Category: design

http makes us all journalists.

Something I did made the paper a year ago, and I just now found out about it:

http://blogs.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2011/09/anonymous_circulates_diy_press.php

The blog article mis-attributes the quote “http makes us all journalists” to Peter Fein, who I’ve never met or had any dealings with, but I actually came up with the slogan, and the 1.0 design of the press pass. [Update: It turns out that I have met Pete, but it was long after the fact of the BART protests. In fact, without realizing that he was the same person from the article above, I met him and his wife Elizabeth at Notacon9. I’m happy to report that they’re wonderful people.]

After I created the design, and it was put up the noisebridge wiki, I remember at the time a number of journalists took offense to the slogan, completely missing the point of it while being defensive about their college major or profession. I guess it stings when your career is threatened by the emergence of a new medium that the old guard doesn’t understand readily, misses the boat on, and you watch newspaper after newspaper go out of business or get swallowed up by corporate media conglomerates.

I get that Journalism is a serious discipline and has standards, most of which are completely gone from broadcast and publishing these days, but whatever, they’re important standards. Saying “http makes us all journalists” wasn’t meant to insult your diploma, your profession, your Peabody, or your Pulitzer.

The point was that the slogan is directly after a quotation of the full text of the first amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press. The internet, especially http, enables all of us to be our own press. Freedom of the Press isn’t just freedom for Journalists, but for artists and authors and everyone who has a mind to express thoughts with. “With HTTP, All Can Publish” might have been a more accurate slogan, but I came up with the idea in about 10 minutes, and I like the spirit of it, so I’ll stick with it. Frankly, I’d rather there be more agitated journalists in the world, rather than the corporate media shills that have largely supplanted them, while abdicating the Fourth Estate for a comfy paycheck. If you’re a journalist and the slogan pissed you off, good. If it inspired even one person in the general public to take up the mantle and aspire to become a serious journalist, even better.

I created the design when a friend in SF tweeting about the Bay Area Rapid Transit protests, that were happening at the time, said that people who didn’t have press passes were being denied access to the protest area. The protests were in response to a police shooting and killing of an homeless man who was on the prone on the ground at the time he was shot, and not a threat to anyone. That shouldn’t have happened. I felt strongly that the protesters had a right to protest and a right to cover their own actions and publish about it, so I created the press pass. It took maybe a half hour, a couple of rectangles in Illustrator, and I was done. The idea that the right to be present to cover an event should be limited to those who possess a Press pass struck me as an unconstitutional abridgment of rights reserved for all. So I created a Press pass for all.

The version I created didn’t have the photo of the Guy Fawkes wearing person in the ID photo. My idea was to take your own passport photo and put it in there — I measured everything out carefully to be sized correctly, and made the card the size of a ISO spec for an ID card that I found details on the internet.

The image at the right is the symbol for Noisebridge, a SF hackerspace that I’d like to visit someday. I ganked the image from their website and incorporated it into the design, since the friend who got the idea started was affiliated with them, and they were involved to some capacity in organizing the BART protests. I’ve met some cool people from Noisebridge who I consider to be good people: bright, conscientious, inquisitive, concerned.

The reverse of the press pass had the text of the First Amendment and the slogan “http makes us all journalists” which I meant to emphasize the fact that the internet is a truly democratizing force, enabling each and every one of us to communicate with everyone else, reaching people we might never otherwise have known about, and impossible to censor… though, they never do quit trying.

Someone else put the Guy Fawkes image in there, but you could just as well replace it with your own image if you wanted, as I originally intended. The “points system” for doing this or that with the pass to make it more authentic looking was also someone else’s idea, as was the information resources to help people know their rights. Each contributor acted freely of their own accord to contribute their ideas and built off of them without ever talking to each other. It is what you make it. Modify to suit your needs. Do what you want, be responsible for what you do. That’s the power true freedom gives you.

I’m not a member of Anonymous, as I’m not posting this anonymously. Anonymous does some good, some bad, just like anything else. I don’t know anything more about them than what you can read on the internet.

###

More favorable coverage, with an image of the original design:

http://lafiga.firedoglake.com/2011/08/23/http-makes-us-all-journalists/

Ludum Dare 23 postmortem 3

(Part 1 | Part 2)

Making Enemies

Saturday I developed Enemy AI and Food. The first Enemy was actually done Friday, simply a renamed, re-colored (red) variant of Player with a collision event to handle contact with the Player, and the control scheme modified to have the Enemy bacteria follow the nearest Player bacterium, not the mouse.

What resulted from this was actually surprising: (more…)

Managing Categories and Tags in WordPress

For the longest time, I’ve paid little attention to the categories and tags on this site. I played with the features a bit, but didn’t really understand them well enough to feel like I knew what to make a category, what to make a tag, how to do it consistently, and so on.

As often happens, I figured it out “naturally”, by just using the site and over time the purpose became more clear. Then for a long time I just didn’t feel like going through the tedium of going through all the old posts and re-doing everything. I hated feeling like “If I had to do it all over again, I’d do things differently”, though, so eventually I had to do something about it.

I’m here to share the lessons I learned.

Know your purpose, or if you don’t know your purpose, find it

When I started this site, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to use it for. I knew I wanted it to be a site for promoting and blogging my professional activities, but beyond that I wasn’t sure how I wanted to do it. This was something that developed for me over time, as I became more comfortable. At first I was very risk averse about putting up any content at all. Putting my real name up on the web made me feel inhibited and over-cautious. I didn’t want to make a mistake, embarrass myself, offend someone, lose my job, etc.

As time went on, I began to get over these fears, and it allowed me to post more frequently, feel more free about saying what I want to say, and knowing what I wanted to talk about. I surmise that most web sites develop their purpose over time, and refine what they do. I couldn’t have known how to do everything before I started.

Doing it is an essential part of the process of learning how to do it.

This means making mistakes, and you shouldn’t let yourself be inhibited from making them. Learning from them quickly and doing things better is more important. But sometimes lessons take a while to sink in, and when that happens it is not always the best thing to start making changes right away. You don’t have the time and you quickly lose energy if you put yourself through a comprehensive overhaul several times in quick succession. So before doing a drastic overhaul, take time to think about it, and before you do the whole thing, do a small part of it first and see how it works. Iterate a few times until you think it’s just about right. Then do the overhaul.

Categories

Here’s how I think about WordPress Categories: If my WordPress site was a book, the Categories would be the headings I would use for my Table of Contents. This isn’t quite right, but it’s a close enough way of looking at it.

If your site has a relatively narrow purpose, you should have relatively few categories. Categories should be broad. Think of your categories as sorting bins for your posts. Your posts fit into or under them. It’s OK if your posts fit into multiple categories, since there’s often overlap. You can create a hierarchy of categories as well, which can be helpful if you have a number of closely related category topics.

If you find that you are constantly writing posts that fit into the same group of categories, you should think about whether those categories would be better off consolidated into a single, broader category, and perhaps your former categories re-done as Tags.

Tags

Tags are like index keywords that help describe the major ideas that are contained within your post. You should think about the content of your post, and what the main ideas or topics were, and tag appropriately. This is not a SEO game, where you want to try to guess all the variations of words that people search by and include them. So skip the -s/-ing/-ly game.

Tags should be short, single words or phrases of two or three words. Try to avoid redundancy, but some small amount is probably OK. WordPress separates tags with commas, so you don’t have to worry about using spaces. It’s OK to use spaces between words, rather than running words together.

I frequently see tags being misused as a sort of meta-commentary on the content of the post or page. This is witty, entertaining, gives some personality to the site. I’m not sure that it’s helpful, but the occasional humorous tag might be amusing.

Witty tags work when you’re reading at the bottom of a post, or reading the summary or digest of an article before you click to Read More. But the intended way for your readers to use tags is to find other related content on your site that is of interest to them. If you over-do the witty tags, you’re not giving the reader useful ways to find a reason to spend more time reading your site.

How your site’s users use Categories and Tags

How, indeed? You can guess, and you can assume, but the truth is unless you have some system of measuring that can watch your readers behavior while they’re on your site, you don’t have too much of a clue how a site’s users actually use the category and tag features.

With WordPress sites, typically it’s the authors who are doing the tagging and categorizing. Readers merely consume them. Some sites, where there is an element or even an emphasis on user-generated content, give users the capability to creating their own tags and categories. If your site does this, you absolutely need to observe and track your users’ behavior. It’s fascinating, amusing, and will give you a lot of insight.

If you retain sole control the category and tag features, you need to think about what your readers need and how useful you are making your site through these features. If you can, try NOT to have to rely on guessing or “common sense” to tell you this — find ways to observe user behavior (though logging, perhaps), or solicit user feedback, and use that to influence your planning and decisions.

Another useful thing to do is to monitor the way people are searching your site, or the search engine query that brought them to your site. The most common search terms your users used to find you should jump out as terms that you should use for tags, possibly for categories as well. And if you’re advertising your site, or using advertising to generate revenue on your site, knowing what terms users are searching for is crucial to drawing traffic and generating revenue.

WP-Admin and the Category/Tag Renovation

My experience with this was that it could have been faster and less tedious. It’s probably my host more than anything, but it seemed that reloading the post, tag, and category administration pages took longer than I had patience for. Clicking update, then waiting a few seconds for the refresh, times however many posts I updated, adds up.

If I wanted to apply the same changes to multiple posts, there’s no way to do this through the web interface. A “mass action” feature to allow adding/removing the same category or tags to multiple posts at once would be very useful.

I could have attempted to directly manipulate the database through building a custom update query, but I didn’t want to sink time into doing that, didn’t want to run the risk of messing it up, and in any case, it’s probably beyond the capability of most WordPress bloggers, so I don’t recommend it. If you have an absolutely HUGE site that needs hundreds or thousands of changes to be made the same way, look into it. If you’re just dealing with dozens, just do it manually.

The other thing that would have been helpful was some kind of redundant tag merging. It’s not uncommon to apply very similar tags inconsistently over the history of your site.

For example, I used the tags “GameMaker” and “Game Maker” quite a bit. I had a few other GameMaker-related tags, which included a specific version, such as 8.0, 8,1, etc.

My first attempt at merging these was to simply re-name the “Game Maker” tag to match the label of my “GameMaker” tag. This did not merge the tags, though; it just created two identical tag labels, which were still separate as far as my WordPress site was concerned. A reader clicking on the “GameMaker” tag from one of my posts would only find about half of the posts I’ve written about Game Maker. Not good!

In order to fix this, I had to remove the redundant tag from my tagging system. To avoid losing the posts that I wanted to be tagged, though, I had to go through and re-tag those posts with the correct tag. At that point, I had a bunch of posts that had BOTH “GameMaker” tags — the correct one, and the incorrect tag that I’d re-labeled. I still needed to remove the incorrect tag to get rid of the redundancy, but looking at my Posts I couldn’t tell which was the redundant tag! So, I went back to the tag admin page, and changed the label of the incorrect GameMaker tag to “dup”, and then went through my posts and removed the “dup” tag.

It would have been much simpler, easier, and faster, if I could have simply navigated to the tag admin page, selected both the “Game Maker” and “GameMaker” tags, hit a button to merge the two tags, and specified which label I preferred to keep. I hope they include that feature in a future WordPress release.

Conclusion

I’m sure there’s still more room for improvement with the way I’ve done it, but I’ve managed to clean up my categories considerably, and applied tags much more consistently through all of my posts. It took a couple hours, but I hope it is worth it. I see a few benefits worth mentioning:

  • Users will have an easier time finding content that is relevant to their interests or related to something they came to the site to read.
  • It will increase the amount of time users spend using the site.
  • It will decrease the amount of time users waste on the site.
  • Better organization will convey to users that the site is of good quality.

Games and stories

Humans are storytellers, and we do it more or less instinctively, but many of us are not great storytellers. Humans are also game players, and we also do that instinctively, and most of us are at least decent in some game or other.

The use of Story in videogames is a rather deep topic, but suffice it to say that games have done well with minimal story, with trite and clichéd story, and often with just plain bad story. Games do have the potential to deliver great story, and some have.

This article at Ars Technica raises some points that I mostly agree with, in that a game doesn’t need a story to be a great game. But I disagree with it insofar as great stories should only be told through established, proper forms. Reading it prompted the following thoughts in reaction:

Even Chess has an element of story to it: Two kingdoms at war. It’s abstract, but it does have meaning. It’s not really the point of Chess, and it’s easy enough to re-theme the story a particular chess set tells. Understanding the course of a game of chess through the metaphor implied by the significance imparted on the various pieces doesn’t really add any insight to winning strategy, though. Chess is loosely coupled to its story. It’s there for flavor, and there’s some symbolic meaning there, but it’s not very important.

A game like Tic-Tac-Toe has no story at all, right? It’s just an absolutely abstract conflict based in the geometric realities of the grid and the arbitrary significance of orthogonal lines. Well, suppose we take the British name for the game, Noughts and Crosses, and then let’s to a tiny bit further to modify the Noughts so that they’re Crescents. Instantly, we’ve created story: a retelling of the age-old, pointless clash that nobody can win between Christianity and Islam. It’s so slight, it’s almost stupid that this change is all that is needed to convey a story with a moral, yet it’s strangely powerful. And that’s how ingrained story is to games. It’s there because we can’t help ourselves putting it there.

Some attempts at telling a story that is the equal of our finest books, plays, and films through the medium of videogames game end up being a failure, and this ends up hurting both the game and the story. This much is true. I think “So don’t ever do that” is the wrong lesson to take from that. Game design is a rapidly developing art form and it’s entirely likely that new ways of integrating story and game are possible, many of them still over the horizon. We can imagine a lot, but we can’t imagine everything the future will bring. Which is why the future is so fascinating. Closing off an entire branch of game design because it was a bad idea in the past or because past attempts failed is just shortsighted.

If you’re making a game, the first goal is make sure that the game is good. There are a lot of ways to do this, likely infinite.

If you support the game with story elements, it can enhance the game. Game developers should try to make those good, of course, as they should make any element in the game as good as they are able. But they don’t have to be concerned about telling great, serious stories. Stories told through games can be great, though, and it’s fine to aspire and experiment to find what works and what doesn’t, but clearly most games do not require a level of storytelling the equal of a classic novel in order to be great as games. It’s OK for them to aspire to do so, though.

Design crossroads

So in Boobie Teeth 0.15, I created a surface for my ocean. The way I designed it, if you breach the surface of the water, gravity takes hold of you and you fall back into the ocean. Beneath the surface, no gravity.

I didn’t realize it until I played for a while, but if you breach the surface and wiggle the controls, the input seems to give you extra momentum, which can keep you above the water indefinitely. This wasn’t what I desired, but I wondered whether I should do anything about it. Should I consider it a glitch? Should I leave it in, and let the player discover it? Gamers like to discover things like this, and it’s kindof fun, if useless, to fly about over the waves. But if I leave it in, I should give it some purpose.

I have to think about it for 0.16. Maybe something will come to me. Maybe if you fly about enough, you can get someplace secret.

I don’t like when I design something and it doesn’t work the way I conceived it in the beginning, but sometimes I like the surprise. Even when I do like the surprise, I like to figure out what went wrong and figure out how to make it work the way I originally intended. Maybe I’ll keep it in mind for later.

So I figured out a way to fix the problem, it was easy enough: just set the controls to be disabled when you’re above the water. This causes your above-surface trajectory to become purely ballistic, but at the expense of not being able to control your direction at all. Conceivably this could cause you to leap out of the water, only to be doomed by your trajectory to land right on a big fish that will eat you when you plunge back into the water.

That seems so much less fun than being able to fly out of the water for as long as you care to wiggle the stick. On the other hand, I don’t want there to be a cheap, easy way of avoiding danger indefinitely.

There may be another way. I might just need to find a way of making the simulated gravity increase each step of the game engine until it can’t be resisted. Then you could still wiggle, and might be able to gain a little bit of extra effort air while out of the water, and affect where you will splash down somewhat, likely enough to evade big fish near the surface. I’ll have to play with it and see. Sometimes this experimentation ends up being fruitless, other times I can figure out something useful and understand the tool or the model better than I did. Usually the experimentation is time consuming. But generally, it’s worthwhile.

Any time I run into a design crossroads like this, I think the solution is easy: it’s like Yogi Berra said: “When you hit a fork in the road, take it.” Keep all interesting variants, and make them configurable options. Play through the different options and keep them for as long as they make for interesting play. Some options may make it into the final game as official options, some may be used as hidden easter eggs, others may end up disabled. But keeping the options around as long as possible makes for a more agile course through the development process.

Success!

It’s time for a catch-up for my neglected blog…

What I’ve been up to lately: The Computer Game and Simulation Design class wrapped up this week, and I both did extremely well in it and enjoyed the class very much. I ended up carrying a 101.5% average in the course.

I pwnd CGSD120!

My grade for CGSD 120

Since I now have some spare time with the class out of the way, I’ve started my first independent project. I’m not really ready to talk about it in depth just yet, but in the next few weeks or so I hope to get it to a playable alpha state, and then it will be made available over on the releases page.

Games: 5 Colors Pandora looks cool

I love graphical minimalism, and this game by Jordan Magnuson takes it pretty close to as minimal as you can get. The graphics are so low res, and only use about four shades of grey for the most part, yet you can tell exactly what stuff is supposed to be, because the shapes and animation suggest and the brain fills in the rest. Caves, buildings, cars, doors, are all readily apparent.

“You” are just a 3-px line, yet it’s enough to convey “person”. Foreground/background objects are conveyed through how dark/light its color is. I have little idea what’s going on plot-wise, yet, but it looks like you go around exploring a world trying to figure out puzzles to take you deeper into the world. Musical cues seem to communicate something about what’s going on, but that’s all I can make of it so far. Stylistically, I really like it.

It reminds a bit of Terry Cavanaugh’s Don’t Look Back because of the low-res graphics + atmospheric and evocative background music. The gameplay is a bit simple and could use a little more elements to this basic formula, maybe, but I’m not sure what just yet. Mostly you explore these large, empty areas and it seems like there should be more things populating these spaces in order to make them more interesting. You get a good sense of travel and exploration, and figuring out how to navigate and get around obstacles is an interesting puzzle that will take some time to figure out, but once you get past that, there’s not much more to engage the player. Items to collect and use, creatures or other people to encounter would make it more interesting. I could see it being developed into a deeper game with a story, maybe. Certain aspects of the game remind me of so many different titles that I like — everything from Pong, Adventure, Zelda II, Mario, Don’t Look Back.

Built with GameMaker, the developer is even distributing the source for it, which is very awesome. I might have to tinker with this a bit…

Get it here

msnbc.com: “show more text” links == still less elegant than scrolling

Recently, I noticed that msnbc.com changed from having paged articles to a single-page format. The way theirs works, when you get down to the bottom of where they would used to put a link to Page 2, they now have the text fade into the background, and there’s this link that says “Show more text”, and if you click it, it reveals more of the article, and you can continue scrolling down.

msnbc.com's 'show more text' link

A screen capture of msnbc.com's "show more text" link - click to enlarge

I’ve been mulling it over for a few days now, and have come to a conclusion:

I have no idea at all what purpose this change serves.

Paging is an annoyance on most web sites. Browser windows have scroll bars, and it’s usually (almost always) better to simply scroll rather than break to a second page. Web sites often do paging, though, because it gives them the opportunity to display additional advertisements. Some designers will also claim that long scrolling windows are a problem for some readers, who either get intimidated by the length of the document, or are prone to getting “lost” in a sea of unbroken text. And some will say that an overly-long page just messes with the aesthetics of the site’s layout.

This “solution” that msnbc.com is trying offends me, both as a web designer and as a user.

First, and most importantly, as a user:

While I like this better than having to click through paging links, it’s silly to have to click a link to show more text on the same page. When I call up to a web server to request a web page, I want to get the entire thing on page load, and not have to be bothered with interacting with the page in order to make the whole article visible. I want this because it makes it quite easy for me to File->Save As… or File->Print and get the whole thing. Also, should I lose connectivity to the internet, or the server goes down, I don’t worry too much, because I already got the entire article. Lastly, I don’t have to interrupt my train of thought to click a link and wait for more article to be revealed; I can just scroll as I need to, and read the entire window’s worth of content without breaking the stream of the author’s prose. As a user, this is what is important to me.

As a designer:

Scrolling windows is a fine convention, and has been around for about as long as computers have had screens, and itself is based on a technology (the scroll) that goes back millennia. Scrolling isn’t broken. Ergo, it doesn’t need a fix.

What did need a fix was paging. When web sites started to generate revenue from advertising, it became a no-brainer from a business perspective to break up articles into many pages because more pages == more ad impressions == more revenue. But this was always a disservice to the user. Everyone knows it, and if a site abuses it too much and splits up an article into 20 pages of just a paragraph or two per page, people complain about it. Very large hypertextual documents may make sense to page, but the divisions should be sections or chapters, not simply a way to break up an article because it hit a certain word count.

What it seems like to me is that the designers who are working on msnbc.com grew tired of the convention of paging, and wanted to try something else. Probably someone in the design department was still fighting for paging, and used a justification that articles that are “too long” need to be “broken up” somehow in order for them to be “digestible” for today’s ADHD reading audiences. The limited height of the screen already does this, but never mind that. Back in the day, there were wars fought over scrolling vs. paging back in the mid-90’s, and people on either side became emotionally entrenched in their way of looking at how to deal with a lot of text on a page, and since paging largely won that war, politically there’s no way to go back to pure, simple scrolling. But they wanted to do something different, so they brought in this AJAX-y “click to show more text” link at the midpoint of the article. Basically, they’ve conceded that scrolling was better all along, but someone obstinately held on to the idea that not “breaking up” a long article hurts usability. So the “show more text” link is a compromise between the paging camp and the scrolling camp. But it is a no-win compromise, which doesn’t gain anything for the user, and doesn’t do anything for the ad revenue, either.

I think that “show more” links do have a place, but the main content of a page is not it. “Show more” works well on RSS feeds, for example — where there are many articles and no single one is the primary focus for the page. YouTube video description text is another good use of the “show more” link — the video description needs to fit in a small area, and the description is not the main focus for the page — the video is. But the description may be lengthy, and show more/hide works well in that kind of situation.