Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Its automatic Its systematic Its hydromatic!

How is that psychological condition called again, people being office-housefathers one moment, a smoking cowboy sheriff another moment? Cheerleaders thinking they are Elvis Presley sometimes, people behaving like wrestlers during the morning, murderers during lunch, and badgers during night. Split souls... Oh yes, it's called schizophrenia.

I might have a very mild (innocent) version. No, I'm not Abraham Lincoln, neither an airplane. I'm a conservative grandpa with little knowledge of the modern world, trapped in a boys (well, man, almost damn 30 now) body that happens to be pretty good at programming modern things. It's a contradiction because I'm not really good in math. Hence, I wasn't a star in any Beta study. Math, chemistry, science, making gold with leprechauns, whatever. Though the somewhat poor results may have to do with the fact that drinking beer and smoking stuff with friends caught more of my attention those days. Nah, I was more about eerhh... using my fantasy and such. Drawing a bit, writing stories, thinking how games could be even cooler.

Yet programming grabbed me, and somehow I did understand it. Probably not really because I enjoyed the technical aspects so much, but the ability to "create things" felt good. Always been drawing, claying, lego-ing or in some other way creating my own worlds. Often together with a friend, which certainly wasn't a Beta either. No, unlike my little brother or other friends who can write down technical specifications, explain how a Wankel engine works, why farts explode in flames when being heated with a lighter, or calculate the kinetic energy when falling down drunk, my mind is much more fuzzy. Not that I dislike National Geographic documentaries about space or seeing harvesters at work doing muscular things. But I just forget all mechanics, precise numbers and statistics within four seconds. Apes just can't hang on a slimy rock.

Yep, I'll just recycle shots. The current progress is on a new particle-editor & characters/animations that are not meant for your eyes... yet.

Back in my time!
With other technical aspects or interests, I notice I'm "behind" a lot of people as well. New mobile phone? Pfff, just let me look outside the bus window instead of breaking my clumsy fingers on touch-things during the ride. Mac / iStuff? Never tried it, nor interested. Widescreen TV? 99% on TV sucks, and otherwise I fall asleep during the commercial breaks. I can do with a monochrome 8" TV. Playstation 4? Sounds like fun, but the hours I spend on the PS3 is equal to the amount of Polar bears in the Sahara (though GTA V is coming…). Switch the house lights/heaters with your telephone? For God sake why? Facebook? Don't need virtual friends, the few real ones I'll see occasionally in the weekend is good enough for me. Can't imagine what another person would like to know about my personal life anyway, get lost. Apps? I can wipe my ass without an App. LED lights? What's wrong with my petroleum lamp? Twitter? I can't even read those listings of short messages, cropped with cracktags or whatever they are called. Like!? That is the fucking laziest way in the world to show appreciation.

If you expect super hi-tec gadgets on my computer, or Androids walking in the house, you're wrong. Though I enjoy making microchips for making your own thermostat for example. Not because I need it, but because it’s fun to create it. But regarding technical tools, I basically only have what is really needed for work, or for T22. That's it. My Polish girl grew up without internet on sort of an old farm, so she isn’t the brightest star in the techno galaxy either. Too bad or house is too small, but otherwise a cow would be standing in the living room, listening to the pickup-player, with a hot cup of potato soup.

The Haunted office
Of course I exaggerate a bit (really?), but I wonder what drives people to spend so much money on being “online” all day, being “the first”, buying each shiny hi-tec gadget even if it doesn’t add anything. In my opinion, the virtualization, digitalization, and automation just doesn't always make things better. And I'm saying that as a programmer who earns money with automating factories, making vehicles that drive by themselves, and creating user interfaces that require as little knowledge as possible.

Let's take my new office at work as a first example. To begin with, I don't like modern architecture. Not that my office is that boring, but I'm misusing this to point out that I find the sci-fi, sleek style, cool colored, glassy, super-functional houses or buildings boring and cold. Yeah sure it sucks to live in an old house where the toilet doesn't flush and the ceiling falls down, but at least it has some character. I'd rather live in an old castle together with the ghost of Sir Spencer mcSausager, than in one of those new "blocks". It’s nice to be surrounded with noisy machinery, pipes, cooling units and other metal stuff at work. But at home I want small illogical stairs, dark corners, wallpaper, old wood, and cases filled with books that no one reads.

But to the point about that new office. That building is fully automated - and not by me this time , otherwise it would have worked better. Don't go looking for a light switch, because you won't find any. The lights go on automatically when something moves (there are sensors in the ceiling everywhere)... so if you fall asleep the lights will nicely go out after a while, telling co-workers to be quiet. Hmm, pretty smart actually. But wait, there is more. The heaters work automatically. And don't ask me how to change the temperature. Because you can't see any radiators or good old rotary dials. Luckily I’m a guy, but women that are obsessed with turning the knob all day would go nuts. Yes we have some sort of digital remove control, but as pointed out earlier, too difficult / too lazy to learn it.

When the sun shines, blinds will lower automatically. Or the curtains close. This is where the automation gets really annoying. After a long dark winter, I'm happy to see the sun, and hey, we can leave the lights off = good for the environment. But no, the building decides the blinds must go down. And the lights must go on of course, otherwise you won't see shit. Three minutes later a cloud appears, and the blinds will go up again. Five minutes later the sun shines again, but not strong enough to lower the blinds. However, someone parked his shiny car so the sun reflects as a laser in my eyes. Got! to! Close! Curtains! I grab and pull, but the building slaps me on the hands and moves the curtains back in position. Really? I can’t even move the curtains?!

Blast. I'll grab a coffee then. The good old push-button device that turns frozen coffee blocks into liquid has been replaced by a state of the art, coffee "terminal". With a touch-screen. That sometimes badly calibrates itself, so when pressing "stronger" it adds "more sugar" instead. Anyway, we ran out of white plastic cups, so I placed a transparent cup instead. Now that bewitched thing refuses to give me coffee, because its sensor shines through the plastic, and keeps telling me to place a cup first. Do I look like an idiot?! Maybe it works if I put my hand below the sensor and... arh burning hot coffee! No more coffee for today. Driving home sad, with the car warning and beeping all the time because my backpack on the passenger seat is not wearing a seatbelt.

Printf( “Unable to comply. Asshole.” );
Another example. At work, through the years, I learned “try not to outsmart the user (even if they are stupid)”. Fully automatic –“smart”- applications can become a real pain in the groin if they override the user, or refuse tasks for unclear reasons. Didn't learn that in the office behind the computer. No, on paper my ideas would kick ass. Just the idea of having green 3D wireframes driving around, communicating in the field with XBee, informing the driver with Crysis Nanosuit robot voices, machine making coffee for you while plowing the ground, shooting lasers, ...

A sturdy wake-up call comes when meeting people that work with your products. Preferably people that are - like me - old, clumsy, or just too lazy to dive into new technologies. If a system halts for no apparent reason, its considered uncontrollable. If a system refuses while the operator sees no danger, its considered over-sensitive. If a (sub)system contains more than a few adjustable parameters, its considered complex, and a non-technical guy doesn’t even dare to change a number. If a system crashes once –even if it’s a pilot-, its considered unreliable => trash.

In general, software systems aren't very well understood, nor are repairable if something fails. Just look at your own car. Didn't get any easier with all those chips, right? And sometimes, automatic intervention is just plain annoying. Got called by a client. Asking me why his machine suddenly stopped driving. "Are you sitting on the driver’s seat?" "No, eh... why?". "Because a machine shouldn't drive without a driver in the cabin sir.". Well, maybe that isn't such a bad piece of automation, but do you really think it will stop farmers from jumping out of their machinery to inspect things? Then suddenly they are technical enough to rewire things. Or just to put a heavy bag of potatoes on the driver’s seat.

Machines telling people what (not) to do, who the hell do they think they are?! Automation is needed, certainly when it comes to safety related issues. But don't make it any more difficult than really needed. Your awesome programming skills won't be appreciated by people that have to dig through thick manuals when something has to be adjusted. If you can just as well use a sticker and a simple button or valve to control things, you shouldn't directly replace it with software unless it really adds something. Americans have a nice development term for this by the way: KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid!

Ok ok. This might be a more interesting screenshot then. The work-in-progress torso of the T22 protagonist. Work cloth and a beer belly? I'm sorry, no Hentai chicks in this horror game!

Social zombies
Maybe the worst of all digitalization side-effects, is this Virtual Society. When I travel with a train or bus, I can enjoy the view. Just do nothing for a change. No computers, no talks, just sit down and capture bits of the environment. But this certainly doesn’t count for the majority of (younger) people. If the bus would be driving in a volcano, they wouldn’t notice because the focus is 101% on their Smartphones.

Nothing wrong with playing Snake or checking email to kill the time. But the usage is beyond that; people are obsessed. Two friends sitting in that bus, non-stop chatting with friends, but saying nothing to each other… I wouldn’t call that social. A couple sitting in a restaurant, both with their heads down staring at the phone, it’s just sad. Girls screaming on the news that they can’t miss internet for more than a day. C’mon. Cool boys immediately grabbing their newest phone to fact-check whenever we have a question during a discussion. Just drop that thing and enjoy your beer man, I really don’t care in what exact year Darwin took his first crap in Micronesia.

It’s called “Social media”, but people are actually getting anti-social. I may sound like old vinegar, but there is some truth in it. I’m shy as well, but at work I see many (young) people have become afraid to confront another person. People mail instead of calling or asking face-to-face. As you all know, being funny, sharp, or aggressive is much easier on the internet, as we stay safe & anonymous behind a virtual wall. But once they find their selves in a real meeting or confrontation, they don’t know how to behave, are distracted by the phone all the time, or turn out to be less heroic than their forum alter-ego’s would imply.

I think a lot of other grandpa's, or at least grandpa's trapped in boys bodies, agree with me that automation isn't always a step forward. Many people use it just for the sake of using it. As a status symbol or something, while a virtual status still isn't worth much compared to some real-life status. People with 600 virtual friends feeling lonely, what is a "hit" worth really? I would lie when saying I'd never check the blog reader statistics, or how many people have seen the T22 movies on Youtube so far. But in the end, it doesn't make you feel richer, happier or better. In fact it might do the opposite when noticing your reader or "like" counts start dropping, signaling you that your youtube movie or Facebook account is getting old, people losing interest. And on the internet, things age very fast. We all want to be liked, but listen to 'ol Pops for one minute: The love of your girl, family, or some good friends is an infinite more worth than a thousand likes.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Click and Play

Just wanted to share a hint if you are looking for a click&play adventure. Normally I'm not really into Indie or Casual games. A: because I grew up with large/long/hard games, and B: as the Duke would say, I don't have time to play with myself. Even not if the games are small. Oh and C: because I'm just not familiar with the "scene". Hundred years ago I used to read games magazines or the internet scouting for new hot stuff, but these days I only know about the super-announcements, such as a GTA V.

Anyway, about a year ago, one of the guys at T22 gave me a "HumbleBundle" link (a download of some games) as a gift for my daughter. The two main games on the bundle were "Botanicula", and "Machinarium". Both click&play puzzle games from Amanita Design. Quite a while ago we finished Botanicula, and during the last vacation we finally finished Machinarium as well. Well, we... I did the thinking, and Julia sat on my lap instructing me. The puzzles are way too hard for a little kid, but that is not the point. What really charmed both of us -Julia young & open minded, me old & boring- was it's design. Despite the ultra budgets and teams behind games these days, you don't see them coming like this anymore. It was like watching a classic Disney movie over the shoulder of your kid, weeping a tear, remembering how you once sat their with an open mouth staring at the television.

Those who played Monkey Island or something similar, know that the click&play adventure has died a long time ago. Well, pretty much any game that involves thinking died. Maybe not totally in the Indie game scene, but as said, I have no idea what's on the market there. For those who don't imagine a hint-label when hovering the cursor above the word "Click & Play", this style of adventure game usually gave you control over a character, using the mouse only. You would walk from one to another, usually hand drawn, (static) scene, solving puzzles by clicking the right area's on the screen. Clicking would let you pick up an item, have a look, use an item from your inventory on the environment, or start a conversation with one of the characters on the screen. Often in a cartoonish, humorous context. Though the horror genre produced games like Phantasmagoria, Myst or 7th Guest. But most famous is probably the Lucas Arts line up, including Monkey Island and Grim Fendango. The puzzles in these games varied from extreme hard to extreme ridiculous (use "bubblegum" on "dog" to get the jail door open). And including that with the lack dodging bullets or other fast paced gameplay, maybe that's one of the reasons why the genre died a bit. Nevertheless, I bet quite a lot (older) gamers have fond memories.

Botanicula and Machinarium aren't exactly follow ups on Monkey Island. They play a bit different, and aren't as lengthy (but you don't pay a full wallet for these Indie games either). Nor very humorous. More a bit scary actually, but in a way how some older cartoons could be a bit dark. Botanicula lets you take control of a group of, eh... twigs, nuts, and other kind of tree tiny stuff. Your world (read a tree) is being attacked by giant spider like creatures, so you'll be on your way fixing this situation somehow. I can't really explain the plot because it's well... weird. The game feels, but especially sounds (listen!) like a mushroom trip. You'll be walking around between twigs and leafs, saving your other tiny tree friends. Away from button mashing, concrete buildings, blood, machineguns, sniper rifles, mega jumps, monsters, aliens, humans.

Machinarium focuses more on solving puzzles on devices, but a more obvious difference is, of course, the style. Instead of trippy nature world, you'll be walking in a somewhat depressing robot populated city. The beautiful hand drawn backgrounds and animations will make you love it. And even though the puzzles are a bit hard, your kids will love to watch it too. A very healthy fantasy impulse in days where hyperactive 3D super-nonsense is bombarding our kids on TV.

Of course, both games are a bit short, but they come at fair prices. So if you want to taste something different, or if you look for something you can show to your kids on the widescreen without getting battered by your wife, try this. And no, I'm not paid to promote their game, although I do hope people with such fantasy & drawing skills join Tower22 hehe.

Anything else to report related to the game? Not really, except that I'm working on a new particle editor. T22 already had GPU particles, but I wanted to use a more efficient Compute Shader solution. And more important, a better editor that allows the artists to produce the VFX themselves.