Sunday, June 30, 2013

Further progress with our OUYA

We were able to get our PS3 controllers working with our OUYA, which was fairly straightforward once we had the procedure right. Now we have enough controllers in the house to play some of the 4-player OUYA games, should we so choose.

We also got the OUYA version of Plex working. For this, we had to plug the OUYA into our home network with an Ethernet cable. The OUYA's own wireless connection, for whatever reason, was just too slow to allow streaming video. With the Ethernet cable attached, Plex seemed to work just as well as it does on our PS3.

One unhappy moment, though: while playing the first-person puzzle game The Ball, I got a prompt asking me whether I wanted to purchase the game so that I could play the additional levels. I didn't see a price listed on the screen, so I clicked the Purchase button, assuming that the system would then display the price and prompt me to confirm. Nope: the system just went ahead and charged my credit card, with only a brief message that might have told me how much I'd been charged if it had remained on-screen long enough for me to read it. Every other OUYA game has been pretty up-front about how much a purchase was going to cost, so I'm going to send a bug report in for this particular game. Fortunately it was only $10, and I'm enjoying the game, but I really would have preferred to know ahead of time what the damage was going to be.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

First impressions: OUYA

Yes, we have an OUYA now:

If you're not sure what I'm talking about, you can get the lowdown on their website; the quick explanation is that the OUYA is a $99 Android-based gaming console, focused on independent game developers, where all games have some amount of play available for no cost.

The question I hear most about the OUYA is "Why should I bother getting an OUYA when I can just play Android games on my phone?" I have three answers for that:

  1. Exclusive games. Some of the games available on the OUYA system are only available for OUYA.
  2. Controller support. Many of these games are developed to either support or to require a full game controller.
  3. Multiplayer. There are several multiplayer games for the OUYA that allow you to sit on the couch and enjoy the game with up to three of your friends.
Right now there are a few great multiplayer games that are quick to learn and quick to play:
  • Stalagflight: this is a game about jumping from falling boulder to falling boulder, trying to get as high as possible without falling in the lava. I tried it by myself and thought it was frustrating and pointless, but when one of my friends joined in, suddenly it was challenging and hilarious.
  • Towerfall: this is a 2D retro-styled deathmatch game about bouncing around the screen and shooting arrows at your opponent. It's the kind of game that will get more interesting as you and your opponents practice and develop your skill. It was amusing with two players; it would probably be even better with three or four players.
  • BombSquad: this game is mostly about running around the screen throwing bombs at bad guys, though there are supposedly a number of game variants. I say "supposedly" because we haven't been able to beat the first level yet.
  • No Brakes Valet: this is a super-simple, low-tech game that probably took less than a day to develop, but practically justifies the purchase of the OUYA by itself. It's a game about trying to park cars that come flying into a small parking lot at high speed. The two-player version is pure vehicular mayhem. We've played this dozens of times and we're smiling and laughing every time.
I've also been enjoying Deep Dungeons of Doom (a simple but challenging RPG) and the Secret of Universe Alpha (which is a bit amateurish and unpolished, but somehow addictive all the same). I'm looking forward to trying The Ball (a first-person puzzler) and Rose (a point and click adventure game)

Not every game is a winner. Pinball Arcade doesn't respond quickly enough to the controller triggers to make the game playable; Wizorb would work much better with a real mouse. And since it's very easy for folks to publish a game on the OUYA, there are one or two games that don't merit the effort of downloading, like BarleyBreak (an extremely no-frills version of the 15 puzzle).

There are a number of features of the OUYA we haven't tried yet. It's supposed to support alternate Bluetooth controllers such as the PS3 controller; the OUYA controllers work fine (now that some of the pre-launch issues have been resolved) but they're not the fine-tuned works of engineering that the PS3 controllers are. Also, there are a number of media-streaming applications for the OUYA, like Plex; it will be interesting to see how the OUYA implementation of Plex compares to the PS3 version that we're currently using.

Overall I'm very satisfied with the console, and I hope that it's a success for the game developers who chose to support it, because I'd love to see the console mature as developers continue to explore the potential of the system. Personally I'd like to see more turn-based RPG's and strategy games; we'll see what the future will bring. And since I have all the tools I need to write my own games for the OUYA, maybe something I've written will one day appear on the OUYA download screens.

Saturday, June 15, 2013


Very busy these days. New project at work with a too-short deadline. Query letters for Stone of Names going out to agents. (Crossing of one's fingers on my account will be appreciated.) Unity continuing to satisfy all of my expectations. Fate Core and Fate Accelerated are on my hard drive, begging to be used. Civilization 5. Shadowrun Returns should be released Real Soon Now, and my neighborhood Target should be happy to sell me an OUYA in a couple of weeks.

So if I could just take a year or two off, I might be able to get caught up on all of this.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Skipping Over The Stupid Parts

For anyone who hasn't heard yet, the latest free version of the Unity game development tool allows export to Android and iOS platforms for no additional cost. As a result, I've been able to essentially completely rebuild the game I've been working on, minus the optimization and library issues, in less than eight hours. Runs smooth as silk and I wrote less then 50 lines of code.

This is why I like Unity so much. The Java-based version of my game had a substantial amount of code devoted to basic, Game Development 101 problems, like maintaining frame rate, or rendering 3d objects, or creating and destroying the objects necessary for each level of the game. I hate spending time on this stuff; this is all basic game housekeeping nonsense that's been written countless times before, and I resent having to waste effort on it when I want to be assembling the actual game. I want to pay attention to the game mechanics, introducing challenge and rewards and appeal.

What I don't want to do is what I've been faced with in the Java version of the game: spending endless hours staring at source code, reading through forums, and conducting experiments just to figure out how to make a physics library perform properly.

This should give me the edge that I need to actually finish this game and have a reasonably stable product, rather than an unreliable mess that I really shouldn't be installing on anyone's devices.

Friday, June 7, 2013


So, yesterday, I suggested that if we really want to ensure the survival and well-being of all of humanity, we can't do it through legislation; we have to do it through invention.

But even if we modify ourselves so that we no longer suffer from hunger, or thirst, or heatstroke or hypothermia or disease or genetic disorders or any of that, there's still plenty of room for misery and abuse.

We can provide free access to goods once we invent universal fabricators; we can provide free access to information once we ... actually, we've already (mostly) solved that one, so, yay for us.

But we still haven't prevented us from being jerks to each other. Passing laws doesn't solve that problem. It's illegal to murder someone in the United States, but murders occur every day. Laws don't prevent offences, they just ensure that offences are punished.

Even if you re-engineer our bodies so that we can't be killed, and that we can't suffer the effects of violence, we still have plenty of ways to hurt each other. Discrimination and hatred can be purely psychological and can be just as devastating.

So what then? Do we tinker with our own minds so that we are incapable of hatred, or conversely, so that we are incapable of feeling depressed or afraid or insulted? In fact, if we're all perfectly content all the time, then we wouldn't even have greed or discrimination or anything like that, would we?

If we've altered our emotions so that we no longer feel the impulses that would lead us to act like jerks to each other, then what do we become? Utopia is universal happiness; do we have to get there by making it literally impossible for anyone to be unhappy?

Alternately, is it at all reasonable to assume that at some point, we will be so philosophically mature that we will all just naturally choose to be nice to each other? This seems like wishful thinking. If you invent some sort of pill that makes you immortal and indestructible and you give it away for free, everyone is going to want one. If you devise a philosophy of non-violence and mutual respect, not everyone is going to buy into it.

So if the best you can ever hope to do is to eliminate humanity's basic physical needs, have you really improved the human condition? Or have you just given folks different things to be unhappy about?

Is all progress futile, since it accomplishes nothing more than to give us different props and scenery to use when we're acting out our various tragedies?

Isn't that a cheerful thought to start the weekend with?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Science Party!

No, not this kind of Science Party.

It is sometimes painful for me to listen to certain political enthusiasts. From the Far Left, I'll hear either "Our ancestors had all the wisdom we ever need to know!" or "Big Pharma is suppressing the truth!" From the Far Right, it's "Academia is a liberal stronghold!" or "Your science is an assault on my faith!" Where, I ask myself, is the political party of dedicated and thoughtful scientists?

And then I think about it, and I realize that this hypothetical group of scientists wouldn't bother trying to put together a political party. If your goal is to govern the country by scientific principles, you have to confront the fact that a representative democracy is the wrong form of government. Science isn't a popularity contest. Science is about tests and studies and mathematics, not about who looks best on television or who can scare the voters most effectively.

If you want to improve the country, is gaining control of the government even a appropriate step toward your goal? First of all, in the world of the 21st century, the fate of our nation is tied tightly to the fate of all of our global neighbours. So fixing just one nation's government isn't sufficient. And, possibly, working through the conventional established means of government isn't necessary.

And what is the goal? A rational group of scientists would first clearly articulate the effect that they want to create, and then determine the appropriate means to achieve that effect.

Let's assume that our group of scientists wants to change the world for the better. Can we define that in more concrete terms?

A simple, reasonable mission statement might be "to ensure that humanity survives indefinitely, and that all human beings are able to enjoy excellent physical and mental health." That seems like a goal that's difficult for anyone to find fault with. It seems to suggest other smaller goals that our existing political parties claim to be working toward, like health care, and environmental conservation, and the preservation of liberty and privacy.

But let's stay focused on the big picture: guaranteed survival of the species, and guaranteed mental and physical health for all. Looking at this statement alone, it looks like we're not talking about gun legislation or intellectual property rights. It looks like we're talking about re-engineering the species.

Because, of course, the human animal is a pretty fragile thing. We can only exist in an extremely narrow range of environmental conditions, and if any of those conditions change in the slightest, it's bye-bye humanity. If the world's climate changes, or some lethal new disease breaks out, or a giant rock hits the planet, or we run out of fossil fuel, or whatever, we humans need to survive.

We need to be able to power and repair ourselves with simple and sustainable means. We need to be able to correct serious mental issues through processes that are more effective than cocktails of pharmaceuticals.

If each of us was indestructible, self-repairing and self-powering, independent from complicated food chains or medical procedures, how does that affect the world? What if you don't need shelter, or food, or water, or air?

It's not quite sufficient to solve all of our problems, I think. Poverty is no longer a curse for these version 2.0 humans; they will survive in perfect comfort without houses or antibiotics or macaroni-and-cheese. We've eliminated need; but we haven't eliminated want. People will still want to build things, to travel, to dress nice and watch HBO and trade up to the latest iPhone. All of those things still require labor and resources, which means that there's still room for the haves and the have-nots.

Not to mention that we humans don't really need excuses to fight with each other. We will gladly kill each other based purely on our belief systems. And no matter how indestructible we make ourselves, we'll always find a way to destroy each other.

Which means that either human re-engineering is not the solution, or it's not the whole solution. I'll have to consider a little further; clearly our hypothetical team of scientists has quite a lot of work ahead of them.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Stone of Names: June Update

Now that I'm ready to start approaching agents with my manuscript, I have to accomplish a couple of tasks that I've never enjoyed: writing a query letter and writing a synopsis. The synopsis isn't so bad; it's just a compressed retelling of the story, about a paragraph per chapter or so. I find query letters inherently discouraging, though. I could have written the next great American novel, a work of such beauty and perfection that it would top the bestselling charts for the next century, but if my query letter doesn't stand out above everyone else's query letter, my masterpiece is going nowhere.

I expect I should regard the query letter as an opportunity to demonstrate my writing skills, by forcing me to convey a compelling story idea in 250 words or less. However, I expect that every literary agency is deluged with query letters, and it seems to me that even if I have a snappy query letter, I have to catch the right agent on the right moment of the right day in order to get a note back asking me to see the whole manuscript for review.

So I'm skimming web site such as Query Shark for tips and to-do's (and more importantly, things not to do), polishing my 250 words, and crossing my fingers.