon sent in a link to a story from 2010 titled The Future Of Music Business Models (And Those Who Are Already There). The basic premise is that you give the music away for free, and if you think that sounds crazy, you need to read the article, because it's excellent and provocative.

Next, someone in the industry who wishes to remain anonymous sent in this:
As you know, I get to talk to some interesting people in the industry periodically and just happened to be talking to a few execs at an unnamed highly-regarded developer recently. We were reminiscing about the PS2 era when there were so many fun, risky 2nd tier games that many of us liked to play. Long story short, the execs told me a big reason those games don’t get made any more is because retail refuses to buy them. Namely, Gamestop. The biggest buyers in gaming aren’t the “core” gamers or the “casual” gamers. It’s Gamestop, and they’ve grown extremely reluctant to stock anything but guaranteed hits.

I hadn't thought about it before, but that makes sense. Gamestop is probably much more profitable if they sell more units of fewer games. Less SKUs to manage, a more liquid market in the games they do carry, and lower chances of getting stuck with excess inventory (because of liquidity).

Jack Palevich sent in this clarification:
For what it's worth the stock price being flat (or even declining) isn't as much of a disincentive as you might think.

That's because most post-IPO tech companies hand out stock grants rather than stock options. A stock grant is like an option with a strike price of $0. A stock grant is worth something no matter how low the stock price is.

I work in the tech industry, and I remember this switch happened roughly when the accounting rules changed such that option grants had to be accounted for as an expense. I don't know if that is related or not. It also happened about the time the bull market ended, so maybe that's a more direct reason for the change.

That's a good point, but if you were granted shares at $20 with a vesting period of say, two years, and the stock is worth $5 after those two years, it's still a problem. But Jack's right about the compensation method, and he's also right that the revised accounting rules drove the changes.

One last note: Julian Dasgupta wrote in to mention that there are FIVE studios working on the Call of Duty series, not four: Treyarch, Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer, Raven Software, and Neversoft.

Futures (part two)

Democratization of content distribution always has a far-reaching effect on an industry or content type. And I think it's influenced the game industry in ways that most of us never appreciated.

Before the Internet, publishers published games. If you wanted to develop a game, you needed to sign with a publisher to get that product distributed.
[sidebar: obviously, that wasn't true in the era when guys shipped floppy disks in zip-loc bags from their garage, but I'm talking about later than that, when EA and other companies came into existence]

Having a distribution method was crucial, and in that sense, it was just like books and music from that era. How many people wrote books that "almost" got published, but never saw the light of day? Or recorded albums on cassette tapes in their garage?

With limited distribution channels, quite a few things never saw the light of day. Most things, really.

In that environment, with a limited number of competing products because of severely limited distribution channels, taking a risk is an interesting play. The number of product short competing against in the "unique" category is likely to be small, the public's appetite is probably high (because they don't see much that's unique), and it's a good fit. Big companies can make money that way, discover new franchises, etc.

With the Internet, though, distribution became democratized. Now, a goofball like me can learn to program from scratch, make a game, and have multiple distribution options. Hell, as a fallback, a person can create their own website and host the game themeselves.

If you create content now, and have the desire, distribution is guaranteed. That is an earthshaking change from twenty years ago.

What's likely to interest people, coming from a no-name developer? Well, two things, I think: novelty or depth (and hopefully both).

Suddenly, unique games don't sound like so much of a value proposition for a big gaming company anymore. Their unique game, at $40-60, is competing with a bunch of other unique games that cost $10-15 (or less). And the lower-priced games are probably MORE unique. See the problem here?

Everybody tried to get out in front of this train. XBLA, PSN, Wiiware. So instead of developing unique products, everyone just wanted to distribute them and charge a fee for the service.

Then smartphones exploded, and now there are so many games available at such a low prices that the dam has completely broken. It's chaos.

Try to be a game executive in this environment. I don't envy you.

So when Peter Moore says that the FTP model is "inevitable", I think he may well be right. And sure, in-app purchases may drive us all batshit insane, but it would be pretty damn refreshing to play an actual level of a game (not a demo), find out it's garbage, and not have wasted any money. I mean, if we all have limited gaming dollars, don't we want to spend them on the games that we actually play, not the games that we buy? And not annoying us with inappropriate IAP will just be part of how we evaluate a game in the future.

You know what's the best part? Marketing becomes less important. All marketing can do in the FTP future is get you to try a game. They will no longer be trying to sell you on an upfront, $60 purchase with spectacularly misleading advertisements.

The future is not getting you to buy the product, sight unseen. It's to get you to try the product and hopefully enjoy it, so the focus has to be more on development and less on marketing.

Release something six months early, without adequate testing? WTF is the point of that when it's free-to-play? All you're going to do is alienate your core audience and kill your game.

A future where playability and quality become more important, while marketing becomes less important? I'll take that.

Kickstarter and other crowdsource funding mechanisms will also be important in the future. They're already important. Democratization of distribution was incredibly important, but democratization of funding will probably be even more disruptive (disruptive in a good way).

Monoliths spending tens of millions of dollars to develop a game that has to sell five million copies to break even? Not so much.

However, I think I've misunderstood the goal of the big gaming companies all along. After further reflection, I think they entirely realize that most of them are doomed. They know there won't be a "peer group" in ten years.

They're all trying to become the monolith that survives.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Futures (part one)

Let's try to figure something out today.

First off, let's look at a few stock charts. Electronic Arts:


That's right: 60 to 12 in less than five years.

Next, Take-Two:


That's 27 to 9 in four years.

Now, THQ:


30 to .56 in five years.

Finally, the big gun, the company that's absolutely killing it compared to everyone else: Activision.


Wait. 18 to 11 in four years? But Activision is the company that's had mega-hits like the Modern Warfare series and an unending money printing press with World of Warcraft!

Yes, that's true, but it's also true that the stock has lost over one third of its value in the last two years, and has been flat for the last four and a half.

I've mentioned this more than once, but I have a very good friend in the industry who said (prophetically): "We need to find a model that works, and none of them work."

He did say that before the rise of free-to-play games, although I don't know if that is--in any way--an answer. COO of Electronic Arts Peter Moore, though, said some provocative things in a recent interview with Kotaku. For example:
Kotaku: "How do you balance the effectiveness of any microtransaction-based game design or business model with the anxiety a gamer might feel that they're being nickel and dimed?"

Moore: "I think, ultimately, those microtransactions will be in every game, but the game itself or the access to the game will be free. Ultimately, my goal is... I measure our business in millions of people have bought our game. Maybe when I'm retired, as this industry progresses, hundreds of millions are playing the games. Zero bought it. Hundreds of millions are playing. We're getting 5 cents, 6 cents ARPU [average revenue per user] a day out of these people. The great majority will never pay us a penny which is perfectly fine with us, but they add to the eco-system and the people who do pay money—the whales as they are affectionately referred to—to use a Las Vegas term, love it because to be number one of a game that like 55 million people playing is a big deal."

Kotaku: "You're saying inevitably all games are going to be that model?"

Moore: "I think there's an inevitability that happens five years from now, 10 years from now, that, let's call it the client, to use the term, [is free.] It is no different than... it's free to me to walk into The Gap in my local shopping mall. They don't charge me to walk in there. I can walk into The Gap, enjoy the music, look at the jeans and what have you, but if I want to buy something I have to pay for it."

Okay, let's ignore for a moment that comparing games to The Gap is the WORST ANALOGY EVER and completely nonsensical. Just the fact that Moore is willing to say this is a clear indication of where things are headed--for EA, at least. A COO isn't going to drop that kind of bombshell by accident.

Certainly, I believe the "we only put out AAA games that need to be mega-hits" era is ending. It's a Catch-22, really, and here's why. Oftentimes--Guitar Hero, for example--breakout hits happen in underserved genres, or even entirely new genres. Yet the basic strategy of only putting out AAA games and established franchises means that studios have significantly cut back on developing new IP. The original Guitar Hero, seemingly, never would have been released by Activision in this era.

Without that, companies have resorted to copying each other's hits as closely as possible. That guarantees genre saturation. Well, over-saturation.

Who has been successful using Activision's strategy? Anyone? I'm not even sure Activision has really been successful, unless you simply compare them to their peer group (a low, low bar financially). And even Activision rests on a very, very shaky precipice. I recently saw an article (sorry, can't remember where) that mentioned there are currently FOUR different studios involved in the Modern Warfare games. Does anyone think that can be managed successfully over the long term?

Here's one other issue, and while I don't see it mentioned often, it's still serious. Stock options are an important method of rewarding performance at technology companies--particularly for managers and executives--and anyone who was given stock options in a gaming company in the last five years is probably underwater. Performance bonuses for company performance? Can't be much, if anything.

Did you wonder why everyone left for Zynga? Stock options. Of course, if they haven't already been cashed in, they're underwater, too.

It's very difficult to retain talented people when their compensation doesn't meet their expectations, and it's difficult to meet their expectations when a company is hemorrhaging money.

Tomorrow, we're going to discuss how decentralized distribution has played a role (perhaps major) in all of this, and what the gaming industry might look like 10 years from now.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Fish And Yogurt



There's a little fish in that pond, about four inches long. Silver, with a forked tail.

"Do you see that?" I ask Gloria. I point to the small fish, who is currently swimming in a sea of similarly-sized orange koi fish.

"Yes," she says. "He's the only one."

"That's a freshwater tuna," I say.

"Tuna can be that small?" she asks.

"Sure, when they're babies," I say. "Freshwater tuna are very rare, though. See the forked tail?"

"Yes."

"Forked tails are for speed," I say. "Fish with forked tails are much faster swimmers."

"I didn't know that," she says.

We stay on the railing for a few seconds, looking at the fish.

"You realize that when we get home, I can tell Eli I convinced you that freshwater tuna exist," I say.

"What? Arghhhh!" She laughs. "You can sound so convincing," she says. "I have to remind myself that you can never be trusted."

"A sound strategy," I say.

We walk over to a yogurt shop located near the freswater tuna pond. It's very mod, this little yogurt shop, and as I start to look at the flavors, something catches my eye.

I try a sample. My head spins.

"Every time I think we've stopped progressing as a society," I say, "something happens to remind me that we're still moving upward."

"Why is that?" she asks.

"Cake batter yogurt," I say. "It's like somebody poured sugar into a vat full of sugar. And it tastes just like cake batter."

A miracle, really.

Monday, June 25, 2012

#11 Update: Fixed

Okay, with the help of an explanation from DQ Visual Basic Advisor Garret Rempel, I figured out what to do and the "X" problem will be an ex-problem shortly. What a horrible pun, although I didn't do it on purpose.

Gridiron Solitaire #11: Amateur Hour

The Maine Lobsters did get to the playoffs. Not as a division winner, but an 11-4 record, given their lowly 2 1/2 star team rating, was quite an accomplishment.

Plucky, they were.

In the first round of playoffs, they played the division-winning Columbus Explorers on the road.

Midway through the first half, I was on defense, staring at a full layout of red cards. This is one of the luckiest layouts in the game, because if you have seven red cards on the field, almost any black card will result in a valid play. This often sets up a long run of playable cards.

I had six big play presses left, the drive meter was about half full, and this was a great opportunity to make a stop. So I pressed the Big Play button.

Red card.

Pressed it again. Red card.

Six times in a row I pressed, and six times I got a red card. Touchdown, Columbus, and I was also out of defensive Big Play presses for the half.

Disaster.

In spite of this, though, I stayed in the game, because my offense was clicking. Maine has a terrible running attack (2), but a decent passing attack (6), so I called a higher percentage of passing plays than I would have with another team.

In this game, it paid off. I couldn't stop Columbus, but they couldn't stop me, either.

In the end, I scored with 1:20 left in the fourth quarter to take a 42-38 lead. Columbus drove down to my twenty-three yard line with :20 and had one play left to win. On the final play, I was out of matches on the board, had two Big Play presses left, and needed two more matches to stop the drive.

I got nothing. Two cards that didn't help me, Columbus scored, and they won 45-42.

It was a bummer, but I did get what I wanted out of season--exciting, close games that kept me involved.

Also, Fredrik finished the new card art. Instead of action poses for just the face cards, every card has an action pose now, and they look terrific, like everything he does.

That's the good news.

The rest isn't bad news, necessarily, just the realities of learning.

I've been using Dropbox to share versions of the game with a few testers (John, Paul, occasionally someone else). I decided last night to have a friend of mine take a look (he called and said he was bored, since his family was out of town, and he's a huge football fan). So I gave him access to the primary Dropbox folder.

About half an hour later, that folder got updated with save game files from him.

That's logical, right? I mean, it's a shared folder. That's kind of the purpose of Dropbox. But because everyone else had been downloading a copy to their local drive and didn't have Dropbox active when they played, I'd never seen that before, and totally did not realize that's what would happen. I kept thinking that they would play the game, but all their save game files would reside on their local drives and wouldn't affect the Dropbox folder.

Wrong.

No big deal, except I also sent an invite to another friend of mine in the industry who I highly respect, and because of this, I had to send him two follow-up e-mails changing the download location.

Embarrassing.

It's particularly embarrassing because it has always been a priority to only share the game on a wider scale when it is bug-free. I literally have one outstanding bug right now, but because I didn't understand Dropbox, it still looks like amateur hour. Arghhh.

So, that one outstanding bug. DQ Film Advisor And Nicest Guy In The World Ben Ormand downloaded the game today, and send me a note that when he exited the program, the game music kept playing and he had to go into Task Manager and kill the application.

This is a problem that I've had months, because if someone hits "X" in the top-right of the game window, that closes the application automatically (via Windows, not via my code).

Theoretically.

In practice, though, it only closes successfully 80-90% of the time. Occasionally, the window closes and everything looks fine, but the application is still actually running in the background, and it has to manually be killed.

It's good, in a way, that Ben encountered this, because it made me completely determined to fix it now, not later, but again, it's embarrassing.

The good news, overall, is that the "friends and family" beta has started. And it will expand when I fix the application closing error.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday Links!

From Eric Higgins-Freese, and this is totally fascinating: Interactive Map Traces Slaves’ Path to Emancipation. Also, and I guess I should have considered my new career more carefully, it's Economists demonstrate exactly why bank robbery is a bad idea.

From DQ reader My Wife, and this is mesmerizing reading: Dead Man Walking: Wade Davis and the Secret of the Zombie Poison.

From Michael M., and this is frequently hilarious: 28 Of The Biggest Kid Fails Of All Time.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is a wonderful, well-explained video, it's Measuring the Universe. Also, and this is one of the most amazing bits of alternate reality I've ever seen: Jerry's Map. One more, and it's a corker: THE ABDUCTION OF GENERAL KREIPE ("Documentary about the reunion of Cretan and British World War II heroes -- and their abductee, General Heinrich Kreipe"). You're not done yet, and this is may be the best of all: Various Forms of Lithic Disguise. As it turns out, the Swiss have constructed the most elaborate and cleverly concealed series of landscape defenses in the history of the world.

Matt Sakey's latest Culture Clash installment is up, and this time, it's It Might Be Fun To Run A Newspaper.

From Sirius, and this is incredible: Scared grasshoppers leave their mark in the Earth. Also, and you will not believe this, it's Image created with a single unbroken black thread.

From Allen Varney, and this is a terrific Dwarf Fortress story (and illustrated beautifully well): Matul Remrit.

From Frank Regan, and this is a great story: THE ADVENTURE OF THE RANDOM HOUSE.

From Jonathan Arnold, and it's hard to believe there was ever a time when this happened: 11 Great Television Shows That Are Lost Forever.

From Tim Lesnick, and these are beautiful images, it's 10 Most Amazing Melanistic Animals (melanism is the opposite of albinism).

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Rules On The Field

Charles Wheeler has started a very interesting blog called The Rules On The Field: The intersection between Sports and Game Design. If you're interested in sports and sports games, it's an excellent read.

On Books

I did something I never thought I'd do.

Last Tuesday, I went to a local library and donated books. Several hundred of them.

If you're my age, or close to it, giving books away would have seemed impossible, even a decade ago. "Educated" people didn't give books away-- they hoarded them.

When I was growing up, and you went to someone's house, the litmus test for someone's level of education was how many books they had. A stand-alone book case was decent. A wall of built-in bookshelves was much better. A personal library room, though, was the apex predator in those days.

If you wanted to learn, or had questions, you needed books at home. You needed a set of encyclopedias--reference materials. You needed information.

And you didn't give books away, because you never knew when you might need to refer to something. I kept a college textbook on Chinese literature for 30 years, because if I didn't, I wouldn't have that information.

Why did I need information on Chinese literature? Damned if I know. But I had it, and I wasn't going to give it away.

In our exercise room, we have an entire wall of bookshelves that we had built shortly after we bought the house. Seriously, I think we were a little smug about having them. The sign of educated people, right?

That was barely 10 years ago.

In that 10 years, inconceivable changes have completely transformed how we access information. How we learn.

Now, even if I didn't have even one book in the house, I could learn anything--anything--by going to the Internet.

Monks used to copy manuscripts by hand. It would take them months to copy a single volume, and those manuscripts were defended at all costs, more valuable than life itself.

Now, almost every piece of human history, every created work, is instantly available to everyone. It's incredible. The democratization of information may be as important as any event in human history.

When I gave those books to the library, I was giving away information, but I wasn't losing it. Now, I have a library of books on my tablet. It's incredibly convenient, because I can't carry stacks of physical books around with me. And I don't need to fill up the house with books to have access to information.

One of the books Gloria found, that she'd bought in 1997, was a real classic:


Just look at some of the chapter titles:
--What is the Internet, Where Did It Come From, Where Is It Going, And Do I Get To Keep My Books When We Get There?
--But What Does All This Have To Do With Books And Reading?
--Hooking Up: Simple Ways To Connect Yourself To The Internet
--Usenet Discussion Groups: Adding Your Two Cents' Worth
--The World Wide Web And Its Search Engines

Here's a list of the hot search engines:
--Altavista
--Excite Netsearch
--InfoSeek
--Inktomi
--Lycos
--Magellan
--SavvySearch
--WebCrawler Searching
--Yahoo

Here's an excerpt:
Almost any sort of computer can be used to hook into the Net. I say "almost" because there are some computers so thoroughly obsolete (the Radio Shack TRS-80 springs to mind) that trying to find communications software to use on them wouldn't be practical. Any IBM-compatible, Apple Macintosh, or Amiga computer, however, is a definite candidate for Net use.

...Get as much memory (RAM) as you can afford. Many entry-level computers come with 4 megabytes of RAM, but 8 megs is the minimum needed to run most World Wide Web browsers smoothly, and 16 megs would be a very wise investment.

It's like paging through a time machine, except the time was only fifteen years ago. Plus, even though it's a little too late to be useful, I found out that something called a "SLIP emulator" existed back then.

I should probably keep this book around. Never know when it might come in handy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Console Post of the Week

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor was released this week.

After waiting what feels like a decade for a Kinect game that was of serious fare, and having played the original game (with the most ridiculous and wonderful controller ever, which you can see here), I was looking forward to the reboot.

Actually, it's not correct that I haven't played a Kinect game with an intended audience of adults. I played Tiger Woods, and while 100% Kinect integration must have looked great in the whiteboard sessions, in practice it was a large dose of fail.

Kinect is absolutely one of the coolest ideas I've ever seen. It's problem, though, is that it doesn't actually work, at least not reliably. So trying to use five or six gestures to set up a shot and swing in Tiger Woods was utterly frustrating, because at least one of those gestures wouldn't register, often multiple times.

Recognition accuracy of 90% might not seem like such a bad number, but in practice, it's infuriating. Plus, many times the accuracy is actually far less than 90%.

Look, bitch about the Wiimote all you want, but that damn controller worked. I can't remember a single game where I had a problem with gestures being detected. Not one.

Kinect is far, far more interesting as a technology than Wiimote the, but it has to work.

Which brings us back to Steel Batalion. Here are a few review excerpts:
It’s a showcase for the worst that Kinect has to offer, where nearly every gesture is either ignored or misinterpreted – often with game-ending repercussions...Like any reasonable person, I expect a baseline degree of functionality when I play a game. Just because a game uses Kinect, players shouldn’t dilute their expectations. Nobody would rally around a game that registers a button press 25 percent of the time, and you shouldn’t do so here.
Game Informer

Numerous times I found myself desperately trying to vent the cockpit of smoke, only to idiotically swing the ventilator control panel into and out of place or activate the headlights instead. The ammo selector buttons are equally finicky and are made even more maddening when you can actually see Powers' hand floating over the correct button, only to watch it whack the wrong one.

Another frustration: selections become very "sticky" once Heavy Armor thinks you've made up your mind. So, after you've "grabbed" the handle on the viewport shutter, it's very hard to let go without closing it first. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes one gesture can be mistaken for another. For example, when I raise my hand to open the shutter I've accidentally closed, I might activate the periscope instead. Keep in mind that, for every second lost to fumbling with some internal mechanism, your VT is being pummeled by computer-controlled enemies that are not equally encumbered. As you desperately flail, the enemy will kill you with no compunction, sending you back to the beginning of the mission or one of Heavy Armor's few checkpoints.
Joystiq

...there’s no overstating how utterly broken Heavy Armor’s motion controls are, even if you follow the draconian setup directions to a tee. Because the game interprets such a wide variety of gestures, the slightest miscalibration can render the game completely unplayable. On more than one occasion, I sat perfectly still while my onscreen avatar weaved around the cockpit, pawing wildly at the air in front of him like a 13-year-old girl in a slap fight.

...First and foremost, a game is meant to be played, and Heavy Armor’s unbelievably inept Kinect controls make that a far more difficult prospect than it has any right to be.
EGM

Overall Metacritic rating (13 reviews): 41.

This, unfortunately, is the problem with Kinect, at least in this iteration: it doesn't really work, if by "work" you mean 95%+ recognition accuracy. I'm not even sure 95% should qualify as working, but since it never even hits that target, it doesn't really matter.

The 360 has done remarkably well, and for a remarkably long time. It was the first HD console. There are a long list of positives. But that doesn't alter the fundamental fact that for the first two years, the hardware was almost guaranteed to eventually fail, and its "second wind" has been provided by a piece of hardware with incredibly compromised functionality, limited to usage in endless mini-game collections.

Depressing, really.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Eli 10.10 Hits the Links

Golf is the one major sport that Eli's never been exposed to, but he started showing interest about six months ago. He got a starter set of clubs during spring break, but then the sports schedule exploded (hockey/soccer/track/tennis), he had no time, and then he got hurt.

Finally, with his ankle healed and the start of summer, there was time to learn.

I don't think I ever mentioned this, but when I was a kid, I played golf. A lot of golf. Not fancy-pants country club golf, but burnt greens rock-hard fairways muni golf.

My neighbor Johnny had a business in Corpus Christi, which was also about five minutes away from the Corpus Christi Golf Center. He left for work at 7:15 in the morning, and I'd go with him. He'd dropp me off at the golf course, then swing back around and pick me up at 4:15 on his way home.

In-between, I'd play a morning round, putt, eat lunch, play an afternoon round, and putt some more. For two summers (one in Arkansas, where I wound up with the same set-up, basically, except my mom was taking me to the course), when I was ten and eleven, that's all I did.

I was decent. I was shooting in the low to mid 80s off the men's tees regularly, and I still wish I hadn't quit. At that age, though, I really needed an adult who could act as a golf mentor, and I think I just got tired of doing everything on my own.

The benefit of hitting thousands of balls as a kid, though, is that my swing is grooved. Before Eli was born, I went through a period of a few months where I started playing again regularly, and I was shooting in the mid 70s.

I hadn't played since Eli was born, but the first time we went to the range, I felt totally comfortable and hit the ball as well as I ever did. Muscle memory.

That's all to get to this point (finally): I'm competent to give Eli general instruction in the game. Golf is a very strange game in that it is highly technical and not technical at all. It's very easy to get lost in minutia, when really, just doing three or four simple things right (stance, grip, takeaway, and swing rhythm) will produce an excellent outcome most of the time.

So I showed Eli a simple grip and the basic stance and just had him hit balls. He hits 75 balls (I hit 25) each time we go to the range, and he's now been four times.

Here's some video from last Saturday, which was the third time he's played:

video

You can see how relaxed and comfortable he looks. His left arm isn't straight on the backswing, but otherwise, his swing is very solid. After three days, which is completely ridiculous.

We watched the U.S. Open over the weekend (I watch the four majors each year), and he wanted to go out yesterday and hit balls again, so we did.

I talked to him about the left arm and explained why it needed to be straight (club position at the top of the backswing and better shoulder rotation). We also talked about using the big muscles on the takeaway (shoulder rotation) instead of small muscles (wrist).

He's been using basically 9 and 7-irons on the range (starting out, they're easier to hit), but he looked good enough where I thought he would enjoy hitting the driver. So he did, and here's what it looked like:

video

After talking about the left arm/big muscles for about two minutes, he basically walked up and incorporated it into his swing immediately. And that ball (and the other drives he hit) went 160+ yards.

He weighs 78 pounds.

The best part about working with Eli is not that he gets better so quickly. It's that he listens, and he enjoys the process. He likes to think about how things work, and his attitude is somehow easygoing and focused at the same time.

Sometimes I think he's the one doing the teaching.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire #10: Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction

Let's start with the "satisfaction" part first.

I started the season last week with the weakest team in the game (hello, Maine Lobsters), a 2-star team (on a scale of 1 to 5). With the play balancing I've been working on recently, I wanted to see how a poor team would do over the course of the season. I want the game to be challenging, but I tell on you to go 0-16. There's a difference between challenging and unfair.

Over the last few days, I've played 2-3 games a day, and with three games left in the regular season, I still have a chance to sneak into the playoffs.

However, I've been very fortunate.

Three overtime games, two of which I won. Two additional wins on the last play of the game (both times, big pass plays). So right now, I'm 8-4, but I could be anything from 9-3 to 3-9, given how many games were decided in the last four minutes. Plus, I certainly have an advantage in terms of strategy, because I know the odds of everything happening, so that's helped as well.

Out of those 12 games, only two have been decided by more than 14 points, and 6 have been decided on the last play. The games have been exciting, with big momentum shifts (thank you, deck of cards), and it feels more like a football game than I could ever have hoped.

That doesn't mean it's done, which brings us to the "dissatisfaction" part.

If you've done any programming, you probably had a list of things that needed to be hunted down that is absolutely excruciating to work on (hell, that's true for any pursuit or profession, not just programming). It's excruciating because it can take you several hours on each item, and you're fixing things that only rarely pop up during games.

For me, the killer is a Hail Mary. It's a play that the CPU can only call on the last play of the half or game, and only then in very specific circumstances. In other words, it's fairly rare, but there have been a host of things to hunt down involving that specific play type that have driven me crazy.

Having said that, the Hail Mary has to be in the game, because it can be incredibly dramatic in real football. There's nothing like winning or losing a game on the last play because of a desperation heave into the end zone with six guys fighting for the ball.

It's not easy for the CPU to complete a Hail Mary--it's quite difficult, really--but the possibility has to exist.

Given what's left on the list (not much, thankfully), I'm hoping to start the "friends and family" beta next week. I've gotten to the point where people need to start playing it, even if it's only a small group of 5-8 at first. I just need to fix the last few items on this list, and Fredrik is revising a couple of the cards (he sent me a new deck last week with additional action poses, and they look terrific).

Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday Links!

From John Willcocks, and this is entirely remarkable: Egyptian Teenager Creates Next-Generation Quantum Space Propulsion System.

From Brian Witte, and this is just mind-blowing: Mobile tactile tech gets physical.

From Chris Meadowcraft, and if you ever wanted to hear Mr. Rogers auto-tuned, it's your big day (it sounds entirely cool): Mister Rogers Remixed | Garden of Your Mind.

From Eric Higgins-Freese, and this video is stunning: Spectacular time-lapse video of Venus transit.

From Jeremy Fischer, and this is damned funny: Nina Conti, ventriloquist.

DQ reader Jesse Scoble has a section titled “A Sword Without a Hilt: The Dangers of Magic in (and to) Westeros” in a new book of essays on the Game Of Thrones series: Explore Game of Thrones Further With Beyond the Wall (Wired review). And here's a discussion of the editing process: Go Beyond the Wall with editor James Lowder.

From Dan Willhite, and this is amazing technology: Trial of "touchless" gaming technology in surgery.

From Sirius, and this is quite interesting: Dinosaurs Skinnier Than Previously Thought.

From Griffin Cheng, and these are beautiful: star trails from space. Also, and this is quite a story, it's Alleged Romanian Subway Hackers Were Lured to U.S..

From Dan Quock, and this is inordinately clever: O Fortuna Misheard Lyrics (Animated).

From Robert McMillon, and this video is spectacular beyond all description: Under the Namibian Sky - The Movie.

Clearly, this was inevitable: Hitchhiker writing 'The Kindness of America' memoir shot by motorist in Montana.

From Steven Davis, and this is a wonderful speech: Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012.

From Jim, and this is excellent: AnnMarie Polsenberg Thomas | Serious Play-Doh: Inspiring Young Circuit Designers .

There's now a dedicated website featuring links to businesses owned by Service Disabled Veterans: Wounded Warriors Veterans Directory.

Ending this week, several excellent links from Michael M. First, a smart phone that's smart in a different way: New Japanese smartphone will have radiation detector. Next, a Kickstarter project for Safecast X Geiger Counter, and Safecast describes its mission thusly:
...an organization with the goal of collecting and distributing accurate and detailed radiation contamination information to people in Japan whose lives had been impacted by the events at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

Next, the moving and tragic story of Miki Endo, whose courage saved thousands of lives when the tsunami hit, but who has never been found: Miki Endo, missing heroine of Minamisanriku.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Carmack VR: More

Joseph Holley sent in a link to an excellent Giant Bomb interview with Carmack at E3: E3 2012: John Carmack Interview.

There's some very interesting stuff in this interview, particularly in terms of how Carmack sees problems and how he solves them.

Virtual Reality, Courtesy Of The Guy Who Could Actually Do It

This certainly got my attention: John Carmack is making a virtual reality headset, $500 kits available soon.

Um, what?
John Carmack has been building a virtual reality headset in his spare time. He’s showing it to people behind closed doors at this year’s E3, tucked away inside the Bethesda booth...

Holy crap. Yes, I have complained periodically in the past that id Software basically makes technology demos, but who cares? They're usually phenomenal (in a technology sense), and Carmack is a genius many times over. I think you could lock him in a room with a #2 pencil, seven paper clips, and a deck of cards, and he could make a thorium reactor.

He's the technology version of Tarn Adams, operating on an entirely different plane of competence than the rest of us.

So if John Carmack is making a virtual reality headset, I'm in. And while there have always been issues with VR (headset weight, field of view, focus--hell, it's been nothing BUT issues, really), if anyone can solve most of these issues, it's Carmack.

Darryl Sutter

Coach of the Stanley Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings, who were clearly the best team in the NHL.

Gloria called him "angry bird" all during the playoffs, and when I finally did a Google Image search, I could see why:



Plus, during games his hair in front usually stands up even more (perhaps its responding to stress).

Eli 10.10 is playing hockey again, by the way, and his ankle seems fine. He'll be on the ice 6+ hours a week this summer (part of it instructing younger goalies), which is not bad for a city with one sheet of ice right now.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Well Played, Pop Warner

I've been wondering for months how organized football was going to respond to the avalanche of data now emerging about concussions and CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Football isn't the only sport with this problem, but it certainly appears to have the biggest problem.

Today, I saw this (rare link to an ESPN story, which I found linked from another, less annoying, site):
In a move that challenges the longtime culture of America's most popular game, Pop Warner will introduce new rules to limit contact drills to one-third of practice time, and ban full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling drills in which players line up more than 3 yards apart.

If you're wondering if that "full-speed, head-on" drill has a name, it certainly does: it's called The Nutcracker. In the one season I played football, it was the drill the coaches absolutely loved. It helped them find out who was "a pussy" (their words).

I was eleven. And I guess I was a pussy.

Here's more:
Coaches will be allowed no more than 40 minutes of contact during a practice, or one-third of total practice time each week. The term "contact" means any drill or scrimmage in which players go all-out with contact, such as one-on-one blocking or tackling drills.

The second rule change prohibits full-speed, head-on blocking or tackling drills in which players line up more than 3 yards apart. Having two linemen in stances immediately across from the line of scrimmage from each other is allowed, according to Pop Warner rules. Coaches may conduct full-speed drills in which the players approach each other at an angle, but not straight ahead into each other. And there should be no head-to-head contact.

I certainly never expected anything associated with football to be progressive, so this is pretty damn impressive. Here's the official explanation of why these actions were taken:
"There are times when people and organizations have to evolve, and this is that time," said Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon and chair of the Pop Warner Medical Advisory Board. "For the future of the sport, we need to morph it now and take the unnecessary head contact out of the game. If parents were considering allowing their child to play football, this (move) should assure them."

The oldest and largest national youth football organization, Pop Warner adds the rules on the heels of several studies highlighting the health risks in youth football. A Virginia Tech study published this year showed that some hits among second graders pack as much force as those seen at the college level. Last year, researchers also discovered a deceased teenage player suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative disease of the brain generally associated with athletes who experience repetitive hits to the head.

Bailes said his committee was particularly swayed by research suggesting that brains can be damaged not only from the big hits seen more commonly at the high school and adult levels but from smaller, more repetitive, sub-concussive blows experienced by players at all levels. Also, he said, most head injuries happen in practice.

Even if you argue (and you could) that this is a decision made entirely out of self-interest, it doesn't negate the clear benefits.

A Bold Proposal



"I called a landscaper about some ideas for the old playscape area, and he's coming over later this week," Gloria said.

"Sounds good," I said.

"I'm hoping we can do some landscaping, maybe a little xeroscaping, and just remake the area."

"That sounds expensive," I said.

"Well, you don't want the back yard to look terrible," she said. "We have to do something." She paused. "I actually have another landscaper in mind, but she hasn't called back yet. We could get several opinions."

"I have an idea that would utilize the existing space very well, and would also generate revenue," I said.

"What?" she asked.

"I'm thinking--hear me out now--a pet cemetery," I said. "It would fit inside the space, we already have plenty of compressed mulch to dig into, and people could let themselves in by the side gate whenever they wanted to spend time with their departed pets."

"I should have known something was up when you sounded enthusiastic," she said.

"Cash positive from day one," I said. "Think about it."

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Golf, Believe It Or Not

Eli 10.10 has started playing golf.

We've only been out to hit balls twice, but his improvement from session one to session two was ridiculous, as expected. I'll have some video for you next week, probably.

The U.S. Open starts on Thursday, and there are two stories that are quite remarkable. The first involves Casey Martin, who has Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, which makes it almost impossible for him to walk any distance.

Martin was a terrific golfer in is younger days, skilled enough to play on the PGA Tour, and he sued the tour in 1997 to force them to allow him to use a cart (under the Americans with Disabilities Act). The PGA Tour did what a bunch of old white men would be expected to do, which is fight tooth and nail all the way to the Supreme Court, where they predictably lost.

Martin played on the tour for one year, was met with a shameful amount of criticism (for what, exactly?), and played in the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in 1998, finishing 23rd.

He's now the golf coach at the University of Oregon, and decided to try to qualify for the U.S. Open this year, since it was once again being held at The Olympic Club. He hadn't played competitive golf in years, but played lights out in the qualifiers and actually made it into the field.

I would expect Martin to be bitter about what happened to him, but he's not. He's one of those people who can find a good outcome in just about everything that happens.

If you want to read more: Martin qualifies for U.S. Open 14 years after cart controversy.

The second story is that, incredibly, a 14-year-old is in the field as well: 14-year-old Zhang poised for US Open start. He was the second alternate after losing out in a playoff in qualifying, but two players dropped out due to injuries.

An eighth-grader.

About Time

This is an amazing piece of technology: Noctua's noise-canceling PC fan gets tested, drops twenty decibels.

Noctua has been one of the top-tier CPU cooler/fan makers for quite a while, and their kit was already considered "very quiet." But a noise-canceling fan takes it to an entirely new level, and it raises the prospect of very high-performance components in a system that makes almost no noise.

Watch the video, if you get a chance--it's entirely amazing. The only downside is that you can't buy one of these until the second half of next year.

Ten Long Years

This is the coolest gaming story I've seen a long time: Fate of the World: the Decade-Long Game of Civ II.

Here's a description (thanks, RPS):
What happens when you play a single game of Civilization II across ten long years? Well, carpal tunnel syndrome and a lifelong fear of pixels smaller than than the size of a fist. Also, an in-game world which is “a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation”, riddled with nuclear fallout and caught in a terrible stalemate between three ultra-nations which have been at war for millennia.

Yes, that certainly does sound familiar (Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, in case you're wondering). The game is up to the year 3991, and the story of what's happened makes for fascinating reading.

Civ II is in the exclusive list of games that I regularly played past four a.m. (back when I was single, and I could actually stay awake). I played lots of games until one or two in the morning but only great games kept me up past four.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire #9: Difficulty

I made some adjustments to game length about six weeks ago because I wanted a single game to last no more than 15 minutes. And it worked, but there was collateral damage in that the game became easier.

I want Gridiron Solitaire to be challenging. Sure, I will add at least one "newbie" difficulty level at some point, but I'm developing a challenge. I don't want people going 15-0 and sailing through the playoffs every season. That would be gratifying, at first, but then it would get boring quickly. Instead, if you go 12-3 in the regular season, that's a hell of an achievement. And there will be seasons where you go 6-9, and you'll need to try and improve your team in the offseason mini-game.

In theory, that's what will keep people playing.

What had happened with the shorter game length, though, was that I was winning every game, some easily.

Why?

If you remember, Big Play presses are key to the game on defense. In most cases, it allows you to be dealt another card, and it's also an additional card slot. The number of BP presses you get, though, mean that they have to be rationed. You have to make tough decisions about when to use them.

In the shorter game, the CPU had 1-2 fewer drives a game. That meant that BP presses, relatively, were suddenly in abundance. That meant I was stopping drives much more easily, and suddenly dominating games.

Well, that had to be fixed.

At first, I thought it would be easy--just reduce the number of Big Play presses allotted to the Human player. Problem solved.

That created a new problem, though. The minimum number of BP presses allotted per half went all the way down to five (if you were on the road, playing a much stronger opponent). That number was so low that instead of forcing strategic decisions, it actually reduced them.

Bad design.

So instead of taking the simple way out (which really wasn't "out" at all, because it caused other problems), I needed to look at difficulty as a whole.

Here are the inputs that affect game difficulty, both offense and defense:
1. clock runoff per card match
2. yards gained per card match
3. chances of triggering a text-based event
4. number of cards needed to stop a CPU drive
5. allotted Big Play presses
6. CPU playcalling A.I.

In isolation, each one of these factors is very manageable (at least, it is now). In combination, though, it can get pretty nasty.

The overriding factor to remember is that game length at 15 minutes must be preserved. This is an easy problem to fix if I could just make the game length 20-25 minutes, but I don't want the games dragging. It seems pointless to put several years into making this game just to bore you (yes, I know--I've been doing that in writing for almost a decade now--rim shot).

So what I needed to do, basically, was get the CPU more drives per half (and make it harder to stop those drives) without making the game itself take more time to play. That meant I could only make very minor adjustments to #1 (clock runoff). That also meant #2 (yards gained per card match) was basically out as well--if I gave fewer yards per match on offense, then I would need to take less time off the clock (unless I wanted games to be 14-10, and I don't).

#3 (chances of triggering a text-based event) could be tweaked at will, but I like the balance that part of the game has right now.

#4 (number of cards needed to stop a CPU drive) is certainly a way to make the CPU more powerful on offense. Moving that upwards also meant I could correspondingly increase the base number of BP presses (#5), which gives the player more options when deciding how to use them. That's good.

Even after those adjustments, though, the game didn't quite feel right. I was just too dominant on offense. Which brings us to #6 (CPU playcalling A.I.).

Yeah, I know. Playcalling A.I. in a card game?

Yes, actually, and it's very important. If you call a running play in the CPU chooses to defend the run, you lose a card slot. That's a big deal, because you have one fewer card slot to make matches with.

I thought the playcalling A.I. was decent, but to make offense for the human player more difficult, it needed to be better. Actually, I originally thought it was decent, but had become less satisfied as time went by.

There's a balance at work when it comes to the CPU A.I. it would be fairly simple to just track the last X playcalls made by the human player, and adjust the CPU playcalls accordingly.

The problem with that, though, is that if somebody wants to run the ball on every down, I want them to be able to do that and at least have some chance to win. Maybe not a good chance, but a chance. So instead of tracking the human play calls, I wanted to create an A.I. that would intelligently factor in game score, time, and field position, and make playcalls accordingly.

Nasty without knowing you personally, in other words.

The first pass, like I said, seemed decent, but this morning I decided to take a look and see if I could make it a little saltier. And I did, because I found a few places where the logic was easy to improve. Reducing your chances of having that extra card slot by even 15% can tip a game toward the CPU, and take you out of your comfort zone.

I played again after testing each of these changes in isolation, and instead of trouncing the CPU, I won a tense game 24-21--at home, against an opponent that was roughly my strength.

That's what I want.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, one of the most stunning photographs I've ever seen: Crescent Lake: A Desert Oasis in China. Also, and be warned that this might make your head explode, it's Every Black Hole Contains Another Universe?.

From Nate Carpenter, and this is such a brilliant idea: Law and the Multiverse: Superheroes, supervillains, and the law. One more, and this is a ridiculous, amazing skateboarding video: WTF flat ground tricks (1000 fps slow motion).

From Sirius, and I promise you want to see this: Images from NASA's Solar Dynamics Laboratory.

From Scott Gould, and this is an amazing feat of strength: Is this the strongest man in the Super 15?.

From Jonathan Arnold, and I've linked to highlights of this race before, but it's always fantastic: The Isle of Man TT, the most insane motorcycle race in the world.

From Jeremy Fischer, and this is a tantalizing prospect: Supercharging the nervous system with biological, ion-transistor computer chips.

From DQ Legal Advisor Lee Rawles, and even though this video is clearly edited, it's still entirely delightful: salsa dancing dog.

From Simon Jones, and this is both touching and sad: Avery's Bucket List.

From Chris P., and there's nothing that doesn't explain itself here: The 12 Times NHL Goalies Scored.

From Tim Lesnick, and this is nothing short of bizarre: NASA Gets Two New Hubble Telescopes — for Free.

From Eric Caldwell, and you better take a look at the cakes, at least:
World’s Deepest Swimming Pools
What! That’s A Cake?

From Ryan Malinowsky, and I have no words: Dutch artist turns dead cat into remote-controlled helicopter, dubbed ‘Orvillecopter’ (don't freak out--it was his pet, and it was hit by a car. Kind of touching in a very odd, semi-disturbing way).

From Frank Regan, and this is quite clever: Speed of Light / aka / The World's Tiniest Police Chase.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Laid Low By The Bro

I've been thinking about this.

Sometimes our reactions to things are more complex than we understand. I've developed kind of an allergic reaction to big-publisher gaming (except you, Bethesda--nothing but love there) over the last few years, and E3 tends to metastasize those feelings.

There are plenty of rational reasons for that, but I think the actual reason is something else entirely.

From the minute I first started playing Ultima IV--my first computer game--I was blown away. It was so incredibly entertaining, so creative, so cool.

I had this other reaction as well, though, and that was a feeling of belonging. I was one of those kids who had good friends but was never part of the popular crowd. I was intensely uncomfortable in almost any situation involving a group of people instead of just one or two.

The guys who were part of that group, and were comfortable in those kinds of situations, were kind of the 1970s equivalent of "bros". Classic frat guys.

I will admit that there were times in college where I felt like bros were doing and having things that I deserved instead, particularly when it came to women. Now, it's ridiculous to think you "deserve" a particular woman, I know, but I would like someone and she would date a bro instead. This seemed incredibly unfair to me, because I thought I was funnier than the bro and generally smarter. Thanks to the low bar of bro-dom, that was usually true.

It didn't matter, though, because the whole thing about being a bro is that you feel comfortable. That's what being a bro is all about, really. And that's attractive, far more attractive then a smart and somewhat funny kid who also was intensely uncomfortable in lots of situations.

The reason I knew that I was going to love gaming was that as soon as I started playing Ultima IV, I felt completely comfortable and relaxed. Gaming was almost perfectly designed for how my brain worked, and how my emotions often didn't.

I wasn't a small-talk guy. I was a drill down seven miles guy, and that's what games like Ultima were. No small talk.

Just drilling.

Even today, that's probably one of the reasons I will always love Dwarf Fortress, because it is a perfect match for my personality.

What's this have to do with E3 and big-company gaming?

When I first went to E3 (2002?), there was certainly a bro element present (Hello, Midway!), but it was almost mocked. Gaming just wasn't about "those guys." It was about "us." It was about guys like Will Wright, who I met, and who seemed just as socially uncomfortable and awkward as I was (and I mean that in a good way).

As gaming became more popular, though, the bro factor increased rapidly. Bros are an unstoppable force--in the U.S., at least--because when they like something, they all like it, and they buy everything that isn't nailed down. That makes them incredible valueable to people who sell things.

What's the most important game today? Modern Warfare. They should just call it "Modern Brofare." And yes, I know that playing Modern Warfare doesn't automatically make you a bro, but you still know exactly what I mean.

Madden? Bro-d out. How is EA expanding their sports portfolio? With an MMA game. Bro-tastic!

There are a few exceptions, thankfully, but there aren't many. It's all about the bros, as far as the eye can see. For amber waves of bros, yo.

It's not just me, either. Everyone I know from that era who are still part of the gaming press hate E3 today. Just hate it.

The war was fought without us, and we lost. Of course, being who we are, if we had been in the war, we would have lost anyway. I kind of like that, really.

Happily, Kickstarter has somehow saved us. Kickstarter projects have an uncannily similar feel to gaming in the late eighties/early nineties period--at least to me. It gives me something to look forward to. It's my new pre-order.

Best of all, it usually involves people who aren't trying to capture the coveted bro demographic. Sure, we'll be extinct someday, but until then, we can enjoy living on this peaceful little island until the meteors strike.

A Bizarre Fact

Austin actually has a larger population than Detroit.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

So Then There's This



Yeah, that's a walking boot. Which was preceded by two weeks on crutches.

When Eli played in his school league championship game three weeks ago, they played at the other team's field, and it was positively gigantic--60 feet wider than the field at Eli's school, and considerably longer as well. So it turned into a game of long ball, with both teams just kicking the ball as far as they could, because a build-up of an attack via short passes was really not even remotely plausible.

In the second half, with the score still tied 0-0, Eli got blasted in the stomach with a hard shot from an opposing player. He fell down, and while he was on the ground, somebody stepped on him. This severely stretched the extensor tendons in his ankle (these tendons aren't on the side, they're in front), because his heel was on the ground, so his ankle was forced to move in ways that it normally can't.

I knew right away that it was bad. Eli was hopping on one foot and signaling that he needed to come out. He could barely walk, and he was crying on the sidelines, but five minutes later, he went back into the game--his team down 1-0--and played unbelievably hard, even though he was limping heavily.

At the end of the game, after a 2-0 defeat, he was so exhausted and in so much pain that he just collapsed on the field, crying. He managed to stand up long enough to go through the handshake line, then sat down again on the field. I walked up to him, lifted him up, and carried him to the sidelines, trying to comfort him but knowing there was nothing I could say to help with the pain.

I hoped very much that it was something minor (after all, he came back on and played for 15 minutes), but I was entirely wrong. The next morning, he couldn't put any weight on his foot at all, so he spent the weekend on crutches. On Monday, he went to the orthopedist, and he wound up in a walking boot. His foot was so sensitive, though, that it took almost two weeks to even be able to walk in the boot.

We went to my physical therapist once a week, and while improvement was very slow, he did get better. Now he's even walking around the house without the boot, although he's still limping.

If there's any good news about this injury, it's that it was so unlikely that it would be almost impossible for it to happen again. I won't even need to wrap his ankle, because it wasn't a lateral injury, and there's no way for his ankle to stretch that way, at least not while he's playing tennis and hockey, which is mostly what he'll be doing this summer.

Seemingly, being injured at the end of the school year, when all the sports seasons are over, is as minimally jarring as possible.

Except, of course, Eli doesn't have an off-season.

We were scheduled to leave for Grand Rapids on Saturday for a week-long goalie camp, and he was tremendously excited. Since it's three days before we leave, though, and he can't even walk without a limp, that trip is out. We were able to reschedule to a camp in July (same people, and it's high-level instruction), but it's not in Grand Rapids--it's in Detroit.

Vacation downgrade, hello!

Eli is bummed out (we all are), but he's handled it very, very well. He just has this internally sunny disposition that warms everyone around him.

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

Ray Bradbury passed away today.

The L.A. Times has a thorough and touching article here: Ray Bradbury dies at 91; author lifted fantasy to literary heights.

I don't know if this is still true for kids today, but for my era, the first encounter with a Ray Bradbury story was a magical moment. In particular, his short stories (particularly "The October Country" and "The Illustrated Man") always resonated with me in ways I couldn't explain.

Wait, I guess I can explain it, in a way. I've always felt that the dominant theme in science fiction is this: what does it mean to be human? Every story Bradbury ever wrote was about this, really, and he was unique among science fiction writers of his era in that his work was incredibly accessible to everyone.

Plus, it was lean. Every paragraph, every sentence, was so carefully constructed. His writing was both incredibly human and almost mathematical in its precision.

Bradbury claimed he was a fantasist, not a science fiction writer, but the label doesn't matter in the least. He was a storyteller, like all great writers are, and long after I've forgotten every word I've read of other writers, I still remember moments in his stories like I just read them this morning.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

E3 2012: What Did I Use For A Title Last Year To Describe The Death Of Innovation?

As it turns out, I didn't have a single title to describe that condition at E3 last year--there were multiple posts, all with the same theme: nothing interesting is happening.

Hey, guess what? Same shit, different year.

Chris Kohler (the gold standard when it comes to E3) had this to say before the Sony presentation:
After a mostly information-free Xbox conference I am hoping that Sony really blows it out of the water.

During Sony's presentation, infamous blowhard Jack Tretton said this:
This is the Super Bowl for those of us who live and die in the game industry.

And so what did Sony show at the "Super Bowl"? Kohler again, in summary:
... the conference was light on news.

Actually, here's his summary of the entirety of Sony's presentation, in just a few short paragraphs:
Sony showed Beyond: Two Worlds, the latest game from Heavy Rain maker Quantic Dream, and announced a collaborative game with Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling at its E3 press event Monday evening.

Book of Spells is a game for a new Sony accessory called “Wonderbook,” which is an augmented-reality book that works with the PlayStation Move controller to show animated sequences that appear to be in the room with you. The game is one of a very few properties to feature new writing in the Harry Potter universe by Rowling.

Sony also announced that its PlayStation Suite platform for mobile games will now be renamed PlayStation Mobile. Also, Call of Duty Black Ops Declassified will be coming to PlayStation Vita this year (though no footage was shown).

Otherwise, the conference was light on news. Sony’s long-delayed The Last Guardian did not make an appearance at all.

Hey, it's nice that David Cage is making another game, and if it's half as good as the all-consuming hype buildup (D.C. will likely claim that it will change the course of human history, and I'm only half-kididng), then it will be an interesting game.

Wonderbook? Cute idea, and clearly an attempt to get people to buy the DOA Move controller, which no one has ever cared about.

Microsoft? They announced some games that ended in 2, 3, or 4, or maybe 6. They also announced "SmartGlass", which is basically an integration of content across platforms. This is a bright thing for Microsoft to do, and could possibly give Windows tablets a shot in the arm.

Primarily, though, Microsoft announced a ton of deals with content providers in their quest to replace your cable company's set-top box with a 360. Again, a good business idea, but when it comes to gaming, totally irrelevant.

Look, this is an inevitable consequence of the "take fewer risks" strategy adopted by Activision and then copied by everyone else. There's very little new IP in the console space because no one is going to take a chance on anything. It's all about the behemoths, and there's no room for anything else.

That also means, though, that nothing is fresh. Almost everything announced smells like month-old roadkill sprayed with Febreze. Christ, me writing about this feels like month-old roadkill sprayed with Febreze, because there's nothing new to explore or analyze.

Quirky games? Look elsewhere. Innovative games? Not found here. What a sad comment on an industry that was born from creativity.

Well, except for South Park: The Stick of Truth, which looks entirely fantastic. Maybe not innovative, but certainly damned funny.

Then there's Wii U.

I like that Nintendo is making an effort to push forward into the next generation. And I like that this isn't just a vanilla console--there are honest attempts at innovation.

The problem, though,  is that I remember how attendees at E3 responded to the introduction of the Wii.

In short, they went crazy.  Multi-hour lines to demo a Wii for maybe two minutes. Anyone with an ounce of common sense (not including the videogame industry analysts who lack even that) knew that the Wii was going to be huge. Huge.

Here's what I wrote last year (sorry to be self-referential, but it makes the point very clearly:
Look, you can bitch about the Wii, and some of the bitching would be true, but the Wii was one of the most beautiful pieces of design in gaming history. Why? Because it made video game play more like play. Instead of us death-gripping a controller in the same position for hours while we melted into a chair, we moved around like we would on a playground.

I think that was the whole idea: create a controller that allowed us to be on a playground.

So what is Wii U? Even after the demonstrations, I'm not sure anyone has a good handle on exactly why it matters. Describing it in one sentence would require about ten buzzwords. I'm not unwilling to buy it (I'm sure we will), but I get the sense that the excitement about the system is infinitesimal compared to launch of the Wii.

Big gaming, 2012: deeply rutted.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire #8: Iteration

The help screens are in, and they convey the fundamentals of playing the game without drowning you in text. That took less time than I thought, once the layout (large contributions from John Harwood and Fredrik) was finalized.

There's a small detail that has been nagging me for months now, and I finally decided to take care of it last week. On a pass play, since you don't start gaining yards until the third match, I needed a visual indicator to show that the pass was "completed." A status card.

At first, I just showed the completed pass card on top of the playable cards on the field.

No.

Next, I had the cards on the playing field disappear, then flashed the completed pass card briefly, with the playable cards then reappearing.

That wasn't good. It worked, but it still felt wrong.

Third pass: tried an opacity animation so that the cards on the playing field would fade out of visibility instead of it happening so abruptly.

Outcome: better, but still far from optimal. There were two problems:
1. Cards couldn't be played while the completed pass card was showing, which slowed down the game, and
2. There's a card-matching animation when you make a card match, and cards were fading out before that animation completed. Delaying until that completed would have made the sequence last even longer, further slowing down play.

John Harwood called after taking a look. He suggested moving the card off the playing field so that the playable cards didn't need to be hidden. That was an excellent idea, and I also realized that if I moved the card, I could change its size as well (up until this point, it had displayed at the same size as the referee cards).

Fourth pass: the status card was moved to the bottom-left of the field, with an opacity animation to fade in/out. Here's how it looks when it's displayed:



Once it fades in, the card displays for about 1.5 seconds, then it fades out. In the meantime, you can keep playing cards, so it doesn't slow the game down.

That was easy (says the guy who just pulled a sharp stick out of his eye).

That's pretty much how everything has been done since I started-- get something up and running, even if it's really ugly, then keep refining it until it feels right. It's been the same process with the sound engine, which has gone through multiple iterations at this point, and will probably go through a few more.

Two nights ago, though, I played a game. On the road, against a better opponent. I was down 21-0 in the third, scored, then got the ball back early in the 4th quarter. Three unproductive plays later, I was facing 4th down and 40 from my own 25.

Normally, I would punt, but with the amount of time remaining, I thought I was better off closing my eyes and hoping for a miracle. At least the CPU would only have a one-play drive, which wouldn't take as much time off the clock, and maybe I could stop them and get the ball back.

I gained 8 yards, ran out of matches, and hit the Big Play button.

There is a tremendously rare possibility that when you hit the Big Play button, you score. Less than a 1% chance, but I wanted it in the game, because it could swing momentum in huge ways, just like in real football. And there's a nice text description of what's happening to build the drama.

So I got my miracle. 75 yards for the touchdown.

Now I was only down 21-14, and I got the ball back and scored. 21-21 with 4 minutes left.

Then the CPU drove down the field, I drew terrible cards. I had only one play left (and a ton of cards to play) to fill the Drive Meter and stop them. And again, I broke lucky, get a ton of matches, and stopped the drive.

I calculated that I could get inside field goal range (the 40 or closer) with time left on the clock. As it turned out, though, I was wrong--I was off by one lousy yard, so there would be no field goal attempt before time expired. Instead, I passed on the last play, moved down the field with a series of card matches, and scored.

Win, 28-21.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Arggggh!

Sorry about the late Friday Links posting time. This time, I can't blame Google--Friday is NOT 6/2.

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, a series of links submitted by DQ Legal Advisor Lee Rawles about Marina Keegan, a graduating Yale senior who passed away in an auto accident last weekend. She was an special individual and an unusually talented writer writer, and here are two of her pieces:
The Opposite of Loneliness
Song for the special (this is, in particular, a terrific piece of writing)

From Aaron Ward, and this technology is going to be quite disruptive, I think: The Leap. Here's a description:
Leap represents an entirely new way to interact with your computers. It’s more accurate than a mouse, as reliable as a keyboard and more sensitive than a touchscreen. For the first time, you can control a computer in three dimensions with your natural hand and finger movements.

This isn’t a game system that roughly maps your hand movements. The Leap technology is 200 times more accurate than anything else on the market — at any price point. Just about the size of a flash drive, the Leap can distinguish your individual fingers and track your movements down to a 1/100th of a millimeter.

Chris Pencis sent in a link to a TED talk by Dave Eggers (one of the coolest people around) titled Once Upon a School. In it, he introduces the storefronts for Pirate Supplies, Time Travel Mart, and Superhero Supplies.

From Eric Higgins-Freese, and I never thought I'd read this many words on chickens: How the Chicken Conquered the World . Also, and this is a fantastically clear explanation: Just How Small is an Atom?. Wait, there's one more, and it's excellent: There’s more water on Jupiter’s moon Europa than there is on Earth.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is remarkable: German teen Shouryya Ray solves 300-year-old mathematical riddle posed by Sir Isaac Newton.

From Sirius, and this is amazing: Digital Data Can Now Be Stored In DNA. Also, and somewhere, Tyrannosaurus Rex is saying, "Finally!": Dinosaur with tiny arms unearthed in Argentina.

From Steven Kreuch, and this is tremendous: A Spacesuit Ballet. Also, and these are both sensational and entirely disturbing: Vintage ventriloquism portraits were incredibly unnerving. Of particular note: "Evangelist and Mrs. John Bishop with 'Timmy' ". Whoa.

From Jeremy Fischer, and these pictures are amazing: Easter Island statues have bodies, too.

From Griffin Cheng, and this is fascinating: world's oldest musical instrument.

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