Pandemic: Week 4

We’re in the shit now. People I know and family of friends are starting to test positive. I imagine that this will be a difficult spring. Horror stories are coming out about what it’s like to be on a ventilator. Send a letter to your grandparents.

I can only speak for myself, but any attempt to suppress my vote this November by disrupting the USPS will be unsuccessful.

Pandemic: Week 3

This is where we started the week, giant tent hospital in the middle of central park. Vigilantes locking people in their homes. Some are still flagrantly violating the quarantine order but as evidenced by video of empty streets, it seems that most are complying. More people in the US have died of Covid then died on 9/11.

(u/Mholz)

Scott Aaronson wrote a very strong Mean Culpa regarding his initial reaction to the outbreak. I’d like to see more of these. Here’s mine: I totally bought into the propaganda that masks don’t help. They obviously do and I’m a contrarian idiot for arguing even the most watered down version of the anti-mask position.

In the context of private industry being praised for it’s response to the pandemic, this article is very interesting, showing how the medical device industry utterly failed to produce the ventilator stockpile that we now so desperately need. We needed a Manhattan project, we got a OICW program. Speaking of utter failures, this opinion piece by the Boston Globe clearly lays out the case against the trump administration.

We’ve run out of Bananas, beginning our slow crawl towards needing to go out and get food again. My worry is that we’ll be unable to stock up for longer then a week again and be forced to return to the grocery store too frequently. I’m hoping that the panic will have turned to a grim march by that time. We shouldn’t need to go out and get food until next week.

I can’t believe we’re three weeks in. It feels like just yesterday that I was back at the office. I keep telling myself that I’ve adjusted well, but I’m not so sure.

But hey, I released Digital Native, a collection of tracks I’m extremely proud of. I also published (on this blog) my essay laying out the case against fan remakes.

Don’t remake an old game

I’ve seen this way too often. A flashy trailer, some assets, a community project, a feverish dream at reclaiming the glory of games when they seemed new to you. I have made this tragic mistake, but you don’t have to. No matter how much you want to, do not pick up a 20+ year old video game and start trying to make a remake (in Unity! In Unreal! In Godot!) I’m not saying that you will fail, but I’m saying that you probably won’t get what you want.

You won’t get the IP

In order to use the name “Your Favorite Game” you will need to purchase it from the existing owners. If nobody is producing sequels it’s probably because the IP holder has chosen not to. You will not be able to contact the IP holder and if you manage to, they will not sell it to you. If they do offer to sell it, it will be at a price way outside of your price range. If you wanted to purchase it at that price, you’d need to take out a loan, you’d need a business plan, and the project would very quickly not be fun anymore. You could also just sort of not quite use it and hope that the IP holder does not decide to shut you down. But getting the name is extremely important, because the path is littered with other semi-remakes that didn’t use the name, and you didn’t like any of them. Somehow, none of them had “it” because you’re still looking at remaking the old one, not playing someone else’s remake. Will you fare better?

The myth of fans

But I have a ready-made audience! You cry. Except you don’t. Videogames are massively more popular now than they were when Your Favorite came out. The audience for games has increased in size but the number of fans of Your Favorite has remained constant. It might be because genres have moved on. It might be because other franchises took up the banner. But the number of people who potentially enjoy The Remake is actually much smaller than the original fanbase was. Some people will have drifted away and don’t care anymore, some have probably moved on from gaming. Some may never have existed, because you don’t know what the sales figures are for Your Favorite and it was released before social media and steam statistics so you can’t really be sure what the size of your audience is. What about the number of active posters on the discord/reddit/forum where people desperately wish someone would finally come out with The Remake? That seems like a reasonable proxy. Go find this number (I bet it’s less than 100, but you may have better luck.) This is likely to be the maximum number of people who will care about The Remake. If you still want to embark knowing that you’re working for that audience exclusively, read on.

The myth of memory

So your intended audience is the people who are still online right now clamoring for The Remake as they have been since Your Favorite didn’t get the sequel it so richly deserved. But these will also be your harshest critics. Like you, each individual who played Your Favorite had an idea of what the game was, but they’ve each had twenty plus years to elaborate on that idea, and these imagined games have diverged. There will be a multitude of conflicting expectations which will mean that you cannot possibly satisfy them all, or even most of them. Indeed, because they (and you) have had years to embellish this imagined sequel and for their expectations to diverge, it’s possible that no game will satisfy them-no game will ever live up to what they want. The Remake may not have a ready-made audience, but it does have its first and harshest critics. But surely new technology will allow you to wow them, right?

The myth of progress

Making games is so much easier now! Surely if I take modern tools such as Unity, Unreal, Godot, Source, Lumberyard, etc, I will be able to rebuild this old obsolete game with minimal fuss. This may be true for arcade games like Space Invaders or Asteroids, but Your Favorite is only about 20 years old, so this is a misguided attitude. The tools of game creation are very good at making modern games. If you are building a sophisticated but off-the-beaten-path project, you are as much on your own as the original creators of Your Favorite where. Which is not to say that you can’t create original titles with modern tools-just that by constraining yourself to an archaic design, you may not be winning yourself any saved effort. You’re not a wizard from the future, coming back to build a castle with magic spells… you’re pounding in nails with a cordless drill. Modern game engines have primitives for things like “guy walking around” and “wheeled vehicle.” Trying to mimic the behavior of weird bespoke setups from the time before physics engines will result in very little off-the-shelf stuff to use. Same goes for a million other quirky modes of interaction with games that have ultimately been replaced with stuff like “reasonable defaults” and “realistic physics.” You’ll be reinventing the wheel constantly. You might be able to make it look nice, but many (most?) such projects stop there.

The Right Move

What should I do? If you really want to share the joy that Your Favorite brought you, you need to figure out what it is about the game that you found enjoyable. Consider the cargo cult; to recapture the bounty of cargo drops, people (so the story goes) built elaborate fake airstrips, thinking that if they created the right conditions, cargo would appear. I see the same in remakes – “if we take the art assets (or clone them, or redo them but off-brand-enough that we don’t get sued” and keep the gameplay exactly the same, it’ll be awesome!” Don’t do this. What you need to do is break down the design of Your Favorite, and figure out what it was that made the game compelling. “Everything” is not an acceptable answer, you need to be critical. You need to think about what you can reproduce in $CURRENT YEAR and what’s an artifact of its time, like compromises due to affordances of the platform, or time constraints. You must translate those compelling aspects into your future projects, and discard the anachronisms and sacred cows and genre conventions that belong to the past. Make your own game.

Pandemic: Week 2

This article does a very good job of pointing out what we should have seen coming, but I disagree with the conclusion. I don’t think it takes any sort of specialized ‘complex systems’ thinking to observe the actions China was taking and realize that soon everyone would be in the same situation. I think the problem was simpler – people have a hard time imagining that the world is going to change very quickly, or that something will affect them. You see the same thing with a lot of risk taking.

https://weather.com/coronavirus/l/41.8934,-70.9117

This tweet chain: is a good summary of what it was like to experience the evolving situation at Slack, a company we and many others use for chat and videoconferencing. There is competition at Hopjump between Slack and Zoom. There are a few macbooks that won’t run Slack calls with a mic, and Zoom offers hilarious backgrounds. But we all already use slack and it removes the overhead of notifying people that the call is starting, distributing the link, etc. I suppose this is the sort of problem an IT department would solve by A) mandating it’s favorite be used and B) fixing everyone’s computer, but we where caught at an especially inopportune time when we’d just engaged an IT services provider. Let’s keep this theme of articles going. This hefty think piece puts the whole situation in an interesting perspective.

is there any benefit to reading all of this, at this point? We’re already doing what we can by avoiding all human contact. We don’t need further convincing. At some point there have to be diminishing returns. I can’t believe this week is already over.

Let’s instead talk entertainment. Nine Inch nails released new Ghosts this week, can’t wait to listen to it. Tiger King (Netflix) is absolutely bonkers, like /r/unsolvedmysteries meets /r/hobbydrama. It’s got a cast of zany, homicidal characters who are all accusing each other of larger than life crimes. I finished the cover for an EP-type thing and I’ll probably drop it next week. I finished painting another 40k miniature.

Playing a 90s web game in the 20s

The first videogames I recall playing where applets on the early web. I’ve decided to explore what I can find of these games on the Internet Archive. I’ll leave notes on how to run them yourself and where to find them so you can follow along.

The Pantheon of game sites was, more or less Alfy.com, Ezone.com, and MoFunZone.com. When the flash era hit, we got Newgrounds, Addictinggames, and ArcadeTown.

This is the earliest capture of alfy.com, from 1999. It’s not the screen I’m most familiar with, but I’m curious to see which games are present already. It appears to be constructed entirely of image maps, so we need to inspect it to find any of the links.

Tail Gunner, Javanoid, Missile Commando, Urbanoids and Asteroids I definitely remember, and we’ll certainly get to them later. This landing page from May 2000 is closer to what I remember:

I’m sure the layout is somehow janked up by my up-to-date browser, but that is the gist of it. Some websites used to be like this. The different clickable sections are sharply rasterized images. There are probably a bunch of things on here which I’ll explore later, but most of my time was spent in the arcade tab.

At just the right resolution, the utterly noisy but correct layout is evident (this is the space games section. I recommend checking these pages out; static screenshots don’t do it justice. Everything is animated. I already recognize a ton of classics just from the little portal views.

Let’s try some games. You’ll need to install the JDK so that you have appletviewer available as a command. To do that in Ubuntu, use

sudo apt install openjdk-8-jdk

In order to make these games run in appletviewer, you need an HTML file that calls them. When I run appletviewer, I get

java.security.AccessControlException: access denied ("java.lang.RuntimePermission" "accessClassInPackage.sun.audio")

Good to know that this was discussed on Usenet in 2001.

Ok, so let’s install virtualbox, download windows 98, and give it a shot!

I needed to enable virtualization in my BIOS to make virtualbox work. Also I set up the good display driver because when I tried it initially the colors weren’t right.

That old familiar sting

But the display driver wouldn’t work! The radio button sets it to the driver, but it still thinks it’s disabled. Bummer. I also tried installing ie6 with winetricks, but it was too unstable to use

I triple dog dare you

Let’s try windows XP! We’ll apparently need the JVM. In order to get that on there, I burned a virtual cd which seems to be the easiest way to get files into your virtualbox PC. And it works! At least for some of the games. Check out this one on the author’s site: http://www.javaonthebrain.com/java/warp15/

Level 1: Mean Green Virtual Machine

This had the best graphics and probably made the strongest impression on me. The green/purple stuck with me enough that it’s the base color scheme for my 40k army now.

I probably haven’t played this game in twenty odd years. Does it hold up?

Well, the graphics are amazing. The author used POV Ray to make vibrant raytraced sprites that look great even in 2020. But the gameplay… Well, it’s impossibly hard. The controls don’t work quite right, you can only have two shots on screen at a time, collisions are wonky, and it’s very easy to accidentally slam into a wall and die.

Maybe I’ll return to get some other games working, maybe I won’t. I suspect that the problem with other games is that the assets aren’t in the archive, and if a more current source could be found they’d work just fine. Also some may require newer versions of Java. I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader. May I recommend SuperKid.

Pandemic: week 1

This is the biggest french toast alert (run on eggs and bread) I’ve seen in my lifetime.

The foundation for the lie that Covid-19 was an inevitable disaster is already being poured, and I despise it. All you had to do was watch the news and believe for one minute that we weren’t somehow special and immune to tragedy. This Op-ed does a better job of tearing down the black swan lie, so I’ll just link it.

A mass video call, now a familiar sight. It was for a friend’s birthday, but we spent most of the time talking about the pandemic.

Italy was the game changer for public perception. Last week I felt a bit like chicken little, but now everyone I know is at least beginning the process of readjusting their expectations for the short term. It will take more time for people to realize that this has changed the course of history, and pre-pandemic predictions of the future will need to be adjusted. That’s what the markets are saying, really. Our once clear picture of the future is now clouded.

I wish I’d grabbed more Goya. Anything with black beans in it was gone.

Sabrina and I are now both working from home and avoiding leaving the house as much as possible. Walks along our street are a decent outlet – I’m trying to replace my usual trips back and fourth from Kendall.

I’ve been making FTS content at a record rate while stuck at home

MELT (ELM Collective)

MELT is an anthology, and as such each track is pretty distinctive. It really pays to listen to each track closely here, as each individual artist has done a lot to make tracks memorable. The overall impression is an IDM treat with lots of delicious drum machine rolls and synths you can really sink your teeth into.

Dracul starts off the album on a strong note with metallic beats and an iconic synth melody.

This track has a couple of particularly well-executed change-up. It plays in a bunch of space that you usually wouldn’t hear in an IDM track. Lots of different sounds playing short sections of a melody in turn, chopped vocals, and other excitement.

Not only is this track great, but it introduced me to Iconic Black Suit who has a deep catalog, including Bionic Eyes Won’t Cry.

Ridebreak absolutely nails the Hangable Auto Bulb drums, but just as you think that’s all it’s going to be, it launches into this awesome soaring videogamey melody that carries the rest of the track. It took me a few listens to get into it.

Pandemic: Week 0

We watch and read the news, so to some extent we knew it was going to be bad. The people who tell you not to worry about things told me not to worry, but this time, I ignored them. We stocked up on food, cough medicine, electrolyte-water, and yes, all-important Toilet Paper.

On Wednesday night, our CRO called it on slack-Hopjump is now working from home. This was in advance of the threshold that E-Staff had previously set, and a very welcome proactive move to flatten the curve. This will be an adjustment for all of us though. I’m going to try and maintain my routine-when I would be on the train I’ll keep working on projects or music or what have you.

State Street still still hasn’t called mandatory WFH yet.

Over the course of the week, the state of mass rolled out measures. In the span of a week we got a state-level state of emergency, a national state of emergency, schools closed, gatherings limited to 25 people. You can get details here. Food is take-out only. It’s been odd to see policies evolve so quickly. I wonder if the idea is to slowly introduce the policy to avoid a panic or if the situation is really evolving this quickly. We knew since the Biogen conference that it was here; why not take a crisis stance immediately?

The biggest difficulty is accepting that this isn’t a blip, this is something that will be with us for a long time and is going to change the course of human events. The futures we each envision for ourselves and our families need to be revised, and I worry that we’re paralyzed by that process. A slow-motion version of the deer-in-the-headlights effect.

So don’t wait. Don’t wait. Distance yourself from others. Flatten the curve. It seems risky and uncool to defy those who would tell to just keep going like nothing is wrong, but this is one of those moments where you need to listen to the doomsayers.

PAX East 2020

On the eve of the Covid-19 Pandemic, with the stock market tumbling, hundreds (thousands?) of game fans breezed into a convention center to try some new stuff, purchase apparel, and frequently use hand sanitizer. It was everywhere.

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There’s something sinister about the rise of Discord, but I can’t explain why yet

Thursday was far better than Saturday, so definitely go then if you can. I was able to play far more games, and the boardgame tables where much easier to navigate.

Exciting New Games

While speaking to the creator of BlazeSky, I name-checked Escape Velocity and he knew what I was talking about. But the more I look at it, the more it looks like Empty Epsilon/Artemis. The different styles of play (rescuing people, combat, exploration, etc) are represented by different characters who give you quests, which is a neat approach to writing storylines. I found the banking camera made it difficult to reason about where my shots where going, and I hope that at launch there’s an option to keep the camera steady while the ship turns, but even if there isn’t I’ll probably play the hell out of it.

Another game that was physically demanding just due to its camera was Sludge Life. After you fight through its extremely elaborate recreation of a 90s desktop interface you’re dropped in a colorful, heavily distorted 3d environment. Very Getter: Headsplitter. The distortion (I think the vertical FOV was unusually high or low or whatever) was jarring and slightly dizzying. I predict that this game will be a stoner-hit of Rez proportions. Devolver is playing in the same space as Adult Swim here.

Watched some people play Dunk Lords. The world is ready for strawberry-headed athletes. You could dismiss it as Space Jam: The Videogame but stripped of its bizzare branding, the concept of cartoony basketball feels pretty novel. Sports games that attempt to simulate a sport (like EA’s catalog) or Be a sport (like Rocket League) aren’t my jam, but using the basic rules of a sport to do something unique or new definitely is.

Watched some Panzer Paladin play. There was an enormous reproduction of the cover art, standing out against the crowd. Makes me wonder what the differentiator is. It looks like a Gameboy Advance game (specifically, it looked like Metroid) to me, and though the mechanics where cool and smooth, I wonder who’s buying enough copies of this to justify an enormous booth at PAX. What’s the differentiator. Are they just striking at the right moment? Is it the great Anime art? Am I not enough of a sidescroller fan to understand what the difference between it and AVGN Adventure (which we also demo’d) is.

A radically different sidescroller with very clear differentiation was Carrion, a game where the avatar resembles the blob monster from The Thing. I’m not sure what the gameplay is besides sliding and swinging around an industrial environment and eating (?) the little NPCs that run from you.

If you’re itching to play Star Citizen but don’t like social interaction or having to hire an entire clan to operate your large spaceship or pass flight training to join an org, and also want a game that’s finished, I unfortunately can’t recommend Everspace II yet, because it isn’t finished either. But what I did play compared favorably to Star Citizen, and I venture to say that it’ll be done far sooner. The vision of space was colorful and dense with things to explore and tractor beam into your ship.

I also got a chance to demo Brigador Killers. In addition to the stompy robots seen in Brigador, you get to play as an infantry suit or a giant floating wrecking ball. The controls are also slightly different – rather than absolute direction, your WASD controls are now relative to the mouse. It took some getting used to, especially with the wrecking ball.

Parting Thoughts

Check out the screen attached to this expensive of a gaming PC. I’m not sure words will do it justice, but if you’ve been here, you know.

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The dreaded launcher update.

I also demo’d a Cookie Clicker clone which I won’t name to protect the guilty. It pitched itself as being about the development of life from molecules to technological singularity. However, in reality it is a cookie clicker clone, the meta of a game (buy stuff on a tech tree to augment your abilities) without the actual gameplay (you score by just tapping the screen. Anywhere on the screen. I wondered again what the filter was between successful games and trivial games. Was presence at PAX a marker of success or a desperate gambit? I told myself I was done with the game, but then I reached down to the tablet and tapped it a few more times.

Unrelated image of a book that was on sale at the convention

Notes on the BattleMETAL soundtrack

BattleMETAL, the big-stompy-robot game was recently (finally) released! It’s been in development for quite a while now, and most of my involvement (beyond repeated testing and sharing opinions about gameplay) has been doing the soundtrack, so here are some fun behind the scenes facts. I wrote these tracks between 2016 and 2019 starting with Predator and ending with The Matock. Unless otherwise noted, I did the tracks in Reason.

This is probably the best track on here, owing to something resembling a coherent melody. Sort of reminds me of something The Knife would write (not that it’s as good as theirs!) That line is one of the few places where I actually used a bitcrusher… under all of that, it’s a u-he Tyrell. I never did get that synth to work properly in linux, and you have to download it from a German magazine to get it, but it’s nice. The rest (and by that I mean the phaser’d Monopoly, the default synth for this project) are heavily influenced by Frank Klepacki’s classic Bigfoot.

This track was written in a fairly meandering way, I had a pretty good idea the opening (the initial delay’d up drumbeat and bass) and ended up just sort of adding pads and sequences to the end of it until it was long enough. The lack of music theory really shows on this one. Like most of the tracks here, it uses Cheetah MD16 samples and (believe it or not) the 3rd demo preset for Reason’s builtin convolution reverb.

This is my first attempt at a synthwave track (if you don’t count Conniver, which I don’t, because that was more of an industrial thing.) There are a lot of preset arps going on here, and it’s the only track that isn’t using the signature drum palette. A version got re-purposed from its original form to serve as the trailer track when BattleMETAL was in its early stages (complete with samples of the EarthSiege trailer boasting of “Exquisite Texture Mapping.”)

I know this track isn’t the most musically challenging, but I actually still find it pretty compelling. It’s one of the early ones. The lead is a Charlatan, which was one of the synths I was most excited to explore when Reason finally added VST support. You can hear me tweak the settings over the course of the track-I love doing that sort of thing. Unfortunately, this was the only track I’ve managed to complete with the synth, because it keeps crashing now. For the pad, which I think I did an especially good job on, I used eXpanse which was the first wavetable synth available in Reason as a Rack Extension (about a year before we got VST support) and enabled a whole new world of sound design for us Reason diehards.

One of the more recent tracks. It’s using Viking for the bass again (which means, oddly, it sometimes skips a beat… listen for it, you’ll hear it in Predator too) but reflects my newfound confidence in making melodies in step sequencers. In fact, I think I did most of the sequencing in this track with the ABL3. The funky sequence that comes in at the end is especially fun. The Balakett is all about speed and the Monitor is all about raw power, to win with the Matock you need to dance. I also want to call out the ES-01 rack extension as an extremely underrated and great sounding softsynth. Love that thing.

I’d like to say that the lack of a melody in this track is meant to reflect the soulless nature of the PSC character and its total monomania around the extinction of the planet, but then I’d be giving myself way too much credit. This track is “meh” and I should feel “meh” about writing it.

The patch for this started out as the “Acres Of Glass” preset for Europa. I’ll always enjoy tracks that are just me playing chords for five minutes, really puts you in a good place, even if the chords are gloomy. The voice talents here include Pete (“Punching out!”), Sabrina, The Conet Project, and Techno Ejay (if you can find that one, I owe you a cookie.)

The Balakett (Bonus, so no embed apparently)

This didn’t make it into the game, so it stays as a bonus track. It’s also the only track I made with Renoise (you can probably tell from the drum wankery in the middle.) It was intended for the post-mission screen, but it’s altogether too cheerful for the apocalyptic tone of BattleMETAL. It’s using the ob-xd synth, which I’ve found to be excellent. Also, in classic Renoise beginner fashion, it ends with an extra block of the last note just stretched out forever. oops.

Overall, the experience was a fun one, and I expect I’ll do something similar again someday.