The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

April 17, 2015

I Think I’m Officially Too Lazy to Play Video Games.

Filed under: Games — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 8:58 am

Over the past few weeks, owing to a somewhat unusual work situation where I’ve had a job lined up to start but have encountered a number of unusual delays of the actual start date for that job, which means I’ve been basically sitting around (mostly) waiting for someone to sort out some obscure piece of paperwork or another.  In theory, all that extra time would be great for catching up on my video games or something like that, but for some reason I’m just not finding myself all that interested in playing video games right now.  That’s not to say that I’ve given them up entirely or anything like that, but as is the case with many other tasks that I am not particularly good at, I am finding that I might just be better off letting someone else do it for me.

These days, it’s a pretty natural thing for people to get someone else to do things they aren’t good at.  I’m pretty sure that if I tried to cut my own hair the results would be disastrous, so I get someone else to do it for me.  The same goes for getting someone to work on my car if it needs to be fixed or maintained (I do know a few things here and there about cars, but I am far from an expert on the subject.)  Fortunately I have a father who is much better at this stuff than I am, which is helpful in the rare cases when I do need something major done.  So when you think about it, if you aren’t good at video games, why not get someone else to play them for you? is a website that allows people to livestream themselves playing video games.  Although most people on the site are playing to just a handful of people, there are a few that have managed to build sizable followings.  As with virtually any significantly large site on the Internet, communities tend to spring up and self-organize over time.  I watch about 5 or 6 different streamers on a regular basis, and find that their communities tend to be largely a reflection of the streamer and the type of people they attract.  Streamers who are in Twitch’s partner program can sell subscriptions for about $5 per month (the actual amount they get of that varies depending on the number of subscribers they have) which allow access to a set of custom chat emotes specific to that stream, but usable in anyone’s stream if you have access to them.  Spamming emotes seems to be a favorite pastime of Twitch viewers everywhere, so a particularly good set of them can earn a pretty good following by itself (there’s at least 1 or 2 people I subscribe 2 mostly to get the emotes to use elsewhere.)  Then again, there are some streams where the community can be downright toxic.  Those are the ones I usually just stay away from.

Although it was well before my time, a longtime mainstay of morning television in Seattle was the JP Patches show, which aired on KIRO from 1958 to 1981 (although Chris Wedes, the actor who played JP Patches, continued to make public appearances until 2011, before passing away in 2012.)  One of the more famous segments on the show was what was known as the ICU2TV, in which the show’s titular clown used a device to “see” through people’s TVs and to wish children viewing the show a happy birthday.  Of course, this was impossible given the one-way nature of television (although these days it seems like people are perfectly justified in wondering if their TVs are spying on them) and it was just a trick, typically the result of parents sending requests to the station for their kids’ birthdays to be recognized on the air through the ICU2TV.  Of course, this was over 50 years ago, these days with modern communications technology two-way video conversations have become commonplace.  Although a streamer on Twitch doesn’t have the capability to see you while they’re streaming unless you were to set it up in advance, it is still very easy to interact with them while they’re streaming.  And a lot of the better streamers take time to interact with the chat in nearly real time (there is typically about a 15-20 second delay from when something happens to when it shows on the stream.)  Communities tend to form naturally over time, and in the livestreaming community it’s usually pretty clear that the community surrounding a streamer is a pretty clear reflection of the streamer themself.  A lot of streamers have well-behaved communities that contribute to the experience (a good set of chat moderators certainly helps.)

All this still leaves the question:  Why just watch video games when you can just play them yourself?  Even before I started watching stuff on Twitch, I’ve had what I like to call the “YouTube Rule” when it comes to video games.  For years now there have been various people on YouTube who have done “Lets Plays” as they play through various games and add their own commentary along the way (unsurprisingly, some of these people have become rather successful Twitch streamers as well.)  In addition to those, there are also people who have uploaded just straight playthroughs of a lot of games as well without any additional commentary.  Basically, you can find someone playing just about any game you might be interested in on YouTube if you look.  Which is where the YouTube rule comes in:  In my experience, if you can get 90% of the entertainment value out of a particular game from watching someone else play it, there’s probably no reason to play it yourself.

A lot of the same holds true for Twitch streams, but at the same time there are other factors involved here too: I’ve also found that there are a number of games that are more entertaining to watch than to play.  For example, one of my favorite streamers (KashBryant) has devoted most of his stream in the last few months to playing Evolve, a game that came out earlier this year which is a shooter that pits 4 players playing as hunters against one player playing as a giant havoc-wreaking monster.  I’ve actually spent a lot of time watching this game, and have found it rather entertaining.  The only problem with this game is that even though I’ve enjoyed watching it, I really don’t have any particular inclination to actually play it myself.  I’d rather spend the time just watching high-level players who actually know what they’re doing rather than trying to stumble through it myself.  And then there games (mostly stuff in some of the “finicky niche gamer” categories I tend to inhabit) where some of the people playing on Twitch are just amazing at them.  Another streamer (KevinDDR, a vague acquaintance of mine from before he made a big splash playing Tetris at AGDQ 2015) has skills I just can’t possibly come close to at some of the games I enjoy but thoroughly suck at.  Then again, some of the games he’s playing simply aren’t for everyone (especially because a lot of them are on imported arcade PCBs that cost hundreds of dollars, not to mention the need for an arcade cabinet to play them on) and he also brings many years of practice to get where he is (to give you some idea, he was only the sixth Grand Master in the world in Tetris the Grand Master 3 when he accomplished this earlier this year, for a game that has been out for many years.)  At this point I might be inclined to actually try the games if I can ever get my hands on them, but there’s no way I will ever be that good at them.

Basically, what it comes down to is just another form of outsourcing, albeit on a much smaller level than what usually happens.  In a way, I’m offloading work that I’m not good at to someone else who is an expert at it, which frees me up to do other things (another of the many things that multiple monitors are good for) and it allows me to experience most of the content of various games I might be interested in seeing but not actually playing without having to play them.  If there’s a particular game I might be on the fence about I can just go find someone else playing it and decide whether or not it’s worth spending the money on it (these days it seems like more often than not the answer is no) and the only cost is a few bucks here and there to subscribe to someone’s channel if I enjoy their content and feel an inexplicable desire to spam their chat emotes.

Not a bad deal really.  Most of the entertainment value of video games without the cost or any of the pesky interactivity.  Tell me again why I’d actually want to play the stuff myself?

January 19, 2015

A Memorandum Found at a Campsite in the Udûn Valley

Filed under: Games — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 1:08 am

A quick note of explanation:  Lately I’ve been spending quite a bit of time playing Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, a recently released open-world hack-and-slash game.  Based in the Tolkien Legendarium but sharing only the most tenuous of connections with anything in the Lord of the Rings books or movies (basically a cameo appearance by Gollum and that’s pretty much it,) you play as Talion, a Ranger of Gondor whose family was murdered by the Black Hand of Sauron, aided by the wraith Celebrimbor, an undead Elven prince with a bone to pick with Sauron,  and you wander around Mordor causing all sorts of chaos among the local Uruk population as you seek your revenge.  The Uruks are far from a united force though, and they frequently get into power struggles among themselves and seek to gain power and advance within their own ranks, and by killing you (Celebrimbor’s presence makes you technically immortal, but you can still be killed by the enemy, which they’ll definitely brag about if they see you again afterward) can earn them promotions and cause them to gain power.  Eventually you gain a power that allows you to mind-control the Uruks and make them fight on your side.

All in all, it’s pretty fun to play, but  it occurs to me as I go about my business decimating the Uruk hordes that they tend to plan things out very well, and make a number of strategic blunders along the way. 



From: Black Hand

To: All Warchiefs; All Captains

RE: Gravewalker mitigation strategies

I’d say that I hope this letter finds you well, but given recent events, there’s a good chance this letter will find you dead.  Well, whichever one of you miserable rats happens to still be alive to read this, pay attention.  Over the past week the Gravewalker has slain fifteen captains (in particular, it seems that Muzglob Deathbringer met his end a mere three minutes after being promoted to Captain), four Warchiefs and the Hammer of Sauron.  Naturally, these types of results are unacceptable if we intend to overthrow the Kingdoms of Men and bring forth the reign of the Dark Lord upon all the land.  And besides that, do you realize just how annoying it is when I try to go out for my morning walk and find the severed head of Lûgdash the Humiliator sitting on my front porch?  Perhaps you too would wish to find out what it’s like to wake up to an entire pack of Caragors snarling outside your window.  I’m sure it can be arranged (and probably will be when you least expect it.)

Normally, my response to such incompetence would be to mercilessly slay all of you shrakh and let the Black Númenóreans handle this, but the Dark Lord tends to frown upon the wholesale slaughter of his own forces, so unfortunately I have no choice but to spare the lot of you.  That said, there’s going to be some changes around here.  The following new policies will be made effective immediately:

  • Should one of you scrubs encounter the Gravewalker in battle, do not kill him; instead, bring him to your Warchief alive.  I am aware of the power and glory that will come to any Uruk brave enough to slay the Gravewalker in battle.  In fact, I see that the late Captain Gûndza Iron Arm  managed to slay the Gravewalker three different times last week before being relieved of his head the fourth time around.  I know you’re all just a bunch of miserable rats with the intelligence of a dead Warg, but can’t a single one of you maggots figure out the simple fact that there’s something wrong if you keep killing off the Ranger and he keeps coming back for his revenge ten minutes later?

Figure 1: This is probably not a good sign.


  • All vegetation within the borders of Mordor shall be removed.  In particular, shrubbery in and near Uruk strongholds must be removed immediately.  Yesterday I walked by a bush near Durthang and found twelve dead Uruks and a Caragor in it.  You would think that someone would figure out that something’s not right by the time three or four of their best friends were lying next to the bush with their throats slit, but apparently you idiots keep wandering over one at a time and getting disemboweled while a group of soldiers sits around twiddling their thumbs 50 feet away, none the wiser.  I’d say you idiots should just not pay attention to random sounds coming out of the shrubbery, but I know you’re all too stupid for that.  So henceforth, if you absolutely must investigate some random sound, do not take less than three Uruks with you.  Oh, and it’s probably a good idea to get one of the archers to fire a few arrows at it too.

Figure 2: This archer immediately regrets this decision.


  • Speaking of the archers, lately they seem to be particularly prone to getting thrown from their watchtowers with giant stab wounds in their chests, and none of you shrakh seem to be able to figure out where the heck any of them are coming from.  There’s Gravewalker footprints all over the walls of Durthang Keep, but none of the Uruks there except for Zogdûsh the Slaughterer can remember seeing anything, and he’s currently got an Elven arrow clean through his eye and sticking out the back of his skull.  Can’t some of you filthy rats be bothered to actually look up every once in a while?  Oh, and if you decided to hang around a watchtower after finding one of said archers on the ground, don’t blame me if you get disemboweled by a falling Gravewalker.

Figure 3: The wrong way to practice fire safety.


  • Effective immediately, new fire safety protocols will be put into effect in all Uruk camps.  Due to numerous incidents of campfire explosions resulting in multiple casualties, all campfires shall now be contained within iron enclosures with solid side walls, thus preventing them from being detonated by random arrows.  Seriously, how the heck does a single arrow cause a campfire to explode into a ball of flaming death anyway?  Blasted elves…

Figure 4: Grog may be hazardous to your health.

  • By the same token, all grog supplies are now to be stored securely behind blast-proof locked doors, and only small quantities are to be removed at any given time as directed by your captains.  It seems anytime someone keeps the stuff out in the open it either ends up poisoned or blows up.  Either way, the stuff kills a bunch of you shrakh off in a hurry.  And which one of you thought it was a good idea for all of you to get addicted to drinking foul stuff that explodes in a disastrous fireball if you so much as look at it funny?
  • No Morgai Fly infestations near Uruk camps are to be tolerated, and all nests are to be removed immediately, since the Gravewalker seems to be all too fond of knocking them down and sending the surrounding Uruks into a blind panic.  The same goes for Caragor bait.  Seriously, I will soon be having words with whichever one of you maggots decided it was a good idea to keep that stuff around in heavily populated strongholds.
  • Furthermore, there will be no more imprisonment of Caragors in cages within Uruk camps.  It’s bad enough seeing how many Uruks fall prey to random Caragor attacks out on the plains of Udûn, there’s absolutely no good reason for you to be sticking those blasted things in flimsy cages that fly open the minute the Gravewalker hits ’em with a single arrow.  In the unlikely event that you maggots need to put a Caragor into a cage, said cage will need to be placed well away from the camp, and the door will be reinforced with additional iron plating over the locks.  Better yet, just stop messing around with Caragors in the first place, you miserable filth.

In the meantime, we will soon be starting construction of some proper fortifications within Southern Udûn.  I don’t know exactly what it is about you Uruks and decrepit old ruins, but I swear, if all you shrakh would have  just put aside all your petty squabbles and  just build a proper fort with some good solid impossible-to-climb walls and big heavy doors you can actually close whenever some Ranger decides to show up and cause trouble, then we could have all conquered Gondor by now.  The Talons of the Black Hand will be sent to provide appropriate motivation to ensure completion of this project in a timely manner.  I swear, if I wasn’t here to keep you maggots in line, you would have all betrayed me by now or something heinous like that.  It’s bad enough that the Gravewalker managed to blow up my lovely Gorthaur from right under your wretched noses, but screw this one up and you shrakh will all suffer more than you can possibly imagine.

I wonder if Sauraman has these kind of problems?  For that matter, I wonder if Sauraman is hiring?

Ashdautas Vrasubatlat,

-The Black Hand

P.S.  If you happen to be the Gravewalker reading this, then die in a fire.

September 9, 2014

Yeah, I’m Pretty Sure I’m Still a Nerd.

Filed under: Games — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:48 am

Gratuitous pinball table shot for no apparent reason.

Once again we’re coming up on the end of the Summer and the inevitable slow descent into Fall, Winter, and the time of the year where Seattleites tend to just steadfastly try to pretend the weather isn’t bothering them.  And with this past weekend came PAX, and the vast array of unusually uninteresting sights and sounds that come along with it.  To be perfectly honest, after last year’s PAX I actually found myself on the fence ab out whether or not I would go this year.  Part of this was the fact that tickets have become increasingly more difficult to get over the years, and part of it was the fact that there just didn’t seem to be all that much I was really interested in last year.  Ultimately I decided that I would get myself tickets if I could get a hold of them, but wasn’t going to go out of my way for them, and if I was not able to get tickets it wouldn’t be a big deal.

And when tickets did finally go on sale I was in a meeting at work.  By the time I was even aware that tickets had gone on sale they were already sold out in the space of less than an hour.  Even so, I wasn’t quite ready to give up on it.  Last year I was able to get through the long queue for tickets and buy Friday and Saturday passes, and then managed to end up with a Monday pass through a friend (which, to be honest, I wasn’t really expecting.)  And there were a couple of years before that where I had managed to miss out on ticket sales, but managed to find tickets later on.  Either way, if I missed out this year I wouldn’t be all that worried about it.  But sometimes things have a strange way of happening, and it happened that a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend had some extra tickets he was no longer using, so I was able to pick up tickets for Saturday, Sunday and Monday (I sold the Sunday ticket to someone else since I don’t go on Sundays.)  Of course, I didn’t even know I was going to be able to go until pretty close to the last minute, so I found myself having to do a bit of scrambling to figure out what I wanted to do there.

The tricky part is that even though PAX has become so massive that even with an increasingly difficult to acquire 4-day pass you wouldn’t have enough time to actually see and do everything.  Show floor exhibits have massive lines, there are panels and presentations going constantly in seven different locations, there’s about half a zillion different tournaments for games you don’t play (and a couple of games you do play but are shockingly terrible at) and just about half a zillion different things going on all at once at any given time.  Basically, you just have to pick and choose how to use the limited time you have available.  This is all part of the experience, and is nothing new.  The problem with that is that even with all that’s going on at PAX, for some reason this year there just didn’t seem to be nearly as much to be interested in as usual.

Now part of this may just be me getting cranky in my old age (OK, I don’t think I’m quite that old just yet, but let’s just say that if someone made a game that realistically simulated chasing punk kids off your lawn I’d probably pick it up if it was 50% off on Steam)  but for some reason, I just couldn’t get all that excited about PAX this year.  I think part of this was that with all three of the current-generation consoles now on the market, a lot of the major publishers are still trying to figure out what to do with them beyond their initial launch titles.  There were a few things being shown that looked interesting, but I think that I could probably count the major upcoming AAA titles from the major publishers that I’m interested in on my fingers (and if you took Nintendo stuff out of the equation you could probably knock that down to one hand.)  As a result of this, I think there just weren’t a lot of games to be interested in yet, at least on the console side.  At the same time, even the indies (where most of the interesting stuff seems to be coming from these days) seemed a bit lacking, probably because most of the stuff I’d be interested in on that side is stuff that’s already showed up in Steam Early Access, and if I really wanted to try a lot of them out I could pretty much do it without having to wait in any lines.

Even with all of that taken into account I still think PAX is worth the trip, especially if you’ve never been before.  After all, it’s the type of experience you just aren’t going to find anywhere else, and even if you can’t find things you want to play, there’s always plenty of people watching that you can do.  Nonetheless, I don’t think I need to spend three days there next year.  Just one will probably be sufficient, assuming I can actually manage to get the tickets.

March 21, 2014

Banging Your Head Into the Wall for Fun: Why Do We Enjoy Frustrating Things?

Filed under: Games — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 8:30 pm

Image credit: Flickr user sharpshooter99, Creative Commons

Earlier this week, I had been working on some insipid Blog post about the arrival of Spring, the temporary reprieve from Winter (sort of) that it brings and all sorts of stuff like that, but even by my own standards the whole thing was pretty much inane drivel, so you get to read this instead (believe me, this can’t be any worse than that…)  Besides, I’ve been a bit distracted lately by various things.  Work, as usual, is the big one (it seems to come and go, although even on a “slow” day things get pretty hectic lately,) but as tends to happen on occasion, I’ve found myself spending quite a bit of time on Luftrausers, a game that came out just a couple of days ago on PC and Playstation platforms.  On the surface, it’s pretty simple.  You have a little fighter jet called a Rauser (basically a vaguely German-sounding word that means absolutely nothing that I can figure out) made up of various customizable parts, a relentless pixelated navy of various things that are trying to kill you, about five shades of monochromatic beige, and about fifteen seconds worth of cutscenes to tie it together with the flimsiest of cheap throwaway plots.  Basically, the idea is to blow up as much stuff as possible before you meet your inevitable demise (which is basically every arcade game made before about 1985 or so in a nutshell.)  This video should give you an idea what to expect:

Generally they’ll do it pretty quickly too, since you can only take about 2 or 3 hits at a time before you blow up.  Your fighter will slowly repair itself if you stop firing, but there isn’t exactly much time to do that when you’ve got a whole fleet of enemy fighters on your tail and a giant battleship wantonly tossing artillery into the airspace in front of you.  As such, your lives in this game tend to end up being nasty, brutish and short.  Scoring is pretty standard aside from a chaining system that adds multipliers to your score as long as you keep killing things (you have about five seconds between enemies to keep the chain going, which might seem generous at first but can still be tricky to maintain at times,) and caps out at 20x the base value for each enemy type.  Staying at max chain for a long period of time will bring up your score quickly, but can also be very risky, and there’s a good chance you’ll get yourself killed by taking unreasonable risks to keep the scoring streak going.   And then you’ll do it all over again.  As you play you unlock a number of different parts, different combinations of which will change the way your fighter works.  You’ll probably find favorites as you go on, but you’ll find certain missions (basically tasks you’ll probably accomplish in passing) will need certain types of fighters.  As simple as the game might seem on the surface, It’s surprisingly easy to end up spending an hour or two doing this without even noticing it.  I decided to play a couple of quick rounds after I got home from work (admittedly a bit later than usual) this evening, and when I looked up it was 9:30.

And yet, in about 2 1/2 hours of playing almost nonstop at about 1-2 minutes per run (you will be lucky to last that long in most cases,) I had only once or twice come close to beating a high score of about 27,000 that I had managed on pretty much a fluke the previous evening (at the time, it ended up being as high as #107 on the Steam leaderboard, but it’s dropped a fair bit now.)  Yes, I’m terrible at it, but given the developer’s track record (Vlambeer’s most notable release before this one was Super Crate Box, another game in much the same “keep playing even though you suck at it” vein) that seems to be by design.  Anyone who has spent enough time playing video games with me knows that I tend to get frustrated with things pretty easily (if you ever come and visit, ask to see the pile of broken controller parts I probably have sitting around somewhere.)  And yet, even though these games seem like the ones that should be the most rage-inducing (aside from random Nintendo games from the Eighties back when practically everything had the difficulty cranked up to “merciless” straight out of the box,) I can play them for hours and not even really care if things are going badly.  There seems to be a fine line between hard yet fair and rage-inducingly cheap, and occasionally you get a game that manages to come right up to the line without crossing over.  Luftrausers seems to have done a pretty good job of this.

Another game in a similar vein that I’ve spent quite a bit of time on in is Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2.  Although this particular game is a rather chaotic 2D arena shooter that throws huge amounts of brightly colored badguys (er, bad polygons) at you all at once, surprisingly the one mode in the game that I couldn’t stop playing was the one that didn’t involve any shooting at all.  Sure, you still have all sorts of enemies coming after you from all directions (although it’s more of a big blue Advancing Wave of Doom than the Technicolor assault of the regular game modes) but since you can’t shoot, you have to pass through gates that trigger explosions which will destroy enemies in their proximity.  On the surface it seems pretty simple, but the difficulty ramps up quickly, and in this particular mode you don’t get any of the screen-clearing bombs you have in the other modes (you’re a pacifist, rember?) so basically your only recourse is to keep moving and using the gates to hold back the swarm.  You build up score multipliers by collecting little trapezoid things that the enemies drop when defeated, and as you last longer your potential for scoring increases until you make it well into the millions.  This video shows a particularly high score (for reference, my own highest score in this is somewhere in the 35 million range.  It happened once, and I haven’t been able to get past 25 million since that one run in spite of plenty of trying.

Without much searching, I could find plenty of other examples to cite here (the whole Flappy Bird craze that appeared and disappered in about a week and a half last month comes to mind as a notable recent example,) but the balance between fun and frustration can be really difficult to pull off.  Even though I’m not a game designer (nor do I profess to be anywhere close to one,) it seems to me that there’s a few common threads between games like this:

  • Make it cheap and easy to restart.  If your players are going to be dying repeatedly for ridiculous and/or quite possibly stupid reasons, at least make it easy for them to try again.  In Luftrausers, after you die you can literally be starting a new round within two seconds, just long enough to see your score from the last round and jump back in.  In some ways, simpler games have distinct advantages in this department over more elaborate ones, simply by merit of not having to worry about things like load times and changing settings.  In a notorious counter-example, the critically panned Xbox 360 game Too Human forced its players to endure a pointless unskippable 20-second cutscene every time they died.  
  • Give the players something to shoot for.  This can be done in a number of different ways.  In Geometry Wars there wasn’t much to do but blast (or dodge, in the case of Pacifism mode) your way to a high score, but the game over screen highlighted a leader board that showed all your friends’ high scores, and also the scores from your last eight rounds.  In addition to this, the in-game screen showed the score above yours on the leaderboard to use as a goal to shoot for.  Luftrausers isn’t quite so forthcoming with the leaderboards (you actually have to dig a bit to find them) but it does come with some goals to aim for in the form of the missions.  And on top of that, it’s always clear what your high score is so you can try to beat it.  Which brings me to the next point…
  • Keep the player too busy to care about their score.  Just staying alive for any length of time in games like this can be a challenge, let alone doing whatever it takes to get a high score.  Then again, it’s hard to care much about your score when you’ve got two aces on your tail and you’re dodging bullet spam from a battleship.  When the battle gets heavy, oftentimes you won’t even have an idea that you’ve got a high score until you’ve reached the game over screen and see it.  And if you’re a few points short, it provides good incentive to jump in and try again.
  • Give the players incentive to take unnecessary risks.  In the Pacifism mode of Geometry Wars, you can get additional score multipliers for diving through multiple gates all at once.  which can be a really risky thing to do but can also get you a large number of points if you can pull it off.  In Luftrausers, it can sometimes be awfully tough to resist the urge to make foolhardy divebombing runs on battleships, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s oddly satisfying to watch one of the things blow up.  There’s also the challenge of trying to maintain a max combo when things start getting really hairy.  You have to keep seeking out targets and taking them out to keep the combo going, and sometimes you’ll find yourself having to resort to charging headlong into a fleet of PT boats with guns aimed right in your face to try to take one out before the timer runs out.

I’m sure there are plenty of other lessons that could be learned from this type of thing, but since I’m just sitting here writing about these things instead of actually going out and making them myself, I’ll leave it to the professionals to figure those out.  As I said earlier, there’s a fine line between making something frustrating but fair and making it rage-inducing.  The trick is to figure out how close you can get to that line without going over.  It’s been said that the best part about banging your head repeatedly against the wall is that it feels so good to stop, but sometimes, the trick is to figure out how to keep people banging away at that wall.

January 11, 2014

What Software Testers Can Learn From Video Game Speedrunners

Filed under: Games, Quality Assurance — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 2:53 pm

I see a lot of this when I attempt to play video games.

Over the course of the past week, I’ve spent far more time than I care to admit watching other people play video games far better than I could possibly do it.  Every year around this time, Speed Demos Archive puts on an event known as Awesome Games Done Quick, where a group of speedrunners gets together and plays games nonstop as fast as they possibly can for an entire week, streaming it online as a fundraiser for the Prevent Cancer Foundation (and a pretty successful one too, raising nearly $450,000 last year, and as of this writing the total for AGDQ 2014 is sitting at roughly $663,000 with about a day to go, plus whatever bonus streams follow the main event.)    For someone such as myself who has pretty much no skill whatsoever when it comes to anything requiring fast twitch reflexes, it is fascinating to watch this type of thing for several reasons.  First of all, the amount of skill being put on display by the various speedrunners is amazing.  And the second (and perhaps more compelling) reason is that as the various speedrunners go through their runs, they tend to provide a running commentary explaining what they’re doing as they go along.  And quite a bit of what they’re doing is, quite frankly, breaking the games.

But as I’ve watched the marathon and seen the types of techniques that speedrunners use, it has occurred to me that there are actually some things I can learn in my professional career as a software QA engineer from watching this type of thing.  Even though I don’t do anything related to games in my job (and only one or two things I have ever done in my career have come even remotely close to it) it seems to me that a lot of what of people do in the course of speedrunning games is quite similar to what I do in testing software, with one significant difference:  As a tester, I’m trying to find problems to get them fixed, speedrunners are typically trying to find them to completely break things.  And to be perfectly honest, I think the speedrunners might be winning on this one, judging from some of the ways they can take tiny little glitches and completely break entire games with them.  In most cases this has no real impact other than to beat games far more quickly than they were ever intended to be beaten, but we’re generally talking about twenty year old games here.  If you’re running mission-critical software in an enterprise environment and things like this are happening, you might find the impact of something like this to be far more problematic.  Naturally, it’s best to catch these types of things well before the software (be it a game or something more functional) goes out into the wild.  As such, I thought I’d put together a post that goes through some of the lessons that I have learned from watching speedrunners during AGDQ.

1. People will go to great lengths to make even trivial gains in performance.  Although the speedruns in AGDQ are compelling enough on their own, the part that really makes it interesting is the commentary that goes along with most of the runs.  Whether it’s coming from the speedrunner(s) playing the game or from providing a play-by-play from the couch, it quickly becomes clear that the people doing this stuff have put as much thought and effort into this as most people would put into far more serious subjects.  I suspect that the collective knowledge that has been gleaned from one of the more popular speedrunning games such as Super Mario Bros. could fill a book, or at least an article in an academic journal.  Nonetheless, even for games that have been well documented and well understood for years, people are still trying to find ways to shave fractions of seconds off their times.  In particular, one of the popular (yet somewhat controversial) categories in speed running tool-assisted speedrunning, also known as TAS.  Tool-assisted speedrunners use various tools to do things like run games a single frame at a time and use savestates to keep running through segments until they can figure out the optimal paths through or pull off difficult tricks, which allows them to eventually work toward what could be considered a fully optimized run.  In many cases, these optimized runs can be much faster (often by multiple minutes) than what even the best human players can manage, but they also tend to do this by using tricks that human players would not be able to do.  Nonetheless, the TAS players can find hidden strategies that can save time in regular speedruns, but at the same time can also be very difficult and/or risky.  It’s not uncommon to see speedrunners taking big risks on difficult tricks that might save them a fraction of a second if they pull it off, but can cost them much more than that if they don’t.  Speedrunning is by its very nature competitive, and at times it can be mere fractions of a second that can separate players in a racing each other on an hour-long speedrun (I don’t have a way to link to it yet, but the 4-way Super Metroid race from AGDQ 2014 is a very good illustration of this.)

Although this isn’t a scenario that necessarily translates to real-world software in the same manner (as you might imagine, when working with most types of hardware and software the goal is far more to reduce risk as much as possible than to reward it,) one thing I do typically see in the course of my daily workflow as a tester is that there are a lot of repetitive tasks that come up, not just in the actual testing, but in the course of dealing with the other associated tasks that come along with it such as bug tracking, test case management, setting up test environments and reporting results.  Although the use of automation in test case execution is widespread and can save significant time over manual testing in situations where it can be applied, I’m not dealing with much of it in my current job.  Nonetheless, even if you’re not automating  your test cases, you can probably identify little repetitive tasks here and there that you might be able to automate with something like a batch script or a macro.  Even little things that don’t seem like much can add up over time, and in the long run you can make significant performance gains out of little things.

2. Things that may seem random rarely are.  As you watch the various speedrunners going through their runs, one of the things they point out frequently is where things are or aren’t random in the games.  As you watch the various runs, you realize that at least under specific conditions, most seemingly random things aren’t actually random.  This is frequently important because a lot of the strategies (speedrunners typically call them “Strats”) depend on certain things happening at certain times.  On the flip side of the coin, random events tend to be a hindrance, as they can interfere with things often.  Mostly through exploration using TAS and other playthroughs of the game, it is possible for them to determine what is going to happen when, and also to figure out ways to precisely control the circumstances in which certain things happen and manipulate them to their advantage.  While testing software, often one of the biggest challenges testers face is trying to come up with consistently reproducible scenarios for bugs that have been reported because you have no way to verify if you actually fixed a bug if you don’t have a reliable way to get that bug to manifest itself in the first place.  This can be difficult, especially for bugs that may have been seen only once or twice, or issues that have been reported by non-technical users who provide only limited information and in a production environment where you might not have access to the debugging tools you’re used to having on your test bench.  It is for this reason that you need to be familiar with the environment you’re working in, and that you know what circumstances might lead to one particular code path instead of another.  If possible, you also want to have ways to collect at least some sort of data from low-information users in situations like this.  In many cases, understanding what circumstances might cause certain unwanted behaviors to occur in a piece of software can be largely a matter of determining the state of the environment at the time the problem happened.  Granted, this can require going rather deep into things, but speedrunners (and especially TAS runners) have gone surprisingly deep into the games they’re speedrunning, and have managed to do some rather surprising things, as this tool-assisted run of Super Mario World from AGDQ2014 illustrates.  It starts out unusual, gets downright weird, and goes…  Well, you’ll just have to watch.

3. You’re always going to miss something no matter how much testing you do.  The vast majority of games being played in the AGDQ marathon were some of the best-selling and best known games of the time when they were created.  Although the tools and services available today to game developers has allowed many smaller indie developers to put out products that can rival the big-name studios, in general a lot of games being shown were produced by rather large teams of developers, testers, artists and other support staff, often across multiple companies.  That means that by the time these products made it to the store shelves back in the day (something that has, ironically, become less and less of a reliable indicator of a product’s quality as console technology has reached the point where patching has become not only possible but practically expected)  they may have had hundreds of people involved along the way, including large numbers of testers dedicated to finding and reporting bugs to be fixed.  In spite of all that, the speedrunners still manage to find glitches, exploits and other bugs.  Not all of these are necessarily going to be useful for reducing speedrun time (in fact, a lot of these don’t do much more than crash things.) but these can be little things, big things, or somewhere in between.

Of course, very few of these glitches are things that a player going through the course of the game in the intended manner would ever run into (a lot of them involve finding ways into areas that the player is not supposed to be able to go into,) but unless they’re specifically restricting themselves to this, most speedrunners are going to use every glitch they can manage to get.  And I’m sure that there are developers and testers out there who have smacked themselves in the head after seeing some of the stuff that the speedrunners have pulled off in their stuff.  In the course of running a test pass on a game like the ones featured here, a lot of the scenarios where the glitches appear would be considered edge cases, which are things that very few users would even go anywhere near.  The main problem with these edge cases is that you’re generally wandering well off the “happy path” that normal users would be on, and in general the returns on these test scenarios tend to be very low in terms of the amount of time spent running them.  Then again, if you aren’t going to find the problems here, there’s a very good chance that someone else will gladly find the problems for you.  And you’re probably not going to like the results when they do.

4. Anything that is deemed unnecessary will be skipped one way or another.  During this year’s AGDQ, one of the featured runs was for Resident Evil 4, a game that I’ve never played (it’s not the type of genre I’m interested in) but which was still quite interesting to watch.  One of the biggest things I took away from this particular speedrun was that the player basically just ran right by probably 75% of the enemies in the game without a second thought, and suffered no ill consequences for doing so.  A lot of these fights would likely be rather difficult (and time-consuming) if the player was to actually do them the way the developers intended, but oftentimes it turns out to be completely unnecessary, as they just run right by and keep going.  Of course, in a speedrun saving as much time as possible wherever possible is crucial, so a lot of effort goes into cutting out even trivial things.  In particular, cutscenes and dialog are frequent targets of speedrunners, who will often take rather unusual steps to keep them from happening or exit them as quickly as possible.  In some cases, you’ll see people literally reset the game or quit out and reload in the middle of a speedrun, because starting from scratch and reloading from a save can in some cases be much quicker than watching a cutscene.  As long as the established ground rules for a particular game allow it, this is considered perfectly normal.

Another thing you see that happens quite a bit is that players will intentionally take damage in a lot of instances in order to use the temporary invincibility that typically goes with it  to bypass things.  In games, people tend to think of health or energy (or even lives) as something they have to try to keep as much of as possible, but speedrunners tend to treat these things primarily as a tool.  In particular, games like F-Zero GX (one of the most notoriously difficult games in recent memory, and one of the major highlights of the past couple of AGDQs as speedrunners have absolutely destroyed it) give you an energy bar that acts as both your health meter and something that can be consumed as a boost, allowing you to go faster but significantly increasing your risk of failure by doing so.  Then again, this is a normal (and expected) mechanic of this particular game, but taking intentional damage to bypass obstacles and improve speed is surprisingly common in many speedruns, especially for 8-bit games like the Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden series.  In some games, strategically placed intentional deaths are a common occurrence as well if some advantage can be obtained by doing so.  Then again, most players need to use that health and those lives just to keep themselves from hitting the game over screen too soon, so a lot of this comes down to having enough skill in the first place to avoid unintentional damage as much as possible, since it becomes a lot riskier when people play this way.  This means that in addition to all the various strategies and optimizations involved in the whole process, there’s also quite a bit of raw skill required just to even be able to think about speedrunning a game (of course, even if you can’t do live speedruns you can always try to do TAS, but that’s basically something entirely different.)

5. If there’s a way to pull things off the rails, someone will find it.  In many ways, this really ties into #4, but I feel it should also be considered separately.  One of the most popular genres of games for speedrunners is the so-called “Metroidvania” games (of which the 2D Metroid and the non-linear Castlevania games such as Symphony of the Night are the most prominent examples,) which typically are played on large non-linear maps but ultimately still have a linear progression that the user is expected to follow.  Of course, it is possible to follow this linear progression and do a speedrun that way, but most of the time the goal is to finish things as quickly as possible no matter how this is accomplished, so when a new game of this genre comes out, the first thing the speedrunners do is try to find so-called “sequence breaks,” which are strategies that allow the player to subvert the expected linear progression of the game and skip significant portions of the game entirely and acquire items that they aren’t expected to have  until much later in the game.  Of course, it’s gotten to the point that a lot of developers these days just hide intentional sequence breaks into the games, but in most cases these have come about as a result of players messing around with things they aren’t supposed to be messing around with, trying to actively subvert the intended order of the game. 

The effort that goes into testing a particular piece of software is as much a matter of planning as it is execution.  After all, you (generally) have a specific set of requirements that the software must be able to meet, and you need to be able to demonstrate that the software can meet those requirements.  And these days more than ever, security testing becomes a very important part of those test plans.  After all, no matter what type of software you are working with, it’s highly likely that someone out there will be trying to find ways to get around whatever limitations happen to be in it, especially if you’re dealing with any system that stores sensitive data.  But even aside from that, you can find yourself surprised by some of the things you’ll see users try to do with your software, things you would never expect.  As you go through the various test passes and validations that you might do over the course of a software development life cycle, you start to develop a surprisingly deep understanding of how things tend to work in the system, even if you aren’t working directly with the code.  As a result, you tend to build a bit if an intuition for some of the unusual things users might try somewhere along the line.  Don’t hesitate to try some of these things out; you never know just what kind of weird issues you might manage to run into.  Not that all of it will necessarily get fixed (after all, developers’ time is a finite resource, and you eventually have to ship something) but if you can think of it, chances are that at some point someone else will do the same.

All things considered, there’s actually a surprisingly large correlation in the methods used by speedrunners and software testers for their respective tasks.  In both cases, people are going deep into the inner workings of the software they’re using to try to find things that don’t work the way they’re supposed to.  Both use a lot of the same methods, and both find a lot of the same issues.  It’s how these issues are used where things tend to diverge though.  As a tester, it’s naturally your job to find these issues in order to get them fixed.  As a speedrunner, you’re trying to find issues that you can use to break things even further.  Either way, the results can be fascinating to watch.

September 2, 2011

If it’s Too Loud, Am I Too Old? Some Thoughts on PAX 2011

Filed under: Games — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:22 am

Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear. And are probably shooting at you.

On the calendar, Summer still has a good 20 days to go, but unofficially, Summer is coming to an end quickly.  In just a few short days, children will return to school (Although first days of school vary significantly from place to place, around here school begins next Tuesday) and before we know it, the leaves will begin turning, and the long descent into Winter will begin.  And yet, even for those of us who have long since departed from schooling, there are certain things that mark the unofficial end of Summer and the beginning of Fall.  For some, it may be a fair (the Puyallup Fair is just a couple of weeks away, although it’s unlikely I’ll make it there this year with my schedule over the next few weeks), and for others it may be a festival (Bumbershoot, this weekend at Seattle Center) or something a bit more mundane like a barbecue or a campout.  Over the past few years, I have found the end of Summer to be marked primarily by the arrival of PAX Prime, which was held last weekend in Seattle.

Although by now PAX should need little introduction for most people, it’s one of the largest festivals of gaming in all its various forms (the primary focus remains on video gaming, but tabletop and pen-and-paper gaming also comprise a major part of the show as well),  with most of the space being taken up by a large and ever-expanding expo hall where hundreds of game companies, ranging from the big console makers (Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo) to scrappy little three-man indie teams trying to prove themselves, show off their latest and greatest, and provide the chance to play them before their release.  Or at least that’s the theory.  In practice, any of the highly anticipated big studio productions that make it to PAX inevitably draw long lines of would-be players, resulting in what can in extreme cases become waits of several hours just to play something for ten minutes.  Since I’m not exactly known for my patience, I tend to just skip these ones.  Then again, it’s not exactly like there was a whole lot of stuff worth standing around for anyway.

Your mileage may vary of course, and I suspect for a good portion of the people who were there it did, but as I wandered through the expo hall and looked at the many games being offered, I just couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that it seemed like all the big studios were making pretty much the same game with slightly different graphics.  This may just be me getting jaded in my old age, but every fantasy MMO seemed to be trying to hard to be World of Warcraft, and every shooter out there seemed to be trying too hard to be either Call of Duty or Team Fortress 2.  And if I really wanted to play Team Fortress 2 or World of Warcraft, I’d just play Team Fortress 2 or World of Warcraft (I’ve got pretty much zero interest in any of the half zillion Call of Duty games on the market, so I’ve never been inclined to bother with it. )  Granted, not quite everything on the floor falls into those sweeping overgeneralizations.  There were a couple of new fighting games that looked reasonably nice, but I’m pretty sure I’d get myself thoroughly clobbered at  if I tried playing them against actual players (my last fighting game experience at PAX was, to put it mildly, a tad disastrous.)  There was also plenty of cool looking new PC hardware that was way too expensive (although I have been looking into some sort of upgrade for my desktop system in the semi-near future.)  On the non video game side, there were also quite a few new pen-and-paper RPGs  trying way too hard to be Dungeons and Dragons and card games trying way too hard to be Magic the Gathering. 

I’m pretty sure I’m overgeneralizing a bit here, but I don’t think what I’m seeing is necessarily as much a problem with the gaming industry as a whole as it is a subtle change in my attitudes towards gaming.  I’ve long known (and asserted) that I’m something of a finicky niche gamer, having at various times gone through phases of being at least somewhat fanatical about DOS shareware games (which, growing up as a frequently broke PC junkie in the early 90s, were attractive mostly by merit of not costing anything to download off the local BBSes,) early 80s arcade games, pinball, arcade games on their actual hardware, a particular series of Japanese strategy RPGs and\or Imported Japanese 2D shooters, so I suppose it’s not too surprising if I happen to find myself turning into a bit of a game snob.  But even given that fact, it seems that I’m just finding myself gradually less and less interested in gaming as a whole lately.  That’s not to say that  I’ve stopped playing games (or even reduced the amount of time I spend on them much,) it’s just that I gradually seem to be getting more and more picky about what I spend my time playing.  There are at least a couple of games that I tried out at PAX last year, enjoyed quite a bit and eventually bought, only to find them nearly a year later still sitting in their shrinkwrap.  Since it seems unlikely that any of these are ever going to become highly sought after collectors items, I’m not sure what my excuse is for those ones. 

Another thing that might be influencing this newfound pickiness is that slowly but surely, I find myself spending a lot less of my gaming time on the consoles in the living room, and a lot more of it on my PC.  To some people this might seem a bit counterintuitive since the longstanding trend has been in the other direction, but with the rise of major digital distribution platforms like Steam, it’s gotten a lot more convenient to purchase and play things on the PC.  And while a lot of this comes from improvements to the PC gaming experience (mostly I’m just glad that we don’t have to mess around with DOS boot disks trying to squeeze out another 673 bytes of free conventional memory in order to get Jazz Jackrabbit to run,)  it seems that especially in the most recent generation of game consoles, the plug-and-play experience that used to be their biggest advantage has largely fallen by the wayside.  It seems like virtually every time I turn on my PS3 these days it does something to annoy me, usually in the form of an excessive load time or a mandatory patch that seems to download at about a quarter of the available speed I have on my Internet connection.  My Xbox is a bit better, but it comes with more than its fair share of load times as well.  My PC, on the other hand, comes with a nice little list of games I can run from my start menu, is usually pretty fast to start them, and Steam automatically takes care of the patches and updates in the background so I don’t have to worry about any of it.  I’d even argue that as long as you’ve got the system to handle it (my current desktop PC is about two years old now, and I haven’t run into anything yet that it can’t handle) a PC might even be a better plug-and-play experience for gaming than a PS3 or an Xbox 360. 

None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy PAX, because even if I am getting ever more finicky about my gaming, I did still enjoy PAX quite a bit, and intend to continue going every year as circumstances permit.  But I do reserve the right to become increasingly jaded about the whole thing as I continue to get older, OK?

October 27, 2010

Yes, I Still Play With Blocks.

Filed under: Games — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:38 am

As far as toys go, you can’t get much simpler than a set of blocks.  Whether it’s the classic set of wooden blocks or the now equally ubiquitous Legos, it would be almost impossible to find some person who hasn’t played with blocks at some point in their childhood.  In fact, some people never seem to grow out of it.  After all, someone has to be buying those humongous $400 Lego Imperial Star Destroyers and Death Stars, and I’m pretty sure it’s not kids saving up their allowances.  In fact, there is a significant community of adult Lego fans who, thanks to years of experience and much bigger budgets for parts acquisition, build some thoroughly ridiculous stuff.  I do keep a small container of Legos around on my desk to use for a little bit of messing around, but quite frankly, even my best efforts are thoroughly amateurish compared to what some of these people are pulling off.  Every once in a while I’ll wander through the Lego shop at Bellevue Square and see some set that looks like it would be fun to put together, but I have a tendency to get about halfway into things like that, lose some critical piece or lose interest, and leave the rest untouched for some indefinite period of time before finally getting rid of the thing.  Combined with the fact that these days I don’t exactly have a whole lot of space in my apartment for such things, I find it’s best to just skip the stuff.  Then again, who says you need actual blocks?

If you spend any significant amount of time reading the various game Blogs on the Internet, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Minecraft by now.  There’s also a pretty decent chance that if you’ve heard of Minecraft, you’ve either spent way too much time messing around with it by now, or you just can’t figure out why anyone even bothers with it in the first place.  In a nutshell, Minecraft is a game which has so far been built by one person (who, thanks to the runaway success of the project so far, is now adding more people to the project) which basically puts you down in the middle of a procedurally generated world with nothing, and through a combination of exploring, crafting, digging and building you can go from punching trees with your bare hands to harvest wood to building your own tools, finding resources underground, and eventually building pretty much whatever you can think of.  You do have to watch out for various enemies that will come out of the dark and attack you if given the opportunity to do so, and as you might be able to tell from the screenshot above it’s all pretty blocky, but the game (at least in its current form) does away with pesky things like environmental impact statements and gravity, and lets you build all sorts of cool stuff. 

The tower you see above was built within a matter of roughly an hour, including collection of materials and crafting the necessary parts.   Given the fact that everything is basically built out of big blocks of approximately a cubic meter apiece there isn’t room to get too detailed with things, but given enough blocks and enough space (which, given the fact that the theoretical maximum size for a Minecraft world is roughly four times the size of the Earth, shouldn’t be much of an issue) you can build just about anything you can think of.  A number of people from an e-mail alias I probably spent way too much time on back in my Microsoft days (it’s been less than a year since I last worked at Microsoft, but it seems like it’s been ages)  have started their own multiplayer Minecraft server, and over the course of roughly a month that the server has been up, people have built entire mountains entirely out of glass, turned old in-jokes from the alias into humongous statues, created an extensive network of roadways and pathways all hovering ominously ten stories off the ground, and basically built their own little world (and just about burned the place down in the process, but that’s another story.)  I’m a bit late to the party compared to some people, but once I managed to get an issue sorted out that was preventing me from building anything without getting booted from the server, I’ve been working on establishing my own little spot on the server.  So far, my major contribution has been this lighthouse.

My next project at this point is to get rid of the inconvenient mountain currently located underneath it and make it float  in mid-air.  Ominously, of course.  After all, has anything that big ever floated in mid-air and not been ominous in the process?  Selective interpretations of the Laws of Physics make things like that pretty easy to pull off actually.  All you need is the patience to spend about an hour or two in otherwise unproductive digging.  Of course, this is small potatoes compared to what other people have been building (in fact, just off in the distance beyond all that fog lies a rather impressive floating castle that’s about twenty times larger than my puny little lighthouse.  Then again, it’s actually pretty quick to put stuff together in Minecraft as long as you have the resources to do it.  Perhaps Minecraft’s runaway popularity can be explained by the fact that there’s a lot of people out there who, in spite of claiming otherwise, never really grew out of playing with blocks, but the demands of adulthood have prevented them from being able to do so in any self-respecting fashion.  Not to say that there’s anything wrong with playing with blocks of course.  Maybe if I’d hurry up and get married and have a kid or two I might even get the chance to do so.

Oh, and since I happen to have it handy, I might as well throw in a quick night shot  of the lighthouse too.

September 7, 2010

It’s the Most Nerdiest Time of the Year: PAX 2010 Roundup

Filed under: Culture, Games — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 7:32 pm

"Bad ideas I have had", part #17,653 in a series.


As anyone who follows the video games industry is well aware, the Penny Arcade Expo has become a pretty big deal.  Last year’s PAX completely maxed out the available space in the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle, and sold out completely with a total attendance reported in excess of 60,000 people.  In 2010, not only did PAX expand to the East Coast for the first time with PAX East in Boston, but PAX Prime (as the Seattle show has been dubbed) has expanded even further, moving its main theater and concerts to Benaroya Hall and allowing the exhibition hall to expand even further.  This year for the first time, PAX brought with it major announcements, 

Once you have been to PAX enough times, you begin to realize that ultimately the exhibition hall is only a part of the whole experience, as there’s all sorts of stuff to do.  The Console Freeplay areas provide rooms full of systems and a big library of games you can check out, which provides a nice little opportunity to try out some of the stuff you might be on the fence about.  There’s all sorts of panels all throughout the three days of the show, and although only a handful were of interest to me this year, there’s a good chance everyone’s going to find at least one worth attending.  As usual, there were also the concerts which are a big draw, although this year I was unable to attend either of them.  There was also more content this year more tailored to professional interests in game design and development, something I’ve occasionally tinkered with in various forms but haven’t ever been really all that serious about (that’s probably a subject for another post, but who knows if I’ll ever get around to actually writing it?)  And as usual, PAX is also one of the more interesting people-watching locations you’re going to find anywhere (assuming that those are actually people in some of those suits, at least. ) After the jump, a roundup of some of the stuff I saw at PAX 2010.  Also a quick note:  Don’t expect to find much on the games themselves.  To be honest, I didn’t try a whole lot of them, and virtually all of the big-ticket games on the show floor require waiting through lines measured in hours to get anywhere near them, something I just don’t have the patience for. 


June 16, 2010

In With the Old

Filed under: Games — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 2:33 am

As you probably know if you have any sort of interest in video games whatsoever, this week is the Electronic Entertainment Expo (more commonly known as E3) in Los Angeles.  This is the one week out of the year in which all the  latest and allegedly greatest in interactive entertainment for the coming year gets shown off to the public.  Although the show itself is restricted to members of the industry, you’d practically have to live under a rock to avoid all the coverage in the various media, and as such E3 is quite the spectacle these days.  To be perfectly honest, I haven’t really paid all that much attention to E3 this year, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m not particularly impressed with most of what’s being shown.  I might elaborate on this a little bit later on, but the offerings this year seem to be heavy on gimmicks and light on content, and don’t really make a compelling case for the shiny new toys being shown off.  Then again, all the interesting stuff from E3 tends to make its way to PAX, which is now less than three months away, so I’ll hold off on getting too specific until then. 

Providing a stark contrast to all the new stuff down in LA this week was this past weekend’s Northwest Pinball and Gameroom show, held in a few conference rooms in an bscure corner of Seattle Center that I apparently didn’t even know existed until now.  As anyone who has been reading this site for any length of time knows, I’ve written a number of posts about growing up as an arcade junkie (much to my parents’ chagrin I’m sure) and lamenting the demise of the arcades.  Yet at the same time arcades are disappearing (a few scattered diehards notwithstanding) collectors have picked up the slack and gone to great lengths to preserve the legacy of the arcades.  By their very nature arcade collectors are diehards (you almost have to be, the space commitment required to collect full-size video games and pinball machines mandates that,) and by drawing upon the resources of local arcade collectors, a rather impressive collection of classic arcade video games and  pinball machines was brought together in one place for a weekend of old-school arcade goodness.  Once the (slightly steep) admission fee was paid at the door, all of the games were set on free play, so it wasn’t even necessary to worry about bringing quarters along.

The show was set up in two main rooms:  One for the video games, and one for the pinball machines.  On the video game side, all but a handful of the machines were made prior to 1990, making this a truly classic arcade experience.  In addition to the usual Atari, Williams and Midway fare you’d expect to find (and plenty of it,) there were a number of oddities on offer as well, including a surprisingly large number of 70s games, a couple of Cinematronics vector games (including Armor Attack, one of my favorites I haven’t played in years) and even an electromechanical game or two.  For the most part, the games were in original dedicated cabinets, and were in surprisingly good shape given their age, a testament to the efforts of the collectors that have in some cases gone to great lengths to restore and preserve these games.  Unfortunately, it does also tend to put my decrepit old conversion cabinet to shame…

In spite of the impressive showing of video games, it was pretty clear that pinball was getting top billing at this show.  A number of special guests (including some prominent pinball designers) were in attendance, and the pinball room included machines throughout much of the history of pinball.  Electromechanical Bally and Gottlieb machines dating back as far as the early Sixties could be found sitting next to the latest Stern games, with just about everything in between represented.  I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to play too many of the pinball machines (if I was a bit more patient I probably could have done so) but one of the highlights of the show was getting to play Nip-it, a Bally table from 1974, for the first time.  This table’s most prominent claim to fame was its presence at Arnold’s on the show Happy Days, but in my case, it was of particular interest because a number of years ago I actually did most of the coding to build a version of this table in Visual Pinball, a pinball simulator which I got involved in development for back in the early part of the last decade and built a number of tables for.  Although I did have a bit of help along the way from someone who owned a machine, I was glad to learn that although I could think of a number of tweaks that could use to be applied, I at least managed to get the rules of the table mostly correct.  Oh, and it still quite a fun table too.  Unlike some of the game’s contemporaries with their relatively lethargic ball action and minuature flippers with all the raw ball-pushing power of an asthmatic housefly, the action on this game moves at a relatively rapid pace for an electromechanical table (just don’t try to compare it to a Steve Richie table, OK?) and the Zipper Flippers (a rather short-lived Bally invention which causes the flippers to “Zip” in and temporarily cover up the center drain) add a bit of interest as well.  Maybe one of these days if I can ever get the table back into shape (it appears that Visual Pinball has some rendering problems for me on my current machine) I’ll put up a post with the stuff I’ve done.  I’m actually surprised to see that there’s still a rather active Visual Pinball community out there, so it might actually be worth doing.

All in all, the Pinball and Gameroom Show was a nice chance to reacquaint myself with some of the dubious distractions of my youth, if only for one weekend.  As tends to be the case every so often, I find myself briefly considering the possibility of actually getting a pinball machine once again, but that usually runs into cold hard reality pretty quickly as I remember that not only are the good tables expensive as heck, but I have no space for one (heck, I have no space for an arcade game either, but I didn’t figure that out until I got one.)  I’m trying not to let myself live in the past, but it is still OK if I visit every once in a while, right?

October 24, 2009

Is the Arcade Dead, Or Did it Just Sell Out?

Filed under: Bellevue, Games — Brian Lutz @ 8:46 pm

As some of you might recall, it was just a couple of months ago that I was lamenting the decline and fall of the video arcade.  At the time, I had no idea that there was anyone out there with the chutzpah to bring an arcade back to the Eastside, much less to put it right in the heart of downtown Bellevue.  But much to my surprise, just a few weeks ago it was announced that Lucky Strike Lanes in Lincoln Square (the Eastside’s only bowling alley with a dress code)  would be expanding to add an arcade called Power Play.  Even more shocking than the very existence of an arcade in this day in age is the price tag, purported to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million.  Of course, when you’re located in some of the costliest real estate in a town that’s getting pretty costly as is, expectations are going to be pretty high for a place like this.  Does Power Play deliver?  To be honest, I’m not so sure.  I’ll elaborate on this, and take a look at some of what passes for arcade games these days, after the jump.


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