Category Archives: Game Theory and Design

What Will Your Verse Be?

Yesterday was the conclusion of WWDC 2017, and what a WWDC it was. It felt like everyone got what they wanted. Most developers got better stability in tooling and not too many changes to the core frameworks. We also got some breathtaking graphics and games APIs, like ARKit, along with easier integration for machine learning models, such as MLKit.

I watched the keynote in awe, my brain exploding with everything that was now possible in iOS. I had augmented reality on my wish list, so that thrilled me. But seeing how much love Apple gave Metal really touched me deeply. I have spent the last eight months working on a Metal book and I had feared that it would land with an unceremonious thump and no one would care about a three year old technology framework. The keynote gave me hope that Metal would be a continuing important part of Apple’s future for the time being and that my efforts were not wasted.

I downloaded the Xcode 9 beta with the intention of diving into ARKit. The beta still has not been extracted from its .zip file. I got home and immediately became overwhelmed by everything. There are so many new things. I tried to look at the docs but my head swam and I couldn’t deal with it.

The next day I started to see people posting their own AR efforts and a few days after that I started seeing ML efforts. I got very depressed. I left the keynote feeling like I was ahead of the curve and now I was already behind it again.

I feel we in the Apple Developer Community have been trained to jump on every new shiny thing Apple announces immediately. We all remember missing out on the Gold Rush when you could put out an app that you made over a weekend with some new piece of technology that Apple created and earn $10,000 in a week. The new Photos stuff allows us to do a vast but limited number of things and if you want your Photos app to be the top dog you have to get it out before anyone else does because you all have access to the same tools and the barrier to entry is low.

I want to be emphatic about this point: That is not the same situation with ARKit or Core ML.

My background is in the creative field. I wanted to be a film director and do sound design. My dream since I was a child was to have the Back to the Future experience of getting a box of books on my doorstep that had my name on them and to know I wrote a book. I have had that experience several times now and I feel quite blessed that I got to have that experience.

Anyone can write a book. We all have access to the same tools. There are fancy authoring tools like Ulysses and Scribner that cost $50, which is basically nothing compared to the cost of being an iOS developer. There are self publishing sites everywhere that will allow you to publish your book if no one else is interested, or if you don’t want to give up 50% of your royalties.

Just because anyone can write a book doesn’t mean everyone will write a book. Also, it doesn’t mean that someone else is going to write your book.

We still read stories that were written hundreds of years ago because they speak to something foundational about how we see ourselves as human beings. I read Tarot cards and the cards haven’t changed for a hundred years in spite of all of our changing circumstances because even though we all have iPhones and can connect at any given moment, what makes us human has not changed. We all worry about money. We all strive to advance in our careers. We all crave love. We all desire to have some kind of family, even if that family consists of friends and a grumble of pugs. Those aspects of ourselves don’t change.

A story by Jane Austin still resonates with us because we know how difficult it is to find another person you are willing to spend the rest of your life with. Romeo and Juliet still appeals to hormonal teenagers to whom every little bump in the road is the end of the world and for whom every relationship is forever. Unfortunately, the same applies to Twilight.

One reason so many people are appalled at the behavior of the Republicans right now in trying to strip tens of millions of Americans of their health insurance is because it goes against our script of what we think people should be like. Atrocities like the Holocaust speak to us on a deep level because it goes against our human nature of the way that we think people should behave. And it keeps happening. This is one reason The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have such staying power. They speak of ordinary people being placed in extraordinary circumstances, facing incredible odds, to attempt to defeat evil. The evil of Lord of the Rings was a different evil than we have now, but evil is never truly defeated. If you wanted The Legend of Korra, you know that light and dark are in an eternal battle where one can never truly vanquish the other.

Yin and Yang. Darkness and Light. Good and Evil.

Augmented Reality has me excited because it opens up another medium to tell stories. You could create an AR app that takes you around the Tower of London while you investigate the disappearances of the Princes in the Tower. You can stand on the site that Anne Boleyn lost her head and see the crowds of people observing the event. It makes these old sites and dusty facts come alive in a way that they can’t if you’re just reading about them in a book.

Technology in and of itself doesn’t make something compelling. Every Jurassic Park movie has dinosaurs, but only the first one truly feels special. When I think about Jurassic Park, I don’t think about the dinosaurs. I think about the characters and their story arcs. The overarching story arc is a tale of human hubris where a con man with a bunch of money is able to cobble together extinct animals by buying enough technology other people developed in order to create an amusement park to make money. He doesn’t think through the consequences of what he’s doing and is brought low by his own hubris.

The secondary arc of the film has to do with Alan Grant. The first thing you learn about him is that he hates computers and technology. Nothing in this movie is going to change that opinion. The second thing you learn about Alan Grant is that he doesn’t like children. So of course he is the one that is stuck watching the children after the park goes to hell. He goes through a fundamental change by having to interact with actual children and at the end of the film they snuggle with him as Dr. Sadler starts ovulating. It keeps Dr. Grant from just being the crabby guy who loses all of the good one-liners to Jeff Goldblum.

We’ve seen many other films in the last 25 years that have dinosaurs, including the most recent Jurassic Park last year. But none of these films have the satisfying feeling that the first one does. It has an encapsulated story and a grand theme of human scientific hubris. Everything goes to hell the way it’s foreshadowed. The park is destroyed by the unnatural force that was brought into it, and all of the people we actually care about survive. It’s a satisfying story that is enhanced by the use of special effects that are actually used quite sparingly.

One reason Pokemon GO was so successful was because it was building off of an experience that people have been emulating for 25 years, which was to pretend to live in a world where little pocket monsters live in the tall grass and can be captured and made into your friend. There is a sense of wonder about Pokemon GO in that you can take it into the normal world that you inhabit and you can lift the veil on the normal world and expose a fantastical world you never knew was there. Most people agree that Pokemon GO was rather repetitive and the game play wasn’t great, but it created an experience that was wanted by a large number of people. The same thing happens when people visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park.

One thing these have in common is that they are pre-existing properties that have large and established fan bases. Most developers aren’t going to be able to go out and create their own Doctor Who augmented reality application because of licensing issues. So that means that there really isn’t a hurry to go out and do whatever the first few AR apps are going to be. If a company like Warner Bros wants to release their own Harry Potter AR app, you can’t stop them. But you can think about what story you want to tell.

AR is a tool that is made or broken by the story that the creator wants to tell. You can create an interactive murder mystery or a tour of a museum. There are so many unexplored avenues of AR that the limit is what you can imagine and how much work you’re willing to put into creating that experience.

We have such tools to create and express ideas, yet few people seem to. I am guilty of that as well. I do hope that the barrier to entry gets low enough that I can spare some time to create some experiences for the joy of creation. But please do think about creating something for the joy of creating it and not because you assume that there are a wealth of new AR related jobs or a limited number of AR apps to be created and you must pursue the money train on this. That train goes over a cliff. We have so many media for self expression and no time to do it and no stories to tell. Life is filled with possibilities if you lift the veil on the real world and reveal the hidden one.

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry, because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering — these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.

To quote from Whitman: ‘O me, O life of the questions of these recurring. Of the endless trains of the faithless. Of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these, O me, O life? Answer: That you are here. That life exists and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.’

What will your verse be?

Goals for 2017

We’re about halfway through 2017. WWDC starts on Monday. I have been working on a book on Metal since about October. My life has been on hold since then as I knew I couldn’t really work a full time job and write a book on Metal at the same time. Metal is incredibly mentally comprehensive. It’s a multidisciplinary skill as you don’t just have to understand the framework, you have to have a large base of knowledge around linear algebra applications in order to have it do anything useful. Half of my book is about graphics and half is about machine vision/learning and GPGPU programming. So trying to learn all of these things and distill them into something that’s actually coherent to other people has been incredibly mentally exhausting. It’s been rewarding as well. I honestly don’t think I could do this while also working full time concurrently.

I am getting to the end of my time on the rough draft of the book and I need to figure out what I am going to do when it’s over. My plan was to try and knock this book out as quickly as possible and then hope I could use it as a portfolio piece to find a decent full time job that would hopefully allow me to work remotely. As I nearing the end of this process, I don’t really want to do that yet. Don’t get me wrong, if someone offered me a decent full time job that let me work from my house right now, I would accept it immediately. But right now that’s not what my main career goal is for the near future.

One of the wonderful things I got to do this year was attend GDC. I got to meet a lot of awesome game developers. As an iOS developer, I meet a lot of people who think game development would be cool, but it doesn’t pay anything, so they stick to learning Core Data and doing boring things that will keep them employed and pay the bills.

I don’t have an app out on the store. I have published multiple books (and yes, I do know how to code!) and have worked on many long term projects with a team of other people. But it bothers me that I have never published an app. Specifically, I want to publish a game.

I have been toying with game development for a few years. I have tried working through a few books on game development assuming that game programming would be exactly like iOS programming. It’s not. There are a lot of design patterns that are fundamentally different between iOS and game programming. Also within game programming, there are a lot of foundational differences between a platformer game and an RPG. Just knowing some foundational SpriteKit information is helpful, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg for creating something interesting.

I see game development as being similar to Metal in that just learning the framework isn’t enough. You have to have an idea about what you want to do with it in order for it to be truly useful. A lot of Apple’s frameworks are very Lego-block like in that you have a bunch of built-in methods to do whatever it is you want it to do. That can be satisfying to throw together, but it doesn’t give the same feeling of creation you get from doing something outside the box.

As of right now, I have two goals I would like to accomplish in 2017:

  1. Publish my Metal Book
  2. Publish a Game Made With SpriteKit

I know that my first goal will be accomplished. I don’t know about the second one. The second one depends upon me being able to line up enough part time contract work to pay my bills while also leaving enough time for me to dedicate to game development.

I am talking to several people who have created successful consulting companies about trying to figure out how to do this successfully. I have been consulting for the last year or so, but it’s been rather haphazard. I have been fortunate enough to know someone who needed a contractor at exactly the right time I needed to begin something else. I don’t want to continue to rely on getting lucky in order to sustain myself. I know if I want to do this long term I need to put time and energy into it.

So why am I writing this blog post?

I believe in manifest visualization. I have noticed that many people have amorphous goals that don’t really line up with what they actually want to accomplish. I went to school for audio engineering and a lot of people wanted to be rap stars. They didn’t want to be rap stars because they enjoyed making music, they wanted to be rich and famous. Being a rap star seemed like the easiest way to get rich and famous and they assumed that being rich and famous would make them happy. This lead to a lot of people being put into exploitive situations that did not make them rich, famous, or happy.

I believe having concrete goals you want to accomplish with no extraneous strings attached to them is the best way to approach accomplishing anything. My goal with the book was that I wanted to learn Metal and I wanted to have a book on Metal with my name on it out in the world. I have no illusions that it’s going to get me hired by Apple or propel me into a job where I make fuck you money. I don’t have any illusions about it out-earning my advance. If I never see another penny from it and it doesn’t change my career, I am still happy I did it because it’s something I wanted to do.

Right now my hope is that I can line up part time contract work (~ 20 hours a week) through the end of the year so that I can publish my game. I am hoping that by focusing on what I want to accomplish and having concrete ideas about how to do it that I will be able to reach my goal. I don’t think my game is going to earn any money and it will probably look very amateurish and get lots of one-star reviews, but I want to create it because it’s something I want to know I can do. I am praying that I can find a way to add value to someone’s company as a contractor that also allows me enough free time to pursue my own passions and interests.

I don’t know if I will be able to pull off what I want, but I at least have an idea about what that is. It does no good to get everything you ever wanted only to find out you wanted the wrong things.

The Road Not Taken

I probably spoke earlier in the year about my various disappointments regarding WWDC 2013. I applied for a scholarship and I did not win.

Someone I met somewhere I can’t remember who talks to me on Twitter told me about another conference happening at the same time, GLS 2013. GLS stands for Games Learning Society. It is an interdisciplinary group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It is made up of tech people and education majors who are trying to create a learning experience through games

This conference opened my eyes to a multitude of things I had never considered. They showed me tools that others had developed with the express purpose of teaching children how to code by creating their own games.

This spoke to two things that I hold very dear: Gaming and using games to learn.

I grew up playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” and “Oregon Trail”. I never had a video game console or any of the “fun” games my peers had growing up, but I had games. I loved games.

I can only learn is something is interesting to me. I am very compelled by story. The only reason I know anything about astronomy is because of the vast multitude of celestial object that are named for mythological characters.

For me, the GLS conference was a life-changing experience. It really focused my attitude towards not just becoming a developer, but becoming a game developer.

I wonder how different things would have been had I gone to WWDC.

There was some focus on gaming at WWDC, but the vast majority was focused on grand-master programming. They focus on people who want to scale a code version of Mt. Everest.

I go back and forth. Sometimes I really want to be an elite-grand master programmer who scales Everest because it is there. Other time, I just really want to share my thoughts and ideas with the world and create nice tools that other people can use.

I am beginning my last full semester of school for programming. I am on a track that I hope to continue to take. Right now I am kind of taking inventory of where I am, where I want to be, and who I am right now.

I had a very turbulent summer that I intend to write about at some point. It is still hard for me to talk about, so I hope that if you read my blog you will be patient with my lack of responsiveness over the summer.

I am planning to write here more regularly. I have been advised to keep a public blog of my projects for my development class and this one is already established. Stay tuned for the next few months. Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!

Bartle’s Player Types

A few years ago I was introduced to The Sims 3. My then-fiancee and I were living with another couple and the male half of the couple bought the game. He recreated their living situation with characters based on all of us.

I was familiar with The Sims (I wasn’t living under a rock!) but I had never seen or played it before. I thought it was fascinating. Later that year for my birthday our roommates bought me a copy of the game and the World Adventures expansion.

I wound up accumulating a half dozen expansions for the game. I started really getting into programming and I stopped playing it because when I was on my computer I knew I should be coding and not playing games. I eventually deleted it off my machine because I needed the space.

Sims in College

Living la vida Sims

A few months ago my husband got bored and started playing with it. The way that he played the game was completely different than the way I played it.

When I played the game I would create a bunch of different games and characters so that I could do different professions and hobbies. Any expansion that included a new hobby or another set of professions was one I had to obtain. I really like the Supernatural one and I wanted to get the University one before I put my life on hold for programming.

My husband only created one game and one character based on himself. He chose the profession that made the most money, ate the Sims equivalent of ramen noodles, and set about taking over the town. He saved up money so he could buy a business. Then he bought another and another. He kept asking me how many expansions I had and for every one he asked, “Can I buy that business?”

After he went through every expansion I had, bought every business he could, and bought the biggest house he could buy, he stopped playing. I doubt he will ever pick it up again.

I thought his playing behavior was insane. Why on Earth would you play The Sims to go out and buy every business in the town? The money isn’t real. It isn’t a microcosm of what it would be like to actually own a business in the real world. Why bother with doing that when there are so many options to explore?

Last night I learned about Bartle’s Player Types. These types are named somewhat after the different playing card suits:
Card Suits
A) Diamonds/Achievers: These people are Diamonds because their objective is to accumulate riches. This can be game currency, reaching the top of the leader board, etc… All other parts of the game, like socialization and expanding the world exist only to find new sources of treasure.

B) Explorers/Spades: These people are Spades because they like to dig around in the environment to see what is there. Explorers don’t care about wealth accumulation, socialization, or killing unless doing those opens up options for the player to explore.

C) Socializers/Hearts: These people are Hearts because the act of human interaction is the draw for them. The game is just the medium that these people use to find other people to interact with. They will help others further their goals if it allows them an opportunity to socialize with that player.

D) Killers/Clubs: These people are called Clubs because they enjoy clubbing people. These would be the stereotypical First Person Shooters players whose only enjoyment in the game is imposing themselves on others and killing other players. So these guys are the sociopaths of the gaming world.

Most people don’t fall solely into one of these categories. They usually are strongly one and have a secondary trait of another.

I found it interesting that this theory explains the different ways my husband and I would play The Sims. The Sims appeals primarily to Spades and Hearts, but there was a component in there to appeal to Diamonds as well.

The Sims is a very well-designed game that accommodates a lot of different player types. I think that many times if you are designing a game you are creating something that appeals to your player type only without thinking about adding components that would appeal to the other types.

This was a revelation to me about how many different types of people can all play the same game and how my husband’s way of playing the game, while not the way that I would have played, was not wrong.