Tag Archives: dish

Security Vulnerabilities in VingCard Electronic Locks

Post Syndicated from Bruce Schneier original https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2018/04/security_vulner_14.html

Researchers have disclosed a massive vulnerability in the VingCard eletronic lock system, used in hotel rooms around the world:

With a $300 Proxmark RFID card reading and writing tool, any expired keycard pulled from the trash of a target hotel, and a set of cryptographic tricks developed over close to 15 years of on-and-off analysis of the codes Vingcard electronically writes to its keycards, they found a method to vastly narrow down a hotel’s possible master key code. They can use that handheld Proxmark device to cycle through all the remaining possible codes on any lock at the hotel, identify the correct one in about 20 tries, and then write that master code to a card that gives the hacker free reign to roam any room in the building. The whole process takes about a minute.

[…]

The two researchers say that their attack works only on Vingcard’s previous-generation Vision locks, not the company’s newer Visionline product. But they estimate that it nonetheless affects 140,000 hotels in more than 160 countries around the world; the researchers say that Vingcard’s Swedish parent company, Assa Abloy, admitted to them that the problem affects millions of locks in total. When WIRED reached out to Assa Abloy, however, the company put the total number of vulnerable locks somewhat lower, between 500,000 and a million.

Patching is a nightmare. It requires updating the firmware on every lock individually.

And the researchers speculate whether or not others knew of this hack:

The F-Secure researchers admit they don’t know if their Vinguard attack has occurred in the real world. But the American firm LSI, which trains law enforcement agencies in bypassing locks, advertises Vingcard’s products among those it promises to teach students to unlock. And the F-Secure researchers point to a 2010 assassination of a Palestinian Hamas official in a Dubai hotel, widely believed to have been carried out by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. The assassins in that case seemingly used a vulnerability in Vingcard locks to enter their target’s room, albeit one that required re-programming the lock. “Most probably Mossad has a capability to do something like this,” Tuominen says.

Slashdot post.

Ефектите на медийната консолидация: по сценарий

Post Syndicated from nellyo original https://nellyo.wordpress.com/2018/04/04/sinclair-2/

 Sinclair Broadcast Group е най-голяма тв група по брой медии и също така по покритие в САЩ. Известни са с  новинарско съдържание и предавания, които популяризират консервативни политически позиции  и са в подкрепа на Републиканската партия.

 Когато Тръмп каже следното –

 

– ето какво следва в медиите на Синклер  – каскада от еднотипни изпълнения по сценарий, както се вижда във видеото:

“Някои  медии  използват своите платформи, за да наложат своето лично пристрастие. Това е изключително опасно за нашата демокрация.”

Видеото е публикувано и в NYT:

 

Показва ефектите  на медийната консолидация за правото на информация.  А също показва и как това управление означава критиката като fake.

+ op-ed от вчера

 

Raspberry Crusoe: how a Pi got lost at sea

Post Syndicated from James Robinson original https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/lost-high-altitude-balloon/

The tale of the little HAB that could and its three-month journey from Portslade Aldridge Community Academy in the UK to the coast of Denmark.

PACA Computing on Twitter

Where did it land ???? #skypaca #skycademy @pacauk #RaspberryPi

High-altitude ballooning

Some of you may be familiar with Raspberry Pi being used as the flight computer, or tracker, of high-altitude balloon (HAB) payloads. For those who aren’t, high-altitude ballooning is a relatively simple activity (at least in principle) where a tracker is attached to a large weather balloon which is then released into the atmosphere. While the HAB ascends, the tracker takes pictures and data readings the whole time. Eventually (around 30km up) the balloon bursts, leaving the payload free to descend and be recovered. For a better explanation, I’m handing over to the students of UTC Oxfordshire:

Pi in the Sky | UTC Oxfordshire

On Tuesday 2nd May, students launched a Raspberry Pi computer 35,000 metres into the stratosphere as part of an Employer-Led project at UTC Oxfordshire, set by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The project involved engineering, scientific and communication/publicity skills being developed to create the payload and code to interpret experiments set by the science team.

Skycademy

Over the past few years, we’ve seen schools and their students explore the possibilities that high-altitude ballooning offers, and back in 2015 and 2016 we ran Skycademy. The programme was simple enough: get a bunch of educators together in the same space, show them how to launch a balloon flight, and then send them back to their students to try and repeat what they’ve learned. Since the first Skycademy event, a number of participants have carried out launches, and we are extremely proud of each and every one of them.

The case of the vanishing PACA HAB

Not every launch has been a 100% success though. There are many things that can and do go wrong during HAB flights, and watching each launch from the comfort of our office can be a nerve-wracking experience. We had such an experience back in July 2017, during the launch performed by Skycademy graduate and Raspberry Pi Certified Educator Dave Hartley and his students from Portslade Aldridge Community Academy (PACA).

Dave and his team had been working on their payload for some time, and were awaiting suitable weather conditions. Early one Wednesday in July, everything aligned: they had a narrow window of good weather and so set their launch plan in motion. Soon they had assembled the payload in the school grounds and all was ready for the launch.

Dave Hartley on Twitter

Launch day! @pacauk #skycademy #skypaca #raspberrypi

Just before 11:00, they’d completed their final checks and released their payload into the atmosphere. Over the course of 64 minutes, the HAB steadily rose to an altitude of 25647m, where it captured some amazing pictures before the balloon burst and a rapid descent began.

Portslade Aldridge Community Academy Skycademy Raspberry Pi
Portslade Aldridge Community Academy Skycademy Raspberry Pi

Soon after the payload began to descend, the team noticed something worrying: their predicted descent path took the payload dangerously far south — it was threatening to land in the sea. As the payload continued to lose altitude, their calculated results kept shifting, alternately predicting a landing on the ground or out to sea. Eventually it became clear that the payload would narrowly overshoot the land, and it finally landed about 2 km out to sea.

Portslade Aldridge Community Academy Skycademy Raspberry Pi High Altitude Ballooning

The path of the balloon

It’s not uncommon for a HAB payload to get lost. There are many ways this can happen, particularly in a narrow country with a prevailing easterly wind like the UK. Payloads can get lost at sea, land somewhere inaccessible, or simply run out of power before they are located and retrieved. So normally, this would be the end of the story for the PACA students — even if the team had had a speedboat to hand, their payload was surely lost for good.

A message from Denmark

However, this is not the end of our story! A couple of months later, I arrived at work and saw this tweet from a colleague:

Raspberry Pi on Twitter

Anyone lost a Raspberry Pi HAB? Someone found this one on a beach in south western Denmark yesterday #UKHAS https://t.co/7lBzFiemgr

Good Samaritan Henning Hansen had found a Raspberry Pi washed up on a remote beach in Denmark! While walking a stretch of coast to collect plastic debris for an environmental monitoring project, he came across something unusual near the shore at 55°04’53.0″N and 8°38’46.9″E.

This of course piqued my interest, and we began to investigate the image he had shared on Facebook.

Portslade Aldridge Community Academy Skycademy Raspberry Pi High Altitude Ballooning

Inspecting the photo closely, we noticed a small asset label — the kind of label that, over a year earlier, we’d stuck to each and every bit of Skycademy field kit. We excitedly claimed the kit on behalf of Dave and his students, and contacted Henning to arrange the recovery of the payload. He told us it must have been carried ashore with the tide some time between 21 and 27 September, and probably on 21 September, since that day had the highest tide over the period. This meant the payload must have spent over two months at sea!

From the photo we could tell that the Raspberry Pi had suffered significant corrosion, having been exposed to salt water for so long, and so we felt pessimistic about the chances that there would be any recoverable data on it. However, Henning said that he’d been able to read some files from the FAT partition of the SD card, so all hope was not lost.

After a few weeks and a number of complications around dispatch and delivery (thank you, Henning, for your infinite patience!), Helen collected the HAB from a local Post Office.

Portslade Aldridge Community Academy Skycademy Raspberry Pi High Altitude Ballooning

SUCCESS!

We set about trying to read the data from the SD card, and eventually became disheartened: despite several attempts, we were unable to read its contents.

In a last-ditch effort, we gave the SD card to Jonathan, one of our engineers, who initially laughed at the prospect of recovering any data from it. But ten minutes later, he returned with news of success!

Portslade Aldridge Community Academy Skycademy Raspberry Pi
Portslade Aldridge Community Academy Skycademy Raspberry Pi
Portslade Aldridge Community Academy Skycademy Raspberry Pi
Portslade Aldridge Community Academy Skycademy Raspberry Pi

Since then, we’ve been able to reunite the payload with the PACA launch team, and the students sent us the perfect message to end this story:

Portslade Aldridge Community Academy Skycademy Raspberry Pi High Altitude Ballooning

The post Raspberry Crusoe: how a Pi got lost at sea appeared first on Raspberry Pi.

"Skyfall attack" was attention seeking

Post Syndicated from Robert Graham original http://blog.erratasec.com/2018/01/skyfall-attack-was-attention-seeking.html

After the Meltdown/Spectre attacks, somebody created a website promising related “Skyfall/Solace” attacks. They revealed today that it was a “hoax”.

It was a bad hoax. It wasn’t a clever troll, parody, or commentary. It was childish behavior seeking attention.
For all you hate naming of security vulnerabilities, Meltdown/Spectre was important enough to deserve a name. Sure, from an infosec perspective, it was minor, we just patch and move on. But from an operating-system and CPU design perspective, these things where huge.
Page table isolation to fix Meltdown is a fundamental redesign of the operating system. What you learned in college about how Solaris, Windows, Linux, and BSD were designed is now out-of-date. It’s on the same scale of change as address space randomization.
The same is true of Spectre. It changes what capabilities are given to JavaScript (buffers and high resolution timers). It dramatically increases the paranoia we have of running untrusted code from the Internet. We’ve been cleansing JavaScript of things like buffer-overflows and type confusion errors, now we have to cleanse it of branch prediction issues.

Moreover, not only do we need to change software, we need to change the CPU. No, we won’t get rid of branch-prediction and out-of-order execution, but there things that can easily be done to mitigate these attacks. We won’t be recalling the billions of CPUs already shipped, and it will take a year before fixed CPUs appear on the market, but it’s still an important change. That we fix security through such a massive hardware change is by itself worthy of “names”.

Yes, the “naming” of vulnerabilities is annoying. A bunch of vulns named by their creators have disappeared, and we’ve stopped talking about them. On the other hand, we still talk about Heartbleed and Shellshock, because they were damn important. A decade from now, we’ll still be talking about Meltdown/Spectre. Even if they hadn’t been named by their creators, we still would’ve come up with nicknames to talk about them, because CVE numbers are so inconvenient.
Thus, the hoax’s mocking of the naming is invalid. It was largely incoherent rambling from somebody who really doesn’t understand the importance of these vulns, who uses the hoax to promote themselves.

Game night 2: Detention, Viatoree, Paletta

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2018/01/16/game-night-2-detention-viatoree-paletta/

Game night continues with:

  • Detention
  • Viatoree
  • Paletta

These are impressions, not reviews. I try to avoid major/ending spoilers, but big plot points do tend to leave impressions.

Detention

longish · inventory horror · jan 2017 · lin/mac/win · $12 on steam · website

Inventory horror” is a hell of a genre.

I think this one came from a Twitter thread where glip asked for indie horror recommendations. It’s apparently well-known enough to have a Wikipedia article, but I hadn’t heard of it before.

I love love love the aesthetic here. It’s obviously 2Dish from a side view (though there’s plenty of parallax in a lot of places), and it’s all done with… papercraft? I think of it as papercraft. Everything is built out of painted chunks that look like they were cut out of paper. It’s most obvious when watching the protagonist move around; her legs and skirt swivel as she walks.

Less obvious are the occasional places where tiny details repeat in the background because a paper cutout was reused. I don’t bring that up as a dig on the art; on the contrary, I really liked noticing that once or twice. It made the world feel like it was made with a tileset (albeit with very large chunky tiles), like it’s slightly artificial. I’m used to seeing sidescrollers made from tiles, of course, but the tiles are usually colorful and cartoony pixel art; big gritty full-color tiles are unusual and eerie.

And that’s a good thing in a horror game! Detention’s setting is already slightly unreal, and it’s made all the moreso by my Western perspective: it takes place in a Taiwanese school in the 60’s, a time when Taiwan was apparently under martial law. The Steam page tells you this, but I didn’t even know that much when we started playing, so I’d effectively been dropped somewhere on the globe and left to collect the details myself. Even figuring out we were in Taiwan (rather than mainland China) felt like an insight.

Thinking back, it was kind of a breath of fresh air. Games can be pretty heavy-handed about explaining the setting, but I never got that feeling from Detention. There’s more than enough context to get what’s going on, but there are no “stop and look at the camera while monologuing some exposition” moments. The developers are based in Taiwan, so it’s possible the setting is plenty familiar to them, and my perception of it is a complete accident. Either way, it certainly made an impact. Death of the author and whatnot, I suppose.

One thing in particular that stood out: none of the Chinese text in the environment is directly translated. The protagonist’s thoughts still give away what it says — “this is the nurse’s office” and the like — but that struck me as pretty different from simply repeating the text in English as though I were reading a sign in an RPG. The text is there, perfectly legible, but I can’t read it; I can only ask the protagonist to read it and offer her thoughts. It drives home that I’m experiencing the world through the eyes of the protagonist, who is their own person with their own impression of everything. Again, this is largely an emergent property of the game’s being designed in a culture that is not mine, but I’m left wondering how much thought went into this style of localization.

The game itself sees you wandering through a dark and twisted version of the protagonist’s school, collecting items and solving puzzles with them. There’s no direct combat, though some places feature a couple varieties of spirits called lingered which you have to carefully avoid. As the game progresses, the world starts to break down, alternating between increasingly abstract and increasingly concrete as we find out who the protagonist is and why she’s here.

The payoff is very personal and left a lasting impression… though as I look at the Wikipedia page now, it looks like the ending we got was the non-canon bad ending?! Well, hell. The bad ending is still great, then.

The whole game has a huge Silent Hill vibe, only without the combat and fog. Frankly, the genre might work better without combat; personal demons are more intimidating and meaningful when you can’t literally shoot them with a gun until they’re dead.

FINAL SCORE: 拾

Viatoree

short · platformer · sep 2013 · win · free on itch

I found this because @itchio tweeted about it, and the phrase “atmospheric platform exploration game” is the second most beautiful sequence of words in the English language.

The first paragraph on the itch.io page tells you the setup. That paragraph also contains more text than the entire game. In short: there are five things, and you need to find them. You can walk, jump, and extend your arms straight up to lift yourself to the ceiling. That’s it. No enemies, no shooting, no NPCs (more or less).

The result is, indeed, an atmospheric platform exploration game. The foreground is entirely 1-bit pixel art, save for the occasional white pixel to indicate someone’s eyes, and the background is only a few shades of the same purple hue. The game becomes less about playing and more about just looking at the environmental detail, appreciating how much texture the game manages to squeeze out of chunky colorless pixels. The world is still alive, too, much moreso than most platformers; tiny critters appear here and there, doing some wandering of their own, completely oblivious to you.

The game is really short, but it… just… makes me happy. I’m happy that this can exist, that not only is it okay for someone to make a very compact and short game, but that the result can still resonate with me. Not everything needs to be a sprawling epic or ask me to dedicate hours of time. It takes a few tiny ideas, runs with them, does what it came to do, and ends there. I love games like this.

That sounds silly to write out, but it’s been hard to get into my head! I do like experimenting, but I also feel compelled to reach for the grandiose, and grandiose experiment sounds more like mad science than creative exploration. For whatever reason, Viatoree convinced me that it’s okay to do a small thing, in a way that no other jam game has. It was probably the catalyst that led me to make Roguelike Simulator, and I thank it for that.

Unfortunately, we collected four of the five macguffins before hitting upon on a puzzle we couldn’t make heads or tails of. After about ten minutes of fruitless searching, I decided to abandon this one unfinished, rather than bore my couch partner to tears. Maybe I’ll go take another stab at it after I post this.

FINAL SCORE: ●●●●○

Paletta

medium · puzzle story · nov 2017 · win · free on itch

Paletta, another RPG Maker work, won second place in the month-long Indie Game Maker Contest 2017. Nice! Apparently MOOP came in fourth in the same jam; also nice! I guess that’s why both of them ended up on the itch front page.

The game is set in a world drained of color, and you have to go restore it. Each land contains one lost color, and each color gives you a corresponding spell, which is generally used for some light puzzle-solving in further lands. It’s a very cute and light-hearted game, and it actually does an impressive job of obscuring its RPG Maker roots.

The world feels a little small to me, despite having fairly spacious maps. The progression is pretty linear: you enter one land, talk to a small handful of NPCs, solve the one puzzle, get the color, and move on. I think all the areas were continuously connected, too, which may have thrown me off a bit — these areas are described as though they were vast regions, but they’re all a hundred feet wide and nestled right next to each other.

I love playing with color as a concept, and I wish the game had run further with it somehow. Rescuing a color does add some color back to the world, but at times it seemed like the color that reappeared was somewhat arbitrary? It’s not like you rescue green and now all the green is back. Thinking back on it now, I wonder if each rescued color actually changed a fixed set of sprites from gray to colorized? But it’s been a month (oops) and now I’m not sure.

I’m not trying to pick on the authors for the brevity of their jam game and also first game they’ve ever finished. I enjoyed playing it and found it plenty charming! It just happens that this time, what left the biggest impression on me was a nebulous feeling that something was missing. I think that’s still plenty important to ponder.

FINAL SCORE: ❤️💛💚💙💜

Gladys Project: a Raspberry Pi home assistant

Post Syndicated from Alex Bate original https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/gladys-project-home-assistant/

If, like me, you’re a pretty poor time-keeper with the uncanny ability to never get up when your alarm goes off and yet still somehow make it to work just in time — a little dishevelled, brushing your teeth in the office bathroom — then you too need Gladys.

Raspberry Pi home assistant

Over the last year, we’ve seen off-the-shelf home assistants make their way onto the Raspberry Pi. With the likes of Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Siri, it’s becoming ever easier to tell the air around you to “Turn off the bathroom light” or “Resume my audiobook”, and it happens without you lifting a finger. It’s quite wonderful. And alongside these big names are several home-brew variants, such as Jarvis and Jasper, which were developed to run on a Pi in order to perform home automation tasks.

So do we need another such service? Sure! And here’s why…

A Romantic Mode with your Home Assistant Gladys !

A simple romantic mode in Gladys ! See https://gladysproject.com for more informations about the project 🙂 Devices used : – A 5$ Xiaomi Switch Button – A Raspberry Pi 3 with Gladys on it – Connected lights ( Works with Philips Hue, Milight lamp, etc..

Gladys Project

According to the Gladys creators’ website, Gladys Project is ‘an open-source program which runs on your Raspberry Pi. It communicates with all your devices and checks your calendar to help you in your everyday life’.

Gladys does the basic day-to-day life maintenance tasks that I need handled in order to exist without my mum there to remind me to wake up in time for work. And, as you can see from the video above, it also plays some mean George Michael.

A screenshot of a mobile phone showing the Gladys app - Gladys Project home assistant

Gladys can help run your day from start to finish, taking into consideration road conditions and travel time to ensure you’re never late, regardless of external influences. It takes you 30 minutes to get ready and another 30 minutes to drive to work for 9.00? OK, but today there’s a queue on the motorway, and now your drive time is looking to be closer to an hour. Thankfully, Gladys has woken you up a half hour earlier, so you’re still on time. Isn’t that nice of her? And while you’re showering and mourning those precious stolen minutes of sleep, she’s opening the blinds and brewing coffee for you. Thanks, mum!

A screenshot of the Gladys hub on the Raspberry Pi - Gladys Project home assistant

Set the parameters of your home(s) using the dedicated hub.

Detecting your return home at the end of the day, Gladys runs your pre-set evening routine. Then, once you place your phone on an NFC tag to indicate bedtime, she turns off the lights and, if your nighttime preferences dictate it, starts the whale music playlist, sending you into a deep, stressless slumber.

A screenshot of Etcher showing the install process of the Gladys image - Gladys Project home assistant

Gladys comes as a pre-built Raspbian image, ready to be cloned to an SD card.

Gladys is free to download from the Gladys Project website and is compatible with smart devices such as Philips Hue lightbulbs, WeMo Insight Switches, and the ever tricky to control without the official app Sonos speakers!

Automate and chill

Which tasks and devices in your home do you control with a home assistant? Do you love sensor-controlled lighting which helps you save on electricity? How about working your way through an audiobook as you do your housework, requesting a pause every time you turn on the vacuum cleaner?

Share your experiences with us in the comments below, and if you’ve built a home assistant for Raspberry Pi, or use an existing setup to run your household, share that too.

And, as ever, if you want to keep up to date with Raspberry Pi projects from across the globe, be sure to follow us on social media, sign up to our weekly newsletter, the Raspberry Pi Weekly, and check out The MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi community, available in stores or as a free PDF download.

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The Poplawski’s Holiday Frights

Post Syndicated from Alex Bate original https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/poplawskis-holiday-frights/

After becoming internet-famous for their interactive Christmas lights, the Poplawskis have expanded their festive offerings this year with Holiday Frights, a fiendish collection of spooky decor controlled by a Raspberry Pi.

Poplawski's Holiday Frights Raspberry Pi Halloween

The Poplawskis’ holiday lights

Full of lights and inflatable decorations sprawling across the front lawn, the annual pi-powered Poplawski Christmas setup is something we await eagerly here at Pi Towers. What better way to celebrate the start of the holiday season than by inflating reindeer and flashing fairy lights on another continent?

Poplawski's Holiday Lights Raspberry Pi

image c/o Chris Poplawski

So this year, when an email appeared in our inbox to announce the Holiday Frights Halloween edition, we were over the moon!

Take control

It’s about 5am in Easton, Pennsylvania, but I’m 99% sure the residents of the Poplawski’s Holiday Frights home were fully aware of me endlessly toggling their Halloween decorations  — on, off, on, off — in the process of creating the GIF above.

The decorations of the Poplawski’s Holiday Frights are controlled by a Raspberry Pi which, in turn, takes input from a website. And while we’ve seen many Pi projects with online interfaces controlling real-life devices, we can’t help but have a soft spot for this particular one because of its pretty, flashy lights.

Poplawski's Holiday Frights website Raspberry Pi Halloween

To try out the decorations yourself, go to the Poplawski’s Holiday Frights website. Also make sure to bookmark the site, or follow the Facebook page, for updates on their Christmas edition.

When you’re on the site, you will also see how many other people are currently online. If you’re not alone, the battle over which lights are turned on or off can commence! In case you’re feeling extra generous, you can donate 10¢ to fix the decorations in a state of your choosing for 60 seconds, while also helping the Poplawskis power their lights.

Getting spooky

Have you built something Pi-powered and spooky for Halloween? Make sure to share it with us across our social media accounts or in the comments below.

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Dialekt-o-maten vending machine

Post Syndicated from Janina Ander original https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/dialekt-o-maten-vending-machine/

At some point, many of you will have become exasperated with your AI personal assistant for not understanding you due to your accent – or worse, your fantastic regional dialect! A vending machine from Coca-Cola Sweden turns this issue inside out: the Dialekt-o-maten rewards users with a free soft drink for speaking in a Swedish regional dialect.

The world’s first vending machine where you pay with a dialect!

Thirsty fans along with journalists were invited to try Dialekt-o-maten at Stureplan in central Stockholm. Depending on how well they could pronounce the different phrases in assorted Swedish dialects – they were rewarded an ice cold Coke with that destination on the label.

The Dialekt-o-maten

The machine, which uses a Raspberry Pi, was set up in Stureplan Square in Stockholm. A person presses one of six buttons to choose the regional dialect they want to try out. They then hit ‘record’, and speak into the microphone. The recording is compared to a library of dialect samples, and, if it matches closely enough, voila! — the Dialekt-o-maten dispenses a soft drink for free.

Dialekt-o-maten on the highstreet in Stockholm

Code for the Dialekt-o-maten

The team of developers used the dejavu Python library, as well as custom-written code which responded to new recordings. Carl-Anders Svedberg, one of the developers, said:

Testing the voices and fine-tuning the right level of difficulty for the users was quite tricky. And we really should have had more voice samples. Filtering out noise from the surroundings, like cars and music, was also a small hurdle.

While they wrote the initial software on macOS, the team transferred it to a Raspberry Pi so they could install the hardware inside the Dialekt-o-maten.

Regional dialects

Even though Sweden has only ten million inhabitants, there are more than 100 Swedish dialects. In some areas of Sweden, the local language even still resembles Old Norse. The Dialekt-o-maten recorded how well people spoke the six dialects it used. Apparently, the hardest one to imitate is spoken in Vadstena, and the easiest is spoken in Smögen.

Dialekt-o-maten on Stockholm highstreet

Speech recognition with the Pi

Because of its audio input capabilities, the Raspberry Pi is very useful for building devices that use speech recognition software. One of our favourite projects in this vein is of course Allen Pan’s Real-Life Wizard Duel. We also think this pronunciation training machine by Japanese makers HomeMadeGarbage is really neat. Ideas from these projects and the Dialekt-o-maten could potentially be combined to make a fully fledged language-learning tool!

How about you? Have you used a Raspberry Pi to help you become multilingual? If so, do share your project with us in the comments or via social media.

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Introducing Our Content Director: Roderick

Post Syndicated from Yev original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/introducing-content-director-roderick/

As Backblaze continues to grow, and as we go down the path of sharing our stories, we found ourselves in need of someone that could wrangle our content calendar, write blog posts, and come up with interesting ideas that we could share with our readers and fans. We put out the call, and found Roderick! As you’ll read below he has an incredibly interesting history, and we’re thrilled to have his perspective join our marketing team! Lets learn a bit more about Roderick, shall we?

What is your Backblaze Title?
Content Director

Where are you originally from?
I was born in Southern California, but have lived a lot of different places, including Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Texas, New Mexico, Austria, and Italy.

What attracted you to Backblaze?
I met Gleb a number of years ago at the Failcon Conference in San Francisco. I spoke with him and was impressed with him and his description of the company. We connected on LinkedIn after the conference and I ultimately saw his post for this position about a month ago.

What do you expect to learn while being at Backblaze?
I hope to learn about Backblaze’s customers and dive deep into the latest in cloud storage and other technologies. I also hope to get to know my fellow employees.

Where else have you worked?
I’ve worked for Microsoft, Adobe, Autodesk, and a few startups. I’ve also consulted to Apple, HP, Stanford, the White House, and startups in the U.S. and abroad. I mentored at incubators in Silicon Valley, including IndieBio and Founders Space. I used to own vineyards and a food education and event center in the Napa Valley with my former wife, and worked in a number of restaurants, hotels, and wineries. Recently, I taught part-time at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in the Napa Valley. I’ve been a partner in a restaurant and currently am a partner in a mozzarella di bufala company in Marin county where we have about 50 water buffalo that are amazing animals. They are named after famous rock and roll vocalists. Our most active studs now are Sting and Van Morrison. I think singing “a fantabulous night to make romance ‘neath the cover of October skies” works for Van.

Where did you go to school?
I studied at Reed College, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis, and the Università per Stranieri di Perugia in Italy. I put myself through college so was in and out of school a number of times to make money. Some of the jobs I held to earn money for college were cook, waiter, dishwasher, bartender, courier, teacher, bookstore clerk, head of hotel maintenance, bookkeeper, lifeguard, journalist, and commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska.

What’s your dream job?
I think my dream would be having a job that would continually allow me to learn new things and meet new challenges. I love to learn, travel, and be surprised by things I don’t know.

I love animals and sometimes think I should have become a veterinarian.

Favorite place you’ve traveled?
I lived and studied in Italy, and would have to say the Umbria region of Italy is perhaps my favorite place. I also worked in my father’s home country of Austria, which is incredibly beautiful.

Favorite hobby?
I love foreign languages, and have studied Italian, French, German, and a few others. I am a big fan of literature and theatre and read widely and have attended theatre productions all over the world. That was my motivation to learn other languages—so I could enjoy literature and theatre in the languages they were written in. I started scuba diving when I was very young because I wanted to be Jacques-Yves Cousteau and explore the oceans. I also sail, motorcycle, ski, bicycle, hike, play music, and hope to finish my pilot’s license someday.

Coke or Pepsi?
Red Burgundy

Favorite food?
Both my parents are chefs, so I was exposed to a lot of great food growing up. I would have to give more than one answer to that question: fresh baked bread and bouillabaisse. Oh, and white truffles.

Not sure we’ll be able to stock our cupboards with Red Burgundy, but we’ll see what our office admin can do! Welcome to the team!

The post Introducing Our Content Director: Roderick appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

Some memorable levels

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2017/07/01/some-memorable-levels/

Another Patreon request from Nova Dasterin:

Maybe something about level design. In relation to a vertical shmup since I’m working on one of those.

I’ve been thinking about level design a lot lately, seeing as how I’ve started… designing levels. Shmups are probably the genre I’m the worst at, but perhaps some general principles will apply universally.

And speaking of general principles, that’s something I’ve been thinking about too.

I’ve been struggling to create a more expansive tileset for a platformer, due to two general problems: figuring out what I want to show, and figuring out how to show it with a limited size and palette. I’ve been browsing through a lot of pixel art from games I remember fondly in the hopes of finding some inspiration, but so far all I’ve done is very nearly copy a dirt tile someone submitted to my potluck project.

Recently I realized that I might have been going about looking for inspiration all wrong. I’ve been sifting through stuff in the hopes of finding something that would create some flash of enlightenment, but so far that aimless tourism has only found me a thing or two to copy.

I don’t want to copy a small chunk of the final product; I want to understand the underlying ideas that led the artist to create what they did in the first place. Or, no, that’s not quite right either. I don’t want someone else’s ideas; I want to identify what I like, figure out why I like it, and turn that into some kinda of general design idea. Find the underlying themes that appeal to me and figure out some principles that I could apply. You know, examine stuff critically.

I haven’t had time to take a deeper look at pixel art this way, so I’ll try it right now with level design. Here, then, are some levels from various games that stand out to me for whatever reason; the feelings they evoke when I think about them; and my best effort at unearthing some design principles from those feelings.

Doom II: MAP10, Refueling Base

Opening view of Refueling Base, showing a descent down some stairs into a room not yet visible

screenshots mine — map via doom wiki — see also textured perspective map (warning: large!) via ian albertpistol start playthrough

I’m surprising myself by picking Refueling Base. I would’ve expected myself to pick MAP08, Tricks and Traps, for its collection of uniquely bizarre puzzles and mechanisms. Or MAP13, Downtown, the map that had me convinced (erroneously) that Doom levels supported multi-story structures. Or at least MAP08, The Pit, which stands out for the unique way it feels like a plunge into enemy territory.

(Curiously, those other three maps are all Sandy Petersen’s sole work. Refueling Base was started by Tom Hall in the original Doom days, then finished by Sandy for Doom II.)

But Refueling Base is the level I have the most visceral reaction to: it terrifies me.

See, I got into Doom II through my dad, who played it on and off sometimes. My dad wasn’t an expert gamer or anything, but as a ten-year-old, I assumed he was. I watched him play Refueling Base one night. He died. Again, and again, over and over. I don’t even have very strong memories of his particular attempts, but watching my parent be swiftly and repeatedly defeated — at a time when I still somewhat revered parents — left enough of an impression that hearing the level music still makes my skin crawl.

This may seem strange to bring up as a first example in a post about level design, but I don’t think it would have impressed on me quite so much if the level weren’t designed the way it is. (It’s just a video game, of course, and since then I’ve successfully beaten it from a pistol start myself. But wow, little kid fears sure do linger.)

Map of Refueling Base, showing multiple large rooms and numerous connections between them

The one thing that most defines the map has to be its interconnected layout. Almost every major area (of which there are at least half a dozen) has at least three exits. Not only are you rarely faced with a dead end, but you’ll almost always have a choice of where to go next, and that choice will lead into more choices.

This hugely informs the early combat. Many areas near the beginning are simply adjacent with no doors between them, so it’s easy for monsters to start swarming in from all directions. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by an endless horde; no matter where you run, they just seem to keep coming. (In fact, Refueling Base has the most monsters of any map in the game by far: 279. The runner up is the preceding map at 238.) Compounding this effect is the relatively scant ammo and health in the early parts of the map; getting very far from a pistol start is an uphill battle.

The connections between rooms also yield numerous possible routes through the map, as well as several possible ways to approach any given room. Some of the connections are secrets, which usually connect the “backs” of two rooms. Clearing out one room thus rewards you with a sneaky way into another room that puts you behind all the monsters.

Outdoor area shown from the back; a large number of monsters are lying in wait

In fact, the map rewards you for exploring it in general.

Well, okay. It might be more accurate to say that that map punishes you for not exploring it. From a pistol start, the map is surprisingly difficult — the early areas offer rather little health and ammo, and your best chance of success is a very specific route that collects weapons as quickly as possible. Many of the most precious items are squirrelled away in (numerous!) secrets, and you’ll have an especially tough time if you don’t find any of them — though they tend to be telegraphed.

One particularly nasty surprise is in the area shown above, which has three small exits at the back. Entering or leaving via any of those exits will open one of the capsule-shaped pillars, revealing even more monsters. A couple of those are pain elementals, monsters which attack by spawning another monster and shooting it at you — not something you want to be facing with the starting pistol.

But nothing about the level indicates this, so you have to make the association the hard way, probably after making several mad dashes looking for cover. My successful attempt avoided this whole area entirely until I’d found some more impressive firepower. It’s fascinating to me, because it’s a fairly unique effect that doesn’t make any kind of realistic sense, yet it’s still built out of familiar level mechanics: walk through an area and something opens up. Almost like 2D sidescroller design logic applied to a 3D space. I really like it, and wish I saw more of it. So maybe that’s a more interesting design idea: don’t be afraid to do something weird only once, as long as it’s built out of familiar pieces so the player has a chance to make sense of it.

A similarly oddball effect is hidden in a “barracks” area, visible on the far right of the map. A secret door leads to a short U-shaped hallway to a marble skull door, which is themed nothing like the rest of the room. Opening it seems to lead back into the room you were just in, but walking through the doorway teleports you to a back entrance to the boss fight at the end of the level.

It sounds so bizarre, but the telegraphing makes it seem very natural; if anything, the “oh, I get it!” moment overrides the weirdness. It stops being something random and becomes something consciously designed. I believe that this might have been built by someone, even if there’s no sensible reason to have built it.

In fact, that single weird teleporter is exactly the kind of thing I’d like to be better at building. It could’ve been just a plain teleporter pad, but instead it’s a strange thing that adds a lot of texture to the level and makes it much more memorable. I don’t know how to even begin to have ideas like that. Maybe it’s as simple as looking at mundane parts of a level and wondering: what could I do with this instead?

I think a big problem I have is limiting myself to the expected and sensible, to the point that I don’t even consider more outlandish ideas. I can’t shake that habit simply by bolding some text in a blog post, but maybe it would help to keep this in mind: you can probably get away with anything, as long as you justify it somehow. Even “justify” here is too strong a word; it takes only the slightest nod to make an arbitrary behavior feel like part of a world. Why does picking up a tiny glowing knight helmet give you 1% armor in Doom? Does anyone care? Have you even thought about it before? It’s green and looks like armor; the bigger armor pickup is also green; yep, checks out.

A dark and dingy concrete room full of monsters; a couple are standing under light fixtures

On the other hand, the map as a whole ends up feeling very disorienting. There’s no shortage of landmarks, but every space is distinct in both texture and shape, so everything feels like a landmark. No one part of the map feels particularly central; there are a few candidates, but they neighbor other equally grand areas with just as many exits. It’s hard to get truly lost, but it’s also hard to feel like you have a solid grasp of where everything is. The space itself doesn’t make much sense, even though small chunks of it do. Of course, given that the Hellish parts of Doom were all just very weird overall, this is pretty fitting.

This sort of design fascinates me, because the way it feels to play is so different from the way it looks as a mapper with God Vision. Looking at the overhead map, I can identify all the familiar places easily enough, but I don’t know how to feel the way the map feels to play; it just looks like some rooms with doors between them. Yet I can see screenshots and have a sense of how “deep” in the level they are, how difficult they are to reach, whether I want to visit or avoid them. The lesson here might be that most of the interesting flavor of the map isn’t actually contained within the overhead view; it’s in the use of height and texture and interaction.

Dark room with numerous alcoves in the walls, all of them containing a hitscan monster

I realize as I describe all of this that I’m really just describing different kinds of contrast. If I know one thing about creative work (and I do, I only know one thing), it’s that effectively managing contrast is super duper important.

And it appears here in spades! A brightly-lit, outdoor, wide-open round room is only a short jog away from a dark, cramped room full of right angles and alcoves. A wide straight hallway near the beginning is directly across from a short, curvy, organic hallway. Most of the monsters in the map are small fry, but a couple stronger critters are sprinkled here and there, and then the exit is guarded by the toughest monster in the game. Some of the connections between rooms are simple doors; others are bizarre secret corridors or unnatural twisty passages.

You could even argue that the map has too much contrast, that it starts to lose cohesion. But if anything, I think this is one of the more cohesive maps in the first third of the game; many of the earlier maps aren’t so much places as they are concepts. This one feels distinctly like it could be something. The theming is all over the place, but enough of the parts seem deliberate.

I hadn’t even thought about it until I sat down to write this post, but since this is a “refueling base”, I suppose those outdoor capsules (which contain green slime, inset into the floor) could be the fuel tanks! I already referred to that dark techy area as “barracks”. Elsewhere is a rather large barren room, which might be where the vehicles in need of refueling are parked? Or is this just my imagination, and none of it was intended this way?

It doesn’t really matter either way, because even in this abstract world of ambiguity and vague hints, all of those rooms still feel like a place. I don’t have to know what the place is for it to look internally consistent.

I’m hesitant to say every game should have the loose design sense of Doom II, but it might be worth keeping in mind that anything can be a believable world as long as it looks consciously designed. And I’d say this applies even for natural spaces — we frequently treat real-world nature as though it were “designed”, just with a different aesthetic sense.

Okay, okay. I’m sure I could clumsily ramble about Doom forever, but I do that enough as it is. Other people have plenty to say if you’re interested.

I do want to stick in one final comment about MAP13, Downtown, while I’m talking about theming. I’ve seen a few people rag on it for being “just a box” with a lot of ideas sprinkled around — the map is basically a grid of skyscrapers, where each building has a different little mini encounter inside. And I think that’s really cool, because those encounters are arranged in a way that very strongly reinforces the theme of the level, of what this place is supposed to be. It doesn’t play quite like anything else in the game, simply because it was designed around a shape for flavor reasons. Weird physical constraints can do interesting things to level design.

Braid: World 4-7, Fickle Companion

Simple-looking platformer level with a few ladders, a switch, and a locked door

screenshots via StrategyWikiplaythroughplaythrough of secret area

I love Braid. If you’re not familiar (!), it’s a platformer where you have the ability to rewind time — whenever you want, for as long as you want, all the way back to when you entered the level.

The game starts in world 2, where you do fairly standard platforming and use the rewind ability to do some finnicky jumps with minimal frustration. It gets more interesting in world 3 with the addition of glowing green objects, which aren’t affected by the reversal of time.

And then there’s world 4, “Time and Place”. I love world 4, so much. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any other game, and it’s so simple yet so clever.

The premise is this: for everything except you, time moves forwards as you move right, and backwards as you move left.

This has some weird implications, which all come together in the final level of the world, Fickle Companion. It’s so named because you have to use one (single-use) key to open three doors, but that key is very easy to lose.

Say you pick up the key and walk to the right with it. Time continues forwards for the key, so it stays with you as expected. Now you climb a ladder. Time is frozen since you aren’t moving horizontally, but the key stays with you anyway. Now you walk to the left. Oops — the key follows its own path backwards in time, going down the ladder and back along the path you carried it in the first place. You can’t fix this by walking to the right again, because that will simply advance time normally for the key; since you’re no longer holding it, it will simply fall to the ground and stay there.

You can see how this might be a problem in the screenshot above (where you get the key earlier in the level, to the left). You can climb the first ladder, but to get to the door, you have to walk left to get to the second ladder, which will reverse the key back down to the ground.

The solution is in the cannon in the upper right, which spits out a Goomba-like critter. It has the timeproof green glow, so the critters it spits out have the same green glow — making them immune to both your time reversal power and to the effect your movement has on time. What you have to do is get one of the critters to pick up the key and carry it leftwards for you. Once you have the puzzle piece, you have to rewind time and do it again elsewhere. (Or, more likely, the other way around; this next section acts as a decent hint for how to do the earlier section.)

A puzzle piece trapped behind two doors, in a level containing only one key

It’s hard to convey how bizarre this is in just text. If you haven’t played Braid, it’s absolutely worth it just for this one world, this one level.

And it gets even better, slash more ridiculous: there’s a super duper secret hidden very cleverly in this level. Reaching it involves bouncing twice off of critters; solving the puzzle hidden there involves bouncing the critters off of you. It’s ludicrous and perhaps a bit too tricky, but very clever. Best of all, it’s something that an enterprising player might just think to do on a whim — hey, this is possible here, I wonder what happens if I try it. And the game rewards the player for trying something creative! (Ironically, it’s most rewarding to have a clever idea when it turns out the designer already had the same idea.)

What can I take away from this? Hm.

Well, the underlying idea of linking time with position is pretty novel, but getting to it may not be all that hard: just combine different concepts and see what happens.

A similar principle is to apply a general concept to everything and see what happens. This is the first sighting of a timeproof wandering critter; previously timeproofing had only been seen on keys, doors, puzzle pieces, and stationary monsters. Later it even applies to Tim himself in special circumstances.

The use of timeproofing on puzzle pieces is especially interesting, because the puzzle pieces — despite being collectibles that animate moving into the UI when you get them — are also affected by time. If the pieces in this level weren’t timeproof, then as soon as you collected one and moved left to leave its alcove, time would move backwards and the puzzle piece would reverse out of the UI and right back into the world.

Along similar lines, the music and animated background are also subject to the flow of time. It’s obvious enough that the music plays backwards when you rewind time, but in world 4, the music only plays at all while you’re moving. It’s a fantastic effect that makes the whole world feel as weird and jerky as it really is under these rules. It drives the concept home instantly, and it makes your weird influence over time feel all the more significant and far-reaching. I love when games weave all the elements of the game into the gameplaylike this, even (especially?) for the sake of a single oddball level.

Admittedly, this is all about gameplay or puzzle mechanics, not so much level design. What I like about the level itself is how simple and straightforward it is: it contains exactly as much as it needs to, yet still invites trying the wrong thing first, which immediately teaches the player why it won’t work. And it’s something that feels like it ought to work, except that the rules of the game get in the way just enough. This makes for my favorite kind of puzzle, the type where you feel like you’ve tried everything and it must be impossible — until you realize the creative combination of things you haven’t tried yet. I’m talking about puzzles again, oops; I guess the general level design equivalent of this is that players tend to try the first thing they see first, so if you put required parts later, players will be more likely to see optional parts.

I think that’s all I’ve got for this one puzzle room. I do want to say (again) that I love both endings of Braid. The normal ending weaves together the game mechanics and (admittedly loose) plot in a way that gave me chills when I first saw it; the secret ending completely changes both how the ending plays and how you might interpret the finale, all by making only the slightest changes to the level.

Portal: Testchamber 18 (advanced)

View into a Portal test chamber; the ceiling and most of the walls are covered in metal

screenshot mine — playthrough of normal mapplaythrough of advanced map

I love Portal. I blazed through the game in a couple hours the night it came out. I’d seen the trailer and instantly grasped the concept, so the very slow and gentle learning curve was actually a bit frustrating for me; I just wanted to portal around a big playground, and I finally got to do that in the six “serious” tests towards the end, 13 through 18.

Valve threw an interesting curveball with these six maps. As well as being more complete puzzles by themselves, Valve added “challenges” requiring that they be done with as few portals, time, or steps as possible. I only bothered with the portal challenges — time and steps seemed less about puzzle-solving and more about twitchy reflexes — and within them I found buried an extra layer of puzzles. All of the minimum portal requirements were only possible if you found an alternative solution to the map: skipping part of it, making do with only one cube instead of two, etc. But Valve offered no hints, only a target number. It was a clever way to make me think harder about familiar areas.

Alongside the challenges were “advanced” maps, and these blew me away. They were six maps identical in layout to the last six test chambers, but with a simple added twist that completely changed how you had to approach them. Test 13 has two buttons with two boxes to place on them; the advanced version removes a box and also changes the floor to lava. Test 14 is a live fire course with turrets you have to knock over; the advanced version puts them all in impenetrable cages. Test 17 is based around making extensive use of a single cube; the advanced version changes it to a ball.

But the one that sticks out the most to me is test 18, a potpourri of everything you’ve learned so far. The beginning part has you cross several large pits of toxic sludge by portaling from the ceilings; the advanced version simply changes the ceilings to unportalable metal. It seems you’re completely stuck after only the first jump, unless you happen to catch a glimpse of the portalable floor you pass over in mid-flight. Or you might remember from the regular version of the map that the floor was portalable there, since you used it to progress further. Either way, you have to fire a portal in midair in a way you’ve never had to do before, and the result feels very cool, like you’ve defeated a puzzle that was intended to be unsolvable. All in a level that was fairly easy the first time around, and has been modified only slightly.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I could say it’s good to make the player feel clever, but that feels wishy-washy. What I really appreciated about the advanced tests is that they exploited inklings of ideas I’d started to have when playing through the regular game; they encouraged me to take the spark of inspiration this game mechanic gave me and run with it.

So I suppose the better underlying principle here — the most important principle in level design, in any creative work — is to latch onto what gets you fired up and run with it. I am absolutely certain that the level designers for this game loved the portal concept as much as I do, they explored it thoroughly, and they felt compelled to fit their wilder puzzle ideas in somehow.

More of that. Find the stuff that feels like it’s going to burst out of your head, and let it burst.

Chip’s Challenge: Level 122, Totally Fair and Level 131, Totally Unfair

A small maze containing a couple monsters and ending at a brown button

screenshots mine — full maps of both levelsplaythrough of Totally Fairplaythrough of Totally Unfair

I mention this because Portal reminded me of it. The regular and advanced maps in Portal are reminiscent of parallel worlds or duality or whatever you want to call the theme. I extremely dig that theme, and it shows up in Chip’s Challenge in an unexpected way.

Totally Fair is a wide open level with a little maze walled off in one corner. The maze contains a monster called a “teeth”, which follows Chip at a slightly slower speed. (The second teeth, here shown facing upwards, starts outside the maze but followed me into it when I took this screenshot.)

The goal is to lure the teeth into standing on the brown button on the right side. If anything moves into a “trap” tile (the larger brown recesses at the bottom), it cannot move out of that tile until/unless something steps on the corresponding brown button. So there’s not much room for error in maneuvering the teeth; if it falls in the water up top, it’ll die, and if it touches the traps at the bottom, it’ll be stuck permanently.

The reason you need the brown button pressed is to acquire the chips on the far right edge of the level.

Several chips that cannot be obtained without stepping on a trap

The gray recesses turn into walls after being stepped on, so once you grab a chip, the only way out is through the force floors and ice that will send you onto the trap. If you haven’t maneuvered the teeth onto the button beforehand, you’ll be trapped there.

Doesn’t seem like a huge deal, since you can go see exactly how the maze is shaped and move the teeth into position fairly easily. But you see, here is the beginning of Totally Fair.

A wall with a single recessed gray space in it

The gray recess leads up into the maze area, so you can only enter it once. A force floor in the upper right lets you exit it.

Totally Unfair is exactly identical, except the second teeth has been removed, and the entrance to the maze looks like this.

The same wall is now completely solid, and the recess has been replaced with a hint

You can’t get into the maze area. You can’t even see the maze; it’s too far away from the wall. You have to position the teeth completely blind. In fact, if you take a single step to the left from here, you’ll have already dumped the teeth into the water and rendered the level impossible.

The hint tile will tell you to “Remember sjum”, where SJUM is the password to get back to Totally Fair. So you have to learn that level well enough to recreate the same effect without being able to see your progress.

It’s not impossible, and it’s not a “make a map” faux puzzle. A few scattered wall blocks near the chips, outside the maze area, are arranged exactly where the edges of the maze are. Once you notice that, all you have to do is walk up and down a few times, waiting a moment each time to make sure the teeth has caught up with you.

So in a sense, Totally Unfair is the advanced chamber version of Totally Fair. It makes a very minor change that force you to approach the whole level completely differently, using knowledge gleaned from your first attempt.

And crucially, it’s an actual puzzle! A lot of later Chip’s Challenge levels rely heavily on map-drawing, timing, tedium, or outright luck. (Consider, if you will, Blobdance.) The Totally Fair + Totally Unfair pairing requires a little ingenuity unlike anything else in the game, and the solution is something more than just combinations of existing game mechanics. There’s something very interesting about that hint in the walls, a hint you’d have no reason to pick up on when playing through the first level. I wish I knew how to verbalize it better.

Anyway, enough puzzle games; let’s get back to regular ol’ level design.

A 4×4 arrangement of rooms with a conspicuous void in the middle

maps via vgmaps and TCRFplaythrough with commentary

Link’s Awakening was my first Zelda (and only Zelda for a long time), which made for a slightly confusing introduction to the series — what on earth is a Zelda and why doesn’t it appear in the game?

The whole game is a blur of curiosities and interesting little special cases. It’s fabulously well put together, especially for a Game Boy game, and the dungeons in particular are fascinating microcosms of design. I never really appreciated it before, but looking at the full maps, I’m struck by how each dungeon has several large areas neatly sliced into individual screens.

Much like with Doom II, I surprise myself by picking Eagle’s Tower as the most notable part of the game. The dungeon isn’t that interesting within the overall context of the game; it gives you only the mirror shield, possibly the least interesting item in the game, second only to the power bracelet upgrade from the previous dungeon. The dungeon itself is fairly long, full of traps, and overflowing with crystal switches and toggle blocks, making it possibly the most frustrating of the set. Getting to it involves spending some excellent quality time with a flying rooster, but you don’t really do anything — mostly you just make your way through nondescript caves and mountaintops.

Having now thoroughly dunked on it, I’ll tell you what makes it stand out: the player changes the shape of the dungeon.

That’s something I like a lot about Doom, as well, but it’s much more dramatic in Eagle’s Tower. As you might expect, the dungeon is shaped like a tower, where each floor is on a 4×4 grid. The top floor, 4F, is a small 2×2 block of rooms in the middle — but one of those rooms is the boss door, and there’s no way to get to that floor.

(Well, sort of. The “down” stairs in the upper-right of 3F actually lead up to 4F, but the connection is bogus and puts you in a wall, and both of the upper middle rooms are unreachable during normal gameplay.)

The primary objective of the dungeon is to smash four support columns on 2F by throwing a huge iron ball at them, which causes 4F to crash down into the middle of 3F.

The same arrangement of rooms, but the four in the middle have changed

Even the map on the pause screen updates to reflect this. In every meaningful sense, you, the player, have fundamentally reconfigured the shape of this dungeon.

I love this. It feels like I have some impact on the world, that I came along and did something much more significant than mere game mechanics ought to allow. I saw that the tower was unsolvable as designed, so I fixed it.

It’s clear that the game engine supports rearranging screens arbitrarily — consider the Wind Fish’s Egg — but this is s wonderfully clever and subtle use of that. Let the player feel like they have an impact on the world.

The cutting room floor

This is getting excessively long so I’m gonna cut it here. Some other things I thought of but don’t know how to say more than a paragraph about:

  • Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins has a lot of levels with completely unique themes, backed by very simple tilesets but enhanced by interesting one-off obstacles and enemies. I don’t even know how to pick a most interesting one. Maybe just play the game, or at least peruse the maps.

  • This post about density of detail in Team Fortress 2 is really good so just read that I guess. It’s really about careful balance of contrast again, but through the lens of using contrasting amounts of detail to draw the player’s attention, while still carrying a simple theme through less detailed areas.

  • Metroid Prime is pretty interesting in a lot of ways, but I mostly laugh at how they spaced rooms out with long twisty hallways to improve load times — yet I never really thought about it because they all feel like they belong in the game.

One thing I really appreciate is level design that hints at a story, that shows me a world that exists persistently, that convinces me this space exists for some reason other than as a gauntlet for me as a player. But it seems what comes first to my mind is level design that’s clever or quirky, which probably says a lot about me. Maybe the original Fallouts are a good place to look for that sort of detail.

Conversely, it sticks out like a sore thumb when a game tries to railroad me into experiencing the game As The Designer Intended. Games are interactive, so the more input the player can give, the better — and this can be as simple as deciding to avoid rather than confront enemies, or deciding to run rather than walk.

I think that’s all I’ve got in me at the moment. Clearly I need to meditate on this a lot more, but I hope some of this was inspiring in some way!

iLock-in: Apple locks Free Software out, but where’s the news?

Post Syndicated from Lennart Poettering original http://0pointer.net/blog/projects/apple-sucks.html

So,
Apple now blocks third-party software from accessing iPods.
But is behaviour like that
news? No, unfortunately not at all.

Let’s have a look on two technologies that are closely related to the iPod
and Apple-style media playback: DAAP (Digital
Audio Access Protocol)
and RAOP
(Remote Audio Output Protocol).
RAOP is the protocol that is spoken when
you want to output audio from iTunes over the network on your AirPort base
station. DAAP is the popular protocol which you can use to swap music
between multiple iTunes instances on a LAN. Both technologies use cryptographic hashes to block interoperable alternative implementations.

Now, the RAOP client crypto key has been extracted from iTunes, hence its
now possible to implement alternative software that takes the role of iTunes
and streams audio to an AirPort. However, noone managed to extract the RAOP
server key yet, hence noone is able to implement software that exposes itself
as AirPort-compatible audio sink on the network, so that iTunes could stream
data to it.

With DAAP it’s a similar situation: iTunes uses cryptographic hashes to make
sure that only real iTunes instances can swap audio with each other. This key
has been broken multiple times, hence there are now a couple of alternative
DAAP implementations, which can swap audio with iTunes (Rhythmbox being one
example). However, with iTunes 7 Apple changed the cryptographic key once
again, and until now nobody managed to break it.

So basically, Apple now dongles AirPorts to iTunes, iTunes to iTunes and
iTunes to iPods. The whole Apple eco-system of media devices and software is dongled
together. And none of the current iterations of the underlying technologies
have been fully broken yet.

While the audio files you can buy at the iTunes shop may now be DRM-free,
you’re still locked into the Apple eco-system if you do that. They replaced DRM with
vendor lock-in.

This lock-in behaviour is childish at best. DAAP once was the de-facto
standard for swapping media files in LANs. Swapping files in LANs is
perfectly legitimate and legal. Then, Microsoft/Intel started to include a
similar technology in UPnP, the UPnP
MediaServer
. An open technology that has now been included in endless media
server devices. Several Free Software implementations exist (most notably gUPnP). These days, uPNP MediaServer is
ubiquitous, DAAP is no more. Apple had the much better starting position, but
they blew it, because of their childish locking-out of alternative
implementations.

I believe that DAAP is the superior protocol in comparison to UPnP
MediaServer. (Not really surprising, since I wrote most of Avahi, which is a free implementation of
mDNS/DNS-SD (“Zeroconf”), the (open) Apple technology that is the basis for
DAAP.) However, due to the closedness of DAAP I would recommend everyone to
favour UPnP MediaServer over DAAP. It’s a pity.

Both DAAP and UPnP MediaServer are transfer protocols, nothing that is ever
directly exposed to the user. Right now, Free Software media players support DAAP much better than UPnP MediaServer. Hopefully, they will start to
abstract the differences away, and allow swapping music the same way over DAAP
and over uPnP. And hopefully, DAAP will eventually die or Apple will open
it. They have shown that they are able to change for the good, they became much
more open with WebKit, and they changed the license of Bonjour to a real Free
Software license. Let’s hope they will eventually notice that locking users in
makes their own technology irrelevant in the long term.

Oh, and let’s hope that Jon finds the time to break all remaining Apple crypto keys! Jon, DAAP 7.0, and the RAOP server key is waiting for you! I’d love to make PulseAudio RAOP-compatible, both as client and as server.

Update: Ars Technica has an update on this.