Friday, 20 June 2014

The Great World Cup Meh...

Gratified to see England lose last night, though I take little pleasure in saying that. I love watching England matches but Hodgeson is the wrong man. Since he's been in charge, my indifference to international football has become total. He's doing with England what he managed to do with Liverpool: turn a talented team into plodders. This morning he claims he won't resign even if England fail to leave the group stages for the first time since, I believe, 1958. That's the corporate mentality that the FA wanted and I'm sure they're delighted to see it. Stick in their for your gold clock, Roy...

My lack of World Cup fever means I have more energy to devote to the game. Everything feels like it's become more imminent. I've had a surprising number of responses to my request for Beta testers and I now realise that I'll be having strangers look at my work. It makes me desperate to get it looking better than it is. I spent yesteray building a tutorial system which I hope will help people understand the basics of the thing I've created. I also recorded better music (I've sorted out the problem with my microphone).

Yet the harder I work, the more things need fixing. Introducing the tutorial system yesterday caused yet more problems I have to fix before the beta version can go out. I've taken an approach that overlays instructions on the screen whilst pausing the action in the background. However, touching the tutorial screen also interacts with the background controls, so I've got to go through and place conditional checks on every control to ensure they're disabled when a tutorial screen is showing. It's the kind of thing you don't notice when playing a game and you might imagine takes little time. The truth is that most of my time is spent spotting and fixing this kind of problem.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Beta Testers Wanted

Other than saying I'm still here, I'm blogging to see if anybody out there has an Android phone or tablet...

But I'm getting ahead of myself...

In the end, I had no choice. It was either buy a new drive or give up any serious hopes of ever again using this PC. I've also taken a deep breath and started to draw new cartoons, with the determination that I'll now store them in more than once place, even if it means doing as Leg-Iron wisely suggests, backing things up to DVD.

And after a day of struggling to get my new WD drive into my machine (and, for the first time, I've stuck fans on it in the hope to prolong the drive's life) I've now reestablished the basics of my work environment. After my email and browser (how many people must use Internet Explorer just to type the word 'Chrome' and then never us it again?), I also managed to get Unity up and running. Getting back to Unity has been the thing I've been eager to do since the crash on Sunday.

Late last week, I'd reached the stage where I've started to canvass thoughts aboutt game. I was delighted when the usual cynics I've shown it to were surprisingly positive and offered a few good (and the odd not so good) suggestions. This week is about putting these final touches to what will become Version 1.0 of the game which I aim to get onto the Play store before the end of the month, though that's a big ambition when I still need to implement a tutorial system.

Which brings me to my offer, which I doubt will be taken up by anybody out there but I'll make it anyway... If anybody fancies acting as a Beta tester of my game, then please drop me a line (via the Contact page or my email). You only need an Android tablet or phone and a willingness to lie and say that you've been reading my blog for a long time and would love nothing more than test a ridiculous game. At this stage, I just want to know if the game actually runs on a variety of hardware other than the Samsung phones and tablets I've had access to so far.

I wish I could afford to pay you but this is the internet and none of us get paid for anything we do but I will promise to include a juicy credit in my game's acknowledgements screen.

You'll also get a chance to be the first people to get to play the game, hear my bad guitar fingerpicking, voice acting, and (possibly -- yet undecided -- singing). At the very least, it should be a mildly amusing distraction from all the horrors of the world and, really, isn't that all we can hope for?

Monday, 16 June 2014

Never Turn Off Your PC

Never ever turn off your PC.

I've learned that the hard way over the last 12 hours. It's why I'm writing this in Wordpad and why my spelling will undoubedly stretch the limits of what a man can claim to be a mere slip of the finger.

I never turn off my PC but, yesterday, since I was going to be away from it for a few hours, I actually shut it down. I remember thinking to myself: David, you're taking a gamle. All that soldering has been running hot for so long. Don't you know that failures often occur because of the cooling and heating process on circuitboards? There's a chance this won't start up again.

And so it proved. Late last night, I returned home and discovered that my machine wouldn't boot. After about an hours struggle, I came to the horrified realisation that a hard drive had died.

I have (or had) four drives in this machine. A small drive for my operating system, two older drives that have come from previous machines, and a new Seagate 3Terrabye beast where I've done all my recent work.

Naturally, that is the drive that has died. Only now do I read the terrible reviews of the drive.

Not that bad reviews help me.

I had backed a few things up but not enough. My game, for one, is in a (hopefully) safe place but all the high resoltution files I'd created along the way to build the game are now gone. I've lost too many cartoons that I'm actually not trying to think about it. Possibly books too but, again, I'm not going to think too hard about what's missing.

Instead, I'm sitting here hoping that Disc Partition software might actually recover some of the data. The drive was split into two partitions and three successive trial verions of data recovery software have identied the first of the partitions. Naturally, the first partition didn't have anything that was actually worth recovering. All my important stuff was on the second partition and nothing seems able to see it.

Of course, I know the old mantra about always keeping a backup but I just couldn't afford a second drive to back up so much work. And now I can't afford to buy a drive to replace the one I've just lost. Today I'm just walking around feeling like this is all a bad dream. In the middle of realising I'd lost the data, my favourite chair broke. It had broke a month or two ago when a bolt snapped. Last night, a second bolt snapped around 1AM. However, as the Disc Parition software searched my 3 terrabytes for my work (4% and counting), I've mananged to fix the chair. It's a small victory but I feel like it was a pointless one. Even if I have my chair back and I still have a place to work, it feels pretty pointless.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Billy Bragg: The Video Game Hero

It feels like I've been building this game for months but I discovered today that tomorrow will mark eleven weeks. As far as development times go, that’s nothing. For me, it’s been eleven hard weeks of learning something entirely new and working long long nights. And it does, finally, feel like I’m nearing the end.

The past few days has been about adding a few aesthetic effects and balancing levels so challenges are neither too easy nor impossibly hard. Last night, I had one of my most important breakthroughs: I managed to integrate interstitial advertising into the game. It’s a horrible business, inserting these ugly ads into something you work so hard to get looking good but it’s the ugly reality of this business. Nobody is willing to pay for anything and advertising is the only way I’ll ever make any money from this terribly doomed project.

I’m also tidying up some of my animations, which look okay, though sometimes just plain rough. A better example of my animations (and, yes, this is the ‘good’ stuff!) is my Billy Bragg character (above), who features as one of the game’s heroes or antagonists, depending on which side of the political spectrum you fall. The game, as I think I’ve mentioned, is broadly satirical and Bragg acts as a nemesis to the game’s chief protagonist along with other celebs and politicos ranging from Stewart Lee to the Mayor of London.

I’m posting this Bragg video today because I like to prove that I’m not idle and because it links conveniently into a brief ramble about the most depressing thing I’ve heard in a long time.

Billy Bragg has confessed (perhaps tongue in angora bearded cheek) that ‘the internet has changed my songwriting by taking up all the time I used to spend writing songs’. He was talking on the today’s excellent Guardian feature, ‘Seven Digital Deadly Sins’, where he proceed to suggest that he spends most of his days watching a variety of people falling down holes.

I’m sure Bragg was playing up to the camera. At least, I hope to hell he was playing up to the camera. If not, then I’ll take my ticket now and catch the next bus off this lousy planet.

If the dimternet has tamed Bragg then what hope the rest of us? Had George Orwell been around today, would he be spending his time watching ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ (a video, I’m happy to say, that I’ve never seen) rather than writing ‘1984’? Or would he, as I’d hope, be among the few of us who are genuinely trying to cut ourselves off from the online world or, at least, merely use the medium without it robbing us of our lives and souls. I’ve written before that social media is the soma of this generation and nothing has changed to make me question that. I don’t think I’m simply being reactionary to say that we are losing strength in our mental limbs and we must do everything in our power to retain focus on the things that matter. Social media boasts about ‘ease’ and ‘speed’ and its integration into our lives but I fail to see how that’s a good thing. It’s why I find Bragg’s confession so depressing. He’s spent his life talking about activism yet it’s left to Bill Bailey’s contribution to the debate to point out how political engagement has changed with social media. Politics has become a trivial and, frankly, no so interesting meme in a greater world of hamster videos and fat people falling over.

That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the power of a good one liner, wit squeezed into 140 characters, but there is also a place for length, pace, argument, and complexity. In a separate piece yesterday, Will Self (who also, incidentally appears as one of the 'good guys' in my game), recommended books for teenagers based on their length. He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less depressing. Explore the places of difficulty in your life. It’s where you always discover the most fascinating revelations.

I suppose I’m as much a victim of this change as anybody. Friends shake their heads slowly, clearly thinking I’m a fool because I don’t get involved in social media. I’ve certainly made decisions I’ve regretted. I always thought my book by Stan Madeley (the UK’s top Richard Madeley lookalike ) would have been more popular than it was. The fact I didn’t engage in social media and publicity was plain stupidity on my behalf. Yet I’m stubborn when it comes to my convictions. Bragg is probably right when he concludes by saying that ‘everybody wants to be famous, nobody wants to be scrutinised’. That’s the world where people are more interested in celebrities for their celebrity rather than anything they actually do.

I genuinely can’t see the attraction of fame. Scrutiny sounds far more interesting. I’d rather be disliked by a few than loved by millions. I’d rather be Will Self than Katie Perry, Billy Bragg rather than Stephen Fry. Social media is made for the latter, which makes it sad when I see it embraced by the former.

This is a ramble but I’m tired and I suppose it’s when I’m tired that I can see that my Android game is only going to be another expression of my stubborn unwillingness to join the throng. Only I could make a game that skips merrily past the mainstream and attempt to attract a very small minority. I only hope just a few people will smile and appreciate that I’ve tried something a little different. I’m hopeful, for example, that it will be the only video game featuring Billy Bragg.

Naturally, he won’t be singing but, so far, neither will I. The game looks pretty good but it still lacks music. I’m still attempting to finish recording my closing satirical song, though getting a quality track is killing me. I’ve fingerpicked a pretty good acoustic guitar pattern and even if my £12 USB microphone isn’t exactly studio quality, it’s not entirely bad. My singing remains the problem. I can’t decide if it’s a problem of my accent (I sound terribly northern) or simply a weak voice. I’ve been recording multiple versions in different registers so I can stack my vocals. Oddly, I think I probably sound less bad singing as a group than I do singing alone but I’m finding it difficult to mix them into anything reasonably listenable. Ideally, I’d like to just record myself singing over the guitar but one mike and a bad voice don’t make for a good combination.

But that’s another ramble for another day and I must go and make this blog post available on social media. [sarcasm=true; walks_off = “chuckling maliciously”;]

Monday, 2 June 2014

Thinking Alpha

My intention this week (yes, I know it won’t happen) is to have a build of the game ready to give friends and family to play and report back any bugs / ideas / impossible to complete levels. I also hope to get access to a Mac to see if I can build a version to test on iPads and iPhones, though that’s less important given that I can’t see myself spending the £100 to buy an Apple developer’s license anytime in the near future. However, I’ve discovered that there’s a way for developers to send apps over the web to Apple devices, which will at least allow me to see how the game works in that alien environment.

Today I have two jobs. The first is to throw myself into writing the game text. I’ve (somewhat foolishly) created a game with plenty of places to insert funny stuff. The only point of the game is to make the player laugh and so there are dozens of arrays to fill with as many witty one-liners as I can fashion. They’ll get served dynamically as you play the game, hopefully meaning that it shouldn’t get too stale too quickly.

The second job is to get the app’s size down. Last night it stood at a whopping 47mb, which was worryingly close to the Google’s stores 50mb limit. It’s a problem of textures. Many of graphics are still the size they came of my Samsung tablet, which is where I’ve drawn everything for the game. A megabyte for a pair of underpants definitely seems like overkill. I’ve started to tinker with the texture settings within Unity, brining many of the textures that were 2048x2048 to 1024x1024, those that were 1024 down to 512, and taking icons down much further. I can barely see a quality difference on the screen and the app is already down to about 33mb.

My biggest breakthrough of the weekend was to get my game objects flipping across the x-axis. I’d read last week’s Unity changelog and noticed they had claimed to have fixed the bug which broke the physics engine when scaling negatively. However, when I sat down and tested this claim, scaling the objects by -1 on x, any physics attached to the objects immediately failed. I either had characters looking one way but their bodies acting as though they were facing the other or I had characters falling in a heap of body parts on the floor. Clearly, the Unity bug hasn’t been fixed.

After a little work, I realised that the problem seemed linked to having objects in a hierarchy. If, for example, I had a human figure with arms and legs and I created the usual hierarchy of hand attached to lower arm, lower arm to upper arm, upper arm to torso, etc, then the physics would fail when scaled by -1. However, removed from the hierarchy, they would work.

My solution was to recalculate the object’s physics settings and apply them on the fly as objects changed direction. Since the problem only occurs when objects moved out of the kinematic state (that is, went from being unaffected by the game’s physics engine to having all forced acting upon it) I would also only keep them in the hierarchy when the object is kinematic and then dynamically flatten the structure when I needed them to work under physics.

Christ, all of this must sound so very boring. Is there anything duller than tech talk to anybody other than a very smaller number of people who enjoying reading tech talk? Is it a sad confession to say that I actually visit the Unity forums just to read about this stuff?

Okay. I have writing to do including as many insulting put-downs as I can manage for my ‘failure’ screen.