Category Archives: Gaming

UCI team wins the 2018 IEEE GameSig competition!

Once again, a student-based game development team from UCI has been declared the winner of the annual IEEE GameSIG game development competition; that’s them in the main image. The competition, held every year and featuring games developed by student teams from multiple regional colleges and universities including UCI, Fullerton, Chapman, Cal State Long Beach, USC, and others, brings a narrowed-down field of ten finalists from this year’s original field of twenty; these ten games were the ones the review and selection committee, of which yours truly, meaning me, is a member, felt were the cream of a very rich crop. Yet even with all that fierce competition, UCI won, and in fact has won for the last seven years straight. It’s held at a different campus every year, each hosting the competition on a rotating schedule, but no matter where it’s held, UCI always brings home the trophy. I’m co-Chair of the reviewer committee along with professor Dan Frost who has been doing it since the beginning but recently retired, and one of the organizers, so I’ll have my work cut out for me next year as the 2019 competition will be held at UCI.

Setting up for the competition

Setting up for the competition

The final award winners, their respective institutions, and the awards they won for this year were:

Sky Farm (UCI) – First place and Showcase Cup
Reinvent the Wheel (Cal State Long Beach) – Second place and People’s Choice Award (voted on by the audience)
Super Nova (LCAD and USC) – Third place
Residuum (Santa Ana College) – ACM Award for its simulation of a human ecosystem
When the Moon Rises (Chapman) – Artistic Achievement Award
RGB (Chapman) – Technical Achievement Award
Hive Armada (Chapman) – Accessibility Award

Judging was done by industry veterans, including one of the original Blue Sky Rangers and CEO of Quicksilver Software, Bill Fischer, who is also the GameSIG chair (that’s him on the left of the header image). Each team had five minutes to present and five minutes for questions and answers, which could sometimes be challenging. Although I am very pleased that UCI was victorious (and that a friendly rivalry has now started between us and Chapman; they’re gunning for us next year for sure), all the games submitted were absolutely fantastic. In fact, the audience was allowed to vote for the People’s Choice award, and even I voted for Reinvent the Wheel. I wasn’t a judge, obviously, and although I really did feel that Sky Farm was the most polished, complete, and visually stunning game, I felt that Reinvent the Wheel is a game I would actually play more often. All you do is form a boulder, push it down a hill, and see how far it goes, but trying to get that last little bit of distance is a surprising carrot that keeps people coming back. Even the name is clever. Screens from both are below.
Sky Farm

Sky Farm – UCI

Reinvent the Wheel

Reinvent the Wheel – Chapman

Note that in reinvent the wheel, you’re trying to mow down others on the high-score list.
Other games were just as remarkable: RGB, a massive game featuring three characters with varying abilities that can be switched between at any time, and SuperNova, a VR rhythm game, were both built by a team of only one. And Hive Armada, another VR game, had setting for color blindness, something I rarely see in games today, yet should be present in all of them.
A very fun time, everyone enjoyed themselves, it was my first major visit to Chapman University which is beautiful and the whole surrounding town has a real charm to it, just a wonderful day overall. Now the planning begins for next year, and as mentioned it will be held here at UCI and Chapman is rightfully and understandably gunning for us. I can’t wait!
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If you are interested in participating in next year’s competition, please contact me and I will fill you in on all the details. Keep in mind that everyone who participates in the development of the game must be a student at time of development, and although team members can be from any school around the world, the team must be majority represented by one of the participating schools.

Another outstanding Computer Game Development showcase!

Computer Game Development showcase

The quarter has finally ended, and with that comes this year’s Computer Game Development (CS 113 / INF 125) showcase, open to everyone – all faculty, staff, students, and others interested in game development. As always, the titles on display were, overall, of very high quality. Some were absolutely incredible, and I’ll highlight one of them at the end of this post, but I am always incredibly impressed with the range of concepts, ideas, and designs students come up with. From a potato trying to escape a kitchen, to an engineer who can hop back and forth between our world and the spirit world, to a game where you play as one of several geometric shapes each with their own ability, to a VR game – our first ever – to teach people musical intervals, all the games on display were incredibly unique. Along with having our first VR project, this was also the first time ever that anyone in the class used the Unreal Engine; I’ve been trying to get that to happen for years, and this quarter two groups, including the VR group, used it!

VR Project

VR Project

The standard is still Unity, of course, which is perfectly fine. Hey, if there was no Unity, there’d be no Rocket League, and we can’t have that.

Even more than the games that are incredibly polished and advanced, I come away most impressed with the groups who began the quarter with no knowledge whatsoever of game design or the tools to create something interactive and playable, and in a mere ten weeks created a game that could be played and that was even enjoyable is the most rewarding part of the class. They are the most proud of what they accomplished, and deservedly so.

There is always a game that stands out among the rest, and this time was no exception. Before I mention them, however, I need to say this is no way a denigration of the other projects. Everyone did a great job, presented creative ideas, put in a lot of effort, scrambled to learn new technologies, and they all deserve praise and credit. That being said, there is always one project that is all but ready for public release, and this quarter’s winner in that category is a visual and storytelling triumph, The Taking of the SS Amusement. Did I mention I suggested that name in a nod to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three?

Crayon Fire Games

Crayon Fire Games

The team named themselves CrayonFire games. The story behind that is a perfect example of the way all names should be decided; in a completely accidental and organic manner. During a Slack chat, someone mentioned a canyon fire that was happening here in SoCal, and another group member misread ‘canyon fire’ as ‘crayon fire’ and became understandable confused. And that, my friend, is how great company (and band) names are born.

The group was also lucky in that everyone involved was a gamer, and passionately so, and double lucky in that one of their group members had extensive Unity experience and coded games as a hobby, and triply lucky in that his roommate was an art major who agreed to the pixel art for them and created multiple masterpieces, as least as far as pixel art goes. The animations and behaviors of each enemy, which are robot chefs and stewards, by the way, is absolutely perfect, with my favorite being the food cart-pushing robots who charge the player then stop to wipe their brow even though they’re robots, and the final boss who presses the appropriate colored button to launch an attach which drains a battery meter. There are also parallax stars visible through windows,  and a subtle before and after in the title screen. The game is challenging, expertly designed, and beautiful. Again, this is not to take away from other projects, I was happy with them all. But this game is special.

Their website is crayonfiregames.wordpress.com (they had to create a website as part of the course requirements), and I have embedded their promotional video below. I’ll see if I can make the game available for download – it’s definitely worth a play.

But again, congratulations to everyone in the class, there was so much good stuff on display it took longer than the two-hour showcase to go around and evaluate them all. I look forward to it every year, and for all the hard work the students have put in over the course of the quarter I know they really appreciate the opportunity to show off their achievements and accomplishments to everyone, and the feedback, both internal and external, was very positive all around.

Outside the showcase

Outside the showcase

On a relevant side note: I am trying to set up a repository of all the games that groups created for the class, however that is still in planning stages so it’s just a sidenote for now, however I have high hopes we can use it as a central hub to highlight all the games created in this class over all quarters. If it happens, there will definitely be an announcement made here.

State legislator sets up YouTube channel covering his fight against predatory videogame practices

Vadear (get it?)

I hope, I mean I really hope, that Electronic Arts has finally gone too far. First, let’s not forget that when they were first formed by Trip Hawkins back in 1982, their approach was that developers were artists and they treated them that way. But things changed. They have been developing disgusting, money-grabbing pseudo-games for a long time now, and doing so with relative impunity.  From the atrocious, insulting release of Dungeon Keeper mobile, a grotesque violation of the groundbreaking original series, the remake of which requires you to either wait for extended periods of time before your imps could continue to break down walls or buy crystals for real money so you can continue playing, to their more recent release of Need for Speed Payback which has you apply cards to cars in order to spec them out, however the cards are limited to only one car and they appear as a slot machine gameplay mechanic, the results of which are supposedly random. Never mind the idea that using cards as a means to upgrade cars makes no sense in the first place, nor does the random acquisition – those aren’t how upgrades work: remember the concept of ludonarrative dissonance? Racing games usually have you earn money by winning races and using that money to buy upgrades that you choose to fit your driving / playing style, which makes perfect sense. Just listing these two examples makes my blood boil, for many reasons. I have been a fan of Need for Speed for a long time (especially the police chases), and Dungeon Keeper, a game in which you design a dungeon to attract monsters who defend against invading heroes, originally released in 1997, is a game I spent many hours with and whose brilliance shines to this day. You could even possess the monsters who made their way into your dungeon and see it in a first person perspective.

Dungeon Keeper 2

Dungeon Keeper 2

And that’s the core of the issue. It used to be that when you bought a game, you bought the whole game. Games were designed as complete, compelling experiences meant to tell a story or provide an experience. You played the game, and either that was it or you played it again, perhaps trying new tactics or exploring new areas. Now, however, games are simply vehicles for monetization; It is determined how a property can be monetized, in other words how can it be developed so that once people buy the game they will need to continue to pay to fully experience it, and then a game is developed around that. They are not designed to be a game, to be fun, they are designed from the ground up to get you to keep paying. Look at this loading screen tip from Madden mobile for further proof: They outright tell you to buy ‘item packs’ to improve your game!

Thanks for the advice, EA

Thanks for the advice, EA (found on Reddit)

So back to Dungeon Keeper and Need for Speed. Both of these were once great franchises that EA destroyed by developing for the purposes of pushing lootboxes or their equivalent as opposed to compelling gameplay, but they had been doing this kind of thing for so long that I guess they felt they could do whatever they wanted. Speaking of which, it is important to note that EA is by no means the only company doing this – not by a long shot.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010)

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010)

And then, Star Wars Battlefront II happened. I’ll  bet EA never saw it coming, and from what I can tell they didn’t. I hope they didn’t, because their surprise and confusion over the backlash would make the whole thing that much better.

You see, EA decided that many of the characters and items in their new release of Battlefront II, itself a long-lived and beloved franchise, would be only attainable via lootboxes that contained random content, which may or may not be the ‘thing’ you as the player are looking for. If you didn’t want to grind away for who knows how long – Days? Weeks? – to get the stuff, you could pay real money instead. You could also buy lootboxes to get game-changing benefits that severely unbalance the game in your favor, and against everyone else’s: In one video I saw, a player paid real money and got the ability to lock on to targets 200 percent faster than others. The environments in that video really look nice, too, which makes the whole thing that much more troubling – it looks like there could be a good game in there.

Although there has always been backlash against this nonsense, what EA tried to do with Battlefront – remember, Battlefront is a long-running and revered franchise originally developed by Pandemic and published by Lucasfilm – unleashed the rage of countless gamers and has begun a snowball reaction that has even surprised us. First came the Reddit rage. Lots of rage comes from Reddit, but this was different: It was loud, and it was sustained. So severe was the response that EA backpedaled and made some changes, however they also stated they were not removing the lootboxes altogether.

Original Battlefront II

Original Battlefront II

Again, I think EA was blindsided by the response because this practice is nothing new to them. But never mind EA Spouse, or them having the most downvoted post in Reddit history, which itself was in response to a Reddit user who created a spreadsheet showing that unlocking high-level characters in Battlefront II would take about forty real hours, or even being named worst company in America two years in a row; what happened next is where this story really takes off.

The uproar was so loud that government agencies around the world started looking at whether the very concept of lootboxes should be considered gambling. The argument is, if you are paying real money in the hopes of getting something of value in return, then it should be classified as such. I am not taking a side on whether it can formally be defined as gambling, I’m just saying that designing games as revenue streams first and games second is a putrid, vile practice.

It seems some agree. Belgium is on the edge of classifying them as gambling (the linked article erroneously states they have, but they haven’t yet), Australia is also investigating as is France, while Denmark has said they don’t meet official gaming (read; gambling) criteria.

Here in the States, and what inspired this post in the first place, representative Chris Lee from Hawaii has taken it a step further and is not only considering lootboxes but the larger issue of predatory business practices in games. He is clearly a gamer himself, he even cited the standard, old-school business model mentioned above, and chimed in on a Reddit thread regarding the topic. He put out an initial video putting forth his opinions on the topic, and it became so popular that he then added a much more intimate, personal take on the controversy, which he intends to be an ongoing video blog covering his dealings with this issue and progress made. It was then that I knew this whole thing has taken on a life of its own. It is, I’m hoping, out of EA’s hands now, and about to be addressed on a much larger and more enforceable scale.

I’m hoping all this attention finally gets game companies back to making games. Not things that look and feel like games at a very low level while requiring the player to continue to buy to continue to play. I’ve been against it for a long time, even going so far as to say some ‘games’ aren’t games at all; they possess no elements of gameplay but want you to keep paying in order to see all the ‘game’ has to offer. One of the worst offenders, a ‘game’ I despise but everyone else loves is The Simpsons: Tapped Out. I love The Simpsons as a TV show, but with the app, what no one seems to realize is that there’s no freaking game! There’s a narrative, but that’s it. You don’t actually *do* anything. Tap on this character, they go into a building. Tap on that character, they deliver a line of dialogue then go in to a building. Tap the money floating above the buildings. If you can afford it, tap here to build a building (which builds over time, unless you pay to build it). Can’t afford it with in-game currency? Or want one of the items only available through a real-money transaction? You know what to do. There’s no skill involved, no character building; I suppose a minimal argument could be made for planning, although even that’s excpetionally limited, and storytelling, which is its strongest point, but there’s no game to go along with it. The Simpsons is not alone, considering in-app purchases are common, indeed rampant, in the mobile space, and even more insidiously they are often aimed directly at kids. That’s why things like this and this and this happen. Remember Joe Camel? He was banned too, for very similar reasons.

The Simpsons: Tapped Out

The Simpsons: Tapped Out

Fingers crossed. If I may invoke the names of one of my most beloved franchises that was also ruined (you can imagine by whom), I’d like to think maybe we can get back to making games that are more like Dead Space 1 and 2, and less like Dead Space 3. Wait, what happened to the company that made those first two masterpieces? Oh, that’s right. EA happened. And the second paragraph in the linked article is why we’re where we are right now. Here’s hoping for deliverance from what EA wrought.

UPDATE: Look what I found about three hours after writing this post! US lawmaker who called out Star Wars Battlefront 2 lays out plans for anti-loot box law.

Converting vintage toys into their modern tech equivalents

Tomy Turbo Turnin' Dashboard

I’m not comfortable referring to toys I played with as a kid as vintage, but they are, and what this person does with them is quite inventive. His Nom de Plume is Circuitbeard, and among other things, he converts vintage toys into modern ones, while modifying as little of the original item as possible.

The one that prompted me to write this post is his updating of a classic mechanical driving game – in this case a Tomy Turnin’ Turbo Dashboard game – to instead be a fully functioning, self-contained, OutRun arcade game.

Before we get to that, the original Tomy game was quite an accomplishment in itself. Released around 1983, everything about it was mechanical, from the revs to the fuel gauge to the fake-but-passable digital speedometer. The driving is secondary, really, since there isn’t much to it other than keeping the car in the center of the road via your manual steering and not veering to the side nor crash into the exact same car that kept appearing since the road is really just a looping image. Even if you did, nothing much happened, and remember this isn’t a video game, it’s all mechanical.

It’s a hard thing to explain, so here’s a video that shows how the original looked:

The electronic magician Circuitbeard, on the other hand, took this device and turned it into the game it always wanted to be. Just like Pinnochio always wanting to be a real boy, this game always wanted to play OutRun. The details of how he did it, which are long and impressive, including custom printed PCBs, a custom, laser-cut dashboard, and LEDs that actually represent what’s going on in the game, can be read over at his blog post and I very strongly encourage you to do so. Not simply to experience the monumental creative and technical feat he accomplished, but to see the other vintage toys he has converted. It’s all very masterful, and fascinating.

I’m sure what everyone wants to know is how did it turn out (but don’t skip the details. Seriously!). Here is the video of the final result, and to add to the above paragraph it involved some custom libraries, bespoke 3D-printed parts, multiple controllers; it is not hyperbole to say it may be one of the most brilliant electronics projects I’ve ever seen. He has others, by the way, which are equally as magnificent.

Here’s the video of the final result, and don’t be deceived into thinking this was a simple project. Read his post!

Private WoW server Felmyst shut down in one day

World of Warcraft

There is, perhaps, a not-so-unknown secret in the World of Warcraft community that many people are unhappy with the way the game has evolved. Streamlined interactions, fast travel, the loss of talent trees, major changes to the landscape (such as the now-flooded Thousand Needles), rapid leveling, repetitious quests, questionable lore addons, and so on. It is also relatively well known that because of the longing some players have for the much more involved, grindier, slower-paced, talent-centric nature of the original WoW, private servers, meaning ones not run by WoW developer Blizzard, have popped up all over the place.

One of the best and most stable of these private servers was Felmyst, a four-year labor of love by a developer known as Gummy, who suffers from Musular Dystrophy and is for all intents and purposes, homebound. Well known in the private server community, both Gummy and Felmyst were doing well, with a stable build and a solid user base. However, a mere one day after the Felmyst servers finally went live, Gummy received a Cease and Desist order from Blizzard. You can read the gory details over at Ars Technica, and I should also mention that I was going to post Gummy’s formal announcement about the shutdown that he posted to his website, however the website went offline just one day after he posted that. For a four year project, it vanished into thin air very quickly.

UPDATE: Apparently his response is back up on felmyst.com, but for how much longer I can’t say. Here it is:

Gummy's response

Gummy’s response

If you’re the lazy type who doesn’t like to click on images, here is what he wrote:

Felmyst 

I began this project roughly four years ago and last year when Blizzard began taking action more seriously it weighed heavily on me as not only was I already heavily invested into the work but others around me were as well. Because of my health situation I wasn’t in a position to cut losses and start over on something different, at least not something that would take four years to make. Last year’s news of what Blizzard was doing came at the absolute worst time for me, frankly, with so many years already invested. To explain what may appear as an odd series of decisions it seems worthwhile to disclose my condition, muscular dystrophy, which only one other person in the online sphere knew of until now. 

Of course, that is why I’m not able to pick up and move to another country as an alternative means to host the server since I’m not really able to live on my own. That is also the reason I’ve been able to work mostly full time on this project as I’m unemployed, though I have sacrificed much of my well being dedicating everything I have to this. Why am I disclosing this? I’m not really sure, but I feel compelled to. 

So the question instead becomes: why host it yourself? The problem with that is our popularity snowballed way too fast once the release date was set. 

Before the release date was declared, most people expected the server to flounder with a small population, the irony of which quickly became a meme. Therefore, months ago I saw no reason to hand all of our work over to someone I didn’t know when the project had a reasonable chance to stay small enough to avoid the need. Though I have no problem contributing to honest developers, the market to wrongfully profit from this stuff is much too lucrative to hand it out on a whim. Had we time to smooth out the release, this certainly would have been something to explore. The warning signs to expect notice from Blizzard were there but receiving it that quickly was something I don’t think many expected. 

So why did I make this project? I love the game and community, especially the community. The old game was a great way to meet people and see new faces. It makes me happy, and programming makes me happy. Of course, I am sad that things didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped but I don’t think I’d change any of the decisions I made. I gambled that we could cap the servers at 3k and enjoy a close community. Sadly, I did not win that gamble, though on some level it was nice to see so many people eager to enjoy something I worked on. This project gave the last four years of my life a sense of purpose that I thoroughly enjoyed. 

So why not tell people of that plan ahead of time to stifle hype? The problem with private servers is that there is no middle ground. If people expect a server to “only” have 3000 (real) players then they just won’t play and you’ll instead end up with 300, which isn’t playable. 

A lot of people are of course asking for the source code. Although it may not be in my best interest to distribute the whole thing in its entirety at this point, I’ll see what I can manage that would be beneficial to other programmers who are still learning. 

Gummy 
gummy52facebook@gmail.com

All of this rubs me the wrong way. The fact that the C&D order was delivered just one day after the servers went live even though Blizzard must have known about it years ago, that the servers went down so fast, that the website went offline so fast (but is now back), it was just scrubbed into nothing immediately after such a long development cycle. Maybe Gummy simply was spooked by having a multi-billion dollar company com after him. Some in the community said he should move his servers to another country to circumvent Blizzard’s attempt at shutting him down, however Gummy claims he doesn’t have the resources for that. Others were and are still imploring him to release the source code, however he states there are legal implications and ramifications to doing that and has therefore made no such commitment.

Another interesting legal wrinkle is that it is apparently not illegal to run a private server, the issue is distributing the client along with it that causes the problem. I don’t know the technicalities, but there has even been the argument that if you kept the servers up without including a client, which the Felmyst download did, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Again, I don’t know the specifics of the case and Blizzard’s claim to IP so I can’t comment on that. I can say that Gummy claims to have done most of the coding to get the thing up and running.

Frankly, I don’t know what Blizzard’s obsession is over not setting up a vanilla server themselves. They shut down Nostalrius, claiming the whole time they would work with the team to set up an officially-sanctioned legacy server, then just…nothing. Frankly, Blizzard lied to them, to us, and did so deliberately. On Nostalrius’ official site, you can read the latest announcement, from all the way back in May of 2016 – and note there has been nothing since – of how Nostalrius thought they would be part of something great and working with Blizzard to set up a legitimate vanilla server, not realizing they were being misled. To show how big the demand is for something like this, which incidentally would cost Blizzard very little to implement, this is a no joke screenshot from the last minutes of Nostalrius:

The last moments of Nostalrius

The last moments of Nostalrius

Seems like something people want.

So what can you do now if you wish to play the informally-labeled ‘vanilla WoW?’ You can do what I did, and switch over to Elysium. You have to get the client via torrent, but it’s stable, works beautifully, and for someone like me who still remembers being blown away when they first saw WoW, and longs for the difficult, slow, plodding, yet rewarding gameplay experience original WoW offered, it’s glorious going back to those early days; before Thousand Needles was flooded, before Durotar was as well, before the great sundering, before all of that. When Barrens Chat was as lively as ever, the Defias roamed free, you had to train skills, and find Mankrik’s wife, when some wore a Big Blue Dress and Alterac Valley could go on for days, when you had to suffer abysmal drop rates to earn your levels in order to pay 40 gold for a horse, it brought a tear of joy to my eye to relive those opening cinematics for the Undead and Tauren that hooked me right from the beginning. Its default graphics settings made the game look like I was back in its 2004 release date, but after cranking everything to max, the game looked beautiful.

Elysium WoW Screen

Elysium WoW Screen

Additionally, I set up characters on their Anathema server, which was recommended to me, however their Elysium server is much more populated. That’s good on the one hand as the opportunity for groups and simply interaction is higher, but it comes at the expense of gameplay as it can lag severely, although I suppose that is quite reminiscent of original WoW. On the Anathema server, things are better, but it is still well populated, runs smooth, and I personally feel has a better balance, plus I still get to experience groups, Barrens chat, and and interaction. Here is a pic from Orgrimmar on Anathema, and as you can see it’s bustling with activity.

Orgrimmar on Anathema

Orgrimmar on Anathema

There’s even whisper spam from gold farmers!

Just like vanilla

Just like vanilla

The only real problem I had was naming my character. Every single name I typed in gave a ‘That name is unavailable” error, even some of the ones it recommended to me did the same! There were some other minor, non-gameplay related things: At one point I repeatedly took fire damage although I wasn’t near a fire, an NPC referred to me by the wrong name, and an NPC clipping through the world; he came back though. There is also only one server, so server time never lines up with actual time. Other than that, no troubles so far.

Well, except for this:

UPDATE: Recently there have been some major server crashes. Actually, I don’t know what the specific issue is, but today all action stopped, and never started again. I wasn’t kicked back to the character select or login screen, it didn’t freeze up, it just stopped responding. My character could run around, but that’s all. All other players in the vicinity vanished. It also was unable to login to the character select screen afterwards, and had to x-out (I play in window mode) to try again. This happened multiple times today, my third day in. It has been smooth until now, and a patch was just rolled out earlier, which may have something to do with it.

UPDATE II: The issue was fixed, however I lost about 40 minutes of progress.

As great as it all is, be warned: it is not for the faint of heart. It is the grindiest grind in grindville, however because it is (I think) Burning Crusade, you level up a little faster than pure vanilla. But it is also very unforgiving ear;y on for some classes. For a while, as a Tauren hunter, around level 8 I was dying more than I was questing. I spent a lot of time in black and white (meaning dead), and I would get stomped by same-level mobs. For every one I killed, I would be the loser multiple times. Enemies are densely packed, it’s very easy to draw multiple aggros, and you often have to proceed very carefully. Once I got a pet, however, the whole dynamic changed and it became much more balanced. In the brief time I spent with some other classes, rogues, druids and warlocks made it much easier to progress early on. Warriors and priests, not so much. I didn’t try the mage or shaman classes.

It’s been very fun returning to almost-original WoW. When it was first being hyped all the way back in 2004, I didn’t pay it much attention, reading about it in game magazines with only passing interest. When the beta rolled around I thought “What the hell, I’ll give it a whirl” and was floored by what I saw. Immediately hooked, I knew I was witnessing something, experiencing something monumental; both literally and figuratively game-changing.

In fact, I got so much out of original WoW, had so many good experiences (I’ll never forget a higher-level Alliance chasing me all the way from Thousand Needles to Un’Goro crater, where I jumped over the edge and slowfell to the ground below, escaping my pursuer, only to be immediately devoured by a dinosaur. Good times.), I actually bought the Bloodscalp server on which I used to play when Blizzard auctioned it. It’s a prized possession.

Bloodscalp WoW Server

Bloodscalp WoW Server

I never played Alliance because they’re the dirty, stinking Alliance.

So if you have never experienced original WoW, if you are a latecomer, if you want to know what all the fuss is about, if you wax nostalgic for the more pure version of the game, then I encourage you to try out a vanilla server and see what you think.

I’ll update as I continue on. In the meantime, here are the original intros for the Human, Tauren, and Undead races, all recorded at max settings off Elysium’s Anathema server. I also included a very brief bit of running around to give an idea how it looks.

A Successful Game Development Class

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Because many of the groups mentioned in this article may continue development of the games mentioned and with respect to their work and designs, I am limited in what I can show of many of them.

This quarter, I was asked to take over our department’s ‘Computer Game Development’ class from another faculty who was retiring. I guess it had something to do with that donation I made, but I was happy to do it, the retiring faculty recommended me personally, and offered all his materials for my use and adoption.

With absolutely no disrespect meant to him at all, I learned subsequently that he wasn’t actually a gamer, he was a programmer who developed this course as more of a technical overview of some coding techniques that could be applied to games, such as client-side prediction and some GPU tricks. Ultimately, much of the class was given over to project development time as opposed to formal instruction, as is common in a project class.

I decided to take the class in a different direction. We did talk about those things and other technical issues (and Thursdays were scheduled as project times as had been done before me), however as I always tell all my students, ‘you can’t develop technology in a vacuum.’ Or in this case, games. In other words, there is so much more to developing games than writing code and using unity. There are artists, musicians, writers (I made a HUGE deal about writing for games), level designers, and on top pf that, as my students also know, an understanding of how the industry and games themselves evolved is important; that context helps inform your decisions today.

So we talked about history, we talked about writing, we talked about level design, we talked about morals and ethics, we talked about the engines available today as opposed to the assembly languages available back when, we talked about character design and plot progression and player investment and balance and honing. All the while, students developed their own projects.

It is still a project-based course, as it was before I came along. Students are expected to develop a game using any platform and approach they wish, as long as it showed technical prowess and creativity in design. It is expected that students in this class have a background in Python and Java at least, although most have solid C# backgrounds as well.

My main directive to the groups was “Don’t build an ashtray.” I tell that to a lot of my project classes. You see, when I was in high school, I took a woodshop class, and the teacher – Mr. Cagle – went around the room asking each student what they would like to build that session. The responses were thoughtful; one kid wanted to build a full archery bow, another a roll top desk, and yet another a soap-box racer kind of thing. However one kid, when asked, said with his head down “I don’t know, I’ll build an ashtray.”

An ashtray? AN ASHTRAY? Everyone in the class had these great ideas, ones they had thought about and developed, but this guy who I guess didn’t care or wasn’t interested or wasn’t motivated or perhaps just lacked the fluid thought necessary could only come up with an ashtray, a single-component item that could be made out of clay in about two minutes. He had an opportunity to create something really interesting and unique and that’s all the better he could, or was willing, to do.

I always remembered that kid, and so even now I tell my project groups to not be that kid, don’t build an ashtray. In other words, be creative, be unique take this opportunity to explore your ideas and test your abilities.

They did not let me down.

One group developed a game about someone suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and the entire game had a timer that counted down continuously until a bathroom was found, which only served to reset the timer.

Another group developed a platform game in which the player had to switch back and forth between light and dark worlds in order to traverse levels. Another involved a pirate with a hook hand swinging through levels to gather gold and still another group created a game in which two brothers navigated through their own individual levels, with the effects of what one brother did (stopping time or causing rain) manifesting at the same time in the other brother’s level. And there was also one that was pseudo-text based and emulated a greenscreen of yore, with the player using actual Linux commands to solve some of the puzzles and minigames.

There was also a mobile game about a dog fending off a flea attack, Harambe escaping his captors, some flashlight-based games, a dungeon crawl, an RPG with unconventional characters, a ghost coming to terms with his infamous past, and a fantastic card game in which you navigated a 3D town and the group designed all the card graphics using a stained-glass aesthetic which was understated yet beautiful.

It was also required that teams develop websites and promotional materials for their games, and even many of those were outstanding. Some allowed for the downloading of demos and other materials, while others were more informational.

One group, pictured in the header and below, developed a party game so complete and well-polished that I felt, and from what I heard others did as well, that with just a little more work it could go up on Steam or the Xbox/PS stores. Because of that, the name of the game had to be blurred out.

At the end of the quarter we held a showcase that was open to the public, and in which every team was able to show off their creation. It was a great success, especially considering all 121 students, 21 teams, were crammed into the same moderately sized conference room. It was hot in there!

A couple of the games are playable online, so I’ll link to those here:

CoinUp, a game in which two players remove coins from either end of a row, with the goal being to have more money at the end of the session. It can be played as one game, best of three, or best of five, and the powerups add a tense twist to the action. It’s a simple game that can be frustrating in a just-one-more kind of way. EDIT: No longer online, I’ll see about the executable.

Another is Quadris, which is a Tetris clone in which gameplay takes place in each of the four compass points, and has you constantly switching perspective. It’s hard to explain but a blast to play. You can play it here.

I’m very proud of all of them; despite the nature of the course it’s very stressful as they only have 10 weeks to design and develop their game. Regardless, they all came though magnificently, and while I certainly learned that some structural changes will have to be made for next time, I’m already looking forward to what the next class is able to create.

 

I have finally hit the big time (potentially NSFW, but not really)

Careful now

Has it really been a month since my last post? How time flies when you’re insanely busy and out of town for a week on top of that. My apologies, but I assure you, this post will have been worth the wait.

I know that headline can be interpreted several different ways and may lead to some raised eyebrows, however it’s not as risque as it sounds. I’m not even sure the ‘NSFW’ tag is necessary, but better safe than sorry I suppose. About a month ago  – and I meant to post this earlier but just couldn’t find the time – I was the featured expert in an article in Playboy magazine about the evolution of vibrating game controllers titled ‘The Bizarre History of Vibrating Controllers: VR Precursors, Occasional Sex Toys.’

I’m featured pretty prominently in the piece, and it really is a well-researched and relatively complete examination of the topic, however it is Playboy, and as you can probably tell from the link title the article veers into the, well, it veers into what you’d expect a Playboy article to veer into, even though the magazine no longer features women in birthday suits.

But I recommend it. If you don’t mind some very mild prurient evaluation, meaning absolutely nothing even close to x-rated but briefly talking about the adult potential of such controllers towards the end, it’s an informative read and respectful of its topic.

University of California, Irvine, becomes leader in eSports

UCI LoL arena

My employer, the University of California, Irvine, has become the first university to open an eSports arena, which is really just a big room with a bunch of high-end PCs in it for networked game play, and have a top-ranked League of Legends team that will be awarded scholarships for their participation.

Other colleges and universities have had school-sponsored eSports teams before; Robert Morris University did so back in 2014, and others followed suit, however the arena is what sets us apart. A dedicated gaming facility created with the blessings and support of League of Legends developers Riot Games and machines supplied by boutique PC source iBuyPower (terrible website design trigger warning).

The arena can also be used by students who just want to do some gaming. And because we’re a university, there will be many, many opportunities for game-based research, something my own department does from many perspectives.

The official opening will be on Friday, September 23rd, and they are expecting about 1000 people. I’ve been in that room and that area of campus, and that would be quite the crowd, but it speaks highly of what they’re doing and what they’ve already accomplished.

It’s all gone

Finally done

(UPDATE: Many more pictures of the collection itself and some additional narrative can be seen at this Imgur post)

Actually, it’s not really gone, it’s just gone to a better place. It was finally time. I have donated my entire 40+ year collection of video games, consoles, manuals, displays, advertising and other miscellany to the Transformative Game Lab in the Department of Informatics at The University of California, Irvine.

I had been thinking about what to do with it all for a number of years. I have been collecting these things for decades, and while I love them all, most of the collection has been sitting in a garage in Las Vegas for the past six or so years, baking summer after summer in the brutal Vegas heat.

I wanted it all to go somewhere where it would be of benefit and use. Somewhere where it would be appreciated, where the games would be played and the manuals read, where they would be studied and researched as the works of art they are. I had thought about willing them to the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester NY, however the problem there is I would have to be dead to see my dream realized.

While I was thinking about it, I took a position in UCI’s Department of Informatics, where I learned quickly they do games research, they have a game lab, and most importantly of all, they consider it a valid field of study and give it the respect it deserves. I spoke with Joshua Tanenbaum, the professor who heads it all up, and serendipitously it turned out he was looking to expand the lab into retro gaming! An earlier attempt at getting an eBay seller to donate his collection hadn’t worked out, and although my collection was nowhere near what that seller had, we both knew this would still work out perfectly.

It wasn’t easy. My collection is big and random. It didn’t lend itself to easy packing and storing. Having sat in the garage all these years, it was also covered in a layer of dust, not to mention spider webs, dead bugs, and other detritus that is unpleasant to say the least. Having lived in Vegas for so long cleaning it up wasn’t a problem, but it was a big part of the project. Not to make anyone uncomfortable, but here is a picture of one of the webs when I first opened the garage door. You can also see in the background how disorganized it all is. Under that is a (poor iPhone) pic from the other end. It’s the loosest, most disorganized collection you can imagine.

Webs

Webs

Garage View

Garage View

Even my beloved Genesis Collective went into the donation. I was surprised to receive some backlash from friends and family over that, and resistance to it. I didn’t realize how important it was to not just me, but others as well. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, that reinforced my belief I was doing the right thing, that they held meaning and importance and needed to be somewhere they were appreciated.

Also, meet Walter.

The Genesis Collective

The Genesis Collective

As is true of any collector, however, I had some duplicates, and it turned out my friend only wanted Aladdin anyway, so I have already restarted the collection and they got what they really wanted. Win-win!

Rebirth!

Rebirth!

There was much more than that, of course, so here are some non-exhaustive pictures of the other fun stuff that was donated. From the top: Sega Dreamcast (and some PS2) games, Sega Master System/Jaguar/Atari 5200/Sega Game Gear titles, Nintendo Virtual Boys (also notice the adults-only Mystique titles for the Atari 2600 on that lower right-hand shelf), and PC games.

A lot of Dreamcast, a little PS2

A lot of Dreamcast, a little PS2

Master System, Jaguar, Game Gear, 5200

Master System, Jaguar, Game Gear, 5200

Virtual Boys

Virtual Boys

Can't forget the PC!

Can’t forget the PC!

It took days to get it all packed up. And when it was, it was just as chaotic as before. There was simply no way to organize everything into a cohesive package, and I gave up on the idea pretty early in the process.

Here’s how it looked when all packed and ready for loading into the U-haul.

Garage

Garage

Hall

Hall

There’s a lot there. The next step was to finally load it all into the U-haul. My dad flew in from Central California to help, and my dear friend Shauna even pitched in.

Progress

Progress

Some boxes, my dad, and the arcade machines

Some boxes, my dad, and the arcade machines

It was so hot on loading day (105 degrees, which for Vegas is actually considered a cooldown) that when the truck was finally loaded with boxes and other fun stuff, we had to leave the door propped open or it would have roasted the contents beyond repair. We left it open for about 4 hours, until around 7, until it was cool enough to finally close it up.

Because of the heat

Because of the heat

The next morning at 6am, we were off.

It’s a long, mostly uneventful drive through the desert and down the 15 until you hit SoCal, but I like the desert and its vast open plains. We saw the massive reflector fields, formally known as the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, near Primm, and this picture is only one of them. They’re an impressive thing to see!

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System

And to be fair, when you’re driving through the desert, EVERY road is a ghost town.

It sure is

It sure is

We arrived at UCI around 11:45, and began the unloading process. Josh Tanenbaum, who I introduced earlier as the main man doing game studies in the department was there, as well as just-hired Aaron Trammell and others who agreed to pitch in. While it took three and a half hours hours in the blazing heat to load the truck in Vegas, with the help of 10 people it took about ninety minutes in not-too-bad heat to unload, and that even means carrying everything – including three arcade machines – to the sixth floor and through a labyrinthine maze of doors and halls to get to their final resting place. Well, it’s not actually their final resting place, but they’ll all be here for a while until we find them a permanent home in the building. Thanks to Josh for providing these pictures, as I was too exhausted and excited and neglected to take any!

The first is the truck right before unloading, the second and third are a couple of celebratory poses after a job well done, and the rest are some pictures of the room after it was all loaded.

The truck before unloading

The truck before unloading

Finally done

Finally done

Cheer!

Cheer!

Storage Room

Storage Room

The storage room

Storage room

Storage Room

Storage Room

To say it’s bittersweet is an understatement. I have carried some of these items with me for what seems like my whole life, having received them as birthday or holiday gifts when I was still in the single digits. I distinctly recall the specific moment when I acquired many of these things, whether it was the subpar Fighting Masters for the Genesis I picked up at the Annapolis Mall in Maryland or the Genesis collection I found in a flea market in Edmonton, Canada; Adventure for the Atari 2600 I received for my Bar Mitzvah at 13 or the ColecoVision controllers I had to wade through a warehouse in a seedy part of Baltimore to find. The Atari Lynx games I’d buy at the very same Toys ‘r’ Us at which I worked or first discovering the original GameBoy, each one carries significant memories with it, and it’s all a major part of my life. I did not give it up lightly.

I by no means have lost interest in the hobby, I’m still very much interested and very much vested, however changes have occurred both within and without the industry that moved me in this direction, however those are issues for another post. I would just like to say PC Master Race. PC MASTER RACE! Also, Steam, GOG, and emulation (don’t judge!).

I kept a couple of things. A Dreamcast VMU that has a fully unlocked Hydro Thunder Save, The World of Warcraft server (Bloodscalp) I used to play on, a soundtrack for the PlayStation title Road Rash: Jailbreak that my band was featured on, and the promotional Christmas Nights Into Dreams for the Sega Saturn. But everything else went in the truck.

At the same time, I have no regrets and had no hesitations. Where the collection is now is where it belongs – with people who will truly appreciate it, where it will be treated with dignity and respect, where it will be used and enjoyed. It wasn’t right to keep it in the garage for years on end, and although they’re just inanimate objects, well, I think they’re happier here, and we all are, too.

As the collection is inventoried and catalogued, as a final location for its display and use is selected and brought online, as the catalog and apps and everything else are created, and as any other milestones are reached, I’ll post updates. I’m excited for the future of it all.

Let’s listen to some (obscure) game music!

Rockin'

(Crossposted from theexperiencebar.com)

This isn’t an article about JRPG soundtracks being performed by symphonies or the great song selection in Grand Theft Auto or the Fallout series, or Song of the Dragonborn, or the track lists for Guitar Hero/Rock Band/other random plastic-instrument game. Those already get a lot of attention.

Here, I wanted to focus on the really obscure songs that I think add immeasurably to a game yet never got the recognition they deserved. I have a couple that were written specifically for games that stand on their own as eminently listenable songs in their own right, and a couple that so complimented their game that the entire game would have been lesser without them.

And I’ll even give you a surprise at the end.

There aren’t that many that spring to mind, so luckily this will be short and not one of those absurd “100 best video game songs of all time” lists.

Off we go!

Going Up