Friday, 11 May 2012

Finished: The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity

The Inmates are Running the Asylum is a book by Alan Cooper about software design. Primarily that the culture around software design is pretty terrible and basically involves the wrong people (programmers) doing most of the design work.

It was written in the late 90s and fortunately the interface designs we see these days have improved, but this diminish the books fundamental points about approaches to design and project management.

The key problem with design by programmers is that programmers do not think like regular people, to be a good programmer you need to focus on ensuring that edge cases are handled and any given task should be either only completable once or an infinite number of times.

Normal people do not think this way, they think in terms of the general case, they also generally don't handle infinities most people are dealing with dozens of items at most.

The approach laid out in the book is to create and use personas associated with your product. These personas have names and characteristics. The point is to determine which persona(s) you are designing for. The point is not to make everyone slightly less unhappy, a great design is meant to make people that match that particular persona ecstatic.

This is something Apple does very well, they do not provide a lot of options, but they manage to instill loyalty in a great number of people because their designs make their products a joy to use for those people.

The other idea that I took from this book was to ensure when designing to focus on the goal, not on the individual tasks. Goals don't change much, tasks do. Tasks change with new technologies and changing costs.

I actually realised that the core idea behind my app was task based, it was more focused on the idea that I have this rear facing camera and microphone I want to use while taking notes. The goal is to get good and useful lecture notes, which means that I probably should take a slightly different approach.

The book was an interesting read, certainly not one I would have picked up myself, but a good one for anyone planning on creating software that they would like other people to enjoy using.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Completed: Quake II

A fist from the final cutscene

Quake II is a game with which I have an interesting relationship. I can remember starting it and finishing it multiple times since it was released. But I'm not sure that I ever actually reached the end of the game without cheating. I certainly know all of the secrets in the first couple of levels and how to kill the final boss, but I really didn't remember going through all of the steps the game takes to get there.

Quake II was part of my very first Steam purchase, the id Super pack, back in August 2007. I had intended at that time to finish all of the games in that pack before buying any more. Given the date of this post, that obviously didn't work out.

A tank in gameIt is pretty clear from the beginning of Quake II that id software were trying to introduce more story and story elements into their games. It actually has pre-rendered cutscenes, mission objectives that aren't reach the end of this level, some non-hostile NPCs and even an occasional voice over the radio.

The story isn't very complicated, you are part of a failed attack against Stroggos. Your pod malfunctioned which is the only thing that saved you from what pretty much wiped out or captured every other soldier in the attack. Your missions involve taking out key Strogg infrastructure and working your way deeper into their military-industrial complex so that you can take out their emperor and finish the war. A lot of the context and history justifying this is not stated in game but can be found in the manual, which I of course do not have.

A view througha window in game
The Quake II engine allowed them to relatively convincingly place me in a location. Warehouses, factories, prisons, palaces. They all actually look like they might actually conceivably be these places without requiring that they tell me what they are through other mechanisms. I don't recall this happening much in Quake and the first two Doom games. When you were told you were in a factory district you might then look at the level and think "Oh yeah, I can see that now" but it certainly wasn't something you could just intuit.

Patched version of Quake 2 in widescreen
This is a shot from the patched version of Quake II
Quake II feels old. There are obvious technical limitations such as the graphics, no widescreen and an odd issue with the music; all of these are fixable with sourceports since ID has open sourced the engine. I used KMQuake, so my screenshots are primarily from that. There is a patch that introduces widescreen support to the basic game, but it also removes the gun viewmodel which makes the game feel very strange to me.

The main reason it feels old is the mechanics, the player runs and guns at high speed, there are tons of enemies, you can carry as many guns as you can find and a large amount of ammo for each and there is no such thing as reloading or alternate fire. I really enjoy this style of game, which is now found in only a subset of FPSs, games like Serious Sam or Hard Reset. Modern FPSes tend to limit your carrying capacity, your speed and do terrible things like having enemies take cover and use basic tactics.

Just killed a bunch of guys, better check my messages.
You can see some modern elements creeping in or being trialed. The mission structure links maps together in sets allowing and requiring some backtracking and the player has an inventory. Rather than power ups being used immediately most make there way there, never to actually be used as the player saves them for a rainy day. I know I faced the final boss with an invulnerability and a couple of quad damages sitting unused there, even during that boss fight.

It was good to finally strike Quake II off the list.

Games list at time of post: 390 unfinished titles
Changes since previous post: Finished 1 title     

Monday, 7 May 2012

Finished: Yotsuba&! 10

Yotusba&! is a series by Kiyohiko Azuma, it follows the life of a precocious five year old girl in Japan.

This is not a manga series with magic or strange technology, it is simply about the titular Yotsuba and her daily life. She is admittedly pretty unusual, she has green hair, a strange hairdo, is adopted and is amazing curious and energetic.

The stories in the manga are all about Yotuba and her interactions with her dad, her neighbours and their friends as she misunderstands and learns about all sorts of things. It is an incredibly cute, funny and uplifting series about life through the eyes of a young child.

Volume 10 is no exception. It features Yotsuba playing hide and seek with her dad, making up games for them to play in the park, visiting an electronics store and her learning how to make pancakes.

I really love this series, I just don't know what else to say about it, it is one of the few manga series I am still actively following and whenever I go to order books I check to see if any new volumes have come out.

Friday, 4 May 2012

The Diablo III Dilemma

Diablo III comes out in less than two weeks. A lot of my friends have been following the release date of this game very closely, personally I haven't, for some reason I have not had that much interest in Blizzard's games since the first World of Warcraft expansion. I enjoyed the Warcraft RTS series, I played through the first third of Starcraft at a friend's place, I remember playing a ridiculous amount of the Diablo 1 demo and effectively racing my younger brother through Diablo II. All of these are games I played as singleplayer games.

The key problem I have with Diablo III is that they have implemented a system which is effectively always online DRM. While technically the game still offers single player, you are still required to be online and the game is hosted on servers. I do not support these game which are using this form of DRM.

This is not a new stance I have taken, I refused to pay money for Assassin's Creed 2 and only played it after Ubisoft were briefly selling it for free. This was despite being very interested in that franchise and reviews indicating that it is a genuinely great game. Singleplayer games that require a permanent internet connection are something I do not accept and I do not believe should exist. I do not want to implicitly support this by purchasing and using those products.

This made my plans regarding Diablo III straight forward, don't purchase it and largely ignore it unless they provide an offline option. I can simply wait and play Torchlight 2. It is a game in the same genre, I enjoyed Torchlight 1, and Torchlight 2 has offline singleplayer along with multiplayer, it even has LAN multi player.

What has made me reconsider purchasing Diablo III is my family. My younger brother has been really excited by it and has even bought a new desktop specifically for this purpose. My oldest brother has also been planning on grabbing it though he won't be able to play on launch day.

Whilst I talk to my brothers about games a lot I don't actually play many games with them. Typically they are playing on platforms I am not (i.e. consoles) or they are simply not playing games I am very interested in. The last game we played together was a few sessions of Titan Quest, which was a bit complicated to get working and we didn't end up playing together much.

Most of the multiplayer gaming I've done with my siblings has been split-screen on consoles and given that we have almost all moved out now, I don't really see us returning to that any time soon.

I am also I must admit, pretty bad at keeping up with communication, it is fairly easy for me to forget to reply to an email, especially if I see it on my phone but don't want to respond to it immediately. This is why I try to get to my parents place at least every couple of weeks to try to make sure I am keeping in touch with them. This does not work quite so well for keeping in touch with my brothers. Whilst I guess there is always Facebook, gaming with them would help. This is actually an idea my older brother has suggested a few times, but since he primarily plays Call of Duty on the PS3, it has never really happened.

So that is where I am at at the moment, trying to decide whether or not to get Diablo III. Basically it depends whether or not I expect that I can get my siblings to play Torchlight 2 with me later on in the year which is possible but uncertain. If I can do that, then it probably isn't worth compromising my values regarding always online games. If that isn't going to happen, I would rather get Diablo III and play with my brothers and friends.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Finished: Hunger Games Trilogy

The Hunger Games is a fairly popular young adult sci-fi series by Suzanne Collins. It is narrated by a girl named Katniss Everdeen and primarily is focused on her survival in a fairly harsh post-post-apocolyptic world.

Despite the core concept being pretty repellent I found the tale to be fairly intriguing. It is set in an oppressive society that helps to maintain order by a massive televised yearly bloodsport that all districts are forced to take part it. It is primarily about what is important for survival and what people will do in these circumstances.

I started reading the series after seeing the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games. I enjoyed the movie it did a really good job of presenting the concepts in the books, it changes from a first person tale to a third person focused story. We don't really get inside Katniss's head during the movie, but it only leaves her to provide the context that we miss without that first person narrative. Providing the audience with the more specialised information about hazards she is facing and a little bit about what her family and supporters are doing.

I am not going to do a more complete review as I am sure there are plenty of those on the internet already I am more interested in putting down my thoughts about the Hunger Games world.

The world we see in the books is fairly interesting and insular, Katniss is not in a position to get much historical education beyond the clearly very biased state based view. We get a reasonable amount of information about Panem, its capitol and the thirteen districts, but there is no extended history provided. The reader learns that there were 'the Dark Days' where the thirteen districts rebelled unsuccessfully against the Capitol and the thirteenth district was destroyed as an example, but we never learn what happened to the outside world nor about the formation of Panem.

It is clear that at the very least the people of Panem believe themselves to be the only humans left on the planet, there was some kind of catastrophe, implied to be human caused, that wiped out most of the human world, possibly most of the habitable world too. That said, outside human habited lands there are certainly forests and oceans that are heavily populated by animals; some very dangerous animals due to the capitols genetic manipulation.

The first book mentions the population of district twelve as being about eight thousand, whilst it is one of the least important and smaller districts it does imply a fairly small overall population base. The third book also mentions repeatedly the concern that they might basically run out of people in the appropriate breeding age so I wonder what the overall population numbers are for Panem? Something in the order of five hundred thousand at most.

Similarly why have a district mining coal, the Capitol is reliant on the districts for pretty much all of their material goods but are they really still burning coal? Or is the coal to provide heat to the various district residents since the Capitol clearly must have other energy sources as they have hovercraft, forcefields and plenty of power. The Capitol never are shown as having energy problems even when they have civil unrest, unlike the material exports from other districts.

I am curious as to whether any of these are likely to be revealed during the later movies as these are questions I have from reading the books.