Category: Best Of

Open Letter to Smart Phone Manufacturers

Dear Smartphone Industry,

I don’t need a bigger screen, OK? I need a screen that will fit comfortably in my pocket. My front hip pocket to be exact. The dimensions of the Samsung Galaxy S5are about as big as I can go. Really, the S2 was more comfortable.

I don’t need a thinner phone. I need a phone that feels comfortable in the hand.

I don’t need a thinner phone. I need a phone with ample battery, such that I don’t need to charge for several *days*, despite heavy use of the device. If you made the phone phone that was inch thick, and all that extra space was battery, and I could go a week without charging, that would be AMAZING.

While we’re at it, I would also really like intelligent battery management. I would like apps that need to use the network to not talk to the network directly, but talk to a network handler, which will determine if/when to allow the data to be transmitted. I can then configure the network manager to either not allow any transmission (like airplane mode; saving maximum battery), or allow all transmissions at any time (fastest response but lousy battery), or burst mode (leaving the transmitters off most of the time, but waking up and reconnecting every N minutes, sending/receiving data that has accumulated in that time, or when I request it).

Lastly, tell network providers to quit bundling apps with their phones. I don’t want or need so many of them, and there’s no way to uninstall the ones that are baked into the firmware. I can figure out what I need and install it. If I’m upgrading or migrating from an old phone, it should carry all that stuff over, with all my settings and data anyway. There’s no need to bundle anything. Just provide me with a bare phone.

And tell network providers that they must roll out security updates in a timely fashion (days, not months) so that users aren’t left vulnerable. Frequent, more granular updates rather than one or two monolithic updates before support for my handset model is dropped entirely, would be great.


Game review: A Dark Room

One of my readers recently contacted me to ask for some advice, and in the course of talking to them, they turned me on to A Dark Room, which is the first rogue-like game that I’ve really liked. (“Rogue-like” is a pretty broad and flexible term, and I’ve played a lot of games before that use a permadeath mechanic, procedurally-generated maps, and ASCII graphics, but despite recognizing that the genre is significant and influential, I’ve never found roguelikes to be my cup of tea.)

It takes a little time to get going, but once you get a glimpse of what’s going on, the game opens up and gives you more new stuff to explore and figure out, and this creates a compelling obsession to continue playing. Fortunately, it’s not a huge game, and has an ending, which I discovered a little before 4AM last night, or else I might still be playing it. You can beat the game in a single evening long playing session, so I wouldn’t call it a long game, but it took a few days for me to figure out all the things that I needed to know in order to get to that point.

There’s so much this game does right that I want to take some time to analyze its design in order to explain why it succeeds so well.

At first, the game is simple. There’s not much going on, and not much to do. You start out with nothing, and after a few clicks and reading some sparse narration, you’re introduced to a new mechanic, and begin building a village in the wilderness. There’s no graphics, just text, and all you do is develop an economy based on gathering wood and trapping for meat and fur. Despite this portion of the game consisting mainly of watching progress bars count down and various resources (hopefully go up, this part of the game had an addictive quality for me; I couldn’t stop myself from building and taking care of my villagers! If I did, the game would make something bad happen to them, and if I tended to them, they flourished. It kept me paying tight attention to ensure that they were safe, that the village was growing, and my stores of resources were increasing.

And then, just when I was starting to wonder if this was all the game had to offer, it opened up yet again, and revealed that I could leave the relative safety of the village and explore a larger world. Suddenly, all the resources my village had been producing had a purpose: to outfit me so I could go explore and adventure. I went out and died a bunch of times, which set me back, but not terribly, and eventually I figured out how to survive most encounters, although if I strayed too far from home, I would encounter enemies I couldn’t defeat, or would run out of food or water.

The overworld map is graphical, but it is rendered in ASCII, but unlike a lot of other ASCII graphic games I found it intuitive and easy to read. Various types of passable terrain are rendered in a light grey text, while points of interest are rendered in black, which helps considerably. You’re a rogue-standard @ symbol, which is easy to remember because that’s where you’re “at”. Other points of interest are represented by easy to remember symbols: V is a caVe, O is a suburb (Outskirts of a larger citY? Y = city.) H is a house, and so on. As you play you are introduced to these symbols gradually, so they are not difficult to learn, and reading the map is easy and intuitive after a short learning curve.

It took me a few excursions to figure out how to survive and make it back t my home villAge. So at first I didn’t realize that by prevailing in a string of encounters, you could clear out a caVe or Outskirts or citY, and turn it into a Pacified wayPoint where you can heal and resupply. Creating a waypoint also creates a path where you can travel safely — you won’t encounter random enemies on a path, and walking on the path consumes less water and food, which allows you to go further.

I also figured out that I could clear out mines and start mining new types of resources, which took me back to the village to juggle my economy and craft more new gear, so I could go out and adventure a bit less fearfully. It was a pleasing cycle. Once I discovered the secret of steelworking, I got to a point where I was pretty confident that I could survive in the wilds, so long as I was cautious and kept a close eye on my vital stats. I found a few more types of resource, which seemed mysterious, and made me wonder what else was out there to be discovered.

Eventually, I made a discovery that put me into the endgame. I won’t spoil it for you, but at that point I felt like I’d accomplished my purpose, and was able to put the game down.

Along the way, I created this spreadsheet to help me plan the village economics and make sure I wasn’t running a deficit on any of the vital resources I needed to make progress and survive. I’ll be direct and say that at least 90% of the enjoyment you will get from the game is through figuring this out on your own, but keeping notes to stay organized once the village economy gets to a certain size and complexity is, perhaps not quite a must, but definitely very helpful. I haven’t given it all away, there’s still a few secrets waiting to be discovered. But if you want spoilers on how to manage your village, the spreadsheet will get you through that phase of the game handily.

A Dark Room Wiki is a guide dedicated to the game, but I didn’t discover it until after I’d beaten the game. It’s also available as a mobile app game on iOS and Android.

Why arguing about Link’s gender is dumb, and why it’s important

So there is a new Legend of Zelda game coming out, as there always is. Nintendo have shown it at E3, and fans have been speculating about it endlessly in anticipation, as they always do. I guess somewhere or other, people glommed on to a rumor that Link might be a girl in this next incarnation.

Nintendo shot down that rumor with some spurious logic about balancing the triforce, which apparently becomes unbalanced if it goes from 2/3 male to 2/3 female. See, in the original Legend of Zelda, a Triforce was a golden triangle made out of 8 pieces of smaller triangles, and there were three of them: a triforce of wisdom, a triforce of power, and uh I forget let me look it up, oh yes a triforce of Courage. These triforces brought “balance” to the world, and whenever the balance gets out of whack, Link (using the Triforce of Courage) has an adventure to restore balance and peace to the world.

Later, I guess, these triforces became identified with the major characters in the Zelda world: Link, Zelda, and Gannon. And because these characters have gender, and because a 2M:1F gender ratio is apparently “balanced”, you can’t make Link a girl. Because apparently there’s no way to restore that imbalance through adventuring, or rewrite Zelda to be a dude, or whatever. It would just ruin Zelda as we know it, according to Nintendo. This, despite the fact that Link takes on a wide variety of identities in many of (immutably) his adventures.

Link can be anything you can possibly imagine... except a girl.

Link can be anything you can possibly imagine… except a girl.

My point in writing this is not to slam Nintendo for their decision to keep Link male, but to point out that Link is Nintendo’s property, and they can manage their property however they want to. They don’t have to make up dumb excuses (and they are dumb) why Link has to be male. They don’t owe fans a female Link. If they decided to offer a female incarnation of Link, there’s nothing wrong with that, either. But Nintendo created and own the Legend of Zelda world, and they’re the ones who get to decide how it works.


We get to play in that world. As it unfolds for us, we take part in the creation, and so each of us owns a small piece of it. We are invited to become Link — as is the common convention with nearly every videogame ever made: you are the protagonist.

And, it turns out, about half of us are girls.

So, regardless of what the instruction manual says, or what the pixels look like, or what Nintendo wants, about half of all Links are girls.

For some girls, they may think of Link as a boy, and so they’re playing “in drag” while they use Link as their avatar, in much the same way that, in Shakespearean times, men played the women roles too, since real women weren’t allowed to be actors back then.

Some girls playing as Link may think of Link as a girl. That’s fine. Maybe Link’s a tomboy. Or maybe she’s disguised as a boy, because Hyrule doesn’t accept that women can be action adventure heroes. Or maybe some other thing.

Who cares? If someone wants to play the game and use it with their imagination that way, who are we to tell anyone that they’re wrong? That’s the experience they had, playing their game. There’s nothing official about it of course, but that doesn’t matter.

The thing with videogame characters is, we inhabit them for the duration we play the game. It’s like putting on a costume and playing a role. Each actor brings something different to a role.

But if we neglect this aspect of theatrical artifice, and consider the character of Link as a real person, who is a distinct individual, the character has its own identity. Its original incarnation as designed by the original creator seems to have some sort of magical hold on the character concept that defines it. Link is small. Link wears green. Link uses a sword and shield. Link explores the world and finds things. Link is heroic. Link is… male.

But every time a serial storyline has a new story written, or goes on a new adventure, the author of that story takes the opportunity to create new things. If there wasn’t anything new, there wouldn’t be much point to creating a new story. These new stories may be said to extend the existing body of canonical stories that have to agree in continuity. Or they may have an “alternate” reality, often thought of as subordinate in some sense, or subject to pre-existing continuity where possible, but existing in a loosely connected multiverse of worlds surrounding different incarnations of the characters. Sometimes serial stories are “rebooted” or “reinterpreted” by new authors who take aspects of the original work, and use them as raw materials for writing completely outside of the canonical milieu.

There’s some core conceptual things that we sense in the character that can’t be changed, and everything else is subject to the interpretation the author/publisher chooses to present, and the vestiges of the actor’s persona that a player brings for the time they inhabit the role. In cinema, characters like James Bond and Batman have been portrayed by different actors. On stage, over 4+ centuries, different actors have portrayed the characters of William Shakespeare in countless different interpretations. In comic books, different writers and artists crank out new stories in a world that has been worked on in some cases for 75+ years, while the characters never seem to age, despite the world around them always being contemporary to the time of publication. Sometimes these characters go through dramatic re-inventions or spin-offs.

People debate whether these things are good or not, but the world keeps on going.

What’s different about videogames is, we all inhabit the role of our videogame protagonists. This is different from Christian Bale inhabiting Batman for a while, and then handing it off to Ben Affleck, etc. Each of us who plays a Zelda game is Link, contemporaneously and privately. Link *is* a girl, in hundreds of thousands of living rooms, right now. And Link is a boy. Link is all things to all people.

And Link is Link, the published work offered on the market by Nintendo. We’re invited to play with him, and as him, and become him. Or her. But Nintendo gives us a set of traits and constraints to work with.

People just need to get over it and accept it, or ignore it and substitute their own reality. It literally doesn’t matter which you choose.

If the publishers want to reinvent the character or take it in some really different direction, it’s up to them to do so in a way that brings the bulk of the fanbase along, or to be willing to leave a chunk of the fans behind. Either way, it’s fine.

Just do a good job with it.

Adventuring with Warren Robinett

One of my earliest videogaming experiences was with the classic Atari 2600 game, Adventure. A favorite of many who played on the system, this game has attained legendary status for it’s brilliant design, a technical accomplishment that pushed the Atari well beyond what its designers had intended it to be capable of, fun and replayability, inspiring a genre of adventure games, including the Legend of Zelda series, and of course becoming as known as the game to feature the first “easter egg”.

The game is still fun to play today, and remains one of my favorites to revisit. It is extremely replayable, and much of the fun that I had playing it was with investigating and experimenting. In 1981, I played this game with my brother all the time. We learned the basics in Level 1, which was a truncated version of the full game, with a smaller map and only two of the three dragons, and no bat. I moved on to Level 2, which introduced an expanded world with one more castle, a dragon, and the bat, and had all the items in prescribed locations so that the quest was the same every time, but you had to go to every castle and defeat every dragon in order to win. The new dragon, Rhindle, was so fast and aggressive that he scared my brother, who was about 4 at the time, so much that he could only watch me play. After winning Level 2 a few times, I proceeded to Level 3, wherein the item placement was randomized, making each re-play a unique experience.

One time, my older cousin came over and we were playing Adventure, and she showed me a secret room in the Black Castle, accessible only by using the Bridge, where she found a mysterious, invisible Dot, which she used to reveal the most amazing thing: the first Easter Egg: a hidden secret that revealed a message from the game’s creator!


This was how I came to know the name of Warren Robinett, who designed and programmed Adventure and became famous for being one of the first game developers to have their name known publicly.

Even before being shown the easter egg, I had spent many hours exploring and experimenting in the world of Adventure. I played not just to win the game, but to do crazy things with the objects in the game to see what might happen.

I put the Bridge in walls and used it to exit the screen and appear on another screen, where normally you couldn’t get to.

I tested putting all of the objects in one room to see if anything special would happen. I discovered that when there were too many objects in one room, the Magnet would stop working. Or the Sword would not be able to slay a live dragon. Or keys would fail to unlock the castle gate. Somehow, if there were too many objects in one place, the Atari couldn’t handle it. But I could always move, I could always pick up objects and carry them, and walls always worked (with the exception of the wall involved in revealing the Easter Egg room.)

I learned how to “break” the game in other ways. I discovered that if you dropped a key in the doorway of a castle while you were closing the gate, the gate would close in front of the key, which would disappear inside the castle, forever sealing it. I learned that if a castle’s gate was closed, if there was a dragon or the bat inside, it couldn’t get out. And I learned that unlocking a castle would release any creatures inside, and that if a dragon did not have an item to guard, it would leave and roam around, hunting me down.

I learned that while I couldn’t carry or move a dead dragon, the bat could, and I could catch and carry the bat, which allowed me to use it to move dead dragons (or live ones, which was always a risky proposition!) So then I took to using the bat to grab dragon carcasses and move them to an otherwise-empty castle, and lock everyone in there so that in the event that I got stuck and had to reset the game to get unstuck (an action which resurrects every dead character in the game, you and the dragons) the dragons would be safely contained, leaving me free to continue exploring and experimenting without interruption, for hours.

I took time to carefully explore the mazes and learn how to move through them quickly, and to get to any area in the maze that I needed to. I learned places to put the Bridge to take shortcuts. I puzzled over three empty rooms in the vicinity of the White castle, wondering what their purpose was, if they contained any hidden secrets, and how to unlock them.

Despite being pretty sure that I knew everything there was to know about Adventure, I never could say for certain that there wasn’t something that I didn’t know, and this (as well as the fun of speedrunning the game) gave me the incentive to play the game endlessly, for years. While I figured that I’d found all of its secrets, I still had questions.

Recently, I was thinking about Adventure again, and played it a few times, and did some reading about it on various websites, and stumbled upon Warren Robinett’s website. There, I learned that he is writing a book on Adventure that will be coming out in 2015! I am so excited about this. His webpage mentions that to receive updates about the book project to send him an email with the word “annotated” in the subject line, so I did. I wrote him a short note thanking him for creating such a wonderful game that I have enjoyed these many years. And I wasn’t sure if he would read it, or if he merely set up a listserve bot that would automatically subscribe me to his mail list, and maybe he’d never read my message. But a day later I had a response from Mr. Robinett in my inbox!


Holy shit! Granted, it’s a sentence long, but he read and replied! So, not wanting to be too intrusive, but curious about some of the questions I’d had about his game since forever, I wrote back and politely asked. And he responded again, short and sweet, but I’m thrilled to have corresponded with a true legend of the industry.

At any rate, here’s the excerpt from our correspondence where he answers my questions:

csanyk: I have always wondered about the empty rooms in the area outside the labyrinth near the White Castle. Apart from occasionally holding random objects, I always thought that those rooms felt like they should have had some more purpose than they did. After learning about the easter egg with the dot, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if there wasn’t some kind of hidden secret in those rooms, and as it turned out, there wasn’t. But boy did I try everything I could think of just to make sure!

Warren Robinett: Well, you are probably aware that the game world was bigger for levels 2 and 3 than for level 1. Level 1 was for beginners, and some of the difficult stuff was intentionally left out of the game world. I regarded level 1 as being “truncated”, because I changed the room-to-room links to leave out more than half the rooms. So the two rooms you asked about had different functions in level 1 — one was the interior of the Black Castle (just a single room in level 1), and the other was where the Catacombs are in levels 2 and 3 (again, just a single dead-end room).

In level 3, the random positioning of object was supposed to put stuff in those rooms sometimes, but I made some mistakes in the random number generator, and it seems they were nearly always empty.

csanyk: If you could have had more time or more computing resources to put something in those rooms, to make a Level 4 game, what would you have populated them with? Another castle and dragon? Some type of new item? Was there something that was meant to be there, that never made it in to the game due to constraints? Or were these rooms always intended to be empty spaces?

Warren Robinett: I talk about that in my book The Annotated Adventure, which I hope to be finished with this fall.

csanyk: I discovered that if you press select until you have the option for game 3, and then pull down on controller 1, the player spawns into the game select screen and can walk about the room. Was this something that was put into the game deliberately, and if so why? How did it come about?

Warren Robinett: The game-select screen was a room. I re-purposed a room as the meta-game UI screen to save memory. I put the Man down in the corner (I thought he was totally trapped) so he wouldn’t be there to distract you. You found a way to break him free.

csanyk: As a kid, after killing the dragons, I spent hours trying to put the Bridge everywhere I could think to and see what would happen. In a few screens, there are places where you can put the bridge off the top or bottom of the screen, and use it to “break through” the bottom wall of a room that you shouldn’t be able to pass through, and end up somewhere else, only to become stuck. To me, a huge part of the game’s lasting appeal and replayability was that it seemed to invite this kind of experimentation. For example, if you go one room down and left from the Yellow Castle, and stick the bridge in the bottom wall of the screen and pass through it, you end up in the White Castle screen, stuck between the towers:

Adventure (1980) (Atari)_7

Adventure (1980) (Atari)_6

or in the room one screen down from the Gold Castle, putting the bridge in the bottom wall will warp you to the Gold Castle, again between the towers:

Adventure (1980) (Atari)_8

Adventure (1980) (Atari)_9

or from this room in the labyrinth, you can travel to the room next to where the secret is hidden — only you appear at the bottom of the room, and can’t quite break free into the room, and have to retreat back up through the bridge to get back to the labyrinth.

Adventure (1980) (Atari)_10

Adventure (1980) (Atari)_11

Warren Robinett: Every room had a link to four other rooms. No exceptions. If you could get through the wall, you could find out which room that was.

Since the Bat and Dragons could move around in different directions, there had to be a new room off each edge.

csanyk: I loved the fact that when you are eaten by a Dragon, you can still move, confined within its stomach. Also, when two dragons are on the screen, and one eats you, the second dragon will come up and eat you again, while you’re in the first dragon’s stomach. And most fun of all was if you left the game run, and the Bat would come by and pick up the dragon whose stomach you were in, and fly around with you, giving you a bizarre tour of the kingdom. The idea that the game world continued after you died was very novel.

Was that a design choice or an accident?

Warren Robinett: The thing you need to understand was that developing the game was incremental. You add some code, you fix a bug (or try). And see how it plays.

I didn’t plan for the Man to be able to wiggle after he was eaten. But when I saw, I liked it. I could have eliminated that by re-ordering some subroutine calls. But it didn’t do that.

I didn’t plan for the Bat to be able to pick up a Dragon that had eaten the Man. But I had coded each piece separately. So it just fell out of the simulation with no effort required. I liked it — it was hilarious. No way would I “fix” that.

csanyk: How did you ensure that the randomization in Game 3 would not result in the game sometimes becoming unwinnable, such as by locking the Black Key in the Gold Castle and the Gold Key in the Black Castle?

Warren Robinett: I tried to make sure each random positioning was winnable, by choosing from certain ranges of rooms for each object. But I botched it, and it DID sometimes generate unwinnable configurations.

csanyk: I think I’ve played the game enough to have seen everything you can expect to happen. I’ve seen the Bat, carrying the Sword, accidentally kill a Dragon. I’ve closed the castle gates and dropped the key inside as it was closing, locking it in forever. I’ve seen so many objects on one screen that the Sword or Magnet wouldn’t work any more. I’ve seen the Bat fly by the castle gate with a Key, opening it. I’ve worried ever since that I could get locked inside of the castle by the Bat if I left the key outside where it could grab it, but this has never happened. It doesn’t seem like objects can interact with each other unless they’re on the current screen, with the notable exception that if you hold the Magnet off the edge of a screen, you can attract objects in the next screen. And also the above-mentioned trick with the Bridge going off the top or bottom of certain screens. The amount of exploration and experimentation that I’ve done in this game, for as small as it really is, is pretty breathtaking, when I think about it. Were you ever surprised to hear from fans just how much they replayed your game? What things have players done in Adventure that surprised you?

Warren Robinett: The stuff you mention above is correct. The Bat could also pick up objects off-screen.

I am now eagerly awaiting the publication of his book later this year. So stoked!

Fiction is all in your head: Everyone can have it their way

Personally, I don’t buy this theory of Metroid’s Samus Aran being transgender under our noses all along.

In the 1980’s, the secret of Samus being female was cool, and I liked the surprise. I don’t know of anyone who didn’t. Literally no kids who I know of played the original Metroid back in the day, learned of the reveal and thought it stunk, or felt betrayed to learn that “they” had “been” [playing as] a girl all along. Gamers have pretty much universally always accepted Samus as a female character.

I grew up with a few notable female heroes in sci fi, like Ripley from Aliens, and one of the Metroid minibosses was an alien named Ridley who takes some design cues from Giger’s alien, and it was later revealed that the creator of Metroid was doing homage to Alien with the character. Samus’s gender reveal has been understood to be another homage to the Ellen Ripley character. There was also Star Wars‘s Princess Leia, who, although at first seemed to be another damsel in distress needing to be rescued, stood up to Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Freaking Vader and his interrogation droid, and upon being rescued turned out to be a strong and formidable character every bit as wily and capable of the heroic male characters who broke her out of Death Star detention block AA-23.

Nonetheless, I do think it’s fair to say that there’s plenty of sexism and stereotyping in our culture. In fact, it’s more than fair — it’s obvious, blatant, pervasive. While individuals are all over the map in terms of how open and accepting they are, as a culture overall we have made a tremendous amount of progress toward gender equality in the time since I was born. Yet, there’s still plenty of sexism and misogyny everywhere you look. It’s true there is a lot of the closed-minded thinking still around, and I’m sure it will continue to persist in our culture after I’m gone.

The Japanese culture that birthed the Metroid universe is different enough from American culture that we do find some of their ideas about gender and sexuality to be strange. But that’s part of what makes learning about other cultures cool. It is a subject that is too complex for me to adequately summarize in even a few paragraphs, but suffice it to say for the purposes of this article that comparative cross-cultural sexuality is a pretty fascinating field to study if you want to get into it, and aren’t too uptight. (Seriously, go out and do a PhD on the subject if you want to.) For our purposes here, it’s probably enough to know that there’s a streak of chauvinism, and in terms of traditional gender roles in Japanese culture the differences between traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine is even more pronounced than in American culture. But there’s also a lot of counter examples in Japanese entertainment, of strong, heroic, badass female characters as well. We might say that in Japanese culture, as compared with American culture, there’s greater contrast between gender stereotypes, but perhaps a greater acceptance of the exceptional.

I’ll admit that I don’t really feel like an authority on such matters, so I could be well off the mark. But I feel reasonably safe in assuming that the guys who came up with Samus were probably not the most advanced thinkers at the time when it came to gender identity. We should not hold an expectation for them to get it “right” or be “sensitive” or “politically correct” in how they think about, or talk about, or portray the character of Samus Aran. And when looking for characters to become more realistic as they develop over time, we should not hold an expectation for them to mirror our ideals. Real people are complex and flawed, and have similarly “problematic” views with regard to social justice issues as is present in our real culture. So for a fictional character to conform to some ideal in order to be a role model is neither necessary, nor realistic.

Even if that’s “problematic” for some, that’s acceptable. Nobody has all the answers, or has it all figured out. And the stories about how we struggle with ourselves are usually a lot more compelling than stories about ideal perfectly who always behave in exemplary fashion that should serve as a model for the behavior of others. The notion that “problematic” depictions of characters is acceptable doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that are problematic. But that people aren’t perfect, and sometimes artists offend, sometimes without meaning to. People talk about things they don’t understand all the time, and that’s great. That’s a part of how we make progress toward greater understanding.

I don’t pretend to know everything that I’m talking about, either, and that is why it’s important that I talk about it. I’m not trying to tell everyone “the way it is” or how to think. I’m talking about how things appear to me, from my perspective, and to the best of my knowledge. I think that’s all we can ask of anyone at any time. That, and to go and dig for the truth. Which, you may never know, but can often get closer to.

But basically, at its core, Metroid didn’t feel to me at the time like it was a game about any of that gender stuff, at all. And it still doesn’t today. For all I know, maybe the creators of Metroid did consider it in designing Samus, or perhaps joked about it as a way of getting around their own lack of comfort in thinking about a female character who does things that are more traditionally regarded as “masculine”. Perhaps they even really did conceive of the character as transgender, at least in terms of what their concept of transgender means. But in any case, regardless of Samus’s gender or sexual identity, the important aspects of Samus are that she runs, jumps, and shoots, explores, powers up, and is a galactic bounty hunter and a total bad ass who is fearless, cool under fire, and utterly competent. Because that is what Metroid is mainly about. “Surprise, you’re a girl!” was a twist at the end, revealed only to players who beat the game fast enough to deserve to be let in on something cool. But it wasn’t what Metroid was about.

Samus’s character and story becomes more important in later games in the series, where storytelling elements of the game design became stronger, but Metroid was in its conception a game about exploring a hostile alien world and defeating a grave danger. Whether it was a man in the suit, or a woman, was secondary. But it was cool that Samus was a woman. And if she’s a transgender woman, then OK. But regardless of what the creators might have said about the character while creating the game, or left on the cutting room floor, there’s basically nothing in the published material that points to Samus being trans.

Which means, of course, that if you like Samus and have a need to see her as a transgender character for whatever reason, the published material is open to such interpretation. Just like we can have black Santa Claus for black people to better identify with for Christmastime, why can’t we have Samus as a transgender woman for the trans community, and people who don’t prefer that “edition” of Samus can have it the way they want it? Why does every detail in every fan’s head about a completely fictional universe have to agree with every other detail in every other fan’s head? It doesn’t!

Nintendo did have a transgender character in the 80’s, though — Birdo, introduced in the US release of Super Mario Bros. 2 — so it’s not completely out of the question that they might have had others, but I still think that the early concept of Samus that we got in 1985 was a cisgender female warrior. Birdo was a creature, though, not a human, and the portrayal of Birdo’s gender confusion is, I’m sure, a bit problematic for GLBTQ allies in 2015 — Birdo is presented as “confused” about his/her gender, and this is presented as at least somewhat comical, and (as I’m trying to indicate by my use of his/her, which normally would be considered offensive to a transgender person who knows what gender they are) the folks at Nintendo weren’t entirely sure what to make of Birdo’s gender, or at least didn’t want to spell out all the answers for their audience, and instead wanted to raise questions. That was in 1988. Whereas, in 2015 I think the message we get from the transgender community these days is that they are not at all confused about their gender identity — it just doesn’t happen to match up with their genitalia. So, Birdo’s treatment is not exactly a paragon example for GLBTQ allies to hold up as an ideal of what they might like to see in popular culture. But while Birdo may not be the answer to questions for those who are curious about non-binary gender norms, he/she was a starting point for asking questions and having conversations.

Although, there’s nothing to suggest that Nintendo intended to open up a serious dialog about any of this. I suspect that most of us just took eggs and threw them at him/her until we got past the end of the level, and that was about it. Whatever Birdo’s gender, it doesn’t affect how you play the game one bit.

As my friend Jacob says, “As long as it’s side scrolling and has a screw attack, I don’t care who’s in the suit.” I think that sums up the attitude of the largest block of gamers in gamer culture. That’s not to say that there aren’t minorities who are vocal with their opinions, of course.

All that said, characters from video games and, more broadly in all types of serial fiction, are always open to redefinition. This happens all the time to comic book characters, and they routinely do radical character changes, not especially caring about preserving continuity — because ultimately it’s not important. Character driven serial fiction has come to be understood as a form that explores a mulitverse of possibilities around a loosely defined core template for the character. The original incarnation is usually received as canon, but as new artists work with the character and write new stories, they take liberties, and always have. It’s not about making sure that everything ever published about the character is logically consistent and describes a concrete, objective reality. It’s about taking a core concept that is malleable, and running with it to tell cool stories that inspire and entertain. And about being allowed to take risks and maybe miss the mark sometimes. Not every story is the best. And not every fan will agree about which story is the best.

This is why we get to be entitled to our own opinions and to have our own preferences, and why no one can tell us we’re wrong about what we like and what we don’t. Samus isn’t just a person. She’s a mannequin which we can dress up with our imagination. She’s the paint on the brush, with which we may paint vivid pictures. She was created by Nintendo, and Nintendo may hold the copyright and trademarks, but in an important sense, Samus belongs to us.

So, I am a “geek” who can “handle” trans Samus, even though my Samus is a cisgender woman, and I can also have my Samus multiple ways, depending on how the creators who are working with the character decide to use the elements from her milieu to create new works that (hopefully) I will enjoy, and allow different interpretations of the character. I could enjoy Black Samus, Boy Samus, Shapeshifting Alien Samus, Trans Samus, Hetero Samus. Original Samus. As long as they don’t suck. I don’t even mind Samus as an adult sex fantasy.

The point is this: It’s all fiction. If you want to point at a “canon” of fiction that is “more true”, and divide it from alternative fictions that are “less true”, or unofficial, or false, and attack those who posit an interpretation you don’t happen to like, maybe you don’t understand what fiction is, and need to get out more.

The Best Laptop Keyboard Yet Devised By Humankind

Laptop ergonomics are always a compromise. If you put in long hours on a laptop, you know how important comfort and usability are to productivity. So getting the best possible ergonomics given the constraints imposed by the design requirements is extremely important.

It seems many hardware design engineers have forgotten this. The quest for thinner, lighter, cheaper seems to have overshadowed comfort and usability, durability and ruggedness. With each passing hardware generation, we see the same refrain: “The new keyboard is not so bad, once you get used to it.” If we have to get used to a “not-so-bad” keyboard with every generation, doesn’t that suggest that they’re getting worse over time?

And yet, the keyboard is the one component of a laptop that you have the least configuration options for. There are no choices, no upgrades; the keyboard is the keyboard, and you get whatever the manufacturer designed. That means it’s all the more critical that manufacturers give their customers the best possible keyboard.

What if manufacturers gave us keyboards that didn’t take “getting used to”, but felt fantastically comfortable from the moment you used them?

Without a doubt, the best keyboard I have ever seen or used on a laptop has been the keyboard of my Lenovo ThinkPad T61p. It’s no secret, and everyone who’s used one knows how good they are and how far short any other laptop keyboard compares. This keyboard is so good that I’ve continued to use my T61p originally purchased in 2007. After my original T61p died this January, I shopped around looking at the new ThinkPads… and after looking at what was available, I went to eBay and bought myself another T61p.

I won’t be able to do that forever. Already, I feel a need for a machine that can support more than 8GB of RAM, and the new Core i7 CPUs are so much faster than my by-no-means inadequate 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo. And the battery life we see with the current generation of “ultrabooks” in 2015 is impressive.

Will we ever see a return to the keyboards of yore? It wish that it was not in doubt. But I have hope. It appears that Lenovo has finally responded to customer feedback, when this spring they brough back the old style trackpads with physical buttons that had disappeared with the 540 generation. And today, it appears that they are actively soliciting fans of the old ThinkPad brand to ask them what features made the old ThinkPad so legendary. And they updated the X1 Carbon with a more standard keyboard layout in response to complaints and criticism over a senseless radical departure from the norm. Perhaps we’ll glimpse perfection again someday.

To be sure, we will not see a return to greatness if we fail to recognize the things that made the best keyboard of all time so great.

Close to perfection

Behold, The T61p keyboard in all its glory.

T61 keyboard - crop

Let’s take a look at what makes this keyboard so great.

The Good

Full-size keys, spaced the correct distance apart. This makes typing for long periods of time less tiresome, especially for people with larger hands.

Scissor Switch technology allows for longer travel for a laptop keyboard, which is more comfortable than “chiclet” keys. It’s not a full height keyboard like you’d find on a desktop class machine, but it’s very close, giving it a good feel and making it more comfortable again for long typing sessions.

The layout of the non-standard keys is ideal.

It’s important to appreciate how critical the placement of these keys is. Let’s look at them in detail.

A full row of Function Keys, F1-F12. In many newer layouts, this row is eliminated and the F-keys are combined with other keys. This makes compound keystrokes impossible if the F-key needs to be pressed at the same time as the key it is combined with. That’s probably pretty rare, but it is still nice to have this row of keys to themselves. I think keyboard designers eliminated this row in order to make room for larger trackpads. I don’t like large trackpads for a few reasons, which we’ll get into in the Trackpad section.

A full row of real F-keys

The arrow key cluster. Most importantly, the arrow keys are all full-sized, and arranged in an inverted “T” formation. Many keyboards save a key by squishing the up and down arrow keys into the space of a single key, putting all four arrow keys in a line, but this space savings comes at a cost of making up and down half sized, and makes controlling games that use the arrow keys way harder.

The other important thing about this cluster is the presence of the “Previous page” and “Next Page” buttons to either side of the up arrow. These are often replaced with “Pg Up and Pg Dn” buttons. I like “previous” and “next” here because it makes navigating web pages with this cluster very fast. I don’t have to move my fingers at all and I can scroll and hit the Back button or Forward button in a web browser. It’s very convenient, and I really miss it whenever I have to use a keyboard that doesn’t have this layout.Arrow Keys + Fwd-Bck buttons = awesome document & browser navigationThe Insert|Delete|Home|End|PgUp|PgDn cluster. I really like these where they are, too. Being at the top right corner of the keyboard makes them simple to find by feel, without having to take my eyes off the screen. The Home/End and PgUp /PgDn pairs go very naturally together for navigating text documents with the keyboard. These navigational shortcuts are a great alternative to scrolling with the mouse wheel, and for moving the cursor when text editing. Insert and Delete change the cursor mode, Home and End can take you to the beginning or end of a line of text, while Ctrl+Home or Ctrl+End will take you to the beginning or end of the entire document. Pg Up and Pg Dn are better for scrolling than the mouse is, moving an entire window height up or down at a single keystroke. Clustering them in this arrangement makes for very intuitive and quick document navigation using the cursor, and enables me to be much more productive when working in text files or reading than if I have to move my hand to the trackpad or mouse.

Insert-Delete-Home-End-PgUp-PgDn = logical layout perfection

Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and Pause/Break. These don’t get used a whole lot by most people. I use Print Screen all the time, to make screen captures, but the other two hardly at all. Putting them up here out of the way works. Having Print Screen at the left edge of this 3-key row makes it easy to find by touch, without having to take my eyes off the screen to look for it.


While we’re looking at this group, note the power button (the circular button at left.) While not part of the keyboard, proper, I will remark that I find the power button difficult to find by touch. If I’m fumbling around in the dark, it’s easier to find the ThinkVantage key, which feels more like I’d expect the power button to feel like. So, one thing I could recommend is change the power button, locating it closer to a corner of the keyboard, and give it a shape and feel more befitting a power button.

Keycaps shape and feel

All the keys are just shaped right. These keycaps are close to what old classic IBM Selectric typewriters and Model M keyboards felt like, and those were some of the best keyboards ever manufactured.
The best type of keys for a laptop

The Enter key isn’t L-shaped, which leaves room for the \| key directly above. The \| key doesn’t really have a reason to be larger, but it keeps symmetry with the Tab key on the left side, and helps a touch typist feel this edge of the keyboard. Esc isn’t double-sized, as it is on some later model Lenovo keyboards — I think making it the size of the Ctrl key, slightly larger than the standard key, would make it easier to find by touch. Ctrl is slightly wider than standard, but I like that, although it would be better if Ctrl were in the position occupied by Fn, where it belongs. Backspace is another good key to be larger than standard, as it is used frequently by most, and this makes it easier to find in the top right corner.

Sufficient Key Rollover: a must have

[Updated 4/20/2016]:

Keyboard Rollover is is the ability of a computer keyboard to correctly handle several simultaneous keystrokes. N-Key Rollover (NKRO) is the ideal — it means that the keyboard can handle any number of simultaneously key presses. At a minimum, a good keyboard should have 6KRO.

I’ve mostly used high-end keyboards that have high #KRO or NKRO, and have only recently encountered a keyboard with low KRO. Unfortunately this happens to be my new ThinkPad P50, which is a great laptop in most respects, but it has a paltry 2KRO. If I’m holding down more than two keys simultaneously, a third key press often is not detected (depending on which keys are down). This makes the keyboard hopelessly unsuited to gaming, and as a game developer, this is really not acceptable.

You can test the key rollover of a keyboard by holding down both shift keys simultaneously and then trying to type the alphabet. If any letters don’t type, your keyboard has low rollover. This should never, ever happen on a high end machine. Or any machine, really.


Fn/Ctrl positions should be swapped

On most keyboards, the Fn key is nested between the Ctrl and Windows keys. On the T61p layout, this is reversed. There’s no reason for it, and it’s one of the most common complaints about the T61 layout. In fact, there are even third party firmware hacks to remap the keys into their preferred positions: Ctrl outside, Fn to the right. In the ideal keyboard layout, Ctrl should go first.

switch Ctrl-Fn positions

Controversial items

10-Key or not 10-Key?

Many widescreen laptops have 10-key numeric keypads these days, much like 104-key extended keyboards on desktop keyboards. This forces the main keyboard off-center with respect to the screen, which means that the users arms and hands will have to skew left of center the majority of the time when typing, which feels awkward. Unless you do a large amount of numeric data entry, a 10-key is not necessary or recommended for a laptop keyboard. Thankfully, at least the trackpad is still centered under the space bar, keeping it directly between the hands on most laptops with extended keyboards that incorporate a 10-key pad. But typing on the QWERTY keyboard, with the hands offset relative to the screen is less comfortable. The extra keys of the 10-key pad also add to the complexity and cost of the keyboard.

Most users don’t need a 10-key pad, and can live without. Unless you’re doing heavy numerical data entry, they don’t add of value. You could always buy a USB 10-key pad as a peripheral and use that if you needed one. Before laptops started sporting 10-key pads on the right of the main keyboard, they used to use the Fn key to use the right half of the keyboard as a sort of slanted 10-key option. I’ve never bothered switching into this mode, and don’t miss a 10-key pad. So, my preference would be for a regular QWERTY keyboard, without a 10-key pad, and the QWERTY keyboard and touchpad centered in the laptop chassis.

Still, some people will want 10-key pads and others will not — and the number who do not is not inconsequential. But the number of people who can’t live without a 10-key pad is much smaller than the number of people who don’t need it. I would prefer not to have a 10-key pad in my ideal laptop. This would be a good item to make a configuration option at time of purchase. Modular, interchangeable keyboard FRUs that have or omit the 10-key pad would be a great solution.

Are backlit keyboards necessary?

Again, some people like them, and some don’t. Illuminated keys can be helpful when typing in low light conditions, but they drain battery and add cost to manufacturing, although probably not significantly, since most laptop keyboards seem to use them these days. Most of them have an option to turn the backlight off and adjust the brightness level, and this seems to be the best choice. It enables everyone to be happy. On laptops which have this feature, I just turn the backlight off, and touch type as always.

Which type of switches is the best?

This is subjective and people can have their own opinions. These days, there are three main types of keyboard: chiclet, dome, and buckling spring. The T61p keyboard had scissor switches, a type of dome switch. These work and feel great — almost as great as buckling spring switches.

I find “chiclet” keys to be fine, I can use a chiclet keyboard without issue, and type fast and with confidence with them, but I still prefer the feel of the scissor switch keys on my T61p. Some people prefer the lower travel of the chiclet key, and manufacturers favor them today because they enable thinner designs. But I really prefer the feel of the full travel key caps, and the scissor switches in the T61p keyboard give a closer approximation of the way full travel keyboards feel.

The biggest disadvantage of the scissor-switch keyboard is that it adds to the overall thickness of the machine, but I strongly believe that thinness is a highly overrated feature. With ultra-thin laptops approaching 0.5 inches, there’s not much room left to go thinner. And there’s plenty of leeway for making a laptop a little thicker to allow for a better keyboard. The T61p is 1.4 inches thick, and I’ve never once felt that it was an issue. I would much rather have a thicker, heavier laptop that is more rugged and will hold up to years of heavy use, and has more room for expansion or battery, than a ultra thin and light laptop.

Really, though, on the switch type, I could go either way. Chiclet keys feel nice enough to be acceptable, but for longer typing sessions I truly like the additional travel and resistance of scissor switches. This is an area where making it a configurable option would be nice. A modular, interchangeable FRU keyboard offering the user their choice of chiclet or scissor switch keys would make everyone happy.

Pointing devices

While we’re at it, let’s look at the pointing devices. First, we have the TrackPoint stick, the red nub. People who use them really love them, and they don’t get in the way of people who don’t. They’re a vital part of the ThinkPad brand and image, and should never be done away with.

Next, we have the touchpad. The touchpad is surrounded top and bottom with physical mouse buttons. these are well designed and robust. Positioning them top and bottom is important because it makes them reachable to both the thumb and fingers, regardless of where the hand is positioned on the keyboard or touchpad, which makes using the buttons quicker. We also see a middle mouse button, which is useful for Linux users.

As for the touchpad itself, it is only 2.25 x 1.5 inches — which is ideal. Newer generation notebook PCs have trended toward larger touchpads, which allows for greater precision with reduced sensitivity, but I really prefer this smaller size. It is not so large that it becomes an easy target for accidental bumps by the palm of the hand. I never accidentally brushed the touchpad on my T61p with the heel or palm of my hand when typing, which means I never accidentally click the mouse cursor away from where I’m typing. I do have this problem on many newer model laptop keyboards, and it is a constant, huge annoyance.

The touchpad is not multi-touch capable, and that would be a good improvement to add to this design. It does have scroll regions at the right and bottom edge, which are configurable.

The UltraNav touchpad driver is excellent, with lots of configuration options to get it to work just how the user prefers.


What else?

It’d be great if keyboards were more interchangeable in laptops, across different models and manufacturers. It would take a great effort of the industry to standardize the top half of all laptop chassis to have the same shape and size space for a keyboard. But there’s no reason it couldn’t happen, if manufacturers decided to standardize, or if a manufacturer decided standardize within their own product lines. The computer industry has standardized on other things, so why not a standard to allow laptop keyboards to be more interchangeable between different models and makers? This could spur innovation in improving keyboards, since users would not longer be stuck with whatever the designers engineered for a particular model — users would be free to upgrade and choose the style and layout that they prefer.

I doubt that it will happen on an industry-wide level, that we’ll be able to buy generic commodity keyboards from any maker and put it into any laptop, there’s just too much inertia for it. But it could happen if the industry decided it wanted to. Even if it didn’t want to, manufactures could standardize more within their own model lines, and offer a greater variety of keycap types and layouts to satisfy the preferences of different customers. I expect the main reasons they don’t do so have to do with cost, and to some extent integration and aesthetics issues. But these are not insurmountable issues.

For me, a better keyboard is still well worth paying some premium for. A keyboard that doesn’t feel cramped, has a familiar layout for ALL keys, and a satisfying feel, for me, would be something I’d easily pay another $50-100 for, if it were an option to purchase an upgraded keyboard that was just the way I like it.

Tempest in a Teapot: IP Creator vs. IP Owner

ArsTechnica posted an article today about the current intellectual property holders of Atari being in communication with game developer Llamasoft (aka Jeff Minter), who programmed Tempest 2000 for the Atari Jaguar in 1994, to suppress a game he recently released called TxK, which appears to be an update or sequel to Tempest 2000. (Tempest 2000 is itself a sequel of the Atari 1981 arcade smash hit Tempest, which was designed and programmed for Atari by Dave Theurer.)

On the face of it, it would appear that “Atari” has a pretty solid case. Very likely, Minter doesn’t own Tempest, Atari did (and the current owner of the Atari brand now does). Minter/Llamasoft almost certainly would have created Tempest 2000 as a work for hire, and the rights to it almost certainly were and are the exclusive domain of Atari. I don’t know the facts, I’m not a lawyer, but I am familiar with a bit of intellectual property laws, and to me it seems likely that unless Minter has a contract stating that he or Llamasoft is a part owner of the IP rights to Tempest 2000, unfortunately he probably doesn’t have much of a case should it come to a legal action against him for creating a game that is essentially Tempest 2000 for modern machines.

The thing is — and this is why I put “Atari” in quotes — the real Atari went out of business years ago, and the current company who owns their intellectual property isn’t the same company or the same people who created the games originally. This doesn’t change their legal standing with regard to ownership, unfortunately, and creates an interesting situation of the actual guy who created the game not having the rights to his own creation, aka John Fogerty syndrome.

While the legalities are probably pretty clear cut, my sympathies are with Minter, who clearly is more of a creator of Tempest 2000 than the current holder of Atari’s intellectual properties could ever hope to be. And the game he has produced does look like a worthy update to a classic game that was loved well by the golden era gamers of the pre-crash arcade era. Being a Jaguar release, Tempest 2000 was not as widely played or appreciated as it should have been, and a modern update that can be enjoyed by more people ought to be welcomed by the market. But because of trademarks and copyright and “works for hire”, Atari’s ghost probably does have it within its legal rights to quash the game if that’s what it wants to do. Hopefully, they and Minter can come to a happier arrangement. It sucks that a company that is doing little or nothing with an old back catalog of games can prevent its original creators from coming out with new innovations that build on their own earlier works.

Personally, my feeling is that the actual-creators should always retain a right to produce new stuff. It should be legally impossible for a creator to sign away the right to produce new original or derivative works of any property they had a hand in creating, even if they’ve sold the rights to a previously-created work. If a publisher wants to commission a work and wholly own it, such that the creator is labor and is paid one time for the work, and has no future rights to the work itself, I still feel that the actual people who did the creative things ought to be able to say, “I’m the Creator of [X] and although it’s not an officially recognized part of the canonical [Publisher]-owned [X], here, world, have a new [X]-thing that I made, because I had some more ideas and I wanted to make them, and share them with (or sell them to) the world.

But, in the legal real world, it doesn’t work that way. It all comes down to who the owner is, and ownership can be transferred. There’s no permanent right residing with an original creator, and it all comes down to the terms under which a work was authored and published.

This harkens all the way back to the early days of Atari, the famous Activision split, where several of Atari’s best developers went to Atari President and CEO Ray Kassar, asking for recognition of authorship and to have their names attached to the games they were producing. Kassar refused, famously insulting his best creators by telling them they had no more to do with Atari’s success than the people who assembled the games and put them in boxes. They left in revolt and formed Activision, the first third-party developer of console games, and credited themselves on their own creations and paid themselves royalties.

And more recently, Konami just had a falling out with Metal Gear auteur Hideo Kojima, and are in the process of removing his name from his creations. So in the future, if Hideo Kojima wants to create something new, it can’t be in the Metal Gear universe, which is owned by Konami. And Konami can do whatever they want with Kojima’s creations, legally, even if it sucks or is completely contrary to the spirit that Kojima put into his works.

There has always been this clash between business and creator, really any time a creative enterprise is something larger than one person can realize — any thing that requires teamwork necessarily entails contracts, and contracts are ugly things that can trip up someone who doesn’t have expert legal counsel on retainer, and that’s almost always something too expensive for creative types who often struggle financially to afford. This sort of thing happens all the time to creators with their works, and it’s terrible.

What it comes down to is this: Creators create properties. That’s where the value is. Owners tend to the the ones who monetize properties. But owners’ interest in monetizing properties shouldn’t inhibit creators from creating more value. Because ultimately, it’s creations that are the thing we should encourage.

I hope that Minter and Atari are able to work something out that is mutually beneficial, and doesn’t result in the game being pulled from the market. Like Minter said, they should be hiring him.

Update 8/8/2017:

Atari and Minter have come to an agreement, and a new game Tempest 4000 has been announced for release sometime this year on console and PC platforms. It’s unclear at this time whether this is a re-packaging of Minter’s TkX, or if this is a new game. This is a happy ending.

Thinking about a human-like AI for playing Scrabble

[I got into playing Words With Friends on Facebook and my mobile phone back in 2012, and started writing a lengthy article on designing an AI to play scrabble-like games in a manner that convincingly simulates a learning human. This weekend, several years later, I’m a spectator at a local Scrabble tournament, and decided to finally finish up my thoughts.]

Designing AI for Scrabble-like games

I’ve been playing the Zynga game Words with Friends with various people for a few weeks, and have gotten progressively better at the game. After looking back and reflecting on the evolution of my play, and the development of my strategy, I became inspired by the idea of a convincingly human-like AI that embodied the various stages of my development as a player.

While actually programming it is a little more effort than I want to put into it, even just thinking about the design for such an AI is interesting.


Interview: Daniel Linssen

Daniel Linssen is an indie game developer who lives in Sydney, Australia, who I came to know after playing his first Ludum Dare creation, Javel-ein, for LD28. After releasing the full version of Javel-ein, he was cool enough to reach out to me to let me know of its existence, since I had so enjoyed the version he had made for LD28, and since then we’ve corresponded regularly and become digital pen pals. He is also the creator of Busy Busy Beaver (which won Bacon Jam 07) and FFFFFF for Flappy Jam. His most recent game, The Sun and Moon, recently won first place in the Overall category for Ludum Dare 29.

CS: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Ready to begin?

DL: As ready as ever!

CS: First, do you prefer to be called Managore or Daniel? What does the name Managore mean?

DL: Daniel. In the past I liked having a unique identity while still being anonymous, but I’ve given up on that.

Fun fact: For a long time “Managore” was absolutely unique. Then a year or two ago a Bulgarian company released an online game called Managore and my uniqueness was lost. Oh well!

The name doesn’t really mean anything. Years ago I started writing a (really terrible) sci-fi novel and one of the characters, some sort of biological experiment, was named Managore. And the name stuck.

CS: How did you get started making games? How long have you been doing it?

DL: The earliest example I can think of is as a kid I designed some Sonic The Hedgehog levels on paper. I think I was around 8 at the time.

CS: That’s something I used to do as well, designing games on paper. I think I did my first game concept when I was six or seven…

DL: I’m pretty sure the levels I designed would have been terrible. I hope yours were better!

CS: Nah, the stuff I drew up wasn’t that sophisticated. I’d do a drawing of a screen shot, and then narrate the rules and the player’s goals, point values, etc. and my mom would write them down for me. I didn’t do anything so sophisticated as a full-blown design doc or anything. It was just about the enthusiasm and instinct to be creative, and wanting to do it for real someday.

DL: There’s an old DOS game called Jetpack and I spent a long time using its level editor. The idea of a level editor was pretty novel for me at the time. Over the years since then I’ve played around with RPGmaker, C++, Valve’s Hammer Editor and Flash but never made anything that I could really call finished.

CS: What game projects did you work on previous to your first LD game?

DL: Well a whole bunch of unfinished or unreleased games, unsurprisingly. Actually the only games I’ve released so far have come from game jams. My first experience participating in a game jam was three years ago, I was working with a friend of mine. The game we made was a one screen rhythm platformer for Reddit Game Jam 05 (the theme was “love”) called Give In. I worked on the player controls (which are way too slippery) and the graphics (which I still kind of like the look of).

After that I started using GameMaker and worked on some exploratory platformers which will probably never see the light of day. Then, half a year ago I took part in the Bacon Game Jam 06 (the theme was “rainbows”) and made an action platformer called Violet, which I think of as my first “proper” game, if you can call it that.

CS: How do you approach a 48 hour event like LD? How is it different from when you are working on a game without external time constraints?

DL: I try to start off well rested but that’s about it. Sometimes I have an idea of what aspects of the development process I want to focus on or improve on. Once I have an idea and I start coding, autopilot tends to kick in.

CS: OK let’s talk about The Sun and Moon. I’ve just read your post-mortem article on the making of it, so hopefully we won’t rehash too much of that. I encourage readers to check it out for themselves.

First, let me just say congratulations on another fantastic game. For the record, out of 1493 entries for the LD29 Compo, you placed 1st Overall, 1st in Theme, 2nd in Fun, and 3rd in Innovation. This was just your second LD entry! Obviously, no one expects to win a category, but how well did you think The Sun and Moon would do when you finished it?

DL: Well I went into it hoping to make a game which I could be as proud of as my previous LD game, Javel-ein, and I think I achieved that. When I finished, I was really happy with how things had gone. Everything (well, except the music, but I was too tired to realize that at the time) had pretty much falling into place and the game’s mechanic ended up being a lot of fun. I was lucky not to run into any major hurdles along the way.

My hope was to get a medal in some category but I knew there were so many utterly fantastic games to compete with, so it was always something I was hoping for but never really expecting.

CS: How does it feel to have won the Compo?

DL: It feels amazing. I couldn’t believe it. It’s a dream come true.

CS: What does the title, The Sun and Moon, mean?

DL: Good question. I have all these good answers for why I chose “Violet” and “FFFFFF” and “Busy Busy Beaver”, but I don’t really have a good answer for The Sun and Moon. I was really struggling to come up with a unique and meaningful name. I had all these ideas written down. They’re pretty bizarre so they might be entertaining to read:

A World Divided, The World Beneath, It Spoke Quietly And No One Heard, A Hollow World, The Sun and Stars Both, The Sun and The Moon.

If you’re curious about ISQANOH… I honestly have no idea. I liked the sound of it.

Anyway, because it is such an abstract game, at least as far as my games go, I wanted the name to be up to the player’s interpretation, but I did have a reason for choosing “The Sun And Moon”. As I was developing the game I realized I needed to make the player change appearance while underground, and from that point onwards the player kept reminding me of the Yin and Yang concept. The dark version which falls and the light version which rises. The air and the ground. Complimentary forces. And one representation of the Yin and Yang is the Sun and Moon, so I went with that.

CS: Yeah… what was interesting to me about the title was, there wasn’t really any literal sun or moon in the game! I wondered about that, and was interested to hear what the story was, if there’d been some plan to get them into the game but you ran out of time, or… if, like the Sun and Moon were just metaphorical somehow..

DL: I worried that people might find the name a little too… artsy? But as far as I know that hasn’t been the case.

CS: I think it’s a fine title!

CS: The core mechanic of The Sun and Moon is to traverse a series of obstacles by selectively passing through solid platforms. How did you come up with the idea? How long did it take you to refine the specific mechanics (requiring a jump/fall to pass through the floor, buoyancy within a solid platform, the acceleration/momentum upon ejecting out of a solid platform, etc.)

DL: It just sort of came to me, after a long string of bad ideas. I was thinking about a bubble in a world made of water and air, and the idea evolved from there. I had a pretty vivid image in my head early on of diving into the floor and shooting up into the air and from that point I felt like I had come up with something fun. I stuck with that mental image and built the mechanic around it.

Originally you didn’t have to jump to pass through the floor. I planned to make the player “wobble” up and down if you were standing on the surface and held down the action key. The way I happened to code it meant that when you held down the action key, since your vertical speed was zero, the “wobble” wasn’t there. This worked well enough so I just left it that way.

CS: At what point did you realize you were on the right track?

DL: When I started making the levels. I posted a gif of one of the first levels I made and the responses were really encouraging. The more levels I made, the more content I was with how my game was going.

CS: How long did it take you to build the basic engine?

DL: Surprisingly not long at all. I mentioned it in the post mortem but I made a movement and collision engine called the Beaver Engine which I used as my starting point. The Beaver Engine is a stripped down version of Busy Busy Beaver, one of my previous game jam games, which took about 12 hours to write the code for.

It took a little rewriting to add in the underground physics and make it all work properly but overall the basic engine was pretty painless.

CS: What design decisions were hardest to make?

DL: We’ve already talked about it, but the name! I was actually starting to panic a little towards the end because I couldn’t come up with a name! Oh, also the player’s trail. I went through five or six iterations before I found something I was happy with.

CS: What features/ideas did you drop from the game?

DL: I’ve started to get a pretty good idea of how much I can realistically get done in a game jam, so I kept my feature list pretty minimal. I actually had time near the end to add in a few features such as the level select screen, which I wasn’t originally planning on including.

Speaking of features I wasn’t originally planning on including, I should definitely mention how much of an absolutely huge help it was having you give the game a go a few hours before the deadline. I remember you saying you wish there was a way to know which level you were on, which led to the level number appearing at the beginning of each level, and you said it would be useful to know which level had been played last, which led to the player sitting on top of the last played level in the level select screen. These were really important features that I wouldn’t have thought of at the time.

CS: Absolutely! It was an honor to have been asked, and to be able to provide a little feedback so you could refine the finishing touches on the game that ended up taking 1st Overall. I remembered thinking right away that it was a very strong entry, and I liked it from the first couple levels. I had the idea about the level numbers because when I was giving you feedback, I didn’t have an easy way to reference which level I was talking about. So it was a fairly obvious suggestion.

DL: Fairly obvious to anyone but me! I guess it just really helps to have a fresh perspective with an eye for what’s important.

CS: True; when you’re in the final hours before deadline, your focus tends to be on the most critical elements of the game, and finding bugs. Being able to look at the game with a fresh perspective just isn’t possible, so it’s valuable to be able to get feedback from someone who hasn’t been staring at it for the last 40+ hours!

How would you compare The Sun and Moon to your other games, Javel-ein and Busy Busy Beaver?

DL: Well I knew while making BBB that it just wasn’t going to be that innovative, so I focused on making it fun and silly and pretty. For The Sun and Moon I went the opposite direction and focused on making it unique and innovative, at the expense of a story, detailed graphics and humor.

And then Javel-ein is sort of a blend of the two.

CS: This game focuses on mechanics rather than story, and, I think, stands up well on those merits. Have you thought about adding story elements to the game, or do you plan to leave it abstract?

DL: I’ve thought about it, but I honestly don’t know what direction I could take it.

CS: Your sense of level design and mechanics for 2D platformers is, if I may say so, pro quality. Can you describe your process for designing levels?

DL: In general, if I have a game mechanic to work around, I try to explore that mechanic in as much depth as possible. For The Sun And Moon, I looked at all the different types of movement that the mechanic allowed for (e.g. diving down into the floor, jumping up and through a block, falling off a tall platform and diving deep into the ground below, jumping through a thin wall, jumping into and up through a block) and came up with levels that made the player use these tricks. I wrote all my ideas down on paper first since I’d often have multiple levels ideas come to me at once.

CS: Do you have interest in making other types of games than 2D side scrolling platformers?

DL: Definitely! I think it’s just been the case that the ideas I’ve had that have worked the best have always been tough platformers. On the backlog I have a color-based puzzle game I’ve been working on as well as an idea for a top-down naval exploration game.

CS: The art style of The Sun and Moon would be best described as a minimal, GameBoy style. But it works very well, especially the “clouds” in the background. How did you come up with the idea for them?

DL: For the clouds? Early on the background was a solid color, and I realized that if you flung yourself really high into the air it was impossible to tell how fast you were going. To fix this I decided to add a parallax background in. My game, with its monochrome palette and dark-foreground-on-light-background style, already looked far too similar to Luftrausers, so I wanted something abstract and different.

When I was coming up with the idea for my naval exploration game I experimented with perlin noise and other techniques to generate a huge ocean with lots of islands and interesting coastline, so perlin noise was still fresh in my mind. Because Photoshop’s “Render Clouds” filter creates tileable perlin noise I knew I could use that to quickly make a suitable background.

CS: Interesting that it was a feature driven as much by gameplay needs (having a reference so the player could gauge their speed) as much as cosmetic needs. Visually it’s a very pleasing effect!

How much have you added to the game post-compo?

DL: I’m up to 67 levels at the moment, though I lot of the newer ones still need some work. I’ve added controller support and made the game run on mobile devices. I’ve added a timer for each level that records your best time. I have a lot of ideas for mechanics that could add variety to the gameplay and I’m currently playing around with these to see which ones work the best.

CS: Wow, sounds like you’ve been busy! What are your plans for developing the game further?

DL: Even more levels! However many I can come up with while making sure each level is still unique and fun. I’ll work on the visuals a little bit but I want to keep it looking minimalistic.

More importantly, the music is going to be completely redone.

CS: How about some technical questions?

DL: Sounds good!

CS: You use GameMaker: Studio for your games. Do you work with any other programming tools or environments? What do you like about GM:S? What do you wish was better?

DL: Not at the moment. I think what I like the most about GM:S is that I’m so familiar with it. And that it’s very easy to prototype new ideas. There are, unfortunately, a lot of things I wish GM:S did better. The built-in level editor leaves a lot to be desired, the program occasionally crashes and I lose progress, Windows builds and html5 builds can be wildly inconsistent, and a lot of other, smaller issues.

CS: How did you get into GameMaker?

DL: Two of my favourite games, An Untitled Story and Spelunky, were made in GameMaker. They inspired me to begin making games seriously so I guess I thought it was a good idea to use what they used.

CS: Are you active on the GMC forums? Are there any other good sites for game development that you frequent?

DL: Not at all. I browse /r/gamedev and /r/indiegaming on reddit, but that’s about it.

CS: You mentioned in your post-mortem that you experimented with a couple of different motion trail techniques, before settling on a line drawn out behind the player. How did you make the line taper?

DL: Okay so each frame an object is created. This object stores the players current location (x,y) and the player’s previous frame location (x_p,y_p). The object draws a line from (x,y) to (x_p,y_p) of a certain thickness, starting at 5 pixels and decreasing by half a pixel each frame. So, at any one time, the trail is made up of 10 objects, each drawing a line of varying thickness.

If the player is underground it’s a little different. It still creates objects which store the player’s current location but these objects draw a circle instead of a line, and instead of the circles shrinking their visibility is decreased each frame.

CS: Thanks to gravity acceleration, you can achieve some pretty high vertical speeds. Was it a problem to handle collisions at such speeds? Did you have to do anything special to make it work?

DL: Good question! Because every object in the game (except the collectables, come to think of it) is 16 by 16 pixels, I only needed to make sure that the player never moves more than 16 pixels each frame, so I set the terminal velocity to 14 pixels a frame, just to be safe. I think the terminal velocity is pretty hard to notice in general.

CS: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

DL: Only that participating in Ludum Dare has consistently been a fantastic experience.

CS: I have to agree. Not just making games and having other people play them, or even getting to play a lot of cool games made by other people, but getting to know a few of the people in the indie scene, both through their work and through actual correspondence. Perhaps that’s been the most rewarding part of it all. Congratulations on your accomplishments, good luck in the future, and thanks for taking the time.

DL: It was my pleasure, thank you for interviewing me!


Getting into version control with GameMaker Studio

Version control makes sense whether you are working alone or with a team. It should be a mandatory practice. But you won’t be able to enjoy the benefits of version control unless you know how to do it right. If you’re working with a team, it’s essential that you all know how to do it right. This article will help you get started.