Cathode Tan - Games, Media and Geek Stuff
logo design by man bytes blog

Friday, March 31, 2006

A Room With A Grue

In about a half hour, I cobbled together a demo of the new form fiction. Which, if anything, should show what you can do from scratch within a half hour. Although, I'm giving fair warning - it's not much. It would be dishonest to even call it pages long, it's more like a few paragraphs long. It doesn't serve as an example of a game, per se ... it's just an example of how the format works. And it's even a rough version of that, because I'm still reworking things like the rewind feature, save features and synonyms.

And as a last word - at this small size the story feels much, much different than the Lovecraft story I'm working on ... which is far more complicated. This will probably remind people of Choose Your Own Adventure more than a real world story, and less like SCUMM ... which The Brother made some comparisons to in the story he is testing.

So, be warned. This is a rough and silly example. To try it, head here in an AJAX friendly browser:

For the webdev curious, this might not look very AJAX-like (like GMail for instance). And really, it's not. It uses AJAX to transport a large HTML document and then reduce that to only what it needs, which drastically speeds up the script.

Enjoy, and please comment away.

tagged: ,

The Lies On Capitol Hill

Congress is busying itself with the People's Business ... namely protecting us from non-existent threats. From the GameSpot article, it sounds like quite the parade:

The last speaker at the hearing was Kevin Saunders, a Professor of Law at Michigan State University. In his own words, Saunders has "spent the last dozen years studying the constitutional issues surrounding attempts to limit the access of children to depictions of extreme violence and other negative media influences."

In Saunders' opinion, "there are bases on which restrictions may overcome First Amendment limits and protect children from the dangers these products present." The first basis the professor cited "is to argue that sufficiently violent material, particularly when presented to children, may come within the obscenity exception to the First Amendment." After mentioning an Indiana case in which this approach worked, he also mentioned that the Supreme Court has never ruled that violent material cannot be restricted.

Saunders' second legal basis will likely prove the most troubling to gamers. This approach would argue that "is that video game play, like the play of pinball machines, is not an activity protected by the First Amendment." It would legally differentiate the expression of a game designer, which would be protected, from the playing of games, which would not be. As an example, he compared a sexually provocative dancer's movements, which is a performance and therefore expression, to a gamer playing in an arcade, which is not, even though others were watching him.

The last legal basis Saunders cited will be the most familiar--namely, that playing violent games causes "harm" to minors. He said this approach is the easiest, due to the "overwhelming consensus of the health and science community that media violence causes real world violence." After citing a psychological study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, he then claimed that "the correlation of media violence with real world violence is as strong as that for second hand smoke and lung cancer, lead exposure in children and lower IQs, use of the nicotine patch and smoking cessation, and asbestos exposure and cancer of the larynx."
-- Views clash at Senate game hearing

Saunder's first and second arguments have been smacked down in courts. Repeatedly. His third is either simply inaccurate or dishonest.

Apparently the first witness was Reverend Steve Stickland, whose brother was killed by Devin Moore. Strickland is a big fan of Jack Thompson and hopes to win huge financial gains from the game industry in compensation from his brother's death. So it's good that they are keeping this non-biased.

Once again, remember - violent crime is down. Most gamers these days are adults. Most video game purchases are made by adults.

But let's see how much money the government can spend saving people from certain nothing.

tagged: ,

Thursday, March 30, 2006

New Form IF: Brief Overview

As I get The Case Of Randolph Carter in front of The Girl and The Brother, it's probably a good time to run through a bit more of what exactly it is before I do a wider beta or release.

To recap: traditional interactive fiction comes in one of two forms. One is strict hypertext, a series of pages linked together and the reader follows specific paths by clicking on those links. This is similar in structure to a Choose Your Own Adventure with the added benefit of hyperlinks. It's not terribly popular. One reason, I think, is that the "hypercard" style of organizing a story gets problematic and hence, typically, the stories themselves aren't very good. There might be some that are pure gold, but I haven't found many.

The more common format is the storyworld parser ... the one we all know from Infocom. This is a real interface which accepts input, performs logic and reports output. Areas are divided into sections which can be navigated and objects within the story have properties the parser understands to determine the appropriate reaction (can it be picked up? is it open? etc.). The environments can be complicated and interactive, provided they are developed that way.

This is how one scene from Randolph Carter might play out in a normal storyworld parser:

Ancient Valley
The swampland dips into a short valley and aside from a few stenciled shadows of possibly ominous origin, there is nothing to detail why this area captivates Harley. Your footprints lead to the south and Harley is slowly moving into the valley, northwards.

A new stench becomes perceptible over the old odors of rotting vegetation. It's an aroma that combined with the fetid swamp assaults the senses to examine the valley more carefully.

> smell stench

It is the smell of rot abound, of stale age and of lonely abandon - like some substance from outside this world was released into the air.

> complain about stench

"Ugh. Oh. Lord in Heaven," you exclaim, "Lord. That is not a smell for mortal men to endure, my friend."

"Perhaps," Harley responds threateningly, "you should consider heading back on your own."


What I've been playing with would behave in a moderately similar way. However, instead of a parser ... the user double clicks on the word they want to try and interact with .... here "stench"... and they're offered a prompt with options like "smell stench". "Complain about" isn't available at first, because Carter hasn't realized how bad is the smell. When they make a selection, the text is updated with pertinent information or reaction. So the sum of the page after "smell stench" would look like:

The swampland dips into a short valley and aside from a few stenciled shadows of possibly ominous origin, there is nothing to detail why this area captivates Harley.

A new stench becomes perceptible over the old odors of rotting vegetation. It's an aroma that combined with the fetid swamp assaults the senses to examine the valley more carefully. There is the smell of rot abound, of stale age and of lonely abandon - like some substance from outside this world was released into the air.

Post-interaction, updated text appears blue and then fades back to black to indicate the change.

There would also be no descriptions of geographic direction ... the story progresses one page at a time and while certain actions might end a page prematurely for another page, the user couldn't just "go north". The point of this page is to give the reader leading information before Harley and Carter get closer to their goal. If a storyworld wanted to stall the reader so that they'd get all the information it would have to specifically tell the user things like "Perhaps you should investigate before proceeding" in order to stall them. Removing the geographic nature of a storyworld allows the page to behave just like a page, and not necessarily a location.

The distinction from the development side of things is even more severe. There is javascript to serve as a traffic cop about what should be showing and to keep track of flags like "is Harley still alive" and score to maintain state across pages, but that's about it. The only object that the script talks to are words and pages themselves. So the stench exists as:

odor = new Word("odor","smell|complain about","odors|stench|aroma|smell");

Which defines the main keyword, potential interactions and synonyms. When a user attempts an interaction, the script tries to find places within the HTML which fits that verb-noun (or synonym) pairing and shows that. The script will also execute any additional javascript tied to that section of HTML. So when a section is shown, the script make other sections available, adjust the score, update flags, etc. This is several orders of magnitude less complicated than fitting objects into a storyworld parser.

So that's the nickel tour. Don't know if it helps or not, to be honest. I know it's hard without a live example, but hopefully I'll get that in shape soon.

tagged: ,

Back In North Korea

I went back to Mercenaries last night. Pandemic's "destruction playground" game never, imo, got all the credit it's due. It was reviewed well, but damn is this game good. Way too many people wrote it off as a GTA clone. It's about as similar to GTA as Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It's non-linear and you can hijack cars. That's about it.

I mean ... after I survived the trap the Ace's troops had left in the jeep (the jeep didn't survive), I had to fight my way to the roadside where I could grab a real jeep. This was just so that I could push a tank to the side of road so that I could steal that and get past the radioactive cloud that had been created by the supergun I was sent to destroy. The tank served as a decent disguise until I had to give an enemy officer a one shell salute. His lackeys didn't take kindly to that and proceeded to try and ruin my lovely tank with RPG fire. I didn't take kindly to that, so I blasted my way to the top of the hill where I could take out the supergun with a clean shot from the prototype supergun. Finally, I stealthly slid the tank down a steep hill next to the Ace's headquarters ... where it might an explosive demise at the hands of his formidable defenses. A couple of supply drops later lowered my patience and I called in a carpet bombing of the whole area.

Which is the point when The Girl looked up and said, "I remembered when we tried really hard to take all these guys alive."

Those days had just met with a very devastating end.

How can you not love this game? Really hope they do a follow up. I love that you can annihilate your opponents with superior firepower, but you have to weigh it against what it will cut into your profits.

Sometimes, though, you gotta just blow through all your money with sweet fireworks and then go back to a previous save...

tagged: ,

Myths of Video Game Violence

The Buttonmasher pulls together some great quotes on how video game inspired violence is as real as unicorns, leprechauns and honest politicians. Guys like BatJack Thompson continue to try and trot out flimsy theories to support their addiction to being shown on television, but us gamers are a wiley bunch. We can use facts and everything.

tagged: ,

Do You Need A 360 Cooler?

Nyko has introduced this 360 Cooler, essentially a massive fan strapped to the backside which reduces the internal temp of a 360 by ten degrees or so. Is this really necessary? If your 360 requires this for normal play ... isn't it defective and therefore should be, you know, replaced? I don't get it.

Is there really a systemic problem beyond Microsoft's control that requires third party solutions or is this just a vendor trying to cash in on Internet hype about isolated cases?

tagged: ,

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Purity Of Essence

The Girl snuck a small bottle of Purell into my pocket this morning. This is a biological solution to the germ warfare that is my office. Of my co-workers, 90% of them have kids, 50% of those have multiple kids and 80% of those kids attend some kind of day care. Do the math. Avian flu? I probably had that last week.

I have been trying to use it, but I just dropped a large splot (technical term) onto the keyboard's (useless) plastic wristpad. Do I:

A) Go ahead and smear some on my hands off the keyboard? I mean, can Purell get ... tainted? Isn't dirty Purell like a virgin cocktail?

B) Rub the Purell into the wristpad, hoping to make a sterile environment anyway?

C) Wipe off the Purell, toss into can and make a silent Buddhist prayer for all those fallen bacteria?

I just don't know.


Possible Battlestar Galactica Game

I stumbled on a ArcterJournal Post pointing to a website which might be a design for an upcoming Battlestar Galactica game. While the site isn't too helpful, the forums contain this this video gallery, including the image below. I don't know if this is going to be a commercial game or is simply a mod getting worked on for an existing engine like Freespace, but it looks cool regardless.

And how could you not do a Battlestar game at some point?

tagged: ,

Metroid: Hunters Owns Me

I didn't get a lot of sitdown time with the new purchase last night, only long enough to decide that I really don't like the save game setup ... or the lack of Metroid: Hunters save game setup. I honestly thought the checkpoint was a savepoint and totally lost my progress for the night.

Not that it will take long or be a pain to redo it, but it is a knock for a handheld game in my book. I want to be able to pick it up, play for a random period of time and put it down. At least the Nintendo DS will sleep peacefully if you close the shell. That's nice. Just not much help when you have to swap out cards so that someone else can get back to the business of dealing with Tom Nook's loan.

Still, I was pretty impressed. The graphics are precisely what I would hope for and in general, the controls are precise for something lacking any kind of analog stick. My only problem is that I was having better luck with my forefinger than my thumb for touchpad useage, however that leaves the left hand responsible for holding the unit. Doesn't take long for the tendonitis to set in with that. So I'm still figuring out best to play without killing my hands.

The multiplayer experience was fairly intense. As with everything NiWiFi, it was quick and easy to jump into a game and play. The only problem, really, is the matchmaking. Even with "match with my rank" being set, chances are that when you're first starting out ... one guy on the map has been there before and really knows their way around. Expect to get owned early on. Which is actually a little odd for me. Not to brag, but I generally excel at shooters. This is old school design though, and map knowledge and control is extremely important here. The only kill I got on one map is when I had stumbled onto a decent powerup (which I sadly didn't even know what it was).

The Unreal mod I'm sorta half-heartedly working on tackles some of these issues, but that's another story. Overall, this game is a solid two thumbs up and really helps complete Nintendo's Wifi library for the DS. I used to consider the DS a schticky toy relegated to offbeat, but slightly interesting titles. With just two releases, Mario Kart and Hunters, Nintendo has turned that around for me.

tagged: ,

I Bonk You

I've got a beta of the Lovecraft IF up, which I will probably open to Cathode readers in the near future. The Brother and The Girl get first pass to remove all the really horrible stuff. Also, calling it a beta might be premature as some early discussion might make it necessary to update the codebase to support stuff like page history and synonyms. Not sure yet.

The biggest problem is dealing with how best to bonk the user. While we like to protest that interactive worlds, and textual ones in particular, should be as versatile and open-ended as possible - the truth is that often they're limited to the bare minimum of what the user requires to get along in the game. Sure, Zork had some awesome versatility. Like when you told the parser to kick that bucket hanging by a rope ... it would kill you. Funny, ha ha.

Often, though, you don't get to do whatever you want. You can't for instance, fill the bucket up with everything in your inventory and make it fall (I don't think you can at least ... I could be wrong). Instead, you'll get bonked with some kind of parser response like, "You can't fit the toothbrush into the bucket". Or whatnot.

For example, in a recent IF I played with there was a mattress. I couldn't pick up the mattress, because it was too heavy. I couldn't sleep on the mattress, because it was too nasty. I could lift the mattress, but I was told there wasn't really much point. These are all common interactions a user might try with a mattress ... just not the one the developer wanted. So the user gets bonked.

I don't have a good bonking mechanism. In The Case Of Randolph Carter, you only get a certain number of actions per page. If you don't perform a valid interaction the game assumes you are waiting and proceeds with the story. Part of this is to alleviate the problem of being stuck in a room with a mattress and a bucket and not being able to figure out how to leave. Failure in Randolph Carter will still, oddly, result in a kind of success.

It just doesn't seem to communicate it well right now.

tagged: ,

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

How Big Is Nintendo's Virtual Console?

Motley Fool looks at the plans for Nintendo's retro library on the Revolution and considers it highly:

Ultimately, I think the retro games will be a plus for Nintendo's new system. The broad universe of compelling intellectual property available to Revolution owners represents significant added value. Even though Sony and Microsoft have their own online strategies in place, they won't have the benefit of widely recognized characters like Mario, Zelda, and Sonic the Hedgehog. If Nintendo's sales surge thanks to retro games, third-party software developers like Activision (Nasdaq: ATVI), Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS), and THQ (Nasdaq: THQI) will have the confidence to back the Revolution 100%.
-- Nintendo's Future: The Past?

I'm not sure how excited I am over the idea of playing NES games in downloadable form. I'm already swimming in nostalgia, from an original Atari to a Sega Genesis CD system (the sweet small form one that plays CDs or carts). It's the kind of thing that I would likely play with on a sleepy Sunday afternoon or maybe get really jazzed about for a week until some other shiny thing walked past.

Most probably, I'd guess, it will help smooth out a launch ... a la how Geometry Wars seems to satisfy people when no AAA title is around to wow them. Personally, I think the DS is the single best thing Nintendo has walking into the Revolution. With enough integration between the two devices and similar online experiences ... the Revolution is as good as sold to me.

tagged: ,

Supply and Demand

I find this report from Kotaku about 360 supplies highly entertaining. Basically, Best Buy and Toys R Us have some 360s in stock ... but are holding out for a big promo. Meanwhile, Target and Wal-Mart are blissfully putting them on shelves. Others, like GameStop, seem to either still be out or not shelving them either.

This is just like when The Brother wanted Metroid: Hunters and Best Buy told him they'd face legal action if they sold him one before March 25th. So he went over to Target and walked home with one. Today when I went by Best Buy, they had plenty of Metroid: Hunters on the shelves ... but no 360's. In fact, their demo unit was displaying a high resolution image of a black and white system error screaming for someone to fix it, however all the employees were busy buying candy bars are using the word "lame" every other word to save it from its fate.

I'm no econ expert, but not selling something that can be purchased by your competitor just down the road seems unintelligent. Increase the stupid with things like bundle tricks and you're proving that these days business doesn't have to be smart as much as it has to be big. There weren't any signs indicating that the 360 launch would relaunch in April, only this time with units available.

Times like these I know why I do most of my shopping on the net.

tagged: ,

That's Cold, Microsoft

Just read on Joystiq (oddly spared from the work proxy) that Microsoft may not allow Rare titles on the Revolution. Oh sure, I understand how this makes oodle of sense from a business point of view. Don't aid the competition and what not. It still would be just plain mean, and not as much to Nintendo but mostly to us gamers who followed Rare well before Microsoft pulled out the golden checkbook to steal some talent for their console. Do they think this would make me more likely to buy modern Rare titles? I think not.

tagged: ,

My Theory About GameFly

GameFly is really testing my patience. Their delivery time for rentals is averaging at over two weeks, which is honestly the time it would take me to get a game from Best Buy, take it home, play it, go back to Best Buy and wait in their godawful customer service line for an hour to get store credit and repeat the process. Pain? Sure, but it would save me the monthly fee and be just as speedy.

However, I did just recently pay to "keep" Electroplankton and they sent the case and manual for that in like four days. So I know it's nothing to do with the shipping line between my house and GameFly HQ. So my theory is that GameFly isn't really interested in renting games anymore, they just want you to buy used titles from them. This theory is supported by the fact that if you rent a game from them, and then order the box and manuals ... the box will get to your place first.

Not sure if I'll quit them completely or not yet, but they're on the ropes.

tagged: ,

Review of the Factions Preview

Clamatius has a pretty extensive overview of how the Guild Wars: Factions Preview Weekend went, so if you're like me and only did an idle glance at it ... it's definately worth checking out.

tagged: ,

Forget Games, Can Movies Get Their Citizen Kane?

It's amazing how little Stay Alive actually knows about the videogame culture in which its terror-lite tale is set."

All of the reviews for the gamer horror movie read more or less like this, and it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. What's sad is that it beat it's opening projection and may well be slated for a sequel. This goes for Doom as well. Everytime I see this happen, I think to myself ... Serenity will probably be the last Firefly project.

Hollywood seems to be divided into making two kinds of movies - one are good flicks that nobody watches, and the other are bad flicks that most people watch. I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else. I haven't seen Brokeback Mountain or Walk The Line, but I have seen Doom. Art has often had to make this balancing act - between highbrow and mainstream. Yet, movies weren't always this divided. Sure, we've always had B-movies and genre films to appeal to the masses, but there's a whole library of classics out there that were both wildly popular and artistically sound. Hitchcock was renowned for doing highly artistic projects, complete with surrealistic Dali designed sequences and lofty plot elements, and yet he was so popular the studios didn't dare turn him down.

And yet, I bet a lot more people have seen Ang Lee's Hulk than his Oscar winner.

So when games have been put to a test for artistic merit like, where is it's Citizen Kane, I think we have to ask ... do movies even qualify for this test anymore? Sure, there are some very good artistic movies out there ... largely funded by the The Rock, Rob Schnieder and sequels. So far, there is no need for gaming companies to put out a "good" (as in artistic) game just to appease an awards show or their public image. Gaming companies are generally just out to sell games. So why should EA waste any production dollars on a game based on it's artistic merit as opposed to it's market value?

More to the point ... as games get increasing Hollywood ... will they ever be likely to find their Citizen Kane? At best, Hollywood reserves it's arthouse pieces for a showcase and maybe, hopefully, an Oscar will help sell the film on DVD. I can't say this is an argument for games to get an awards show ... because I can't really get excited about games emulating any industry, in any way, that has Stay Alive as the third highest box office winner it's opening weekend.

tagged: ,

Monday, March 27, 2006

(Some) Microsoft Employees Call For Ousting Ballmer

Apparently some of the usually faithful people employed by Microsoft are going after Steve Ballmer in response to Vista's delays. Personally, I don't know Ballmer from Adam ... and come to think of it I don't even know any Adams currently ... but as an outsider I've always found him extremely annoying in interviews and public speeches. If Microsoft is looking to seperate themselves from the "evil monopoly" reputation, giving Steve his golden parachute (does he even need a parachute? At his tax bracket doesn't he just float?) would probably not be a bad first step.

Although, on the other hand ... I'm actually glad Vista is being delayed. I have no desire whatsover to upgrade my PC past what I really need, and it really sounds like Vista is going to be more likely to get me to just go to an Xbox than continue updating a Windows box.

tagged: ,

Countdown to blame

Guy takes a shotgun to a house party. Anyone want the over/under on how long it will take the wackos and media to blame this horrific event on video games? Three days?

tagged: ,

End of an Era: PlayStation ends production

Was this all over the place and I just missed it? Sony has halted production on the original PlayStation. The device was responsible for wrestling the control of the home console market away from Nintendo and set the stage for the market that we have today. I still have one of these exclusively for playing X-Com.

I suppose it's not as snazzy as GDC scoops and next-gen mumblings, but I'll probably pour one for my homey tonight.

tagged: ,

Indigo Prophecy Recap

I finished Indigo Prophecy on Friday, mostly to get it back in the mail for what will be GameFly's final chance at being able to deliver games (literally).

Hopefully, this game did well enough in stores to convince people to continue playing with the adventure game format in more similar ways. Prophecy was good, if not somewhat flawed. The story was poorly paced towards the end, crashing all of it's lofty elements together without nearly enough exposition to justify it all. The controls continued to be confounding, except in the "Simon Says" or multiple choice option.

One note to designers, though, about the "L1 R1" Track & Field style button mash. Some of us life long geeks suffer from severe tendonitis. OK, I don't know how many ... but I do and almost made the game unplayable for me. Not that I expect developers to design around my particular malady, but there is a reason why gaming has gotten more ergonomic over the years.

So it was good, and I would really look forward to a similar title. However, it would be a shame if they didn't get better as well.

tagged: ,

CheapBox Again

Outpost has the GQ 5090 for $250 again. It was briefly $480, making me sad. For the curious, if you're willing to put up with a crampt case and can toss in an extra fan, this makes a cheap box in which to build a decent rig.

tagged: ,

Speaking of Impediments

Don't expect much here from until about this time next week. We're launching a big project next week, and with the upcoming HomeFest and side projects ... I don't have much time to fight the corporate firewall or get distracted.

Impediments To Productivity

Wow, was it hard to get stuff done over this weekend. We didn't have any guests or plans ... but the combined temptation of Metroid: Hunters (still unpurchased), Tetris DS (still unpurchased) and Guild Wars: Factions ... ouch. Not to mention the usual draw of Animal Crossing and the other half dozen games I haven't finished.

I was mostly guilty of playing X-Men Legends II with The Girl a bit on Sunday. We discovered a more than annoying bug, by the way. If someone else has done everything in the Madri Temple without your knowledge, so you don't go right back to the Madri Temple ... you can never get to that boss fight. Annoying? Yeah.

I did get through one complete edit of the Lovecraft IF, though. I have two new passages to write and then a couple of decently sized edits which have to permeate through (like an object being in a different place). I was going to have The Girl do a complete read on the printout, but we talked about it and I'd rather have her go through the interactive version a couple of times, otherwise it might spoil the full experience.

Big trip back to the homestead this weekend though, so I'm going to have to try and finalize it before then.

And pick up Metroid: Hunters along the way...

tagged: ,

LucasArts, LucasFilm Merge Platforms

A slight shakeup over at the Skywalker Ranch should prove interesting for gamers, Industrial Light & Magic combines a platform with LucasArts, the game division. Called "Zeno", it essentially means that the two sides will be sharing each other's work. Explains Steve Sullivan, head of ILM research:

I think George [Lucas] has intended this for quite a long time. It was hard before because we were geographically separate. The technology wasn't far enough that ILM and LucasArts could actually trade all that much.

Computers had to get to a certain speed before it could really be meaningful to use film graphics in games. The consoles had to be powerful enough to support that kind of thing. We really had a sweet spot where the companies have co-located in the same building. And George is really strongly dedicated to this now that Star Wars is done.

tagged: ,