I’ve done a little re-design to the menu for the site. My goal was to make older content more visible to visitors, and to make my projects more visible. I’m not done with this yet, but the first two menus (Game Development Tutorials, Projects) now have sub-entries. Some of the entries under Projects all leave the site to go directly to where the project page is found on the GameMaker Marketplace, or elsewhere. This seems to work ok in a desktop browser, however, on mobile or narrow screens the sub-menu entries don’t seem to be visible. I will have to see what I can do about that. Please report if you have a problem navigating the site.
Today, UK news source The Register published an article on the new Atari VCS, formerly known as the AtariBox. I refuse to call it the VCS, because that name is already in use, so I’ll just stick to calling it the AtariBox, to avoid confusion.
I love the URL for the story. “Atari Lempty Box” has such a nice ring to it. Like a French existentialist “L’empty Box” that smokes cigarettes in Parisian cafes, complaining bitterly about the meaninglessness of life.
Lol. OK. Here’s CNet’s slightly more forgiving coverage.
The Atari fan communities that I follow on Atari Age and Facebook have been roasting this system for months. There’s so much to signal that this is going to be a disaster. The biggest is the lack of any hard information about hardware specs, developers, games, capabilities, etc. What has been announced is either vague or very uninspiring.
And now this article. After months of feeble, empty pre-launch hype, and an aborted attempt at a crowdfunded pre-order, “Atari” shows up at GDC 2018 with an inert piece of plastic shaped like their new console, and no new information. The CNet article at least explains why — according to Atari, they couldn’t agree on the controller, and ended up rethinking the whole project, which is why they canceled their crowdfunding campaign last year, and why they still don’t have a lot to show for themselves yet. But that’s still not a very good sign.
Putting aside the obvious con job that this is turning out to be, let’s look at why AtariBox is such a bad idea. Let’s take a look at AtariBox’s selling points:
OMG the case! It has real wood grain! An Atari Logo! And lights!
By far, the biggest selling point that Atari have presented was the attractive design of the case. It looks nice, I’ll give it that.
But that’s it. It has an Atari logo on it, and real wood grain. I’m pretty sure the original Atari used fake wood grain. The hardware inside the case is what matters, though, and we still know nothing about that, other than some very vague mention that it’s going to be AMD-based.
It looks like an original woodgrain Atari 2600 was crossbred with an old cable TV channel selector boxes they used to have in the 80s.
I’ll grant it does look nice. But, I don’t really care that it looks nice. When I play a game console, I’m looking at the screen, not the case. I play the console for the games it can run, not for its brand. A game company creates a good brand by consistently creating great games.
Focus on the games. AtariBox has revealed almost nothing about the games it will run. Over a year of hyping the new console. That’s troubling.
We’re teased that they’re talking to developers about creating new games based on classic Atari IP. We’re told that AtariBox will run hundreds of “old games”. We’re told it will run “new games” too. We’re told it will cost ~$300, so we don’t expect it to be capable of running cutting edge games, at least not at high framerates with all the bells and whistles.
It runs Linux!
Nothing against Linux, I love open source software. It’s a good choice. But so what? In 2018, anything can run Linux. It’s not a big deal.
The real selling point of a game console isn’t the OS, it’s the Games.
IT’S THE GAMES, STUPID.
A nice Atari-themed desktop environment would be cool, but inherently whatever they build to run on Linux could be run on any other hardware running a build of Linux compiled for that hardware. Thanks to the GPL, Atari is required to make available the source code for this Linux build.
Like, I could take a commodity AMD PC, slap AtariBox’s Linux distro on it, and then I could run the same software on it.
But perhaps they’ll keep their applications that run on top of the Linux layer proprietary. (Of course they will, who am I kidding?)
In that case, what do I care that they made use of some open source stuff? As an open source proponent, I like when open source propagates and begets more open source. Open source being leveraged as a platform from which unfree software is sold isn’t exciting if you’re attracted to the openness aspect of the system.
It streams video as well as plays video games!
Yeah? So does my TV. So does my phone. So does my car. So does everything.
This is 2018. Streaming video over the internet is not amazing anymore, it’s basic. And just like how every home appliance in the 1980s had to have a digital clock, which no one cared about, because they already had a dozen appliances that all had digital clocks built into them, not including it would be weird because everything has it.
But do you need to buy another thing that streams video?
No, you don’t.
It plays old games AND new games!
I like old games. I’m glad new devices can play old games. If you didn’t have that, old games would die off. So I’m glad there are new devices that can play old games.
But here’s the thing: This is another solved problem. We have Stella. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the old games that you can play on an AtariBox will be played through Stella. After all, why would they bother to develop a competing system to run Atari games, when Stella is stable, mature, open source, and amazing?
It’s remotely conceivable that rather than emulating the Atari 2600 in software, they could have their hardware include an FPGA implementation of the Atari 2600 hardware, which would be pretty cool, since it would be that much closer to the original hardware, and could perhaps do things that Stella can’t do. But I can’t think of anything that Stella can’t do. I’m sure Stella must not be 100% perfect, because nothing is, but I have been using it since at least 1996, so 22 years, and it was pretty damn good even back then, and I couldn’t tell you something that I wished it did, but doesn’t do as well as I want it to. Granted, I’m not a hard core user who deeply groks the hardware it emulates and can discern imperceptible differences between original hardware vs. emulator. It’s possible that there’s something Stella can’t do, or can’t do well, that would make an FPGA Atari worth it.
But it’s probably useless to speculate about it, because it’s all but given that the AtariBox isn’t going to be an FPGA system.
Even if it was, AtariBox almost certainly won’t be selling you every ROM ever released. No single entity, not even Atari, owns the IP rights to the entire Atari 2600 library. At best, they’ll be offering a good chunk of the total library. And granted, out of the 700+ titles developed for the Atari 2600, a huge proportion of them are not good enough that anyone is going to miss them. Still, the entire library is under a megabyte. So what the hell, you might as well include everything.
But this is where “abandonware” (software “piracy” of “dead” systems) shines.
(Of course, Atari never died, if people never stopped playing it, did it?)
But it did exit the market, and that’s what I mean by a “dead system”. Even notwithstanding a brilliant homebrew community continuing to publish new titles for the system, I still think it’s reasonable to consider the Atari 2600 dead, and not just dead, but long dead.
Once it was no longer viable to sell in the mass retail market and sustain a company, if our copyright laws were just, old obsolete games should have been ceded to the public domain, say abandonware proponents.
Of course, legally, that never happened.
And so, year after year, we see various attempts at re-incarnating Atari’s classic library of games. This never really stopped happening. NES killed Atari, but many classic titles of the Atari era have NES ports. And SNES. And anthology collections on every generation of game console since then, until now.
See what I’m getting at? Why do we need an AtariBox to “bring back” the classics, when this stuff has never gone away?
But the thing is, these commercial repackagings that we get re-sold again and again, are always inferior to what you can get if you aren’t encumbered by intellectual property laws and can treat 30-40 year old software as having entered into the public domain. Go to a ROM site, download 700+ Atari 2600 ROMs in one click, unzip, launch Stella. You’re good to go.
I like new games, too! But there’s no shortage of platforms to play them on already! What does AtariBox offer that’s new or different from XBox, Playstation, Switch, PC, Android, iOS? What could it offer? The company calling itself “Atari” doesn’t have the deep pockets of Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Apple, Google.
Exclusives? Nobody wants to be exclusive on the smallest upstart competitor’s box. Successful games that people want to play are generally ported to as many platforms as possible.
Nintendo doesn’t port their first-party titles to Xbox and PlayStation, but that’s because they’re very well established, and well-heeled, and they can afford to. That’s what it’s like when you never went bankrupt.
Atari has some very iconic, classic IP, which they could conceivably bring back, but it’s not nearly as attractive as Nintendo’s A-list. Tempest 4000 looks pretty cool, but Tempest is not Mario, Zelda, or Metroid caliber, not even close.
Various incarnations of Atari already have re-packaged and licensed that IP to anyone and everyone over the last 20+ years. They could try to create some brand new titles inspired by their old IP, and keep it reserved as exclusive content to help sell their platform. This is probably what I would be most interested in. Not playing “new games” from a couple years ago, like Skyrim or Hotline Miami on AtariBox, but playing an all-new Pitfall! that looks and feels like the Atari 2600 game, and just has some more to it. Give it to the guy who did Spelunky, maybe. Let him see what he can do with it. Or maybe bring back David Crane if you can get him, and see what he can come up with now.
But the thing is, if those games are any good, they would sell far better, wider, and more copies if they were made available on every platform. We learned this a few years ago from Ouya. Ouya courted indie developers, but indies released anywhere and everywhere they could, and in the end no one gave a shit about Ouya.
The AtariBox hardware is all but certain to be less powerful than the XBox One, PS4, or even the Switch. So it’s not going to play cutting edge new games, but will play “new-ish” games from 2-5 years ago that we’ve already seen and played through. Why would we want to buy them again, just to play them on a box with a Fuji logo on it?
As much as I would love for there to be a viable Atari console in 2018, I just don’t see what possible niche they could occupy that would work for them well enough to enable the company to compete in today’s market.
I have to preface this section by saying that I have no idea what I’m talking about here, but am trying to learn. I like math, but I didn’t go to school primarily for it, and that was decades ago. I haven’t studied 3D geometry, or optics, or computer graphics in any formal sense. I’m figuring this out more or less by myself, learning as I teach myself.
So if someone who knows more than I do wants to explain this stuff better than I can, I’d love to hear from you. You can send me an email at the Contact page, or tweet at me @csanyk, or just comment on this article.
Thanks in advance!
I’ve called Z3D Engine a “Fake 3D” engine and “2.5D” engine, because those are fairly vague terms that I don’t have to worry about being right about. Someone asked me what type of view it is, and I couldn’t tell them. That bothered me, so I started reading a bit. I still don’t really know for sure.
- a method of projection in which an object is depicted or a surface mapped using parallel lines to project its shape onto a plane.
- a drawing or map made using orthographic projection.
I think this is sortof close to what Z3D is… maybe. What I can tell you about Z3D is this: You can see the full front side and the full top side of (most) objects. These do not foreshorten.
gerund or present participle: foreshortening
- portray or show (an object or view) as closer than it is or as having less depth or distance, as an effect of perspective or the angle of vision.
- “seen from the road, the mountain is greatly foreshortened”
The blue rectangle that represents the “player” in the demo is intended to show the player as a side view only, with no pixels in the sprite representing the top surface of the player. This is because I’m intending Z3D to be used for games drawn in a visual style similar to the top-down Legend of Zelda games, and in those games, no matter which way Link is facing, you can only see pixels in his sprite that represent his side, and nothing that represents the top of him, even though you’re viewing most of the rest of the terrain in the room from this weird view where you can see both the top and side of things like blocks and chests, and for other things like bushes you can only see the side.
Things in Z3D do not appear to get smaller as they recede into the background, or get bigger as they get closer to the foreground. As well, the tops of objects (that have tops), the top is drawn 1 visual pixel “deep” (in the Y-dimension) for every pixel of distance.
This doesn’t look correct, strictly speaking; if you’re looking for “correct” visuals this engine likely isn’t for you. But it is visually easy to understand for the player, and it is very simple.
What I’m doing in Z3D Engine is showing the top of everything (that has a top) as though you’re looking at it’s top from a vantage point that is exactly perpendicular to the top, while at the same time you’re also seeing the side of everything as though you’re looking at the side from a vantage point that is exactly perpendicular to the side. This is an impossible perspective in real life, but it works in 2D graphics that are trying to create a sort of “fake” 3D look, which is what Z3D does.
Imagine you’re looking at this cube:
At most, assuming the cube is opaque, you can see only three faces of the cube from any given vantage point outside the cube; the other three faces are occluded on the other side of the cube.
(That image above is properly called Isometric, by the way. Z3D is not isometric).
If you were looking at the cube from a vantage point where you were perpendicular to one of the faces, you could only see that one face, and it would look like a square:
(Since the faces of this cube are all nondescript, we can’t tell if we’re looking at the side or the top of the cube.)
Now, if it were possible to be at a vantage point that is exactly perpendicular to the both the side and the top of the cube simultaneously, the cube would look like this:
This is weird and wrong, but yet it is easy to understand, and it turns out that it is also very easy to compute the position and movement along 3 dimensional axes if you allow this wrong way of drawing. This is view is (or perhaps is similar to) a method of visualization known as a oblique projection.
More properly, if you were positioned at a vantage point somewhere between the two points that are perfectly perpendicular to the top and side faces, the cube would look like this:
Here, obviously, we are looking at the cube mostly from the side, but our eye is slightly above, so we can see the top of the cube as well. But notice, since we are not viewing the top face of the cube from a perpendicular vantage point, it does not appear to be a square any longer — it foreshortens, so that the far end of the top of the cube appears narrower than the closer end.
This is perhaps obvious, because we’re using to seeing it, because we see it every day, because that’s what real life looks like. But it’s because we see this every day that we take it for granted, and when we have to explicitly understand what’s going on visually with geometry, we have to unpack a lot of assumptions and intuitions that we don’t normally think consciously about.
If we were to put our eye at the exact middle point between the points that are perpendicular to the side face and the top face, the cube should look to us like this:
Notice that both the bottom of the side face and the far edge of the top face are foreshortened due to perspective.
This is how they “should” look in a “correct” 3D graphics system, but Z3D “cheats” to show both the side and top faces without doing any foreshortening, which means that it can draw an instance as it moves through any of the three dimensions using extremely simple math.
Visually moving 1 pixel left or right is always done at a hspeed of -1 or 1, regardless of whether the object is near (at a high y position) or far away (at a low y position). Likewise, moving near or far is also always done at a rate of one distance pixel per apparent visual pixel. And moving up and down in the z-dimension is also always done at a rate of 1 distance pixel per apparent visual pixel.
If we wanted to draw more convincingly realistic 3D graphics, we need to understand what’s going on with the eye, with perspective, and things at a distance.
The same object viewed in Z3D’s perspective is something like this:
(We’ve omitted the occluded faces on the back end of the cube relative to the viewer, for simplicity.)
These two “apparent” perspectives are combined at the point where the player’s real eye is, resulting in something like this fake-3D perspective:
So, in conclusion I’m not 100% sure that my terminology is correct, but I think we can call this perspective “flattened orthographic bi-perspective” or perhaps “oblique projection”.
(From this, we can begin to see how a corrected view might be possible, using trigonometry to calculate the amount of foreshortening/skew a given position in the Z3D space would need in order to appear correct for a single-POV perspective. But this is something well beyond what I am planning to do with the engine; if you wanted this, you would be far better off creating your game with a real 3D engine.)
It gets weirder when you realize that for certain objects, such as the player, we’re going to draw only the side view, meaning that the player will be drawn a flat 2D representation in a fake 3D space. Yet the player’s “footprint” collision box will likely have some y-dimension height to it.
In a move that endears me to the new gaming console not the slightest bit, Atari has announced that they are re-naming their upcoming AtariBox console to the already-taken name, “Atari VCS”. Henceforth, people who want to search for the 1977 Atari VCS, later renamed the Atari 2600, will have to wade through hits for the modern AtariBox-Atari VCS that will be released sometime in 2018 (maybe). And vice versa.
That won’t be completely annoying to fans of either console.
Atari gamer Marc Gallo has found a secret hidden Null Room in the game Superman (Atari, 1979). Accessed via direct manipulation of memory addresses in emulation, the room does not appear to be accessible through normal gameplay.
I believe this “room” is really just a memory location intended to store objects when they are off-screen, which can be displayed as a “room” in the game, but isn’t meant to be.
It’s interesting to me since I spent considerable time playing this game, and wrote an article some time ago, about the central role that the map and movement plays in the design of the game.
I’m very meh on the success of the SpaceX Falcon launch yesterday.
I mean, I guess it’s good that someone still gives a shit about escaping Earth orbit enough to actually do it. It’s a wonder more of us don’t, considering how things are here. We need to be more ambitious about space.
And it’s nice to know that we still have the capability to launch a decent rocket. The Falcon heavy lift vehicle test’s success is a good thing. And I guess since it was just a test launch, maybe that’s why they chose to lift a Tesla Roadster instead of something actually useful, putting at risk billions of dollars in R&D for something serious.
But it’s incredibly sad to me that it’s a billionaire taking a joyride, publicity stunt putting one of his car company’s cars up there, instead of science gear, or habitation infrastructure, or something industrial. The money that put that car up there could have saved thousands of our frankly worthless lives were it spent on the right stuff.
I said as much when Guy Laliberte from Cirque du Soleil went up to squirt water around his capsule and play with it in zero G, too, and everyone thought I was harsh and wrong.
Well, you’re wrong. Shit down here is serious and it’s seriously broken.
Time for billionaires to fix some of it, since they’re responsible for so much of it.
z3d is a fake-3d engine designed for simplicity, efficiency, performance, and ease of use. Full documentation + demo included.
In a 2D GameMaker room, x and y coordinates are used for positions in the 2D space. 3D requires a third variable for the third dimension, z. In the z3d engine, x and y are used to represent the “floor” plane as viewed from a top-down perspective, from a forced perspective that gives the viewer a full view of one side and top of objects, while z is used for altitude.
My friend Douglas Underhill wrote an interesting article about game design, dealing with the frequency of an ability’s use with its reward payoff. Doug’s question comes down to, given that there are hundreds of abilities to potentially pick from in character design, and that certain abilities are either useful much more often and in a much wider range of situations, or else provide a much greater payoff than others, what can be done in designing the rules system and/or world to encourage diversification in putting a finite amount of skill points into skills that are useful less often, or which provide a lower expected payoff.
Underhill asserts that, ideally, less-used abilities should be higher in their payoff, in order to encourage players to put character building points into them at all, while frequently used abilities should be low in payoff, to offset their wider applicability and to prevent the game from falling out of balance. But it’s an inherent problem because the feedback of high reward will encourage the use of an ability.
Essentially, though, game design encourages the use of abilities that grant a high reward, and the higher the reward, the more likely the player is to use and rely on that ability (barring some other limiting mechanism that mitigates or suppresses over-use).
But beyond unbalancing the game, or making the player’s strategies predictable and boring due to min-maxing, the reward weight/use frequency of abilities in a game’s design will determine and shape what the game is about. Dungeons and Dragons is nominally about role-playing and fantasy adventure, but its rules systems make it a game largely about dice rolling and fantasy medieval combat.
Tabletop RPGs are inherently flexible, though, so a given group of players might opt to make their game (or at least a particular game session) about negotiation and barter in a fantasy medieval economy, and there’s nothing wrong with doing so. But it’s much more likely that the typical group of D&D gamers will spend most of its time fighting and questing for objects and abilities that make them ever better at fighting and surviving in exotic, hostile fantasy environments.
After reading Doug’s article, it got me thinking about how this principle applies in video game design. (more…)
In recent weeks there has been a growing controversy in the world of competitive gaming about some very old records.
I’m pretty far removed from all of the principle players in this, and don’t really know what to believe is true.
The controversy began with the oldest record, or one of the oldest records, on record: a score of 5.51s in Activision’s Dragster for the Atari 2600, held by Todd Rogers, obtained in 1982, 35 years ago. For some reason some people still cared about this game enough that they devoted an insane amount of time and resources into trying to replicate Todd’s feat, and, it is now believed, have proved that the record score is impossible. A tool-assisted speed run of the game could not replicate the score. Ben Heckendorn hacked an Atari console to allow a tool-assisted attempt on physical hardware, and still couldn’t tie Todd’s record. The only reasonable conclusion seems to be that the record is likely fake.
Except that, Todd performed this feat on three separate occasions, live, in front of judges. Activision certified Todd’s score authentic by “the standards of the day”. It could be that Rogers managed to cheat in such a way as to avoid detection by those standards back then. There really is no way of knowing. (It’s still possible that there could be a way to achieve the score that the BenHeck attempt simply didn’t find. And, even if the score can be replicated or exceeded by someone today, such evidence wouldn’t prove that Rogers actually achieved it in 1982.)
Back then, videogames were a long, long way from being recognized as a competitive sport. Feats in videogaming were more like publicity stunts than they were like Olympic competitions. The stakes were not particularly high, and this was in an era where doctored videos and photographs were not as easy to produce as they are now. But neither were the verification methods as sophisticated as they are today.
But what would Rogers have had to gain by cheating, beyond what at the time could only have been anticipated to be some incredibly trivial, short term bragging rights? What methods could have have employed to fake his verified scores? Why would someone continue to cling to his fraud for 35 years, turning his whole life into a lie?
This raises a epistemological question of how can a record ever be measured, and once it has been performed, how can it ever be verified? Methods that were once acceptable: a live performance on certified stock hardware witnessed by an official judge, photographs, and even videos are all subject to various forms of cheating or corruption. We can trust recording and verification measures to a degree that is reasonable, but what is reasonable?
Records ultimately seek to preserve a moment in time, for all history. But ultimately, won’t all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain?
The further removed from the actual event we become, whether by time or by proxy, the less we can believe what was witnessed. But even witnesses cannot be trusted, even if they are honest. Memory is faulty. Perception is faulty. Recordings can be manipulated. So does anything really happen? Well… of course it does. But how anyone prove any of it?
The story goes deeper. Rogers holds many other records in Twin Galaxies’ database. In many cases, his scores are unbelievable. In some cases, literally unbelievable as the score in the record is literally impossible by the scoring rules — a game where the score increments in multiples of 100, with a record that is not evenly divisible by 100. In other cases, figuratively unbelievable, as the second place score in the Twin Galaxies leaderboard is far distant from Rogers’ supposed record.
Well, it so happens that Rogers was at one point a Twin Galaxies referee, and had access to their database, and has admitted to entering his own records into the books — on his own, without supervision.
In response to these facts coming to light, Twin Galaxies struck all of Rogers records from their databases.
Regardless of whether the Dragster 5.51 score is legitimate or not, the numerous obviously falsified records alone should be enough reason to ban Rogers from the recordbooks. The integrity of the entire Twin Galaxies database is compromised by the lax practices of the past. Even if some of Rogers record scores are real, the actions he took as a Twin Galaxies judge cast doubt on the integrity of all of his records, and indeed on the entire body of Twin Galaxies’ recordbook.
Todd’s public response to being banned by Twin Galaxies and having his records vacated is long and rambling, but also fascinating.
The obvious solution to the 5.51 controversy is to see if Rogers can replicate the feat today. If he can, the record is re-proven; if he can’t, it doesn’t really mean anything, but would be taken to lend weight to the record being false.
Supposedly, Rogers was prepared to defend his record by replicating the feat, but has since reconsidered due to numerous threatening messages that he says he and his family have received.
I don’t know what to believe here, either. On the one hand, it’s really, really hard to believe that anyone cares so much about this record that they would threaten someone for cheating and lying about it. On the other hand, we live in a post-gamergate world, and it’s entirely believable that there are those who would do exactly that.
But then again, it’s an extremely convenient excuse for Rogers to walk away from this whole thing with the shreds of what’s left of his dignity intact.
Which is to say, if Rogers is a fraud, and it certainly looks like he is, then using the hostile gamer culture as a reason to walk away from further embarrassment is exactly what a reasonable person would expect him to do.
There’s an interesting thread on the Atari Age forums that goes into surprising depth discussing the controversy.
This weekend, I participated in Global Game Jam 2018. The theme was Transmission. I worked with my Cleveland Game Developers pals Bobby Lauer and Ian Faleer on this little game:
Robo Radio is a game for two players. Requires 2 gamepad controllers (XBox 360 controllers tested).
Controlling radio-controlled robots, you battle your opponent with lasers and bombs. The controls are deliberately laggy, as the instructions to your robot have to be transmitted from your radio tower to your robot, and this takes some time. Also be aware that your radio tower’s signals can control the opponent’s robot if they get between your robot and your transmitter.
First player to die 3 times loses.
Programmed in GameMaker Studio 1.4, built for Windows.