My Ugly Games #1: Ugly Orbs

August 9, 2009


FROM JASON’S COMPETITIVE NATURE — It’s not that I hate Andrew, or want to crush him with my gauntlet of justice, or desire to tread over the dusty remains of his bones.

It’s just that when I saw his most recent post — the first in seven months — about his Lovely Games experiments with Lua and Love2D, all that nostalgia about using ClickTeam’s software came rushing back.

Here’s Ugly Orbs, the sworn arch-enemy of Lovely Squares. Maybe more will come. Who knows? I have some old games sitting around that have been complete or half-complete for four or five years. Boy, those were fun.

See, while Andrew’s been learning fancy-schmansy methods of “programming” and “coding” and “scripting,” I laid out some big bucks a few years back for The Games Factory and later MultiMedia Fusion. These object-oriented engines are very good at helping you slap together working applications using a WYSIWYG interface, an intuitive event editor to tell your game pieces how to act, and a graphics editor that’s fairly full-featured (I still use Photoshop for most sprite editing, though).

So the game that Andrew spent 10 hours on last week took me about four with the help of the right software. And I’m a retard, barely able to navigate Linux, write HTML, or edit a config.sys file. So if I can emulate his skills, you know ClickTeam’s stuff is powerful magic.

By the way, most of the sprites I used came from a Sinistar clone. They were released into the public domain by the author over at Lost Garden. It’s very possible that (if I can rouse the energy and willpower) I might do a shooter using the same graphics.

My Lovely Games #1: Lovely Squares

August 5, 2009

FROM ANDREW’S LAPTOP–I’ve taken my first steps into learning lua, proper game programming, and the love2d game engine. Love2d is a lightweight game engine that allows you to create games in lua. I’ve decided to take on a project in which I create some sort of game/tech project every two weeks. The goal is not to make these games perfect or polished by any means, but to just get them created and published (which means they may be buggy). I decided to take this approach because it will allow me to get as much content out as possible without being a perfectionist.

The first game I made took me about two evenings. It’s called Lovely Squares. The object is to navigate your cursor (a blue box) to other blue boxes to score points. Hitting pink boxes will reset your score and your position. There were a couple things that I wish I could have got working (a growable box and increasing speed of the squares), but I wanted to get the game out as quick as possible before I had to pack things up to go to university.
Lovely Squares
Download the game here.

All you have to do to run it is unzip the file and run LovelySquares.exe

Those darned kids are smarter than we are — from 4-bit to 128-bit in three decades

July 31, 2009

2600FROM JASON’S HOPE FOR THE FUTURE — Humans are a bunch of idiots. We’re barely even smart monkeys. Want some proof?

Pork sales dropped by almost half when the “swine flu” made headlines. George Lucas cast both Jake LLoyd and Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. The McCain-Palin ticket got 59.9 million votes in November 2008. Decca Records refused to sign The Beatles to the label in 1962. People choose to sky-dive.

Tom Hanks turned down the lead roles in Field of Dreams, The Shawshank Redemption, and Jerry Maguire. A man who in 2007 robbed a Kansas City Family Dollar tried to make his getaway from police via a city bus. Ross Perot had a chance in 1979 to buy Microsoft for mere millions of dollars and passed it up.

The good news is that we’re getting smarter. I recently stumbled across the Wikipedia article on the Flynn Effect, named after James Flynn, Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. His research shows intelligence quotients in much of the civilized world continue to rise year over year by three points per decade.

I thank Pac-Man.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the l’il yellow guy take all the credit for the big jump in human progress. But let’s just think about the evolution of games of the past three decades.

Do you remember the Atari 2600? That glorious hunk of wood-paneled junk was my go-to machine for much of my happy childhood — back when a color television was still considered a luxury and you could rent a VCR from your corner video store. The game titles were not zeniths of strategy. You bounced a four-bit block between two paddles in Pong. In Space Invaders, you had two directions to move and one direction to fire. Pole Position had you negotiating gentle turns… once in a while.

The 2600 had one button.

Let’s explore, by way of contrast, some modern games:

In Left 4 Dead, my game of the year, you have to coordinate with four other players to strategically clear hordes of zombies using multiple firearms and incendiary devices in a dynamic 3D playing area, securing certain strongholds and using classical war techniques such as bottle-necking, construction of kill-zones, triage, fire walls, safe rooms, and sniper nests to stay alive in a destructible environment, often overcoming attacks by unpredictable hordes and special-class zombies.

Oblivion lets players loose in a 16-square-mile fantasy sandbox game world with dynamic time and weather events, with more than 1000 characters to interact with, and just as many monsters. Players choose to become one of 10 races and 21 classes, each with customizable skillsets, weapons, armor, statistics, and backstories. In addition to the world-spanning and epic main plot, there are 220 side quests, making for hundreds of hours of exploration, goals, and rewards.

Age of Empires III pits eight competing European colonial powers against each other in a real-time strategy rush to conquer the New World circa 1492 to 1850. Players control up to 200 combined military and domestic units each and can build 20 different building types, each granting various abilities, resources, upgrades, and tactical advantages as opponents square off in huge melees with competing objectives for victory.

That’s a little more complex than jumping over Donkey Kong’s falling barrels, isn’t it? And kids today have no problem running roughshod through these games, barely stopping for breath before moving on to the next new release.

I mean, these kids with their new-fangled games and their mad skillz make me feel like a frickin’ retard. And I’m part of the Information Age generation, despite my white hairs. I hate to think how much like dinosaurs my grandparents feel; my wife’s grandmother didn’t even have a telephone until she was a teenager.

No wonder kids are getting smarter. Look how much more demanding their entertainment is — today’s video games challenge them to think more laterally and do far more in-depth problem solving than freeze tag, passive TV-watching, baseball, or checkers ever did.

Gamers think differently than non-gamers, a July article in Neuropsychologia says (according to some guy on the Internet. I didn’t actually read it). Video games change how players allocate their attention, testing proved, forcing them to set priorities, discard irrelevant information fed to them in the game, respond more quickly to targets, and pick up better on in-game cues.

ABC News reported in 2005 that a University of Rochester study showed gamers scored 13 percent higher than non-gamers when asked to count the number of squares that flashed on a screen for a 20th of a second.

A now-famous 2003 study in Nature quoted the same university’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, saying video games improve visual skills. Four experiments, including the one mentioned above, showed habitual gamers outperformed their non-gaming counterparts. A fifth showed that non-gamers improved after sitting down in front of the screen to play.

Hell, my mom can’t even figure out Tetris, and Guitar Hero (on easy) destroyed my dad. Yet I’ve seen perfectly average six-year-olds pick up Pokemon Platinum and start kicking ass. I think the correlation is perfectly clear.

I’m not saying I’m going to deprive my kids of a good game of basketball in the driveway to force them to play, say, NBA Jam. But in the face of the evidence, I’m not going to lie to them and say the vidjagames will rot their brains.

Galactic Arms Race has its gimmick… but it needs more to keep me coming back

July 14, 2009

FROM JASON’S LASER BEAMS — Look, this is a pretty old story and you know it by heart. It’s all about the grind. You kill things and you get credit for it, until you get enough credit that you can achieve a higher level.

That’s the way of World of Warcraft, of Dungeons and Dragons, of Final Fantasy. It’s how repetitive games progress. Everything else is embroidery.

That embroidery is what sets one grind apart from the rest… just not by much.

In the case of Galactic Arms Race, the freeware space shooter, the gimmick is the AI that constantly mutates new weapons based on an algorithm called cgNEAT.

To reduce it to Atari-speak, GAR is basically a fusion of Asteroids and Solaris with PvP and RPG mechanics thrown into the mix. You fly (solo or multiplayer) through a network of star systems taking on aliens, pirates, and space blobs while gaining experience and pumping up various armor and weapons stats. It’s got all the laser-filled shmup-ability of Japanese shooters with the same “just one more level” carrot offered by WoW.

GAR‘s the kind of DLC you would have killed to find back in 1995 — quick, resource-friendly, set against beautifully rendered space dust, and with constantly evolving (to a point) content. But when boiled down to its fundamentals, GAR is more a toy than a game.

What I mean is that no matter how many different ways the game finds to fire weapons (which so far are all variations on a very narrow theme), the shoot-and-level game idea has pretty much reached a dead end. For three decades, shoot-em-ups have been repackaging of the old tenets of Galaga.

What could move GAR further away from the realm of Galaxian et al would be a hybridization of mechanics. It would benefit tremendously, for instance, by incorporating trade or cargo-hauling, wreckage salvaging, mining, or some other similar components. The relative monotony could also be lifted by introducing personalities or (who knows) political interaction with the various enemy factions, or possibly a combination that could allow a control-the-map strategic element similar to RISK.

For now, that doesn’t seem to be part of the plan, and that’s okay if you want a few hours of mindless blow-shit-up-and-get-more-powerful fun. But that old chestnut gives dimishing returns on replay… especially when you’ve hit level 62 and start to get sleepy.

Don’t get me wrong. I like GAR, or I wouldn’t have put about six hours into it over the past few days. That’s why it’s worth talking about. It really is a terrific effort, especially for a university group project. I just need a little more meat, that’s all.

Wallpaper of the Week: Team Fortress 2

July 11, 2009


FROM JASON’S WALLPAPER FOLDER — Admission time: I am not good at first-person shooters. I’m just not. My synapses are better suited to slightly slower-moving games. And I get irked by insta-deaths that I couldn’t see coming.

That happens a lot in Team Fortress 2.

So I resisted picking up Valve’s update of the classic MMOFPS for the longest time, at least until Steam lowered the price for a weekend deal to a paltry $9.99 a month or so back.

Since then, I’ve spent the better part of 40 hours getting fragged in every way imaginable: flamed, riddled by shotgun shells, darted to death, mowed by machine gun fire, rocketed, proximity bombed, caught unawares by a sentry, napalmed, arrow through the head — you name it.

I’ve took a few lives myself.


The engineer is my man. There’s nothing more satisfying than putting a sentry gun just out of sight around a high-traffic corner and watching it take out four or five opponents before it’s demoed.

I do have some complaints, though. The engineer needs more traps. What about pitfalls, tripwires, and logjams? For that matter, why can’t he build energy shields or barricades? And he’s not the only one who’s under-powered. C’mon, Valve, the medic deserves a better gun — one that doesn’t take 400 direct headshots to bring down a scout


I’ve spent more time playing those two classes than all the others combined, and I’m all thumbs when it comes to the spy (average lifespan there is about 12 seconds). And I’m just getting into the groove with the demoman, who I believed at first to be completely useless and now understand to be the perfect anti-engineer character.

I’m also coming into my own with the sniper, as long as there is sufficient cover to be had; he’s almost as good with a submachine gun as a rifle scope.


So I went looking for TF2 wallpapers and found a lot of very lame ones, sporting poorly-done¬† fan art and little charisma. What I decided is that expertly-timed screen caps of in-game action make for the best desktops — especially when they show imminent doom for our players. Enjoy these 1024×768 beauties, and as always, click to embiggen.

Wallpaper of the Week: More Left 4 Dead

June 9, 2009


FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — Saying no to progress just doesn’t make sense.

So I don’t really understand the pathetic whinging some players are doing this week after the announcement that Left 4 Dead 2 will hit Steam this November. Some idiots who take themselves far too seriously are even trying to push a boycott of the new game, and have written a “manifesto” touting their lame opposition.

It’s laughable. And it’s not logical. For some reason, they thought Valve — a for-profit company — was going to endlessly give away free downloadable content, expanding the L4D universe for nary a nickel.

Well, in a way, they already have. They gave us survival mode and new versus maps in May, and released the Source SDK for the game. What more could you ask for? Already, a modding and mapping community has sprung up, offering enormous and rather professional campaigns that are easy to install and use.


The most complete, atmospheric fan-made maps I’ve found so far are Death Aboard (the shipyard is a lot of fun with a sniper rifle) and Dead City (the drawbridge, especially).

Given the short time since the SDK release, these campaigns are almost finished and still a little rough around the edges, but they tend to be A) larger than the official levels, B) just as inventive, and C) filled with far, far more zombies to blast into motionless corpses.

I’m also rearing to see the completed Death Knell, which is so far spooky as hell, and Brain 4 Dead, which has far more open space and novelty settings than some of its contemporaries.


Sure, these DYI projects have their little failings; they tend to be a little too claustrophobic and maze-centered, with not much in the way of alternate routes. Sometimes they put ledges or jumps at just the wrong distances, causing undue frustration during horde-rushes. The designers can also can be obsessed with setting up dubiously convenient sniper posts and safe-platforms, which can take some of the fun out of the hunt.

But not much.

I don’t care. As much fun as the SDK-made campaigns are, I’m ready for L4D2: Electric Boogaloo, which supposedly sports chainsaws, frying pans,¬† axes, and incendiary ammo. It’s all about the add-ons, the new mechanics that will add a whole new gameplay depth (not to mention replayability).


There are, as you no doubt have already read from E3 coverage, three more special infected planned, with one already revealed as the Charger, a sort of mini-tank. The regular infected are getting a little heartier this time around, and some are even clad in Haz-Mat suits to resist your molotovs.

So I’m excited, not only for what’s available right now, but what’s coming. And those L4D2-haters can get the bird. That’s why I went scrounging for some more L4D wallpapers to share this week. Enjoy.

Left 4 Dead’s got great strategic scope, but hopefully modders will add even more

February 21, 2009

FROM JASON’S APOCALYPTIC ARSENAL — Despite initially cheerleading for the game, some critics said Left 4 Dead was destined to sparkle and fade in a matter of a month.

Well, two months after install I am still happily slaying hordes of the infected in the sewers under Mercy Hospital and under the shadows of trees in Pennsylvania state parks. True, there are plenty of things I’d love to see added to the game: the ability to build barricades, turrets, trip wires or razor wire, lay land mines, use flame-throwers, bazookas, place oil slicks, plant dynamite, string barbed wire fencing, use rivers and streams tactically, use chainsaws, axes, and baseball bats, set up stakes….

All that may well come when Valve releases its Source Development Kit this spring, along with additional free levels in which to go-a-zombie-slayin’. I’m hoping that some clever fan-boys with coding skills will dream up some brilliant maps with ample opportunities to lay ambush sites and take to snipers’ nests.

In the meantime, Left 4 Dead is still holding my attention quite well. As Tinker-Toy-ish as the game is in its simplicity, it still offers a wide strategical array if you’re willing to communicate with other survivors. For instance, I recently discovered how overlooked and powerful the hunting rifle actually is (see YouTube video above).

Every n00b starts with the machine guns — as was evidenced last weekend when waves of squeaky-voiced 12-year-olds inundated the servers as Steam ran a half-off sale. Those pimply newcomers made all the rookie mistakes. They shot alarmed cars, nailed boomers at close range, and walked through metal detectors. Worst of all, they all went straight for the uzis and assault rifles.

Now the automatics aren’t all bad, but they suffer for a lack of precision and punch. Most seasoned players stick to the auto shotgun, but I’ve found the rifle has enough stopping power to punch through multiple zombies with a single shot, and the versatility to pull one-shot-one-kill from afar with the sniping scope.

Now, the rifle’s not going to do much against a tank (unless you get far enough away to put several clips in him), but it’s perfect for picking off un-alert infected while sitting high above, or zeroing in on smokers and boomers before they can get in range to do harm. It’s even perfect (refer once more to my video) for dropping slugs into a witch while sitting safe and sound across open ground.

So this is the second time I’ve gone all fanboy over Left 4 Dead. The first time, I mentioned that it sports enough strategic nuances to make Sun Tzu proud; at the time, it was a throw-away joke, but since then I’ve taken the time to actually read The Art of War — something I’ve always wanted to do. You should read it, too. It’s short.

Anyway, the bulk of the work focuses on command decisions, understanding your enemy, marshaling troops, and managing them on the field. But in reading the translation, there were several tactical truisms I couldn’t help but apply to Left 4 Dead:

“In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack – the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers. The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn.”

This is true. In game, you can run around shooting the undead until your ammo is gone, or you can lure them into fire, draw them in crowds to pipe bombs, or push them from ledges to their deaths on the pavement or ravines below.

“Should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.”

Remember how Hitler (and Napoleon before him) tried to march into the Eastern and Western fields of battle at the same time, and his forces were ground to hamburger? Waging a multi-front war is a bad idea, and my blood turns to ice when brash young players want to “each take a window and hold them off” instead of bottlenecking. Speaking of which:

“With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy.”

Dead ends are your friend. Get your back against a wall, load your weapon, and let the zombies pour through the narrow openings like Persians onto the waiting swords of Spartans. If Leonidas taught you just one thing, it’s that a very few can hold off millions if the correct terrain is chosen to make a stand.

“With regard to precipitous heights, if you are beforehand with your adversary, you should occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up.”

Seek high ground. It takes time for infected to climb the sides of a truck, or a perch, or a stairwell, or a building. And they can’t attack while climbing, either. It’s true in both swordplay and gunplay — take the high road, and the advancing enemy below will fall into your hands.

“…Those who use fire as an aid to the attack show intelligence…”

This is so elementary: Set up gasoline cans in key zombie rush lanes, wait for them to pour into the gap in numbers, and then ignite the fuel with a single shot. Watch one bullet and a little hydrocarbon wipe out two-dozen infected. Arm a molotov and repeat.

These are all tremendously simple tactics, but the wonderful thing about Left 4 Dead is that the designers left a rich and varied topography where they can be applied in many ways. After all, the game is fairly limited in scope when you strip it down to the essentials — a few select weapons, health packs, and fire. But it’s the combination with the environment that keeps me going back, and I don’t expect my fascination with the game to run dry anytime soon.