Category: product reviews

Game Review: Cathedral by Decemberborn Interactive

Cathedral is a nostalgia-driven homage to the action-adventure platform games of the NES. If you enjoyed Capcom platformers like DuckTales, or Ghosts N Goblins, or Wizards and Warriors (by Acclaim), this is one to check out.

It looks and sounds like a NES game, but with a little extra — bigger sprites, fewer palette limitations. And the game play is pretty polished, and works with either keyboard or modern gamepad, although I definitely recommend the gamepad option. The map system, menus, and character dialogs and story scenes are all a few notches above a typical NES game, while still retaining a distinctly NES inspired flavor.

Cathedral’s opening few minutes

I would rate the difficulty as medium-hard, most of the challenges do not require extreme skill to overcome, but you start out with very low health, and stuff that hurts you tends to do a lot of damage, so there’s not much room for error. But it’s certainly not Ghosts N Goblins hard. The one boss fight I’ve encountered so far wasn’t too bad, and I enjoyed beating it.

I’ve been struggling through it, unable to figure out how to get past various roadblocks, to get anywhere to do anything. This is a bit frustrating, and I wish that there was an issue of Nintendo Power magazine laying on my desk that could tell me what to do.

It feels like I’m missing an item or ability that will enable me to clear these obstacles, and I have no idea where I need to go to get them. There’s a lot to explore, and a lot of missions. I’ve barely scratched the surface of it so far.

If I could fault the game for anything, it’s for not being clear enough in what to do. Visually, there are subtle indicators of what is a solid wall and what isn’t, what’s a destructible object and what isn’t, or what is a platform you can stand on and what isn’t. The visual language isn’t always as clear as I would like it to be, which leads me to feel uncertain at times. The game does have some nice in-game hinting/tutorial moments, which helps, but I feel aspects are still a bit too ambiguous.

So far, I’ve managed to exit the Cathedral, where you start out, and explore the town that you encounter next, and then everywhere else I go is an apparent dead end. There’s a graveyard, which I managed to explore a bit, a scary woods, which I can’t make any headway with, a sewer, same deal, and a library with a key that I can’t figure out how to reach. I can’t figure out how to go back to the cathedral, or if I’m supposed to.

There’s some other annoying things about the menu system, like, half the time I can not figure out how to get to the menu area that lets me exit the game. I’ve discovered it on accident 2 or 3 times, and I still can’t figure out how to get there. I finally figured it out. It’s accessed through the inventory screen, as one of the icons that you can select from your inventory. This is a pretty strange way to hide the exit menu.

So far, I like this game pretty well, and am enjoying its puzzles and missions, although I’m not sure how to proceed, and I wish some of the options available to me were a bit more obvious.

Untitled Goose Game is pretty good

Every year, there’s always one or two indie hits that get a huge amount of attention, and this year it seems to be Untitled Goose Game.

I’ve been hearing a lot about it since its release, but prior to a few weeks ago I hadn’t heard about it at all. My first clue was when I posted that I was excited about picking up my pre-order of Link’s Awakening remake on Nintendo Switch, and one of my friends mentioned that UGG was also being released the same day.

I looked into it, and it did look darn charming.

Yesterday, I finally caved and bought the PC version and played through the first couple of scenes for a few hours.

If you needed someone to explain UGG to you, I would probably start out by saying “You know how a couple of years ago there was that Goat Simulator game that everyone was talking about and it was hilarous, because goats? Well, what’s another animal that starts with G-O?”

There you go.

But Goat Simulator and Untitled Goose are pretty different. Goat Simulator revelled in being sloppily implemented and having terrible, broken, hilarious physics. Untitled Goose, by contrast, is refined and polished. The art style of Goat Simulator recalls older 3D FPS games like Grand Theft Auto 3 or Counter-Strike. Untitled Goose has a more distinctive and original art design that looks illustrated, a bit like a children’s book, if it were drawn with scalable vector graphics and used 3D models. UGG’s physics are anything but broken, and feel like the developers were going for a more realistic simulation. The animations and the sound effects are especially well done, and I love that when you honk, you can get different audio effects by honking into, say, the well, or while holding a bottle in your beak, or into a walkie-talkie. It’s delightful when you figure out how to make use of it to accomplish some objective in the game.

The humor is likewise restrained, and feels a bit British, as do some of the cues in the design of the village. The reactions of the humans that you mess about with and the musical score are what sells the mischief. I haven’t hit an absolutely over-the-top moment in the game, yet, and I’m not sure that there is one waiting for me. I would like to be able to escalate my torment of the people in the village until they have a complete breakdown and go on a violent psychopathic rage. But this never happens. It seems like you can trigger a response by doing certain things, and that’s that. Once you’ve done it, you can do it again, but it never seems to go beyond that. Which is not to say that I’m disappointed, but something about playing this game makes me wish that I could push these poor people to their breaking point.

Gardner locked out of garden, looking at Goose who's nabbed his keys.
Getting to this point with the gardener was rather satisfying. Yes, I took a picture of my computer screen with my cell phone instead of taking a screenshot.

About two hours in to my session, I started feeling sorry for being such a naughty, horrible goose, and I started trying to make up for it. I went back to the gardner’s area and helped him pick all of his carrots. He didn’t like it at first, but once I put them neatly into the bin, he didn’t seem to mind, and just let me do it. But there wasn’t any reward for doing this, other than just the act of doing it. I kindof feel like the designers missed an opportunity there. Like, maybe if you torment the boy in the shopping area until he starts sobbing, you could do something nice for him, like bring him a lollipop that you steal from the shop, or bring his glasses or his toy plane back to him, and he’ll cheer up again, and not be afraid of you, and then you can be friends. House House, if you’re going to do an expansion pack, I kinda demand that you do a Good Goose mission set, where you get to make up for your past mischief by returning and do some good deeds to make amends.

I also wish that I could hop onto things, and fly. I can well understand why this was not permitted. Waddling is way more humorous and flight would be difficult to control. But I still would like to be able to hop up on certain things, like the park bench, or tables. I imagine it’d be quite a lot of fun to waddle along the shelves and countertops in the shop, knocking things over, breaking them, and causing a mess and a ruckus.

I’m not sure how large the game is; so far, I’ve managed to solve the puzzles on the To Do list in the first two areas, and I can see that there’s at least one more area beyond, but I haven’t quite figured out what I need to do to gain access to it. And there’s a page on my To Do list that is all question marks, which leaves me wondering what I need to do next.

To be honest, I’m a bit torn by the existence of the To Do list. On the one hand, it’s helpful to have some kind of guidance as to what I’m supposed to be doing. On the other hand, I think a huge amount of the enjoyment from a game like this is figuring out what is possible, and discovering the things that the developers put into the game for you to do all on your own, without any guidance. To me, it would be far more special to figure these things out on my own, even risking missing something very clever, or not discovering after many hours spent with the game, than to have a list telling me to do all the things, and then the only challenge left is for me to actually do it.

Shoplifting haul.
It took quite a while to figure out how to get all the items from the shop into the cart to complete the Shopping Trip mission. The shopkeeper kept finding them and putting them back, so I just stole the basket and dragged it around the corner. Out of sight, out of mind! And then of course I had to loot the entire store! It’s fun that the lady is more frustrated when she can’t find the broom to shoo you away with because you’ve stolen it. Lol!

There’s probably a lot of things that I have yet to figure out in the game. Which is to say that although I’m trying to resist the temptation to look for walkthroughs, I could maybe use a bit of a clue with some things.

For instance, I found a coin somewhere in the village, and picked it up. I later walked past a well, and of course I tried throwing the coin down the well. It took a few tries, but eventually I managed to drop it. I didn’t hear any splash, which made me wonder why that didn’t happen, but then I walked a bit further own the path, and came to the river that you have to cross to get out of the introductory area of the game, and saw the coin floating down the river! I deduced that the well actually connects to a sewer drain that I had discovered earlier when I was swimming up and down the river. And yes, if you honk into the well, or into the sewer, they both echo in the same way, which was a subtle clue to this connection. I love details like that. But it makes me wonder all the more why there was no splash for the dropped coin, and why “Dropping a coin and making a wish” wasn’t one of the To Do items.

For another, at the very start of the game, there’s a whole bunch of bells strewn about on the ground in an area that you can’t quite get into. I have no idea what their significance is, or why they’re there. The game’s camera seems to direct its focus to them, so they must be important for something or other, but I can’t figure it out.

What is up with the bells?
What’s up with the bells?

Overall, it’s a delightful, relaxing, humorous, fun puzzle/stealth game that’s not very like anything else I’ve played, and it’s worth the $20 they are asking for it.

Recommended.

Book Review: Arcade Perfect by David L. Craddock

An interesting thing happened to me few months ago.  

I was reading Shovel Knight, by David L. Craddock, published by Boss Fight Books, and thoroughly enjoying the ride, when I received an email from none other than… David L. Craddock. Craddock had found my contact info through this website, and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in reading a pre-release copy of his latest book, Arcade Perfect, and publishing a review on it.

I thought that the name sounded familiar, so I looked him up, and found that he’d written the book that was in my left hand, as I read the email on the smartphone in my right hand.  I wrote back, asking him if he was indeed one and the same.  He was.  I felt oddly watched.

Shovel Knight was a fantastic read, a detailed history of Yacht Club Games’s origins and how they came to create one of the best videogames of 2014. It was well paced, thorough,, interesting, and covered the human side of the story as well as the technical.

Of course I said yes.

I also offered to provide feedback on the manuscript, as I have helped several other authors in the past with technical review of their manuscripts. Craddock appreciated my offer and offered me an acknowledgement in his Foreward. I say this not as a brag, but for transparency’s sake, to say that this may not be a review completely free of bias, although I’ll strive for that anyway.

Arcade Perfect is a collection of histories on over a dozen popular arcade games, and the story of how they were ported to home consoles. If you’ve read Racing The Beam, or The Ultimate History of Video Games, this book will be of interest to you.

The book is long. At nearly 600 pages, it will take you a while to get through. It spans almost the entire the breadth of video gaming history, starting with Pong and going through about 2015-17. Golden age titles Pong, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac Man, Missile Command, and Donkey Kong are all given treatment, as is Tetris, and the 90’s are represented by the games NBA Jam, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Each of these games has an interesting back story of how it came to exist, and how it was brought from the arcade to home consoles. The challenges the developers faced are many. Most if not all of these games were ported to other platforms not by the original developers, but by another talented programmer or team. Oftentimes, no original project documentation was provided to the porting effort, and developers had to “interpret” the game by playing it until they knew it backwards and forwards, reverse engineering to the best of their ability, and working within the constraints of the target platform’s hardware, dealing with hard deadlines and high expectations to deliver an acceptable translation of a very popular title eagerly anticipated by a rabid consumer fanbase.

The last 150 or so pages of the book are devoted to full transcripts of the interviews that Craddock conducted with various creators who worked on the games. This is primary resource material and very nice to have in its entirety.

The book is illustrated, although in the advance copy I saw, the image layouts were still rough. I would hope that these issues will be addressed before the first edition of the book goes to print.

Arcade Perfect is available today. Follow the author on Twitter @davidlcraddok.

Diatris by Rob van Saaze

Diatris is a Tetris-like falling stack game by Rob van Saaze. Released earlier this year and developed in GameMaker Studio.

I had the good fortune of catching a work-in-progress screenshot tweet, and messaged Rob, and ended up being a playtester for his game.

I like the interesting twist he put on the classic Tetris. This game is really different from its inspiration. The shapes are different, the falling pieces slide down the slopes of the stack, and the angle factor really changes the way the game feels. It’s quite challenging, and fun.

The graphical style is clean and polished, but juicy, and it looks as great as it plays. Rob has a great eye for graphical design, and it shows in his work. The attention to detail in animation and motion is

Best of all, it’s completely free.

Commodore 64 re-issue?

There have been a few retro/homage products released in recent years for the Commodore 64, famous to many for being the best selling personal computer of all time.  Jeri Ellsworth’s C-64 Direct to TV project from 2004 being one of the first, if not the first, and last year’s C=64 Mini.  It was a cool little system-in-a-stick that could plug directly into a TV set and play a selection of built-in games that could be played with the joystick, but lacked the keyboard and floppy drive, making it a limited re-creation of the original at best. 

A “C=64 Mini” that came a couple years ago was kindof a disappointment; it had a collection of built-in games, but not a working keyboard, or interface for installing/running other titles. I guess if you really wanted to, you could hack them, but that was well beyond what someone with a casual interest of re-living the C64 with their favorite games and programs would be likely willing to pursue.

A new TheC64 Mini project has been announced which will be full-size and include a working keyboard, and HDMI output, which should ship in December 2019.  I don’t have details on the internals, so whether it will be some kind of C64 SOAC or a FPGA-based system, or what, is anybody’s guess for now. 

It will come with an improved joystick as well, and apparently will have USB ports, which means it may be possible to run software beyond the 64 built-in games that it will come bundled with, but that’s not clear at this time whether it will actually have any such capability.  It would be ideal if you could mount a microSD card with disk images of games that came on floppy, or ROM files for cartridge-based games, and play them on this new system. Due to copyright, it’s unreasonable to expect every software title ever released for the system to be included out-of-the-box, but wouldn’t it be nice if copyright were reformed to allow obsolete software that is no longer marketed to be distributed freely so that this could be possible?

The C64 had a fantastic library of software, and has been a demoscene favorite for decades, and it would be amazing to see a modern, fully featured re-issue. I don’t think that this will quite be that, but it may be the closest thing we get for the forseeable future.

Ulefone Armor 3 impressions

I bought a new phone last month, for the first time in about 4 years. After doing some research, I found the Ulefone Armor 3 had the closest to the features I wanted: ruggedness and a big battery.

I ordered mine from Deal Extreme on March 14, but it wasn’t delivered until April 16. I understand shipping from Asia can take time, but the product page said “7-10 days”. I wrote to the seller after 12 days, and they didn’t respond until I had sent several emails, finally explaining in broken English that they were waiting on restock. When I ordered their inventory said close to 40,000 units, which clearly wasn’t the case. It wasn’t until after the first week of April that I finally received notification that my order shipped.

Fortunately, it arrived undamaged. If you’re in a hurry and don’t mind paying a lot more, you can get them from Amazon sellers for $400 in less than a week, but I paid just $272 for mine, which is a great value for the price. The Armor 3 can be had for as little as $230, but I opted for 3T,which has a push-to-talk walkie talkie feature that the Armor 3 lacks.

Ulefone is not well known in the United States. From what I have read, they are a Chinese maker. The Armor series are rugged designs rated for IP67, IP68, and can withstand drops, water immersion, and don’t need a protective case to achieve it. Ulefone also has a line called Power, which has bigger batteries than most phones. The Armor 3 has both ruggedness and a big battery, which is what I was looking for.

I’ve had mine just 3 days, and I like it overall, but there are a few shortcomings. The biggest problem is that the screen is not very bright, and in direct sunlight is impossible to read.

No pedometer. Most phones these days have them, but not this model. Which, is a shame considering the “rugged outdoors” theme of this model.
No qi charging. USB charging only. Wireless charging would be a nice feature, as it would reduce wear and tear to the USB C port.
Access to SD/SIM slots requires a tool, which they provide, but carrying a tiny screwdriver around just in case isn’t the most convenient, and the tiny screws are tiny.
This thing has the loudest external speakers of any phone I’ve ever used, and speakers isn’t a mistake. It has stereo. But on speaker phone, the minimum volume is still too loud for quiet indoor use. But should be fine on an oil derrick or construction site.

The good outweighs the bad. The phone runs Android 8.1 out of the box, and it has an 8 core CPU backed by 4GB RAM and 64GB internal storage, plus the optional SD card, which should be plenty of space. The performance specs are mid-tier, but I find them to be more than adequate. Battery life is excellent, and what you would expect from a 10300 mah battery. On low power mode, it is especially good, and I don’t notice any performance reasons to recommend not using low power mode.

I haven’t had too many calls with it yet, but call quality might be an issue. Whether this is a carrier/network problem or a VOWIFI problem, I’m not sure yet. But in the two calls I’ve had, there were stutters and drops, as well as some squawks and beeps. I haven’t yet found the setting to disable VOWIFI, but I suspect this could help.

I did do my research and confirmed that the global version of the phone supported the bands that T-mobile use in the USA. Most of the handsets that Ulefone offers sadly do not.

I was worried that the phone would be too big for easy one hand use, and too big to pocket. It is pretty close to the limit for what I can handle one-handed, and my hands are fairly large. But it fits my pocket ok, though it is a bit long. Over all, I can live with it.

Hopefully Ulefone will be able to establish itself in the North American market. It’s models are very attractive, and offer something different from most other makers. These big battery phones are great, and just what I want in a phone, and there’s not much out there currently that can match it.

Cell phone shopping in 2019

My current phone is a Samsung Galaxy S5, purchased in 2015. I have gotten a lot of value out of the phone. Four years is a lot of time, but I think this year will be its last, for a number of reasons:

  • Screen life. For about the last year, when the screen goes to dim, it flickers. This makes the screen difficult to use with auto-brightness turned on. Also, I don’t think the max brightness is as high as it once was.
  • RAM and Storage.
    • The phone has 2GB of RAM. I find that the phone becomes very sluggish when RAM utilization exceeds 80%. I’ve taken to running a memory optimization app as needed, which when I’m actively using the phone can be as frequently as every few minutes. This has gotten to become a pain.
    • I have 16GB of internal memory, and a 32GB SD card. Android prefers to install apps and write files to the internal memory, ignoring the nice big empty space on the SD card. But when the internal memory is filled, performance is terrible. Not only can I not install updates, but the internal storage seems to be used for cache files and so on, and when there’s not enough space for the system and apps to cache data, performance becomes terrible.
  • Android updates. My carrier stopped releasing updates about 2 years ago, and I’m still on Android 6.0, which is 3 major releases behind current.

If it wasn’t for the performance issues related to RAM and cache inadequacy, this would still be a very capable phone, and I could maybe live with the screen until it finally died.

The absolute best thing about the Galaxy S5 has been the fact that it has a removable battery, and the aftermarket released some very good extended batteries. Powered by an Anker 7500mah battery, I’ve never had to worry about running out of juice, even when I’ve spent the whole day on the go, without access to a charging break. More than twice the capacity of the stock battery, it made the phone about 3/4″ of an inch thick and weigh almost a pound, but it was without question worth the added bulk.

So what do I want in a new smartphone? It doesn’t seem that the US market understands me. Here’s what’s important to me:

Pocketable

If I can’t fit it in a pants pocket — without it looking like I’m happy to see you — I don’t want it. But phones are still growing bigger and bigger. Now 6 inch screens seem to be the norm. It’s hard to use the phone with one hand when it’s so big. The Galaxy S5 is close to the maximum size that I would want to consider, and nearly everything in the 2019 market is larger.

Direct OS updates from Google

Carriers do not prioritize software updates, and tend to roll them out lagging their actual release by many months, sometimes as much as a year, and that’s if they bother to release the update at all. This is terrible.

Running out of date versions of Android can leave you vulnerable through security holes that have been patched in newer versions, and leave you out unable to install and run apps that require a higher version than is available on your handset.

Google has made a few Android handsets over the years — the Nexus line, the Pixel series, that they release updates for directly. Why can’t the rest of the world get behind that? Well, if they supported the product, then you’d be able to continue using it, and you wouldn’t have to buy the new product every 1-2 years.

Bare Android OS; No bundled apps

Carriers like to customize their phone as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition, and one of the ways they do so is by bundling apps. Unfortunately, much like with Windows 95 computers sold by OEMs, I have no interest in using many of these apps. It’s stupid to waste space on the internal memory by including these apps that I have no use for, and because they are baked into the system, they can’t be removed to free up the space.

Just provide the core operating system and the bare minimum apps needed to function as a phone: a phone app, a SMS app, a Contacts app, and the Play Store app. Let me decide what else I need to install.

If you really must bundle, then maybe offer a “Carrier Bundle” app manifest that you can use to bulk-install all the recommended default apps from the Play Store. Allow users to customize the bundle, giving us a line-item veto to opt out of installing whatever parts of the bundle we don’t want.

Big, big removable battery

My first Samsung Galaxy, the S2, was an OK phone until the battery wore out and wouldn’t hold a charge anymore. I spent a year with battery anxiety. Off charger, the battery charge dropped about 1%/minute, and so I basically spent a year walking from power outlet to power outlet, umbilical to the wall and unable to go out for more than 2-3 hours without freaking out over my dying battery. I didn’t realize at the time that the battery was bad and needed to be replaced, I just thought that the phone had some app that was power hungry and that no matter what I tried to do I couldn’t figure out how to make the phone sleep and save battery.

This taught me just how important battery life is, and when I bought the S5, I immediately went out and found the biggest battery I could for it.

But most phones these days have non-removable batteries in them, meaning that when they wear out, you either have to take the phone somewhere to be repaired with a replacement battery, or you have to buy a whole new phone.

A Li-ion battery will probably be good for 2, maybe 3 years of daily charge cycling, and if the handset is built as ruggedly as I’d like, it should be able to last longer than that. A removable battery makes this simple as buying a new battery and replacing it.

Durable

I want a phone that I can drop onto concrete and immerse in water without fear of damaging it. Usually this is solved by buying a ruggedized case for it, and this is fine, but it does add to the bulk of the phone. So why have two cases — a slim case that the phone is built inside of, and a rugged outer case? Why not just have one rugged case? The space saved by not having an inner casing could be given over to more battery, or cut down on the overall size of the device.

There are a lot of models on the market these days that are water resistant and durable enough not to take damage when dropped, especially when you factor in the afermarket armor. I don’t have a problem finding phones that meet my needs in this area, but this is probably the only area where I don’t see a lot of room for improvment needed.

Performance

I need to explain myself. I do not need blazing fast, cutting edge processor. My Galaxy S5 is a 4 year old design and when it’s not hampered by cache and memory limits, it’s absolutely fine. But the amount of system maintenance that I need to do on a daily basis anymore has gotten ridiculous. Freshly wiped, this is still a fast phone, and that’s enough for me. So Android should build into itself features that keep a healthy amount of free memory and cache storage at all times. I don’t know why this is such a problem, or why it’s gotten worse as time has gone by. During the first year or so that I had the phone, I never had such problems. About every year since then, I’ve eventually had to wipe it and start over, and am shocked at how fast the phone really is. After my last wipe, though, I didn’t want to spend an evening doing this every time the phone started feeling slow, and it felt slow within a week of my last wipe. So I started looking into performance optimization apps, and have been limping along with the help of those. But Android really needs to get its act together and handle its own maintenance and performance optimization, better than it does. Like, at all.

“Features”

Every other neat thing a smartphone does, is, I guess, nice, but I don’t care that much about it for it to sell me on a must-have device. I guess I’m in the minority here. I don’t need to be impressed by magic. I mostly am impressed by stuff that works well, and simply.

A decent camera is of course very handy, but it doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. A GPS radio that works well and doesn’t lose signal when I actually need it would be great.

I dunno, what else is there? Stuff like fingerprint readers, heartrate monitors, and so on, I don’t really use, or care about.

AdapDesk kickstarter melts down

Last April, I backed a kickstarter for AdapDesk, a portable lap desk ideal for use with a laptop computer in bed or seated in a chair without a table. It was pricey, at $125, but looked like it was so well designed that it would be worth the money to have a quality lap desk.

AdapDesk

The kickstarter was successfully funded and my payment went through on May 13. The fundraising part of the kickstarter was very successful, raising several hundred thousand dollars against an original goal of $15,000. A short while later, I was sent a survey asking if I would like to order any extra accessories, and so I sent them another $26 for a cup holder and mouse pad attachment.

Delivery was originally supposed to happen, I believe, in September. This slipped to December, then to mid-January.

Two days ago, on 1/15/18, the AdapDesk team made an announcement. I was expecting to hear that they had shipped, or that they had to delay yet again. Instead, they announced that they have run out of money, and need more in order to complete their obligations to backers. Asking for $55 per desk ordered for air shipping to USA, this is 44% over the original cost (37% if you count the original shipping).

Overruns and lateness are very common with kickstarter projects. I don’t have statistics, but you hear about them enough to know that they happen. And certainly there is always greater risk when you back a project rather than purchase a product. I can tolerate lateness — better to have a product that is late but correct and good than to have something that has problems but is on time. And I have been fortunate enough not to be burned very often by kickstarters that fail to deliver entirely. Although, certainly, that’s part of the risk of backing a project.

This is a bit different situation. The project team want to complete their work and deliver, but they say they need more money to accomplish this. Giving them money is throwing good money after bad. There’s no way that they can guarantee that they will deliver with extra money — maybe they can, maybe not, but in spite of their assurances it’s not guaranteed.

Backers are upset about not getting their reward, and about being asked to kick in even more money to (maybe) get what they paid for. Understandably, and justifiably upset.

Some have been more understanding and are actually willing to put in the additional money. Others are upset, but still want their AdapDesk and will put the money in if they must. A few are disabled/bedridden and don’t have more money, but really needed their desk. But most of us are angry and want either our desk at no additional cost, or our money back.

Both are unlikely, if the AdapDesk team is out of money, they can’t complete the project and they have no money left to refund dissatisfied backers.

So there’s talk about legal obligations and criminalizing the project’s failure by calling it fraud.

Bad business isn’t necessarily fraud. Sometimes things don’t go well and a business fails, declares bankruptcy, and people don’t get what they’re owed. That’s life.

It’s interesting to see how different backers characterize their relationship to the project.

Some backers consider themselves investors. This is false. Backers do not own shares of the company, or of the project.

Most feel that they purchased a product. Even this is somewhat debatable. Backers were promised a reward for backing the project. In this case the “reward” is the product that is the purpose of the project to create. Thus, the “reward for backing the project” closely resembles pre-ordering a product before it is produced. Arguably, it is pre-ordering a product. But technically, backers contributed money to fund the project to produce products, and their reward for backing the project was to receive one of the produced products.

Whether AdapDesk failed to fulfill orders, or failed to reward backers of a project, the results are the same, and the AdapDesk team has failed.

When a project fails due to cost overruns or other reasons, backers lose out, much like investors in a failed business lose money on a bad investment. This is a risk of crowdfunding. The AdapDesk team has offered to complete the project if they receive additional funds, but there’s no way of telling for sure that they will be able to do so.

There’s probably not much recourse at this point for backers who are unwilling to contribute further funds and just want either their reward or their money back. Credit card charge disputes may be the only way to recover money, but whether those will succeed or not remains to be seen.

Update: AdapDesk’s page on Facebook has been taken down. AdapDesk also ran a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo, which has not updated its backers with information consistent with the messaging on Kickstarter, and people are beginning to ask questions. There’s a product listing on Amazon that looks like it has delivered, as there are reviews. Of course, reviews could be faked. Their web site appears to be just a rotating image gallery with a link to the kickstarter page. It’s hard to say still, but the inconsistent information between kickstarter and indigogo is suspicious. And the lack of information on their homepage, combined with their Facebook page being offline isn’t reassuring, either.

Update 2: As of 1/21, AdapDesk has updated its IndieGoGo campaign with the same information and ask of additional money from its backers. There is now a Facebook group for AdapDesk customers to connect with each other and talk about any developments arising out of this, including possible legal actions.

Update 3: Backers who paid the additional money to AdapDesk are starting to report that they have received their orders. In at least one case that I’m aware of, a backer only received a partial order: 1 out of 2 desks, and no storage bag. It’s good to see that AdapDesk are fulfilling orders, as there was a significant number of backers who feared that they would lose their money if they paid the additional amount. While it’s obviously an unfortunate disappointment that the project delays and overruns resulted in so many dissatisfied backers, at least we know now that the project wasn’t a scam.

Update 4: Today some kickstarter backers who did not pay the additional money to AdapDesk have reported receiving their desks! It remains to be seen whether everyone will get their desk; I have not yet received mine. I’m genuinely happy for anyone who receives their reward for backing the project, but I can only imagine how annoyed those who gave AdapDesk the additional money when asked must be feeling to see those who did not pay up getting theirs for the original pledge.

Update 5: On 2/20/2018, I received my AdapDesk backer reward. This was unexpected as I did not pay the additional funding that AdapDesk said they needed in order to complete the project. AdapDesk promised to deliver to all backers who paid them the additional money, but never said that they would deliver to backers who did not.

Obviously this was to incentivize the additional round of funding, because who would have paid more if they didn’t have to? But it was strongly implied that they couldn’t complete the project without the additional money they were asking for. I’m not aware how it is that they were able to ship my desk without me giving them the additional money, but I’m happy that I received what I was originally promised for the funds I contributed. Many backers are still waiting on theirs, including those who paid the additional money.

Reviewing the AdapDesk

Overall, I’m happy to have received something, and am not one to dwell on the poor communications and delays, although they did sour the experience.

I was expecting to receive an AdapDesk Standard, but received an AdapDesk Fully Foldable instead (it has a hinge in the center of the desktop that allows the desk to be folded small enough to fit into a backpack).

I didn’t need or want this, as I don’t plan on travelling with my desk, and wanted it for use around the house. The center hinge is locked into place by two rotating knobs. I was concerned that these knobs would bump into my legs when using the desk, but the desk is tall enough that this doesn’t seem to be an issue. However, the legs are not able to fold up when the knobs are in the locked position — they hit the knobs, preventing the legs from fully folding with the desktop locked open.

In use, the desk is well designed and functional. The biggest disadvantage is that the cup holder doesn’t have a bottom. It’s just a hole. If you use a cup with a wide mouth and a narrow enough base, it will sit in the hole and not fall through. If you use the desk on a surface like a floor or table, the cup can rest on that surface, and be held upright by the cup holder. But the cupholder would be a lot better if it had a bottom that could actually hold a container such as a soda can.

When breaking down the desk to put it away, you have to remove the accessory trays from their mounting points on the desk’s legs, and remove the plastic inserts for the slots on the desktop that are intended for holding pencils, pens, or small thin devices like a phone or calculator. You also have to remove the center lip that attaches to the desk to prevent things from rolling off it when it is angled. (I wish there was a better name for this, I’ll have to refer to the instruction guide later and see what it’s called.) So folding it up to put away takes a lot of steps and you can’t simply fold up the legs and leave the rest of it as-is. It would be a lot nicer if you could do this.

Since I had given up on receiving my desk, I had also gone out a couple weeks prior and bought a different desk, which I think is nearly as nice. It only cost around $40. it’s not perfect, either, but if I had to compare it to AdapDesk at $125, it’s certainly a better value, and of equal quality.

 

How are my kickstarters doing?

I thought it was about time I took a look back at the various kickstarter projects I’ve backed, and see how they’re doing. Over the last few years, I’ve heard so many negative stories about failed crowdfunding projects, tales of fraud and angry and disappointed backers, that I’d come to feel somewhat negatively about crowdfunding. But really, I think the projects I’ve chosen to back have done pretty well. Not all of them have been successes, but the rate of failure is less than my emotional “feel” for the rate of failure lead me to believe. And of the successful projects, quite a number of them have ongoing life beyond shipping the backer rewards. I feel good about this.

Here then is a list of every Kickstarter I’ve backed, and what happened with it.

Chip Maestero – An NES MIDI Synthesizer Cartridge – Delivered

This was the first project I ever backed on Kickstarter. It took much longer than expected to deliver. I was not surprised by this, and it didn’t bother me. I just waited patiently, and the developer came through. It’s really cool to have MIDI output capability to enable using the NES as a musical instrument.

The Jason Scott Documentary Three Pack – Still in process

This is the oldest kickstarter that I’m still waiting on, but it’s hardly surprising. Producing a documentary film takes a lot of time. Jason Scott works very hard on many different projects. Last I heard, he had to drop the Tape documentary for lack of content, but was working on editing as of last June. Since then, Jason has had a heart attack, and is currently producing a weekly podcast in an effort to pay down some financial debt, which I am a backer of. I’m confident the documentaries will be finished and released. From my experience, Jason is very scrupulous and hard working, and wants to release a first-rate effort, so I’m being patient and looking forward to viewing them when they are ready.

Code Hero: A Game that Teaches You To Make Games – Failed

This project ran out of money and went bust. Oh well. $13.37 well spent anyway.

Spriter – Delivered

I backed Spriter hoping that it would reach its stretch goal to fund development of GameMaker integration. GameMaker ended up using a similar technology, called Spine, for sprite rigging. To date, I still haven’t explored this feature, because my projects tend to be smaller and simpler than call for using Spine or Spriter, and I tend to focus more on programming than on graphic assets. I am not sure whether it has or not, because I haven’t used Spriter. But I’m glad it exists, and I’m glad that I funded it. Even after the Kickstarter project was delivered complete, it is still being developed.

Light Table – Delivered

Light Table was a fantastic idea for an IDE: Give the programmer immediate results, shrinking the feedback loop to zero, enabling instant iteration, and a more intuitive experience for programming stuff. I love the idea of seeing your code instantly interpreted and running, and not having to compile and wait. Light Table was completed, released, and is still being developed and supported.

Atari 2600 Star Castle – Delivered

This project was executed particularly well, and my copy of Star Castle was delivered within a reasonable amount of time. I don’t think it was strictly speaking on time, but it wasn’t long overdue, either, and the project communicated status updates in a timely fashion that helped to manage expectations.

Beautiful Vim Cheat-Sheet Poster – Delivered

Max is a friend of mine, and his little project exceeded his goal considerably. He did a nice job on the poster, and I really like it.

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games – Delivered

Anita Sarkeesian has been a major influencer since launching this kickstarter. The reaction against her project is infamous, and has helped to drive home the point that her work is very much needed. I’m proud to have contributed. Her video series Tropes vs Women in Videogames took a long time to produce, but was very well done. It’s aim to bring her Tropes vs. Women series examining various anti-women tropes in popular culture (movies, tv, etc.) to videogames was and still is much needed.

OUYA: A New Kind of Video Game Console – Delivered

The OUYA is now a dead system, but the project was a success. I received my OUYA and played with it. It was a tv-connected Android-based console, about the size of a baseball, and could play a lot of games. A lot of people used their OUYA as an emulator box, but there were a few good titles developed specifically for it, most notably Towerfall. The thing is, it was under-powered compared to everything else out there, most games are developed and launched for any and all consoles their developers can reach, so there was no exclusive “killer app” content that could compel gamers to buy one, and a lot of people who did complained about the OUYA’s gamepads for feeling cheaply built, and groused about every little thing, the way gamers do. I’m sad it didn’t survive in the market. I really liked the idea of an open console that is friendly to indie developers. Unfortunately the business model wasn’t successful, and the market didn’t appreciate it at all. I consider it a success, despite the fact that it couldn’t survive in today’s market, merely making it to market was an incredible accomplishment.

NeuroDreamer sleep mask – Delivered

My reward was shipped and received quickly. I didn’t pre-order the NeuroDreamer mask, but got a copy of Mitch Altman’s trip glasses, which I’ve used a few times. They work by using flashing LED lights and audio tones to induce an altered brain state, akin to meditation, or perhaps as a meditation aid.

SPORTSFRIENDS featuring Johann Sebastian Joust – Delivered

This project took a very long time to deliver, but I did finally get a copy of my Sportsfriends games. The one I most liked, BaraBariBall, was fantastic. I haven’t played the others.

Aaron Swartz Documentary – The Internet’s Own Boy – Delivered

This documentary is fantastic, and I’m proud to have backed it and to have my name in the credits as a backer. Well worth every penny and then some.

Project Maiden – a Zeldalike in Reverse – Delivered

I only backed $1 so didn’t get any reward, but I understand this project was finally delivered, taking quite a long time longer than expected. With creative projects like video games and movies, I am pretty lenient on release dates. I get that doing it right takes time and should not be rushed. I have never actually played this game though, so I have no comment on how good it is.

imitone: Mind to Melody – Delivered

Soon after making goal, I received a license key and access to the software beta. It works, and has been updated frequently. I haven’t used it recently, but it is neat software and still being developed.

The Stupendous Splendiferous ButterUp – Delivered

This shows how serious I am about bagels, I spent I don’t want to remember how much money on some butter knives that were supposed to make spreading cold butter on toast easier. In practice, I find that they don’t work, and were basically a waste of money. They are well made, but the design just doesn’t work well. Cold butter does not press through the holes the way it shows it working in their video. Live and learn.

Beep: A Documentary History of Video Game Music and Sound – Delivered

I received a DVD copy of the documentary, watched it, and enjoyed it. I thought it was well done.

GameMaker Language: An In-Depth Guide – Delivered

I got a copy of Heartbeast’s book. The project was completed within a reasonable amount of time, and he did a great job with it. He also produces tutorial videos on YouTube, and has branched into teaching online courses through udemy.

Joybubbles: The Documentary Film – MIA? In post-production?

I backed this at a level that got my name in the credits of the film. The documentary is currently in post-production, according to the website. However, the kickstarter page hasn’t been updated since 2015, so this one appears to be missing-in-action. I’ve written to the creator to ask what the status of the project is.

Insert Coin: Inside Midway’s ’90s Revolution – In progress

Latest update was posted mid-December, they are still working on the project and are targeting early 2018 for delivery.

AdapDesk: The World’s First Portable Work Station – Late, and at risk of failure

Expected for November, they are a few months late on this one, but were supposedly finally shipping this month.

I can appreciate that mass production isn’t easy. In November, they said that they intended to ship by late December, in December they announced a further delay would push delivery back to mid-January.

It’s January 15, and today they’ve posted a new update on the kickstarter to the effect that they are struggling and nearly out of money. Cost overruns have forced them to ask for more money in order to be able to ship the goods, to the tune of $55+ per customer, depending on where in the world they are. This represents a cost overrun of close to 150% over what they estimated for the project, and I don’t think I would have backed if I knew it was going to cost $55 more than the pitch. It was already a very pricey item at $125, but since it appeared to be very well designed and since it was something I can definitely get a lot of use out of, I thought it was worth it.

Since this is a developing matter as I type this, I’m not at all clear whether I’m going to get my AdapDesk, or a refund, or screwed, and who’s going to fund that additional $55.

In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that manufacturing small runs of a product is very risky and prone to delays and overruns, so backing kickstarter projects like this is obviously a gamble. If they had brought the AdapDesk to market in a more traditional way, and I could have bought one from a store once they were actually manufactured, I think I would have been happier.

Doing things the kickstarter way is more appropriate for raising funds for prototyping a new product, but maybe for experimental products the reward shouldn’t be the actual product — you don’t know whether the prototype will turn out to be any good, maybe it will be great but infeasible to mass produce at a price point you can predict at the pre-funded stage when you’re not even sure how many backers (and therefore orders) you’ll have, or maybe it will suck and not be something worth making more than one of. Maybe it should be something else: stock in the company that designed the product, a t-shirt or sticker that thanks you for your contribution to making the project possible, that sort of thing.

Using Kickstarter to try to create a product that doesn’t exist yet and take pre-orders for it, using the kickstarter “reward” as the means of delivering on an order doesn’t work out well. If you’re very experienced and good at design and manufacture and logistics, then sure, maybe you can do it. But if you’re good at all those things, then you probably didn’t need to use crowdfunding to begin with, and could have used traditional venture capital, business loans, credit, or what have you instead. And if you’re not experienced at those things, chances are good you’re not going to be able to get the credit, loans, or VC, and hey it turns out there’s a reason for that — investors are smart, and know not to throw money on an unproven risk undertaking by someone with not enough track record.

In commerce, getting what you paid for isn’t a “reward”, it’s expected.

Kickstarters often fail to deliver what is expected after successfully making their fundraising goal.

Kickstarters are a way to fund dreams that no one in their right mind would get behind as a business investment opportunity, and crowdfunding works because $20 or $50 isn’t all that much to some people. There are good ideas out there that can be funded by large numbers of people each with a tiny amount of disposable cash that they can just throw away. We understand, well most of us do, that we’re not buying success, we’re buying a chance at success, and that chance is less than 100%.

Since that’s the case, maybe the better way to thank backers is through rewards that aren’t predicated on the success of the project, but on the success of the fundraising. Kickstart a rocket to Mars. Make the reward be a “I backed the rocket to mars” sticker, not a ticket on the Mars rocket with a launch date printed on it.

AdapDesk is a great idea for a product. It turns out that bringing a product to market takes more than a good idea, some money, and a lot of work. It takes a good idea, some money, a lot of work, and then a lot more work, and then some more money. We’re at the point where they need that last bit of “some more money” and they’re out, and their customers are pissed. I hope I still get my AdapDesk, but I hope I don’t have to pay $55 to get it delivered on top of the money I already paid. I certainly won’t give them another penny, let alone $55, without an actual tracking number — and maybe not even then.

Make Professional 2D Games: Godot Engine Online Course – Delivered

I’ve watched some of the videos, and they are well done. I have yet to truly immerse myself in Godot engine, but I am very happy to support an open source 2D game engine of high quality.

Next Gen N64 Controller – In Process, Late

This project from RetroFighters should be shipping soon. Early word is that the controller is very good. Originally these were supposed to be delivered in late 2017, but a month or two delay is forgivable. For $20, a newly designed gamepad for the Nintendo 64 built to high quality standards is very impressive, if that is indeed what they deliver.

Full Quiet – A New Adventure Game for the NES & PC – In Process

Expected delivery date in late 2018, but we know how this goes… waiting and seeing.

NESmaker – Make NES Games. No coding required – Backed

Kickstarter is still in the funding stage. They’ve already hit their goal, so it will be interesting to see how far it goes and how many of their stretch goals they can reach.

GMS2 alternative skins

So it’s little over a year since YoYoGames released the public beta for GameMaker Studio 2.

For a lot of the past year, I’ve been sticking with GMS1.4 in order to work on a project that isn’t yet ready to migrate to GMS2, but I’m also trying to use GMS2 when I can, to keep up to date with it and to get used to the changes. Overall, GMS2 is definitely better, and from a language standpoint GML is only slightly different, and what differences they’ve made to the language are all improvements.

On the IDE side, though, I constantly find myself wishing that YYG had made a less radical redesign of the user interface. I’ve had a number of issues with the new UI, from the way the new workspaces and chain-view windows work to the fact that saving works differently. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. (I’ll probably touch on those in future articles at some point.)

GMS2 Dark theme

The default Dark theme for GMS2.

One of the things that I haven’t been able to get used to with GMS2’s new IDE is the new Dark theme. For years, GameMaker has opted for a default IDE theme that uses light text on a dark background, and with GMS2, YoYoGames took this concept to its logical extreme, opting for a black background and white-on-black icons and white label text everywhere.

GMS1 GMgreen theme

The default theme for GMS1, GMgreen, was likewise dark.

I didn’t mind the dark grey background of the window panes of GMS1.x, and the resource tree’s pane used black text on a white background, and the code editor’s dark grey background with colorful, syntax-highlighted text, and the toolbas with their colored icons. While it’s not the standard Windows theme colors, it’s usable and reasonably attractive, and if you’re the sort of person who prefers to look at light text on a dark background, it’s quite good.

And to be fair, GMS1’s IDE definitely had its failings. Certain windows were “modal“, meaning that you could not switch focus to any other part of the UI when that window is open, when there was no good reason for them to be. And the user interface for the marketplace My Library had terrible performance-killing bugs with large manifests, which makes it all but useless.

But with GMS2, I feel the Dark theme has gone overboard with being too dark, particularly with the toolbar button icons. Being white-on-black only just makes them harder to read and harder to distinguish from one another, and this slows me down when I try to use GMS2, and this is frustrating, since the whole point of the tool is to make me more productive.

There has also always been a light theme that YoYoGames provides “out of the box” with GameMaker, in case you’re the sort of person who prefers to look at dark text on a white background.

GMS2 light theme

The light theme for GMS2, appeals to users who prefer reading dark text on a light background, but I still prefer something with a bit more color and contrast, and sharper outlines so I can easily differentiate between different parts of the IDE UI.

There are certain colors in the syntax highlighting that contrast poorly against a white background. These should be fixed, but YoYo’s attitude about it seems to be “you can fix it, so fix it yourself.” So they provide preferences that allow you to set the colors yourself if you want to. So, great, you can have exactly the color scheme you want in the code editor, isn’t that wonderful?

The problem with this is, if you want to take screen captures of your IDE and share them with others, your non-standard code highlighting will be apparent to your audience, and may hinder in their ability to parse the text. It’s hardly surprising that we become dependent on the syntax highlighting we see all the time, to the point that once we get used to it, someone else’s color scheme will look “wrong” to us and become more of a hindrance than an assist.

If you want a full makeover for your IDE, you have to go beyond the syntax highlighting colors, and create your own IDE theme. Doing so will give you full control over the appearance of the entire IDE. The downside is that YYG doesn’t support anything but their own themes, so if their themeing templates ever change, breaking your custom theme, you’ll have to fix it. Also, it’s possible that installing updates can either a) overwrite the theme directory, so keep a backup of your theme files. Fun! So instead of spending all your time doing game development, you can take a slice of your time hacking the IDE to do things that arguably the vendor should have gotten right, or at least implemented better so that you wouldn’t have such a temptation. Hopefully this doesn’t happen regularly.

While I like tools that can be customized, I prefer to focus on developing games, not customizing the tools that make games. Too much customizing turns me from a game developer into a game development tool developer. While the skillsets overlap, I really want to maximize the time I put into being a game developer.

Naturally, this has head to some third parties releasing their themes, sharing them with the user community, thus saving you from having to do all the work yourself.

GMS2 VS blue custom theme

Based on the default Windows theme colors and Microsoft VisualStudio, this custom theme called VS blue, is excellent. Very readable, and easy on the eyes.

I really like this Visual Studio-inspired theme. The missing option that YYG did not provide in addition to their Light and Dark themes was a “native Windows” theme, and this is pretty much that. In fact, I would love it if YoYo would embrace this theme, give the developer who created it, iluvfuz, a reward, and make it an officially supported theme. This would erase 100% of the snarkiness in this article.

It’s very similar to the GM8 theme for GMS1.x, in that it uses mostly system colors for the window chrome. The GM8 theme was my favorite on GMS1.x, so of course the VS blue custom theme is my favorite for GMS2.

GMS1 GM8 theme

The GM8 theme for GMS1.x was my preferred way to theme my IDE, because it mostly followed the Windows standard theme colors.