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GMS2 Grievances

GameMaker Studio 2 has been out for almost two years now. I have been using GameMaker since version 8.0, in 2010. I loved the direction YoYoGames took with the product when they introduced GameMaker: Studio, and had been an enthusiastic supporter of the tool, looking past its shortcomings.

When the 2.0 beta hit, I had some issues with it, but I wasn’t worried, because it was a beta. There were many long-standing shortcomings and limitations in old GM:S 1.x, and I was used to working around them as best I could. GMS2 represented a new beginning, a complete re-write of the IDE which was to have fixed many long-standing issues, and put YoYoGames into a position where they could deliver new features more rapidly due to a cleaner, more maintainable codebase.

GMS2 was supposed to be the cure for all that ailed me as a hobbyist wannabe indie game developer. Yet, I still generally prefer to work in GMS1.4, despite the many advances that have been introduced in GMS2.

Why?

Put simply, the improvements in GMS2 are eclipsed by some dire showstopping bugs, along with numerous minor gripes.

YoYoGames ended support for GMS1.4 earlier this year, and so its days as a useful tool are short. So, every so often, I try coming back to GMS2 to see if I can work with it. Each time, I’ve found another reason to stay away from it.

For a long time, I’ve been wanting to publish a list of these problems, in order to raise awareness in the hopes that YoYoGames would address the issues and make necessary improvements to their product. I still like GameMaker, and want to be a tool that I can rely on and continue to use. But it’s a lot of different issues, and to properly explain them requires screen captures and video capture that is time consuming to do, so writing this has been something that I’ve repeatedly put off. But, the more I put it off, the more new issues I discover. One would hope that it would be the opposite — that, over time, the issues would become fewer as they are resolved by the vendor.

YoYoGames takes MONTHS to respond to helpdesk inquiries, bug reports

I get that YoYoGames is a relatively small company, with a relatively large number of users. And I also get that a large proportion of those users may be students, non-programmers, or non-professionals who may tax the support department with questions that could have been better handled by reading the manual or going to the community forums. But that doesn’t make me feel any better about the fact that getting a response from the helpdesk when I submit a ticket can take, literally, months. Plural months.

When I have a problem that I can’s solve on my own, and need to submit a ticket with the YYG Helpdesk, the expectation should be that it will be responded to quickly. The exact definition of “quickly” might mean different things to different people, but it most definitely does not mean months, or even weeks.

A few years ago, I might get a response within a couple of days, which was still long enough to be painful. But since GMS2 has been released, it seems to take them several months to respond. I’m sorry, but there’s no way that can be acceptable for a professional user. And to my knowledge, there’s not a premium support option that’s reserved for corporate clients — maybe they do, but if so I have no knowledge of it. But even if that were the case, don’t solo developers deserve and require an acceptable level of support for the product? Of course they do.

Just today (8/8/18 as I’m writing this) I actually got a response to a Helpdesk ticket that I opened up more than a month ago, on 6/22/18, for the IDE crashes when Windows suspends issue that I describe elsewhere in this post. (That wasn’t the first time I’ve reported this issue, only the most recent. The first time would have been in November 2016, when GMS2 was still in its public beta phase.) The response (paraphrased): “Sorry it’s taken us so long to respond, but could you check to see if you’re still experiencing this issue? We’ve released an update since you reported this bug, and will need new log data using the latest version.”

I don’t know why YYG have fallen backwards in this area, but it’s definitely something that they need to improve on.

Other services that I use are able to reply to issues that I submit to them within 24, 48, or 72 hours; among them: itch.io, github, always reply to me quickly, professionally, and in a way that is helpful to resolving my problem. I don’t even pay anything to use itch.io, and they always have responded promptly, because itch understands that making customer support a top priority is paramount to successfully competing in this day and age.

GMS2 projects corrupt themselves when used with version control

To date, most of my experience with GMS2 hasn’t involved any projects that I’ve worked with in version control. I recently decided to start a new project, and wanted to try using GMS2 to make it. I’ve learned the value of version control, and in the last year especially I’ve taken to putting anything and everything that I work on into version control.

In my most recent attempt to work in GMS2, I used git. I created a new repository on github, and started working on my project. After a few hours, I had made several commits. At one point, my program started behaving strangely, so to try to troubleshoot the issue, I exited GMS2, relaunched, and tried to open the project again, only to find that it had become corrupted. No one else worked on this project, it was just me, making commit after commit on a single branch. And somehow GMS2 managed to make a mess of it.

I noticed the problem gradually — at some point, I had a bug in my code that I couldn’t figure out. An object I had placed in my test room wasn’t there. Or it wasn’t drawing. Or it was drawing where it shouldn’t be, somewhere outside of the viewport. I couldn’t figure out why — I only noticed that when I deleted the object and re-added it to my test room, it was offset a great distance from where I dropped it. Why, I couldn’t understand. After messing around with it for almost three hours, I decided to see if exiting GMS2 and restarting it would fix the problem. Instead, the project wouldn’t open.

Aha, corruption! Well, no problem, I’ve been using git after all, I’ll just roll back to the most recent commit, and start over. Losing a little work isn’t great, but sometimes it happens, and version control gives you assurance that you won’t have to throw out more than the most recent commit if something gets messed up. Well… not in this case. Apparently the project corruption was introduced very early into my git commit history, and rolling way back, I still couldn’t open the project. GMS2 gave an error message about a corrupt view. I dug around in the project files, and sure enough there’s a subdirectory called views within the project folder, with a bunch of xml files with weird file names made from long strings of random characters. I found the one that the error message said was corrupt, and tried deleting it, but even after getting rid of the offending view file, GMS2 still couldn’t open up the project. 

At this point, I gave up on the project, it was a total loss of about a day’s work for me. Very demoralizing. I returned to GMS1.4 to build the project there.

After posting about it on the Forums, I learned that this is a known issue that was submitted over 4 months ago, and is marked as a “High” priority bug. A potential solution recommended by the bug reporter involves engineering changes to the GMS2 project format, but doesn’t sound particularly difficult. But as the poster commented, “You cannot invite serious professional use of GMS 2 if it does not work with source control, period.”

I’ll be submitting a bug report on this issue, but again, the pace at which they respond to and resolve these problems means that it’s not going to be of any practical help.

[Update — Fixed]: GMS2 IDE crashes when I suspend Windows

This is another showstopper bug, but it apparently doesn’t affect everyone. Only certain combinations of hardware and operating system appear to be affected, and I’m one of the unlucky ones. I happen to be using Windows 7 Professional 64-bit Edition on a Lenovo ThinkPad P50. When I Sleep or Hibernate Windows, if GMS2 was running when I suspended the machine, it will have crashed upon resumption. At first, the program would report a bug, but now as of a few updates ago, it just crashes without any error message.

When I first reported this bug, GMS2 was still in its public beta phase. YYG responded that they were aware of the issue, but replicating it wasn’t easy for them. I learned that it affects certain hardware and OS combinations, and they couldn’t test for every combination. I can appreciate that, but I did send them application crash logs and would expect that they could use that information to determine what causes the crash, and handle it. YYG Support suggested that I try running any application, such as a game, that uses GPU acceleration, and see what happens when it suspends. I did so, and found that the game I tested survived a suspend-resume without crashing.

It’s really not acceptable that I should have to exit GMS2 whenever I decide that I need to close the lid on my laptop. Any time I forget to do this, and it’s very easy to forget, I risk losing work or a corrupted project. Professional tools need to be more reliable than this.

Update 10/10/2018: 

Almost TWO YEARS later, I finally have a solution to my long-standing problem of GMS2 crashes when I hibernate Windows! If you are having this problem, see here:

YYG Helpdesk issue 145712

TL;DR: Using the opengl driver resolved my issue.

“What I would suggest is trying the software (mesa) driver. It has far less to try and recover from as everything is CPU based. copy ther opengl32.dll from the “C:\Program Files\GameMaker Studio 2\mesa” folder into “C:\Program Files\GameMaker Studio 2″ folder. This may well give you more stable results.”

Only downside is that your IDE won’t have hardware accelerated graphics anymore, as it will use the CPU instead of the graphics card for rendering. This doesn’t seem to be a big deal so far. (edited)

Workspaces are a UX design fail

The GMS2 IDE consists of modular, dockable window components, and this much is good, and I like it. You can arrange and re-size the components as you see fit, which is how it should be.

The main working area within the IDE window is what GMS2 calls Workspaces. The idea of Workspaces was to allow the user to set up the IDE in a way that suits their workflow. I like the idea of Workspaces, but the way they work in practice is awful. Many users have complained on the forums, and it’s impossible to sum up everything that’s wrong with Workspaces succinctly.

GMS2’s IDE with a new project

Workspaces are just windows, when you get down to it. However, unlike windows in most other application, within the GMS2 Workspace pane, you have an infinite 2D space that can scroll four ways. Within this space are more windows, as many as you happen to open, which float in this space. These windows are your resource editors: object editors, sprite editors, image editors, room editors, whatever. Each one is opened, maximized, and spread out over the vast Workspace plane.

The result: a very space-inefficient design, with lots and lots of scrolling. Scrolling from one resource editor to another. Close an editor window, and it leaves a gap in the Workspace. If you close an Editor, and no other nearby editor is open within the viewpane area of the Workspace, you have no idea what direction you need to scroll in to find the next open editor. You can scroll in the wrong direction literally forever. There’s no purpose for this endless scrolling — it only serves to make Workspaces a pain to navigate, and I can see no excuse for it to work this way. Most windows, when you get to the end of its content, stop scrolling.

Some users have suggested adding a compass or mini-map to the workspace to aid in navigation when you’re scrolling about. But this is an absurd solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist. Rather than a infinite 2D scrolling region of virtual workspace with more windows floating about within it, a tabbed interface would be so much better. Rather than scrolling from editor to editor in a vast 2D space, simply click on the tab for that editor (or use Ctrl+Tab) to flip through the list of open tabs. Each tab could contain a single open resource Editor, maximized to fill the view pane, and thus give the user the most screen area to the task the user is focused on.

YYG have offered various workarounds, but most of them aren’t very good solutions to problems that should not be there in the first place. The Ctrl+T navigational shortcut can be learned, and it does make navigating about the project much speedier and less awkward than scrolling about a Workspace. But this doesn’t fix the awkward mouse navigation so much as replace it. Some users will prefer to use the mouse, for whatever reason, and they should get a better interface for mouse navigation.

I said I liked the idea of Workspaces, but not the implementation. So what’s the idea that I like? Well, I like the idea that the Project could store a view state of specific resources in the project that the user wants to open frequently. Say you have a large project, being worked on by a team, each team member specializing in some feature of the game. The artist may want a Workspace that opens up all the Sprite resources for all the different animations for each character in the game. One programmer might be working extensively on the Player objects, and needs a Workspace that opens the Object and Sprite editors for all the resources having to do with the Player. One programmer might want to configure a Workspace to organize assets needed for creating levels. Etc.

Rather than having to open up these resources manually, one at a time, every time the user opens the project, they could each define a re-useable, sharable Workspace, set up their Workspace(s) that they need (once), and close them when done working for the time being, and return to any Workspace as needed, and be back up and running with just the editors open that are needed for the task at hand. Each user could set up their own Workspace the way that works for them, and return to it whenever they need to do work on the feature that the Workspace was set up to facilitate. Workspaces could be shared across all users of a Project so that they can all benefit from this setup work. And users could ignore any of the previously set-up Workspaces and create a new one, or just open up resources and work on them one at a time, as normal.

Resource Editor Chain View

My complaints about GMS2 Workspaces are made worse by the desgin of the Object Editor. Depending on your monitor resolution, and how the other dockable window regions in the IDE are configured — the Workspace pane is often too small to show a full view of a resource editor. The Object Editor’s “chain view” expands horizontally as you go from the Object’s basic properties, to the Events, to the Code Editor.

When I’m working on the code for an Event in my Object, my focus is on this yellow rectangle. 100% of my focus, but only about 25% of the total area of the screen.

There is a solution, and it is simple enough: In the Preferences>Text Editors. Open [scripts|shaders|object events] in a full screen editor.

Chain view could be easier for non-programmers to understand, since the code window is directly linked to the Object Editor. But the layout wastes a lot of space, and creates a scrolling region (the Code Editor) within a scrolling region (the Workspace), which makes for awkward usability, particularly if the Code Editor overflows the Workspace pane, or if you need to scroll the Workspace horizontally to see whichever end of the Object Editor chain you need to look at.

What I want and need is for the editor I’m using to be maximized, to fill out the pane occupied by the Workspace entirely, or to fill the screen entirely. I don’t want resource editors that float about in an infinite 2D scrolling workspace.

There’s a workaround for this as well, which is to pop out the Workspace into its own window, so it can be maximized to fill the entire screen. But this means you lose the other UI components, which are now in another window beneath the Workspace window. You can flip back and forth between the two, and of course this is what you do. But at this point you’ve essentially abandoned the original concept and design of the GMS2 IDE window and workspaces.

GMS2 IDE UI theme doesn’t follow OS standards

For some reason, YYG loves making the IDE as dark as possible. I guess it’s partly due to their branding. Many programmers prefer to look at code with a dark background and light colored text, because this makes the syntax higlighting easiest to read for most people. I do as well.

And some graphic designers prefer their graphics editors to have a completely desaturated interface, so that their perception of color in the image isn’t influenced by nearby colors in the UI. I do, as well. 

GM8 and GMS1 were dark grey, with mostly green accent color. But GMS2 took this even further — too far, in my opinion, making the IDE mostly white on black, with almost no color anywhere.

But I like the window chrome to be not quite so black as YYG have designed their interface, and I like for toolbar icons to be less monochromatic. I find that color helps me recognize the icon I’m looking for. YYG’s UI icons are hard to read, and this slows me down, and makes it harder to enjoy working with the IDE.

This is a relatively minor gripe, and now is largely mitigated by the option of using a custom skin which someone developed that makes GMS2 conform to the default Windows theme colors, giving it a look almost like Microsoft VisualStudio.

However, since custom skins aren’t yet officially supported, any time you update GMS2, the update removes the previous version, and deletes the skin. Then you have to re-install it. And since skinning isn’t officially supported, there’s every possibility that the custom skin you installed today may not work with some future update.

All YYG need to do to make me happy here, is to support alternative skins officially, and allow users to customize their IDE with a skin that won’t break with an update, or need to be reinstalled after an update.

Better would be to offer an official skin that follows the OS desktop theme, and include that among the choices available to the user out of the box.

Better still would be to make this their default, but I just want the choice, and for the choice to be free of inconveniences.

More Issues

The Code Editor

I am a pretty fast typist — 80wpm or better, sometimes as fast as 110 wpm if I’m sharp and fresh. I don’t like to take my hands off the keyboard when I’m doing heavy typing, it ruins my speed.

Many, many years ago, I learned how to use the keyboard to navigate text documents: in nearly every text editor I’ve used, the arrow keys can be combined with Ctrl and Shift to select text rapidly and accurately, and if you’re good at it, you can do it faster than someone with a mouse can do the same thing.

Add to that the Home and End keys, and Page Up and Page Down, and I can grab a block of text, cut/copy it, and paste it where I decide it needed to go, blindingly fast.

Except in the code editor for GMS2. Here, the usual arrow key behavior isn’t quite the same as it is in nearly every other application I’ve ever used. For some inexplicable reason, when I hit the end of a line in GMS2 with my selection, it doesn’t wrap down to the next line if I hit the Right Arrow. It just stops at the end of the line. Why doesn’t it wrap? Instead I have to hit the Down Arrow, but this isn’t the same — instead of the cursor advancing one word, wrapping to the start of the next line, the cursor drops down a line, appearing in the middle of the line wherever the cursor happened to be.

The effect of this is that I can’t quickly or easily select text in the code editor. I select to the end of the line, stall; my mental focus interrupts while my brain processes what happened and I recognize why the text selection is stalled: GMS2 text editor doesn’t work like every other text editor I’ve used. I switch from Right Arrow to Down Arrow, and continue selecting my block of text. Now too much text is selected, and I have to back it up with the Left Arrow for a few keystrokes.

This probably sounds minor, but if you’re a heavy keyboard user doing a lot of cursor navigation with the keyboard, it’s very annoying.

If you’re going to go through all the effort to build your own IDE for a commercial software product intended for professionals, you really need to make the text editor part of the IDE good, and a big part of that is following conventions.

AutoSave is poorly designed

In GMS1, and previous versions, and in most other applications where you make changes to files, Save was a deliberate action. If you didn’t do it, the program didn’t do it for you. If you wanted to close the file without saving, the program would ask if you wanted to discard your changes made during the current session, or save them. This is a long-established convention and is the way the vast majority of software has worked for decades.

Of course, things can happen. Applications and computers crash. Power goes out unexpectedly. About 20 years ago, better programs started to introduce auto-save, which periodically saves any changes made to the file since the last deliberate save was initiated by the user. In the event of an unexpected exit, the autosave file was saved, as a separate file, and on next application launch the user would be alerted to the existence of these files, and have the opportunity to review them to see if they recovered anything that they would have wanted to keep.

This was a great feature. It absolved the user of having to remember to hit save every few seconds as a matter of habit, and relegated the task to the computer. It also didn’t overwrite anything that the user didn’t explicitly want overwritten.

The way GMS2 works is very different. Whatever state your open code file or editor is in, it’s saved. When you close a file, you’re not prompted to save any unsaved changes. Every time you make so much as a keystroke, your file is saved, whether you wanted it saved or not.

If you’ve made some experimental edits that you didn’t want to save, the only thing you can do is Undo, as much as you need to, until the file has been reverted back to the state that you wanted it — if you have enough levels of Undo to go through, and if you can recognize that file state when you get there. Or to pull an old version of the file out of your version control repository.

It’s ridiculous to have to Undo some large number of edits to get back to a prior state, when in the old paradigm, all you had to do is close the editor and say “No” when it asks if you want to save the changes. And it’s not always the case that you’re going to have a check-in for the file in version control.

Further reading

New Phoenix console by CollectorVision announced

This week a CollectorVision released a pre-release announcement for a new videogame console, called Phoenix.

CollectorVision Phoenix
CollectorVision Phoenix conceptual drawing courtesy of CollectorVision.com

Phoenix is a Field Programmable Gate Array-based clone of the 1982 ColecoVision videogame console, featuring old-school input ports for compatibility with authentic Coleco controllers, and HDMI-output for modern HDTV sets. It promises to be 100% compatible with the entire ColecoVision library, including newer homebrew games that have been released in recent years — even those that depend on the Super Game Module expansion by OpCode Games. The Phoenix will have the SGM circuitry built in to its FPGA. The console will have a cartridge slot for plugging real ColecoVision games into, as well as a SD card slot for loading ROMs. Curiously, it will also have input ports for SNES/SFC controller, and for PS/2 keyboards.

This is an exciting development for ColecoVision fans. The system is very similar in concept to the AVS, a FPGA-based NES clone that RetroUSB released in 2016, and the Super Nt, FPGA-based SNES clone by Analogue.

The announced price point is expected to be “around $200”, so right in the same ballpark as these upgraded clone systems. As an owner of the Super Nt and AVS, I’m very happy with both systems, and so am very excited about this news.  

The ColecoVision is underappreciated in the history of videogames, as it came out just before the Crash of ’83, and was knocked out of the market after only a few short years by the NES, but Coleco still has a following even today. The system had a solid library of games which featured better graphics and sound than the Atari 2600, its main competitor, and Mattel’s Intellivision, its closest technical rival. The games were not quite as sophisticated as the action/adventure style of games that the NES introduced, but there are many standout ports of classic early 80’s arcade titles for the system — including Donkey Kong, Zaxxon, BurgerTime, Gorf, Frenzy, Pepper II, and others.

Adventure (Atari, 1979) appreciated

Adventure is commonly regarded as one of the best games on the Atari 2600, and is certainly a top original title for the console. Out of all the games released for the system, this one stands out as being the one that best represents what was unique to the system.

A great introduction

It’s also a fantastic example of game design, with a built-in tutorial. Super Mario Bros has been recognized as having an excellent introductory level for teaching the fundamental concepts of the game, but Adventure did this just as well a good five+ years earlier, with game variation 1. Intended to be an easy difficulty version of the game, suitable for young children, it also works as a way to introduce the gameplay basics to new players of any age.

In Game 1, you start out in front of the Gold Castle, right in front of the gate.

This communicates to the player that this is your home base. The castle is locked, but the Gold Key is conveniently right there on the screen. Since the key and the castle are the same color, this communicates a strong clue that the key must unlock the castle. Since there’s an item in the starting room, and that item is usable in that very room, every basic element of the game is present on the first screen, so the player has the opportunity to learn the game immediately, before they start wandering and get lost.

If the player grabs the key and opens the castle, very likely they will enter inside, where they will find the Sword. The player may drop the Key by pressing the button, but more likely will run to the Sword and pick it up, and in so doing discover that picking up one item drops an already-held item. Either way, the player learns an important aspect of the core mechanic of the game, carrying an item.

This rewards the player for exploring, and for solving a simple puzzle with one of the objects found in the Adventure world.

If the player doesn’t enter the castle, regardless of which direction they explore, they will run into one of the two dragons: left, and they will encounter the Yellow dragon, and right, they will run into the Green dragon.

Without the sword, either encounter forces the player to run away, or be eaten — unless the player is carrying the Gold Key, in which case the Yellow dragon will flee from him.

Whichever is the case, something unique and different happens — thus demonstrating to the player that the inventory of items found in the game each change the game in distinct ways.

This is enough to encourage the player to experiment with each item they find in the game, in order to discover all the possibilities. But some of the most interesting special item properties in the game are introduced right away.

If the player has the sword, what happens will depend on the difficulty switch position, and the orientation that the sword is held.

If the right difficulty switch is set to A, dragons will flee from the Sword. If set to B, the dragons attack.

If the player is positioned such that the sword is between him and the dragon, the outcome is almost certain victory for the player as the charging dragon runs straight into the sword and dies. Thus, the game teaches the player how to kill dragons in a basic, direct way.

Otherwise, the combat can get exciting, as the player must dodge and move to touch the dragon with the Sword. In other variations, roaming dragons can and will often randomly encounter the player, coming at him from any angle, and this is good practice for such situations.

Again, the game design subtly hints the player toward the more exciting combat — the Sword sprite is always positioned with the hilt to the left, blade to the right. Despite the fact that the player can pick up the Sword (or any of the items) from any direction, most new players will instinctively grab the sword by the hilt-end, which will put the player in front of the sword when they encounter either dragon, making for a more challenging and more interesting combat.

If the right Difficulty switch is set to A, dragons flee from the Sword. Otherwise, they will directly charge the player. If the player is carrying the sword on the side the dragon approaches from, the combat is usually over quickly, as the dragon impales itself on the sword, and is slain.

But if the dragon flees, the player will have a much harder time slaying it — it will take a bit of luck for the player to enter the room positioned in such a way to have a chance at reaching the dragon with the Sword before it runs away. It’s very difficult to do this. One tactic that is effective is to walk near the edge of the screen, such that the Sword is actually off the edge of the screen, then wait for the dragon to approach near, and then attack.

If the player encounters the Green dragon, they will find the Black Key, which the dragon guards. The dragon guards the key, which is positioned on the left side of the screen, so will always charge the player from the left when the player enters the room from the top of the screen.

If the player runs away, the Green dragon will not give chase, as it is programmed to guard the black key, and will stay on the same screen as the key. This gives the player the ability to flee and return to the room repeatedly, and try several approaches to dealing with the dragon.

If the player grabs the Black key before running off, he will be pursued by the dragon.

If the player encounters the Yellow dragon first, the dragon will chase the player from screen to screen, as the dragon does not have an item to guard. But if the player happens to be carrying the Gold Key, this will scare the Yellow dragon off. If the player has entered the castle and grabbed the Sword, the Yellow dragon will approach the player at a slow, deliberate pace, and attempt to eat the Player. If the player is grabbing the sword by its “hilt” side, the player will be to the left of the sword, and this will cause the dragon to trigger its bite attack before it runs into the sword and becomes slain. Thus, the player will learn a) how the dragon moves and attacks, b) that the dragon is temporarily invincible while it in its bite attack mode, but also temporarily fixed in place, and c) that the dragon is dispatched by the Sword by touching it.

If the player is grabbing the sword from its right side, he may slay the dragon directly, without triggering its attack; in this way the player discovers that the sword is lethal regardless of its orientation. Later, the player may discover that the sword is always lethal to dragons, even if it is not in the player’s hand! This is perhaps surprising, but it is highly useful knowledge once discovered, as the player may run around the sword while carrying another object, and lure a pursuing dragon to run into the sword, killing itself.

Once both dragons are dead, the game is easily winnable. The player simply has to take the Black Key to the Black Castle, unlock it, retrieve the Chalice, and bring it back to the Gold Castle, and the game is over.

In order to do that, however, the player must first solve the blue labyrinth. The labyrinth is illogical — it is comprised of 6 screens of interlocking passages which cannot be mapped onto a Euclidean plane.

When you try, certain pathways overlap others, creating a bizarre, confusing maze. The maze is actually fairly easy to traverse, but how the different screens connect to each other don’t quite make sense — space here is warped, somehow.

There are several pathways through the labyrinth, but only one will take you to the Black Castle. 

However, due to the placement of the Bridge, there’s a second possible way through the labyrinth. In the first room of the Blue Labyrinth, there are four branching paths: left is the true path through the Labyrinth; right is the secret Bridge shortcut, and the middle two paths loop around to connect to each other, returning the player to the start of the maze.

So, regardless of the direction chosen by the Player, they’ll either a) quickly loop back to the start of the labyrinth, where they can start over without a lot of frustration or risk of getting hopelessly lost, b) go left and make their way through the labyrinth to discover the Black Castle, or c) go right and discover the Bridge shortcut, and a shorter path through the Labyrinth to the Black Castle.

This again shows good design, by demonstrating to the player a) how the Bridge functions, and b) a reward that shows how the Bridge can provide an advantage to the Player, thus demonstrating its value. It’s likely that the player will inadvertently touch the Bridge as they pass over the wall, and thus discover that the Bridge may be picked up like any other object, and that its portability makes it even more useful.

When the Player discovers the Black Castle, they’ll probably know immediately what the Black Key is for, and if they don’t have it with them, will know from their experience in the first screen that they will need to go back to retrieve the Black Key in order to proceed. If the player has yet to encounter the black key, their previous experience with the Gold Castle will have taught them that this Castle must also have a Key that will open its gate, found somewhere.

Upon unlocking the Black Castle, the Player enters into a room where they discover the Magnet. It’s common for players to drop the key upon entering the castle, perhaps in order to retreat and grab the Sword, which they may have also brought with them, just in case there is another dragon to fight — and if they do drop the key, they’ll immediately discover what the Magnet does: attract other objects.

The Player may pick up the Magnet and interact with it, dragging it around as it slowly attracts the key to follow it about the room. This invites the Player to see what else the Magnet will attract. (It works on all the other items in the game, but not the dragons or the Bat.)

When the player proceeds to the last room of the Black Castle, they’ll find the Chalice. From here, all they need to do is bring it back to the Gold Castle, and they win the game. There’s nothing in the game to tell the player that they need to do this, but it is provided in the written instructions pamphlet that comes with the game.

Otherwise, the purpose and use of the Chalice is mysterious. The Chalice is unlike the other items in the game, in that its color flashes and shimmers. This makes the Chalice stand out as a special object, and probably more likely for the player to pick it up, even if they skipped reading the instructions and don’t know what to do with it. Since it flashes a golden color, that may be enough of a clue to the player that they should bring it to the Gold Castle, as they did with the Gold Key.

Once the player knows what to do, they can complete Game 1 in a minute or less. Even without knowing what to do, it’s likely that a first time player can complete the quest in just a few minutes.

The tightness and self-teaching design of Game 1 of Adventure is nothing short of impressive. Considering how early this game came out in the life of the system, the level of refinement present in the level design is amazing. As obvious and intuitive as the placement of the objects and dragons is, we must recognize that these were the result of deliberate design choices, and that any other arrangement would have made the introductory level of the game less inviting, less intuitive, and less fun.

Advanced Adventures

Game Variations 2 and 3 introduce the player to a larger world, with a third castle (White), and two Catacombs (in the Black Castle, and en route to the White Castle). The White Castle itself adds another Maze, and in total the world has about doubled in size.

The Epic Quest

Game 2 is the canonical full Adventure experience. You have to visit every castle and use every item in order to complete the quest. This game introduces the Bat, which appears on the start screen, and swipes the Sword which appears where the Gold Key was in Game 1.

The timing here is tight enough that it must have been deliberate — try as you might, there’s no way to beat the Bat to the Sword. It will get there just barely ahead of you no matter how fast you can get there. 

Another thing about this introductory encounter: the Bat continues in a straight line, continuing to wrap from bottom to top of the screen in an endless cycle, which lasts until the Player either leaves the room, or touches the Bat or the Sword. 

Because the Player has learned the value of the Sword, very likely they will try to grab it and fight the Bat for control of it. The screen wrapping behavior of this initial encounter invites and practically guarantees that this will happen. The Bat is programmed to win these contests, thwarting and frustrating the player.

This teaches the player everything they need to know about the Bat, immediately: the Bat steals the item you need.

Best case, you can grab the Bat, and carry it with the sword until the Bat either drops the sword, or picks up another item. If the player does manage to grab the Bat, capturing it, sometimes it can struggle free, often at the wrong time.

Going to the right, where in Game 1 you found the Green dragon guarding the Black Key, you’ll encounter the Catacombs that lead to the White Castle. In the Catacombs, you’ll find the Yellow Key, the Bridge, and in the room South of the White Castle, the Magnet. The Green Dragon is wandering nearby, and will likely encounter the Player in a situation where the Bat has dropped the Sword, and picked up one of the other items.

If you’re lucky, you may dispatch the Green Dragon in the catacombs without much trouble, but it’s just as likely that you’ll get stuck in the catacombs without the Sword, which is very dangerous — especially prior to learning how to navigate the catacombs. If you can, kill the Green Dragon as quickly as possible, but if you lose the sword, try to grab the Gold Key and run for it so you can at least get the Gold Castle open. The Green Dragon will always guard the Magnet or the Black Key, so you can use the Magnet to “trade” for the Gold Key so he’ll ignore you while you run to the Gold Castle and unlock it.

Here, the Player is carrying the Bat, who is carrying the Bridge, just after the Player killed the Green Dragon with the Sword. With so many objects on the screen, they flicker, so this is a composite image of several screen captures.

The White key is found in the Blue Labyrinth along the path to the Black Castle, and inside the White Castle is the Yellow Dragon, and the Black Key. If you’re new to Game 2, you’ll probably head up the familiar path to the Black Castle, and discover the White Key here.

You’ll need to run with the White Key to unlock the castle, then come back with the Sword so that you can face the Yellow Dragon and slay it. If you can, once you open the Gold Castle, go back and grab the other items in the game and bring them to the Gold Castle. The Bat does not enter the Gold Castle ordinarily (he will only be found there if you grab him and drag him there yourself) so anything you store in the Gold Castle is generally safe from the Bat randomly picking it up and moving it somewhere.

If you can, put the Sword in the Gold castle for safekeeping, and then go unlock the White Castle, run back to retrieve the Sword, and return to the White Castle and slay the Yellow Dragon. The White Castle’s maze is divided into two interlocking sections. To get to where the Black Key is, you’ll need the Bridge.

To get the Black Key, you need the Bridge, and the insight that the maze is larger than it seems.
The Black Key is well-hidden inside the inner chamber of the White Castle maze.

Once you have the Black key, you’re ready to take on the final challenge. Take the key to unlock the castle, then return to the White Castle and grab the Sword, and return to the Black castle. You’re about to face the Red Dragon, who is the fastest and fiercest of them all. He guards the Chalice in the catacombs of the Black Castle. All you have to do is kill him and take the Chalice. Fighting this dragon in the tight confines of the catacomb is tricky, but not too difficult. Just keep the Sword between you and the Dragon.

Once the Dragon is defeated, there’s nothing left to threaten you; run back to the Gold Castle with the Chalice and win the game.

The way this variation is laid out guarantees the player will take the longest path through the game, and experience all of it. It’s well designed from that standpoint. The Bat’s mischief can greatly lengthen the time taken to complete this quest. It’s very common for the Bat to grab the item you need right when you are about to use it, and leave you with something you don’t need, or even bring a live Dragon to eat you! If you’re accustomed to the layout of Game 1, you’ll probably spend a lot of time exploring the Blue Labyrinth, where you’ll find nothing of value, only dead ends. But by exploring the new catacombs area, you’ll quickly find most of the items in the game, and it’s just the chance interactions with the Bat, and the risk of being caught without the Sword when a Dragon draws near that can lengthen the game.

The randomness of the Bat makes Game 2 somewhat different each time you play, but the initial position of the items is always the same, and the order in which you must unlock the castles always is the same. So playing this variant repeatedly doesn’t offer a lot of replay value. Even so, the random element introduced by the Bat still gives this variation a decent amount of replayability.

The Random Remix

Game 3 randomizes the starting position of every item in the game. There are a few constraints, of course: no key can be locked in its own castle (although, there is a bug, by which the Gold key can sometimes start out locked in the Gold Castle, rendering the game unwinnable), the Chalice never can start in the Gold Castle, but otherwise everything is random. It can happen that you start out getting attacked by all three Dragons immediately, with no Sword in sight to save you. You’ll have to explore everywhere and anywhere to find the Chalice, and the items needed to get to it.

This is my favorite variation of the game. It’s the most replayable, because every time you play you’ll have to figure out where things are and which ones are needed in order to unlock the Gold Castle and retrieve the Chalice — the only two things in the game that you must do to win. Everything else is optional. And due to that fact, it’s often possible to complete the quest more quickly than is possible in Game 2.

Screwing Around

Once the Dragons are killed, the Player is safe. This frees him to explore the game and experiment. The Bat can get annoying, but it’s fairly easy to grab it, run to one of the castles, and lock it inside.

It’s an interesting discovery that you can carry the Bat into a castle, run out quickly, locking the gate behind you, and never have to see the Bat again. The insight may be learned by the fact that in Game 2, the Yellow Dragon never appears in the game until you unlock the White Castle. Since that is the case, the Yellow Dragon must have been confined in the White Castle. Might this work with the Bat also? It does!

It’s also possible to gain this insight by locking a Key in its own Castle. It’s possible! To do this, you need to touch the open castle gate with your Key, which causes the gate to lower. If you drop the key in the doorway, as the gate lowers, the Key will disappear, apparently into the castle. Now behind the locked gate, the key and anything else inside that castle is forever locked, inaccessible to the player evermore.

At this point, Adventure becomes a sandbox game. You can play around with the items and figure out all kinds of things to do with them. Mainly this means playing around with the Bridge and Magnet. The Bridge may be placed at various walls, and you can even try to use it to cross the boundary of a room that is normally blocked by a solid wall. This sort of, almost works — you can see into an adjacent room this way, but not quite enter into it.

Experimentation is at the heart of what makes Adventure special.

Eventually, through much trial and error, but more likely through reading about it or being shown by someone who knows, you may discover the Easter Egg, the hidden room with the Dot, which is used to access a secret room where the author’s name is hidden.

Items with purpose

One of the great aspects of Adventure is how purposeful every item and character in the game is. The items in the game give the player the capability to do anything they might need to do, and give the game’s design a sense of completeness. There’s nothing missing, and nothing obvious to add. 

Keys unlock Castles, and there is one key per Castle. They give the player something to find and something to do in order to access parts of the map that are locked when the game begins. They give the Dragons something to guard (or flee): The Yellow dragon runs from the Gold key; the Green dragon guards the Black key, and the Red dragon will guard the White key.

The Dragons exist to create danger and tension for the player, something to overcome and defeat. They make Adventure be a game about more than simply exploring.

The Bat exists to give the game randomness that makes the game world feel “alive” as the Bat randomly moves items around the world, which would otherwise only move if the Player moved them. The Bat is a mischievous and frustrating enemy, who cannot be killed, but may be dealt with by locking it in a castle. The Bat makes the Dragons more dangerous while they’re alive, since it can take the Sword or bring a Dragon at an inopportune time. But the Bat’s randomness also means that it can sometimes aid the player, by taking a threatening Dragon away, or dropping a needed item that the player had trouble finding. This redeems the frustrating aspect of the Bat, to a degree, and makes it an entertaining character.

The Sword gives the player a way to defeat the dragons.

The Magnet gives the player a way to grab items that are stuck in walls, or otherwise inaccessible, making it much less likely that the player will get stuck in an unwinnable situation due to a trapped object that they cannot reach.

The Bridge serves a similar purpose to the Magnet, in that the Bridge can enable to Player to get around dead Dragons that may block narrow paths. But the Bridge also has several specific purposes: A) To enable a short-cut to the Black Castle by Bridging over the dead-end of the right branch of the Blue Labyrinth; B) access the inner chamber of the White Castle maze, necessary to complete the quest in Game 2; C) to reach the hidden room in the Black Castle labyrinth, where the Dot is hidden, necessary to unlock the now-legendary easter egg and find the secret screen with the creator credits. 

The Chalice gives the player a goal, and something to do to give the game an ending. The existence of the Chalice makes the game about more than merely exploring, more than merely slaying dragons. It gives the player a quest and a purpose.

Speculating on a Sequel

Adventure has been a frequent target of homage for homebrew and hacks and indie game developers. I don’t know how many projects I’ve seen over the years that took direct inspriation from Adventure, but I can recall a Quake mod from 2002, and unofficial sequels for the Atari 5200 and Atari Flashback system, a pair of homebrews called Evil Magician Returns and Evil Magician Returns 2, and certainly others too obscure for me to find with a quick search.

I’ve played some of them, and of those that I have played, I have found them to be lacking in some way — they just don’t feel as good as the original, for various reasons. Either they offer more of the same, without offering enough new, or they attempt to update the graphics in ways that spoil the utter simplicity of the original graphics. The graphics weren’t really the point of the original — the Player is represented by a simple square pixel, after all — and so I would like to see a sequel that focuses on gameplay, but retains the graphical style and overall feel of the original, but adds new items and new areas to explore.

Making it my own

I think anyone who loved the original has probably thought about what they’d want in a sequel. So in that spirit, here’s my proposal for how I would extend the original game. Perhaps I’ll try to program it at some point.

My idea is more like a “Game 4” variation of the original than it is an Adventure II. A “Game 5” variation would be a randomized version of the game with all of the elements from Game 4, much as Game 3 is a randomized version of Game 2.

Here’s what I would add:

  • There are three empty rooms in the area (Marked 1, 2, 3 in the map below) where the White Castle is found:Adventure MapThese feel like unfinished, purposeless rooms in Adventure. This is where I would extend the world map. I would replace these empty rooms with entrances to new mazes that lead the player to new areas of the game. Perhaps I’d have all three entrances lead to three inter-twined mazes, which require the use of the bridge to go between them. The Brown Key would be hidden somewhere in this new maze. The exact details of the maze aren’t shown, but the maze would occupy the empty region shown in the map detail below, with the new Brown Castle somewhere in there, perhaps where indicated… but possibly not.Adventure-Variation 4 Detail
  • I’d add at least one new castle, but probably just one, found at the other end of one of the mazes. The existing castles are White, Black, and Gold, this castle would be some new color. Which color? It should be a color that is possible with the Atari 2600, and not already in use as a Castle or Dragon color, or a color that is close to one of those colors. This rules out Green and Red, Yellow, Black, and White. Probably a good color for a fourth castle would be Blue, or Brown.
  • I’d add a new Dragon. The existing Dragons are Red, Yellow, Green. The new dragon should be a color that is possible with the Atari 2600, and not already in use as a background or Dragon color. This rules out: Black, White, Gold, Yellow, Green, Red, and Blue. I’d also avoid Purple, since that’s the color of the Bridge.
  • The trick with the colors is that the Atari 2600 can only produce 128 distinct colors in NTSC, as shown by this chart. While the RGB color space isn’t exactly gamut compatible with what the Atari 2600’s TIA chip generated, this is close enough for our purposes.
    Atari 2600 NTSC paletteThere are only 16 hues to choose from, and we don’t want to pick something too close to what’s already in use. This may not be exact, but my best guess as to which colors are already reserved in Adventure is as follows:
    There’s a lot of possible colors still available, but many of them are too light or don’t contrast well enough. But a purple, green, aqua, or brown would seem to be the best candidates. Brown seems like a good choice for a Castle, or Blue, while an aqua or orange shade seems like the best choice for a Dragon.
  • Spider Spider (New Character). The spider’s purpose is to create Webs. Like the Bat, the Spider is black. The Spider cannot be killed. Can he be picked up and carried? I haven’t decided — probably not, just to make him different from the Bat. The Spider lurks in the Brown Castle, spinning webs inside, making the catacombs inside the Brown Castle more challenging to get through. When the Brown Castle is unlocked, the Spider is set free, and can roam about the rest of the world.
  • Web WebWebs are obstacles which slow the player down, but do not block him. Webs will stick fast to any Object in the game, so that they cannot be moved, will not be attracted by the Magnet. When the Player is holding the Sword, he can cut through the Webs, so moves at normal speed. Cutting the web destroys it, freeing up any trapped objects so that they can once again be picked up and carried, or moved by the magnet. Dragons ignore Webs, and are not impeded by them. The Bat can pick up a web and move it to another part of the world. The Bridge can be used to navigate over webs without being slowed down.
  • TorchNew item: The Torch. The Torch serves to light up catacombs areas, making them easier to see in when present. It can also be used to destroy Webs, by touching them. The Torch will destroy Webs whether or not the Player is holding it, and the Torch will light up a catacomb maze whether or not the Player is holding it. The Bat may pick up the Torch. The Torch is found in one of the new maze areas in the game. This maze area is very dark, and has the shortest catacomb sight radius yet, when the Torch isn’t present.

Anyhow, this idea isn’t quite fully formed, particularly in terms of the map. But as a general sketch of a concept for an extended “variation 4” game, I think it’s got potential. I think the Torch and Spider give the game new features that have purpose, without wrecking the balance of the existing items.

Who knows if I’ll develop it — it’d definitely be a challenge to build.

Pixel Art Chess Set: Communicating function through design

My five year old nephew started learning to play Chess recently, as I discovered on a visit a few weeks ago.  We played two games, and I didn’t have too much trouble beating him, but for a five year old he’s not bad. He knows all the pieces and their basic moves and their relative value.

I thought it would be fun to build a video Chess game that he could use to help learn strategy and how to see the board. So this is my latest project. I’ll be posting more about that as I work on it.

My first step was to design graphic resources. I didn’t want to spend too much time on it, just a basic “programmer art” chess set, that I could use to build the program with. Of course, it didn’t end up that way, and I’ve gone down the rabbit hole designing variations on sets of minimalist pixel art chess men. It’s too fun and fascinating not to.

My first attempt was actually rather good, I thought. I went for 16x16px representations of the classic chess pieces. I drew them very quickly, but was very pleased with my results, particularly the Knight.

I could have stopped right there, but it was so fun to make this set that I wanted to continue exploring and see if I could refine my pixeling technique further.

I decided to search the net for images of chess pieces to see what variety there was, and found a lot of examples of beautiful sets. I started to take notes and to infer design rules for chess men:

  1. Chess pieces are called “chess men” which seems antiquated and sexist, especially given that the most powerful piece in the game is the Queen.
  2. The modern standard chessmen are a design named for English chess master Howard Staunton, and have been in use only since the mid-19th century. A strength of its design is that each piece is easily distinguished from the others, making errors from mistakes in identifying a piece — a problem with other sets — unlikely. Previously, chess men of different types had a less distinct appearance from one another, and were not as standardized.
  3. In a Staunton set, the Knights are the most detailed, ornate, varied, and realistically represented pieces. 
  4. In Staunton sets, there is a standard height order: pawn, rook, knight, bishop, queen, king. (This surprised me, since Rooks are more valued in Chess I would have expected them to be taller than Bishops.)
  5. The pieces are differentiated by their tops. Each type of piece has a distinct, unambiguous shape.
  6. The body/base of the pieces have a common design, to create unity among the pieces in the set.

I tried to apply design choices to my chess set following these insights.

A follower on Twitter offered feedback that the pieces should be different heights, so I tried that. With a 16×16 pixel tile size, I could only shorten the back row pieces by 1-3 pixels.  I also tweaked the King piece by adding a few more pixels to its top, to make it a bit more distinct from the Queen, and moved the Pawn so that it wold be more centered in its square.

I do like the result:

Staunton pixel chessmen

I think my initial 16×16 Staunton set look like they’re in ALL CAPS, while this set is more “readable” by using “mixed case” heights for the pieces.

I wanted my chess game to be focused on usability and instruction. I needed each piece to be immediately recognizable, and not to convey a bunch of extraneous information to the player that has nothing to do with play mechanics. 

My next attempt was a different take altogether. I wanted the look of each piece to suggest its rules for movement. I also thought that it would be clever if the pieces communicated the rules for using them through their visual design.

I ended up being very pleased with this set as well, although I went through many more variations, particularly with the Pawn. This one also came together easily and rapidly.  When your tile size is 16×16 and you’re working in just a few colors, it’s easy to work fast.

Things I like about this set:

  1. The shape of the piece is a built-in tutorial for how the piece moves.
  2. The Pawns still have a pawn-like shape (at least the black pawns; white pawns are “upside down”).
  3. The Knight’s shape may be read as an abstraction of the horse’s head shape of the Staunton piece.

I think out of these variations, my favorites are: P9, Kn2, B3, R1, K?  I’m least certain which King I like.  I think K4 and K5 are my top two, but I also liked the idea of incorporating a crown motif into the design, to signify the King’s special property of being the King.  K1, K2 and K6 were attempts at this, but I think K1 looks too much like a Staunton Rook, unfortunately.

I wasn’t sure which of my designs to use for my final set, so  I posted my sets on Twitter and a pixel art community on Facebook. @Managore responded to my request for feedback by coming up with a set of his own design, which I quite like.

His design was retweeted and liked over 500 times, and received many positive compliments from his followers, many of whom are game developers. One of my favorite indie developers, @TerryCavanaugh, who made VVVVVV and Don’t Look Back, pointed out an physical chess set that had been designed a few years ago which incorporated the same ideas.

It’s exciting to see my idea get picked up and reworked by fellow game developers who are inspired by the concepts I am exploring. So fun! Getting that validation that what I’m working on is interesting to others is very motivating. But it’s particularly good to get some attention from developers whose work I’ve admired for years, however modest.

I’m excited about this project and look forward to working on the program. I have more design ideas that I’m looking forward to getting into soon.

Life is funny

Life is really funny.

For most of my time, I haven’t thought much about refrigerators, or had any choice in which refrigerator I had.

Growing up, there was The Fridge. It was yellow. It had food in it. It made stuff cold.

I went to college, I had a tiny dorm refrigerator that, I guess, worked OK. I never had any problems with it that I’m aware of.

I rented apartments, they came with appliances, they worked, I neer had any problems.

They were never anything fancy. Just an insulated box with a compressor and a light inside that goes off when you close the door. No ice maker, no water dispenser. No fancy finish, just some boring neutral color.

I bought a house, and it came with appliances, and the worked. I didn’t have extra money to drop on something better if what I had was fine. The refrigerator that came with the house was made in the 1980s, and was about 30 years old this year. It worked very well. I never did anything to maintain it, it never broke. It just worked non-stop for 30 years, the way an American made major appliance should be expected to. I’ve enjoyed about half of that time, if enjoyed is a word you can use with owning a boring kitchen appliance that does nothing except for work for three decades without complaint.

The only problem with it was that the light socket didn’t make good contact with the bulb, so when the door opened, it would flicker, and for the last however many years, most of the time the light wouldn’t come on at all. I fiddled with it, but it didn’t help.

Then one day my mom sells her house and is giving away stuff, and I claimed the baesment refrigerator. It was nice, slightly bigger, and only twelve years old. A Maytag. They’re dependable. I rented a truck, and my cousins helped me move it to my place, and then I gave my old, still working refrigerator to one of them.

Only, the Maytag had its door hinge on the wrong side. But that wasn’t a problem, that’s reversible. Easy to do with a screwdriver and the manual, which my mom kept in a ziplock bag in a manila folder, along with the warranty info, long since expired, and the original receipt.

So we switched the door, so it opens to the side that is convenient for accessing food when I’m cooking, which happens sometimes. And the light works. And it’s slightly bigger. And a decade newer. I figured I was set for another 20 years at least.  Who knows?

I noticed in the first couple of days that the “new” refrigerator was taking a long time to get down to temperature.  I think it took about 2 days, maybe it was 3.  But it did eventually get cold. 

Then it got really cold. The refrigerator was down around 33F, and then the next day I opened it and found that a bottle of water had frozen, shattering fragments of glass all over the place.  I cleaned it up and adjusted the temperature setting, and it warmed up a degree or two, still staying around freezing.  The thermometer I kept in there said 31F, but that’s below freezing, and nothing else in there was frozen, so I think it’s not quite accurate.  I love drinking ice cold water, so I was happy.

One thing the new refrigerator didn’t have was a tray for storing ice cube trays. This was annoying, since having a place to put the trays so they could work without spilling was a big convenience, and meant that you could use the rest of the space in the freezer more efficiently. I searched online for parts, and found out that pretty much everything for the Maytag wasn’t available any more — discontinued, out of stock. What’s more, I couldn’t even find a rack or shelf or tray for storing the ice cube tray. I tried eBay, there wasn’t much, and it was confusing to confirm that a part was for my model. It was annoying. I found a bin for finished ice cubes, but nothing to hold the trays while they were working. 

I don’t use the freezer nearly as much, so it wasn’t until maybe a week or more that I noticed the frost problem. I went to get an ice cube and noticed that frost had accumulate along the top edge of the door. I surmised that the door seal wasn’t sealing completely, allowing some air in, bringing with it moisture that would condense and freeze, turning into frost.  The ice built up and made the seal worse.  I’d open the door, knock off all the ice, wipe down with a towel, and close the door again, pressing firmly. 

It didn’t work.  I kept the ice at bay, but it kept returning. From 12 years of being on the left hinge, the door seal had compressed, and now that the hinge was on the right side, that left a gap that closing it firmly just couldn’t close.

I also noticed that the refrigerator made a high pitched whine, loud enough to be annoying. In reading the manual, I found out that this was normal. I didn’t like it. I thought about buying a new refrigerator at that point. But I didn’t want to spend the money right now, so I figured maybe next year. I’d take my time and do research and wait for a good sale.

This week, the temperature in the refrigerator compartment went north of 40F.  I worked at a grocery store once, so I knew that this was the threshold for safe food storage. I was concerned.  I tried turning the temperature setting back down, but a day or two later, it was still 40°, maybe 41°.  Then 42°.  Then 43°.

I took a look inside the freezer, it was still holding steady at 0°F, a good strong temperature. I cleaned the frost off the door, and looking more closely, noticed more frost along the ceiling. I cleaned that off too.  There was more frost along the back wall. I noticed that there was an air vent on the back wall, and that it was covered with ice.  Oh.

I looked inside the refrigerator. There were a couple of holes in the ceiling, which I felt no air flowing through.  I tried putting my finger into the holes to see if I could feel ice, but I couldn’t.  I only felt the foam insulation.  It felt warm.

I took my hair dryer and tried to defrost the freezer compartment.  I succeeded in melting the ice I could see, but if there was ice in the duct connecting the freezer compartment to the refrigerator compartment, I don’t think I got it.

The temperature in the refrigerator went up to 47°. Nothing in there was safe to eat any more. It had turned into a botulism farm. The freezer compartment temperature went up to 11°F, but it went back down to 0° by the next morning.  The temperature in the refrigerator went up to 49°.

I started shopping. After a lifetime of not caring or thinking about refrigerators, suddenly I had to make a choice, and suddenly now everything mattered.

I measured the nook in the kitchen and noted the dimensions the new unit would need to fit. I researched styles, features, manufacturers, models. I went to six stores and looked at them in person.  I considered shelving. Ice makers. Water filtration. Top Freezer. Bottom Freezer. Side By Side.  French Door. I compared warranties.  I read reviews.  I checked prices.  I made a spreadsheet.  I opened tabs by the dozen in my browser. I read reviews. 

I questioned the reviews.  What did some random refrigerator owner know?  Did they have the same concerns as me?  Do they understand engineering and manufacturing? Have they tried all the other models out there and therefore know that theirs is really the best? Was their specific experience representative of all examples of that model, or did they get a lemon? Were they even humans writing real reviews, or were they fake reviews written by shills trying to sway public opinion to buy the wrong refrigerator? The more I read, the less I knew. The more uncertain I became.

Within 72 hours, I’d saturated my mind with research and reached the limits of my patience for indecision.  I needed to dispose of my botulism farm and put this episode behind me so that life could resume. I told myself that I didn’t need to make the perfect or even the best decision, I just needed to make an adequate decision. I reminded myself that for 43 years, any old refrigerator was just fine. Why should this purchase be such a conundrum?

Based on the in-person impression I’d gotten from store visits, my internet research, and my meticulous note keeping, I had decided that I liked one model in particular more than the others I’d looked at.  I wasn’t sure that it was the best for me, it wasn’t vastly superior in every way. But I liked the size, the shelves, the price. The reviews were very positive, but one or two of them mentioned that the freezer compartment didn’t get down to 0°F like it should at the recommended setting. Some reviewers recommended turning it up to max cooling, others said it wasn’t a good model because of this deficiency, and to look for something else. 

Concerned, I thought about it overnight. I shopped some more, and found a merchant that was running a sale, and it was the cheapest price I had found yet for this model, and several hundred less than most of the other models I’d considered. I added to cart and got the complete price for it, and printed it out.

I reasoned that I could go to the store in person and ask questions about returns, and if I could do a return after delivery, and if I liked the answer I got, I’d go ahead and buy it, try it out for a time, and if it didn’t get cold enough for me, I’d return it and pick some other model.

This saga is far from over.  Delivery will take place on Wednesday.  I’ll have to observe the temperatures over several days to see how it performs. I’ll have to decide what to do.  I hope I won’t have to return it and start over. I hope I won’t have to think about it again for a decade at least, and three would be better.

It’s just weird that something that never mattered for my entire life so far should become such a dilemma when a situation arises where I have to make the decision. Even though it’s only a couple hundred bucks, it’s a decision with potentially decades of repercussions.  So much responsibility!

Sometimes life is better when you don’t have so much control, and don’t have to make choices.

The Debt We All Owe to Emulation

Emulation is a broad topic within computer science. This article is specifically about emulation of video games.  There are many other purposes to which emulation may be applied as well, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.  Emulation is a general purpose tool, not merely a tool for piracy.

Old video games have become valuable to collectors in recent years. My generation grew up with video games, and much as the previous generation valued comic books and baseball cards from their youth to the point where they became worth serious money in the 1980s and 1990s, antique videogames have similarly grown in value.

It wasn’t always thus. For a good couple of decades, old videogames were considered obsolete junk. No one wanted them (except maybe a few very geeky people such as myself.) Mostly when a new system hit the market, people forgot about the old generation and within a year or two they weren’t available in the retail channel anymore, or were perhaps on clearance in dollar bins.

Importantly, the manufacturers didn’t continue to manufacture old generation hardware.  Although it became cheaper and cheaper to do so, there still wasn’t enough demand in old systems to keep them viable in the face of new competition. More to the point, manufacturers would have been competing against themselves.  And when trying to recoup the cost of major R&D budgets that produced that next generation, they wanted (and needed) the market to be focused exclusively on that new system. Keeping the old generation system alive would have cannibalized sales, and hurt profitability, and this would have stalled the progress of innovation.

We saw this with Atari. The 2600 was the system that broke through into nearly half of American households in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At the time, it wasn’t obvious to the general public that there was going to be a new generation every several years as Moore’s Law continued to work its magic to enable cheaper, more powerful computing technology.  Internally, Atari struggled with releasing their next generation system, the 5200. With tens of millions of 2600 consoles already in homes, the revenue stream represented by cartridge sales for the established console was too important for Atari to walk away from it. The 5200 wasn’t backward compatible (although an adapter for 2600 games existed) and Atari felt that the average consumer might feel alienated and abandoned if they had to go out and buy a new, expensive console.  As a result, Atari kept the 2600 alive an incredible 15 years, finally stopping production in 1992.  The 5200, launched in 1982, was hampered by a variety of factors, and never had the same level of success — it was expensive, lacked backwards-compatibility, the library was mostly the same titles as were available on the 2600, only with better graphics, the controllers were delicate analog joysticks that annoyingly didn’t automatically re-center, it contended in the market with rivals Coleco and Mattel, and then the 1983 crash of the North American market cut short its heyday.

The business data was always very clear on this. With video games, what was hot today was gone a few weeks or months later, or in the case of smash hits, maybe a year. New product constantly distracted and replaced old product, with a few notable exceptions such as Pac Man and Donkey Kong, most video games didn’t have staying power in the market.

Obviously, that’s not to say that old games started sucking and were no longer fun to play. They didn’t. But their enduring appeal didn’t translate into sustainable marketability.  And that’s why successful games spawn franchises of endless sequels and a multiverse of linked-IP titles. And the old constantly gave way to the new. And the business always wanted the market to be focused on the new, because that’s where sales were.  (But yet, in other market segments, they keep making chess sets, decks of cards, balls, copies of popular board games that have been enjoyed for generations, such as Monopoly, etc.) For some reason, the prevailing wisdom was you couldn’t sell a videogame that everyone had already bought.

Well, until recently. A little over a decade ago, Nintendo introduced the Virtual Console on Wii, and started selling us games that they had made in the 1980s and 1990s.  And we bought them. In many cases, we bought them again. For some, it may have been the first time.

Even that wasn’t a completely new thing.  Every console has had classic games ported to it.  Atari has continually re-packaged its greatest hits into collections that have been sold on just about every console and platform that has been released since the original system exited the market. Virtually every big game developer has done it as well: Activision, Sega, SNK, Midway, Namco, and on and on.

And what made that possible?

Emulation.

Without emulation, putting an old game on a new system would have meant porting it, essentially re-writing the game from scratch. And ports were never capable of being entirely faithful to the original. There’s always differences, often substantial, to the point that the nostalgic value of a port is never quite there.  It’s not like playing the original.  You can never go home again.

But with emulation,  you could. Emulators were magic. With an emulator, a new machine could be made to work nearly exactly like some older machine with a completely different architecture, and run software for that older machine without further modification, and the results would be virtually indistinguishable from that software running on original hardware.  

The old systems may burn  out and break down.  The factory could stop making them and shift production to other, more profitable, more in demand product lines. But as long as someone could write an emulator to work on modern machines, old games could live, in theory forever.

Game companies, mostly, did not want that. Especially if there wasn’t some way to make money from it. And once full retail priced sales for a game, or generation of games, stopped being feasible, game companies dropped the product line entirely. Their expectation as the buying public would follow on to the next new thing, and that’s where the industry wanted all focus.  

So game emulation, in its earliest incarnation, was an unauthorized, underground enterprise, a labor of love by gamers desperate to keep the games they loved from disappearing entirely, as they surely would have without their efforts.

And what good is an emulator without something to run on it? This is where ROM dumps come into play. Anyone can tell you that emulation isn’t illegal, doesn’t violate any copyright or patent or trademark law. But ROMs, those are a different story. Copyright law is clear enough about making unauthorized copies of copyrighted works for distribution and especially for profit. There are limited provisions for making copies of works for personal use, of a copyrighted work which you own a copy of, for archival/backup purposes, for academic purposes, for criticism and review purposes, for time shifting and platform shifting, and so on.

Archival/backup purposes fit the context of ROM dumping best, but even so, technically this is a personal use right, meaning that in theory (to my knowledge this has not been tested in the courts) a person could legally dump the ROM of a game that they personally own, for use as a backup, and use an emulator for platform shifting that work onto a new platform.  But that’s a personal copy — they still don’t have any right to distribute that.  And even if my copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 is exactly the same as the copy that someone else already dumped for their own personal use, I can’t (legally) take a shortcut and make a copy of their dump; I have to produce my own.  Which takes time, effort, equipment, expertise, and the vast majority of people do not have that, nor do they have the inclination. So people did the only reasonable thing there was to do: they shared copies of existing ROM dumps. And yes, this meant that many people obtained copies of ROMs that they didn’t own an original copy of. And this was copyright violation.

And yet, for a long time, there still wasn’t enough value in emulation for the rightful intellectual property rights holder to have incentive to do anything about this situation.  And so, as a result, the Abadonware movement began, and the underground emulation scene grew and grew and grew.

You can go to a bookstore today and buy a new copy of a book written hundreds of years ago.  At least, certain ones.  You can’t go to a retail store and buy a new copy of a video game produced 40 years ago.  Not most of them. Sure, today there’s now a few exceptions, if you want to count systems like the Atari Flashback or NES Classic.

But — these systems only cover a small fraction of the catalog of titles that were released for those systems.

And — those systems are only possible because of emulation.  They’re dedicated emulation boxes. That’s right.

For $60, you can buy a tiny selection of really great games, and through the magic of emulation, play them on a modern HDTV. Much of the work that made that possible was pioneered, for free, by enthusiasts and hobbyists who made it their mission to preserve the past and ensure that some game that they loved would be available forever.  For free.

And more than just preserving the popular hits of yesterday, the emulation scene also provided equal attention to games that virtually no one had played, and even fewer people care about, or even knew about.  Rare games that hadn’t performed well on retail release, but were nonetheless good games, have gotten a second wind and rebirth, in large part because someone in the emulation scene ripped a copy of it, and distributed it for free so that thousands of people could experience it.  Games like Little Samson, a NES rarity that sells for thousands of dollars for an authentic copy, could not be experienced by the vast majority of people, without a ROM dump and an emulator.  And probably the black market distribution of this ROM is what helped make people aware of it, to create the demand that gave rise to the premium price that the original now commands.

Companies like Nintendo didn’t want you to play their old games, at one time, for a long time.  But now that the emulation scene proved that those games did have lasting appeal and historic value, now Nintendo would like to sell you those games again. And because they can, they seek to destroy the underground movement that showed it was viable and created the technology that made it possible.

I find this incredibly sad, aggravating, and tragic. I may have a personal collection of physical cartridges in my gaming library, but I certainly couldn’t replace them at today’s prices if they were lost.  And that hardware’s not going to last forever.

Copyright used to have a limited term, and this would have made things a lot easier for the emulation movement to happen in a completely legal way. But over the years, large companies have continually altered intellectual property laws — always to their benefit, never for the public good — to secure a perpetual right to works, robbing the public domain of a rich future. 

Robbing the public.

Robbing all of  us.

GameMaker Studio 2.1.5 – new features

YoYoGames announced GameMaker Studio 2.1.5 was released today.

This release focuses on bugfixes and stability, but also adds some very useful new functions:

New Collisions

New collision_*_list() functions that return a list storing the id’s of all instances in collision, not just a single id of the first instance detected.  There have been implementations of this in GML scripts since forever, but finally having it in the engine is a great thing, since it will be much faster and available to everyone.  The new functions even allow you to sort the list by position order, which is useful in many situations, such as when you need to know which collision would have occurred first in a collision_line situation.

Non-axis-aligned bounding boxes for sprites

This is a new collision type that you can configure in the Sprite properties, “rotated rectangle”.  This enables tighter bounding boxes for more accurate collision detection for objects with sprites that rotate, and better performance than using precise collisions, but slower than the regular rectangular collision mask.

Mobile device virtual keyboards

Support for the virtual keyboard in iOS and Android. I’ve never built a mobile app version of any of my GameMaker projects, so I’m surprised to learn that this wasn’t always supported.

Conway’s Mustard Steak

This is a very simple preparation and primitive cooking method, but the results are extraordinary. This is an old family recipe I learned a long time ago from a good friend.

Ingredients:

  • Steak (should be a large, thick cut of beef, such as London Broil, or Round Steak, at least 1.5-2″ thick.)
  • Ordinary yellow mustard (French’s, etc.)
  • Common table salt

Supplies:

  • Charcoal briquettes
  • lighter fluid
  • charcoal starter chimney
  • Fire starter

 

  • Casserole dish
  • Paper towels
  • Serving platter
  • basting brush
  • BBQ tongs or fork
  • Serving knife

Instructions:

Preparation:

1-2 days ahead of cooking:

  1. Dry the meat with paper towels, then apply a thick coating of yellow mustard with the basting brush until steak is completely covered on all sides.
  2. Sprinkle very liberally with salt until mustard achieves a paste-like, crusty consistency.
  3. Lay in casserole dish for 24-48 hrs in refrigerator, marinating.

Fire preparation:

  1. Fill charcoal starting chimney with briquettes. Wad up paper towels or newspaper, douse with lighter fluid, and place under the chimney. Don’t put fluid on the charcoal.
  2. Light the paper with the fire starter. The coals should ignite easily, and be ready in 5-10 minutes. Let them burn in the chimney until they are glowing orange, then spread them out on a scraped area of bare earth the ground, or in a fire pit, or in a charcoal grill.
  3. Make sure you have sufficient lit charcoal to cover the ground with a good, thick layer of coals, with no gaps between them, covering an area at least twice the size of the meat. This may be more than 1 chimney full of coal, so be sure to get enough going before you start cooking.

Cooking:

  1. Lay the steak directly on the coals, ensuring that the coat of mustard is still intact on the side touching the coals. (Usually, this will be the top side of the steak, as the juices in the bottom of the marinade pan will tend to wash the mustard off the bottom of the steak. Re-apply more mustard and salt on the now-exposed bottom side of the steak to restore a complete coating. The mustard will sear into the meat, protecting the meat itself.
  2. Once the meat is on the fire, let it sit. Don’t touch it or poke it.
  3. Let the steak cook for a long time. Exact cooking time will vary depending on thickness of the meat, but 10-20 minutes or even longer is typical.
    1. Don’t use a clock, however; rather, watch the steak for signs that it is ready. When you start seeing blood droplets appear on the top side of the steak, it will be ready to flip within a few minutes.
    2. Wait until you see droplets coming up all over, not just in one place. Then, using the BBQ tongs or fork, lift the steak off the coals, and knock any coals that have adhered to the meat off, then lay the steak back down on a fresh section of coals.
  4. Continue to cook on second side, once again waiting to see blood juices coming up through the top surface of the steak. It should take significantly less time for the second side to cook through.
  5. Once blood is again visible on the top side remove from the fire, knock off any stuck coals, and rest on the serving platter for about 4-5 minutes.

Serving:

  1. Slice thin and serve.
    1. Steak should be perfectly seared on the outside, and a full-spectrum gradient of done-ness should be evident through the cut, from well and crispy to rare or even blue in the middle, depending on the thickness of the cut and the cooking time.
    2. The mustard and salt flavor will have permeated the meat throughout, and especially the outside crust will be intensely flavorful.
  2. It will not need any additional seasoning or sauces.
  3. Serve with corn, potatoes, or other favorite BBQ side dishes, and your favorite beverage. Goes excellent with beer or a fruity alcoholic punch, margaritas, etc.

Guppy’s Great Steak

Ingredients:

Supplies:

Instructions:

Preparation

  1. Fill the charcoal starter chimney with charcoal.
  2. Put a couple of wadded up paper towels that have been doused with lighter fluid underneath the chimney, and be ready to go in 5-10 minutes. Don’t put fluid on the coals.
  3. Light the paper towel wad. The coals should ignite easily. Let them burn inside the chimney until they are glowing orange, then distribute in the bottom of the grill.
  4. While the coals are getting ready, prepare the meat.
    1. Meat should be close to room temperature, or slightly cooler.
    2. Pat meat dry with more paper towels.
    3. Once meat is dry, rub with steak salt and Montreal seasoning until both sides are coated.

Cooking

  1. Lay steaks over the hottest part of the grill, and cover the grill.
  2. Don’t touch the grill again until it’s time to flip. Let them set there for about 3 minutes for medium rare.
  3. Flip once, then replace the lid and leave it alone for another 3-4 minutes.
  4. When you flip the corners and edges of the filets should just be starting to char, and you should see grill marks seared into the surface of the meat.
  5. After flipping and waiting for the second side (about the same amount of time as the first side, or slightly less), pull from the grill, and then let them rest for a few minutes.
  6. While resting, apply 2-4 drops of liquid smoke on the top of the filets, and let it absorb.

Serving

  1. Slice thin and dip into the A-1 and stadium mustard. Put mustard on one half of a slice, and A-1 on the other half, and let the flavors blend together in your mouth. For best results use mustard that has aged in refrigerator for 3-4 years. It will have a mellow flavor and a creamy texture.
  2. Serve with grilled mushrooms and vegetables and your favorite beverage.

Tempest 4000 released

Bad news for AtariBox fans:  Tempest 4000 was released today.  Why is this bad for AtariBox?  Well, Tempest 4000 is the one new modern launch title that Atari has announced for the doomed console, and the game is available today on XBox One, PS4, and Windows. Anyone who’s excited to play T4K can play it now, and will not have to wait a year plus and buy a $300 console for the privilege.  Well, at least T4K is still published by Atari SA, so whatever platform you might buy it for, they’ll get some money.

Hey, Atari, congratulations on launching a product! I’m glad to see you were able to play nice with Jeff Minter and work together to put this out.

So what else does AtariBox have up its sleeve?  Any exclusive content?  A second launch title?  An Q&A article published on Medium on July 13 is the only new PR that I’ve seen from Atari SA since the close of the campaign on June 30. Atari SA remain very quiet about it, and have not put much information out since the close of their IndieGoGo campaign, which raised just short of $3M in pre-sales for the system — well short of the amount raised in 2012 on Kickstarter by Ouya, which raised over $8.5M and had 6 times as many backers, yet struggled in the market and failed to gain marketshare due to a lack of compelling exclusive content.)

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