Here is a topic that I have thought of, and then passed on, several times. Buying video games. It’s not the most sensational topic. Some might even call it dull. Pedestrian. This is just the standard day to day of any industry that sell products to people. Maybe, maybe not. Video games have had a unique convergence of circumstances that makes buying them right now really interesting. I’ll try to explain.
Video games are fairly new as creative media go. Games are as ancient as civilization, but video games are really only a few decades old. Almost as soon as they were conceived, they were marketed as products. This is not an issue faced by backgammon, or chess. Games, once upon a time, were not products. They were an activity between people. Rules would not be laid out by a designer, they would be decided upon organically by players. If you wanted to play these games you would construct a board and play them. If a rule didn’t work, you changed it. Most likely you gambled on the outcome. If there was money to be made or lost on a game, it was in the gambling.
Some folks reading this probably just had their nostalgia buttons triggered. The “things were better when” button. Lets just back that up a bit. Backgammon is somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 years old, and while I don’t know for certain, I would lay pretty good odds that the early versions of backgammon were garbage. That game was likely terrible through hundreds of years of minor iteration. People still play snakes and ladders, and that has never been a good game. In fact, snakes and ladders is not really a game at all. It is a hindu allegory for karma and predetermination. It was never intended to be a game, which is lucky for it, since as a game it is complete trash. Game design, like song writing, is a real tangible skill. Sure a good game can come from years of minute tweaking from countless individuals, but it’s probably worth the money to pay a designer to create a game.
Sometime between the 17th century and now, developing new games became an industry. They could be created, reproduced, packaged, and sold to people seeking novel entertainment. The rate of new games being produced increased every century, every decade, every year, until we arrive at present day, where the staggering onslaught of quality games flowing forth from talented game designers would probably kill a 3000 year old backgammon player dead with the pure awful shock of it all. Selling games had been nothing but good for the medium.
Of course video games are not centuries old. They are a few decades old, and the scaffolding they are constructed on has been constantly changing the entire time. The technology used to create video games has grown so much in such a short time that stunning games from my own childhood look like cave paintings now. Strange digital farts and blocky stickmen were the height of electronic audio and video. People paid to comment on markets and the movements of money said that, like 8 track tapes, video games would be a weird fad confined to the late 70s and early 80s. Of course they were right. The technology in both those cases was destined to be superseded by more effective, superior, and more convenient technologies. No one suspected that music would be in danger if one distribution vector ceased to be viable. Video games are just games, a medium as old as civilization, repackaged in a digital form. They were never in any real danger. This new packaging is so very new though, that it is sometimes difficult to tell, even for people paid to comment on such things.
Each generation of technology has been such a tremendous leap over the last that video games have yet to settle out. Board and card games have been able to depend on the reliability of the substrates they are printed on. They can work on the details of gameplay over several versions and iterations of the same game. There are modern day tweaks to the rules of chess. Video games have not had the same luxury. Every few years, the scaffolding a particular video game is built upon is torn away completely, and constructed anew. That experience is frozen in time. Shackled to the platform it ran on. Video games can be remade or reimagined, but not refined. At least not in the same way that board games can be organically evolved by the people playing them. This is why there is no video game equivalent of chess. If you have to reinvent the board for every new version, you might as well create chess 2. Hopefully the small tweaks you added will help it sell really well, since you will need all that money to finance chess 3, redone and reprogrammed from the ground up for the new consoles coming out in the fall.
Video games have been a very short term gain proposition. Most of a games sales were in the first few weeks of release. After that, you had to get back on the treadmill. Churn out a new version, or a new game. Sell. Repeat.
Here is where we come to the strange convergence we are at now. Computers continue to get more powerful by the nanosecond, but the main technology platforms are all basically the same. They vary slightly in the details, but they all run similar game code in similar ways. All the input devices are drifting closer and closer together. The methods of interaction in games are slowly but surely becoming standardized. Most importantly, a video game can now live forever. A game used to be confined to the hardware that it ran on, but now that hardware is no hardware at all. Games are distributed by, and, increasingly, run on, the internet, a highly abstracted software layer that can sit on all types and varieties of hardware. A single video game can now be maintained indefinitely with small, regular updates and patches. They can be services that a player can subscribe to for any amount of time that they choose. They can be delivered for free, and sold a few cents at a time to millions of people. They can, and do benefit from the digital model of infinite supply and limited demand. The self life of a video game can now be centuries.
Buying video games is changing rapidly, in a sprawling mess of options. It is unlikely that a game designed today will ever, for any technical reason, be rendered obsolete. The scaffolds they are built on have become fluid and malleable.
If there is a video game equivalent to chess, it is being designed and worked on today.
We have one of those filter water pitchers. You know the ones. Clear and glossy plastic, you can put it in the fridge to keep your drinking water nice and chilly. We’ve had it for quite a while. It carries the wear of years of daily use. It’s fallen on the floor more than a few times, and has those unique features that only come from significant trauma. The most notable feature is that the top flap of the pitcher that you lever open with your thumb to refill it with water, that thing, it’s thoroughly busted. The two tiny plastic pins that are meant to hold it in place have been long lost to some dark unexplored region. Under the oven most likely. We keep the flap on top of the pitcher to prevent debris or refrigerator flies or whatever imagined evils might enter our drinking water knowing full well that it’s doing little good. The filter in the jug is designed precisely to remove such debris before it ever enters the drinkable water chamber. Still we keep the flap on there.
Of course everyone who lives in this house is familiar with the pitcher and it’s quirks. Without really thinking about it we all put our thumb or hand on the top of the flap when we pour. This keeps it in place and water comes out like it should. Any time a guest in our house tries to pour, they don’t know about that particular protocol, and at least once during their visit the flap slides off the pitcher, and due to the precise angles and surface interactions involved, always ends up plunking down into their freshly poured glass of water. There is no outward evidence that the tiny pins are broken off, so there is no way for someone to know that their water will soon have a chunk of blue plastic floating in it. We here may be used to it, but this is still a poor user interface experience.
I have been only using Blender for any and all 3d modelling tasks for the last few weeks. I had a comfort level with other tools that made most modelling tasks quick, but it was time to move on. Blender is being actively developed and tends to incorporate new technologies and workflows fairly quickly. The heavy hitters of 3D content creation tools, like Maya, ZBrush, and Houdini, will always get the newest technology first, but a lot of those technologies turn out to be weird gimmick tools that only a few people ever end up using. The core tools that actually see some use evolve slowly enough that even an open source project like Blender is able to keep up pretty well. The tools I was using are all pretty much stalled. They did a few things better than any other tools for a short while until everyone else caught up. I liked using them, but it was time to move on. Progress will not accommodate my comfort.
I printed out list of hotkeys, kept the documentation open in another window, and proceeded to learn the ins and outs of Blender. More than once I found myself searching through tool specific forums for answers to issues I couldn’t find documentation for. What I struck me as I was searching was the frequency of a specific kind of question and a specific kind of answer. The script goes like this.
Q: I have used (some 3D program) and I am new to Blender. I was wondering how to do (some common 3D process)? or Where can I find (some common 3D tool)?
A: Blender doesn’t work like that. learn the hotkeys.
Here is my problem with this thinking. Just because I know to hold the flap on my water pitcher with my thumb, doesn’t mean that it isn’t broken. It’s broken because it doesn’t follow the conventions that people who have dealt with water pitchers out there in the greater world are familiar with. Water pitcher design doesn’t have to be identical, but if the behavior of a part of a well known system doesn’t work in a predictable way, that user experience is not good. If I am not there to inform a user of my water pitcher that it functions in a way that is inconsistent with what they know of water pitchers, it is not the users fault or responsibility to puzzle that out.
So my problem here, to be absolutely clear, is not with Blender. The program is ridiculously powerful, stuffed with features, and once you acclimatize, fairly easy to use. Blender is built on a foundation that in software terms is very very old. It suffers from the same issues that all old programs suffer from, in that features have been bolted to the side of it for so long that some parts of the program don’t operate in ways consistent with the rest of the package. The interface uses more clicks and keypresses than it really needs to in places, but all this is so that existing users who are comfortable with the interface can continue to work from version to version with an easy learning curve. This is fair, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t broken or that it can’t be improved. The interface of Blender is far better than it used to be, but there are still a lot of places where it can be improved.
I did come across a comment from one of the developers who said something to the effect that even minor changes to the interface are hard to do without breaking other parts of the program. It was at least a peripheral admission that he recognised a problem existed, but fixing the problem could take time. What’s more, it might take some effort to come to any consensus on what the fix should be when it comes time to implement it. I hope that it is a move toward an interface that attempts to work consistently, and aims to teach new users how to navigate it, without the help of external documentation.
On another note, I should probably just get a new water pitcher.
I wasn’t going to write anything about the arcade cabinet since I seem to have done that a lot lately, but I recently did a talk for the Calgary Game Developers group about it, so I figured I should post it up here as well.
Before I went to the meeting from this video I had committed to doing a short presentation on some topic as yet to be determined. I wasn’t going to talk about building an arcade cabinet, or pedestal, or whatever it is I built. I was going to do a talk about some aspect of 3D modelling or something, probably box modelling or making a game ready model from a high resolution sculpt. Some sort of semi technical talk like that might fit the venue better, but giving a presentation about building something silly and frivolous is in itself silly and frivolous. In other words, right in my wheelhouse. But why would you keep reading my blather when you can watch it.
Thank you to Craig for posting this video and thank you to the rest of the Calgary Game Developers group for allowing me a venue for this type of nonsense. http://www.calgarygamedevelopers.com/
Here you go.
When I decided to disassemble the arcade stick that had been hastily constructed from happ controls sticks and buttons, some scrap wood with oil stains on it, and several liberally applied layers of paint to hide said oil stains, I thought it would be a couple week project. That was almost 7 years ago. The cabinet I designed and built to replace the arcade stick was originally intended to contain a modified original xbox. It has 3 shelves to hold any old consoles I had kicking around.
7 years is a long time, and I gave the happ sticks and buttons away several years ago. Now the heart of the machine is a raspberry pi 2 single board computer running a stipped down linux. The sticks are Ultimarc Ultrastik 360 digital/analog programmable powerhouses that didn’t exist when I drew up the router files to cut the cabinet. The screen, originally intended to be a large rear projection unit, is a cheap lcd mounted to the wall. Almost nothing about this cabinet is as I had originally planned. It works fantastically, the games play great, and I like how it looks. It feels good to be finished it. The next one I build might be made out of metal.
A couple of weeks ago I was using a program called Flexisign. Flexisign, as the name would suggest, is a vector graphics program used mainly by the sign industry. Of course Flexisign isn’t the only vector art program available. There are much better known and more widely used, and arguably more capable programs around, but Adobe Illustrator is the top dog. If you want to do design work, page layout, or technical illustration, you probably need to learn Illustrator. Even though there are a couple of vector drawing programs that predate Illustrator and continue to be popular, mainly Autocad, the industry standard is Illustrator. Different programs will have their own tweaks and quirks, but if you know Illustrator, you can probably sit down and start working on a different vector program like Flexisign. Illustrator is the lingua franca of graphic design.
Why use Flexisign then, if Illustrator is the go to drawing tool for digital layout and design? Simply put, Flexisign speaks the same language as the equipment used in sign shops, or at least this particular sign shop. I have also used programs called Omega and Signlab, they all pretty much do the same thing. They tell the hardware what to do. When your hardware is tasked with cutting small shapes and delicate curves from yards and yards of, sometimes very expensive, vinyl, you want to make sure that there are no translation errors. When you have a machine that can take actual hours to print gargantuan sheets of brightly coloured graphics, you don’t want to have to restart because the software had a hiccup 80% of the way through the job. While Illustrator may be the industry standard, there is also something to be said for using the right tool for the right job.
While the machines are perfectly happy receiving their orders from Flexisign or Omega or whatever software you are using, the real stumbling block will always be with the person operating it. Illustrator is the standard, and so it can be expected that people will be very familiar, even comfortable, with the way that Illustrator works. As much as Flexisign is influenced by Illustrator, and as much as SAi, the developers of Flexisign, have tried to make it accessible for designers familiar with Illustrator, it isn’t Illustrator. There are a lot of small jarring disconnects waiting for someone familiar with Illustrator when they go to use Flexisign. Getting over those hurdles and just accepting that this program will be different is entirely the responsibility of the operator.
When I sat down to use Flexisign, I knew that it would be different, and I knew that I had a limited amount of time to ramp up and get used to the new tools. I was going to be taking over the work on many projects already well underway by another designer, and rather than try to do it my way, or even try to determine what my way is, it would smooth things out a lot if I just checked any ego at the door and did what the company, and the software, needed. There is a switch in my head that I can flip when I just need to knuckle down and learn something. When it’s a situation like this, where the machines just needed to be fed new artwork at a pretty consistent rate, I don’t seem to have too big a problem of just flipping that switch. By the end of two weeks of half days I had no trouble loading up the printer with new material and setting up all the correct parameters to spit out a steady stream of good quality prints. Setting up the artwork for the process in Flexisign seemed like working with a slight accent rather than in a whole other language.
Of course this is all leading somewhere. I have written here, and griped often about my love hate relationship with Blender. I like everything that Blender is trying to do, but I disagree with some of the ways that it attempts to do it. Maya was not the first 3D program that I ever used, but it is probably the one that I have used the most. There is a reason why Maya is an industry standard. Maya isn’t a toolbox, it’s a method of building tools. Many people will only ever use the bare minimum of what Maya can do. They will use it as a toolbox, only applying the prebuilt tools to their task. In all honesty, that is primarily what I did with it too. I only used the tools provided, and didn’t delve too deeply in the real power of Maya. Maya is a system, a language, and if you are clever enough you can create almost any tool you can think of using that system. If it is related to 3D graphics, you can probably build it within Maya. Maybe the same is true of Blender, after all the source code for the entire program is available to be perused. All I know is that when I tried to determine how one tool or another worked in Maya, the core mechanics of it where easily exposed. Blender, not so much. The thing is, It’s not Blenders responsibility to do that. It’s my responsibility to flip on the learning switch and just work the way the tool does. It’s possible to check the ego and just swim downstream.
I think I can credit Flexisign with loosening the rust on my learning switch. Or maybe it was setting up the Raspberry Pi 2 with all it’s Linux funkyness. Whatever the case, I returned to Blender with a much more open attitude and just started learning. Of course if any of you reading this have ever worked with 3D software, Blender in particular, can probably predict if you just remember the hotkeys and start working the way it expects you to work, learning software is not really that difficult. I used to run back to the safety of Silo whenever I needed to model something, but I haven’t fired up Silo, except to export files to Blender, in weeks. I suspect, after a while using Blender consistently, rather than sporadically like i had, I will begin to get comfortable again. I’m never, ever going to use the right mouse button to select though. I’m willing to learn, but there is a limit.