Sunday, July 30, 2006

Everybody Loves a Spore

I've been kinda harping on procedurally and user-generated content as the salvation of the Earth for a while, but I hadn't conceived of how our good friend Will Wright has taken it to the next level. It's beyond procedural content, beyond user-generated content... it's now "pollinated content."

The GDC was where several interesting Will Wright innovations were unveiled... such as the sure-to-be-a-AAA-title USBEmily. But he also presented an early demo of several gameplay prototypes and fortold of thousands upon millions of objects, each procedurally generated and user defined, wrapped up into 3K files and archived by a massive database.

This massive database of every player's creations would rank, sort and weigh each item and make it asynchronously available to every other player's universe. You could then "shop" for creations you like, browse archives and even automatically populate your space with balanced flora and fauna automagically pulled from other users.

This just struck me recently when waxing rhapsodic about Creatures, a game I was way addicted to back in the good ol' college days. There the strength of the game was creature building with learning & adaptive AI, breeding and genetic algorithms. It was quite cool and allowed for much procedurally and user generated content, which players loved to post to fan sites. So you'd browse fan sites, find Norns or DNA strands you liked, download 'em, hack the game, install them, then relaunch. Here, Will is streamlining the entire process: browsing, collecting and installing them is the game.

I know this is old news for many people out there... but the thing that really got me thinking about it was a recent article in Business Week. Yup, Business Week. Will's idea is making huge splashes in the business side of gaming; think about it: you're now having your user base become your artists, transferring all rights for their creations directly to you. They make the stories, the artwork, the worlds. And these creatures and structs aren't just limited to encounters in your game space... they transcend the digital world into cross-marketing with card games as well.

For those of you keeping count: Spore is a minigame, Pac-Man clone, RTS, 3rd person adventure (i.e. Diablo-style gameplay), creature builder, construction sandbox (i.e. SimCity), social game (i.e. The Sims), and action card game. Lessee... Will has basically covered every genre fanatically devoured by casual and hardcore gamers alike. You couldn't make Spore more addictive if you laced it with crack.

Speaking of which... I never knew Robin Williams was a big FPS fan. My friends... I give you the figurehead of our emergent demographic.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Hiding in an Onion from Big Brother

Personal security and confidentiality has become something of an item to white hats nowadays. With the Internet allowing for the rapid dissemination of information and speech, an untapped capability to free connected citizens of more oppressive regimes now exists where it didn't before. However, the big shots aren't interested in grass-roots democracy, they'd like cash instead.

Indeed, even resident democracies are putting random bystanders on government watch lists and performing unmonitored surveillance at large.

Of note is a particular instance when a few ABC News reports were tipped off that their cell phones were being monitored to track down anonymous sources for investigative stories. That they were being monitored wasn't particularly surprising, but what caught me off guard was how they were subsequently astroturfed en masse. The blog post was so quickly riddled with newspeak one has to wonder how quickly the machine is trying to spread.

The current environment has raised more than a few eyebrows. Security and privacy tools have taken on new and innovative roles. Phil has stepped up and created Zfone for securing voice communications in an interoperable way between VoIP clients. Scatterchat has really hit the mainstream, using both encryption and onion routing to create a secure channel for IM while still maintaining interoperability as well. Both options provide a way for communication while providing personal protection against evesdropping. Although, one could make the argument that using encryption at all could put you on the list of suspicious persons.

To be honest, I was hesitant to make this post. I know more and more employers and agencies are monitoring people's blogs to ascertain their relative "risk". I realize that this isn't supposed to be an opinion blog per se, and largely I've avoided political topics other than intellectual property issues. Consider this a brief tangent from my larger mission.

But just the fact that I was somewhat afraid to make this post... doesn't that say something about the current state of affairs?

AMDTI? ATIMD? The Vector and the CPU

I hate to say I told you so, but...

AMD and ATI are now one. It's the talk of the town: AMD has taken over ATI, to make... umm... AMDTI?

The hardware ramifications aren't well known... who knows if this will spawn a new core-logic chipset, a new southbridge, a new means of fabricating ATI/AMD procs, new GPU's and physics accelerators, or just new marketing. However... if the core reason they've joined together is for intellectual property, we may start to see some vector units in CPU's. Who knows.

From my perspective, this smells like a bad deal. ATI's Linux support, while existant, is shallowly so. One need only to try to manage a dual-screen setup or hack an xorg.conf file to realize how kaboshed ATI's Linux driver support is. Contrast it to the robustness of Nvidia's unified driver model and there is simply no comparison. Nvidia wins by not inventing their own wacky configuration schema, but instead streamlining their X11 integration with the mainline accepted standards and augmenting it only when necessary.

And yet, AMD has proven to be a big Linux supporter. So maybe their ingestion of ATI will be a driving force for them to get their collective butts in gear. Here's to hoping ATI will be the big winner of all this, and that they get in line with AMD's more competitive practices.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Next Evolution in Gameplay

Earlier this year, students at the DigiPen Institute of Technology submitted a game to 2006 Independent Games Festival which is still causing people to rethink gameplay. Their senior project, Narbacular Drop, relied on a unique way of placing portals around a maze to navigate from one end to another. It's a physics-y puzzle game at its heart, and was extremely innovative.

Our favorite physics-loving company, Valve, caught notice and had the team start porting the game to its Source engine. And now it appears that Valve is adding this game to Half-Life 2: Episode 2.

Of course, soon as Valve started showing of the game (see it yourself via YouTube or GameVideos), the sites became abuzz. The Ars Technica article says it all: "[The] video makes my brain hurt in all the right ways."

Mixing this with the right physics toys would definitely make a very innovative physics game... or FPS... or... anything. It's one of those ideas that sends ripples throughout the industry - expect to see this sort of portal-play popping into games as soon as developer's grubby little neurons can wrap around the coding. And really, the coding has got to be clever... just think of the math you'd have to perform in order to get a recursive portal to render.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Much Work To Do... Before Making Absolutely No Progress

Aight... so here's how my ConsultComm development schedule goes:

  1. Get coffee
  2. Make change to fix some bug due to a tweak I made in NetBeans 5.0
  3. Find way to fix things so RPM builds work correctly
  4. Spend 30 minutes trying to work around SourceForge problems that have existed since the dawn of ages
  5. Spend another 30 minutes uploading files and publishing new beta revision
  6. Mark bugs as closed, send e-mails
  7. Rinse, repeat

So... for point releases only 20-40% of my time is spent actually writing code. Kinda drives you batty after a while.

But, if anyone is inclined, take the latest beta release for a test drive.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

From the Desk of DeckerEgo

Inspired by GEV Episode 16 and the soon-to-be-Oprah-book-of-the-month auteurs Mike and Brad, my Oblivion alter-ego bought a nice little nook in Cheydinhal, decorated the space with some books & undulating Daedric artifacts, and is settled in for a bit of a hiatus.

I'm finishing up my work on some OSS projects and settling down for work on more CrystalSpace projects. I really only have about three hours of open time a week... and I'm falling waaaaaaaaaay behind...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Obviously Unpatentable

How non-obvious should something be in order for it to be patented? Can you patent someone clicking a button to buy something on the Web? Can you patent keeping score in a game?

Most would say not, but so far the USPTO has disagreed. Some fairly "obvious" patents have made their way through the courts, such as alternate ways of swinging on a swingset. The current methodology appears to be "grant every patent, cull the fee, if someone wants to litigate grant a review, cull the fee, then make motions to remove it if need be, whilst culling the fee."

I know, I know, I've lectured on this verbosely before, but it's something that can completely screw over a small business that happens to out-innovate companies with in-house counsel. That's why I found it interesting that the Supreme Court is hearing KSR International Co. v. Teleflex, Inc., et al. As several sites ( for one) have noted, this is a case on how "obvious" a patent should be. Specifically this covers KSR's gas pedal technology... but people are already seeing an immediate connection to technology.

With common law like this in the books, small business would still... aw, who am I kidding... they would still get smashed like grapes. But at least officeless companies that simply go on a USPTO filing spree can be knocked around by those with the resources to do so. Perhaps this will provide some with the means to overturn the blatantly obvious (and littered with prior art) patents currently on file.

Take a look at who has filed amicus briefs already. Hmmmmm.....

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Boxing Kicked My Butt

Waaaay back at the inception of this blog I wanted to start working on some proof-of-concept game, mainly to try my hand at physics and collision detection. I didn't even really want to get into art and animation at the time - I was more into the code. My first thought was a quick boxing demo, since I could wrap collision detection, reactive animations and ragdoll physics into it.

Generally when I learn, I like to place what I learned into this huge document that has become the source for the tutorials I post. And since I had to learn how to build meshes to be collided upon, the first chunk of my tutorials was how to build sprite meshes.

So I began mesh building. Once I found out MakeHuman meshes were a bit too detailed, I started to build my own. Nine months later I found out how mesh building wasn't something that could be glossed over; I had to figure out the hard way how crucial concept art and reference images were. I didn't even get to scratch the surface of texture building... just building and animating meshes kicked my butt.

Since I had a newfound respect for concept art and texture building, I figured I'd better learn a thing or two about art concepts. That's what started me down the current track of learning the fundamentals of drawing, so I have concept art to use as reference images for my meshes. And maybe learn a thing or two about colors and textures for my UV maps.

So, for those of you just tuning in, boxing -> coding -> mesh building -> reference photos -> concept art -> drawing classes. Basically I'm having to take grade school art classes in order to figure out how to build meshes, and get me back on track to where I was eighteen months ago.

Even given all the work I've put into building the foundations of my lil' demo, I'm considering ditching it all for a change in focus. It seems there's a budding new game genre that would accomplish my earlier goals much more readily: physics toys. GameTunnel's review of June's independent games had two interesting titles that piqued my curiosity: Soup Toys and Armadillo Run. I haven't played them since they're Windows apps... but both are something of physics sandboxes, not unlike World of Sand. One is more of a "desktop distraction" (like AMOR), the other one is more of a standalone engineering challenge. Both are compelling as something as a logic puzzle, but has the draw of Legos or building blocks. In a high-brow physics sort of way, of course.

Games that can easily be jumped into, run in a standalone window and can soak up just a few minutes of spare time are perfect for the current generation of casual gamers. Mixing that with the appeal of a physics toy is a pretty clever idea. And it would definitely bring me closer to my original goal of a collision detection and physics proof-of-concept demo...

Friday, July 07, 2006

Fighting for a Job

It's interesting to see how people "in the biz" have offered advice on how to get into the gaming industry. Ever since Kenn Hoekstra first wrote his article (which used to be hosted at Ravensoft's Web servers) on "Getting A Job In The Game Development Industry", several developers, project managers and have jumped in to offer their advice, including Tom Sloper's "Game Biz Advice". Just recently Chris Avellone offered insight on what employers actually look for nowadays and Steve Bowler retold his anecdotes to talk about how to stay in the industry.

It does seem that the ages-old mantra of getting in at the ground level may not apply nearly as much as it used to, at least to hear recent accounts of bug hunters. But there are several points that seem to reoccur:

  • Be professional. You aren't applying to be a lifeguard at the community pool. Treat this like a real job, because it is. Evidentally 90% of the people fail at this task.
  • An impressive portfolio and experience is better than a degree.
  • Don't have an AOL e-mail address.
  • Know people in the industry. Shine their shoes.
  • Don't beg. Make people think, at least until you land a job, that you have some dignity.