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The Quixotic Engineer

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Technical Challenges of Gaming

Developing Video Games

There's a fascinating article in the online version of Popular Science magazine entitled The Hard Science of Making Video Games. It details the technical challenges that high end video game developers face when pushing the envelope on next-gen features. Written in an very accessible way, it's a great read even for those with little computer knowledge. In case that link ever expires, the top challenges/limits are as follows:

  1. Processing Power
  2. Water
  3. Human Faces
  4. Artificial Intelligence
  5. Light and Shadows
  6. Fire
  7. Material Physics
  8. Realistic Movement
  9. True-to-Life Simulation
  10. Motion Capture

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

First Impressions of Halo 3

Halo 3

All the hype and anti-hype about Halo 3 left a sour taste in my mouth and made me question whether or not I should bother writing anything about the game. While it certainly doesn't deserve the release madness it has created, the fact is that Halo 3 is a very solid FPS with extremely refined balance and great production value. Taken objectively without the fanboy hype, the game is just good fun.

I never owned an original Xbox, but I did play the first two Halo games occasionally at other people's houses. As someone whose last shooters had been Goldeneye and Perfect Dark at the time, the wide open spaces and vehicles blew me away. The repetitive level design and waves of Flood, however, bored me to tears. Halo 2 fared much better on the levels at the cost of the weapon balance (can't say I'm a fan of dual wielding, losing easy access to grenades and melee is too restrictive.)

Here in no particular order are my impressions of the third game after roughly two hours of playtime in campaign mode:

  • Right off the bat, I'm not sure why anyone was whining about the graphics. The game looks at least as good as Gears of War to me. My only quibble is with the marines and other humans, who have rather poor face modeling and lip syncing.
  • The game does a good job of guiding you to where you need to go. This is nice, because I frequently got lost and disoriented in the first game (although that may have just been the bland level design...)
  • The new equipment is good fun, and adds some interesting dynamics to the game. You'll see a lot of the Bubble Shield in the first level. I'm personally especially fond of the Grav Lift, I'm really looking forward to using it against a vehicle.
  • I used to enjoy using the sword in Halo 2, but the Gravity Hammer is my new weapon of choice. I just can't resist the appeal of batting enemies halfway across the map. I was also impressed by the AI of the hammer wielding Brutes, they're very effective
  • Watching yourself in third person in theatre mode is neat, and pausing the animations makes you appreciate how good the game looks. However, the lack of a Rewind button and a Fast Forward that caps at roughly 3x speed are really glaring flaws. Having worked a little with animated replays in the past, I have some idea as to the challenge of adding those two particular features. However, having to sit for 10 minutes to get to a kill 30 minutes in and praying that you don't accidentally skip it is quite frankly ridiculous.

My Xbox tag is MrQuixotic, feel free to drop me an invite if you're up for some co-op or competitive Halo 3.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Useful Web Tools

Through a series of strange coincidences and necessities, I've been introduced to a number of really great software and web tools these past two weeks. Here's a little bit about each one, with any luck they might fix some of your problems as well.

Google Reader

As I've mentioned before, I'm a terribly slow adapter. However, after seeing that a good number of people were subscribed to my RSS feed via Google Reader, my curiosity was piqued and I took the time to check it out. I had previously considered switching from a browser based aggregator to web based one, but I didn't have the motivation to do so until I began lacking things to read during my breaks at work.

As with most of my slow but eventual technological upgrades, I really should have made the switch a long time ago. It's the little changes that make a big difference. For instance, the interface is much cleaner and easier to manage, similar in spirit to Gmail (more on Gmail further down). Instead of marking an entire feed as read when you open it, Google Reader marks individual articles as read as you scroll down through them. If you see something interesting but lengthy that you would like to devote more time to later, you can mark it with a star. You can choose to see your entire list of feeds on the left hand menu or just the updated ones, hiding feeds that are updated infrequently while still keeping track of them. Finally, it does a much better job at formatting the feeds, avoiding the "converted directly from XML" look.

With its terrific interface and web portability, I would heartily recommend Google Reader over any browser based aggregator.

Firefox + Greasemonkey

After moving all my feeds over to Google Reader, I made another long overdue change by finally switching completely to Firefox. There's really no need for me to extol the virtues of Firefox here, as it already has some particularly rabid fans. I will say, however, that its most significant advantage in my mind is how many great customizable add-ons exist for it due to its open-source nature.

To properly explain why the Greasemonkey add-on is so great, I'll first explain the problem I was facing. I love Gmail, but one thing that has always bugged me was the fact that it displayed how many new spam messages you had received. The point of blocking spam messages is to stop them from annoying you, but when they sit there on your left toolbar looking deceptively like a new e-mail from the corner of your eye... admittedly it was a very nerdy problem. Nevertheless it bugged me that there was no way to turn it off.

After a bit of Googling, the solution came in the form of the aforementioned Greasemonkey. Alone, the add-on does nothing. However, it allows you to install scripts that modify websites' source code, altering their appearance however you please. The particular script I used was the "Gmail Spam-count Hide" by Daniel Rozenberg. It's a very simple open-source script that hides the new spam message counter in Gmail.

I only recently found Greasemonkey so I'm still exploring it, but if you know any other useful scripts please share them in a comment.

Thunderbird + Gmail

After getting used to Thunderbird at work, I decided to use it to start backing up my Gmail. This is quite nice since it both gives me offline access to my e-mails and protects me in the event of data loss on Google's end. Furthermore, Thunderbird is designed with Gmail in mind so setting it up takes minutes. I also installed the Thunderbird Tray program to minimize it to the system tray and never have to worry about it again.

That concludes my list of discoveries that have made my life a bit easier this week. If you have a program or web tool that simplifies your life, I'd love to hear about it, so comment away.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Bioshock Posters

Big Daddy & Little Sister

I found something great the other day that I thought I should share: apparently someone (who I can't find and am therefore unfortunately unable to credit) searched through the PC version of Bioshock's files and extracted Rapture's posters and advertisements as images. Since they're right from the game, most of them still have great water damage effects for authenticity. The kind fellow uploaded these pictures as a set which you can download here*. I'm sure you can come up with all sorts of fun ways to use them; I plan to turn the above picture into a birthday card for a friend.

[Update: Much thanks to Mantrid for uploading these great images]

*Note: I did not upload these files and am therefore not responsible for their content. Download at your own risk.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Meet the Engineer

Considering the name of the site, it seemed oddly appropriate to post this video. Everything you see is true to life: we engineers frequently sit and play guitar in the middle of battlefields, and we most definitely wear orange helmets at all times. If you haven't been following the amusing character profiles, you should also check out Meet the Heavy and Meet the Soldier. The cartoon-like visual style is really striking; I'm really hoping that the light-hearted approach translates into the actual game.

Peggle Extreme

These videos are promos for Valve's Orange Box video game compilation, set to be released on October 10th. The set is a bargain, including Half-Life 2, Episodes 1 and 2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal for the price of one regular game. Furthermore, if you pre-order the game off Steam then you'll not only get into the TF2 beta, but also get Orange Box themed Peggle Extreme (pictured above)!

Update: Rock, Paper Shotgun has been doing a really great 9 part series detailing each class in TF2. If you're beta-less like me, this might help tide you over.

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Saturday, September 8, 2007

Segways are Awesome

Segway Police

You may or may not know that I've been a long-time of proponent of the Segway Personal Transporter. Why, you might ask, would I support these silly devices? I have two important personal reasons.

Firstly, they're a triumph of engineering. As vehicles that constantly appear to be in peril of falling over, they defy our expectations by remaining in perfect balance using a combination of computers and gyroscopes. Anything that harnesses the power of physics to do something counter-intuitive (see the levitating frog experiment) is alright in my books.

Secondly, it is literally impossible to look cool on a Segway. They're the dorkiest things imaginable, something out of a bad sci-fi film. In that sense, they're the antithesis of the modern trend of form over function. If buying an SUV is supposed to make you look sporty and tough, then a Segway gives you a vibe somewhere between a mad scientist and Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons. Therefore, riding one anyways is a giant "fuck you" to the modern fashion obsessed, cosmetic surgery, teeth whitening madness; I look like a huge nerd and I don't care!

Need further proof that Segways are awesome? How about the Chicago police officer who chased down a shooting suspect on his Segway. Cruising at 12.5 mph, the officer wore down the suspect to the point of exhaustion then jumped off and arrested him. As District Commander Kevin Ryan put it: "These don't wear down -- people do." What I wouldn't give to have seen THAT chase scene.

Would I actually buy a Segway? No, they cost upwards of 5000 USD and I'm already a big fan of walking and biking. Despite what some enthusiasts believe, I don't think that any able person can really justify personally owning a Segway. I do, however, see potential in the device for tourism, police patrols and post offices. They rent Segways in the Old Port of Montreal, and one of these days I'm going to make the time to give one a whirl.

[Thanks to Clive Thompson at Collision Detection for the Segway Policeman Story]


Zero Punctuation

If you haven't heard of this fellow Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw and his Zero Punctuation reviews, allow me to introduce you. Croshaw is a fast-talking Brit with an acid tongue whose brutal Bioshock review has recently garnered a great deal of well-deserved praise and attention. He started out on Youtube, but was quickly picked up to do a weekly feature in The Escapist. His videos are sharp, humourously animated and quite simply hilarious. Be sure to check out his old reviews as well as his weekly Escapist feature.

Embedded below is his review of The Darkness demo, which more or less encompasses the impression I got as well.

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

Grateful for Rock Band

The Grateful Dead

Hot on the heels of last month's full albums goodness, Harmonix has recently announced that they will release a sizable number of downloadable Grateful Dead tracks for their upcoming game Rock Band. Here's the abridged official announcement:

New York, NY - September 5, 2007- Harmonix [...] announced a deal that will bring the legendary band Grateful Dead to the highly anticipated music videogame Rock Band. The iconic group is making 18 master recordings from its diverse catalog available as digitally distributed game levels following Rock Band's release this holiday season. Among the songs available will be the classic Dead tracks "Truckin'," "Uncle John's Band," "Touch of Grey," "Sugar Magnolia," and "Casey Jones."

"Grateful Dead's unique fusion of rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, and jazz challenged traditional musical boundaries and pushed the limits of creativity to produce a signature sound that is undeniably their own," stated Paul DeGooyer, MTV's Senior Vice President of Audio, Home Video and Electronic Games. "With an enormous legion of fans all over the world, Rock Band will give players a chance to interact with the music of these beloved rock pioneers and experience what Grateful Dead did best - jam from the depths of their souls." [...]

Grateful Dead's journey ignited in San Francisco's Haight and Ashbury district during the psychedelic '60s. The band, well known for constantly touring, continued to spread their message of peace and love for another three decades with a devoted community of fans known as Dead Heads, many of whom traveled the country with them. Earlier this year, the Recording Academy awarded Grateful Dead a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for its contribution to the evolution of rock music.

You can pretty much guarantee that Friend of the Devil is going to be on there, but I'm hoping for New Speedway Boogie, St. Stephen and New, New Miglewood Blues as well. With any luck Harmonix will catch the bootleggin' spirit and release the tracks for free.

What do you think the next big announcement might be? Clapton? Zeppelin? Queen?

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Fun With Dylan

Deep down inside, you knew he wrote it

What happens when you mix Bob Dylan with Web 2.0? This apparently. The flash game, promoting a greatest hits package, puts you in control of the cue cards from the famous Subterranean Homesick Blues video. It's hard to put anything funny into that tiny box, but there's my best effort. Let's hear yours.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Puzzle Fighter II Turbo

Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo

I've never been a big fan of puzzle games. Even the really classic ones, (Tetris, Bust-A-Move, etc.) only manage to entertain me for a short time before I'm compelled to move on. While I can certainly appreciate the sheer genius of deriving complex strategy from simple rules, the truth is that these games quickly become mind-numbingly difficult. It's been my experience that there comes a point in the learning curve of every puzzle game, usually right after you've wrapped your head around the game's mechanics, where it takes immense dedication and practice to make any kind of headway. Clearly some players thrive under these conditions; I am not one of them.

After hearing various rave reviews, however, I was urged to try Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD Remix (what a mouthful) on the Xbox Live Arcade. Demoing arcade games is free, so in effect I had nothing to lose. Needless to say I was quickly hooked on the game's intuitive and fast-paced gameplay, which warranted downloading the full version for 800 Microsoft points (~$10). I won't go into detail here about the mechanics of the game, since it's the sort of thing that's best learned through seeing and doing. I will, however, describe what makes this game so enjoyable to me.

First and foremost are the incredible comebacks. My experience with Tetris leads me to believe that, for the average player, if you're approaching the top of the screen you've essentially lost. By that logic, a slip up or two can cost you the game. In Puzzle Fighter, however, it's really not over 'til it's over. A player with a large pile of bricks under them also has massive potential for a huge combo which will reverse the situation. Furthermore, the diamond bricks which destroy every brick of a single colour can give a struggling player a respite from which to launch a counter-offensive.

This leads me to my second point: playing head to head actually feels like a fight. Indeed, the symmetric nature is inherent to the game; the closest thing to a single player mode is you against the computer. Unlike Tetris, "staying alive" in Puzzle Fighter would be trivial if not for your opponent's actions. In that sense, just trying to keep your own pile of bricks small is not a viable strategy; the only way to win is to actively work at hindering your opponent. Playing against a friend on the couch the other day was tremendous fun, with taunts, near-wins and miraculous comebacks flying both ways. My Xbox Live tag is MrQuixotic if you're ever up for a friendly bout!

All in all, Puzzle Fighter is a terrific game even for us non-puzzle lovers. This experience has taught me that modern puzzle games don't have to be gruelling affairs with steep learning curves. I'll now be looking forward to Puzzle Quest when it hits XBLA sometime in the coming months.


Monday, September 3, 2007

The Music Industry's Failed Approach

This post is in response to a comment by Marc Cohen on the post The Best Things in Life are Ad-Supported.

Firstly I'd like to clarify that I was most definitely being facetious with that post title. I did some casual research into the ad-supported media model, and my gut reaction was similar to that of one of my favorite authors:

When Kurt Vonnegut learned that users downloading his novel Slaughterhouse-Five on the new e-book retailer WOWIO will have to flip through ads like one for Verizon Communications Inc.'s (VZ ) "Chocolate" mobile phone, the 83-year-old author snapped, "This is just tasteless," and hung up the phone. [link]

As a consumer, the saturation of advertisements now present in music and video games is already at a truly distasteful level. The idea of hearing an advertisement pop up while listening to my iPod would constitute a violation of my private listening space; it's the #1 reason why I don't listen to FM radio anymore. Furthermore, it seems to follow the same path that the failing-DRM system has: taking control of how to enjoy music away from the end-user.

That being said, it's easy for me to criticize the ad-supported model without providing any sort of alternative. It's clear that the current system is starting to crack. People who have grown up with the Internet have become accustomed to free music on demand, and your model certainly does a great job of catering to this demographic. I certainly don't agree with music piracy; no matter how anyone tries to justify it, it comes down to absolute greed. I'm simply being pragmatic: how can ad-laced DRM-restricted music can seriously compete with restrictionless pirated mp3s with virtually no consequences? The ad-supported model's fundamental flaw, in my view, is that it sustains the record company's paradigm that making users pay for music, whether with money, time or convenience, is still a viable business option. They can litigate all they want, but the high demand combined with the ingenuity of freeware programmers is such that piracy will find a way to resurface every time.

My guess would be that, in the long term, a major paradigm shift will have to occur. Today's industry struggle is akin to the tug-of-war in the 30's and 40's, when live musicians feared becoming obsolete with the advent of radio technology. How would live bands be profitable if recordings were played for free over the airwaves, they clamored. In the end, the local live bands were largely replaced by country-wide superstars like Elvis, and the industry evolved. Similarly, perhaps we are soon approaching a time when an mp3 will no longer become something that is bought and sold, and the recording industry will inevitably find some other way to turn a profit.

Counter arguments are welcome, so feel free to comment if you have a different point of view.


Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Best Things in Life are Ad-Supported

Command & Conquer

I'm a big fan of things that are free: free food, freeware, free speech, free Tibet. To keep you up to date on the state of the free world, I'm happy to inform you that EA is offering a free download of the original Command & Conquer, a terrific RTS game that spawned a million sequels and spin-offs. The game comes as two .iso files, which are disk images that can be burned right onto a playable CD with software like Nero. A few simple steps, explained on their website, make the game Windows XP compatible. Did I mention it's free?

While they're not quite free, Ubisoft has kindly offered us the PC versions of Far Cry, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Rayman Raving Rabids at the reasonable cost of the game being interrupted by advertisements every once in a while. The latter two strike me as games better played on a console, but that's more than likely my own prejudice at work.

Finally, the Gears of War "Hidden Front" map pack which previously set you back 800 Microsoft points becomes free on Monday. It includes the Bullet Marsh, Garden, Process and Subway maps. 4 games and a map pack for $0 is a fine way to spend the long weekend, so happy gaming!