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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Avorion Ships

I recently got into a new space game called Avorion. It's much like Space Engineers, where you can use a voxel grid to build almost any shape. Where Space Engineers failed to implement trade mechanics, complex AI, or meaningful space systems (such as a galaxy), Avorion has all of these things. Avorion is stricly 3rd person, viewing space from outside your ship, and from two other map views, while Space Engineers is almost strictly 1st or 3rd person, viewing from your astronaut's perspective. While both are still being actively developed, regardless of which direction Avorion goes at this point, it will likely be better in scope and value. The game uses LUA scripts that can be edited to manage most of the user interface and outer mechanics, so the game can be modded as much as (perhaps more than) Space Engineers. Personally, I'd like to see some design changes with how ship size scales - both with how the ship reacts phyiscally in space and how the building tools work to assist the player with making various shapes, how crews are hired, how turrets scale and are sorted, how mining and building resources work, how time is used for hyperspace (and how hyperspace is designed in general), and how trade is balanced. If the developers somehow made the turrets more independent of the player, or at least the player was focused more on flying the ship instead of using it as a blunt weapon, the game would make the drastic jump from old-style space-sim to something deeper about the human experience in space. It sounds like a stretch, but trust me, right now you outfit a big phallic analog with lots of guns and you go head-first into enemies. Avorion could easily be quite thought-provoking and fuel your imagination even more than it already does. I guess that's my way of saying that I'm happy with my purchase.

Now, without further ado, here are some of my ships so far.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Game Development Checklist

One thing that I actively looked for and wished to have was a game development checklist: a simple almost one-page document that outlined what I needed to make a successful game from the ground up.
  • Title: The name of your game should be short, and don't forget about what the acronym for the name might be. For example, "Age of Empires" is "AoE."
  • Subtitle: This is the one-line description. For example, "7 Days to Die is an open-world game that is a unique combination of first person shooter, survival horror, tower defense, and role-playing games." This is also the line you use to start your elevator pitch, and if you have your audience's attention, you can keep elaborating.
  • Full Description: This is a full-detail explanation of your game, including some contextual story information. This description is so you can fully relay the concept of the game, without your audience actually playing it. For example:
Factorio is a game in which you build and maintain factories. You will be mining resources, researching technologies, building infrastructure, automating production and fighting enemies. In the beginning you will find yourself chopping trees, mining ores and crafting mechanical arms and transport belts by hand, but in short time you can become an industrial powerhouse, with huge solar fields, oil refining and cracking, manufacture and deployment of construction and logistic robots, all for your resource needs. However this heavy exploitation of the planet's resources does not sit nicely with the locals, so you will have to be prepared to defend yourself and your machine empire...
  • Game Type: This can be slightly vague, if it has to be. The genre is there simply so prospective buyers can find games that appeal to their personal preferences, and so you can help people understand it when your pitching it to them.
  • Feature List: What are the primary mechanics of your game? You can be vague or extremely specific here; it's up to you. I like to be more specific, with things like, "full 3d character movement, jump, crouch, pick up, activate, aim, and shoot; full inventory, pick up items, drop items, item physics, and item weight, value, and category."
  • Asset List: Try and list out each individual major asset - as many as you can. This way, you can keep track of what needs doing, and what gets done. For Tower Seven, that would be: "Ground Enemy, Air Enemy, Salvage Drone, Wall, Machinegun Tower, Cannon Tower, Chaingun Tower, Flak Tower, Flamethrower Tower, Rocket Tower, Artillery Tower, Missile Tower, Laser Tower, Gauss Tower, Lightning Tower, Radar Building, Power Plant, Drone Pad, and Salvage Refinery."
  • Game Icon: Make a 1024x1024 pixel image to use as a nice-looking icon. Compare it side-by-side with other icons and make sure it looks the way you want.
  • Game Cover Art: This image can be as big as you want, but it's primarily so you can catch peoples attention - it needs to look amazing! You will also end up using this for various images for community, marketing, and store pages (usually with some minimal editing).
  • Trailer: Video trailers are slightly more difficult, and require some time, but once you have a 1-2 minute trailer, it becomes easier to market your game. Trailers can be made by making a recording of you playing your game, then going back to edit, add some music (remember to credit the artist!), and make the trailer play through enough clips of your game to make people want to learn more or straight-up buy it. Try to edit in all of the features you listed out above.
  • The Game: Don't forget that the build of your game that people play will definitively determine whether or not people recommend it to their friends, want to show it off, or simply give it a decent review. Make sure that there is at least one really epic quality to your game that even the most dejected player can remember for later.
  • Languages: We live in a big world, with lots of people who speak different languages. While English does cover quite a good market portion, many games don't have much to read anyways, so why let that market potential go to waste? At the very least, pick a few localities, translate the game text, and make a build for that locality. If the game is small enough, it might even be possible to create a drop-down list in the game with ready-to-go text conversion.
  •  Marketing Plan: Last, but never least, is how you intend on reaching your audience, and how you intend to sell them your game. Generally, start local, with friends and family. Tell them about the thing you did, and work to sell it to them. Humility and tact go a long way here - keep moving to new potential customers - eventually one of them might even help you sell a few copies!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

AVIT and T7 Milestones

Hand-painted by Jordan Black

My artist for A Village in Time, Lance, has completed 95% of the card art, and the game is now in its beta form. Soon the proofs will arrive and I'll be able to playtest at Animefest in August! Exciting! If I time it correctly, I might even be able to sell a few copies. So that is monumental progress. Once Lance is back from his Summer gig, I'm hoping he'll be excited enough to continue.

Box art coming soon!
I'm also at the point with Tower Seven where I'm getting close to an alpha build, which is insane because I have reworked the entire game in a little less than three months. I have a Steamworks account, which is awesome because they've outlined the whole process for me, and I will spend the next few months going down the checklist to publish the game on Steam.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Game Design Case Study: Factorio

Factorio is a game in which you build and maintain factories.

In the spirit of most early city-building/simulation games, it's a top-down view over a player that runs around the surface of an alien planet, mines for resources, assembles parts, and automates industrial manufacturing.

The end goal (currently) is to build and launch rockets and satellites. The developers plan on extending that beyond just the scope of just a single planet surface, such as colonists coming there, or having you go underground, or having you go with the rocket to another planet or moon.

At one point, there was even a mod that had the player collecting and sending food and resources back to a home world via a portal, which gave the game a sense of purpose and connection to things other than just the player.

The game does have multiplayer, which is an incredible feat on its own since the game is designed to be hundreds if not thousands of small animations - the primary benefit of the art style. The sense of purpose is bolstered by other players joining in on the design process, however, there is no progress tracking system in place. When new players join a game that has already advanced through the first stages of the research tree, there's no easy way to see what has been done and what needs doing. Players spawn around the same area. There is no trade system between individual player inventories or owned property. There is the idea of property, in the sense of the game tracks who built what, but no rules as to who has access to what. There are no team nor competitive mechanics, and no trade systems between teams.

The thesis of the game is an exercise in exponential industrial consumerism. Aliens are hostile, as they should be, since you're senselessly polluting their environment. All resources are mined - nothing is sustainable other than solar power. The player is expected to gather resources at an increasing rate, process them into usable parts and materials, and consume that to create research.

Research is to improve the technology the player uses to mine and process resources. Far enough in, the automation becomes efficient enough to allow drones to do most of the material transport and construction for the player. Trains, a major component of the long-term game, allow for an interesting mini-game to help the player move resources to the central factory area from long distances. Research, however, is largely arbitrary and a massive time-sink. The ingredient requirements and ratios of manufacturing alone is enough to make the game interesting and time-consuming. Technology research should be a game mechanic, but not so demanding as to be the game's primary immediate goal.

Specifically, the grid system is misused. Single cells are capable of storing thousands of resources, including full-sized vehicles and structures. There is no spatial relationship at all. I would much prefer if at least the storage mechanics used something closer to 1:1 ratios; right now they average around 1:64. I even made a modification to the game that reduces the storage to around 1:4, as well as utilize another mod that adds storage and warehouses that are 9:32 and 36:64 (altered to be much lower, of course). The game has no grid (also known as entity) representation of items, so mods cannot yet be made to achieve 1:1 storage of resources.

Power production is messy. Electrical lines are short, on tall wooden or metal poles, and distribute power in a square around them. A better method would be to have electrical power assumed for all electricity-using entities within a certain distance of each other, and then only need to use poles to transport electricity over long distances.

Conveyors and water pumps don't use electricity, while just about everything else does. There's no wind turbine, no geothermal plants (no lava on an alien planet? ...come on), and no flowing water, which means no dams or water-wheels.

There is no production waste, and so no recycling methods are included either. Recycling even older technology would be beneficial to the game design.

Why would I use trains when conveyors are drastically cheaper to produce, and provide a constant flow instead of a large, periodic flux?

Impassable or non-flat terrain could add challenge to the game in the place of making research less arbitrarily time and resource-consuming. Also, more environmental events, such as dust-storms, rain storms, and fog could make the game more interesting and challenging.

In conclusion, the only reason that I took the time to study and analyze Factorio's design is because I enjoy the concept and the game greatly. All of the items I mentioned are possible, and most are, dare I say, easy to implement. The framework is present, with exception of item storage, to build Factorio up to a game that easily beats out the competition in an otherwise flooded market of computer games. If the game can be modded and made better, to the point where most players play with a collection of specific mods, the developers (which includes me, for my own games) need to seriously consider and implement mods as realized game mechanics.

I want to urge future game developers to strongly consider the thesis, or the message, of their games in the scope of how people perceive them. I perceive Factorio as a manifestation of the industrialization of our civilization. I strongly desire Factorio to become a game that is aware of its own message, and to give players the option to play in sustainable ways. In the future, I hope, such destructive resource exploitation is looked down on and laughed at as wildly naive and wasteful. We can utilize minerals and materials fully, we just have to learn how. Factorio can help!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Net Neutrality

The internet is really, really great.

The internet, in it's simplest form, allows for people who have very little to feel as though they have everything. That's because they have access to almost anything, via the internet.

The internet could be many things: what it is to me, is a source of information, entertainment, and communication that is better, faster, and more efficient than anything humans have ever had before.

Many people have grown up with that benefit - with that tool. Many people depend on access to the internet to be productive, stable members of society, including myself.

...I don't know how to fully articulate how important equal and untainted access to the internet is.

That's always been one of my weaknesses - effective communication, in person. Taking time to go and start a conversation where there needs to be one, or simply making my point without seeming defensive or overbearing. I know I don't have much influence over the vast majority of the world. That's not at all the issue - my weakness doesn't show up here.

The issue is the writing on the wall. Those who do have the resources and influence can't seem to see it when it matters. The writing says, "internet access is a basic human right." Almost all human beings have some access to electronic technology, and the software that allows us to connect to the internet is a circumstance of the proliferation of that technology. Therefore, by sheer saturation, we all have the right to access the internet, and that access need not favor some over others.

In most of rural America, there is no reliable internet access. Sure, we have satellite technology which helps alleviate that situation, but reliable is the keyword here. Already there is a glaring inequality between those who live in urban and rural areas. Then, to make matters worse, even those in urban areas don't have many choices when it comes to who provides access to the internet.

Net neutrality isn't just about throttling speeds, and choosing favorite outlets over outliers, it's about provisions, access, and market saturation. Investment in internet infrastructure should come at a short-term loss, while the long-term benefits will provide ample reasons to get started now.

If I were an internet provider, I would be putting massive amounts of capital into rural fiber infrastructure, simply because the long-term returns (even at sub-marginal subscriber rates) massively outweigh the loss of profit that is happening due to inactivity, apathy, and general mismanagement.

Let's run a quick case study.

Assuming it costs $13,000 per mile to run a fiber cable (which is already a high estimate), and we want to go from the Pottsboro, TX hub to Highport Marina along highway 289, which is 7 miles, it costs $91,000 to lay the line. Let's round that up to $100k for argument's sake.

Let's also assume there are roughly an average of 10 subscribing customers per mile of line, each paying $100 per month for their internet service. That's $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year for fiber service to a rural community.

The investment pays for itself after 8 years and 4 months. After that, the subscription pays for maintenance, upgrades, and expansion for that area.

Here's where I think many business leaders get caught up: Where's the profit margin?

The profit margin comes when/if Pottsboro grows into a major urban area, much like what happened in Richardson, Plano, Frisco, McKinney, and even Sherman. The spine of the infrastructure has already been paid for and placed, and now with a solid subscriber base and an expanding potential market, it's much easier to acquire additional capital to pay for more fiber. That's where the profit margin enters into the picture. It's obvious urban areas are more profitable than rural areas, but with the internet, you can't discriminate.

So instead of getting caught up in the mindset of constant profit/growth, I'd like to see leaders make decisions based on merit and long-term provisions.

Which circles us back around to net neutrality. If we allow ourselves to get caught up in making as much money as possible in the short-term, we will erode our source of profit entirely. Future generations will be left with nothing. Why make all of this technological progress if we're just going to throw it all away?

The result of this fight for neutrality should be that even more people have access to the internet, and that all of us should be free to use it fairly and equally as a constitutional right.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Interactive Development

I just completed my first contract with 900Lbs. of Creative. Overall, working there was amazing. The commute to the Bishop Arts District in southwest Dallas was difficult, to say the least. Some days were good, with an optimal 40 minute commute, but most days were about an hour, and at worst being almost two hours. Generally, though, once I was there, I had my own computer and station, skylights, a window, and I would work in Unity on various projects. If I needed to rest, I rested. If I needed to get up and walk around, no one asked questions or was incredulous. There was fresh, cool water and a microwave downstairs, and a fridge and utensils upstairs. Two bathrooms meant the twelve or so of us never really had to wait (or at least, I didn't). Lunch was built into my hours - it was assumed that I would take as short a break as possible to eat, and then get right back to work. No clocking in or out; just a simple excel document. The atmosphere was informal, to put it lightly. That meant, however, that if I had something to say, I was expected to be brutally blunt with it. There were positive and negative aspects about their form of communication, but I preferred it over previous workplaces because I felt like I had a voice, even if the decisions weren't mine to make.

Small things like those add up to make the difference between a stuffy, sterile workplace, and a productive, energetic team. I would be happy to work there again.

Now to step back and view the big picture...

You want to get away with paying people pennies on the dollar for their jobs? Expect people to work freely, including, but not limited to, what I've just described. Just like everything else, you get what you pay for. If you pay people less than what they're worth, and pick away at their freedoms, expect high turnover and low productivity. Also, expect an awful client/customer experience. Nothing is worse for a bottom-line than adopting policies that create hostile or repressive work environments.

I've watched my whole life as managers and directors exploit an expanded labor pool (and even take measures to ensure that it keeps expanding), only to compensate stockholders. No reasonable person should actually believe that constant growth is sustainable. There are so many reasons for that, but the overarching idea is that Earth is a zero-sum environment. We are all limited to a specific, finite amount of fresh water, arable land, clean air, and various natural resources. We consume at a maximum rate, while our environment replenishes within a predictable, but limited range. If we consume more than what nature can offer or replenish, our ways of life crumble.

The counter-argument that the quantity of all of these resources are so massive that we will not run out in the foreseeable future is naive and selfish. We shouldn't exploit our resources. We should utilize and sustain them as best we can. Recycling, and the efforts to make packaging biodegradable or recyclable, is what will carry our society into the future safely, and without compromising our environment. Clean energy and fresh water are important, but I feel that the massive amount of unmanageable garbage is a slightly more pressing issue currently. (Ever see Wall-E?) Managing waste is a readily solvable problem, and one that could put a bunch more people to work.

What does any of this have to do with being an interactive developer? Everything. As we move forward as a society, as automation and software removes the need for human labor, we will see a shift from blue-collar physical jobs to white-collar office jobs. Creative jobs, and more bluntly, jobs that don't have a high profitability, will keep our society running smoothly. As more and more people hold creative jobs, and even more technical jobs (like programming), the pay for those people will predictably decrease. That shouldn't happen unless there is also a safety net in the form of either a universal basic income, a huge earned income tax credit, or some similarly stabilizing program. If my wage stagnates, simply because I don't have a STEM degree, and despite the fact that I could, theoretically, complete a master's degree in computer science (if it didn't come at an exorbitant price), I will simply be one of thousands of moderately to highly educated citizens who cannot contribute to our nation's sustainable future.

If I am a case study for the future of our educated middle class, then at every interval I will put forth this kind of informative argument. The large majority of people I know are struggling to find the same balance I am.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Societal Needs - Revisited

A while back I posted about what society needs organized into their respective priorities. In terms of the whole concept, the categories are vague enough to work, but when used to organize specific resources, they tend to breakdown. In summary, I want to simplify the model. Even though doing so seems counter-intuitive, the reasoning is that by simplifying categories which are already vague, each category can be implicitly broken down into their exact components later on. Instead of making many categories that could potentially overlap, fewer categories can end up being more specific.

Needs such as work or purpose can be combined with exercise.
Risk, safety and regulation, and social security can be worked into a tax category (along with income or property taxes).
The need for company, religion (or charity), education, and the arts can be combined into one social category.

The new breakdown reads as follows:

Primary - each primary need must be available as an easily accessible, unpolluted, and temperate function of life.
  • Water
  • Food
  • Shelter
Secondary - although not absolutely necessary, providing for secondary needs allows small groups to exist in one location over a long period of time.
  • Clothing
  • Work
  • Electricity
  • Recreation
  • Waste
Tertiary - these needs allow for many large groups to coexist with others harmoniously, and for even denser urban areas to function over longer periods of time.
  • Goods
  • Transportation
  • Communication
  • Healthcare
  • Taxes
  • Social
  • Savings
Expressed as a budget, with resources allocated to each need, one would use their income to take the difference, and then arrive at their savings.