Thursday, July 30, 2009

Capture the Flag with Stuff in Golden Gate Park

"Capture the Flag with Stuff" has a long (and ongoing) history at CMU, where I invented it. Now its alumni are setting up a transplant (graft? clone, in the original sense?) in San Francisco: Capture the Flag with Stuff in Golden Gate Park.

I encourage any Bay-ers who want to spend an afternoon chasing each other around with foam wands to show up. Saturday afternoon, August 8th.

(I am on the East Coast, and I'll be in Montreal for Worldcon anyhow, so no chance of me getting there. Sigh.)

Also, I see that the domain name is not locale-specific. It'd be cool if the site became a hub for regional Capture the Flag with Stuff in Your Local Park gatherings, wouldn't it?

EDIT-ADD (Aug 16): Photos!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Tron sequel trailer

I justify this as a Gameshelf topic by being twelve. Once upon a time.

Behold the movie trailer for the sequel to Tron:

Tron: Legacy splash image
(Trailer page)

(Some of this trailer escaped the marketing firewall last year, in handheld shakycam. This is an updated version, official, available in hi-res. You want to watch it in hi-res.)

It is weird and lame and probably incorrect to say that Tron defined the visual aesthetic of computer games for a generation. It just defined coolness for the computer game world for me, forever, because I was twelve. Everything about it was awesome.

I even remember the ad that played before the movie, for Atari video games. It used a cheesy pixelization graphical effect (probably cost millions of dollars, and was a trivial Photoshop filter within a decade). I remember thinking "Is this awesome? No, it kind of ain't," and then I realized it wasn't the movie yet.

I don't know if this Tron: Legacy will be any good. The original certainly wasn't any good. I am going to squinch up my hands and hope for "awesome" instead. The artists who worked on this trailer have the right magic in their sights.

As a side justification for this post, the marketing machinery is using an alternate-reality fiction model:, Who knows, maybe they'll get a game into it. That would be desirably recursive.

(In other "oh lord my childhood is taking over the world" news, Henson Studios has confirmed that The Power of the Dark Crystal and the Fraggle Rock movie will be in theaters in 2011. Holy mazumba.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Secret Project KLD

I've been quiet recently, and this is because -- well, it's because I'm a reticent person. But specifically because I've been working on a very secret game project.

Now, I know as well as any developer the perils of premature announcement. (Do I even need to joke-link to an example? No, I don't.) And this one is nowhere near maturity. I don't even have a complete design document, much less any idea of how long the work will take me.

Project KLD Teaser But I have mostly finished the introductory scene. And that's worth posting a teaser screenshot. I'll take a line from Andy Looney and call it: "Secret Project KLD".

What does this image mean? Only the Secret Underground knows! ...Meaning, only the people I've talked to in person about it. I'm (a little) less secretive in real life than I am online. Sorry, folks.

I will be little bloggier about KLD when I have a better idea about timelines. See you in three months, or six, or a year, or however long it takes.

On pixels

Warning: this post contains no deep insight. (It does provide my recommended weekly allowance of grump. If you like, you can read half a letter per minute, to stretch it out for a week. I wouldn't want anybody overdosing.)

There's a movement on the move in the game world, and it is pixels. I'm talking about Today I Die, I'm talking Don't Look Back, I'm talking The Majesty of Colors and I Wish I Were the Moon. The theme of these games is, if you can see pixels the size of postage stamps, it's art.

I have no problem with the games. I liked Today I Die a lot. (Don't Look Back turned into too much of a pain in the ass.) I just don't get the pixels. They're ugly, and they've been done. Yes, I had an Apple 2. Screens are better now.

I've heard it suggested that the pixels are a counterreaction to Flash -- especially in Flash games. Flash makes vectors easy. You know what? That's good. I like vectors. They're pretty, and they'll still be pretty in ten years when monitor resolution comes out of faucets. Go play Windosill for a while, for polygons' sake. Go play Gray; it's stylized art, it's got pixels; but it uses them as elements of a language, not a pretense that it's 1990.

There's a whole conversation to be had about the artistic value of retro. Go have it somewhere else. I'm changing the subject, and contradicting myself, because I've found something I hate worse than pixels: fake smoothing of pixels.

I just played through Loom -- speaking of 1990. It's just been re-released on Steam. Here, go play it now. It's four bucks, and it's a short game.

Loom at 320x240 Now, Loom was released on several platforms, with slightly different artwork to match their graphics hardware. Some were better than others -- fine. I played the Mac version, and I remember it as pretty. The re-release uses the nicest graphics available, unsurprisingly. But they can all be described, roughly, as a base set of 320x240 artwork -- maybe squashed down to a fixed color palette -- and then pixel-doubled. Here you see an example. Notice that it's gorgeous.

Here's that scene as it appeared in 1992:

Loom at 640x480

And here's how it appears, by default, today:

Loom at 640x480, smoothed

(These images are cut off on the right side to fit the Gameshelf's layout. Click for a complete image at the same resolution.)

Same thing? Except that something horrible has happened to the font -- look at those letters. And the lines around them. And the branch above them -- it's gone all... runny.

It's a pixel-smoothing algorithm, of course -- not a very bright one. Take a look at the bush in the lower left. Or the trees in the background. A delicate dithering has turned into a blotchy, gummy mass. It looks like it's been chewed.

(In the Steam version, you can hit Alt-S to switch the smoothing algorithm on and off. That's how I got these screenshots.)

In point of fact, this "smoothing" job has made the art look less smooth. The original artwork plays off the meaningful, low-frequency attributes of the scenery against the high-frequency noise of the pixel grid. Your eye actually sees through the pixels to the shading underneath -- a shading job that the hardware of the time could not convey. You see more resolution than exists.

I'm serious here: that's what dithering is. Look at the figure's grey robe (in the full-size version -- he's over on the right). It's made of pixels, in no more than eight discrete colors. But it looks smoothly blended. Whereas on the "smoothed" side, the same eight colors are flat puddles of pigment. The illusion is gone.

That's all I've got. Pixels: bad. Pixels: good. If you want a moral, go with beauty.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Getting games wrong

I'm in the middle of Brandon Sanderson's new novel (so far: entertaining in a geeky way, which is what I looked forward too). And I hit a bit about a game, or rather a sport, which isn't very good. Not the writing, I mean; the game isn't very good.

Tarachin was a complex game, played only by the wealthy. Lightsong had never bothered to learn the rules.

He found it more amusing to play when he had no idea what he was doing.

It was his throw next. He stood up, selecting one of the wooden spheres from the rack because it matched the color of his drink. He tossed the orange sphere up and down; then -- not paying attention to where he was throwing -- he tossed it out onto the field. [...]

"Five hundred and seven points," the priest announced.

"Now you're just showing off," Truthcall said.

Lightsong said nothing. In his opinion, it revealed an inherent flaw in the game that the one who knew least about it tended to do the best.

-- from Warbreaker, Brandon Sanderson, chapter 22

Now, it is one of my long-standing grumps that authors aren't very good at inventing fictional games -- they tend to come up with games which are silly, broken, or chess.

So what, you say, game design is hard; authors have enough on their plates. Entirely true. (I said it was a grump, not a peeve. It's not justified enough to be a peeve.)

In Warbreaker we have a game which seems to be a cross between lawn bowling and Fizzbin. That's a plausible invention, given the story setting. And the narrator is, of course, correct -- if not knowing the rules gives you an advantage, the game is broken. But is it plausibly broken?

You can name plenty of games in which not knowing the rules is not a disadvantage... start with Candyland. We say these games are "random", or "have no strategy". But Tarachin isn't like that; Lightsong really does seem to win a lot. And this doesn't make sense. If it were advantageous to not know the rules, players would avoid learning them -- or just play without thinking about the rules too much.

(Compare Dragon Poker, from Bob Asprin's Little Myth Marker. In that story, Skeeve is faced with a game so complicated that his least bad strategy is to play randomly -- and end the game fast, so that the players who do know the rules have no chance to roll him up. But this is a far cry from Skeeve having an advantage over them!)

(By the way, I love that the Wikipedia entry for Dragon Poker says "See also: Double Fanucci, Mornington Crescent.")

Anyhow, as I say, Tarachin seems like a weird case. But then, weird cases do exist in real life. So I throw the question open to the teeming Gameshelf readership.

What games are out there in which trying to win is worse than playing randomly? How does that work? Maybe there are strategies which are tempting, but have a low chance of paying off? Maybe the game is popular among people who aren't analytic gamers? Maybe "winning" isn't the reason people play? Show off your corner cases, folks.

(Last parenthetical: I haven't finished Warbreaker, and it is a fantasy novel. So maybe there's some as-yet-unrevealed reason that Lightsong wins so often. If so, the author has set me up with a sneaky plot point -- which, to be sure, is one of Sanderson's trademarks as a writer. In which case, go him! But the question stands. No book spoilers in the comments, please.)