Tag Archives: mario

SUPER game night 3: GAMES MADE QUICK??? 2.0

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2018/01/23/super-game-night-3-games-made-quick-2-0/

Game night continues with a smorgasbord of games from my recent game jam, GAMES MADE QUICK??? 2.0!

The idea was to make a game in only a week while watching AGDQ, as an alternative to doing absolutely nothing for a week while watching AGDQ. (I didn’t submit a game myself; I was chugging along on my Anise game, which isn’t finished yet.)

I can’t very well run a game jam and not play any of the games, so here’s some of them in no particular order! Enjoy!

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

Weather Quest, by timlmul

short · rpg · jan 2017 · (lin)/mac/win · free on itch · jam entry

Weather Quest is its author’s first shipped game, written completely from scratch (the only vendored code is a micro OO base). It’s very short, but as someone who has also written LÖVE games completely from scratch, I can attest that producing something this game-like in a week is a fucking miracle. Bravo!

For reference, a week into my first foray, I think I was probably still writing my own Tiled importer like an idiot.

Only Mac and Windows builds are on itch, but it’s a LÖVE game, so Linux folks can just grab a zip from GitHub and throw that at love.


Pancake Numbers Simulator, by AnorakThePrimordial

short · sim · jan 2017 · lin/mac/win · free on itch · jam entry

Given a stack of N pancakes (of all different sizes and in no particular order), the Nth pancake number is the most flips you could possibly need to sort the pancakes in order with the smallest on top. A “flip” is sticking a spatula under one of the pancakes and flipping the whole sub-stack over. There’s, ah, a video embedded on the game page with some visuals.

Anyway, this game lets you simulate sorting a stack via pancake flipping, which is surprisingly satisfying! I enjoy cleaning up little simulated messes, such as… incorrectly-sorted pancakes, I guess?

This probably doesn’t work too well as a simulator for solving the general problem — you’d have to find an optimal solution for every permutation of N pancakes to be sure you were right. But it’s a nice interactive illustration of the problem, and if you know the pancake number for your stack size of choice (which I wish the game told you — for seven pancakes, it’s 8), then trying to restore a stack in that many moves makes for a nice quick puzzle.

FINAL SCORE: \(\frac{18}{11}\)

Framed Animals, by chridd

short · metroidvania · jan 2017 · web/win · free on itch · jam entry

The concept here was to kill the frames, save the animals, which is a delightfully literal riff on a long-running AGDQ/SGDQ donation incentive — people vote with their dollars to decide whether Super Metroid speedrunners go out of their way to free the critters who show you how to walljump and shinespark. Super Metroid didn’t have a showing at this year’s AGDQ, and so we have this game instead.

It’s rough, but clever, and I got really into it pretty quickly — each animal you save gives you a new ability (in true Metroid style), and you get to test that ability out by playing as the animal, with only that ability and no others, to get yourself back to the most recent save point.

I did, tragically, manage to get myself stuck near what I think was about to be the end of the game, so some of the animals will remain framed forever. What an unsatisfying conclusion.

Gravity feels a little high given the size of the screen, and like most tile-less platformers, there’s not really any way to gauge how high or long your jump is before you leap. But I’m only even nitpicking because I think this is a great idea and I hope the author really does keep working on it.

FINAL SCORE: $136,596.69

Battle 4 Glory, by Storyteller Games

short · fighter · jan 2017 · win · free on itch · jam entry

This is a Smash Bros-style brawler, complete with the four players, the 2D play area in a 3D world, and the random stage obstacles showing up. I do like the Smash style, despite not otherwise being a fan of fighting games, so it’s nice to see another game chase that aesthetic.

Alas, that’s about as far as it got — which is pretty far for a week of work! I don’t know what more to say, though. The environments are neat, but unless I’m missing something, the only actions at your disposal are jumping and very weak melee attacks. I did have a good few minutes of fun fruitlessly mashing myself against the bumbling bots, as you can see.


Icnaluferu Guild, Year Sixteen, by CHz

short · adventure · jan 2017 · web · free on itch · jam entry

Here we have the first of several games made with bitsy, a micro game making tool that basically only supports walking around, talking to people, and picking up items.

I tell you this because I think half of my appreciation for this game is in the ways it wriggled against those limits to emulate a Zelda-like dungeon crawler. Everything in here is totally fake, and you can’t really understand just how fake unless you’ve tried to make something complicated with bitsy.

It’s pretty good. The dialogue is entertaining (the rest of your party develops distinct personalities solely through oneliners, somehow), the riffs on standard dungeon fare are charming, and the Link’s Awakening-esque perspective walls around the edges of each room are fucking glorious.


The Lonely Tapes, by JTHomeslice

short · rpg · jan 2017 · web · free on itch · jam entry

Another bitsy entry, this one sees you play as a Wal— sorry, a JogDawg, which has lost its cassette tapes and needs to go recover them!

(A cassette tape is like a VHS, but for music.)

(A VHS is—)

I have the sneaking suspicion that I missed out on some musical in-jokes, due to being uncultured swine. I still enjoyed the game — it’s always clear when someone is passionate about the thing they’re writing about, and I could tell I was awash in that aura even if some of it went over my head. You know you’ve done good if someone from way outside your sphere shows up and still has a good time.

FINAL SCORE: Nine… Inch Nails? They’re a band, right? God I don’t know write your own damn joke

Pirate Kitty-Quest, by TheKoolestKid

short · adventure · jan 2017 · win · free on itch · jam entry

I completely forgot I’d even given “my birthday” and “my cat” as mostly-joking jam themes until I stumbled upon this incredible gem. I don’t think — let me just check here and — yeah no this person doesn’t even follow me on Twitter. I have no idea who they are?




This game wins the jam, hands down. 🏆

FINAL SCORE: Yarr, eight pieces o’ eight

CHIPS Mario, by NovaSquirrel

short · platformer · jan 2017 · (lin/mac)/win · free on itch · jam entry

You see this? This is fucking witchcraft.

This game is made with MegaZeux. MegaZeux games look like THIS. Text-mode, bound to a grid, with two colors per cell. That’s all you get.

Until now, apparently?? The game is a tech demo of “unbound” sprites, which can be drawn on top of the character grid without being aligned to it. And apparently have looser color restrictions.

The collision is a little glitchy, which isn’t surprising for a MegaZeux platformer; I had some fun interactions with platforms a couple times. But hey, goddamn, it’s free-moving Mario, in MegaZeux, what the hell.

(I’m looking at the most recently added games on DigitalMZX now, and I notice that not only is this game in the first slot, but NovaSquirrel’s MegaZeux entry for Strawberry Jam last February is still in the seventh slot. RIP, MegaZeux. I’m surprised a major feature like this was even added if the community has largely evaporated?)

FINAL SCORE: n/a, disqualified for being probably summoned from the depths of Hell

d!¢< pic, by 573 Games

short · story · jan 2017 · web · free on itch · jam entry

This is a short story about not sending dick pics. It’s very short, so I can’t say much without spoiling it, but: you are generally prompted to either text something reasonable, or send a dick pic. You should not send a dick pic.

It’s a fascinating artifact, not because of the work itself, but because it’s so terse that I genuinely can’t tell what the author was even going for. And this is the kind of subject where the author was, surely, going for something. Right? But was it genuinely intended to be educational, or was it tongue-in-cheek about how some dudes still don’t get it? Or is it side-eying the player who clicks the obviously wrong option just for kicks, which is the same reason people do it for real? Or is it commentary on how “send a dick pic” is a literal option for every response in a real conversation, too, and it’s not that hard to just not do it — unless you are one of the kinds of people who just feels a compulsion to try everything, anything, just because you can? Or is it just a quick Twine and I am way too deep in this? God, just play the thing, it’s shorter than this paragraph.

I’m also left wondering when it is appropriate to send a dick pic. Presumably there is a correct time? Hopefully the author will enter Strawberry Jam 2 to expound upon this.


Marble maze, by Shtille

short · arcade · jan 2017 · win · free on itch · jam entry

Ah, hm. So this is a maze navigated by rolling a marble around. You use WASD to move the marble, and you can also turn the camera with the arrow keys.

The trouble is… the marble’s movement is always relative to the world, not the camera. That means if you turn the camera 30° and then try to move the marble, it’ll move at a 30° angle from your point of view.

That makes navigating a maze, er, difficult.

Camera-relative movement is the kind of thing I take so much for granted that I wouldn’t even think to do otherwise, and I think it’s valuable to look at surprising choices that violate fundamental conventions, so I’m trying to take this as a nudge out of my comfort zone. What could you design in an interesting way that used world-relative movement? Probably not the player, but maybe something else in the world, as long as you had strong landmarks? Hmm.


Refactor: flight, by fluffy

short · arcade · jan 2017 · lin/mac/win · free on itch · jam entry

Refactor is a game album, which is rather a lot what it sounds like, and Flight is one of the tracks. Which makes this a single, I suppose.

It’s one of those games where you move down an oddly-shaped tunnel trying not to hit the walls, but with some cute twists. Coins and gems hop up from the bottom of the screen in time with the music, and collecting them gives you points. Hitting a wall costs you some points and kills your momentum, but I don’t think outright losing is possible, which is great for me!

Also, the monk cycles through several animal faces. I don’t know why, and it’s very good. One of those odd but memorable details that sits squarely on the intersection of abstract, mysterious, and a bit weird, and refuses to budge from that spot.

The music is great too? Really chill all around.


The Adventures of Klyde

short · adventure · jan 2017 · web · free on itch · jam entry

Another bitsy game, this one starring a pig (humorously symbolized by a giant pig nose with ears) who must collect fruit and solve some puzzles.

This is charmingly nostalgic for me — it reminds me of some standard fare in engines like MegaZeux, where the obvious things to do when presented with tiles and pickups were to make mazes. I don’t mean that in a bad way; the maze is the fundamental environmental obstacle.

A couple places in here felt like invisible teleport mazes I had to brute-force, but I might have been missing a hint somewhere. I did make it through with only a little trouble, but alas — I stepped in a bad warp somewhere and got sent to the upper left corner of the starting screen, which is surrounded by walls. So Klyde’s new life is being trapped eternally in a nowhere space.

FINAL SCORE: 19/20 apples

And more

That was only a third of the games, and I don’t think even half of the ones I’ve played. I’ll have to do a second post covering the rest of them? Maybe a third?

Or maybe this is a ludicrous format for commenting on several dozen games and I should try to narrow it down to the ones that resonated the most for Strawberry Jam 2? Maybe??

Coaxing 2D platforming out of Unity

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2017/10/13/coaxing-2d-platforming-out-of-unity/

An anonymous donor asked a question that I can’t even begin to figure out how to answer, but they also said anything else is fine, so here’s anything else.

I’ve been avoiding writing about game physics, since I want to save it for ✨ the book I’m writing ✨, but that book will almost certainly not touch on Unity. Here, then, is a brief run through some of the brick walls I ran into while trying to convince Unity to do 2D platforming.

This is fairly high-level — there are no blocks of code or helpful diagrams. I’m just getting this out of my head because it’s interesting. If you want more gritty details, I guess you’ll have to wait for ✨ the book ✨.

The setup

I hadn’t used Unity before. I hadn’t even used a “real” physics engine before. My games so far have mostly used LÖVE, a Lua-based engine. LÖVE includes box2d bindings, but for various reasons (not all of them good), I opted to avoid them and instead write my own physics completely from scratch. (How, you ask? ✨ Book ✨!)

I was invited to work on a Unity project, Chaos Composer, that someone else had already started. It had basic movement already implemented; I taught myself Unity’s physics system by hacking on it. It’s entirely possible that none of this is actually the best way to do anything, since I was really trying to reproduce my own homegrown stuff in Unity, but it’s the best I’ve managed to come up with.

Two recurring snags were that you can’t ask Unity to do multiple physics updates in a row, and sometimes getting the information I wanted was difficult. Working with my own code spoiled me a little, since I could invoke it at any time and ask it anything I wanted; Unity, on the other hand, is someone else’s black box with a rigid interface on top.

Also, wow, Googling for a lot of this was not quite as helpful as expected. A lot of what’s out there is just the first thing that works, and often that’s pretty hacky and imposes severe limits on the game design (e.g., “this won’t work with slopes”). Basic movement and collision are the first thing you do, which seems to me like the worst time to be locking yourself out of a lot of design options. I tried very (very, very, very) hard to minimize those kinds of constraints.

Problem 1: Movement

When I showed up, movement was already working. Problem solved!

Like any good programmer, I immediately set out to un-solve it. Given a “real” physics engine like Unity prominently features, you have two options: ⓐ treat the player as a physics object, or ⓑ don’t. The existing code went with option ⓑ, like I’d done myself with LÖVE, and like I’d seen countless people advise. Using a physics sim makes for bad platforming.

But… why? I believed it, but I couldn’t concretely defend it. I had to know for myself. So I started a blank project, drew some physics boxes, and wrote a dozen-line player controller.

Ah! Immediate enlightenment.

If the player was sliding down a wall, and I tried to move them into the wall, they would simply freeze in midair until I let go of the movement key. The trouble is that the physics sim works in terms of forces — moving the player involves giving them a nudge in some direction, like a giant invisible hand pushing them around the level. Surprise! If you press a real object against a real wall with your real hand, you’ll see the same effect — friction will cancel out gravity, and the object will stay in midair..

Platformer movement, as it turns out, doesn’t make any goddamn physical sense. What is air control? What are you pushing against? Nothing, really; we just have it because it’s nice to play with, because not having it is a nightmare.

I looked to see if there were any common solutions to this, and I only really found one: make all your walls frictionless.

Game development is full of hacks like this, and I… don’t like them. I can accept that minor hacks are necessary sometimes, but this one makes an early and widespread change to a fundamental system to “fix” something that was wrong in the first place. It also imposes an “invisible” requirement, something I try to avoid at all costs — if you forget to make a particular wall frictionless, you’ll never know unless you happen to try sliding down it.

And so, I swiftly returned to the existing code. It wasn’t too different from what I’d come up with for LÖVE: it applied gravity by hand, tracked the player’s velocity, computed the intended movement each frame, and moved by that amount. The interesting thing was that it used MovePosition, which schedules a movement for the next physics update and stops the movement if the player hits something solid.

It’s kind of a nice hybrid approach, actually; all the “physics” for conscious actors is done by hand, but the physics engine is still used for collision detection. It’s also used for collision rejection — if the player manages to wedge themselves several pixels into a solid object, for example, the physics engine will try to gently nudge them back out of it with no extra effort required on my part. I still haven’t figured out how to get that to work with my homegrown stuff, which is built to prevent overlap rather than to jiggle things out of it.

But wait, what about…

Our player is a dynamic body with rotation lock and no gravity. Why not just use a kinematic body?

I must be missing something, because I do not understand the point of kinematic bodies. I ran into this with Godot, too, which documented them the same way: as intended for use as players and other manually-moved objects. But by default, they don’t even collide with other kinematic bodies or static geometry. What? There’s a checkbox to turn this on, which I enabled, but then I found out that MovePosition doesn’t stop kinematic bodies when they hit something, so I would’ve had to cast along the intended path of movement to figure out when to stop, thus duplicating the same work the physics engine was about to do.

But that’s impossible anyway! Static geometry generally wants to be made of edge colliders, right? They don’t care about concave/convex. Imagine the player is standing on the ground near a wall and tries to move towards the wall. Both the ground and the wall are different edges from the same edge collider.

If you try to cast the player’s hitbox horizontally, parallel to the ground, you’ll only get one collision: the existing collision with the ground. Casting doesn’t distinguish between touching and hitting. And because Unity only reports one collision per collider, and because the ground will always show up first, you will never find out about the impending wall collision.

So you’re forced to either use raycasts for collision detection or decomposed polygons for world geometry, both of which are slightly worse tools for no real gain.

I ended up sticking with a dynamic body.

Oh, one other thing that doesn’t really fit anywhere else: keep track of units! If you’re adding something called “velocity” directly to something called “position”, something has gone very wrong. Acceleration is distance per time squared; velocity is distance per time; position is distance. You must multiply or divide by time to convert between them.

I never even, say, add a constant directly to position every frame; I always phrase it as velocity and multiply by Δt. It keeps the units consistent: time is always in seconds, not in tics.

Problem 2: Slopes

Ah, now we start to get off in the weeds.

A sort of pre-problem here was detecting whether we’re on a slope, which means detecting the ground. The codebase originally used a manual physics query of the area around the player’s feet to check for the ground, which seems to be somewhat common, but that can’t tell me the angle of the detected ground. (It’s also kind of error-prone, since “around the player’s feet” has to be specified by hand and may not stay correct through animations or changes in the hitbox.)

I replaced that with what I’d eventually settled on in LÖVE: detect the ground by detecting collisions, and looking at the normal of the collision. A normal is a vector that points straight out from a surface, so if you’re standing on the ground, the normal points straight up; if you’re on a 10° incline, the normal points 10° away from straight up.

Not all collisions are with the ground, of course, so I assumed something is ground if the normal pointed away from gravity. (I like this definition more than “points upwards”, because it avoids assuming anything about the direction of gravity, which leaves some interesting doors open for later on.) That’s easily detected by taking the dot product — if it’s negative, the collision was with the ground, and I now have the normal of the ground.

Actually doing this in practice was slightly tricky. With my LÖVE engine, I could cram this right into the middle of collision resolution. With Unity, not quite so much. I went through a couple iterations before I really grasped Unity’s execution order, which I guess I will have to briefly recap for this to make sense.

Unity essentially has two update cycles. It performs physics updates at fixed intervals for consistency, and updates everything else just before rendering. Within a single frame, Unity does as many fixed physics updates as it has spare time for (which might be zero, one, or more), then does a regular update, then renders. User code can implement either or both of Update, which runs during a regular update, and FixedUpdate, which runs just before Unity does a physics pass.

So my solution was:

  • At the very end of FixedUpdate, clear the actor’s “on ground” flag and ground normal.

  • During OnCollisionEnter2D and OnCollisionStay2D (which are called from within a physics pass), if there’s a collision that looks like it’s with the ground, set the “on ground” flag and ground normal. (If there are multiple ground collisions, well, good luck figuring out the best way to resolve that! At the moment I’m just taking the first and hoping for the best.)

That means there’s a brief window between the end of FixedUpdate and Unity’s physics pass during which a grounded actor might mistakenly believe it’s not on the ground, which is a bit of a shame, but there are very few good reasons for anything to be happening in that window.

Okay! Now we can do slopes.

Just kidding! First we have to do sliding.

When I first looked at this code, it didn’t apply gravity while the player was on the ground. I think I may have had some problems with detecting the ground as result, since the player was no longer pushing down against it? Either way, it seemed like a silly special case, so I made gravity always apply.

Lo! I was a fool. The player could no longer move.

Why? Because MovePosition does exactly what it promises. If the player collides with something, they’ll stop moving. Applying gravity means that the player is trying to move diagonally downwards into the ground, and so MovePosition stops them immediately.

Hence, sliding. I don’t want the player to actually try to move into the ground. I want them to move the unblocked part of that movement. For flat ground, that means the horizontal part, which is pretty much the same as discarding gravity. For sloped ground, it’s a bit more complicated!

Okay but actually it’s less complicated than you’d think. It can be done with some cross products fairly easily, but Unity makes it even easier with a couple casts. There’s a Vector3.ProjectOnPlane function that projects an arbitrary vector on a plane given by its normal — exactly the thing I want! So I apply that to the attempted movement before passing it along to MovePosition. I do the same thing with the current velocity, to prevent the player from accelerating infinitely downwards while standing on flat ground.

One other thing: I don’t actually use the detected ground normal for this. The player might be touching two ground surfaces at the same time, and I’d want to project on both of them. Instead, I use the player body’s GetContacts method, which returns contact points (and normals!) for everything the player is currently touching. I believe those contact points are tracked by the physics engine anyway, so asking for them doesn’t require any actual physics work.

(Looking at the code I have, I notice that I still only perform the slide for surfaces facing upwards — but I’d want to slide against sloped ceilings, too. Why did I do this? Maybe I should remove that.)

(Also, I’m pretty sure projecting a vector on a plane is non-commutative, which raises the question of which order the projections should happen in and what difference it makes. I don’t have a good answer.)

(I note that my LÖVE setup does something slightly different: it just tries whatever the movement ought to be, and if there’s a collision, then it projects — and tries again with the remaining movement. But I can’t ask Unity to do multiple moves in one physics update, alas.)

Okay! Now, slopes. But actually, with the above work done, slopes are most of the way there already.

One obvious problem is that the player tries to move horizontally even when on a slope, and the easy fix is to change their movement from speed * Vector2.right to speed * new Vector2(ground.y, -ground.x) while on the ground. That’s the ground normal rotated a quarter-turn clockwise, so for flat ground it still points to the right, and in general it points rightwards along the ground. (Note that it assumes the ground normal is a unit vector, but as far as I’m aware, that’s true for all the normals Unity gives you.)

Another issue is that if the player stands motionless on a slope, gravity will cause them to slowly slide down it — because the movement from gravity will be projected onto the slope, and unlike flat ground, the result is no longer zero. For conscious actors only, I counter this by adding the opposite factor to the player’s velocity as part of adding in their walking speed. This matches how the real world works, to some extent: when you’re standing on a hill, you’re exerting some small amount of effort just to stay in place.

(Note that slope resistance is not the same as friction. Okay, yes, in the real world, virtually all resistance to movement happens as a result of friction, but bracing yourself against the ground isn’t the same as being passively resisted.)

From here there are a lot of things you can do, depending on how you think slopes should be handled. You could make the player unable to walk up slopes that are too steep. You could make walking down a slope faster than walking up it. You could make jumping go along the ground normal, rather than straight up. You could raise the player’s max allowed speed while running downhill. Whatever you want, really. Armed with a normal and awareness of dot products, you can do whatever you want.

But first you might want to fix a few aggravating side effects.

Problem 3: Ground adherence

I don’t know if there’s a better name for this. I rarely even see anyone talk about it, which surprises me; it seems like it should be a very common problem.

The problem is: if the player runs up a slope which then abruptly changes to flat ground, their momentum will carry them into the air. For very fast players going off the top of very steep slopes, this makes sense, but it becomes visible even for relatively gentle slopes. It was a mild nightmare in the original release of our game Lunar Depot 38, which has very “rough” ground made up of lots of shallow slopes — so the player is very frequently slightly off the ground, which meant they couldn’t jump, for seemingly no reason. (I even had code to fix this, but I disabled it because of a silly visual side effect that I never got around to fixing.)

Anyway! The reason this is a problem is that game protagonists are generally not boxes sliding around — they have legs. We don’t go flying off the top of real-world hilltops because we put our foot down until it touches the ground.

Simulating this footfall is surprisingly fiddly to get right, especially with someone else’s physics engine. It’s made somewhat easier by Cast, which casts the entire hitbox — no matter what shape it is — in a particular direction, as if it had moved, and tells you all the hypothetical collisions in order.

So I cast the player in the direction of gravity by some distance. If the cast hits something solid with a ground-like collision normal, then the player must be close to the ground, and I move them down to touch it (and set that ground as the new ground normal).

There are some wrinkles.

Wrinkle 1: I only want to do this if the player is off the ground now, but was on the ground last frame, and is not deliberately moving upwards. That latter condition means I want to skip this logic if the player jumps, for example, but also if the player is thrust upwards by a spring or abducted by a UFO or whatever. As long as external code goes through some interface and doesn’t mess with the player’s velocity directly, that shouldn’t be too hard to track.

Wrinkle 2: When does this logic run? It needs to happen after the player moves, which means after a Unity physics pass… but there’s no callback for that point in time. I ended up running it at the beginning of FixedUpdate and the beginning of Update — since I definitely want to do it before rendering happens! That means it’ll sometimes happen twice between physics updates. (I could carefully juggle a flag to skip the second run, but I… didn’t do that. Yet?)

Wrinkle 3: I can’t move the player with MovePosition! Remember, MovePosition schedules a movement, it doesn’t actually perform one; that means if it’s called twice before the physics pass, the first call is effectively ignored. I can’t easily combine the drop with the player’s regular movement, for various fiddly reasons. I ended up doing it “by hand” using transform.Translate, which I think was the “old way” to do manual movement before MovePosition existed. I’m not totally sure if it activates triggers? For that matter, I’m not sure it even notices collisions — but since I did a full-body Cast, there shouldn’t be any anyway.

Wrinkle 4: What, exactly, is “some distance”? I’ve yet to find a satisfying answer for this. It seems like it ought to be based on the player’s current speed and the slope of the ground they’re moving along, but every time I’ve done that math, I’ve gotten totally ludicrous answers that sometimes exceed the size of a tile. But maybe that’s not wrong? Play around, I guess, and think about when the effect should “break” and the player should go flying off the top of a hill.

Wrinkle 5: It’s possible that the player will launch off a slope, hit something, and then be adhered to the ground where they wouldn’t have hit it. I don’t much like this edge case, but I don’t see a way around it either.

This problem is surprisingly awkward for how simple it sounds, and the solution isn’t entirely satisfying. Oh, well; the results are much nicer than the solution. As an added bonus, this also fixes occasional problems with running down a hill and becoming detached from the ground due to precision issues or whathaveyou.

Problem 4: One-way platforms

Ah, what a nightmare.

It took me ages just to figure out how to define one-way platforms. Only block when the player is moving downwards? Nope. Only block when the player is above the platform? Nuh-uh.

Well, okay, yes, those approaches might work for convex players and flat platforms. But what about… sloped, one-way platforms? There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to have those. If Super Mario World can do it, surely Unity can do it almost 30 years later.

The trick is, again, to look at the collision normal. If it faces away from gravity, the player is hitting a ground-like surface, so the platform should block them. Otherwise (or if the player overlaps the platform), it shouldn’t.

Here’s the catch: Unity doesn’t have conditional collision. I can’t decide, on the fly, whether a collision should block or not. In fact, I think that by the time I get a callback like OnCollisionEnter2D, the physics pass is already over.

I could go the other way and use triggers (which are non-blocking), but then I have the opposite problem: I can’t stop the player on the fly. I could move them back to where they hit the trigger, but I envision all kinds of problems as a result. What if they were moving fast enough to activate something on the other side of the platform? What if something else moved to where I’m trying to shove them back to in the meantime? How does this interact with ground detection and listing contacts, which would rightly ignore a trigger as non-blocking?

I beat my head against this for a while, but the inability to respond to collision conditionally was a huge roadblock. It’s all the more infuriating a problem, because Unity ships with a one-way platform modifier thing. Unfortunately, it seems to have been implemented by someone who has never played a platformer. It’s literally one-way — the player is only allowed to move straight upwards through it, not in from the sides. It also tries to block the player if they’re moving downwards while inside the platform, which invokes clumsy rejection behavior. And this all seems to be built into the physics engine itself somehow, so I can’t simply copy whatever they did.

Eventually, I settled on the following. After calculating attempted movement (including sliding), just at the end of FixedUpdate, I do a Cast along the movement vector. I’m not thrilled about having to duplicate the physics engine’s own work, but I do filter to only things on a “one-way platform” physics layer, which should at least help. For each object the cast hits, I use Physics2D.IgnoreCollision to either ignore or un-ignore the collision between the player and the platform, depending on whether the collision was ground-like or not.

(A lot of people suggested turning off collision between layers, but that can’t possibly work — the player might be standing on one platform while inside another, and anyway, this should work for all actors!)

Again, wrinkles! But fewer this time. Actually, maybe just one: handling the case where the player already overlaps the platform. I can’t just check for that with e.g. OverlapCollider, because that doesn’t distinguish between overlapping and merely touching.

I came up with a fairly simple fix: if I was going to un-ignore the collision (i.e. make the platform block), and the cast distance is reported as zero (either already touching or overlapping), I simply do nothing instead. If I’m standing on the platform, I must have already set it blocking when I was approaching it from the top anyway; if I’m overlapping it, I must have already set it non-blocking to get here in the first place.

I can imagine a few cases where this might go wrong. Moving platforms, especially, are going to cause some interesting issues. But this is the best I can do with what I know, and it seems to work well enough so far.

Oh, and our player can deliberately drop down through platforms, which was easy enough to implement; I just decide the platform is always passable while some button is held down.

Problem 5: Pushers and carriers

I haven’t gotten to this yet! Oh boy, can’t wait. I implemented it in LÖVE, but my way was hilariously invasive; I’m hoping that having a physics engine that supports a handwaved “this pushes that” will help. Of course, you also have to worry about sticking to platforms, for which the recommended solution is apparently to parent the cargo to the platform, which sounds goofy to me? I guess I’ll find out when I throw myself at it later.

Overall result

I ended up with a fairly pleasant-feeling system that supports slopes and one-way platforms and whatnot, with all the same pieces as I came up with for LÖVE. The code somehow ended up as less of a mess, too, but it probably helps that I’ve been down this rabbit hole once before and kinda knew what I was aiming for this time.

Animation of a character running smoothly along the top of an irregular dinosaur skeleton

Sorry that I don’t have a big block of code for you to copy-paste into your project. I don’t think there are nearly enough narrative discussions of these fundamentals, though, so hopefully this is useful to someone. If not, well, look forward to ✨ my book, that I am writing ✨!

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!

Teaching tech

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2017/06/10/teaching-tech/

A sponsored post from Manishearth:

I would kinda like to hear about any thoughts you have on technical teaching or technical writing. Pedagogy is something I care about. But I don’t know how much you do, so feel free to ignore this suggestion 🙂

Good news: I care enough that I’m trying to write a sorta-kinda-teaching book!

Ironically, one of the biggest problems I’ve had with writing the introduction to that book is that I keep accidentally rambling on for pages about problems and difficulties with teaching technical subjects. So maybe this is a good chance to get it out of my system.


I recently tried out a new thing. It was Phaser, but this isn’t a dig on them in particular, just a convenient example fresh in my mind. If anything, they’re better than most.

As you can see from Phaser’s website, it appears to have tons of documentation. Two of the six headings are “LEARN” and “EXAMPLES”, which seems very promising. And indeed, Phaser offers:

  • Several getting-started walkthroughs
  • Possibly hundreds of examples
  • A news feed that regularly links to third-party tutorials
  • Thorough API docs

Perfect. Beautiful. Surely, a dream.

Well, almost.

The examples are all microscopic, usually focused around a single tiny feature — many of them could be explained just as well with one line of code. There are a few example games, but they’re short aimless demos. None of them are complete games, and there’s no showcase either. Games sometimes pop up in the news feed, but most of them don’t include source code, so they’re not useful for learning from.

Likewise, the API docs are just API docs, leading to the sorts of problems you might imagine. For example, in a few places there’s a mention of a preUpdate stage that (naturally) happens before update. You might rightfully wonder what kinds of things happen in preUpdate — and more importantly, what should you put there, and why?

Let’s check the API docs for Phaser.Group.preUpdate:

The core preUpdate – as called by World.

Okay, that didn’t help too much, but let’s check what Phaser.World has to say:

The core preUpdate – as called by World.

Ah. Hm. It turns out World is a subclass of Group and inherits this method — and thus its unaltered docstring — from Group.

I did eventually find some brief docs attached to Phaser.Stage (but only by grepping the source code). It mentions what the framework uses preUpdate for, but not why, and not when I might want to use it too.

The trouble here is that there’s no narrative documentation — nothing explaining how the library is put together and how I’m supposed to use it. I get handed some brief primers and a massive reference, but nothing in between. It’s like buying an O’Reilly book and finding out it only has one chapter followed by a 500-page glossary.

API docs are great if you know specifically what you’re looking for, but they don’t explain the best way to approach higher-level problems, and they don’t offer much guidance on how to mesh nicely with the design of a framework or big library. Phaser does a decent chunk of stuff for you, off in the background somewhere, so it gives the strong impression that it expects you to build around it in a particular way… but it never tells you what that way is.


Ah, but this is what tutorials are for, right?

I confess I recoil whenever I hear the word “tutorial”. It conjures an image of a uniquely useless sort of post, which goes something like this:

  1. Look at this cool thing I made! I’ll teach you how to do it too.

  2. Press all of these buttons in this order. Here’s a screenshot, which looks nothing like what you have, because I’ve customized the hell out of everything.

  3. You did it!

The author is often less than forthcoming about why they made any of the decisions they did, where you might want to try something else, or what might go wrong (and how to fix it).

And this is to be expected! Writing out any of that stuff requires far more extensive knowledge than you need just to do the thing in the first place, and you need to do a good bit of introspection to sort out something coherent to say.

In other words, teaching is hard. It’s a skill, and it takes practice, and most people blogging are not experts at it. Including me!

With Phaser, I noticed that several of the third-party tutorials I tried to look at were 404s — sometimes less than a year after they were linked on the site. Pretty major downside to relying on the community for teaching resources.

But I also notice that… um…

Okay, look. I really am not trying to rag on this author. I’m not. They tried to share their knowledge with the world, and that’s a good thing, something worthy of praise. I’m glad they did it! I hope it helps someone.

But for the sake of example, here is the most recent entry in Phaser’s list of community tutorials. I have to link it, because it’s such a perfect example. Consider:

  • The post itself is a bulleted list of explanation followed by a single contiguous 250 lines of source code. (Not that there’s anything wrong with bulleted lists, mind you.) That code contains zero comments and zero blank lines.

  • This is only part two in what I think is a series aimed at beginners, yet the title and much of the prose focus on object pooling, a performance hack that’s easy to add later and that’s almost certainly unnecessary for a game this simple. There is no explanation of why this is done; the prose only says you’ll understand why it’s critical once you add a lot more game objects.

  • It turns out I only have two things to say here so I don’t know why I made this a bulleted list.

In short, it’s not really a guided explanation; it’s “look what I did”.

And that’s fine, and it can still be interesting. I’m not sure English is even this person’s first language, so I’m hardly going to criticize them for not writing a novel about platforming.

The trouble is that I doubt a beginner would walk away from this feeling very enlightened. They might be closer to having the game they wanted, so there’s still value in it, but it feels closer to having someone else do it for them. And an awful lot of tutorials I’ve seen — particularly of the “post on some blog” form (which I’m aware is the genre of thing I’m writing right now) — look similar.

This isn’t some huge social problem; it’s just people writing on their blog and contributing to the corpus of written knowledge. It does become a bit stickier when a large project relies on these community tutorials as its main set of teaching aids.

Again, I’m not ragging on Phaser here. I had a slightly frustrating experience with it, coming in knowing what I wanted but unable to find a description of the semantics anywhere, but I do sympathize. Teaching is hard, writing documentation is hard, and programmers would usually rather program than do either of those things. For free projects that run on volunteer work, and in an industry where anything other than programming is a little undervalued, getting good docs written can be tricky.

(Then again, Phaser sells books and plugins, so maybe they could hire a documentation writer. Or maybe the whole point is for you to buy the books?)

Some pretty good docs

Python has pretty good documentation. It introduces the language with a tutorial, then documents everything else in both a library and language reference.

This sounds an awful lot like Phaser’s setup, but there’s some considerable depth in the Python docs. The tutorial is highly narrative and walks through quite a few corners of the language, stopping to mention common pitfalls and possible use cases. I clicked an arbitrary heading and found a pleasant, informative read that somehow avoids being bewilderingly dense.

The API docs also take on a narrative tone — even something as humble as the collections module offers numerous examples, use cases, patterns, recipes, and hints of interesting ways you might extend the existing types.

I’m being a little vague and hand-wavey here, but it’s hard to give specific examples without just quoting two pages of Python documentation. Hopefully you can see right away what I mean if you just take a look at them. They’re good docs, Bront.

I’ve likewise always enjoyed the SQLAlchemy documentation, which follows much the same structure as the main Python documentation. SQLAlchemy is a database abstraction layer plus ORM, so it can do a lot of subtly intertwined stuff, and the complexity of the docs reflects this. Figuring out how to do very advanced things correctly, in particular, can be challenging. But for the most part it does a very thorough job of introducing you to a large library with a particular philosophy and how to best work alongside it.

I softly contrast this with, say, the Perl documentation.

It’s gotten better since I first learned Perl, but Perl’s docs are still a bit of a strange beast. They exist as a flat collection of manpage-like documents with terse names like perlootut. The documentation is certainly thorough, but much of it has a strange… allocation of detail.

For example, perllol — the explanation of how to make a list of lists, which somehow merits its own separate documentation — offers no fewer than nine similar variations of the same code for reading a file into a nested lists of words on each line. Where Python offers examples for a variety of different problems, Perl shows you a lot of subtly different ways to do the same basic thing.

A similar problem is that Perl’s docs sometimes offer far too much context; consider the references tutorial, which starts by explaining that references are a powerful “new” feature in Perl 5 (first released in 1994). It then explains why you might want to nest data structures… from a Perl 4 perspective, thus explaining why Perl 5 is so much better.

Some stuff I’ve tried

I don’t claim to be a great teacher. I like to talk about stuff I find interesting, and I try to do it in ways that are accessible to people who aren’t lugging around the mountain of context I already have. This being just some blog, it’s hard to tell how well that works, but I do my best.

I also know that I learn best when I can understand what’s going on, rather than just seeing surface-level cause and effect. Of course, with complex subjects, it’s hard to develop an understanding before you’ve seen the cause and effect a few times, so there’s a balancing act between showing examples and trying to provide an explanation. Too many concrete examples feel like rote memorization; too much abstract theory feels disconnected from anything tangible.

The attempt I’m most pleased with is probably my post on Perlin noise. It covers a fairly specific subject, which made it much easier. It builds up one step at a time from scratch, with visualizations at every point. It offers some interpretations of what’s going on. It clearly explains some possible extensions to the idea, but distinguishes those from the core concept.

It is a little math-heavy, I grant you, but that was hard to avoid with a fundamentally mathematical topic. I had to be economical with the background information, so I let the math be a little dense in places.

But the best part about it by far is that I learned a lot about Perlin noise in the process of writing it. In several places I realized I couldn’t explain what was going on in a satisfying way, so I had to dig deeper into it before I could write about it. Perhaps there’s a good guideline hidden in there: don’t try to teach as much as you know?

I’m also fairly happy with my series on making Doom maps, though they meander into tangents a little more often. It’s hard to talk about something like Doom without meandering, since it’s a convoluted ecosystem that’s grown organically over the course of 24 years and has at least three ways of doing anything.

And finally there’s the book I’m trying to write, which is sort of about game development.

One of my biggest grievances with game development teaching in particular is how often it leaves out important touches. Very few guides will tell you how to make a title screen or menu, how to handle death, how to get a Mario-style variable jump height. They’ll show you how to build a clearly unfinished demo game, then leave you to your own devices.

I realized that the only reliable way to show how to build a game is to build a real game, then write about it. So the book is laid out as a narrative of how I wrote my first few games, complete with stumbling blocks and dead ends and tiny bits of polish.

I have no idea how well this will work, or whether recapping my own mistakes will be interesting or distracting for a beginner, but it ought to be an interesting experiment.

Inmates Secretly Build and Network Computers while in Prison

Post Syndicated from Bruce Schneier original https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2017/05/inmates_secretl.html

This is kind of amazing:

Inmates at a medium-security Ohio prison secretly assembled two functioning computers, hid them in the ceiling, and connected them to the Marion Correctional Institution’s network. The hard drives were loaded with pornography, a Windows proxy server, VPN, VOIP and anti-virus software, the Tor browser, password hacking and e-mail spamming tools, and the open source packet analyzer Wireshark.

Another article.

Clearly there’s a lot about prison security, or the lack thereof, that I don’t know. This article reveals some of it.

Weekly roundup: Inktober 4: A New Hope

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/dev/2016/11/01/weekly-roundup-inktober-4-a-new-hope/

Inktober is over! Oh my god.

  • art: Almost the last of the ink drawings of Pokémon, all of them done in fountain pen now. I filled up the sketchbook I’d been using and switched to a 9”×12” one. Much to my surprise, that made the inks take longer.

    I did some final work on that loophole commission from a few weeks ago.

  • irl: I voted, and am quite cross that election news has continued in spite of this fact.

  • doom: I made a few speedmaps — maps based on random themes and made in an hour (or so). It was a fun and enlightening experience, and I’ll definitely do some more of it.

  • blog: I wrote about game accessibility, which touched on those speedmaps.

  • mario maker: One of the level themes I got was “The Wreckage”, and I didn’t know how to speedmap that in Doom in only an hour, but it sounded like an interesting concept for a Mario level.

I managed to catch up on writing by the end of the month (by cheating slightly), so I’m starting fresh in November. The “three big things” obviously went out the window in favor of Inktober, but I’m okay with that. I’ve got something planned for this next month that should make up for it, anyway.

Weekly roundup: Inktober 4: A New Hope

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/dev/2016/11/01/weekly-roundup-inktober-4-a-new-hope/

Inktober is over! Oh my god.

  • art: Almost the last of the ink drawings of Pokémon, all of them done in fountain pen now. I filled up the sketchbook I’d been using and switched to a 9”×12” one. Much to my surprise, that made the inks take longer.

    I did some final work on that loophole commission from a few weeks ago.

  • irl: I voted, and am quite cross that election news has continued in spite of this fact.

  • doom: I made a few speedmaps — maps based on random themes and made in an hour (or so). It was a fun and enlightening experience, and I’ll definitely do some more of it.

  • blog: I wrote about game accessibility, which touched on those speedmaps.

  • mario maker: One of the level themes I got was “The Wreckage”, and I didn’t know how to speedmap that in Doom in only an hour, but it sounded like an interesting concept for a Mario level.

I managed to catch up on writing by the end of the month (by cheating slightly), so I’m starting fresh in November. The “three big things” obviously went out the window in favor of Inktober, but I’m okay with that. I’ve got something planned for this next month that should make up for it, anyway.

Mario Maker: The Wreck

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/dev/2016/11/01/mario-maker-the-wreck/

Difficulty: very easy
Quality: ★★★★☆

I was rolling a Doom random level theme generator for speedmapping purposes, and one of the prompts it gave was “The Wreckage”. I didn’t really know how to make that in Doom in only an hour, but I did know how to make it in Mario, so I did.

The additional rules were “no monsters” and “no stairs”, so neither of those things appear in this level. It’s quick and entirely atmospheric. I like it. Though it’d be slightly better if I’d correctly named it “The Wreckage”. Oh well.

Accessible games

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2016/10/29/accessible-games/

I’ve now made a few small games. One of the trickiest and most interesting parts of designing them has been making them accessible.

I mean that in a very general and literal sense. I want as many people as possible to experience as much of my games as possible. Finding and clearing out unnecessary hurdles can be hard, but every one I leave risks losing a bunch of players who can’t or won’t clear it.

I’ve noticed three major categories of hurdle, all of them full of tradeoffs. Difficulty is what makes a game challenging, but if a player can’t get past a certain point, they can never see the rest of the game. Depth is great, but not everyone has 80 hours to pour into a game, and it’s tough to spend weeks of dev time on stuff most people won’t see. Distribution is a question of who can even get your game in the first place.

Here are some thoughts.

Mario Maker

Mario Maker is most notable for how accessible it is to budding game designers, which is important but also a completely different sense of accessibility.

The really nice thing about Mario Maker is that its levels are also accessible to players. Virtually everyone who’s heard of video games has heard of Mario. You don’t need to know many rules to be able to play. Move to the right, jump over/on things, and get to the flag.

(The “distribution” model is a bit of a shame, though — you need to own a particular console and a $60 game. If I want people to play a single individual level I made, that’s a lot of upfront investment to ask for. Ultimately Nintendo is in this to sell their own game more than to help people show off their own.)

But the emergent depth of Mario Maker’s myriad objects — the very property that makes the platform more than a toy — also makes it less accessible. Everyone knows you move around and jump, but not everyone knows you can pick up an item with B, or that you can put on a hat you’re carrying by pressing , or that you can spinjump on certain hazards. And these are fairly basic controls — Mario Maker contains plenty of special interactions between more obscure objects, and no manual explaining them all.

I thought it was especially interesting that Nintendo’s own comic series on building Mario Maker levels specifically points out that running jumps don’t come naturally to everyone. It’s hard to imagine too many people playing Mario Maker and not knowing how to jump while running.

And yet.

And yet, imagine being one such person, and encountering a level that requires a running jump early on. You can’t get past it. You might not even understand how to get past it; perhaps you don’t even know Mario can run. Now what? That’s it, you’re stuck. You’ll never see the rest of that level. It’s a hurdle, in a somewhat more literal sense.

Why make the level that way in the first place, then? Does any seasoned Mario player jump over a moderate-width gap and come away feeling proud for having conquered it? Seems unlikely.

I’ve tried playing through 100 Mario Challenge on Expert a number of times (without once managing to complete it), and I’ve noticed three fuzzy categories. Some levels are an arbitrary mess of hazards right from the start, so I don’t expect them to get any easier. Some levels are clearly designed as difficult obstacle courses, so again, I assume they’ll be just as hard all the way through. In both cases, if I give up and skip to the next level, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything — I’m not the intended audience.

But there are some Expert-ranked levels that seem pretty reasonable… until this one point where all hell breaks loose. I always wonder how deliberate those parts are, and I vaguely regret skipping them — would the rest of the level have calmed back down and been enjoyable?

That’s the kind of hurdle I think about when I see conspicuous clusters of death markers in my own levels. How many people died there and gave up? I make levels intending for people to play them, to see them through, but how many players have I turned off with some needlessly tricky part?

One of my levels is a Boo house with a few cute tricks in it. Unfortunately, I also put a ring of Boos right at the beginning that’s tricky to jump through, so it’s very easy for a player to die several times right there and never see anything else.

I wanted my Boo house to be interesting rather than difficult, but I let difficulty creep in accidentally, and so I’ve reduced the number of people who can appreciate the interestingness. Every level I’ve made since then, I’ve struggled to keep the difficulty down, and still sometimes failed. It’s easy to make a level that’s very hard; it’s surprisingly hard to make a level that’s fairly easy. All it takes is a single unintended hurdle — a tricky jump, an awkwardly-placed enemy — to start losing players.

This isn’t to say that games should never be difficult, but difficulty needs to be deliberately calibrated, and that’s a hard thing to do. It’s very easy to think only in terms of “can I beat this”, and even that’s not accurate, since you know every nook and cranny of your own level. Can you beat it blind, on the first few tries? Could someone else?

Those questions are especially important in Mario Maker, where the easiest way to encounter an assortment of levels is to play 100 Mario Challenge. You have 100 lives and need to beat 16 randomly-chosen levels. If you run out of lives, you’re done, and you have to start over. If I encounter your level here, I can’t afford to burn more than six or seven lives on it, or I’ll game over and have wasted my time. So if your level looks ridiculously hard (and not even in a fun way), I’ll just skip it and hope I get a better level next time.

I wonder if designers forget to calibrate for this. When you spend a lot of time working on something, it’s easy to imagine it exists in a vacuum, to assume that other people will be as devoted to playing it as you were to making it.

Mario Maker is an extreme case: millions of levels are available, and any player can skip to another one with the push of a button. That might be why I feel like I’ve seen a huge schism in level difficulty: most Expert levels are impossible for me, whereas most Normal levels are fairly doable with one or two rough patches. I haven’t seen much that’s in the middle, that feels like a solid challenge. I suspect that people who are very good at Mario are looking for an extreme challenge, and everyone else just wants to play some Mario, so moderate-difficulty levels just aren’t as common. The former group will be bored by them, and the latter group will skip them.

Or maybe that’s a stretch. It’s hard to generalize about the game’s pool of levels when they number in the millions, and I can’t have played more than a few hundred.

What Mario Maker has really taught me is what a hurdle looks like. The game keeps track of everywhere a player has ever died. I may not be able to watch people play my levels, but looking back at them later and seeing clumps of death markers is very powerful. Those are the places people failed. Did they stop playing after that? Did I intend for those places to be so difficult?


Doom is an interesting contrast to Mario Maker. A great many Doom maps have been produced over the past two decades, but nowhere near as many levels as Mario Maker has produced in a couple years. On the other hand, many people who still play Doom have been playing Doom this entire time, so a greater chunk of the community is really good at the game and enjoys a serious challenge.

I’ve only released a couple Doom maps of my own: Throughfare (the one I contributed to DUMP 2 earlier this year) and a few one-hour speedmaps I made earlier this week. I like building in Doom, with its interesting balance of restrictions — it’s a fairly accessible way to build an interesting 3D world, and nothing else is quite like it.

I’ve had the privilege of watching a few people play through my maps live, and I have learned some things.

The first is that the community’s love of difficulty is comically misleading. It’s not wrong, but, well, that community isn’t actually my target audience. So far I’ve “published” maps on this blog and Twitter, where my audience hasn’t necessarily even played Doom in twenty years. If at all! Some of my followers are younger than Doom.

Most notably, this creates something of a distribution problem: to play my maps, you need to install a thing (ZDoom) and kinda figure out how to use it and also get a copy of Doom 2 which probably involves spending five bucks. Less of a hurdle than getting Mario Maker, yes, but still some upfront effort.

Also, ZDoom’s default settings are… not optimal. Out of the box, it’s similar to classic Doom: no WASD, no mouselook. I don’t know who this is meant to appeal to. If you’ve never played Doom, the controls are goofy. If you’ve played other shooters, the controls are goofy. If you played Doom when it came out but not since, you probably don’t remember the controls, so they’re still goofy. Oof.

Not having mouselook is more of a problem than you’d think. If you as the designer play with mouselook, it’s really easy to put important things off the top or bottom of the screen and never realize it’ll be a problem. I watched someone play through Throughfare a few days ago and get completely stuck at what seemed to be a dead end — because he needed to drop down a hole in a small platform, and the hole was completely hidden by the status bar.

That’s actually an interesting example for another reason. Here’s the room where he got stuck.

A small room with a raised platform at the end, a metal section in the floor, and a switch on the side wall

When you press the switch, the metal plates on the ground rise up and become stairs, so you can get onto the platform. He did that, saw nowhere obvious to go, and immediately turned around and backtracked quite a ways looking for some other route.

This surprised me! The room makes no sense as a dead end. It’s not an easter egg or interesting feature; it has no obvious reward; it has a button that appears to help you progress. If I were stuck here, I’d investigate the hell out of this room — yet this player gave up almost immediately.

Not to say that the player is wrong and the level is right. This room was supposed to be trivially simple, and I regret that it became a hurdle for someone. It’s just a difference in playstyle I didn’t account for. Besides the mouselook problem, this player tended to move very quickly in general, charging straight ahead in new areas without so much as looking around; I play more slowly, looking around for nooks and crannies. He ended up missing the plasma gun for much the same reason — it was on a ledge slightly below the default view angle, making it hard to see without mouselook.

Speaking of nooks and crannies: watching someone find or miss secrets in a world I built is utterly fascinating. I’ve watched several people play Throughfare now, and the secrets are the part I love watching the most. I’ve seen people charge directly into secrets on accident; I’ve seen people run straight to a very clever secret just because they had the same idea I did; I’ve seen people find a secret switch and then not press it. It’s amazing how different just a handful of players have been.

I think the spread of secrets in Throughfare is pretty good, though I slightly regret using the same trick three times; either you get it right away and try it everywhere, or you don’t get it at all and miss out on a lot of goodies. Of course, the whole point of secrets is that not everyone will find them on the first try (or at all), so it’s probably okay to err on the trickier side.

As for the speedmaps, I’ve only watched one person play them live. The biggest hurdle was a room I made that required jumping.

Jumping wasn’t in the original Doom games. People thus don’t really expect to need to jump in Doom maps. Worse, ZDoom doesn’t even have a key bound to jump out of the box, which I only discovered later.

See, when I made the room (very quickly), I was imagining a ZDoom veteran seeing it and immediately thinking, “oh, this is one of those maps where I need to jump”. I’ve heard people say that about other maps before, so it felt like common knowledge. But it’s only common knowledge if you’re part of the community and have run into a few maps that require jumping.

The situation is made all the more complicated by the way ZDoom handles it. Maps can use a ZDoom-specific settings file to explicitly allow or forbid jumping, but the default is to allow it. The stock maps and most third-party vanilla maps won’t have this ZDoom-specific file, so jumping will be allowed, even though they’re not designed for it. Most mappers only use this file at all if they’re making something specifically for ZDoom, in which case they might as well allow jumping anyway. It’s opt-out, but the maps that don’t want it are the ones least likely to use the opt-out, so in practice everyone has to assume jumping isn’t allowed until they see some strong indication otherwise. It’s a mess. Oh, and ZDoom also supports crouching, which is even more obscure.

I probably should’ve thought of all that at the time. In my defense, you know, speedmap.

One other minor thing was that, of course, ZDoom uses the traditional Doom HUD out of the box, and plenty of people play that way on purpose. I’m used to ZDoom’s “alternative” HUD, which not only expands your field of view slightly, but also shows a permanent count of how many secrets are in the level and how many you’ve found. I love that, because it tells me how much secret-hunting I’ll need to do from the beginning… but if you don’t use that HUD (and don’t look at the count on the automap), you won’t even know whether there are secrets or not.

For a third-party example: a recent (well, late 2014) cool release was Going Down, a set of small and devilish maps presented as the floors of a building you’re traversing from the roof downwards. I don’t actually play a lot of Doom, but I liked this concept enough to actually play it, and I enjoyed the clever traps and interwoven architecture.

Then I reached MAP12, Dead End. An appropriate name, because I got stuck here. Permanently stuck. The climax of the map is too many monsters in not enough space, and it’s cleverly rigged to remove the only remaining cover right when you need it. I couldn’t beat it.

That was a year ago. I haven’t seen any of the other 20 maps beyond this point. I’m sure they’re very cool, but I can’t get to them. This one is too high a hurdle.

Granted, hopping around levels is trivially easy in Doom games, but I don’t want to cheat my way through — and anyway, if I can’t beat MAP12, what hope do I have of beating MAP27?

I feel ambivalent about this. The author describes the gameplay as “chaotic evil”, so it is meant to be very hard, and I appreciate the design of the traps… but I’m unable to appreciate any more of them.

This isn’t the author’s fault, anyway; it’s baked into the design of Doom. If you can’t beat one level, you don’t get to see any future levels. In vanilla Doom it was particularly bad: if you die, you restart the level with no weapons or armor, probably making it even harder than it was before. You can save any time, and some modern source ports like ZDoom will autosave when you start a level, but the original game never saved automatically.

Isaac’s Descent

Isaac’s Descent is the little PICO-8 puzzle platformer I made for Ludum Dare 36 a couple months ago. It worked out surprisingly well; pretty much everyone who played it (and commented on it to me) got it, finished it, and enjoyed it. The PICO-8 exports to an HTML player, too, so anyone with a keyboard can play it with no further effort required.

I was really happy with the puzzle design, especially considering I hadn’t really made a puzzle game before and was rushing to make some rooms in a very short span of time. Only two were perhaps unfair. One was the penultimate room, which involved a tricky timing puzzle, so I’m not too bothered about that. The other was this room:

A cavern with two stone slab doors, one much taller than the other, and a wooden wheel on the wall

Using the wheel raises all stone doors in the room. Stone doors open at a constant rate, wait for a fixed time, and then close again. The tricky part with this puzzle is that by the time the very tall door has opened, the short door has already closed again. The solution is simply to use the wheel again right after the short door has closed, while the tall door is still opening. The short door will reopen, while the tall door won’t be affected since it’s already busy.

This isn’t particularly difficult to figure out, but it did catch a few people, and overall it doesn’t sit particularly well with me. Using the wheel while a door is opening feels like a weird edge case, not something that a game would usually rely on, yet I based an entire puzzle around it. I don’t know. I might be overthinking this. The problem might be that “ignore the message” is a very computery thing to do and doesn’t match with how such a wheel would work in practice; perhaps I’d like the puzzle more if the wheel always interrupted whatever a door was doing and forced it to raise again.

Overall, though, the puzzles worked well.

The biggest snags I saw were control issues with the PICO-8 itself. The PICO-8 is a “fantasy console” — effectively an emulator for a console that never existed. One of the consequences of this is that the controls aren’t defined in terms of keyboard keys, but in terms of the PICO-8’s own “controller”. Unfortunately, that controller is only defined indirectly, and the web player doesn’t indicate in any way how it works.

The controller’s main inputs — the only ones a game can actually read — are a directional pad and two buttons, and , which map to z and x on a keyboard. The PICO-8 font has glyphs for and , so I used those to indicate which button does what. Unfortunately, if you aren’t familiar with the PICO-8, those won’t make a lot of sense to you. It’s nice that looks like the keyboard key it’s bound to, but looks like the wrong keyboard key. This caused a little confusion.

Well,” I hear you say, “why not just refer to the keys directly?” Ah, but there’s a very good reason the PICO-8 is defined in terms of buttons: those aren’t the only keys you can use! n and m also work, as do c and v. The PocketCHIP also allows… 0 and =, I think, which is good because z and x are directly under the arrow keys on the PocketCHIP keyboard. And of course you can play on a USB controller, or rebind the keys.

I could’ve mentioned that z and x are the defaults, but that’s wrong for the PocketCHIP, and now I’m looking at a screenful of text explaining buttons that most people won’t read anyway.

A similar problem is the pause menu, accessible with p or enter. I’d put an option on the pause menu for resetting the room you’re in, just in case, but didn’t bother to explain how to get to the pause menu.Or that a pause menu exists. Also, the ability to put custom things on the pause menu is new, so a lot of people might not even know about it. I’m sure you can see this coming: a few rooms (including the two-door one) had places you could get stuck, and without any obvious way to restart the room, a few people thought they had to start the whole game over. Whoops.

In my defense, the web player is actively working against me here: it has a “pause” link below the console, but all the link does is freeze the player, not bring up the pause menu.

This is a recurring problem, and perhaps a fundamental question of making games accessible: how much do you need to explain to people who aren’t familiar with the platform or paradigm? Should every single game explain itself? Players who don’t need the explanation can easily get irritated by it, and that’s a bad way to start a game. The PICO-8 in particular has the extra wrinkle that its cartridge space is very limited, and any kind of explanation/tutorial costs space you could be using for gameplay. On the other hand, I’ve played more than one popular PICO-8 game that was completely opaque to me because it didn’t explain its controls at all.

I’m reminded of Counterfeit Monkey, a very good interactive fiction game that goes out of its way to implement a hint system and a gentle tutorial. The tutorial knits perfectly with the story, and the hints are trivially turned off, so neither is a bother. The game also has a hard mode, which eliminates some of the more obvious solutions and gives a nod to seasoned IF players as well. The author is very interested in making interactive fiction more accessible in general, and it definitely shows. I think this game alone convinced me it’s worth the effort — I’m putting many of the same touches in my own IF foray.

Under Construction

Under Construction is the PICO-8 game that Mel and I made early this year. It’s a simple, slightly surreal, slightly obtuse platformer.

Traditional wisdom has it that you don’t want games to be obtuse. That acts as a hurdle, and loses you players. Here, though, it’s part of the experience, so the question becomes how to strike a good balance without losing the impact.

A valid complaint we heard was that the use of color is slightly inconsistent in places. For the most part, foreground objects (those you can stand on) are light and background decorations are gray, but a couple tiles break that pattern. A related problem that came up almost immediately in beta testing was that spikes were difficult to pick out. I addressed that — fairly effectively, I think — by adding a single dark red pixel to the tip of the spikes.

But the most common hurdle by far was act 3, which caught us completely by surprise. Spoilers!

From the very beginning, the world contains a lot of pillars containing eyeballs that look at you. They don’t otherwise do anything, beyond act as platforms you can stand on.

In act 2, a number of little radios appear throughout the world. Mr. 5 complains that it’s very noisy, so you need to break all the radios by jumping on them.

In act 3, the world seems largely the same… but the eyes in the pillars now turn to ❌’s when you touch them. If this happens before you make it to the end, Mr. 5 complains that he’s in pain, and the act restarts.

The correct solution is to avoid touching any of the eye pillars. But because this comes immediately after act 2, where we taught the player to jump on things to defeat them — reinforcing a very common platforming mechanic — some players thought you were supposed to jump on all of them.

I don’t know how we could’ve seen that coming. The acts were implemented one at a time and not in the order they appear in the game, so we were both pretty used to every individual mechanic before we started playing through the entire game at once. I suppose when a game is developed and tested in pieces (as most games are), the order and connection between those pieces is a weak point and needs some extra consideration.

We didn’t change the game to address this, but the manual contains a strong hint.

Under Construction also contains a couple of easter eggs and different endings. All are fairly minor changes, but they added a lot of character to the game and gave its fans something else to delve into once they’d beaten it.

Crucially, these things worked as well as they did because they weren’t accessible. Easily-accessed easter eggs aren’t really easter eggs any more, after all. I don’t think the game has any explicit indication that the ending can vary, which meant that players would only find out about it from us or other fans.

I don’t yet know the right answer for balancing these kinds of extras, and perhaps there isn’t one. If you spend a lot of time on easter eggs, multiple endings, or even just multiple paths through the game, you’re putting a lot of effort into stuff that many players will never see. On the other hand, they add an incredible amount of depth and charm to a game and reward those players who do stick around to explore.

This is a lot like the balancing act with software interfaces. You want your thing to be accessible in the sense that a newcomer can sit down and get useful work done, but you also want to reward long-time users with shortcuts and more advanced features. You don’t want to hide advanced features too much, but you also don’t want to have an interface with a thousand buttons.

How larger and better-known games deal with this

I don’t have the patience for Zelda I. I never even tried it until I got it for free on my 3DS, as part of a pack of Virtual Console games given to everyone who bought a 3DS early. I gave it a shot, but I got bored really quickly. The overworld was probably the most frustrating part: the connections between places are weird, everything looks pretty much the same, the map is not very helpful, and very little acts as a landmark. I could’ve drawn my own map, but, well, I usually can’t be bothered to do that for games.

I contrast this with Skyward Sword, which I mostly enjoyed. Ironically, one of my complaints is that it doesn’t quite have an overworld. It almost does, but they stopped most of the way, leaving us with three large chunks of world and a completely-open sky area reminiscent of Wind Waker’s ocean.

Clearly, something about huge open spaces with no barriers whatsoever appeals to the Zelda team. I have to wonder if they’re trying to avoid situations like my experience with Zelda I. If a player gets lost in an expansive overworld, either they’ll figure out where to go eventually, or they’ll give up and never see the rest of the game. Losing players that way, especially in a story-driven game, is a huge shame.

And this is kind of a problem with the medium in general. For all the lip service paid to nonlinearity and sandboxes, the vast majority of games require some core progression that’s purely linear. You may be able to wander around a huge overworld, but you still must complete these dungeons and quests in this specific order. If something prevents you from doing one of them, you won’t be able to experience the others. You have to do all of the first x parts of the game before you can see part x + 1.

This is really weird! No other media is like this. If you watch a movie or read a book or listen to a song and some part of it is inaccessible for whatever reason — the plot is poorly explained, a joke goes over your head, the lyrics are mumbled — you can still keep going and experience the rest. The stuff that comes later might even help you make sense of the part you didn’t get.

In games, these little bumps in the road can become walls.

It’s not even necessarily difficulty, or getting lost, or whatever. A lot of mobile puzzle games use the same kind of artificial progression where you can only do puzzles in sequential batches; solving enough of the available puzzles will unlock the next batch. But in the interest of padding out the length, many of these games will have dozens of trivially easy and nearly identical puzzles in the beginning, which you have to solve to get to the later interesting ones. Sometimes I’ve gotten so bored by this that I’ve given up on a game before reaching the interesting puzzles.

In a way, that’s the same problem as getting lost in an overworld. Getting lost isn’t a hard wall, after all — you can always do an exhaustive search and talk to every NPC twice. But that takes time, and it’s not fun, much like the batches of required baby puzzles. People generally don’t like playing games that waste their time.

I love the Picross “e” series on the 3DS, because over time they’ve largely figured out that this is pointless: in the latest game in the series, everything is available from the beginning. Want to do easy puzzles? Do easy puzzles. Want to skip right to the hard stuff? Sure, do that. Don’t like being told when you made a wrong move? Turn it off.

(It’s kinda funny that the same people then made Pokémon Picross, which has some of the most absurd progression I’ve ever seen. Progressing beyond the first half-dozen puzzles requires spending weeks doing a boring minigame every day to grind enough pseudocurrency to unlock more puzzles. Or you can just pay for pseudocurrency, and you’ll have unlocked pretty much the whole game instantly. It might as well just be a demo; the non-paid progression is useless.)

Chip’s Challenge also handled this pretty well. You couldn’t skip around between levels arbitrarily, which was somewhat justified by the (very light) plot. Instead, if you died or restarted enough times, the game would offer to skip you to the next level, and that would be that. You weren’t denied the rest of the game just because you couldn’t figure out an ice maze or complete some horrible nightmare like Blobnet.

I wish this sort of mechanic were more common. Not so games could be more difficult, but so games wouldn’t have to worry as much about erring on the side of ease. I don’t know how it could work for a story-driven game where much of the story is told via experiencing the game itself, though — skipping parts of Portal would work poorly. On the other hand, Portal took the very clever step of offering “advanced” versions of several levels, which were altered very slightly to break all the obvious easy solutions.

Slapping on difficulty settings is nice for non-puzzle games (and even some puzzle games), but unless your game lets you change the difficulty partway through, someone who hits a wall still has to replay the entire game to change the difficulty. (Props to Doom 4, which looks to have taken difficulty levels very seriously — some have entirely different rules, and you can change whenever you want.)

I have a few wisps of ideas for how to deal with this in Isaac HD, but I can’t really talk about them before the design of the game has solidified a little more. Ultimately, my goal is the same as with everything else I do: to make something that people have a chance to enjoy, even if they don’t otherwise like the genre.

Five(ish) awesome RetroPie builds

Post Syndicated from Alex Bate original https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/fiveish-awesome-retropie-builds/

If you’ve yet to hear about RetroPie, how’s it going living under that rock?

RetroPie, for the few who are unfamiliar, allows users to play retro video games on their Raspberry Pi or PC. From Alex Kidd to Ecco the Dolphin, Streets of Rage 2 to Cool Spot, nostalgia junkies can get their fill by flashing the RetroPie image to their Pi and plugging in their TV and a couple of USB controllers.

But for many, this simple setup is not enough. Alongside the RetroPie unit, many makers are building incredible cases and modifications to make their creation stand out from the rest.

Here’s five of what I believe to be some of the best RetroPie builds shared on social media:

1. Furniture Builds

If you don’t have the space for an arcade machine, why not incorporate RetroPie into your coffee table or desk?

This ‘Mid-century-ish Retro Games Table’ by Reddit user GuzziGuy fits a screen and custom-made controllers beneath a folding surface, allowing full use of the table when you’re not busy Space Raiding or Mario Karting.

GuzziGuy RetroPie Table

2. Arcade Cabinets

While the arcade cabinet at Pi Towers has seen better days (we have #LukeTheIntern working on it as I type), many of you makers are putting us to shame with your own builds. Whether it be a tabletop version or full 7ft cabinet, more and more RetroPie arcades are popping up, their builders desperate to replicate the sights of our gaming pasts.

One maker, YouTuber Bob Clagett, built his own RetroPie Arcade Cabinet from scratch, documenting the entire process on his channel.

With sensors that start the machine upon your approach, LED backlighting, and cartoon vinyl artwork of his family, it’s easy to see why this is a firm favourite.

Arcade Cabinet build – Part 3 // How-To

Check out how I made this fully custom arcade cabinet, powered by a Raspberry Pi, to play retro games! Subscribe to my channel: http://bit.ly/1k8msFr Get digital plans for this cabinet to build your own!

3. Handheld Gaming

If you’re looking for a more personal gaming experience, or if you simply want to see just how small you can make your build, you can’t go wrong with a handheld gaming console. With the release of the Raspberry Pi Zero, the ability to fit an entire RetroPie setup within the smallest of spaces has become somewhat of a social media maker challenge.

Chase Lambeth used an old Burger King toy and Pi Zero to create one of the smallest RetroPie Gameboys around… and it broke the internet in the process.

Mini Gameboy Chase Lambeth

4. Console Recycling

What better way to play a retro game than via a retro game console? And while I don’t condone pulling apart a working NES or MegaDrive, there’s no harm in cannibalising a deceased unit for the greater good, or using one of many 3D-printable designs to recreate a classic.

Here’s YouTuber DaftMike‘s entry into the RetroPie Hall of Fame: a mini-NES with NFC-enabled cartridges that autoplay when inserted.

Raspberry Pi Mini NES Classic Console

This is a demo of my Raspberry Pi ‘NES Classic’ build. You can see photos, more details and code here: http://www.daftmike.com/2016/07/NESPi.html Update video: https://youtu.be/M0hWhv1lw48 Update #2: https://youtu.be/hhYf5DPzLqg Electronics kits are now available for pre-order, details here: http://www.daftmike.com/p/nespi-electronics-kit.html Build Guide Update: https://youtu.be/8rFBWdRpufo Build Guide Part 1: https://youtu.be/8feZYk9HmYg Build Guide Part 2: https://youtu.be/vOz1-6GqTZc New case design files: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1727668 Better Snap Fit Cases!

5. Everything Else

I can’t create a list of RetroPie builds without mentioning the unusual creations that appear on our social media feeds from time to time. And while you may consider putting more than one example in #5 cheating, I say… well, I say pfft.

Example 1 – Sean (from SimpleCove)’s Retro Arcade

It felt wrong to include this within Arcade Cabinets as it’s not really a cabinet. Creating the entire thing from scratch using monitors, wood, and a lot of veneer, the end result could easily have travelled here from the 1940s.

Retro Arcade Cabinet Using A Raspberry Pi & RetroPie

I’ve wanted one of these raspberry pi/retro pi arcade systems for a while but wanted to make a special box to put it in that looked like an antique table top TV/radio. I feel the outcome of this project is exactly that.

Example 2 – the HackerHouse Portable Console… built-in controller… thing

The team at HackerHouse, along with many other makers, decided to incorporate the entire RetroPie build into the controller, allowing you to easily take your gaming system with you without the need for a separate console unit. Following on from the theme of their YouTube channel, they offer a complete tutorial on how to make the controller.

Make a Raspberry Pi Portable Arcade Console (with Retropie)

Find out how to make an easy portable arcade console (cabinet) using a Raspberry Pi. You can bring it anywhere, plug it into any tv, and play all your favorite classic ROMs. This arcade has 4 general buttons and a joystick, but you can also plug in any old usb enabled controller.

Example 3 – Zach’s PiCart

RetroPie inside a NES game cartridge… need I say more?

Pi Cart: a Raspberry Pi Retro Gaming Rig in an NES Cartridge

I put a Raspberry Pi Zero (and 2,400 vintage games) into an NES cartridge and it’s awesome. Powered by RetroPie. I also wrote a step-by-step guide on howchoo and a list of all the materials you’ll need to build your own: https://howchoo.com/g/mti0oge5nzk/pi-cart-a-raspberry-pi-retro-gaming-rig-in-an-nes-cartridge

Here’s a video to help you set up your own RetroPie. What games would you play first? And what other builds have caught your attention online?

The post Five(ish) awesome RetroPie builds appeared first on Raspberry Pi.

Doom scale

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2016/10/10/doom-scale/

I’ve been dipping my toes into Doom mapping again recently. Obviously I’ve done it successfully once before, but I’m having trouble doing it a second time.

I have three major problems: drawing everything too small, drawing everything too rectangular, and completely blanking on what to do next. Those last two are a bit tricky, but struggling with scale? That sounds like a problem I can easily solve with charts and diagrams and math.

Some fundamental metrics

Doom’s mapping rules and built-in textures offer a few fixed reference points.

The z planes — floor and ceiling — are a 64×64 grid anchored at the origin. All “flat” textures are aligned to this grid. (ZDoom lets you rotate, scale, and offset flats, but in vanilla Doom, you sometimes have to design architecture around texture alignment.)

All actors (objects) are square and axis-aligned. Doomguy is 32×56. However, it’s very difficult for an actor to move down a corridor of the same width, and the axis-alignment means a 32-unit square couldn’t fit down a 32-unit diagonal hallway. (It’s rare to see a hallway narrower than 64 or a room height shorter than 64.)

The viewport is 41 pixels above the ground. Doomguy’s maximum step height is 24, which is actually fairly large, almost half his height. Doomguy can balance on a ledge of any width.

The vast majority of Doom’s wall textures are 64×128. A few larger textures are 128×128, and a handful of very large outdoor textures are 256×128. A few “strut” textures and door borders are 8 or 16 wide. Some interesting exceptions:

  • DOOR3, the door you appear to have entered from in many Doom maps, is 64×72. So is DOOR1. EXITDOOR has some extra stuff on it, but the actual door part is also 64×72.
  • BIGDOOR1, the silver door with the UAC logo on it, is 128×96.
  • MIDBARS3 is a railing texture that’s 64×72.
  • The Icon of Sin is built out of a 3×3 grid of textures. The full image is 768×384.
  • EXITSIGN is 64×16, though only half of it is the actual part that says “EXIT”; the rest is the sides of the sign.
  • The STEP textures are all 16 high.

Since Doom’s textures tend to be 128 tall, we can conclude that a standard room tends to be no more than 128 tall. Any more and the texture would start to tile, which works poorly with a lot of textures.

The problem

Vertical distance is fine. Doom doesn’t have a lot of vertical movement, so vertical distances tend not to get too outlandish in the first place.

The trouble is that I don’t know how big spaces are. I draw rooms and they turn out, much later, to be far too cramped. I draw buildings and outdoor areas and they turn out to not really have enough space to fit everything I want.

An obvious approach is to find a conversion between Doom units and real-world units, then judge distances based on real-world units. That sounds great, but I don’t have a good sense of real-world units, either. How big is the room I’m in now? Somewhere between ten and a hundred feet, I guess? Thirty? How much is thirty feet, is that a lot?

How long is my car, say? I guess two of me could lie down end-to-end beside it, so that’s twelve feet? That sounds like I’m underestimating. Fifteen? Are these reasonable guesses? I don’t know.

Hm, well. The answer turns out to be exactly halfway between at thirteen and a half feet, so I don’t know what we’ve learned here exactly.

Okay, so let’s consider in terms of architecture. How long is the quiet residential street in front of my house? I have no idea. The next biggest thing is a house, and I don’t know how wide a house is, or how many houses there are on this street. I could estimate the street in terms of house lengths, and estimate a house in terms of car lengths, and estimate a car length in terms of my height, but that’s enough wild guesses that the final answer could be a whole order of magnitude off.

I never have any reason to appreciate or internalize length measurements, especially moderately large ones. I have no reference point.

Also, Doom’s grid and texture sizes mean that everything is done in multiples of powers of two. I know the powers of two, but I don’t actually know every single multiple of 64 up to 32768, so I occasionally run into the problem that the numbers lose all meaning. How many 64s are in 768, again…?

Also, Doom doesn’t make any sense

The other problem with relating to real-world sizes is that it assumes there’s a way to convert between Doom and the real world. Alas, the universe of Doom has much more in common with the exaggerated and cartoony scale of platformers than with the hyper-realism in modern shooters.

Consider Doomguy. Here’s his default forward-facing sprite, PLAYA1. The pink area is his 32×56 collision box, the red dot is where he fires from, and the yellow dot is the location of the viewport.

Doomguy and some of his measurements

The collision box is the same height as the sprite itself, but it gets shifted upwards slightly because of the sprite offsets. (Every sprite has an offset indicating where its bottom center is, since that’s where the game tracks an object’s position. If Doomguy’s sprite were just drawn from the bottom, he’d look like he were standing on his tiptoes.)

It is generally accepted — by which I mean “Doom Wiki says so” — that 32 units of height correspond to one meter (39”), which makes Doomguy about 5 feet 8 inches tall. It also makes him one meter wide, which seems rather extreme. The usual handwave is to say that vertical and horizontal scales are different (because pixels weren’t square in the original game), so 32 units of width correspond to ¾ of a meter (just shy of 30”).

That doesn’t really make sense to me. If the architecture were truly distorted to compensate for the pixel size, then surely wall textures would be, too. They aren’t. Switches are perfect 32×32 squares. Several floor textures also exist separately as wall textures, and they weren’t distorted in any way. This is a cute explanation that neatly ties together several bits of Doom trivia, but I don’t think it was a deliberate design decision.

Plus, according to this sprite, Doomguy’s collision box is significantly wider than his actual appearance. I don’t know why this is — perhaps the extra space is where he keeps his hundred rockets and half a dozen spare weapons. If we’re interested in aesthetics, surely we should be going by Doomguy’s sprite rather than his in-game dimensions.

More importantly… this weird ratio still doesn’t jive with most architecture. Consider the fast skinny doors introduced in Doom II, which are 64×128. At 32u = 1m, those are two meters wide and four meters tall, or 78” × 157”. The Internet tells me that an interior residential doorway is around 32” × 80” (2:5), and a human being is around 18” × 69” (~1:4).

Here are those measurements alongside the supposed sizes of Doomguy and a skinny door. Something seems slightly off.

An illustration of how even Doom's smaller doors are twice the size they should be

The light blue boxes are the collision boxes; the dark blue boxes are Doomguy’s apparent visible size. I’m using his waist rather than his shoulders, because most people’s (or at least, my) shoulders are not too much wider than their hips — however Doomguy is a beefcake carved out of pure muscle and doors would not be designed for him.

It seems as though all the architecture in Doom is about twice the size it should be, for whatever reason. Look what happens if I shrink the door, but not Doomguy:

The same illustration as above, but with the door scaled down by half

If I use some ZDoom shenanigans to shrink a door within the game, it looks rather more like a real door. (You’d have a hard time fitting through it without modifying the player’s radius, though.)

A 32×64 door in Doom

It’s not just architecture! Keycard sprites are 14×16, which would be about a foot and a half square. The shotgun is 63 pixels long, a whopping 77”. A shotgun shell is 7 pixels long, almost 9”. The candelabra is 61 pixels tall — taller than Doomguy! — which is just over six feet. This is ridiculous. Halving all of these lengths makes them closer to something reasonable.

It appears, for whatever reason, that the world of Doom is roughly twice the size of the world we’re used to. (Or perhaps Doomguy has been shrunk by half.) That matches my attempts at replicating real-world places to scale — they turned out unusually cramped.

64 units equal 1 meter, then. Problem solved.

Ah, well, about that. The 64×128 doors make sense, but… real doorways don’t span the full height of a room, yet many Doom rooms are 128 tall. Or less. The starting area in E1M1, the hallway in MAP01, and the DOOR1 entrance” door are all 72 units tall, which converts to less than four feet.

Let’s try something else. Tom Hall says in the Doom Bible that the 128-unit walls in Wolfenstein 3D were eight feet thick, i.e. 16 units equal 1 foot. The 64-unit grid is thus four feet, which seems reasonable. The maximum step height would be 18 inches, and shallow steps would be 6 inches, which also seem reasonable — the stairs in my house are 7” tall, and the most I can comfortably step up is 3 at a time.

But this still makes those 72-unit rooms be only four and a half feet tall.

This isn’t a problem that can be solved with different height and width scaling, because we’ve come down to a conflict between door/room height and step height. If those 72-unit rooms are a more reasonable eight feet tall (the standard) then 9 units are 1 foot, and Doomguy’s step height is over two and a half feet. Also, those 64×128 doors are over nine feet tall.

The fact is, Doomguy has goofy proportions, and the environment was designed around them. The textures have a gritty semi-realistic aesthetic, but comparing the levels to real-world architecture makes about as much sense as designing Mario levels around real places. Actual humans cannot jump several times their own height, so the design language doesn’t translate at all.

Better reference points

If I can’t use the real world to get a sense of scale, I might as well use Doom itself.

I’ve gone through some large areas that are particularly memorable to me, areas that I have a good sense of, and measured their dimensions.

However, I’ve tried using a new kind of unit: Doom grid cells. All of the numbers in parentheses are counts of 64-unit cells (for horizontal units only). It turns out to be much easier to grapple with 22 vs 24 than 1408 vs 1536.

  • E1M1: Hangar

    The iconic starting room is 640×768 (10×12) and 72 tall. The recessed area in the middle is 448×320 (7×5) and 216 tall.

  • E3M8: Dis

    The entire shuriken fits in a 3712×3584 (58×56) box. The sky is 256 units above the inner part of the ground.

  • MAP01: Entryway

    The opening room is 640×448 (10×7) and 256 tall. The subsequent hallway is 128 (2) wide and 72 tall.

    The large room before the exit is 960 (15) deep and 192 tall. Wow! I always think 1024 (16) sounds really huge, but this one humble room is almost that big.

  • MAP02: Underhalls

    The entire area with the little brick “house” is 576×896 (9×14), measured from the water. The surrounding walkway is 88 tall; the grass is 216 below the sky.

    The whole map fits in a 1920×1920 (30×30) box.

  • MAP03: The Gantlet

    The main large outdoor area is carved from a 1664×832 (26×13) rectangle. The water is 264 below the sky.

    The entire starting area just about fits in a 704×704 (11×11) box. The hallway is 128 tall; the center room is 160 tall.

  • MAP07: Dead Simple

    The inner part, including the walkway, is 1536×1472 (24×23). The outdoor parts are 120 tall; the roof is 80 above the walkway.

  • MAP08: Tricks and Traps

    The starting room is 448×448 (7×7) and 192 tall.

    The cacodemon room is 448 (7) wide, 1792 (28) from the door to the far wall, and 288 tall.

    The cyberdemon room is roughly 896×448 (14×7) and varies between 96 and 128 tall.

    The room you teleport to with the pain elementals is 704×704 (11×11) and 144 tall.

  • MAP12: The Factory

    The entire map is 3776×4288 (59×67). Outdoors is 208 tall. The outer wall is 96 tall, and the main raised outdoor part is 80 high, 128 below the sky.

    The main “factory” interior is 2560×1536 (40×24).

  • MAP14: The Inmost Dens, the most detailed map in Doom II

    Water to sky is 200, and the floor is 16 above the water. The brick wall surrounding everything is 32 high. The pillars between areas are 88 tall.

    The entire map fits in a 3520×3904 (55×61) box.

  • MAP15: Industrial Zone

    Ground to sky is 600.

    The central structure — the one you jump off to reach the other side of the map — is 1600×1600 (25×25).

    The entire map, excluding the purely aesthetic waterfront, fits in a particularly pleasing 4416×6144 (69×96) box.

  • MAP18: Courtyard

    The grassy courtyard itself is, very roughly, 2112×1920 (33×30). Grass to sky is 192.

    The surrounding area with the columns is 576 (9) at its deepest.

    The separate cacodemon area with the blue key is 768×1216 (12×19) and 272 tall.

  • MAP23: Barrels o’ Fun

    The starting hallway is 2240 (35) long, 384 (6) wide, and 256 tall.

    The blood pit is 960×1024 (15×16) and a whopping 384 tall. The hallways leading to it are 64×528 (1×8¼) and 80 tall.

  • MAP27: Monster Condo

    The starting area plus library form a rough 2624×1728 (41×27) rectangle. The other main area plus pain elemental room form a rough 2432×1600 (38×25) rectangle. Both are 128 tall.

    The twin marble rooms are about 576×1024 (9×16), not counting the 128 (2)-deep closets on the sides and backs. Total height is 256, and the walkway is 80 above the floor.

  • MAP29: The Living End

    The huge central blood pit is 3072×2816 (48×44) and a whopping 696 tall, which is almost five and a half 128s. The platform you first see it from is 200 above the floor.

    The central exit slab is 1216×1216 (19×19).

  • MAP30: Icon of Sin

    The main area is 2688×1728 (42×27) and 768 tall. Each platform is 128 above the next. Pressing the switch up top raises the lift by 512, or four 128s.

  • MAP32: Grosse

    The main room is a 2176×2944 (34×46) rectangle, plus a 1024 (16)-deep lead-in bit.

It might help to know that the player’s maximum run speed is about 583 units per second… or just over 9 grid cells per second. With straferunning, it’s about 11⅔ grid cells.

I also ran all of these maps through a slightly modified wad2svg and combined them into a single image, depicting all of them at the same scale. (If you like, I also have a large SVG version.)

Several maps all drawn to the same scale

One pixel is 16 Doom units; four pixels are 64 units or one grid cell; the grid lines mark 1024 units or 16 grid cells. The player can run across one grid cell in 1.8 seconds, or 1.4 seconds when straferunning.

I don’t know if I’ve absorbed anything intuitively from this yet, but it’ll give me something to refer back to the next time I try to map. Seeing that the entirety of Underhalls just about fits inside the Icon of Sin room, for example, is downright fascinating and says a lot about the importance of breaking space up.

Ah, you got me, this whole post was an excuse to list those dimensions and make a collage of Doom maps.


What if I fixed the player size?

Assuming Tom Hall is correct that 1 real-world foot is equal to 16 Doom units, a six-foot-tall Marine should be 96 units tall. With the magic of ZDoom, I can make that happen. I can also fix the heights of the humanoid enemies.

The opening scene of Doom II, but with the player and visible enemies much larger

The results are pretty hilarious. Highly recommend running around for a bit with one of these. Hint: you may want to bind a key to “crouch”.

Succeeding MegaZeux

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2016/10/06/succeeding-megazeux/

In the beginning, there was ZZT. ZZT was a set of little shareware games for DOS that used VGA text mode for all the graphics, leading to such whimsical Rogue-like choices as ä for ammo pickups, Ω for lions, and for keys. It also came with an editor, including a small programming language for creating totally custom objects, which gave it the status of “game creation system” and a legacy that survives even today.

A little later on, there was MegaZeux. MegaZeux was something of a spiritual successor to ZZT, created by (as I understand it) someone well-known for her creative abuse of ZZT’s limitations. It added quite a few bells and whistles, most significantly a built-in font editor, which let aspiring developers draw simple sprites rather than rely on whatever they could scrounge from the DOS font.

And then…

And then, nothing. MegaZeux was updated for quite a while, and (unlike ZZT) has even been ported to SDL so it can actually run on modern operating systems. But there was never a third entry in this series, another engine worthy of calling these its predecessors.

I think that’s a shame.

The legacy

Plenty of people have never heard of ZZT, and far more have never heard of MegaZeux, so here’s a brief primer.

Both were released as “first-episode” shareware: they came with one game free, and you could pony up some cash to get the sequels. Those first games — Town of ZZT and Caverns of Zeux — have these moderately iconic opening scenes.

Town of ZZT
Caverns of Zeux

In the intervening decades, all of the sequels have been released online for free. If you want to try them yourself, ZZT 3.2 includes Town of ZZT and its sequels (but must be run in DOSBox), and you can get MegaZeux 2.84c, Caverns of Zeux, and the rest of the Zeux series separately.

Town of ZZT has you, the anonymous player, wandering around a loosely-themed “town” in search of five purple keys. It’s very much a game of its time: the setting is very vague but manages to stay distinct and memorable with very light touches; the puzzles range from trivial to downright cruel; the interface itself fights against you, as you can’t carry more than one purple key at a time; and the game can be softlocked in numerous ways, only some of which have advance warning in the form of “SAVE!!!” written carved directly into the environment.

The armory, and a gruff guardian
Darkness, which all players love
A few subtle hints

Caverns of Zeux is a little more cohesive, with a (thin) plot that unfolds as you progress through the game. Your objectives are slightly vaguer; you start out only knowing you’re trapped in a cave, and further information must be gleaned from NPCs. The gameplay is shaken up a couple times throughout — you discover spellbooks that give you new abilities, but later lose your primary weapon. The meat of the game is more about exploring and less about wacky Sokoban puzzles, though with many of the areas looking very similar and at least eight different-colored doors scattered throughout the game, the backtracking can get frustrating.

A charming little town
A chasm with several gem holders
The ice caves, or maybe caverns

Those are obviously a bit retro-looking now, but they’re not bad for VGA text made by individual hobbyists in 1991 and 1994. ZZT only even uses CGA’s eight bright colors. MegaZeux takes a bit more advantage of VGA capabilities to let you edit the palette as well as the font, but games are still restricted to only using 16 colors at one time.

The font ZZT was stuck with
MegaZeux's default character set

That’s great, but who cares?

A fair question!

ZZT and MegaZeux both occupy a unique game development niche. It’s the same niche as (Z)Doom, I think, and a niche that very few other tools fill.

I’ve mumbled about this on Twitter a couple times, and several people have suggested that the PICO-8 or Mario Maker might be in the same vein. I disagree wholeheartedly! ZZT, MegaZeux, and ZDoom all have two critical — and rare — things in common.

  1. You can crack open the editor, draw a box, and have a game. On the PICO-8, you are a lonely god in an empty void; you must invent physics from scratch before you can do anything else. ZZT, MegaZeux, and Doom all have enough built-in gameplay to make a variety of interesting levels right out of the gate. You can treat them as nothing more than level editors, and you’ll be hitting the ground running — no code required. And unlike most “no programming” GCSes, I mean that literally!

  2. If and when you get tired of only using the built-in objects, you can extend the engine. ZZT and MegaZeux have programmable actors built right in. Even vanilla Doom was popular enough to gain a third-party tool, DEHACKED, which could edit the compiled doom.exe to customize actor behavior. Mario Maker might be a nice and accessible environment for making games, but at the end of the day, the only thing you can make with it is Mario.

Both of these properties together make for a very smooth learning curve. You can open the editor and immediately make something, rather than needing to absorb a massive pile of upfront stuff before you can even get a sprite on the screen. Once you need to make small tweaks, you can dip your toes into robots — a custom pickup that gives you two keys at once is four lines of fairly self-explanatory code. Want an NPC with a dialogue tree? That’s a little more complex, but not much. And then suddenly you discover you’re doing programming. At the same time, you get rendering, movement, combat, collision, health, death, pickups, map transitions, menus, dialogs, saving/loading… all for free.

MegaZeux has one more nice property, the art learning curve. The built-in font is perfectly usable, but a world built from monochrome 8×14 tiles is a very comfortable place to dabble in sprite editing. You can add eyebrows to the built-in player character or slightly reshape keys to fit your own tastes, and the result will still fit the “art style” of the built-in assets. Want to try making your own sprites from scratch? Go ahead! It’s much easier to make something that looks nice when you don’t have to worry about color or line weight or proportions or any of that stuff.

It’s true that we’re in an “indie” “boom” right now, and more game-making tools are available than ever before. A determined game developer can already choose from among dozens (hundreds?) of editors and engines and frameworks and toolkits and whatnot. But the operative word there is “determined“. Not everyone has their heart set on this. The vast majority of people aren’t interested in devoting themselves to making games, so the most they’d want to do (at first) is dabble.

But programming is a strange and complex art, where dabbling can be surprisingly difficult. If you want to try out art or writing or music or cooking or dance or whatever, you can usually get started with some very simple tools and a one-word Google search. If you want to try out game development, it usually requires programming, which in turn requires a mountain of upfront context and tool choices and explanations and mysterious incantations and forty-minute YouTube videos of some guy droning on in monotone.

To me, the magic of MegaZeux is that anyone with five minutes to spare can sit down, plop some objects around, and have made a thing.

Deep dive

MegaZeux has a lot of hidden features. It also has a lot of glass walls. Is that a phrase? It should be a phrase. I mean that it’s easy to find yourself wanting to do something that seems common and obvious, yet find out quite abruptly that it’s structurally impossible.

I’m not leading towards a conclusion here, only thinking out loud. I want to explain what makes MegaZeux interesting, but also explain what makes MegaZeux limiting, but also speculate on what might improve on it. So, you know, something for everyone.

Big picture

MegaZeux is a top-down adventure-ish game engine. You can make platformers, if you fake your own gravity; you can make RPGs, if you want to build all the UI that implies.

MegaZeux games can only be played in, well, MegaZeux. Games that need instructions and multiple downloads to be played are fighting an uphill battle. It’s a simple engine that seems reasonable to deploy to the web, and I’ve heard of a couple attempts at either reimplementing the engine in JavaScript or throwing the whole shebang at emscripten, but none are yet viable.

People have somewhat higher expectations from both games and tools nowadays. But approachability is often at odds with flexibility. The more things you explicitly support, the more complicated and intimidating the interface — or the more hidden features you have to scour the manual to even find out about.

I’ve looked through the advertising screenshots of Game Maker and RPG Maker, and I’m amazed how many things are all over the place at any given time. It’s like trying to configure the old Mozilla Suite. Every new feature means a new checkbox somewhere, and eventually half of what new authors need to remember is the set of things they can safely ignore.

SLADE’s Doom map editor manages to be much simpler, but I’m not particularly happy with that, either — it’s not clever enough to save you from your mistakes (or necessarily detect them), and a lot of the jargon makes no sense unless you’ve already learned what it means somewhere else. Plus, making the most of ZDoom’s extra features tends to involve navigating ten different text files that all have different syntax and different rules.

MegaZeux has your world, some menus with objects in them, and spacebar to place something. The UI is still very DOS-era, but once you get past that, it’s pretty easy to build something.

How do you preserve that in something “modern”? I’m not sure. The only remotely-similar thing I can think of is Mario Maker, which cleverly hides a lot of customization options right in the world editor UI: placing wings on existing objects, dropping objects into blocks, feeding mushrooms to enemies to make them bigger. The downside is that Mario Maker has quite a lot of apocryphal knowledge that isn’t written down anywhere. (That’s not entirely a downside… but I could write a whole other post just exploring that one sentence.)


Oh, no.

Graphics don’t make the game, but they’re a significant limiting factor for MegaZeux. Fixing everything to a grid means that even a projectile can only move one tile at a time. Only one character can be drawn per grid space, so objects can’t usefully be drawn on top of each other. Animations are difficult, since they eat into your 255-character budget, which limits real-time visual feedback. Most individual objects are a single tile — creating anything larger requires either a lot of manual work to keep all the parts together, or the use of multi-tile sprites which don’t quite exist on the board.

And yet! The same factors are what make MegaZeux very accessible. The tiles are small and simple enough that different art styles don’t really clash. Using a grid means simple games don’t have to think about collision detection at all. A monochromatic font can be palette-shifted, giving you colorful variants of the same objects for free.

How could you scale up the graphics but preserve the charm and approachability? Hmm.

I think the palette restrictions might be important here, but merely bumping from 2 to 8 colors isn’t quite right. The palette-shifting in MegaZeux always makes me think of keys first, and multi-colored keys make me think of Chip’s Challenge, where the key sprites were simple but lightly shaded.

All four Chips Challenge 2 keys

The game has to contain all four sprites separately. If you wanted to have a single sprite and get all of those keys by drawing it in different colors, you’d have to specify three colors per key: the base color, a lighter color, and a darker color. In other words, a ramp — a short gradient, chosen from a palette, that can represent the same color under different lighting. Here are some PICO-8 ramps, for example. What about a sprite system that drew sprites in terms of ramps rather than individual colors?

A pixel-art door in eight different color schemes

I whipped up this crappy example to illustrate. All of the doors are fundamentally the same image, and all of them use only eight colors: black, transparent, and two ramps of three colors each. The top-left door could be expressed as just “light gray” and “blue” — those colors would be expanded into ramps automatically, and black would remain black.

I don’t know how well this would work, but I’d love to see someone try it. It may not even be necessary to require all sprites be expressed this way — maybe you could import your own truecolor art if you wanted. ZDoom works kind of this way, though it’s more of a historical accident: it does support arbitrary PNGs, but vanilla Doom sprites use a custom format that’s in terms of a single global palette, and only that custom format can be subjected to palette manipulation.

Now, MegaZeux has the problem that small sprites make it difficult to draw bigger things like UI (or a non-microscopic player). The above sprites are 32×32 (scaled up 2× for ease of viewing here), which creates the opposite problem: you can’t possibly draw text or other smaller details with them.

I wonder what could be done here. I know that the original Pokémon games have a concept of “metatiles”: every map is defined in terms of 4×4 blocks of smaller tiles. You can see it pretty clearly on this map of Pallet Town. Each larger square is a metatile, and many of them repeat, even in areas that otherwise seem different.

Pallet Town from Pokémon Red, carved into blocks

I left the NPCs in because they highlight one of the things I found most surprising about this scheme. All the objects you interact with — NPCs, signs, doors, items, cuttable trees, even the player yourself — are 16×16 sprites. The map appears to be made out of 16×16 sprites, as well — but it’s really built from 8×8 tiles arranged into bigger 32×32 tiles.

This isn’t a particularly nice thing to expose directly to authors nowadays, but it demonstrates that there are other ways to compose tiles besides the obvious. Perhaps simple terrain like grass and dirt could be single large tiles, but you could also make a large tile by packing together several smaller tiles?

Text? Oh, text can just be a font.

Player status

MegaZeux has no HUD. To know how much health you have, you need to press Enter to bring up the pause menu, where your health is listed in a stack of other numbers like “gems” and “coins”. I say “menu”, but the pause menu is really a list of keyboard shortcuts, not something you can scroll through and choose items from.

MegaZeux's in-game menu, showing a list of keyboard shortcuts on the left and some stats on the right

To be fair, ZZT does reserve the right side of the screen for your stats, and it puts health at the top. I find myself scanning the MegaZeux pause menu for health every time, which seems a somewhat poor choice for the number that makes the game end when you run out of it.

Unlike most adventure games, your health is an integer starting at 100, not a small number of hearts or whatever. The only feedback when you take damage is a sound effect and an “Ouch!” at the bottom of the screen; you don’t flinch, recoil, or blink. Health pickups might give you any amount of health, you can pick up health beyond 100, and nothing on the screen tells you how much you got when you pick one up. Keeping track of your health in your head is, ah, difficult.

MegaZeux also has a system of multiple lives, but those are also just a number, and the default behavior on “death” is for your health to reset to 100 and absolutely nothing else happens. Walking into lava (which hurts for 100 at a time) will thus kill you and strip you of all your lives quite rapidly.

It is possible to manually create a HUD in MegaZeux using the “overlay” layer, a layer that gets drawn on top of everything else in the world. The downside is that you then can’t use the overlay for anything in-world, like roofs or buildings that can be walked behind. The overlay can be in multiple modes, one that’s attached to the viewport (like a HUD) and one that’s attached to the world (like a ceiling layer), so an obvious first step would be offering these as separate features.

An alternative is to use sprites, blocks of tiles created and drawn as a single unit by Robotic code. Sprites can be attached to the viewport and can even be drawn even above the overlay, though they aren’t exposed in the editor and must be created entirely manually. Promising, if clumsy and a bit non-obvious — I only just now found out about this possibility by glancing at an obscure section of the manual.

Another looming problem is that text is the same size as everything else — but you generally want a HUD to be prominent enough to glance at very quickly.

This makes me wonder how more advanced drawing could work in general. Instead of writing code by hand to populate and redraw your UI, could you just drag and drop some obvious components (like “value of this number”) onto a layer? Reuse the same concept for custom dialogs and menus, perhaps?


MegaZeux has no inventory. Or, okay, it has sort of an inventory, but it’s all over the place.

The stuff in the pause menu is kind of like an inventory. It counts ammo, gems, coins, two kinds of bombs, and a variety of keys for you. The game also has multiple built-in objects that can give you specific numbers of gems and coins, which is neat, except that gems and coins don’t do actually anything. I think they increase your score, but until now I’d forgotten that MegaZeux has a score.

A developer can also define six named “counters” (i.e., integers) that will show up on the pause menu when nonzero. Caverns of Zeux uses this to show you how many rainbow gems you’ve discovered… but it’s just a number labeled RainbowGems, and there’s no way to see which ones you have.

Other than that, you’re on your own. All of the original Zeux games made use of an inventory, so this is a really weird oversight. Caverns of Zeux also had spellbooks, but you could only see which ones you’d found by trying to use them and seeing if it failed. Chronos Stasis has maybe a dozen items you can collect and no way to see which ones you have — though, to be fair, you use most of them in the same place. Forest of Ruin has a fairly standard inventory, but no way to view it. All three games have at least one usable item that they just bind to a key, which you’d better remember, because it’s game-specific and thus not listed in the general help file.

To be fair, this is preposterously flexible in a way that a general inventory might not be. But it’s also tedious for game authors and potentially confusing for players.

I don’t think an inventory would be particularly difficult to support, and MegaZeux is already halfway there. Most likely, the support is missing because it would need to be based on some concept of a custom object, and MegaZeux doesn’t have that either. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Creating new objects

MegaZeux allows you to create “robots”, objects that are controlled entirely through code you write in a simple programming language. You can copy and paste robots around as easily as any other object on the map. Cool.

What’s less cool is that robots can’t share code — when you place one, you make a separate copy of all of its code. If you create a small horde of custom monsters, then later want to make a change, you’ll have to copy/paste all the existing ones. Hope you don’t have them on other boards!

Some workarounds exist: you could make use of robots’ ability to copy themselves at runtime, and it’s possible to save or load code to/from an external file at runtime. More cumbersome than defining a template object and dropping it wherever you want, and definitely much less accessible.

This is really, really bad, because the only way to extend any of the builtin objects is to replace them with robots!

I’m a little spoiled by ZDoom, where you can create as many kinds of actor as you want. Actors can even inherit from one another, though the mechanism is a little limited and… idiosyncratic, so I wouldn’t call it beginner-friendly. It’s pretty nice to be able to define a type of monster or decoration and drop it all over a map, and I’m surprised such a thing doesn’t exist in MegaZeux, where boards and the viewport both tend to be fairly large.

This is the core of how ZDoom’s inventory works, too. I believe that inventories contain only kinds, not individual actors — that is, you can have 5 red keys, but the game only knows “5 of RedCard” rather than having five distinct RedCard objects. I’m sure part of the reason MegaZeux has no general-purpose inventory is that every custom object is completely distinct, with nothing fundamentally linking even identical copies of the same robot together.


By default, the player can shoot bullets by holding Space and pressing a direction. (Moving and shooting at the same time is… difficult.) Like everything else, bullets are fixed to the character grid, so they move an entire tile at a time.

Bullets can also destroy other projectiles, sometimes. A bullet hitting another bullet will annihilate both. A bullet hitting a fireball might either turn the fireball into a regular fire tile or simple be destroyed, depending on which animation frame the fireball is in when the bullet hits it. I didn’t know this until someone told me only a couple weeks ago; I’d always just thought it was random and arbitrary and frustrating. Seekers can’t be destroyed at all.

Most enemies charge directly at you; most are killed in one hit; most attack you by colliding with you; most are also destroyed by the collision.

The (built-in) combat is fairly primitive. It gives you something to do, but it’s not particularly satisfting, which is unfortunate for an adventure game engine.

Several factors conspire here. Graphical limitations make it difficult to give much visual feedback when something (including the player) takes damage or is destroyed. The motion of small, fast-moving objects on a fixed grid can be hard to keep track of. No inventory means weapons aren’t objects, either, so custom weapons need to be implemented separately in the global robot. No custom objects means new enemies and projectiles are difficult to create. No visual feedback means hitscan weapons are implausible.

I imagine some new and interesting directions would make themselves obvious in an engine with a higher resolution and custom objects.


Robotic is MegaZeux’s programming language for defining the behavior of robots, and it’s one of the most interesting parts of the engine. A robot that acts like an item giving you two keys might look like this:

: "touch"
* "You found two keys!"
givekey c04
givekey c05
die as an item
MegaZeux's Robotic editor

Robotic has no blocks, loops, locals, or functions — though recent versions can fake functions by using special jumps. All you get is a fixed list of a few hundred commands. It’s effectively a form of bytecode assembly, with no manual assembling required.

And yet! For simple tasks, it works surprisingly well. Creating a state machine, as in the code above, is straightforward. end stops execution, since all robots start executing from their first line on start. : "touch" is a label (:"touch" is invalid syntax) — all external stimuli are received as jumps, and touch is a special label that a robot jumps to when the player pushes against it. * displays a message in the colorful status line at the bottom of the screen. givekey gives a key of a specific color — colors are a first-class argument type, complete with their own UI in the editor and an automatic preview of the particular colors. die as an item destroys the robot and simultaneously moves the player on top of it, as though the player had picked it up.

A couple other interesting quirks:

  • Most prepositions, articles, and other English glue words are semi-optional and shown in grey. The line die as an item above has as an greyed out, indicating that you could just type die item and MegaZeux would fill in the rest. You could also type die as item, die an item, or even die through item, because all of as, an, and through act like whitespace. Most commands sprinkle a few of these in to make themselves read a little more like English and clarify the order of arguments.

  • The same label may appear more than once. However, labels may be zapped, and a jump will always go to the first non-zapped occurrence of a label. This lets an author encode a robot’s state within the state of its own labels, obviating the need for state-tracking variables in many cases. (Zapping labels predates per-robot variables — “local counters” — which are unhelpfully named local through local32.)

    Of course, this can rapidly spiral out of control when state changes are more complicated or several labels start out zapped or different labels are zapped out of step with each other. Robotic offers no way to query how many of a label have been zapped and MegaZeux has no debugger for label states, so it’s not hard to lose track of what’s going on. Still, it’s an interesting extension atop a simple label-based state machine.

  • The built-in types often have some very handy shortcuts. For example, GO [dir] # tells a robot to move in some direction, some number of spaces. The directions you’d expect all work: NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST, and synonyms like N and UP. But there are some extras like RANDNB to choose a random direction that doesn’t block the robot, or SEEK to move towards the player, or FLOW to continue moving in its current direction. Some of the extras only make sense in particular contexts, which complicates them a little, but the ability to tell an NPC to wander aimlessly with only RANDNB is incredible.

  • Robotic is more powerful than you might expect; it can change anything you can change in the editor, emulate the behavior of most other builtins, and make use of several features not exposed in the editor at all.

Nowadays, the obvious choice for an embedded language is Lua. It’d be much more flexible, to be sure, but it’d lose a little of the charm. One of the advantages of creating a totally custom language for a game is that you can add syntax for very common engine-specific features, like colors; in a general-purpose language, those are a little clumsier.

function myrobot:ontouch(toucher)
    if not toucher.is_player then
        return false
    world:showstatus("You found two keys!")
    return true

Changing the rules

MegaZeux has a couple kinds of built-in objects that are difficult to replicate — and thus difficult to customize.

One is projectiles, mentioned earlier. Several variants exist, and a handful of specific behaviors can be toggled with board or world settings, but otherwise that’s all you get. It should be feasible to replicate them all with robots, but I suspect it’d involve a lot of subtleties.

Another is terrain. MegaZeux has a concept of a floor layer (though this is not explicitly exposed in the editor) and some floor tiles have different behavior. Ice is slippery; forest blocks almost everything but can be trampled by the player; lava hurts the player a lot; fire hurts the player and can spread, but burns out after a while. The trick with replicating these is that robots cannot be walked on. An alternative is to use sensors, which can be walked on and which can be controlled by a robot, but anything other than the player will push a sensor rather than stepping onto it. The only other approach I can think of is to keep track of all tiles that have a custom terrain, draw or animate them manually with custom floor tiles, and constantly check whether something’s standing there.

Last are powerups, which are really effects that rings or potions can give you. Some of them are special cases of effects that Robotic can do more generally, such as giving 10 health or changing all of one object into another. Some are completely custom engine stuff, like “Slow Time”, which makes everything on the board (even robots!) run at half speed. The latter are the ones you can’t easily emulate. What if you want to run everything at a quarter speed, for whatever reason? Well, you can’t, short of replacing everything with robots and doing a multiplication every time they wait.

ZDoom has a similar problem: it offers fixed sets of behaviors and powerups (which mostly derive from the commercial games it supports) and that’s it. You can manually script other stuff and go quite far, but some surprisingly simple ideas are very difficult to implement, just because the engine doesn’t offer the right kind of hook.

The tricky part of a generic engine is that a game creator will eventually want to change the rules, and they can only do that if the engine has rules for changing those rules. If the engine devs never thought of it, you’re out of luck.

Someone else please carry on this legacy

MegaZeux still sees development activity, but it’s very sporadic — the last release was in 2012. New features tend to be about making the impossible possible, rather than making the difficult easier. I think it’s safe to call MegaZeux finished, in the sense that a novel is finished.

I would really like to see something pick up its torch. It’s a very tricky problem, especially with the sprawling complexity of games, but surely it’s worth giving non-developers a way to try out the field.

I suppose if ZZT and MegaZeux and ZDoom have taught us anything, it’s that the best way to get started is to just write a game and give it very flexible editing tools. Maybe we should do that more. Maybe I’ll try to do it with Isaac’s Descent HD, and we’ll see how it turns out.

AWS Week in Review – September 27, 2016

Post Syndicated from Jeff Barr original https://aws.amazon.com/blogs/aws/aws-week-in-review-september-27-2016/

Fourteen (14) external and internal contributors worked together to create this edition of the AWS Week in Review. If you would like to join the party (with the possibility of a free lunch at re:Invent), please visit the AWS Week in Review on GitHub.


September 26


September 27


September 28


September 29


September 30


October 1


October 2

New & Notable Open Source

  • dynamodb-continuous-backup sets up continuous backup automation for DynamoDB.
  • lambda-billing uses NodeJS to automate billing to AWS tagged projects, producing PDF invoices.
  • vyos-based-vpc-wan is a complete Packer + CloudFormation + Troposphere powered setup of AMIs to run VyOS IPSec tunnels across multiple AWS VPCs, using BGP-4 for dynamic routing.
  • s3encrypt is a utility that encrypts and decrypts files in S3 with KMS keys.
  • lambda-uploader helps to package and upload Lambda functions to AWS.
  • AWS-Architect helps to deploy microservices to Lambda and API Gateway.
  • awsgi is an WSGI gateway for API Gateway and Lambda proxy integration.
  • rusoto is an AWS SDK for Rust.
  • EBS_Scripts contains some EBS tricks and triads.
  • landsat-on-aws is a web application that uses Amazon S3, Amazon API Gateway, and AWS Lambda to create an infinitely scalable interface to navigate Landsat satellite data.

New SlideShare Presentations

New AWS Marketplace Listings

Upcoming Events

Help Wanted

Stay tuned for next week! In the meantime, follow me on Twitter and subscribe to the RSS feed.

Monk Makes Puppet Kit

Post Syndicated from Alex Bate original https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/monk-makes-puppet-kit/

A few weeks back, we were fortunate enough to be sent the Puppet Kit for Raspberry Pi, from our friend Simon Monk of Monk Makes. The kit shows you how to use your Raspberry Pi to take control of a traditional marionette, including controlling the puppet from your keyboard, recording stop-frame puppet movements, and setting the puppet up so that it waves when it detects movement. 

Given my limited experience of physical computing with a Raspberry Pi, I decided to take on the challenge of completing the kit, and documented my journey through Snapchat.

Monk Makes Puppet Kit

To boldly go…

Right out of the box, the kit feels as if it has been put together with care and thought. All wooden pieces have been laser cut, all components (apart from the Raspberry Pi itself) are provided, and the kit includes a step-by-step guide so foolproof that I felt confident I could complete the project. 

The only issue?

My intense fear of clowns, which was instantly triggered when I opened the box and saw the puppet itself:

Monk Makes Puppet

All the nope.

Despite my coulrophobia, I carried on with the build, because that’s how much you all mean to me, dear readers. I do these things for you.

The guide walked me through the project, with clear instructions supported by photographs and diagrams. It was only when I reached Step 16, “Run the Test Code”, that I realised I couldn’t find a mouse. Fortunately I was able to enlist the aid of Ben Nuttall, who has become my Raspberry Pi hero in cases such as this.

Ben Nuttall is my hero

Ben helped me to set the Pi up on the Pi Towers local network, allowing me to feed Simon’s code to the Pi via my MacBook. If you don’t have access to Ben and his heroic abilities, you could use the recently mentioned PiBakery from the legendary David Ferguson to preset the network details into Raspbian before setting up your Raspberry Pi.

After this, setting up the walking functionality of the puppet, plus the additional sensor, was a breeze. With very little previous experience of using GPIO pins, servos, and nightmare-inducing clown puppets, I was somewhat taken aback by how easy I found the process. In fact, by the end, I had the clown dancing a merry jig and waving to anyone who passed. Cute, right?

Making a Waving Puppet – Snapchat Story

We recently got our hands on the Monk Makes Puppet Kit and decided to have Alex build it.. despite her complete lack of coding knowledge. Seriously… she knows nothing. She’s the Jon Snow of Digital Making.

All in all, the kit was a wonderful experience and an interesting learning curve. Not only did it teach me the value of a well-executed and detailed maker kit, it also taught me the value of a Ben Nuttall, and helped me not to fear all clowns after having watched IT at a teenage slumber party like a fool!

*cries in a corner*

The post Monk Makes Puppet Kit appeared first on Raspberry Pi.

Graphical fidelity is ruining video games

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2016/06/22/graphical-fidelity-is-ruining-video-games/

I’m almost 30, so I have to start practicing being crotchety.

Okay, maybe not all video games, but something curious has definitely happened here. Please bear with me for a moment.

Discovering Doom

Surprise! This is about Doom again.

Last month, I sat down and played through the first episode of Doom 1 for the first time. Yep, the first time. I’ve mentioned before that I was introduced to Doom a bit late, and mostly via Doom 2. I’m familiar with a decent bit of Doom 1, but I’d never gotten around to actually playing through any of it.

I might be almost unique in playing Doom 1 for the first time decades after it came out, while already being familiar with the series overall. I didn’t experience Doom 1 only in contrast to modern games, but in contrast to later games using the same engine.

It was very interesting to experience Romero’s design sense in one big chunk, rather than sprinkled around as it is in Doom 2. Come to think of it, Doom 1’s first episode is the only contiguous block of official Doom maps to have any serious consistency: it sticks to a single dominant theme and expands gradually in complexity as you play through it. Episodes 2 and 3, as well of most of Doom 2, are dominated by Sandy Petersen’s more haphazard and bizarre style. Episode 4 and Final Doom, if you care to count them, are effectively just map packs.

It was also painfully obvious just how new this kind of game was. I’ve heard Romero stress the importance of contrast in floor height (among other things) so many times, and yet Doom 1 is almost comically flat. There’s the occasional lift or staircase, sure, but the spaces generally feel like they’re focused around a single floor height with the occasional variation. Remember, floor height was a new thing — id had just finished making Wolfenstein 3D, where the floor and ceiling were completely flat and untextured.

The game was also clearly designed for people who had never played this kind of game. There was much more ammo than I could possibly carry; I left multiple shell boxes behind on every map. The levels were almost comically easy, even on UV, and I’m not particularly good at shooters. It was a very stark contrast to when I played partway through The Plutonia Experiment a few years ago and had to rely heavily on quicksaving.

Seeing Doom 1 from a Doom 2 perspective got me thinking about how design sensibilities in shooters have morphed over time. And then I realized something: I haven’t enjoyed an FPS since Quake 2.

Or… hang on. That’s not true. I enjoy Splatoon (except when I lose). I loved the Metroid Prime series. I played Team Fortress 2 for quite a while.

On the other hand, I found Half-Life 2 a little boring, I lost interest in Doom 3 before even reaching Hell, and I bailed on Quake 4 right around the extremely hammy spoiler plot thing. I loved Fallout, but I couldn’t stand Fallout 3. Uncharted is pretty to watch, but looks incredibly tedious to play. I never cared about Halo. I don’t understand the appeal of Counterstrike or Call of Duty.

If I made a collage of screenshots of these two sets of games, you’d probably spot the pattern pretty quickly. It seems I can’t stand games with realistic graphics.

I have a theory about this.

The rise of realism

Quake introduced the world to “true” 3D — an environment made out of arbitrary shapes, not just floors and walls. (I’m sure there were other true-3D games before it, but I challenge you to name one off the top of your head.)

Before Quake, games couldn’t even simulate a two-story building, which ruled out most realistic architecture. Walls that slid sideways were virtually unique to Hexen (and, for some reason, the much earlier Wolfenstein 3D). So level designers built slightly more abstract spaces instead. Consider this iconic room from the very beginning of Doom’s E1M1.

What is this room? This is supposed to be a base of some kind, but who would build this room just to store a single armored vest? Up a flight of stairs, on a dedicated platform, and framed by glowing pillars? This is completely ridiculous.

But nobody thinks like that, and even the people who do, don’t really care too much. It’s a room with a clear design idea and a clear gameplay purpose: to house the green armor. It doesn’t matter that this would never be a real part of a base. The game exists in its own universe, and it establishes early on that these are the rules of that universe. Sometimes a fancy room exists just to give the player a thing.

At the same time, the room still resembles a base. I can take for granted, in the back of my head, that someone deliberately placed this armor here for storage. It’s off the critical path, too, so it doesn’t quit feel like it was left specifically for me to pick up. The world is designed for the player, but it doesn’t feel that way — the environment implies, however vaguely, that other stuff is going on here.

Fast forward twenty years. Graphics and physics technology have vastly improved, to the point that we can now roughly approximate a realistic aesthetic in real-time. A great many games thus strive to do exactly that.

And that… seems like a shame. The better a game emulates reality, the less of a style it has. I can’t even tell Call of Duty and Battlefield apart.

That’s fine, though, right? It’s just an aesthetic thing. It doesn’t really affect the game.

It totally affects the game

Everything looks the same

Realism” generally means “ludicrous amounts of detail” — even moreso if the environments are already partially-destroyed, which is a fairly common trope I’ll be touching on a lot here.

When everything is highly-detailed, screenshots may look very good, but gameplay suffers because the player can no longer tell what’s important. The tendency for everything to have a thick coating of sepia certainly doesn’t help.

Look at that Call of Duty screenshot again. What in this screenshot is actually important? What here matters to you as a player? As far as I can tell, the only critical objects are:

  • Your current weapon

That’s it. The rocks and grass and billboards and vehicles and Hollywood sign might look very nice (by which I mean, “look like those things look”), but they aren’t important to the game at all. This might as well be a completely empty hallway.

To be fair, I haven’t played the game, so for all I know there’s a compelling reason to collect traffic cones. Otherwise, this screenshot is 100% noise. Everything in it serves only to emphasize that you’re in a realistic environment.

Don’t get me wrong, setting the scene is important, but something has been missed here. Detail catches the eye, and this screenshot is nothing but detail. None of it is relevant. If there were ammo lying around, would you even be able to find it?

Ah, but then, modern realistic games either do away with ammo pickups entirely or make them glow so you can tell they’re there. You know, for the realism.

(Speaking of glowing: something I always found ridiculous was how utterly bland the imp fireballs look in Doom 3 and 4. We have these amazing lighting engines, and the best we can do for a fireball is a solid pale orange circle? How do modern fireballs look less interesting than a Doom 1 fireball sprite?)

Even Fallout 2 bugged me a little with this; the world was full of shelves and containers, but it seemed almost all of them were completely empty. Fallout 1 had tons of loot waiting to be swiped from shelves, but someone must’ve decided that was a little silly and cut down on it in Fallout 2. So then, what’s the point of having so many shelves? They encourage the player to explore, then offer no reward whatsoever most of the time.

Environments are boring and static

Fallout 3 went right off the rails, filling the world with tons of (gray) detail, none of which I could interact with. I was barely finished with the first settlement before I gave up on the game because of how empty it felt. Everywhere was detailed as though it were equally important, but most of it was static decorations. From what I’ve seen, Fallout 4 is even worse.

Our graphical capabilities have improved much faster than our ability to actually simulate all the junk we’re putting on the screen. Hey, there’s a car! Can I get in it? Can I drive it? No, I can only bump into an awkwardly-shaped collision box drawn around it. So what’s the point of having a car, an object that — in the real world — I’m accustomed to being able to use?

And yet… a game that has nothing to do with driving a car doesn’t need you to be able to drive a car. Games are games, not perfect simulations of reality. They have rules, a goal, and a set of things the player is able to do. There’s no reason to make the player able to do everything if it has no bearing on what the game’s about.

This puts “realistic” games in an awkward position. How do they solve it?

One good example that comes to mind is Portal, which was rendered realistically, but managed to develop a style from the limited palette it used in the actual play areas. It didn’t matter that you couldn’t interact with the world in any way other than portaling walls and lifting cubes, because for the vast majority of the game, you only encountered walls and cubes! Even the “behind the scenes” parts at the end were mostly architecture, not objects, and I’m not particularly bothered that I can’t interact with a large rusty pipe.

The standouts were the handful of offices you managed to finagle your way into, which were of course full of files and computers and other desktop detritus. Everything in an office is — necessarily! — something a human can meaningfully interact with, but the most you can do in Portal is drop a coffee cup on the floor. It’s all the more infuriating if you consider that the plot might have been explained by the information in those files or on those computers. Portal 2 was in fact a little worse about this, as you spent much more time outside of the controlled test areas.

I think Left 4 Dead may have also avoided this problem by forcing the players to be moving constantly — you don’t notice that you can’t get in a car if you’re running for your life. The only time the players can really rest is in a safe house, which are generally full of objects the players can pick up and use.

Progression feels linear and prescripted

Ah, but the main draw of Portal is one of my favorite properties of games: you could manipulate the environment itself. It’s the whole point of the game, even. And it seems to be conspicuously missing from many modern “realistic” games, partly because real environments are just static, but also in large part because… of the graphics!

Rendering a very complex scene is hard, so modern map formats do a whole lot of computing stuff ahead of time. (For similar reasons, albeit more primitive ones, vanilla Doom can’t move walls sideways.) Having any of the environment actually move or change is thus harder, so it tends to be reserved for fancy cutscenes when you press the button that lets you progress. And because grandiose environmental changes aren’t very realistic, that button often just opens a door or blows something up.

It feels hamfisted, like someone carefully set it all up just for me. Obviously someone did, but the last thing I want is to be reminded of that. I’m reminded very strongly of Half-Life 2, which felt like one very long corridor punctuated by the occasional overt physics puzzle. Contrast with Doom, where there are buttons all over the place and they just do things without drawing any particular attention to the results. Mystery switches are sometimes a problem, but for better or worse, Doom’s switches always feel like something I’m doing to the game, rather than the game waiting for me to come along so it can do some preordained song and dance.

I miss switches. Real switches, not touchscreens. Big chunky switches that take up half a wall.

It’s not just the switches, though. Several of Romero’s maps from episode 1 are shaped like a “horseshoe”, which more or less means that you can see the exit from the beginning (across some open plaza). More importantly, the enemies at the exit can see you, and will be shooting at you for much of the level.

That gives you choices, even within the limited vocabulary of Doom. Do you risk wasting ammo trying to take them out from a distance, or do you just dodge their shots all throughout the level? It’s up to you! You get to decide how to play the game, naturally, without choosing from a How Do You Want To Play The Game menu. Hell, Doom has entire speedrun categories focused around combat — Tyson for only using the fist and pistol, pacifist for never attacking a monster at all.

You don’t see a lot of that any more. Rendering an entire large area in a polygon-obsessed game is, of course, probably not going to happen — whereas the Doom engine can handle it just fine. I’ll also hazard a guess and say that having too much enemy AI going at once and/or rendering too many highly-detailed enemies at once is too intensive. Or perhaps balancing and testing multiple paths is too complicated.

Or it might be the same tendency I see in modding scenes: the instinct to obsessively control the player’s experience, to come up with a perfectly-crafted gameplay concept and then force the player to go through it exactly as it was conceived. Even Doom 4, from what I can see, has a shocking amount of “oh no the doors are locked, kill all the monsters to unlock them!” nonsense. Why do you feel the need to force the player to shoot the monsters? Isn’t that the whole point of the game? Either the player wants to do it and the railroading is pointless, or the player doesn’t want to do it and you’re making the game actively worse for them!

Something that struck me in Doom’s E1M7 was that, at a certain point, you run back across half the level and there are just straggler monsters all over the place. They all came out of closets when you picked up something, of course, but they also milled around while waiting for you to find them. They weren’t carefully scripted to teleport around you in a fixed pattern when you showed up; they were allowed to behave however they want, following the rules of the game.

Whatever the cause, something has been lost. The entire point of games is that they’re an interactive medium — the player has some input, too.

Exploration is discouraged

I haven’t played through too many recent single-player shooters, but I get the feeling that branching paths (true nonlinearity) and sprawling secrets have become less popular too. I’ve seen a good few people specifically praise Doom 4 for having them, so I assume the status quo is to… not.

That’s particularly sad off the back of Doom episode 1, which has sprawling secrets that often feel like an entire hidden part of the base. In several levels, merely getting outside qualifies as a secret. There are secrets within secrets. There are locked doors inside secrets. It’s great.

And these are real secrets, not three hidden coins in a level and you need to find so many of them to unlock more levels. The rewards are heaps of resources, not a fixed list of easter eggs to collect. Sometimes they’re not telegraphed at all; sometimes you need to do something strange to open them. Doom has a secret you open by walking up to one of two pillars with a heart on it. Doom 2 has a secret you open by run-jumping onto a light fixture, and another you open by “using” a torch and shooting some eyes in the wall.

I miss these, too. Finding one can be a serious advantage, and you can feel genuinely clever for figuring them out, yet at the same time you’re not permanently missing out on anything if you don’t find them all.

I can imagine why these might not be so common any more. If decorating an area is expensive and complicated, you’re not going to want to build large areas off the critical path. In Doom, though, you can make a little closet containing a powerup in about twenty seconds.

More crucially, many of the Doom secrets require the player to notice a detail that’s out of place — and that’s much easier to set up in a simple world like Doom. In a realistic world where every square inch is filled with clutter, how could anyone possibly notice a detail out of place? How can a designer lay any subtle hints at all, when even the core gameplay elements have to glow for anyone to pick them out from background noise?

This might be the biggest drawback to extreme detail: it ultimately teaches the player to ignore the detail, because very little of it is ever worth exploring. After running into enough invisible walls, you’re going to give up on straying from the beaten path.

We wind up with a world where players are trained to look for whatever glows, and completely ignore everything else. At which point… why are we even bothering?

There are no surprises

Realistic” graphics mean a “realistic” world, and let’s face it, the real world can be a little dull. That’s why we invented video games, right?

Doom has a very clear design vocabulary. Here are some demons. They throw stuff at you; don’t get hit by it. Here are some guns, which you can all hold at once, because those are the rules. Also here’s a glowing floating sphere that gives you a lot of health.

What is a megasphere, anyway? Does it matter? It’s a thing in the game with very clearly-defined rules. It’s good; pick it up.

You can’t do that in a “realistic” game. (Or maybe you can, but we seem to be trying to avoid it.) You can’t just pick up a pair of stereoscopic glasses to inexplicably get night vision for 30 seconds; you need to have some night-vision goggles with batteries and it’s a whole thing. You can’t pick up health kits that heal you; you have to be wearing regenerative power armor and pick up energy cells. Even Doom 4 seems to be uncomfortable leaving brightly flashing keycards lying around — instead you retrieve them from the corpses of people wearing correspondingly-colored armor.

Everything needs an explanation, which vastly reduces the chances of finding anything too surprising or new.

I’m told that Call of Duty is the most popular vidya among the millenials, so I went to look at its weapons:

  • Gun
  • Fast gun
  • Long gun
  • Different gun

How exciting! If you click through each of those gun categories, you can even see the list of unintelligible gun model numbers, which are exactly what gets me excited about a game.

I wonder if those model numbers are real or not. I’m not sure which would be worse.

Get off my lawn

So my problem is that striving for realism is incredibly boring and counter-productive. I don’t even understand the appeal; if I wanted reality, I could look out my window.

Realism” actively sabotages games. I can judge Doom or Mario or Metroid or whatever as independent universes with their own rules, because that’s what they are. A game that’s trying to mirror reality, I can only compare to reality — and it’ll be a very pale imitation.

It comes down to internal consistency. Doom and Team Fortress 2 and Portal and Splatoon and whatever else are pretty upfront about what they’re offering: you have a gun, you can shoot it, also you can run around and maybe press some buttons if you’re lucky. That’s exactly what you get. It’s right there on the box, even.

Then I load Fallout 3, and it tries to look like the real world, and it does a big song and dance asking me for my stats “in-world”, and it tries to imply I can roam this world and do anything I want and forge my own destiny. Then I get into the game, and it turns out I can pretty much just shoot, pick from dialogue trees, and make the occasional hamfisted moral choice. The gameplay doesn’t live up to what the environment tried to promise. The controls don’t even live up to what the environment tried to promise.

The great irony is that “realism” is harshly limiting, even as it grows ever more expensive and elaborate. I’m reminded of the Fat Man in Fallout 3, the gun that launches “mini nukes”. If that weapon had been in Fallout 1 or 2, I probably wouldn’t think twice about it. But in the attempted “realistic” world of Fallout 3, I have to judge it as though it were trying to be a real thing — because it is! — and that makes it sound completely ridiculous.

(It may sound like I’m picking on Fallout 3 a lot here, but to its credit, it actually had enough stuff going on that it stands out to me. I barely remember anything about Doom 3 or Quake 4, and when I think of Half-Life 2 I mostly imagine indistinct crumbling hallways or a grungy river that never ends.)

I’ve never felt this way about series that ignored realism and went for their own art style. Pikmin 3 looks very nice, but I never once felt that I ought to be able to do anything other than direct Pikmin around. Metroid Prime looks great too and has some “realistic” touches, but it still has a very distinct aesthetic, and it manages to do everything important with a relatively small vocabulary — even plentiful secrets.

I just don’t understand the game industry (and game culture)’s fanatical obsession with realistic graphics. They make games worse. It’s entirely possible to have an art style other than “get a lot of unpaid interns to model photos of rocks”, even for a mind-numbingly bland army man simulator. Please feel free to experiment a little more. I would love to see more weird and abstract worlds that follow their own rules and drag you down the rabbit hole with them.

One year later

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2016/06/12/one-year-later/

A year ago today was my last day working a tech job.

What I didn’t do

I think I spent the first few months in a bit of a daze. I have a bad habit of expecting worst case scenarios, so I was in a constant state of mild panic over whether I could really earn enough to support myself. Not particularly conducive to doing things.

There was also a very striking change in… people scenery? Working for a tech company, even remotely, meant that I spent much of my time talking to a large group of tech-minded people who knew the context behind things I was working on. Even if they weren’t the things I wanted to be working on, I could at least complain about an obscure problem and expect to find someone who understood it.

Suddenly, that was gone. I know some tech people, of course, and have some tech followers on Twitter, but those groups are much more heterogenous than a few dozen people all working on the same website. It was a little jarring.

And yet, looking back, I suspect that feeling had been fading for some time. I’d been working on increasingly obscure projects for Yelp, which limited how much I could really talk to anyone about them. Towards the end I was put on a particularly thorny problem just because I was the only person who knew anything about it at all. I spent a few weeks hammering away at this thing that zero other people understood, that I barely understood myself, that I didn’t much enjoy doing, and that would ultimately just speed deployments up by a few minutes.


When I left, I had a lot of ideas for the kinds of things I wanted to do with all this newfound free time. Most of them were “pure” programming ideas: design and implement a programming language, build a new kind of parser, build a replacement for IRC, or at least build a little IRC bot framework.

I ended up doing… none of those! With more time to do things, rather than daydream restlessly about doing things, I discovered that building libraries and infrastructure is incredibly tedious and unrewarding. (For me, I mean. If that’s your jam, well, I’m glad it’s someone’s.)

I drifted for a little while as I came to terms with this, trying to force myself to work on these grandiose dreams. Ultimately, I realized that I most enjoy programming when it’s a means to an end, when there’s a goal beyond “write some code to do this”. Hence my recent tilt towards game development, where the code is just one part of a larger whole.

And, crucially, that larger whole is something that everyone can potentially enjoy. The difference has been night and day. I can tweet a screenshot of a text adventure and catch several people’s interest. On the other hand, a Python library for resizing images? Who cares? It’s not a complete thing; it’s a building block, a tool. At worst, no one ever uses it, and I have nothing to show for the time. Even at best, well… let’s just say the way programmers react to technical work is very different from the way everyone else reacts to creative work.

I do still like building libraries on occasion, but my sights are much smaller now. I may pick up sanpera or dywypi again, for instance, but I think that’s largely because other people are already using them to do things. I don’t have much interest in devoting months to designing and building a programming language that only a handful of PLT nerds will even look at, when I could instead spend a day and a half making a Twitter bot that posts random noise and immediately have multiple people tell me it’s relaxing or interesting.

In short, I’ve learned a lot about what’s important to me!

Ah, yes, I also thought I would’ve written a book by now. I, uh, haven’t. Writing a book apparently takes a lot more long-term focus than I tend to have available. It also requires enough confidence in a single idea to write tens of thousands of words about it, and that doesn’t come easily either. I’ve taken a lot of notes, written a couple short drafts, and picked up a bit of TeX, so it’s still on the table, but I don’t expect any particular timeframe.

What I did do

Argh, this is going to overlap with my birthday posts. But:

I wrote a whopping 43 blog posts, totalling just over 160,000 words. That’s two or three novels! Along the way, my Patreon has more than tripled to a level that’s, well, more reassuring. Thank you so much, everyone who’s contributed — I can’t imagine a better compliment than discovering that people are willing to directly pay me to keep writing and making whatever little strange things I want.

I drew a hell of a lot. My progress has been documented elsewhere, but suffice to say, I’ve come a long way. I also expanded into a few new media over this past year: watercolors, pixel art, and even a teeny bit of animation.

I made some games. The release of Mario Maker was a really nice start — I could play around with level design ideas inside a world with established gameplay and let other people play them fairly easily. Less seriously, I made Don’t Eat the Cactus, which was microscopic but ended up entertaining a surprising number of people — that’s made me rethink my notions of what a game even needs to be. I made a Doom level, and released it, for the first time. Most recently, of course, Mel and I made Under Construction, a fully-fledged little pixel game. I’ve really enjoyed this so far, and I have several more small things going at the moment.

The elephant in the room is perhaps Runed Awakening, the text adventure I started almost two years ago. It was supposed to be a small first game, but it’s spiraled a little bit out of hand. Perhaps I underestimated text adventures. A year ago, I wasn’t really sure where the game was going, and the ending was vague and unsatisfying; now there’s a clear ending, a rough flow through the game, and most importantly enough ideas to see it through from here. I’ve rearchitected the entire world, added a few major NPCs, added core mechanics, added scoring, added a little reward for replaying, added several major areas, implemented some significant puzzles, and even made an effort to illustrate it. There’s still quite a lot of work left, but I enjoy working on it and I’m excited about the prospect of releasing it.

I did more work on SLADE while messing around with Doom modding, most notably adding support for ZDoom’s myriad kinds of slopes. I tracked down and fixed a lot of bugs with editing geometry, which is a really interesting exercise and a challenging problem, and I’ve fixed dozens of little papercuts. I’ve got a few major things in progress still: support for 3D floors is maybe 70% done, support for lock types is about 70% done. Oh, yes, and I started on a static analyzer for scripts, which is a fantastic intersection of “pure programming” and “something practical that people could make use of”. That’s maybe 10% done and will take a hell of a lot of work, but boy would it be great to see.

I improved spline (the software powering Floraverse) more than I’d realized: arbitrarily-nested folders, multiple media per “page”, and the revamped archives were all done this past year. I used the same library to make Mel a simple site, too. It’s still not something I would advise other people run, but I did put a modicum of effort into documenting it and cleaning up some general weirdness, and I made my own life easier by migrating everything to runit.

veekun has languished for a while, but fear not, I’m still working on it. I wrote brand new code to dump (most of) RBY from scratch, using a YAML schema instead of a relational database, which has grown increasingly awkward to fit all of Pokémon’s special cases into. I still hope to revamp the site based on this idea in time for Sun and Moon. I also spent a little time modernizing the pokedex library itself, most notably making it work with Python 3.

I wrote some other code, too. Camel was an idea I’d had for a while, and I just sat down and wrote it over the course of a couple days, and I’m glad I did. I rewrote PARTYMODE. I did another round of heteroglot. I fixed some bugs in ZDoom. I sped Quixe (a JavaScript interpreter for some text adventures) up by 10% across the board. I wrote some weird Twitter bots. I wrote a lot of one-off stuff for various practical purposes, some of it abandoned, some of it used once and thrown away.

Is that a lot? It doesn’t even feel like a lot. I want to do just as much again by the end of the year. I guess we’ll see how that goes.

Some things people said

Not long after my original post made the rounds, I was contacted by a Vox editor who asked if I’d like to expand my post into an article. A paid article! I thought that sounded fantastic, and could even open the door to more paid writing. I spent most of a week on it.

It went up with the title “I’m 28, I just quit my tech job, and I never want another job again” and a hero image of fists slamming a keyboard. I hadn’t been asked or told about either, and only found out by seeing the live page. I’d even given my own title; no idea what happened to that, or to the byline I wrote.

I can’t imagine a more effective way to make me sound like a complete asshole. I barely remember how the article itself was phrased; I could swear I tried to adapt to a broader and less personal audience, but I guess I didn’t do a very good job, and I’m too embarrassed to go look at it now.

I found out very quickly, via some heated Twitter responses, that it looks even worse without the context of “I wrote this in my blog and Vox approached me to publish it”. It hadn’t even occurred to me that people would assume writing an article for a news website had been my idea, but of course they would. Whoops. In the ensuing year, I’ve encountered one or two friends of friends who proactively blocked me just over that article. Hell, I’d block me too.

I don’t think I want to do any more writing where I don’t have final editorial control.

I bring this up because there have been some wildly differing reactions to what I wrote, and Vox had the most drastic divide. A lot of people were snarky or angry. But just as many people contacted me, often privately, to say they feel the same way and are hoping to quit their jobs in the future and wish me luck.

It’s the money, right? You’re not supposed to talk about money, but I’m an idiot and keep doing it anyway.

I don’t want anyone to feel bad. I tried, actively, not to say anything wildly insensitive, in both the original post and the Vox article. I know a lot of people hate their jobs, and I know most people can’t afford to quit. I wish everyone could. I’d love to see a world where everyone could do or learn or explore or make all the things they wanted. Unfortunately, my wishes have no bearing on how the system works.

I suspect… people have expectations. The American Dream™ is to get a bunch of money, at which point you win and can be happy forever.

I had a cushy well-paying job, and I wasn’t happy. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Yet if anything, the money made me more unhappy, by keeping me around longer.

People like to quip that money can’t buy happiness. I think that’s missing the point. Money can remove sadness, but only if that sadness is related to not having enough money. My problem was not having enough time.

I was tremendously lucky to have stock options and to be able to pay off the house, but those things cancelled each other out. The money was finite, and I spent it all at once. Now it’s gone, and I still have bills, albeit fewer of them. I still need to earn income, or I’ll run out of money for buying food and internets.

I make considerably less now. I’m also much, much happier.

I don’t know why I feel the need to delve so deeply into this. The original post happened to hit lobste.rs a few days ago, and there were a couple “what a rich asshole” comments, which reminded me of all this. They were subtly weird to read, as though they were about an article from a slightly different parallel universe. I was reminded that many of the similar comments from a year ago had a similar feel to them.

If you think I’m an asshole because I’ve acted like an asshole, well, that’s okay. I try not to, and I’ll try to be better next time, but sometimes I fuck up.

If you think I’m an asshole because I pitched a whiny article to Vox about how one of the diamond lightbulbs in my Scrooge McDuck vault went out, damn. It bugs me a little to be judged as a carciature with little relation to what I’ve actually done.

To the people who ask me for advice

Here’s a more good comment:

The first week was relaxing, productive, glorious. Then I passed the midpoint and saw the end of my freedom looming on the horizon. Gloom descended once more.

I thought I was the only one, who felt like this. I see myself in everything [they] describe. I just don’t have the guts to try and sell my very own software as a full time thing.

I like to liberally license everything I do, and I fucking hate advertising and will never put it on anything I control

It’s almost as if that [person] is me, with a different name, and cuter website graphics.

First of all, thank you! I have further increased the cuteness of my website graphics since this comment. I hope you enjoy.

I’ve heard a lot of this over the past year. A lot. There are a shocking number of people in tech who hate being in tech, even though we all get paid in chests full of gold doubloons.

A decent number of them also asked for my input. What should they do? Should they also quit? Should they switch careers?

I would like to answer everyone, once and for all, by stressing that I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know anything. I’m not a renowned expert in job-quitting or anything.

I left because, ultimately, I had to. I was utterly, utterly exhausted. I’d been agonizing over it for almost a year prior, but had stayed because I didn’t think I could pull it off. I was terrified of failure. Even after deciding to quit, I’d wanted to stay another six months and finish out the year. I left when I did because I was deteriorating.

I hoped I could make it work, Mel told me I could make it work, and I had some four layers of backup plans. I still might’ve failed, and every backup plan might’ve failed. I didn’t. But I could’ve.

I can’t tell you whether it’s a good decision to quit your job to backpack through Europe or write that screenplay you’ve always wanted to write. I could barely tell myself whether this was a good idea. I’m not sure I’d admit to it even now. I can’t decide your future for you.

On the other hand…

On the other hand, if you’re just looking for someone to tell you what you want to hear, what you’ve already decided…

Well, let’s just say you’d know better than I would.

Weekly roundup: spring cleaning

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/dev/2016/06/06/weekly-roundup-spring-cleaning/

June’s theme is, ah, clearing my plate! Yes, we’ll try that again; I have a lot of minor (and not-so-minor) todos that have been hanging over my head for a long time, and I’d like to clear some of them out. I also want to do DUMP 3 and make a significant dent in Runed Awakening, so, busy busy.

  • blog: I published a very fancy explanation of Perlin noise, using a lot of diagrams and interactive things I’d spent half the previous week making, but it came out pretty cool! I also wrote about how I extracted our game’s soundtrack from the PICO-8. And I edited and published a two-year-old post about how I switched Yelp from tabs to spaces! I am on a roll and maybe won’t have to write three posts in the same week at the end of the month this time.

    I did a bit of work on the site itself, too. I linked my Mario Maker levels on the projects page. I fixed a PARTYMODE incompatibility with Edge, because I want my DHTML confetti to annoy as many people as possible. I fixed a silly slowdown with my build process. And at long last, I fixed the &nbsp; cruft in the titles of all my Disqus threads.

  • gamedev: I wrote a hecka bunch of notes for Mel for a… thing… that… we may or may not end up doing… but that would be pretty cool if we did.

  • patreon: I finally got my Pokémon Showdown adapter working well enough to write a very bad proof of concept battle bot for Sketch, which you can peruse if you really want to. I had some fun asking people to fight the bot, which just chooses moves at complete random and doesn’t understand anything about the actual game. It hasn’t won a single time. Except against me, when I was first writing it, and also choosing moves at complete random.

    I rewrote my Patreon bio, too; now it’s a bit more concrete and (ahem) better typeset.

  • doom: I started on three separate ideas for DUMP 3 maps, though I’m now leaning heavily in favor of just one of them. (I’d like to continue the other two some other time, though.) I did a few hours of work each day on it, and while I’m still in the creative quagmire of “what the heck do I do with all this space”, it’s coming along. I streamed some of the mapping, which I’ve never done before, and which the three people still awake at 3am seemed to enjoy.

  • SLADE: I can’t do any Doom mapping without itching to add things to SLADE. I laid some groundwork for supporting multiple tags per sector, but that got kinda boring, so I rebased my old 3D floors branch and spruced that up a lot. Fixed a heckton of bugs in it and added support for some more features. Still a ways off, but it’s definitely getting there.

  • art: I drew a June avatar! “Drew” might be a strong word, since I clearly modified it from my April/May avatar, but this time I put a lot of effort (and a lot of bugging Mel for advice) into redoing the colors from scratch, and I think it looks considerably better.

  • spring cleaning: Sorted through some photos (i.e. tagged which cats were in them), closed a few hundred browser tabs, and the like.

Wow, that’s a lot of things! I’m pretty happy about that; here’s to more things!

Weekly roundup: spring cleaning

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/dev/2016/06/06/spring-cleaning/

June’s theme is, ah, clearing my plate! Yes, we’ll try that again; I have a lot of minor (and not-so-minor) todos that have been hanging over my head for a long time, and I’d like to clear some of them out. I also want to do DUMP 3 and make a significant dent in Runed Awakening, so, busy busy.

  • blog: I published a very fancy explanation of Perlin noise, using a lot of diagrams and interactive things I’d spent half the previous week making, but it came out pretty cool! I also wrote about how I extracted our game’s soundtrack from the PICO-8. And I edited and published a two-year-old post about how I switched Yelp from tabs to spaces! I am on a roll and maybe won’t have to write three posts in the same week at the end of the month this time.

    I did a bit of work on the site itself, too. I linked my Mario Maker levels on the projects page. I fixed a PARTYMODE incompatibility with Edge, because I want my DHTML confetti to annoy as many people as possible. I fixed a silly slowdown with my build process. And at long last, I fixed the &nbsp; cruft in the titles of all my Disqus threads.

  • gamedev: I wrote a hecka bunch of notes for Mel for a… thing… that… we may or may not end up doing… but that would be pretty cool if we did.

  • patreon: I finally got my Pokémon Showdown adapter working well enough to write a very bad proof of concept battle bot for Sketch, which you can peruse if you really want to. I had some fun asking people to fight the bot, which just chooses moves at complete random and doesn’t understand anything about the actual game. It hasn’t won a single time. Except against me, when I was first writing it, and also choosing moves at complete random.

    I rewrote my Patreon bio, too; now it’s a bit more concrete and (ahem) better typeset.

  • doom: I started on three separate ideas for DUMP 3 maps, though I’m now leaning heavily in favor of just one of them. (I’d like to continue the other two some other time, though.) I did a few hours of work each day on it, and while I’m still in the creative quagmire of “what the heck do I do with all this space”, it’s coming along. I streamed some of the mapping, which I’ve never done before, and which the three people still awake at 3am seemed to enjoy.

  • SLADE: I can’t do any Doom mapping without itching to add things to SLADE. I laid some groundwork for supporting multiple tags per sector, but that got kinda boring, so I rebased my old 3D floors branch and spruced that up a lot. Fixed a heckton of bugs in it and added support for some more features. Still a ways off, but it’s definitely getting there.

  • art: I drew a June avatar! “Drew” might be a strong word, since I clearly modified it from my April/May avatar, but this time I put a lot of effort (and a lot of bugging Mel for advice) into redoing the colors from scratch, and I think it looks considerably better.

  • spring cleaning: Sorted through some photos (i.e. tagged which cats were in them), closed a few hundred browser tabs, and the like.

Wow, that’s a lot of things! I’m pretty happy about that; here’s to more things!

Biweekly roundup: doubling down

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/dev/2016/03/20/weekly-roundup-doubling-down/

March’s theme is video games, I guess?

It’s actually been two weeks since the last roundup, but there’s an excellent reason for that!

  • doom: As previously mentioned, someone started a “just get something done” ZDoom mapping project, so I made a map! I spent a solid seven days doing virtually nothing but working on it. And it came out pretty fantastically, I think. The final project is still in a bug-fixing phase, but I’ll link it when it’s done.

  • blog: I wrote about how maybe we could tone down the JavaScript, and it was phenomenally popular. People are still linking it anew on Twitter. That’s pretty cool. I also wrote a ton of developer commentary for my Doom map, which I’ll finish in the next few days and publish once the mapset is actually released. And I combed through my Doom series to edit a few things that are fixed in recent ZDoom and SLADE releases.

  • veekun: I managed to generate a YAML-based data file for Pokémon Red directly from game data. There’s still a lot of work to do to capture moves and places and other data, but this is a great start.

  • SLADE: In my 3D floor preview branch, the sides of simple 3D floors now render. There is so much work left to do here but the basics are finally there. Also fixed about nine papercuts I encountered while making my map, though some others remain.

  • mario maker: I made a level but have neglected to write about it here yet. Oops.

  • art: I drew most of the next part of Pokémon Yellow but then got kinda distracted by Doom stuff. I redrew last year’s Pi Day comic for the sake of comparison. I also started on Mel’s birthday present, which involves something astoundingly difficult that I’ve never tried before.

  • irl: I replaced my case fans, and it was a nightmare. “Toolless” fasteners are awful.

Pouring a solid week into one thing is weird; I feel like I haven’t drawn or touched Runed Awakening in ages, now. I’d like to get back to those.

I also still want to rig a category for posts about stuff I’m releasing, and also do something with that terrible “projects” page, so hopefully I’ll get to those soon.