29 July 2007

King of Dragon Pass: Scripting

I posted a brief example of the Opal Scripting Language on the King of Dragon Pass site. (“Opal” was the game’s code-name.)

I got our writer Robin Laws to write in this format. Elise or I then cleaned it up a little to be compilable. Shawn Steele wrote the interpreter that processes this language when you play a scene.

This language is pretty specialized to King of Dragon Pass’s interaction format. If I were creating a similar game from scratch today, I’d investigate using Lua instead (though the fact that OSL doesn’t require quoting strings was probably a big plus).

Casual Connect 2007

It’s been over a week since Casual Connect (the flagship conference for the casual game business) in Seattle, but I thought I’d post some of my notes.

“Everything Looks Like a Nail” — Josh Welber, Large Animal Games

They used a customized version of Torque Game Builder for Snapshot Adventure. They need to merge with the official version about twice a year.

They build a lot of tools, like a configurable level editor.

Playfirst’s Playground engine is now open source.

Snapshot Adventure was an 11-month project.

I had dinner with a group of Indie gamers, and also Reflexive folk. One guy was getting out of the casual game business because his game had done so poorly. However, he was doing so well running an affiliate (of both Big Fish and Reflexive) that he bought dinner for something like 20 people. (I gave him a spare VIP party invite in thanks.)

The creator of Betty’s Beer Bar was there, all the way from Uruguay.

Keynote — Microsoft

Microsoft’s idea of cross-platform is a lot different than mine! I guess running on Windows and Xbox is technically cross-platform, but...

“Secrets of Casual Game Development” — me

I had fun, and there were a few good questions. One person wanted to know what personality I looked for when hiring QA, and I didn’t really have an answer. Attention to detail is a hallmark of QA, but other than that, I think having a wide variety of skills in your QA department is a plus.

“Virtual Villagers” — Arthur Humphrey, Last Day of Work

People at GameHouse all seemed to pick up on his “Castro” slide — a single person in charge. I guess since he was giving the talk he agreed with the dictator model, but it would be interesting to hear from his team.

They made changes and additions even in beta.

Their interactive tutorial was easy to derail.

The ending of VV1 was the biggest complaint. It hit users by surprise (and was also the least tested area of the game). For VV2 they tried to make progress towards the goal more obvious, and not distract with multiple goals.

Localization was a pain, due to their “emergent story algorithms” (which from the sound of it was much like what I did in King of Dragon Pass, also a pain to localize).

He felt that a game driven by story was hard to clone, since you couldn’t clone the story.

VV1 took 5 months, VV2 20.

They use 10-page design documents, with sections customized to roles. For example, the art section is full of adjectives.


Eric Tams, PopCap

Prototyping drives preproduction

Jason Rober

Human brains think order = priority. So be careful in your prototyping/brainstorming. He said PopCap was big on mind mapping, in part to avoid this. (I’m happy using a hierarchical outliner, since it’s so easy to reorganize.)

He talked about using system dynamics to model your game system. I’d played with this about 30 years ago, but the tools are a bit more advanced now (one is Stella). The idea here is that you can sort of weigh the checks and balances in your game. His example was a classic prey/predator population curve. If you have it set up wrong, the wolves eat all the sheep. You can tune your parameters until you get a more normal boom/bust cycle. This would obviously be faster than trying to play out your game, but it wasn’t immediately obvious how applicable this would be to a lot of game styles.

He showed off his prototyping toolkit: legos, printable business cards, etc.

“Brainstorming” — David Nixon

Ideas, Evaluation, Elimination

He ran an entertaining brainstorming session on how to brainstorm. Lots of audience participation.

Steve Youngwood, MTVN

Apparently “demo” is the in buzzword. It means demographic (or audience?), not a game demo.

He said addictinggames.com was targeted to teen boys, which amused me because my 10-year-old granddaughter has shown me games on the site a couple times. (And the daughter of a friend also frequents the site.)

MTVN is investing $100M in casual games.

I found them scary — all big corporation, no sense of art.

“Return to Fun” — Greg Schaffer, Bernie Stolar, and an unindentified helper

Google is doing in-game advertising. Nothing else.

“Games” is a top search at Google.

Google said almost nothing. I think they really weren’t ready. At the press lunch after this, a number of reporters kept trying to pry info out of them (a woman who didn’t present was answering for Google), and they couldn’t say anything. Since they were there to do an announcement, I don’t think it’s because they were being secretive. I think they don’t have any answers yet.

“PuzzleQuest DS” — Colin Wilkinson

It was challenging making a 90 MB installer on a PC into a 16 MB ROM!

He claimed that PC development was faster and cheaper than DS.

They had a shared code base (which is apparently rare in this sort of port).

“Casual Games Industry” — John Vechey, PopCap

PopCap’s mistakes:

- PopCap is the center of the universe

- Hold onto the PC downloadable space for dear life

- We should be like everyone else

- Everything is the next big thing

- Good business and good game design cannot coexist

“What’s Holding Us Back”

This was a panel, mostly about community in games / community around games.

I argued with the Microsoft guy, who was saying that lack of a single login held us back. I HATE having to give any kind of info to try a game. Just let me try! Get my name / e-mail when I’m hooked and want to save.

Oh, the parties were fun too! I ran into my friend Tony Mann, who was playing keyboards for one of the bands.

Maybe I’ll be able to give my talk in Amsterdam or Kyiv!

22 July 2007

Wii = Whee!

Ever since it came out, I mocked Nintendo’s lame name. Since I don’t watch TV, and get all my news from print in some form, to me the console’s name was obviously pronounced “why.”

But I finally got one yesterday, so I guess I have to say it the way Nintendo does. As I’m sure most of you know by now, it’s a lot of fun.

I think much of this is because of the attention they paid to usability. Some of the Wii Sports tutorials get a bit annoying (as do the tennis replays), but by and large they’ve done a good job making things simple and obvious. All the plugs on the back of the machine obviously fit one way only (except for USB — they’re stuck with that). The controllers let you know when it’s your turn to play. Multiple on-screen pointers are handled well (a hand with your controller number; frequently one is transparent if it’s not active). The “alert cat” during a slow operation was a nice way to draw your attention without being obtrusive (and it had force feedback as you patted it).

I’m also pleased that I could get it into my secure wireless network (which took longer than it should have only because I forgot that I limited access to specific MAC addresses).

I had to go back out today and buy a second nunchuk controller, but at least those are easy to find (unlike the Wii itself — I had to go to two stores before I found one).

The biggest problem is probably with our living room — it’s not well configured for two people who need to leave room to swing while watching the screen. And when Elise is playing, I worry that her dog Tristan will get clonked, since he follows her around and wants to stand in front of her.

iPhone vs Spam

Michael Tsai “just issued a refund to a customer who bought SpamSieve under the assumption that it would run on his iPhone.” Unfortunately, the iPhone has no anti-spam features. When I expect to be making serious use of email on my iPhone, I try to leave a computer running (Mac OS X) Mail. This does have spam filtering, and since the email accounts I use are all IMAP, there’s no contention for which device gets the mail.

BTW, SpamSieve is a great spam filter for Mac OS X. I use it with Eudora (and a POP account). It’ll work with Mail as well, but I guess inertia keeps me from setting that up (besides the fact that Mail has been trained well enough that it does a pretty good job on its own).

20 July 2007

iPhone vs ClearWire?

I was recently at a conference where ClearWire was trying to sell their WiFi service. There were a number of networks throughout the facility, thoughtfully protected via WEP key (weak encryption, but better than nothing). I was able to select them with my iPhone and type the password. The iPhone would accept it, but never switch from EDGE to WiFi. But Settings clearly showed that the ClearWire network was current. At least one other person had the same problem, with the exact same symptoms. And this happened on each of the networks.

The ClearWire representative couldn’t explain it or get it to work. He finally set up an unprotected network, and that did work. (And was acceptable for my use, since I use SSL for the e-mail accounts I check from my iPhone.)

My MacBook Pro had absolutely no problem with the same networks. Although when I tried copying something from a friend’s PowerBook, it was glacially slow.

I believe ClearWire was running with standard NetGear base stations, but I don’t know how they were configured.

The ClearWire representative was helpful (hi Sky!), but obviously not there to support the iPhones at the show. Still, it was troubling that they didn’t work, and this doesn’t make me want to buy their service.

It was cool how the iPhone kept working (even if I had to drop to EDGE speeds).

11 July 2007

Top Posting

One of my big complaints about email on the iPhone is that it’s virtually impossible to do anything except top posting.

This is an always controversial question. John Gruber has a good argument against.

BTW, I’ve filed a bug on the subject. If you don’t have access to Apple’s Radar system (all it takes is a free developer account — you don’t actually have to develop anything), you can use the iPhone Feedback page to ask for an improved email experience.

09 July 2007

iPhone Security

iPhone lets you use a 4-digit password to lock your phone. I realize that’s not very secure, but I’d like to keep my e-mail and contacts from casual reading if I happen to lose my iPhone. It’s a little bit of a pain, but Apple helps lessen it.

For one thing, you can use the headphones to control the iPod without unlocking.

You can see the current date and time without unlocking — I know lots of people who use their phone as a clock, and I sometimes do myself.

And you can receive incoming calls without unlocking! (I just noticed this today.) This is hugely convenient. Once the call is over, the phone is still locked.

For better or worse, iPhone doesn’t save any web passwords. There’s no equivalent of the Mac’s keychain (which holds passwords and encrypted notes). I suppose this protects me if I lose the device, though I’d prefer the ability to set a strong password on a keychain.

07 July 2007

Syncing New Events From iPhone

I ran into a bug where an event I created on my iPhone ended up in a read-only calendar (i.e. one I’d subscribed to) in iCal.

After filing the bug (rdar://5319313), I played around some more and found a workaround.

I had chosen (via iTunes) to sync “All calendars.” If I changed the setting to “Selected calendars” and then checked all the calendars, new events created on my iPhone ended up in the calendar I’d actually selected.

Presenting at Casual Connect

I will be giving a presentation at Casual Connect in a little over a week. I’m calling it “Secrets of Casual Game Development.”

Trying out Blogger

I'm mostly experimenting with Google’s Blogger, but I was also unhappy with the software I used to create my previous (and rather sporadic) weblog. And it looks like Google doesn’t index my weblog often enough, so that’s another incentive to move here. (Hmm, funny that...)

So I’ll duplicate my recent posts (with their original dates) and see how it goes from there.

01 July 2007

iPhone Inside the Firewall

Apparently iPhone lacks Bonjour (Zeroconf) — I tried using a bookmark to my printer (which is a .local address), and the server couldn’t be found. So if you have internal servers which are only accessible as “intranet.local”, you’re out of luck. (But you can use a local IP address, like “”.)