In Disguise

Transformice may be the single most amazing Flash game to ever be created. Why you ask? Watch:


Philanthropy Kills Kittens

At least, that's what you'd assume if you read the comments about this amazing article. Seriously, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are pledging to give at least half their respective net worths to charity over their lifetimes, and are encouraging others to do the same. Somehow this warrants comments like (comment quoted verbatim):

"This is typical of billionaires with absolutely no vision for the future. This is the easy way out, they don't have to work they set up these organizations and write checks and reap the tax benefits. WHy don't these so called brilliant people set up an organization with billions to provide funds for entrepreneurs and small businessman to start companies, or grow their companies to hire people, create jobs and new product so we won't need charities and end this entitlement mentality. They can set up charities for those who really need it.

Yes, obviously Bill Gates and his wife shouldn't be lazy and just throw money at charities. They should set up their own organization that will provide new jobs. I have an idea, they can call it the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They should get right on that.

More poignantly, I understand that there's an entitlement mentality in the United States that many people find abhorrent (I do too!). I don't understand why this goes hand in hand with being oblivious to the many, many circumstances in which people simply need financial or meaningful support to lift them out of crushing poverty and other terrible situations. If everything was as easy as standing up on our own two feet, we wouldn't need parents past age 3.


Game Design: Choice, Options

Choice is an important concept in game design. I would go so far to say that choice is the essential difference between movies and games; choice puts the audience in control.

There is a lot I could say philosophically about choice, its impact on gameplay, and how developers both use and abuse it. However, today I'm going to zero my focus on a very specific and limited aspect of choice, options.

Options are generally overlooked as an aspect of game design. Who cares about the player's ability to tweak graphical, audio, and controller settings when there's a game to be made? Yet, options define the player's experience almost as much as any other aspect of the game.

For example, a bad mapping of actions to the buttons/analog sticks on a controller can make a game unplayable. Despite this, with surprising frequency many games only implement the bare minimum for controller settings. In such cases you might find one or two preset button layouts with a single toggle for inverted look on the analog sticks. If a player does not find these preset layouts comfortable, intuitive, or enjoyable the game is ruined.

It is therefore critical to allow players to customize these types of user interface issues to their specifications. Just as a movie must be in focus, and a book must be printed legibly, a game needs to have a user interface that does not separate the audience from the medium. Options go a long way in attending to the huge diversity that exists in personal preferences.

So, let's examine a few examples of options whose presence or lack thereof added to or detracted from a game.

Case 1: Tetris

An interesting aspect of Tetris is the options it had available. At the time very few games had options, and those that did were fairly limited. Tetris, however, had options for changing music, adding a handicap, and even starting at a more difficult level. All of these helped the replayability of the game immensely. As spiffy as the music was, being able to turn it off helped preserve sanity after several hours of play. Once you got very good, being able to up the ante early on erased the slow, early part of the game. Tetris, and a few other pioneering games, redefined what it meant to have options.

Case 2: Smash Brothers

Smash Brothers is a game renowned for its customizability, with one exception. While all other items and settings have always been ridiculously thorough and deep to the point of insanity, each game in the series has overlooked adding an option to select which Pokemon will come out of the pokeballs.

This is a very, very small detail, and detracts only a little from the series, but has nonetheless remained a very obvious opportunity that remains overlooked. Two of the games even feature challenge modes where the developers restrict Pokemon themselves, tormenting players who with to have that power.

Case 3: Battle.net 2.0

Battle.net 2.0, and specifically RealID, is the catalyst for this entry. RealID is the ability to "friend" other players on a first-name (rather than anonymized codename) basis, allowing you to see them as online no matter what game they are playing. The ability to track good friends and relatives in this manner while you're playing games is a neat feature.

The problem with RealID is in its options. RealID is an all or nothing feature-set. You can't friend someone through RealID and not have them appear in your list of friends with their full name followed by their account name. You can't choose not to have your list of RealID friends visible to all your RealID friends. You either add friends through RealID and subject yourself to all the features you like and all the features you don't like, or you opt out entirely.

This failure to break RealID down into separate, optional features has been a major sticking point for many players. In fact, it has been such a problem during testing that the developers had to intentionally break other options in order to force players to test the RealID system. RealID simply wasn't something the testers wanted to use because they couldn't turn off the features they didn't like.

The thread which joins these cases together is a simple principle: options should allow a player to do something they want. Tetris players will often want to get to the exciting fast-paced portion of the game, and so giving them an option to skip to that portion makes sense. Battle.net 2.0 users may not want to identify their friends by their full names, or for their friends list to be readily visible, and so failing to provide an option to disable these features is a critical oversight. Players that can mold the game to their needs will always be happier than players who are forced into specific implementations.

So when deciding on options, be very careful when making assumptions about player needs. Considering everything individually, and whether it makes sense for certain things to be immutable or joined together. If a deadline is your reason to avoid implementing an option, so be it, but make certain that you have at least that as a reason rather than nothing at all.


Facts About Me: Sleep

Here are some interesting facts about me and sleep.

  • When my sleep schedule is consistent, I tend to wake up approximately 45 minutes before my alarm.
  • No matter how much sleep I get 2PM feels like a great time to take a nap.
  • Traveling completely messes up my sleep schedule. The first few days in a hotel are usually fitful, and I become unreliable with alarms.
  • I get my second wind around 11 PM, a third wind around 12:30 AM, and past 2 AM I generally won't feel tired again until 4-6 AM.
  • The more sleep I get, the more likely I am to break into random song.


Life is Real

These days the right side of politics tends to get a bad rap, and given their unofficial spokespeople it's not hard to see why. It is, however, dangerous to write off ideas from the right simply because certain polarizing figures regularly appear on national TV to again prove their ridiculous insensitivity and/or warped perception of the country. There are crucial ideas from the right which, independent from any hypocrisy, are important to the continued prosperity of the country.

One idea in particular that tends to get a bad rap is "unoffendability". In short, the idea is that left wing politics is far, far too sensitive to the possibility of offending people. It is unfortunate, but often this idea is characterized as thinly veiled racism/misogyny/etc., and more unfortunate still that in some cases it truly is.

However, in a great many cases it is not, and these situations should not be lumped into the same vile category. These are cases such as when schools in Massachusetts ban playing cops and robbers, or when kids are suspended for making a gun shape in their hands, or when a soccer league in Ottawa, Canada implements a rule where winning too well causes you to lose. The only factor at play in these circumstances is the possibility of an overprotective parent making a fuss.

This isn't about political correctness, but about denying children the opportunity to learn, to stretch their imagination, and to encounter the hard truth that life doesn't always cater to them. The wise see value in exposing their children to the hard truth that Grandpa isn't coming back, or that Fluffy isn't going to be okay. The sage understand that children must fall down in order to learn to pick themselves up, that injury often goes hand in hand with knowledge and wisdom. Throwing children in a bubble completely separated from failure, pain, and the reality of responsibility is the greatest possible disservice to them.

What the voice from the right decries isn't the idea of protecting children from unnecessary harm or emotional trauma, but the act of insulating them utterly. It's a basic notion that while some sheltering has a purpose, the extent to which it is being taken today is extreme to the point of stunting the ability of children to mature and develop the basic life skills they need to survive outside the safety of the home. As the father in Calvin and Hobbes often noted, minor hardships "build character".

When I raise my kids, I fully plan on being wrought with worry and concern as I allow my kids the freedom to get messy and potentially scrape knees, burn fingers, cry, and learn.