January 21, 2015

Ultima 1 Complete

I've finished streaming the first of the Ultima games, which features the arch-evil Mondain.

It's a fun game with more systems than I expected when I started out down this path, which is something I talk about in the videos a bit. There are multiple points of view (well, top-down and first-person, but on land and in space). The dungeons are randomly generated at start-up, and you're pushed into going into at least one of them. Combat is certainly somewhat bland, though there are a variety of vector graphic monsters underground and dungeons can be treacherous. There's space travel and real-time space combat. There are quests. There's also a fair amount of grind, no lie, but not nearly as much as in the next two titles.

What I especially liked about it, besides it being pretty system-y, was the reflection of Lord British's interests right there in the game -- clearly, this was a designer who liked a lot of the sorts of things I liked when I was a kid, Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars. Seeing that in the games I played then are a large part of why I'm a game developer today, and so I closed out the series talking a little bit about that, how it would be kind of great if there were such games for every sort of interest that young people have, regardless of gender or race or neurotypicality or what-have-you. As a result, we'd have a greater variety of game developers and we'd be able to grow the audience of games significantly.

Anyway, the four videos are linked below. I've started off on Ultima ][ and you can follow that on my YouTube channel.

Episode 1: Manual, character creation, and dungeoning

Episode 2: Transport, getting quests, and exploring the overworld

Episode 3: Space combat and more dying than I was happy with

Episode 4: I return to space briefly and then have an epic final battle with Mondain, with final thoughts

Thanks for watching!

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:46 AM | Comments (0)

January 05, 2015

Streaming Mt. Ultima

The Ultima series is one that covers kind of an important era of my life, in terms of game development: the first one came out around the time I was first gaming (the very early 80s, though I didn't actually play the first) and lasting just until I was actually a game developer myself, in the very late nineties.

I didn't play them all, though I have fond memories of hours of puzzling away at III and IV especially, on the Apple ][+ and then later, spending a significant amount of time (including one weekend marathon with a friend) finishing Ultima VII, which needed more horsepower than either of us had at the time. I read the review of Ultima VIII by Scorpia (not kind), and so skipped it. I dabbled with the Ultima Adventures and the Underworld, and I remember playing the demo for Ultima IX when it came out. "Avatar, you can't leave the house without your pants!"

It's a long and storied franchise, and I find it interesting in the various ways it changed over the course of its life.

So, I'm going to stream it all -- I picked them all up on GOG a few months ago. I thought about getting into streaming a wee bit as the end of the year neared, and it really fit the bill -- a series with which I have reasonable (though not exhaustive) familiarity, covering lots of eras of my own programming and gaming background. They also mostly run on a Mac, so while I'm traveling this spring, I should be able to take them on.

I'll skip the grindy bits and try to show the highlights for the most part, sticking to those parts which are illustrative and jumping ahead off-screen.

I hope you'll join me! I'll be on my Twitch channel and keeping an eye on the chat window in the meantime. I'll post back here with my YouTube channel once I've got those up, too, I'll be recording and streaming at the same time for those who miss it.

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:31 PM | Comments (0)

January 03, 2015

The Year in Review: 2014

Each year I like to run down how I spent my time -- my free time, in terms of entertainment and such -- and write it up for the blog.

When it came to how I spent my free time, this past year was mostly about one thing: reading. I read a fairly staggering 182 books in 2014, substantially more than I normally read, averaging a book about every two days.

I'm pleased to say, too, that I read pretty widely, with a mix of genres and literary fiction. Here were a few trends:

  • I read Robert B. Parker, who passed away a couple of years ago, prompting me to read or re-read all of the Spenser novels written by him. It was interesting to read them in a compressed way like this. I think my favorites are dotted in amongst the early stuff, though there are some series extras whose entries are all pretty good, such as the Gray Man. I quite enjoyed the lead-up to Spenser and Susan establishing themselves as each other's great love, though there are several missteps in terms of representation along the way. Anyway, I wrote about genre a few years back and about how PI novels attain their meaning through clashing a single world-view with a series of challenges, and it's kind of nice that Spenser's world-view has space for a deep and abiding love. Anyway.
  • I read all of the extant Harry Hole novels, by Jo Nesbo, a Norwegian author. These are quite different from the Spenser novels, denser, richer, though you start to get a feel for their rhythms maybe a half-dozen books in. Still, completely worthwhile and absorbing.
  • I tackled quite a lot of Alice Munro (something I'll continue in 2015) after her Nobel Prize win. She's definitely describing a sort of way of life, and you feel richer for having read her stories.
  • I also tackled quite a few of the NY Times Notable Fiction from 2013's list, and that's something I'll probably try to do again in 2015, albeit only the women authors, for now.
  • I read Van Der Meer's Southern Reach trilogy, and I found them thoroughly strange and darkly wondrous, reminding me strongly of the feeling of the film version of Stalker. Highly recommended for science fiction or weird horror fans, I'm not sure where exactly it fits in. I saw this in Entertainment Weekly, I think, which I get as a supporter of the American Film Institute.
  • My second big discovery of the year were these four books in a series by SJ Bolton (now attributed as Sharon Bolton), featuring a London police officer named Lacey Flint. They really hooked me, and I have no idea who to thank for turning me on to her. I look forward to more. (Maybe also EW?)

Anyway, turning to 2015 for books I've decided to make it a year of reading entirely women authors. I felt like there wasn't sufficient diversity in the reading I was doing in 2014 from a gender perspective (between 20 and 25% were women), and so I'm going to make a concerted effort to only read women. (I'll have to make an exception in some cases, because I expect to be doing more reading in games writing this year, mostly because I'm teaching that course at Wabash. But that'll be the exception that proves the rule.) I have a few specific women I want to spend a lot of time with: Ursula K. LeGuin, Agatha Christie (mostly the Poirot, but I may also delve into the Miss Marple), Toni Morrison, finishing off Munro's oeuvre, Ruth Rendell, lots of stuff. If anyone has any suggestions for women who write horror, I'm game.

I'd like to do a tumblr about this "year of reading women" so look for a link to that in the future.

I did watch slightly less TV this year, in favor of more movies -- 25 seasons of TV (down from 33 in 2013), and 149 movies. I saw a lot fewer at the theater this year... I've become very curmudgeonly about the distractions of crowds. (It seems like you can't go anywhere without seeing people checking their phones. I was at a musical performance Saturday night and across the aisle there was a woman checking text messages or something in the middle of a number. I just... why go out?)

That said, the movies I did see in the theater were mostly pretty good! I was once again surprised by the quality of a Planet of the Apes movie, and similarly with the latest Captain America -- my favorite films of that increasingly enormous franchise, because of the earnestness of the hero. Snowpiercer was really great, featuring my favorite Korean star, and Blue Ruin stood the revenge picture on its head in a way, with some beautiful and clever shots. Plus I saw a handful of old favorites on the big screen again, which is always a treat.

The big stories in streaming for me this year were finishing off Star Trek: The Next Generation with my son (no idea what we'll do next, maybe BSG?) and my "31 Nights Streaming Screaming" that I did a tumblr for throughout October. I might try to do another marathon like that this year, we'll see... it turns out to be pretty grueling and take a fair amount of time away from everything else, but who knows.

Not listed in my viewing but a substantial amount of time was watching Casey Muratori live-program a game from scratch. I've watched maybe 20 hours of that stream and it's great fun. Highly recommended for streamers.

In terms of games, I finished slightly fewer than in 2013; I think I finished 25 in 2013, and I only made it through 17 this year, still mostly going through my back catalog. The games that grabbed me most were Deadly Premonition (just typing out the name makes me want to go and spend more time there), Super Mario Galaxy (which I finished first as Mario, and then as Luigi, making it the first Super Mario game where I've actually gotten all the stars), and Fez, which occupied a week or so of sick time in September and which is just a masterpiece of design.

This year, I've decided to at least play 14 games: I'm going to stream the Ultima series a couple of times a week. I've already finished playing through the first three to familiarize myself with them and hope to get set up with streaming this week. At the moment, especially with the early games, I intend to skip around to the best bits -- there's quite a lot of grinding, especially in the first few games. I'm also using various Internet resources to familiarize myself with the game, though I'll give viewers a sense of how you were supposed to solve these games back in the day.

The big thing I failed at in 2014 was making a game a month -- I did one in January and one in February, and then I abandoned it because I was working full-time on Sixty Second Shooter. It's something I'd like to do more of in 2015, but I don't know honestly if I'll find the time. I have a more substantial code base of my own, now, and if there are things on my general tech to-do list that could support a game of its own (or be a central feature) but at the same time move forward my code-base in support of my more ambitious projects, I'll do that. I don't know... it's possible I'll be able to do more. We'll see.

One last thing -- a former co-worker and friend of mine and I are going to give a podcast about indie life a go, more on that as it develops. That's yet another project for this year. I guess I'll be busy.

Cheers, and a great 2015 to you all.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:17 AM | Comments (0)

December 08, 2014

Giving Back

My good friend Michael Abbott hasn't said anything as yet, but I know it's alright to let the cat out of the bag now, so I'm pleased to announce that I will be spending the first semester of 2015 as an artist in residence at Wabash College, as part of the Digital Arts and Human Values Initiative (DAHVI). DAHVI is supported by the Mellon Foundation and in its first three years will be sponsoring residencies for a broad class of "digital artists," which in my case means game design.

My residency will be partly virtual; I will spend five discrete weeks on the campus helping to teach a course in game design to undergraduates. When not on campus, I'll be available to students and faculty via email and I presume Skype and IM and whatnot. The point of the residency is both the class but also to be a sort of partnership between myself and students and faculty in my work -- I'll be designing and testing stuff in public, getting feedback, that sort of thing.

This came about from a visit to the campus about a year ago -- I went to give a lecture to Professor Abbott's freshman class about indie games, had a more targeted discussion with some especially motivated students, and also sat for a Q&A with an open audience¹. At the time, the DAHVI project was still in the proposal phase, and I read a draft to give feedback not long after my visit. It never occurred to me that I might be asked to be the first DAHVI artist, and I was really honored and a little bowled over when Michael extended the invitation this past August.

About a month ago now, I visited the campus again, this time to give a lecture and specifically give students a sort of teaser about the sorts of things I think about as a working game designer. I focused on how games deliver meaningful human experiences, drawing first on very well-known games and then narrowing to smaller games of the last decade and finally to my own ongoing work and some recent design problems I've had to overcome and how I thought about them. I talked a lot about the MDA framework but touched on other lenses for meaning as well. I also sat in on discussions in some other classes and met with faculty and staff about this and other initiatives going on at Wabash right now. Beyond that, I also saw a lot of very good theater, including Guys and Dolls and some wonderful short one-acts, acted by students and the wider Wabash community. I felt really welcome there. It was a wonderful, full, exhausting and exhilarating week.

Students in the course will be making games; we'll definitely offer Twine and for the more technically ambitious², other freely available engines. We may remix some board games. We'll do a bunch of reading, and we'll play each others' games.

I'm really grateful for the opportunity; it's a way for me to give back to higher learning. I am myself the product of a liberal arts education. I've found that background to be hugely helpful in my professional life; it gave me a broad base upon which to build different ways of learning and thinking about problems. I think students of a liberal arts tradition have much to offer to professional and civic life. I also think it enriches my personal life, and of course in a creative profession that all tends to blend together a bit.

In any case, I'll be in Indiana a lot come this springtime and probably somewhat more public about my work generally starting then. I've got a little game I've been working on this autumn and another, much more ambitious game in progress that has lots of moving parts. Although my first year out of AAA development has been moving along slowly (by design), I'll be pushing the pace a bit more come 2015. I'm really proud and excited that I'll be doing that at Wabash.

¹I also got to sit on a memorable mix of the acting and directing classes, which had some very game-like exercises to help directors loosen up their actors. Interesting stuff.
²There are no coding prerequisites for the course.

Posted by Brett Douville at 05:35 PM | Comments (0)

November 21, 2014

My current podcast list

Here's all the stuff I'm currently subscribed to (will mark stuff as "inactive" or "infrequent" as appropriate):

Games podcasts:

  • Designer Notes: Soren Johnson interviewing other designers, updates apparently monthly
  • Game Church: Discussions with game developers about belief (and maybe my favorite new podcast; note, I'm on it this week)
  • Giant Bomb Interview Dumptruck: Patrick Klepek records the interviews he does as the basis of articles for Giant Bomb, no set frequency (maybe one every other week)
  • Infinite Ammo: Host Alec Holowka interviews other indies, sporadic, tends to happen monthly for a while and then die down
  • Play Date: Davey Wreden and Shay Pierce play old games... hasn't updated in quite a while, may be dead
  • Sit Up and Shut Down: Monthly, SU & SD folks, enjoyable, board games
  • Talking Devs: GamaSutra started this, did three eps and nothing recently, possibly dead on arrival
  • Tone Control: Subscribed but is done in seasons, no idea when host Steve Gaynor will interview more designers for season two
  • A Life Well Wasted: probably ought to give up on this one, probably never coming back
  • Brainy Gamer: have put last because it's on hiatus -- Michael and I have talked about bringing it back, but recent cultural events have really kind of bothered me about this

Non-games podcasts:

  • 99 Percent Invisible: General design podcast with Roman Mars
  • Bullseye: General culture podcast with Jesse Thorn
  • Dinner Party Download: Culture and food podcast, weekly
  • Filmspotting and Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit: Film podcasts about new releases and streaming stuff, updated weekly and bi-weekly, respectively
  • Judge John Hodgman: Weekly silly internet cases, often quite funny but with heart
  • Selected Shorts: Actors read short fiction for audiences, updates weekly -- good stuff, usually a couple stories per episode
  • Serial: Spin-off of This American Life, revisiting a murder case in Baltimore MD (or as The Wire had it, Body-more, Murdaland)
  • Slate's Culture Gabfest: Cultural discussions on weekly topics with Dana Stevens, Julia Turner, and Stephen Metcalf
  • The Truth: Short radio dramas, weekly when in-season
  • This American Life: If you haven't heard of it, can't help ya :)
  • Welcome to Night Vale: Weird. Look it up if you've not heard of it. Tend to binge-listen on long drives.
  • What Are You Reading: Matt Debenham interviews authors about what they're reading, and what they read as kids that they remember

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:21 AM | Comments (0)