2022: Year in Preview

Happy New Year!

I am generally satisfied that 2021 was decent, and somewhat better than 2020, for SophSoft, Incorporated and Digital Gamecraft®, but I am expecting us to perform significantly better this year, particularly in expanding our offerings and improving our finances. However, the development schedule will not be quite as aggressive as last year, which should allow for greater and deeper focus, and generally be slightly more realistic; it will still be challenging, though.

Digital Gamecraft logo

Product Development Goals

This year, I decided to break the goals into appropriate sections, so I start here with the priorities for (only) our internal development projects:

  1. Unannounced productivity tool – this product has been under development for, literally, 32 years, though obviously not continuously. We are fairly close to an early release version, at which point we will (probably) announce the product and unveil the web site for a soft launch. This is the highest priority because it helps manage the development and prioritization of all the other projects. While I see almost unlimited potential of this project, it is the means to an end, and should the internal ends be satisfied by an unpolished alpha version, the effort to polish the product for public consumption could be de-prioritized. (We have to get there first.)
  2. SophPlay System™ – this product combines libraries, tools, standards, and procedures into a complete development system for creating robust games on multiple platforms, and it has been in use here for more than 25 years. Although a public release has always been envisioned for the future, the development work this year is particularly in support of (all) internal game products, which is why it is given this high priority.
  3. Unannounced Gamecraft Classics™ product – this traditional game title has been under planning and development, intermittently, for decades. It was buoyed (back) up the list of priorities in the middle of last year when we were reassessing our product lineup. It was promoted due to the vast amount of research and code that was already complete and available, combined with its ready support of simultaneous improvements to SophPlay.
  4. Unannounced console title – this is a game title that (perhaps unusually) focuses on accessibility and inclusion. It started as the highest priority last year, but it became clear that 3 months of development was too optimistic an estimate, and combined with the economic realities of the situation, it had to be slightly de-prioritized this year, but by no means am I any less excited by the prospects, and the above two projects will help pave the way. (We need to hear back from Sony and Microsoft whether we can reveal which consoles are supported. 😉 )
  5. Unannounced reference website – this is yet another project that has been in the conceptual and prototype design and development phases for ages. It is given this high a priority now as it also gives me a great deal of excitement and purpose, and because it helps support one of the projects above, but it is given a lower priority than that project because we currently have no viable business model for it, and while we are more than willing to make it free in theory, that concept makes it much harder to justify devoting development effort (given the other projects).
  6. Demolish! Pairs – this product has been available in its initial form since 2013 (on iOS, 2018 on Android). We have early plans to refresh the Android version, and later plans to both redesign the mobile versions and expand to other platforms (such as Windows, where there has been a working prototype since 1999). Currently, this title doesn’t quite earn enough to justify the time it takes to bring up the sales reports; its primary benefits are the development and exercising of SophPlay and the demonstration of our capabilities on various platforms.

Although the above projects are given numbered priorities, which are generally correct, the fact is that there is some interplay among them, so we will not (and cannot) be just focusing on a single project until it is finished and then moving onto the next. For that reason, this year I will not be assigning or predicting target release dates; everything will just be “as soon as reasonably possible”, with the above priorities in mind.

Of course, we have a backlog of dozens of products in various stages of design and prototyping, and we know exactly what the next few games will be, but even touching #7 before 2023 is something of a pipe dream.

Client Development Goals

To be completely honest, I really like my two primary clients and the projects I get to work on for them, but I see the inherent limitations in trading my time (and skills) for money. I really should be charging them between more and very much more than I currently am, but that doesn’t really resolve the bigger issue. If I could quadruple what I charge and work more hours, I could go from struggling to comfortable, maybe even well off, but that does not scratch the itch. This is the reason that I have not really been actively seeking any more long-term clients, and also why I have (deliberately) not been filling all my development time with client work.

Instead, I have been relishing the actual work and the challenges it provides, as well as the experience and knowledge I gain (and, sure, the funding). At the same time, I want to make sure that, for each client, neither of us is overly reliant on the other, especially given how close we came to this being an issue last year. (Plan for the proverbial ‘hit by a bus’ scenario.)

For one client, I am working on a feature for an established (non-game) product that has involved a lot of research to this point. This has given me the opportunity to program in Pascal for the first time since the 1980s (and Object Pascal for the first time ever) and to improve my knowledge of JSON, while I exercise my intellect and my technical design, programming, and debugging abilities. In (the early part of) the new year, I expect to have the fundamentals of the feature ready to be integrated into the main product, and I hope it can be in a new release of that product (of which my feature is but a small part) ready before the end of the year. Also, I expect that I will be able to announce the name of the client and product.

For the other client, Goodsol Development, with whom I have been working for more than 20 years (!), the products are much closer to those that Digital Gamecraft develops. (In fact, our PC solitaire game prototypes date to 1989, predating Goodsol by 6 years, but they were put on hold permanently in 2001 when Goodsol became a client.) These titles provide the challenge and fulfillment that I would be seeking even were they not a client, while general knowledge cross-pollinates with our internal products; some features have been implemented more quickly (on both sides) because I already did the research and had the requisite knowledge, so products from both companies benefit.

Last year, we had an aggressive release schedule planned, but that was necessarily interrupted in April and, in truth, was a bit optimistic anyway. However, that means that the early part of the year is fairly well-defined as the carryover from last year’s schedule. You can expect to see releases for Pretty Good Solitaire Mini (not a stretch, given it was essentially already done in December), Pretty Good MahJongg (Windows and Mac), Most Popular Solitaire (Windows, Mac, and iPad), Action Solitaire (Windows only), and FreeCell Plus (Windows, Mac, and iPad). After that (or sooner), it would be a good bet that we would add new games to Goodsol Solitaire Engine and then have subsequent releases of Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition and Pretty Good Solitaire Touch Edition.

General Development Goals

There are always general development projects ongoing to support commercial releases, or just business operations. These can be tools or, probably more often, non-programming tasks such as documentation, research, and marketing. SophPlay used to be the perennial top entry on this list, but it has now been (appropriately) elevated to ‘product’ status. Here are the (5) main general development tasks to be completed this year:

  1. Pitch deck and company bible – these documents give information about the structure and purpose of the company and its various divisions. We have always bootstrapped the company, and we have never received third-party loans nor investment, but writing these documents gives a bigger picture view of the company and is very helpful. It is like writing a business plan without having to include nonsense numbers and projections to impress investors.
  2. 3D graphics research – this research is essential to our products going forward. It is no secret that most of our games to this point have been 2D or isometric, but that is definitely not the case going forward, especially with our expansion into consoles. We have been very rapidly expanding our knowledge and capabilities, but there is still much to be learned about the differences among the 4 or 5 different systems on the platforms we currently support. Additionally, I am personally learning to create 3D artwork, a skill I have never had before.
  3. Xbox project approval – this is required to release and market our upcoming console game(s) on the Xbox One. This development task consists of adjusting our design documentation to fit their desired format, plus the development of some mockups and other explanatory imagery. This is not (necessarily) a difficult task, just one that has not gotten completed yet.
  4. Blog writing – this is simply a greater commitment to openness and transparency via blog posts in 2022. The only blog post I wrote in 2019 was announcing the death of my wife, Sherry, who was also my only surviving business partner, and it has been difficult to get back into the swing of posting regularly since then. However, the facts that I enjoy writing, and that I do not enjoy the idea of providing free content on social media, combined with a huge upcoming anniversary, give me the impetus to really try this year.
  5. Nintendo Switch developer reapplication – this is needed to complete our portfolio of major console support. Nintendo was the first application we completed, and it was also the first that was rejected, although no reason (nor obvious means of appeal) was given, so I have no idea why we were turned down. Sony took seemingly forever to approve us, and it required a change in our registered business address; Microsoft took almost no time with only one casual clarification (via email with a real human being). With our newfound experience, it is only fair to give Nintendo another chance to get in on this opportunity. 😉

Business Goals

At this point, staying healthy, safe, and productive is a given, and continuing to make payroll should be considered a necessity though, to be fair, I personally have enough runway via available credit that I could continue to pursue these goals until 2023 even if company funding disappeared tomorrow. Given that, these are the 3 main business priorities:

  1. Substantially increase business income – clearly, the primary way to do this is to release new products, so that is the main focus. Half of the products listed as development goals should increase income, and each of those has the potential to be huge.
  2. Resolve outstanding business paperwork – Sherry was the officer in charge of keeping up the necessary business paperwork, and since she died, it has become my responsibility. While I think I have all the legal requirements fulfilled, I need to organize everything and make sure.
  3. Complete home/office renovations – while this is not actually a business function (and is not funded by the company), it will provide benefits such as additional safe and secure storage for equipment and documents, as well as a larger space for testing console and AR/VR products (not to mention a nicer place for breaks when nature calls).

We definitely take over the world in 2023. 🙂

Conclusion

We have a lot of development work to do to release more of our own products, plenty of development to perform for our clients, loads of support projects to complete, and a few major business goals, so we are going to be very busy… a good thing.

There are other activities that I will, personally, be participating in less this year, including social media, television, and newsgroups. I will, however, continue (or even increase) those activities that bring me joy, including spending time with my grandchild and the rest of my family, finding solitude in nature, playing games, and exercising (as well as programming and writing).

It may look overwhelming, but the counterpoint is that this company turns 40 this month! We have been doing this for a very long time, and we are still here, so we have the experience and (global crisis or not) 2022 is going to be a breakout year for us.

Let’s Go!

2021: Year in Preview

Happy New Year!

Although 2020 was fairly average for SophSoft, Incorporated and Digital Gamecraft™, I am not terribly satisfied with that outcome, given the huge number of internal (and external) projects we have and all of the unrealized potential. Therefore, with more than a little optimism, I have set a very aggressive development schedule for the coming year.

Digital Gamecraft logo

Development Goals

Our primary goal for 2021 is shipping our first, internally designed and developed, console title. This project is well underway, but still has a lot more to be done. We are hoping to be completed with the development within about 3 (more) months, but how long the approval and publishing process takes is beyond our control (or experience).

Depending on the success of that title, we may (or may not) adjust the rest of the schedule to take advantage of other related opportunities (in particular, adding another console platform or two to our repertoire). However, at the moment, the development schedule calls for brand new game releases in July and November, as well as the initial version of a productivity tool and the first look at another project, a reference site, as well as maintenance updates for Demolish! Pairs, during the year.

Combined with work for our current clients, we expect (amazingly) to have new products or product updates releasing every month in 2021.

For much of 2020, I have been working with a client who publishes a major utility to add a significant feature that will make an already indispensable tool (that I used and advocated prior to this gig) even more useful for programmers like myself. Although I have absolutely no control over feature integration or release scheduling, I am hopeful that the result of this work will become publicly available this year. (At some point, I will have to get permission to reveal the product name and promote it, instead of just teasing.)

Our work with Goodsol Development continues, too, and although I cannot give the planned schedule, you should expect to see many more games added to Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition, Pretty Good Solitaire for iPad, and Pretty Good Solitaire Mini for iPhone, probably some new layouts for Pretty Good MahJongg, and perhaps even some updates for Goodsol Solitaire 101, Most Popular Solitaire, FreeCell Plus, and Action Solitaire. Of course, these games are pretty great already, and Goodsol has not charged for updates for any of the above titles, so I recommend buying them all now. 😉

Business Goals

For the moment, the company has almost everything it needs to accomplish the above goals, although it will take a huge effort on my part. The one thing we still need is serious funding, such that we can afford more help, but for the moment we are still bootstrapping.

From the business standpoint, our basic goals are:

  1. Stay healthy, safe, and productive.
  2. Continue to reliably make payroll while growing income.
  3. Connect with a great artist (or two) for our games, and maybe a marketing expert.

Note that we are not looking to take over the world until 2022 at the earliest.

Evaluation

This post lays out the goals for the year, obviously, so we can look forward, but part of the purpose of the post is also so we can look back on them at the end of the year and assess how the year has gone relative to what we hoped and expected. (More often than not, something external, like a new client, an emergency project, or an unexpected international hit game [knocking wood], causes priorities to shift.)

This is, truly, an incredibly aggressive development schedule, and if we can even get close, without disappointing ourselves or any of our clients, then that will be worth an A+.

If we can complete at least three of the (five) planned major releases this year, that will still be a great performance, but bittersweet for not getting everything done. Anything less would be disappointing, although just making it to our 40th anniversary early next year would be an accomplishment itself.

Of course, we give client projects priority over our internal projects, which is why (in the past) we have not made the desired progress with Digital Gamecraft products, but I believe (without going into detail here) that we have the organizational processes and development foundations in place to accomplish all of the above (without “crunch”).

Now, there is nothing left to do but DO.

Why I Do It

The origins of my passion for computer programming and games

I have always loved games, as far back as I can remember. Even as a small child, I enjoyed all kinds of games, and I remember making up games and contests of my own. However, most analog games have at least a couple of drawbacks surrounding one concept: competition.

First, one had to find other people to play the game. I spent a lot of time alone in my childhood, so the opportunities to compete against others was limited. Even when players were available, the choices were limited by the number of people. Some games do not work with too few players, and if you have too many, somebody can get left out.

Second, when there are enough people to play a game, there are a lot of issues with inequity. Sometimes the skill difference at a game (or in general) is just too great for enjoyment, and the degree to which one enjoys any particular game is usually imbalanced. My sister was often around for games for two players, but she was three and a half years younger, so there were few interesting games where we were matched well.

At the time, I had not developed enough life skills to solve these problems through negotiation and sheer enjoyment of playing the game. I took games far too seriously, and probably was something of a poor sport. Nowadays, we have (well, had) Game Nights, which we have been doing for a couple of decades, and I am now far more concerned that everybody is having a good time than whether or not I win (or even play), in marked contrast to my youth.

One solution is provided by one-player games, and I have had a love for Solitaire since I first learned Klondike around the age of five (as fully documented when I wrote “I come by my love of Solitaire honestly“). Likewise, I have loved Pinball for about as long, as my uncle owned Campus Pinball in Ann Arbor (and that experience factors heavily in my life story), but Pinball was not readily available to me on a regular basis in my early childhood due to both location and funding.

Instead, I made up games and similar activities that I could play on my own. I created solitaire games (like the one player version of Go Fish! mentioned in the linked Solitaire post), held competitive events with my toys, like marble races or a challenge to see which Matchbox/Hot Wheels/cheap knockoff car would go the farthest (for which I invented different match systems, including the double-elimination bracket system), or made up strict sets of rules (i.e., algorithms) for automatic players in multiplayer games, like Monopoly, and then played against them. I had no reference to know that this was a rudimentary form of programming, but it is obvious looking back.

More to the point, I used to fantasize about having a “robot” (because in those days, there were no personal computers, simple calculators cost hundreds of dollars, and the only real computer I had ever seen was an enormous mainframe at MSU with multiple huge tape drives 😉) who would serve as my opponent(s) in these games, effectively making them one-player games.

About that time, Pong was released, and as fun as that was, it was still a two-player game (although on many occasions I played both sides, where the inequality of the experience between my dominant hand and the other was striking), so it was actually Breakout, released 4 years later, that became the first video game I really loved. (It was decades later before I learned that Steve Wozniak programmed that game just before founding Apple with Steve Jobs, who was also on that project.) Of course, from that point on, the video games came faster and faster. (Plus, Pinball Pete’s opened nearby, and I made slightly more than nothing with a paper route, giving me better access.)

I was also introduced to Dungeons and Dragons, which is ostensibly a social role playing game, but for the first several years of my fascination, I never actually played it as designed, but rather read through the books of rules and played scenarios (alone) as Dungeon Master, as well as controlling the players, and/or a group of monsters, given algorithmic motivations, which (unbeknownst to me) was building toward computer adventure/role-playing games.

All of this led up to My First Programming Experience. I was hooked; for years I had dreamed to be able to do exactly what I have been able to do since then. Also, the technology rapidly exceeded what I could ever imagine (as detailed in Still Coding After All These Years). Occasionally, I have to take a deep breath and reflect on this fact.

This job is truly, and literally, a dream come true.

Still Coding After All These Years

Today is my 40th anniversary of programming a computer.

December 22, 1978: This day marked the first time I walked into a computer store, the first time I played a game on a home computer (or even touched one), and the very first time I wrote a computer program.

Exidy Sourcerer

Of course, that very first program was pretty BASIC. 😉  I learned the concept of programming, line numbers, how to RUN and LIST a program, and (at least) my first two commands, PRINT and GOTO, on that same day.

The very next day, I learned (more) about variables, FOR loops, and number theory (mathematics, not programming), as I helped an MSU student debug his program, and then further experiment with it.  We noticed that abundant numbers are often bounded on each side by primes, but this is not universal.

I urge you to read more about My First Programming Experience.

Computers were awesome!

A few years later, as I was on an airline flight, I took out my pen and paper and started writing a wishlist for the “perfect computer” for me, dreaming about what could be possible in the future.  I envisioned lots of colors, crazy amounts of memory (like 64K!), and larger custom character sets, which idea gave way to (really out there) thoughts of individually addressable pixels at very high resolution (say, 640×400).  At a conference, I saw a display with a “true color” screen image of an apple (fruit) at 1024×1024 and that blew my mind.

In the intervening years, I have had loads of milestones and accomplishments:

  • January 13, 1982: founded Sophisticated Software Systems
  • Summer 1982: had first professional programming job
  • Late summer 1982: purchased very first computer, a Commodore VIC-20
  • 1984: won the ComCon ’84 International Programming Competition
  • 1984: started first full-time programming job with Michigan State University
  • 1988: landed game programming job with Quest Software
  • 1989: published first retail game product, Legacy of the Ancients
  • April 22, 1990: self-published shareware game, Pacmania 1.10
  • February 1, 1993: started as Senior Software Engineer at Spectrum Holobyte
  • 1994: went full-time as an independent game developer
  • 1995: incorporated business as SophSoft, Incorporated
  • 1996: launched Digital Gamecraft for developing independent games
  • 2002: Goodsol Development released Pretty Good MahJongg
  • 2004: served as Chairman for the Association of Software Professionals
  • 2007: created first Mac game, Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition
  • March 27, 2013: A Little Solitaire became the #1 card game for iPad
  • 2013: published first Digital Gamecraft title for iOS, Demolish! Pairs
  • 2016: established and ran Advanced Concepts Group at DAQRI
  • 2018: published an Android version of Demolish! Pairs

These are just a few of the major highlights, but none of these events made as much of a difference in my life as that day I walked into New Dimensions in Computing.  Of course, there are a few personal milestones that really affected things as well, but most of these also happened within this time frame (more than 76% of my lifetime).

Today, I am back doing what I love: programming.  Even when things are tough, I truly enjoy the development process and can get ‘in the zone’.  When people would ask me what my favorite game was, I would often reply something like, “C++”. 🙂

Amazingly, I now have a stable of portable devices, each of which far exceeds my ultimate imagination for my perfect computer, and many of them blow away the visual capabilities of that screen that mesmerized me back in the early 1980s (and I never even considered the possibility of 3D rendering capabilities).  My phone fits in my pocket yet is more powerful than my first PC, and my watch is more powerful than that first computer.

Computers are awesome!


Meaningful Play 2018: Day 3

Saturday was the final day of the best conference on meaningful gameplay.

This shorter day ends the Meaningful Play 2018 conference.  As always, I leave with inspiration and a greater sense of purpose, not to mention hope.

Saturday morning keynote

The day began with a very informative and practical talk, The Promise of Games for Personlized Learning, in which Diana Hughes of Age of Learning discussed and demonstrated practices they used in ABCmouse Mastering Math to teach and assess mathematics skills in children ages 4-8.

One fundamental takeaway from the keynote was the importance of providing proper understanding (mastery) of basic mathematical principles (of which I had not realized there were so many) before attempting to teach a skill that relies on those principles.  The software uses various (positive) “scaffolding” for supporting a learner who does not demonstrate knowledge of a topic, as measured by incorrect answers in a game.

Initial results of scientific testing show great promise, based on significant improvements with just limited classroom time spent using the game, as well as anecdotal evidence from teachers that the software is effective.  I believe that numerical understanding is as important as the ability to read for educational success, so these are hopeful results.

Breakout sessions

There were only two breakout sessions on this final day.  For the first one, I attended Game Post-Mortem Microtalks II.

The first (of 3) games featured was a VR simulation of a Brazilian chicken farm.  Pericles Gomes presented the software running on Google Cardboard, along with some detailed information about the huge quantity of meat produced and exported from Brazil, and more detailed information about the number of chickens produced from the particular farm that was captured with 360 degree cameras to make the simulation.  Even running in just Cardboard, the VR version had proven more effective than the tablet version.

The second postmortem was from Phillip Cameron about the use of games with students learning the German language.  He presented the results of a limited survey of potential students and how likely they would be to continue with advanced German studies, and then again with similar classes using games and software.  The total numbers showed a slight improvement, but upon correlating answers between the two questions, it was shown that some “likely” to continue initially actually became “unlikely” in the class with games, while other moved from “unlikely” or “unsure” to “likely”.

The third and final postmortem was by Mars Ashton, who is very active in the Michigan game development community, on his award-winning game project, Axis Descending.  He discussed the personal origin of the project about a decade ago, its creation in Flash, the marketing and reception (including awards) of the project during development, and the ultimate decision to cancel the project.  Mars was very upfront about how his focus on the game had become “unhealthy” and how that affected him and those around him.

For the second breakout session, I chose to do the Tour of MSU Libraries Rovi Game Collection.  We walked to the MSU Library and, first, visited the Video Game Lab which houses the Rovi Game Collection, a collection of approximately 18,000 PC and console games dating back to the early 1990s (including at least 7 games I worked on 😉 ).

We then walked downstairs to visit the Digital Scholarship Lab, which is an impressive collection of technology available to students, faculty, researchers, and the public at large.  It includes a 360-degree visualization room, with seamless video projected on the walls of the round room, a VR room with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive set up and ready for use, a room with scanners, including a small 3D scanner, and numerous very powerful desktop computers with just about all the creation and development software one could want.

On the way out, we also passed the MakeCentral Makerspace, which has 3D printing, structure scanning, laser cutting, and vinyl cutting available, as well as a technology lending program with a number of digital toys…  I mean, toolsVery cool.

Saturday afternoon keynote

The closing keynote was Imagineers at Play, by Bei Yang of Walt Disney Imagineering.  He discussed several aspects of “imagineering”, including the many disciplines involved, how they test and revise experiences, and the benefits of using BIM (Building Information Modeling) for design of spaces.  He then showed a number of projects, ranging from experimentation to final implementation, to illustrate the ideas.  This included the revelation that an upcoming Disney experience will allow guests to pilot the Millennium Falcon!

The key takeaways were that the design loop (ideate, prototype, test) is essentially the scientific method (hypothesis, experiment, conclusion) in practice, and the following observations on technology:

  1. Everything is design
  2. Technology is making design loops faster
  3. Technology is changing what we can do in those designs

Coincidentally, I ended up asking the last public question of the conference, which was (from memory): For new experiences, does the storytelling drive the technology, or does the technology drive the storytelling?  The short answer was, “Both.”  The longer answer was that sometimes there is a story to tell and they seek out the best technology to do that, which sometime results in ideas being shelved, and other times advances in technology make it possible to tell a story that had been ruled out in the past.

Conclusion

I leave this awesome conference full of new ideas, as well as with a couple new goals to be completed before Meaningful Play 2020.

 

Meaningful Play 2018: Day 2

The second (and last) full day of this conference is a go.

This is the last full day of the Meaningful Play 2018 conference on serious games, games with a meaningful purpose.  The conference has been quite inspiring so far.

Friday morning keynote

The day got off to a great start with Six Observations on Failure that May or May Not Relate to Games by John Sharp from the Parsons School of Design at The New School.  In this talk, he discussed the benefits of failure, repeatedly invoking the phrase “fail better”, which is part of a quote he (reportedly) has tattooed on himself, while also acknowledging that not everybody has the ability to fail in all circumstances.

The presentation surveyed a number of different ways to see failure as a springboard for better results in the future, including advice from books going back to the mid-1800s, but noted how current American society (especially sports) paint failure as a bad thing.

The key takeaway was the simple process presented for better failure:

  1. Detect
  2. Acknowledge (the hardest part)
  3. Analyze
  4. Attribute responsibility (n.b., not blame)

He encouraged everybody who is in a position to afford it to fail often and fail better.

My personal observations, complementing not contradicting his, are that failure leads to better retention of correct results (i.e., learning) and that the fear of failure results in not trying things, for one, but also in striving for perfection, which in turn results in analysis paralysis and perfectionism.  A quote from a friend that hangs on my office wall reads, “Done is better than perfect.”  (I write this to remind myself again. 🙂 )

Breakout sessions

Instead of a midday keynote, Friday has three breakout sessions of six options each.  For the first one, I instead attended the Tower Room (or, more accurately, the hallway outside) to work on these blog updates (and also charge the tablet) before lunch.

For the second breakout session, I attended The Original Mobile Games: Recreating Historic Dexterity Puzzle Games for Digital Mobile Platforms, a talk by Stephen Jacobs from The Strong National Museum of Play as well as RIT, both of which organizations collaborated on the development of the digital game at the heart of this presentation.

Although this may just be my particular proclivity, but this talk was the one that I found to be the most exciting of the conference (to this point).  This is probably because of my strong interest in the history of traditional games and the fact that my primary development focus is casual games; I even have a game with related mechanics in the project queue.  The turnout was a little disappointing, but seeing both Noah Falstein and John Sharp (and, of course, Stephen Jacobs) there provides support for my choice. 😉

The discussion was about the history of “dexterity puzzle games” (i.e., the original mobile games) such as Pigs in Clover (as seen in the image), in which the aim is to use physics to maneuver objects, usually balls, into indentations or positions as prescribed by the rules.  These have been popular for 129 years, and the Strong Museum has around one hundred examples of the game type.  This product attempts to replicate the physics behavior of some of these games, as well as preserving the history, appearance, and even sounds of these early amusements, making it all accessible on mobile devices.

I am excited just to see this project, even if I do not end up playing it much.  You can get it now for Android on Google Play or for iOS on the App Store, and you can check The Original Mobile Games website for to check for other platforms in the future.

For the third breakout session, I attended Game Post-Mortem Microtalks I.

The first (of two) games featured was Plunder Panic, a game created by Brian Winn, William Jeffery, and 12 (paid) student developers from MSU.  This is an award-winning game with simultaneous play for up to 12 players, and one of the first university games to seek a retail audience, which provides extra challenges beyond merely development.  The primarily development challenge was productivity from college students during the school year, but the game presses forward, scheduled to be released commercially in 2019.

The second featured game was Thunderbird Strike, a game from Elizabeth LaPensée, who did the design and hand-drawn artwork.  The postmortem did not discuss much about the development, per se, except that the animations had to be reduced because of the time required to do animations by hand, one frame at a time.  The bulk of the discussion was about how this small indie art game, made by indigenous people, for the purpose of reflecting some indigenous culture and values (for a small audience), became the focus of a political firestorm, which thrust the game into the public eye to a much wider audience, but also brought about unfair and inaccurate criticism of the game and personal attacks directed towards its designer, whose life was altered by the controversy.

Friday afternoon keynote

The afternoon keynote was Playful Social Engineering by Katherine Isbister of University of California, Santa Cruz.  The talk began with discussion about the way technology tends to separate us “cyborgs”, such as when people are so engaged in their phones that they eschew normal social interaction.  The presenter then discussed issues of and opportunities for using technology to encourage, rather than interfere with, social interconnection, then showed a couple of case studies with LARPs (Live-Action Role Playing games).  More research and work needs to be done in this area.

Game exhibitions

Thursday night had the Conference Reception, Game Exhibition, and Poster Session, which included (among other things) demonstrations of serious games.  Friday night featured the Pure Michigan Game Exhibition and Celebration, which showcased many games made in Michigan.

[I will discuss these events in a separate post later.]

Meaningful Play 2018: Day 1

The first full day of the conference is a rollicking start.

Meaningful Play 2018 is properly and officially underway with the opening remarks (following Meaningful Play 2018: Day 0) by conference chair Brian Winn, who has organized the biennial event since the first in 2008.  The theme this year is wizards (after ninjas, monsters, and robots) and the slogan is, “Exploring the Magic of Games.

The purpose of the conference is to bring together game developers and academics to discuss the research and practice of designing serious games, which are (to give a simpler definition than yesterday) games with meaning.  This thread of exploring not only the magic but the purposeful impact of games runs through the proceedings.

Thursday morning keynote

The morning keynote was Three Miles An Hour: Designing Games for the Speed of Thought, by Tracy Fullerton, game designer and Director of the Games Program at USC.  The “three miles an hour” from the title refers to average walking speed, which has been suggested as a pace at which thinking can occur more readily, and Tracy explores this concept in “walking simulator” games such as her own Walden, a Game.  She discusses the idea that games can (should?) have “reflective play”, where scenes with no urgent interactivity can be used to give the player a chance to reflect on the experience.

One takeaway was the proposed reshaping of Sid Meier‘s definition of a game as “a series of interesting choices” into “a series of meaningful situations“.  It is an interesting reframing, but I feel that the two are fully compatible; what makes a decision interesting is anticipation of a meaningful situation to which it leads.  It is analogous to traditional games: some games play on the points on the board, while others play on the polygons they form.

The important thing here, I think, is the word, “meaningful“.

Morning session

The morning breakout session provided six options for talks, papers, panels, and workshops, but since I can only be in one place at a time, I choice to attend Physics is (still) Your Friend: The World of Goo @ 10 by Drew Davidson.  In this talk, he revisited the talk he gave at Meaningful Play 2008, looking at how The World of Goo stands up after 10 years on the market (answer: quite well) and even revealed a few spoilers for those of us who never got very far in the game.

Key takeaways were that the game was, in a way, a metaphor for the indie game development process (full analysis would be too deep for this post), that early figures showed that 90% of players of the game were pirating it but they were successful despite that by focusing on the game, and that they produced the game for many platforms and continue to upgrade them to remain playable through the years.

Midday keynote

Full disclosure: Living near to the conference venue has a few drawbacks such as, perhaps, getting pulled away from the event for family matters, so I missed the first 15 minutes of this keynote, Games Are Not Good for You, by Eric Zimmerman.  This means that I missed the audience playing “Five Fingers” and, apparently, a swipe at Luminosity.

Nevertheless, even sans introduction (and title slide picture), this talk was enlightening about the practice of informed game design.  The most fascinating part of the talk, to me, was a discussion of his game, Waiting Rooms, which was a building-sized installation wherein players would walk around collecting and paying pennies and tickets according the rules of various rooms.  They set up systems without a defined goal and observed what was essentially (although I did not hear him call it this) emergent behavior, but driven by human desires and values rather than programmed operators.  (Here is the first article about the game that came up from a Google search.)

Afternoon session

For the afternoon sessions, I chose (from six options again) to attend a talk, An Innovative Approach to Collaborative Game Design, given by Carrie Cole and Sarah Buchan of Age of Learning.  This was the most informative session yet, with practical information and clear illustration of how the learning process was advanced and how curriculum and game design are balanced to achieve those goals.  It was very worthwhile.

In a weird twist, I discovered that Carrie, who I met here in East Lansing when she was at MSU, ended up moving out to the Los Angeles area just a few months after I did, and without realizing the connection at the time, I found out about Age of Learning when we interviewed and ultimately hired one of their developers for my team at Daqri.

Afternoon keynote

The afternoon keynote was Moments (formerly, Nuance) in the Woods: Exploring Meaning in Games by Alec Holowka, one of the developers of Night in the Woods.  The game uses the tag line, “At the end of everything, hold on to anything.”  This line hints at the meaning that the game could and, as we heard, does have.

This talk turned out to be (perhaps unexpectedly) the highlight of the conference so far. After some introduction to the game, which appears to be very engaging, including the incorporation of reflective play opportunities, with a character-driven story.  There was also discussion about some of the development process, the successful KickStarter campaign, and various mistakes made along the way.

The presentation was interesting to that point, but then the speaker took a turn into his own personal struggles while creating the product, concluding that portion with a realization that not everybody has the same access to health care and support services, and how their game could been meaningful to people (especially young people) facing similar struggles.  Then, he read some quick highlights of testimonials from affected players and showed lots of fan art demonstrating the degree to which the game made the desired connection with players.  It was moving and enlightening.

One key moment was the showing of this animated tribute video [2:06] created over the course of a year by a 16-year-old girl, Sarah Y., who ends the video with the message “thank you for inspiring me and many others”.  It was amazing.

 

Meaningful Play 2018: Day 0

This conference on serious games got underway Wednesday.

Meaningful Play 2018 started here in East Lansing, on the campus of Michigan State University, with a special talk given by game design luminary, Noah Falstein.

The Surprising Synergy of Medicine, Games, and VR was actually a crossover talk, serving as the last presentation of the single day AR/VR Symposium at MSU and launching Meaningful Play 2018, a leading conference on serious games, which are games that explicitly provide an additional benefit beyond entertainment, such as education, training, advocacy, or (as in this case) health care.

In this talk, Noah spoke about the potential for VR (virtual reality) to make a strong emotional connection, and the challenges presented using VR for medical games, specifically the issues (good and bad) with advancing technology.  He transitioned to health care by discussing a pain control study where a child was distracted from a painful medical procedure (changing burn dressings) through a VR game, reducing anxiety and the need for sedatives.

His three top arguments for considering games for medical purposes:

  1. Helping people
  2. Challenging, exciting, and diverse development
  3. Big market (especially with FDA clearance)

In support of the latter argument (as the first two are fairly self-explanatory), he mentioned that the pharmaceutical industry, just in the United States, has an annual turnover of 300 to 400 billion dollars.  If therapeutic games could capture just 5% of that market, it would be close to the total value of the (entertainment) video game market.  Food for thought.

Finally, Noah presented some quick case studies of companies/products that were having success in this field, including Akili Interactive, MindMaze/MindMotion, and Muse.  It looks like a very interesting field, with funding available for successful ventures (albeit likely outside the reach of my micro-ISV).

Warm Up

This is my first proper conference in 4 years (since the 2014 edition of this same conference) and it is really convenient that it is held right here in my hometown.  It is quite nice not having to worry about the expense and logistics of lodging.  It has always been good to be able to actually walk to the venue in the past, too, but this time it started raining right as I left home, so I was damp when I arrived for the talk.  Worse, the rain picked up on the way back, so I was totally drenched by the time I got back.

Being that I have been slightly out of the loop for a while, it was really comforting to have the elevator doors open to reveal just two people already in there, the aforementioned  Noah Falstein, who I knew back in the day (but have not seen in person in 15-20 years), and Patrick Shaw of Stardock, who I know better and have seen much more recently.

This was a great way to ease into the conference.