Things not to say to an Astronomer #1,282

Here is yet another installment of “Things Not to Say to an Astronomer” #1,282:

JoDee: Here’s a picture of the Pelaides. Isn’t that cool?

Me: Yeah. “Hey Pelaides!” (in the style of The Beastie Boys: “Hey Ladies”).

JoDee: Jerk.

Remember, I do the dumb things so you don’t have to.

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Happy anniversary

Today marks my annual reminder that I can’t play platformer video games for shit.

JoDee tried to include me in New Super Mario World. After watching me commit the equivalent of pixelated seppuku she decided to go it alone.

Seth Godin: An end of radio

(Original link: An end of radio)

I’ve long held that radio was doomed the moment ubiquitous wifi entered the car. We’re getting closer each day to having the completely connected vehicle.

The only thing that will save radio is presenting more localized content. Unfortunately content cost money and as more and more stations try cutting content and syndicating programming we’ll see radio decline even further. After years of programming abdication though I’m not sure anyone will miss it when it’s gone.

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When a podcast isn’t

I just tried subscribing to a podcast (I won’t shame the particular podcast, outside of saying that they should “know better”, but I have two things that (to me) mean you can call your serial show a podcast:

  1. It has a RSS feed plainly available as an RSS feed (and not just an iTunes feed)
  2. The audio is not buried somewhere on Soundcloud or some other locker-type service where it can’t be put onto a portable device.

I can’t tell you how many shows I’ve seen that violate these principles. You don’t have a podcast; you just have a radio archive at that point.

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Video Games: The Movie

JoDee and I just finished watching Video Games: The Movie. Sadly I’m a bit disappointed in the movie. It’s pretty clear in this movie that video game history was written by the winners because it would appear from their telling that the following was true:

  • The 3DO never existed (the first 32 bit console they mentioned was the Sony Playstation).
  • Atari caused the video game crash with the release of E.T. (The video game was a joint effort by a lot of inept efforts by many software companies and a glut of differing and incompatible gaming and computer systems of varying quality).
  • The Nintendo 64 was a console worthy of several minutes of footage. (It was a relative flop compared to the Sony Playstation and the notably absent Sega Dreamcast)
  • The Intellivision, Atari 5200 were barely mentioned, and Colecovision was notably absent. Arcade quality home ports didn’t arrive until the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Worse, you’d think that the only innovations for video games are both tied to improved technology (virtual reality) and movie-like wish-fulfillment and story-telling. It was rather depressing to see video games shown as soulless graphical masterpieces or quirky indie-games. It left me not with a sense of wonder for the industry and what it could achieve but wondering when the next game crash is going to happen and who it was going to take with it. The movie touched on a gaming culture that both feels familiar and yet alien to me at the same time. And that’s the rub: I both lived and knew some of this history both first-hand and through reading and research. The movie didn’t seem to do nearly as much justice to the subject and instead centered on showing lots of pretty pictures and game footage. It was like seeing a movie about a culture I knew intimately being ineptly recounted by someone who could have told a more compelling story.

Overall I was disappointed with the movie. What story-telling and plot it had was lost much in the same way that modern video games have lost the plot; through technical wizardry and pretty pictures while forgetting the soul of the game. About the only positive thing I can say about the movie were most of the interviews were decent (Nolan Bushnell, Al Alcorn, and David Crane are charming as always) but rather than make me feel excited for the limitless potential of video games it made me think that the MBAs were fully in control, and the only way for anything revolutionary to happen in video games will happen despite the major studios and indie game developers. It made me wake up to why I’ve not played a lot of video games recently, even though I continue to purchase them. It made me realize why I find more enjoyment reading about game design from authors outside of the video game industry than those who are currently working inside it.

it made me realize that while you can never go back to the past of video gaming you can still appreciate the innovative spirit that birthed the industry, and hope that some day whatever comes along to sweep away the video game industry of today can tap into that same innovative spirit. It took the video game crash of the 1980s to sweep away most of the misguided notions of forced game design, and it’ll take another video game crash to clean up the current state of the industry and set it on a path where it can truly grow. Video Games: The Movie tried to celebrate the glorious history of video games but instead punctuated that it’s overdue for another crash. It also illustrates another maxim: those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. With the shoddy re-telling of video game history presented in this movie we’re more doomed than ever.

The joys of looking at old Python code:

The joys of looking at old Python code:

Initial pass gets rid of the Syntax errors and other egregious errors. Yay!

Then PEP8 comes along and crushes your soul by pointing out all of the lazy shit you’ve been getting away with all this time.

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League of Conservation Voters – Mind your own business

Apparently the League of Conservation Voters would like to remind folks that their voting records are public record by sending out post cards with the names and addresses of several local residents and whether or not they voted in the previous two elections.

Apparently this is to encourage folks to go talk to their neighbors and encourage them to vote.

As a person who generally likes to keep to himself I find this both an appalling surfacing of public records and an abuse of resources this organization is purporting to protect.


, 2014/10/21. Category: Rants.

Owning your own content – why is this so hard?

Just did a quick back-of-the envelope install of Unfortunately I bombed out half-way through because the node.js on 12.04 is ancient by all accounts. Worse: apparently one of the ways to install a newer node.js has my favorite pet-peeve of requiring you to run curl website | sudo bash -.

And we wonder why folks just “use the defaults” and post on Twitter / Facebook. I applaud projects like Sandstorm that try to take some of the pain out of owning your own content. I think this is desperately needed for us to move to the next level.

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Thoughts on Chess as an RPG, or why D&D makes a great computer game

(This is in response to John Wick’s “Chess is not an RPG” post. Read that first lest you succumb to my ramblings mid-stream).

Part of my game design learning has been working out mental models of how to translate certain Role Playing Game concepts into computer game concepts. I think part of what John was trying to elaborate in his initial post can be explained through thinking about how RPG mechanics can and cannot be described as algorithms to a computer. I think the computer-as-game-arbiter can help codify some of these concepts.

Computers have long had a history with both RPGs and board games. Take a game like Chess for instance. Chess can be easily represented to a computer: the board is a simple 8×8 checkerboard with various pieces that have different pre-determined roles. Each of those roles can be codified so that even a simple computer like the Atari 2600 could be made to play chess. Similarly there are whole areas of board games where the mechanics can be explained to a computer. Games like Monopoly, Go, Star Realms, Magic the Gathering, etc. have computerized versions that can arbitrate the rules effectively for players, and in some cases the computer can play relatively competent versions of those games against human players. The mechanics of the games are algorithmic: a bishop can only move diagonally on its own color, a rook moves in straight lines, neither can move through another piece, the king can’t move into check, etc.

D&D has similar rules. I’ve written a grossly over-simplified version of D&D’s third edition combat. In this scenario a fighter who always wins the initiative roll uses a long sword against a goblin. The goblin retaliates with its weapon. Play continues until one party loses all hit points.

Now one might argue this doesn’t take into account the myriad of ways one could perform combat in D&D 3E. Indeed I had to simplify my example a great deal in order to keep my own example simple (and for the record I was sorely tempted to make this a GURPS example since I’m more familiar with GURPS and I think GURPS keeps things much simpler than D&D 3E. But I digress. :) )

What you’ll notice even with all of the options for D&D 3E is combat is still algorithmic. There may be more choices for the players, and they can narrate those choices however they wish but without the narration it’s still “roll dice, add modifiers, compare against target number, roll damage, add modifiers, subtract from hit points, check if below zero”.

And therein lies the rub: You can narrate yourself the most epic combats with characters swinging from chandeliers while swishing swords and lopping off monster-noggins hither and yon, but that’s just window dressing for mechanics that don’t care one whit if you narrate glorious tales or simply say “I swing my sword. I roll a 12. Add 3 and that’s 15. What’s the AC?”

Combat is actually one of D&D’s strengths. Let’s say you’re planning on charming a noble to do some favor for your character. You add up your modifiers and 1d20 roll and compare it against a number (generally all of the NPC’s modifiers and 1d20 roll) and see who is higher. The player with the higher number wins the contest. Let’s say you’re looking to model the character of Balric from Black Adder. He’s not that smart, has relatively low charisma, but is capable from time to time of saying rather profound and insightful things. The rules say he needs to play a simple high/low game in order to have a successful speech, but if the narrative would be better served by him successfully giving that speech then the GM has to either ignore the rules (which is possible) or explain away how the speech failed. At that point it becomes tea-leaf reading: the results are what they are but it’s up to the players and GM to determine what happened.

One result of D&D having rather algorithmic combat and interactions is borne out by the myriad of computer games that use a form of D&D as their engine. Computerized RPGs can rely on simple combat mechanics and menu selection to give a reasonable RPG-like experience. RPG games like Wizardry, The Dark Spire, and Eschalon don’t even hide how much they’ve sourced from D&D mechanics. The computer can take care of the bookkeeping and dice rolls and the player is free to immerse themselves (or not) in the world. How well the players role-play with those computer games is irrelevant to the success or failure of the mechanics. Similarly the mechanics of D&D don’t directly lend themselves to role-playing.

So if games like D&D can be turned into algorithms are there games that don’t lend themselves to this sort of conversion? Absolutely. Games like Dungeon World, Fudge and Fate don’t lend themselves to tidy conversions. Fudge and Fate in particular are very loose with their mechanics so a simple dice roll of “Great” can give narrative license for a whole slew of actions. Plus Fate has the Fate Point economy where certain actions (if thwarted) can result in the rewarding of a point, and can be spent later on to affect the outcome. Fate and Fudge also aren’t tied to maps the same way that D&D is (you’re in an area in the building, not on a particular square or hex). Dungeon World also introduces the concept of picking one, two, or three things that can happen to your character, of which most are rather broad strokes descriptions that don’t translate well into algorithms. The interplay between player and GM is more organic in these games so current computer technology would need more advanced algorithms in order to replicate these experiences.

I won’t go so far as to argue that algorithmic or rote play in D&D and similar games somehow defeats role-playing; folks have been using these systems for decades to tell some amazing stories. But I can see the point where these algorithms can impede and stifle role-play and story-telling. We’ve all heard the stories about failed dice rolls derailing the story, or the character that tries multiple times to overcome some obstacle while the rest of the players stall out and get bored. With the more modern designs in games like Dungeon World and Fudge / Fate there’s opportunities to go beyond rote and methodical play and let the engine encourage the players to participate more in role-playing their characters instead of watching the mechanics of the game.

When your encounters and interactions with the world can be reduced to scripts and decision trees there’s little left for your character to do but be driven by forces outside of their control and hope that a random-number generator rolls numbers that equal success. And if your table talk can boil down to “I rolled a 14, did I hit it?” then you have to ask yourself if the mechanics are really permitting role-play or if you’re just tacking them on because it’s more fun that way.

As always comments and corrections are welcome. My D&D knowledge is pretty rusty so I know I probably messed up some of the specifics, but I hope the underlying message is in there somewhere. Be gentle, and thank you for reading this far.

Partying like it’s 1981

Playing around with some Assembly Language just for grins. Nice way to spend a Friday evening.Screenshot from 2014-09-26 23:18:33