Friday, January 9, 2015

Pushing Pixels: How Shovel Knight Was Inspired By 8-Bit Limits

A before and after look at the original and then simplified look of the King Knight
Released last year by indie developer Yacht Club Games to critical and fan acclaim, Shovel Knight was an action platformer that paid homage to the design sensibilities of the 8-bit era in general and the NES in particular, staying close to the limited color palette of the console. But what limitations did the design team have to work with? With the power of the PC and modern console at their command, what did limitations did they choose to keep and what did they choose to discard?

David D'Angelo, a programmer for Yacht Club Games, answers those questions and more in a recent blog post on Gamasutra entitled "Breaking The NES For Shovel Knight". The image above is accompanied by an explanation on how limiting sprite detail wasn't just slavish devotion to NES hardware limits but a deliberate design choice:
A character with too many colors stuck out like a sore thumb. We worked back and forth with detail levels and colors until we found a combo that looked great, [because] a sprite too detailed is also really hard to animate! In this example, you can see the original King Knight design. While the left sprite has only 5 colors (as was our stated limitation), it was too detailed and almost felt closer to a 16 bit sprite. After taking a few passes to simplify the shapes for readability and simplicity, we ended up with the sprite that you see in game!
The entire post is a really interesting look into the design choices that were made in the goal for capturing a gaming aesthetic, so if you want to know more, check it out!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Intel Apologizes for #Gamergate, Funding 300M Diversity Initiative

Photo courtesy
Intel recently announced at the Consumer Electronics Show that it invest $300,000,000 in a "Diversity in Technology" initiative.  The initiative will see Intel investing in and partnering with the National Center for Women in Technology, Feminist Frequency, Rainbow PUSH, Girls Who Code, the Cybersmile Foundation, the IDGA and more.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said in his keynote address that "It's not good enough to say we value diversity, and then have our industry not fully represent..." women and other minorities, and that the aim goes beyond the company's bottom line. "This isn't just good business," said Krzanich, "this is the right thing to do... We're calling on our industry to again make the seemingly impossible possible by making a commitment to real change and clarity in our goals. Without a workforce that more closely mirrors the population, we are missing opportunities, including not understanding and designing for our own customers." To show the effort is more than just talk, he said will make sure its hiring practices reflect this going forward and will tie its leaders' pay to the progress toward this goal, which will be closely tracked and monitored.

Last year, after the #gamergate-led groups directed an email astrotufing campaign to Intel attacking a blog post Leigh Alexander made about the hate group on Gamasutra, a video-game industry-focused site, and succeeded in convincing the company to temporarily withdraw its advertising contract. Intel later reinstated its advertising and released a statement saying "Intel does not support any organization or movement that discriminates against women. We apologize and we are deeply sorry if we offended anyone."

How Nerds Dreamt of Rebel Alliance But Became The Empire

 Laurie Penny, author of Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies & Revolution, is also a prolific columnist and blogger and has written on everything from capitalism and feminism to pop culture and science fiction. She recently read Scott Aaronson's comment on a blog post about sexism and the roles of men and women on the STEM fields, where Aaronson writes of the pain, confusion and isolation he experienced for years and how while he felt he agreed with most of the ideas behind feminism, when it came to discussions of privilege, he stopped dead in his tracks, saying the be was sure that "...being a nerdy male might not make me 'privileged' — that it might even have put me into one of society’s least privileged classes" and that he spent years growing up "... feeling not 'entitled', not 'privileged', but terrified."

Penny, in her personal essay "On Nerd Entitlement" responds with understanding and empathy:

"As a child and a teenager, I was shy, and nerdy, and had crippling anxiety... desperate for a boyfriend or, failing that, a fuck... I hated myself and had suicidal thoughts. I was extremely lonely, and felt ugly and unloveable. Eventually I developed severe anorexia and nearly died... Having been a lonely, anxious, horny young person who hated herself and was bullied I can categorically say that it is an awful place to be. I have seen responses to nerd anti-feminism along the lines of  being bullied at school doesn't make you oppressed. Maybe it's not a vector of oppression in the same way, but it’s not nothing. It burns. It takes a long time to heal... [S]hy, nerdy boys. Your suffering was and is real. I really fucking hope that it got better, or at least is getting better, At the same time, I want you to understand that that very real suffering does not cancel out male privilege, or make it somehow alright. Privilege doesn't mean you don't suffer, which, I know, totally blows."
She points out though, that unlike Anderson, she also had additional barriers in her way. "I was also female, so when I tried to pull myself out of that hell into a life of the mind, I found sexism standing in my way. I am still punished every day by men who believe that I do not deserve my work as a writer and scholar." In fact, men outnumber women in STEM fields, and a recent Yale study showed that when faced with equally qualified men and women applicants in a STEM field, professors were more likely to offer the man a job than the woman. If the woman was hired, her starting salary was, on the average, $4,000 LESS.

Penny further explains:
"...imagine what it's like to have all the problems you had and then putting up with structural misogyny on top of that [or] also faces sexism and racism. This is why Silicon Valley is fucked up. Because it's built and run by some of the most privileged people in the world who are convinced that they are among the least. People whose received trauma makes them disinclined to listen to pleas from people whose trauma was compounded by structural oppression. People who don't want to hear that there is anyone more oppressed than them, who definitely don't want to hear that maybe women and people of color had to go through the hell of nerd puberty as well..."

The entire essay is a nuanced, empathetic response, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Now You're Playing With (Word) Power

Screenshot via Dejobaan Games
Text-based games have been a part of interactive entertainment since the first home computers. Ask most people what sort of game comes to mind when they hear "text based gaming" and most people will probably answer "interactive fiction" (which has undergone a bit of a renaissance in the bast few years thanks to the development and popularity of Twine). But developer of critical hits The Wonderful End of the World and AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! has a new entry into the field. Dejobaan Games' latest release, Elegy For A Dead World, makes writing an integral part of its game-play.

Elegy For A Dead World was successfully funded via Kickstarter in October, and its premise is pretty interesting. It is a text-driven adventure game about sifting through the remains of long-dead civilizations and chronicling what you find. You do this by wandering past sumptuously hand-drawn scenes and then giving your reaction via prompts-- sort of like filling in the blanks. The game then takes your writing and stitches it into a narrative which you can then share with others via Steam Workshop.

In "A Videogame That Teaches You to Write Poetry, Even if It Intimidates You" by Bryan Lufkin in Wired, the specific scenarios and how you complete them are intriguing:

Elegy lets players write prose and poetry as they explore distant planets and dead civilizations. The player faces 27 challenges in three worlds, each riffing on a specific British Romance-era poem: “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be” by John Keats, and “Darkness” by Lord Byron. The different challenges find the player in various roles: an emperor rallying his troops before a doomed battle, for example, or a schoolgirl evacuating a city being bombed. Players travel through beautifully designed backgrounds, while on-screen text narrates the story. But much of the text is left blank—that’s when players tap their inner Wordsworths, finishing the tale with their own imaginations.

Is it any good? I've enjoyed my time with it, and PC Magazine named Elegy For A Dead World as one of its 2014 Games of the Year. It's out now, and you can pick it up from the Steam Store here for PC, Mac and Linux.

Steam Users to Valve: #GamerGate Group's Gotta Go

A few months ago, Steam introduced what was called the "Discovery Update" to the service. One of its biggest additions was introducing something called "Steam Curators". Curators can be any individual or organization who has opinions about games and wants to share them, and Steam offers a home page where the group list its recommendations.

Unfortunately, Steam helpfully will recommend groups to you whether you want to or not, which is how users have reported being shown the Gamergate Recommends curator recommendations:

And when a group is recognized as a Curator, there's more than just a homepage with game recommendations. These recommendations also appear in the official Steam stores, right near the "add to cart" button. User [FoH]Fansy screencapped what appeared on the official Steam store for Shantae: Risky's Revenge The Director's Cut:

I wrote about the harassment , the misogynistic, and hate-group roots of the the gamegate movement, and it's sadly chugged along, making increasingly desperate stabs at relevancy. While Steam added the ability to hide recommendations it's both poorly documented and a band-aid solution. You can read the discussion [FoH]Fansy started in the official Steam Suggestions forum here.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Zak S, Roll For Harassment

Screencap from the fFacebookpage for "The Dongion"
UPDATE: Zak Smith is now working for White Wolf. You can read all about it here.

(Trigger warning for death, transphobia)
Here's how Zak Smith hid behind "parody" to anonymously snipe at and harass professional writers, bloggers and anyone he didn't like.

I previously wrote about how Wizards of the Coast employed as consultants two people notorious for harassing the marginalized in the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. As if the odious things Zak Smith has done with his name publicly attached weren't bad enough, there's the period of time when he ran "The Dongion".
The Dongion was like The Onion for tabletop rpgs, if you didn't want to be funny and had absolutely no grasp of nuance or satire. Whether it was talking about how people talking about how gross the implications of the Drow were should die in a fire to misgendering trans women developers and bloggers, and calling them "grotesque" and "frauds" (see screen cap above).

"But Ironhead Shawn," that site is run by 'E Gary Zweibel' not Zak Smith, whick are completely different names!" Blogger Ettin details a number of ways that this pseudonymous blogger writes articles that talk about how great Zak Smith is or how the people that Zak Smith doesn't like are also people the site makes fun of and how both The Dongion used exact Zak Smith slang like "Monocole Droppers" and how after there were public request for specific complaints in the wake of the controversy of him being a paid D&D consultant, The Dongion posted articles calling accusations of Zak S being an awful person were all trolls, including naming a specific pro writer. Once that pro writer went to WotC about it, the Dongion suddenly announced it would stop updating before deleting the site altogether-- and yet, the site's still listed on Zak S' blogroll! Why does this matter? How does this help Zak Smith? As Ettin points out:
Zak’s usual tactic is to harass in ways that give him plausible deniability... It’s how Wizards of the Coast credited him as a consultant in the Basic version of a game they’re trying to make more inclusive, how a guy who left the Escapist over their handling of Gamergate can still blow it off as “an impressive ability to rub the tabletop community the wrong way”, and how bigger names like Kenneth Hite and Monte Cook can be comfortable writing ad copy for his books. The Dongion cut out the middleman, letting Zak harass people himself without hurting the persona he presents to others.

If we're going to make gaming-- whether it be the dice-chucking, card-flopping, or button-pressing kind-- more inclusive, we have to make it know that behavior like this is unacceptable.

Have A Nice Resolution: Mick Foley Shows How

The original "Cheap Pop" design
Mickey Foley is has been a professional wrestler, a best-selling author, a children's book writer, a noted Christmas enthusiast, a documentary producer, a travelling stand-up comedian and storyteller, an advocate for RAINN... and when dealing with one t-shirt designer, was also a bit of an unethical dick. As the reddit thread by a designer who did work for him outlined:

So we designed the Mick Foley's Cheap Pop shirt. He loved it. He wanted to sell them on his comedy tour, specifically a couple of big shows he was doing overseas at the time...We also planned to sell them on our website and broached the idea that Mick would plug the shirt for us on Twitter and we would donate a portion of the profits to RAINN...

He was cool with that initially and agreed.Then he changed his mind and asked if we would be okay with letting him sell them exclusively for awhile before we started selling them on our site... we agreed to hold off for 2 months while he sold them on his tour.In the meantime, he sold the shirts. He wore it in a photoshoot and even Nolle was rocking one.The 2 months passed and he wanted to extend the exclusivity. Eh, sure. Then he wanted to extend it a third time... We wanted to sell it. So we told him we we really wanted to start selling. He seemed cool with that and promised to plug us on Twitter and mention us in an online radio show interview he was doing. 

He never did either.

We sold a limited run of the shirts online... We knew we were shutting down and Mick still seemed interested in selling the shirts, so I emailed him and asked him if he was interested in buying the artwork from us. That way, he'd own it and could manufacture as many as he wanted without having to use us as the middleman.He was interested so we started negotiating price. We offered him a VERY reasonable price and he said it was too high. Against better judgement... we went even lower. Again, he balked and said it just wasn't affordable. We couldn't go any lower.That was the last email I ever got from him, despite sending a follow-up email a few weeks later to see if he was still interested or if there was anything else could do. So at that point, we figured, ah well, lost cause. It was fun while it lasted.

However a while later, the designer was at a Ring of Honor show when he saw an attendee wearing a autographed "Cheap Pop" design shirt that was clearly inspired by his design...

... and as it turned out, Foley was selling the above design at his stand-up shows!

I'm a graphic designer-- I've even done design & shirt work for a professional wrestler, and it is always saddening to see a fellow creative worker get ripped off. Especially because designs and pro wrestler face a lot of the same creative and financial struggles. Pro wrestler Jervis Cottonbelly has spoken before on how important it is for wrestlers to adequate compensate and respect those who are designing there merchandise so the attitude isn't unknown to pro wrestlers at large.

After the designer went public with his story, and one small twitter firestorm later... Mick Foley had this to say:

"I have realized over the course of several civil DM's with you that making a legally acceptable move, and a morally correct move are not always the same thing. In recognition of this distinction, I apologize for not informing you of my decision to pursue an alternate version of your concept and I will donate the remaining #CheapPop shirts in my possession to people in need on Long Island. Maybe we can re-issue the shirt later this year as a fund-raiser for RAINN. It is my sincere hope that you will not be the recipient of any unpleasant social-media interactions because of this issue."

Mick Foley also posted a slightly longer version on his facebook page, conceding that he could understand just "...why the creator of the original #CheapPop t-shirt may have dared use the "D word" in reference to my decision to change artists and artwork on a similar project, without letting him know about it first... I could have handled the situation with more respect to the original artist..."

See? It's not hard to make amends. When you mess up, you own your mistake, you accept responsibility for it, you acknowldge why what you did was wrong, and you sincerely apologize to the wronged party. Both designer and designee have worked out an amicable solution, and hopefully a lesson was learned.

We're Back (finally)!

So right after I made the previous post, I had to deal with a hackers locking me out of the Google account connected to this blog, going back and forth with tech support for several weeks, my laptop dying on me, a personal medical issue, and intense college art program.

I have my blog back, my time back and am good to go, so a return of activity starts today.

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