Friday, 18 April 2014

Getting Pretty Alpha

I guess I made some bad design decisions early on which have taught me to take longer designing any future project before I start hacking away at the code. However, I didn’t set out to write a full game. I thought I’d simply take a few days to see how Unity worked. Weeks into what has become the equivalent of writing a book (with about an equal amount of work drawing all the graphics), I’m still left with things that require too much work to get entirely right.

One such bad decision was the placement of my camera. I didn’t understand anything about the Unity orthographic camera when I began and I set it up pretty much at random, with no thought to what might be right or what I might need.

The problem is that the camera is now too close to the principal subject . I can easily pull it back but that exposes more of the background and I’m not sure that the code I’ve written to generate that background could work quickly enough to double or quadruple the amount of terrain than needs to be shifted. I’m tempted to give it a try. I installed a build of the game on my old Samsung G2 and it runs nice and fast and it is pretty playable… Or, at least, I find it a bit distracting.  I never intended it to be phone compatible so that’s an unexpected bonus. However, I’m not entirely sure where the G2 sits in the spectrum of devices out there.

But back to the problem with the camera: I’ve adopted a compromise by widening the camera’s view at certain moments and then returning it to the closer view. It works but I think I’ll need to start getting feedback. I’m reaching the stage when I really need some people to try the game, even in this early stage. In software development terms, I’m probably reaching the Alpha release where you can actually play the game but lots of things are rough and need work. There are about eight levels to play and complete and things to be won. But the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together as a finished project. I’m currently scouring the internet for free sound effects so I can liven up this generally silent world. So far, I’ve limited myself to making the noises myself, going around the house hitting objects together, dropping bags of sugar on bags of rice, and then strangulating myself simply to get the right sound effect.

Of course, finding people with Android devices isn't that easy. Literally everybody I know has Apple and although Unity can easily build an Apple compatible version of my game (it's all device independent), there's no way I can afford to do that. Unlike Google who have a relatively friendly ecosystem (bar the £20+ they ask if you want to become an Android developer and have access to their cloud services), Apple won't even let you develop or test for their devices without you first coughing up £99.

However, that's something I guess I'll deal with if ever the time comes that I think it's actually worth exporting this to Apple devices. At the moment, I’m hoping all this will come together at the end. The beauty of Unity is how it separates the hard work of getting things to appear on the screen on difference devices from the less difficult but far more intricate work of getting the game logic working correctly. I seem to spend most of my hours either telling the software when to enable or disable controls and buttons or puzzling over some strange behaviour such as this morning when I spent an hour trying to figure out why some of my graphics were shifting through the z axis, i.e., moving behind other layered graphics in front of which they were meant to be sitting.

Yet when Unity is willing and if you’re filled with bargain Lucazade which I’ve started to drink to give me the energy to finish this project, things can happen very quickly. Last night it took me about four hours to build a reward system into the game. I want people to play the game simply to unlock the things I’m hiding in there. The way I’m doing this is probably the only good idea in the game and I’ve not seen done anywhere else but it’s precisely the kind of silly little attention to detail that gives me real pleasure. When writing my Stan book, it was actually things like the fake photo credit on the back cover that gave me the most pride. I love things that warp traditional formats and though my game is about as simple, mundane, and downright run of the mill as any, I hope there are things here that will give amusement to people will my own warped outlook on the world.

My next job is to draw a panel cartoon strip for the introduction. The game has very little story but a little context might help it feel a little less like the random product of a tinkering mind.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Mike Harding Conundrum

Mike Harding seems to be following me. Or I’m following him. The least likely answer is that there exists some strange quirk about the great universal cog that makes Mike Harding decide to visit Manchester’s Waterstones whenever I’m there. It’s been weeks since I last visited the Deansgate store and I remember the day because I was relaxing in the top floor restaurant (my favourite place in Manchester) when Mike Harding’s head appeared at the top of the escalator. It was followed by Mike Harding’s body and Mike Harding’s legs. He looked just as he looks on the radio.

Yesterday I found myself in Waterstones after a rather sad trip to visit the University bookshop. It didn’t have any of the books I wanted to browse nor any real surprises. It was in Waterstones that I landed my bargain. Waterstones never ever have Drew Friedman books on the shelves. I check fairly regularly and the only time I’ve come across a Friedman, was a few months ago when they were selling one of his collections in their sale for a criminally low price. They had another sale on today and, sure enough, there was more Friedman books. This time both of his Old Jewish Comedians were sitting beside each other there on the shelf and each had been marked down to £3. I felt slightly ashamed taking advantage of the sale but delighted I’d actually managed to find a couple of books I’d been meaning to buy for a long time.

After that success, it was time for a coffee. And that’s when Mike Harding made his regular appearance. I guess you’d have to be of a certain time and place to appreciate who Mike Harding is and I’m not entirely sure that any of the other diners were quite a star struck as me. I’m tempted to say ‘Fred Dibnah with a banjo’ or ‘the Billy Connolly of the north’ but neither is quite accurate. Not being a folk fan, I didn’t follow his metamorphosis into one of the UK’s top champions of folk music. However, growing up loving comedy, his voice was always lodged deeper in my subconscious than I’d probably like to admit.

It’s a strange business seeing people you recognise from TV because the part of your brain that recognises them, doesn’t know where you recognise them from. Pure instinct makes you look and prepare to acknowledge them. Then some higher order thinking kicks in and you have to quickly adjust your eyes to look at something else.

The worst time that ever happened was walking down from the University in Liverpool. I was just coming out of Reid’s second-hand bookshop a few years ago and a tall guy was walking towards me. I sort of nodded and smiled and only then realised that Alex Cox has no idea who the hell I am. Cox is another of those important figures whose opinions always matter to me. His Moviedrome series was one of the most influential things in my early life. In many respects, film criticism on TV has never been as good as those seminal shows. In what just world does Cox end up teaching at an American University and Claudia Wrinkleface hosts the BBC's premiere film show?

But back to Mike Harding (another victim of the BBC's crass stupidity): this is now the third or fourth time I’ve been in Waterstones and he’s been there. I always feel temped to say hello and ask if he ever got the letter I wrote to him back when I was writing my Stan Madeley letters. Any reply would have been sure to make the finished book. It wasn’t one of my best letters but it wasn’t the worst either.

Okay. Today I want to devote to getting my 'game' closer to being finished. The level selection screen is working (I'm aiming for 20 levels to begin) and late last night I figured out a gameplay mechanic which hadn't been working right. The only jobs remaining are getting a reward system in place, unlocking content as levels progress, high score tables (trickier than I thought) and then filling each level with as much work content as I can create. In honour of Mike Harding, I'll even add his likeness to the game in one form or another. Everything I've drawn recently is finding it's way into this game.

Monday, 14 April 2014

So that was a Monday....

It’s the end of what was a cruel day in which I ultimately gave in to the world. A bad photo of myself is now out there, not that it matters to anybody but myself and I doubt if anybody would really understand how sad, frustrated and red-mist angry I’ve been today. But life is currently too difficult to make a fight of these things. Tomorrow I have to take my sister to the hospital. It makes my anger seem trivial. It’s not right that doing a little work for people means that those people own you, image and all. Yet I’m in no position to make subtle points. Nobody listens. Nobody cares. I’m bad meat trying to compete in a global market where there’s always some poor bastard on the far side of the globe who’ll do the same work for half the wage and they won’t be frown crazy truculent and idealistic. They won’t be me.

So I spent the day biting my lip until my teeth were sore. I’ve been working on another video for my employers but tonight I spent with Unity, which has become my second home.

I’m adoring the Unity process, from the simplicity of creating GameObjects to the ease with which the whole process of game design becomes a fun iterative process in which I sit here and constantly think: wouldn’t it be great if I could do x, y, and z. A couple of hours later, I’ve usually managed to get two of the three things working and when I finally hit my bed, my mind full of new ideas for the next time I get chance to program. I didn’t set out intending to write a game (if I had done, I think I’d have had a more rounded concept). I began simply wanting to see if I could get something moving around on screen.  Then I thought I’d add a background based around tiles, which took a ridiculous amount of effort but now it’s finally working pretty seamlessly. Soon, I found myself beginning to build the menus around the game and the more I write, the easier everything feels.

Every day, I spend a couple of hours just drawing graphics to populate that background. They’re the two parts of the process I enjoy and they blend seamlessly. The process is so simple. Want a bad guy doing bad guy things: you create what Unity calls a GameObject and you give him a name like ‘bad guy’. Then you attach scripts which handle his behaviours, enable him to have rigid body physics so he can bounce off walls, or give him easy-to-check colliders so you know when you’ve hit him. Once he’s created (dragging graphics from your graphics program of choice), you simply bring him into life in the code with a single line:

GameObject badguy = (GameObject)Instantiate(Resources.Load(“BadGuyModel”));

It might look complicated but once you get into the syntax, it becomes second nature. Stick that line in a simple loop and run it ten times and you get ten bad guys who will begin to interact with each other. It makes a difficult job relatively easy.

Part of me thinks I should stop what I’m doing because I’ve spent too long learning to do this stuff but I’ve been working on this little game for a few weeks. I actually want to finish something I’d be proud to show people. I still have so much to get finished and they’re all little jobs like getting controls to disappear when menus appear, ensuring that messages display at the right points. I also need to think about music. I thought I might be able to find some looping software which might allow me to create something myself but my efforts have been woeful. I need to find either free music or forget about music. I’m leaning towards the latter. It won’t matter until I get a sense of completing this. Perhaps I will. There’s a chance I won’t. All I know is that tonight, programming, I didn’t feel the frustration that ruined my day.


Terrible night’s sleep. Couldn’t rid myself of my self-loathing and sheer nervous worry about this job and their demand that I provide a photograph of myself. This morning, I’m utterly tired of being me, of having thoughts, ideas, feelings, and having strong opinions about the internet, privacy, and the right to your own identity. I woke early, cut the lawn in a desperate act of trying to put off the inevitable and then sat down and tried to take a ‘selfie’ and utterly hated the way I look. I hate my bottom lip and also my top lip for different reasons. I have a David Cameron mouth and I despise it. I despise the fact that I’m forced to look at it because somebody wants to add me to their organisational chart. I hate the fact that I’m considering giving in because the act of compromise is so much easier in the short term given that life is already difficult enough.

This situation has happened before in my life but I’ve previously managed to avoid it but this is how small companies operate and the problem is always going to reoccur. Small businesses like to see the stretch of their dominion, counting heads as if to say they are this far on the road to total world domination. Every one of them think they’re the next BP or Microsoft. Browse company websites and you’ll eventually see a roster of people looking either comfortable or uncomfortable about having their photos taken. Nobody stands up and says no. Or at least nobody stands up and says no and stays in the job for very long.

But why must I think like this? If it were mere self-loathing, I could perhaps accept my fate. Yet it’s more than that. Taking a photograph of myself is existential and I hate French philosophy. I live in my mind and I how I think of ‘me’ is quite different to what the camera tells me.

I’m not sure why I’m so utterly miserable about this situation. Why can’t people just accept me for who I am rather than turning me into another version of their selves?

Sunday, 13 April 2014

I Think Therefore I'm Not...

At some point in the past decade introversion was criminalised. Being what was called ‘an introvert’ somehow became synonymous with old hackneyed phrases much loved by the media such as ‘loner’ and ‘misfit’. ‘Oh, he liked to keep himself to himself’ has taken on an ominous meaning implying dark habits in dingy rooms involving shaved cats and rubber spatulas. It doesn’t mean what I know it to mean, which is writing, reading books, or drawing the odd (hopefully) funny cartoon, which is how I’ve been ‘keeping to myself’ these past few weeks. Tom Wait’s odd song, ‘What’s He Building In There?’, wouldn’t have any exciting answers if applied to my life. That answer would be:  a silly little Android game which will never earn me a fortune but has taught me how to write games for mobile devices.

Of course, being an introvert doesn’t mean that I’m completely without human contact. I like being with those close to me and I like having friends but I’m totally indifferent to leading a social life out there [points vaguely towards the window]. Watching a Youtube video last night, I heard some guy describing how he couldn’t practise his hobby (the topic of the video) because somebody had rang him to say that he and his wife had been invited to dinner. That sounds like a definition of ‘living hell’, when small talk over a dinner table keeps you from doing what you actually want to be doing. Parties, drinking, pubs, clubs, and all that’s associated with that has never interested me and what little I’ve experienced of it makes me even more confident in my choices. I’m an introvert and I’ve always been quite happy about that.

Yet tonight I feel like I’ve been caught paddling a shaved cat. I’m still being harassed for my photograph since it seems inconceivable to some people that a person might not actually want his mugshot on the internet for no other reason that he simply doesn’t want his photo on the internet. I suppose there might have been a time when I might have submitted to this petty request without much protest. Yet the more I’m pressed to do something that I instinctively don’t wish to do, the more trenchant my refusals become. It has now become a small point of principal to me. Yet I’m not entirely sure what that principal is. Or, at least, I think I know but it probably sounds shallow.

The reason, I suppose, is because I refuse to crust myself in the self-generated effluent of the ‘me’ generation to whom style means everything over substance. I don’t think putting my photo on some corporate website is robbing me of my soul but I also think that it is. I don’t mind giving time over to people to do their work but using me to advertise their company is to rob me of something more precious than a few hours. It’s to take away my individuality and to turn me into another bean-counter in the sham kingdom that would have us all identical and servile to the people in marketing. I don’t want to be another gormless victim of a selfie, gazing dead-eyed into a camera that can never record anything truly meaningful about me. I don’t wish to be judged by my eyes, my nose, my double chin, or my thinning crown. None of that actually means anything beyond what was written into my DNA by the great cosmic finger. I suppose that’s why I’ve blogged for so many years but always used something else to stand as proxy for me.

I grew up watching TV and admiring people who seems enormously gifted in the things they did but were also humble by their achievements. My earliest comedy hero was Spike Milligan, though I was a few generations too young to have heard The Goon Show. Milligan never seemed overtly bothered by his appearance and that never mattered to me. Nobody seemed that bothered by their appearance. Oliver Reed (who it’s so easy to forget was really talented actor) would appear drunk on TV and the great Barry Humphries would occasionally adopt the personal of Les Patterson and push the boundaries of unpleasantness. Peter Cook smoked and was cruel on mainstream TV and there were truly abrasive stars on film and television that were somehow more human because they were abrasive.

Yet at some point, a change started to happen. Beautiful people started take over TV and shows lost their rough but life-affirming edge. TV forgot that we get most pleasure from moments of accident and unpolished spontaneity and replaced it with a professionalism that remains obvious to this day. We entered into the Vernon Kaye years when men could be famous for simply being famous. When Vernon Kaye could be famous for being Vernon Kaye, whatever the hell that actually means. Sky News has gone from a young upstart that broken the rules by broking news, often via hastily set up cameras, to a channel that seems to exist to review the day’s papers in the company of two polished London types, one usually a professional woman with big hair and who self-importantly describes herself as ‘writer and broadcaster’ and some bequiffed shirt-open-to-his-navel Henry who trots out the usual slightly right of centre guff.

It’s why I detest polish in TV and why I’m drawn to enjoy comedy that isn’t hugely professional. It’s why, for example, I rate Stewart Lee so highly. I know that some of what he does isn’t funny but I’m pretty sure he knows that too and that’s why it’s hilarious. It’s not because he couldn’t do what other comedians do and do with perfection. It’s because he doesn’t want to do what they do and that’s what I always seek out. There is more to life than perfection. There is more to life than vanity and appearance.

So I don’t do Facebook and I’ve written everything I’ve ever written under other names and I’ve never once published anything to the internet as the real me. Yet thinking about this over the course of the past few days, I find myself wondering if there can be any form of success these days without a preceding image. Those people we celebrate the most are often accused of being ‘all image’. They are the celebrities who have no real or discernable talent other than the talent of being themselves in loud and obvious ways. Perhaps that’s part of the ‘postmodern’ condition that we all supposedly share where it’s impossible to separate the artist and his work. I don’t know. There are exceptions. Robert Crumb is front and centre in most of the things he draws but he does so in a way that’s unruly and unkempt and perhaps that’s why I’m a fan. We are all part of the Gonzo generation in which the news can never be reported objectively. It sometimes feels like we don’t exist unless we have our faces in an avatar. I don’t have my face on the internet. In a sense, I don’t exist. The extroverts have won.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Best Mouse I Ever Owned


My beloved laser mouse has died. It was a ten year old Logitech RAG97 and simply the best mouse I’ve ever owned. I’ve just checked the websites and £50+ for the latest model is just too much, especially since I can never see myself wanting to use a mouse on glass, which seems to be the proudest boast of the current model. Instead, I’ve settled on a cheap but actually rebadged Anker mouse which promises to be suitably heavy, big enough for my big hands, and comes with a long six foot cord so it might take me a little time getting use to old-fashioned mousing. I hope it arrives by tomorrow. Doing everything by keyboard and stylus is driving me nuts.

Around 2am this morning, desperation had forced me to dismantle my Logitech following a Youtube lesson in how to fix broken mouse buttons. The fix worked for a little while and then stopped again and I was soon dragging the entire contents of hard drives into Photoshop when the button stuck. It means I’m now stuck waiting for the new mouse to arrive and with time to write instead of code, which is what I’ve been doing for weeks now.

Speaking of code: the game is going quite well. I’m utterly addicted to Unity which makes 2D game coding so easy. My game won’t be anything special but seeing the video of Murasaki Baby running on the PS Vita and also written in Unity, inspires me to throw everything into my work.

The day before yesterday I added a free look function which allows players to scroll around the world and yesterday I took the big step of changing the gameplay mechanic so it dealt with screen gestures rather than the buttons I’d previously been using. I also took an even bigger step of completely changing the game logic, distributing it around the individual game objects instead of putting everything in the single object simply because I didn’t quite understand the beauty of the Unity model.

The more I work on the game, the more I realise how much work still needs to be done in even the simple things like getting a score looking good on the screen. I also have to design enough playable levels to make it challenging and worth downloading. Today I intended to fine tune the physics of the game, to make it less realistic and a little more fun to play. And that has become my mantra. I don’t care about rough edges and even the logic of the world I’m creating. I just want it to be funny and fun to play. It’s a lofty goal and one I’ll undoubtedly miss but I want my aspirations pointing in the right direction.

Speaking, tangentially, of the wrong direction: on the freelance front, I’m currently being pestered for a photograph. The people I work for want to update their website with an organisational chart of their employees. I think I’m the only person holding out on providing a picture and I’m sorely tempted to provide a photo of Robert Redford circa ‘3 Days of the Condor’. The simple fact is that I don’t have my photograph anywhere on the web and I hold that as a point of principal. I detest Facebook, Google+ and Twitter which would have us believe that the entire world is made up of extroverts with great body image and sense of self. The last thing I want is to be doing is looking at pictures of myself but should I ever to decide to start posting photographs of myself, it would be to this blog and not to some completely fake organisational chart.

Some days I wish I could just give in to the whole ugly business of being a team player and just going with the crowd. But I guess the world is run by extroverts and there’s no place in it for an introvert who value his individuality. I always seem to be swimming against the tide. Every day I wake to find new motivational emails from the other members of ‘the team’ and one on Saturday actually made we wince. It was a supposedly poignant series of observations about life which included the thought that ‘I’m glad to have washing up to do because it means I’m not going hungry’. That’s not so bad but another was ‘I’m glad to pay my taxes because it means I have a job’. There were others and it made me reflect on the relative luxury afforded to even the poorest of us living in Western Europe with a relatively prosperous economy. My sympathies have increasingly swung, in recent years, towards the plight of the worker. I see it around me where people are exploited by a system that has found ways to ignore rules about employment rights. For example, I quite like the concept of getting Amazon deliveries on a Sunday but I also know that this luxury will eventually come (if it’s not done so already) at the expense of our right to have at least one day’s holiday a week. I know of a teacher who teaches at a school where staff voluntarily go in on a Saturday to teach extra lessons. This teacher refuses to do so as it’s not in his contract but feels increasingly pressurised to sacrifice his weekend. Of course, it will never be grounds for dismissal but he knows that there will come a time when his refusal will be noted by those in management and ways will be found to make him move on.

Yet, perhaps that’s the way of the world. Perhaps individuality is a decadent luxury. My problem is that I can never sacrifice the things I want to do – write, cartoon, or, currently, making a very silly computer game – simply for money that might make the hours left to me after work a little less miserable. My time is more precious to me and it’s deeply painful giving up time to serve other people’s ambitions. It perhaps explains why I have so much trouble communicating with my employers who aren’t in this country or even this continent and constantly feed me propaganda that denies the individual in favour of the team.

I’ve never been a team player. I’m an individual. An individual with a dead mouse and very little hope.

Thursday, 3 April 2014


Dear Blog,

I know I’ve not written in quite a long time but there haven’t been enough hours in the day to do everything I’ve wanted to do. I think things went crazy when I discovered Unity. Unity, if you don’t know (and why should you, my dear blog, when you’re just sitting on a server in a cupboard somewhere)… Unity is a Game Engine which makes game programming ‘easy’. And that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been creating a game and it’s making me very happy.

It was difficult at first. My previous App (oh, how simple it now looked), was written in Java whereas I’m writing my Unity scripts in C#  (pronounced C sharp) which is very similar to Java but not quite the same. I thought at first I might make a little app to display 3D models on the screen, just to see if I could, but I quickly fell in love with the 2D side of the Unity engine. My game is in 2D and I was delighted last night to finally get my background scrolling with as many levels of parallax as I care to create and the hardware can handle. The hard task going forward will be to create all the other graphics that I know I’ll need for the finished game.

It means I’ve been ignoring you, my dear blog, in favour of these newer pleasures. But I’ve not forgotten you entirely. There’s still so much work to do on the game that I know I’ll be distracted for weeks to come but I intend to write more updates. Like all things, I’m hesitant to talk about it until it’s done but I’ll try.