Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Merriam-Webster 2007 Word of the Year: w00t

In a nod to the power of gaming in modern culture, Merriam-Webster has chosen "w00t" as their 2007 Word of the Year. While I'm not especially fond of l33t (and, in fact, tend to use the number-free spelling of the word), I am thrilled that "w00t" beat out the alleged verb, "facebook." Personally, I feel embarassed for all eight people who submitted (largely differing) definitions for "facebook," and I think that they should be damned to a special hell where they must spend the rest of eternity listening to conference lectures by Web 2.0 evangelists.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Dear Open Source Projects...

If you run the main webpage for a piece of open source software, there should be a very clear, concsise explanation of what that software is on the front page, prominently displayed, where anyone can find it. I appreciate that a lot of open source developers like to maintain a development blog on the front page. That's fine. But, there should be something on that page that immediately indicates to a newcomer what on earth she has found. Release notes aren't of much use to someone who has never touched your software before.

Some Good

The first text on the Firefox webpage is:
"The award-winning Web browser is now faster, more secure, and fully customizable to your online life. With Firefox 2, we’ve added powerful new features that make your online experience even better"

That's not great, because it assumes previous exposure to the product, but at least I can figure out what Firefox is, from that sentence. B

The first text on the GIMP website is:
"GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring. It works on many operating systems, in many languages."

That's excellent, except it should probably include a link for "GNU," since that assumes knowledge that a naive reader may not have. B+

How about Blender:
"Blender is the free open source 3D content creation suite, available for all major operating systems under the GNU General Public License."

That's great. It concisely explains what the product is, and also links to a FAQ about the GPL specifically tailored to their would-be-users. A.

As for Audacity:
The Free, Cross-Platform Sound Editor
Audacity is free, open source software for recording and editing sounds. It is available for Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux, and other operating systems. Learn more about Audacity...

Flawless victory! A+

Some Bad

"Bugzilla is server software designed to help you manage software development."

That's pretty damn vague. Luckily, they follow this up with a "More about..." link. C+

What about jMonkeyEngine:
"jMonkeyEngine 1.0 release candidate 1 has been released."

This means absolutely nothing to a new would-be user. I have to hunt around for a "What is jME?" link to figure out what this software is. D

There is nothing but news, here. There are many links to other areas, but none of them link to an "About," or a "What is..." section. If you look up on the title bar, you will see "Free Raytracing for the masses - Y A F R A Y . O R G." Okay, so it's a raytracer. And it's free. But, is that "free" as in Stallman, "free" as in FreeBSD, "free" as in beer, "free" as in free love, or "free" as in Aretha Franklin? (Freedom is so very complicated, these days.) D-

Let's look at GForge:
"GForge helps you manage the entire development life cycle
GForge has tools to help your team collaborate, like message forums and mailing lists; tools to create and control access to Source Code Management repositories like CVS and Subversion. GForge automatically creates a repository and controls access to it depending on the role settings of the project."

It slices, it dices, it even purees! But, what IS it? Maybe you can figure out what it is from the feature soup (It's a, uh, development lifecycle, uh, manager, uh, thingee, with, um, meta-revision-control management stuff. Or something.). Ah-hah, the title bar says that it's a "Collaborative Development Environment (CDE)." If only that were on the page! But, still, that doesn't quite express what it is very well. It's a software project-focused collaborative development environment, like SourceForge. (In fact, it was built upon a branch of the SourceForge codebase.) C+

"The purpose of this site is to provide a central Xfig repository for the diverse documentation and programs available on the web. All the components and libraries will be available at this site, in addition to Xfig drawings."

So, that's what the website is for. But what about the program? D-

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Care and Feeding of Game Designers

We programmers like to think of most game design information as just data. Game design tools are just glorified data entry tools, when it comes down to it. Most of this stuff could be done in a good spreadsheet program. We like to think that as long as you provide all the means they need to put the data in the appropriate places somehow, it hardly matters what the path was like. This is a mistake.

I discovered a few years ago that my writing -- regardless of whether it's fiction or nonfiction -- is drastically better when I type my words than it is when I write them on paper. The reason for this is because I type faster than I write, I can change my words with greater ease, and I am afforded a greater latitude for writing in a non-linear fashion, as it suits me. Ultimately, a text editor in a computer provides a better flow for me than pen-and-paper does. Because of that flow, I am able to produce better work.

Game design is not just data entry. It's a creative process. It's like composing music. If the game designer has to spend a lot of time fighting with a clunky interface, it's going to disrupt her flow. She will produce less work, and it will be of lower quality. This lowers the quality of the resulting game, and reflects poorly on the entire team. We programmers should be providing opportunities for our team-mates to do the best work they possibly can. The tools we provide them should be a delight to use.

Now, if only someone cared that much about the tools I have to use...

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Have two, they're small.

Well, I must admit, I wasn't quite fair to Mr. Matthews, in this case. He not only got a clue, but he promptly turned around and tried to share it with Jack Thompson.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Digging in the Dirt

Earlier today, I listened to an interview between NBC's Chris Matthews and Karan Grewal, one of Cho Seung-Hui's apartment-mates. I was genuinely interested in what light Grewal could shed on the matters at hand, but unsurprisingly, Matthews was more interested in interrupting him, and pursuing his own agendas. Among other things, Matthews asked utterly irrelevant leading questions, in some kind of bizarre attempt to establish some kind of video game connection. I've provided a partial transcript, so you can see just how ridiculous this truly became:

Chris Matthews: Let me get into this video game thing. Do you know anything about Counter-Strike, as a video game?

Karan Grewal: Yes.

Chris Matthews: Was he into it?

Karan Grewal: But I, I never saw him play any videogames on his computer. Most of the time, like I said, he just WROTE on his computer. He had a word document open, and he just kept on typing away for... sometimes, you know, I'd see him typing at ten o'clock in the morning, and I'd come back at twelve, and he would still be there.

They go on to talk about some other things, but Matthews inexplicably feels that it's necessary to bring up Counter-Strike again, for no apparent reason:

Chris Matthews: Let me ask you about... You have... Is there any culture at Virginia Tech about video games? Anything that guys talk about like video games like this Counter-Strike game?

Karan Grewal: Well, there's a lot of, uh, tournaments that, that, uh, people do by themselves, but... uh, there's no formal club, uh...

Chris Matthews: [interrupting] But what about the informal? The sub... Is there a SUBCULTURE around video games?

Karan Grewal: Not really. Uh, people are... some people are interested in it, some are not. There's no big culture about any kind of violent games or anything, no.

Chris Matthews: [interrupting] Let me ask you about...

Karan Grewal: [finishing] Mostly sports, I would think.

Chris Matthews: Mostly sports. So, mostly, if you talked about stuff, you'd talk about basketball, and stuff like that.

Karan Grewal: Exactly.

What a pathetic fishing expedition, Mr. Matthews. When confronted with the ever-so-disappointing news that Cho was not a rabid video game addict, you were determined to beat that dead horse some more. As a card-carrying member of the dreaded video game subculture on the internet, I'd like to say, "Get a grip." Charles Joseph Whitman never played a single video game before picking up his gun. Sometimes, a psychotic is just a psychotic.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Old Comments

Now that Blogger has improved their comment system somewhat, I've gone back to using their comment system. Rather than lose all the comments on my old posts, I've added an "Old Comments" link at the end of all posts that had comments on them. Happy posting!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Bad Capchas

Okay, I understand why we have capchas. I have come to accept that they're a reality of a web that has been destroyed by the unethical. But, I would really appreciate it if in our effort to keep up with the 'bots, we didn't make capchas so difficult to read that even large numbers of humans are failing the tests. I have, on multiple occasions, failed, when I thought I had the right answer. I have above average spatial skills, so I know I can't be the only one having problems with these things.

Today, I finally had to say something about it, because I ran into this one:

So, what, exactly is that second letter? An upside-down L?

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

EULAs are Broken

We need better end user license agreements.

We, the users of software, understand the consequences of not reading EULAs. We all know we could be agreeing to some damn thing we find unpalatable, at best. Yet, who has budgeted time in her busy day to read 2953 words of dense legalese? (That's not even an exaggeration. That's the actual word count on the last EULA I saw.)

This is legalese! Even when it is trying to convey a relatively simple idea, it's obnoxiously palaverous. Consider:
"If you do any of the foregoing on behalf of a company or organization, you represent and warrant that you have the requisite authority to bind such company or organization to the terms and conditions of this Agreement."

That sounds pretty scary, but it's just another way of saying, "If you accept this EULA, you are claiming to have the authority to accept EULAs on behalf of your company." By the time you're done reading it, though, you're feeling like you need to call the company lawyer. Lawyers are good at keeping each other employed.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and say: I think the average English speaker lacks the literacy level to slog through one of these things and understand every minute bit of it. How can we reasonably expect her to legally consent to it? Moreover, what is the responsible thing for her to do, under these circumstances? Realistically speaking, she can't call a lawyer up to come over to her desk every time she's installing a piece of software.

Worse, if we somehow miraculously manage to wade through and fully absorb a EULA once, for a given piece of software, some software forces us to agree to the EULA again, with every patch. We are neither told whether the EULA has changed since the last time we read it, nor given any way to do a diff, and see exactly what changes were made. Does Blizzard, for example, actually expect anyone to read the entire EULA from top to bottom (not to mention the Terms of Service), every single time we install a patch? I'd bet that not a single one of their 8 million subscribers has read the entirety of the EULA every time she agreed to it. This is not because the entire human race is irresponsible. It's because we have unreasonable expectations of them.

I understand the value of legalese. That which is vague is open to interpretation. So, it is best to spell everything out in excruciating detail, so there is no room for doubt. Legalese is, in this way, like a programming language that just happens to use a vocabulary and grammar similar to natural language. Lawyers even reuse sections of legalese, like programmers reuse code, just passing in different values to the variables -- company name, date, etc. Over time, they tune, and tweak, and make contracts increasingly difficult to challenge. However, as this boilerplate text becomes more impervious to challenges, it also becomes increasingly impenetrable to the average reader. Honestly, I don't expect the general public to be able to wade through legalese any more than I expect them to be able to wade through my source code.

We need to be more reasonable about what users can realistically consent to, while they are installing software. At the bare minimum, I think software publishers should provide a clear, concise "translation" of the EULA into plain language, for the convenience of those of us without law degrees.

Some companies are starting to see the light. Microsoft has recently started adopting plain English EULAs. They're still too damn long, but it's better than legalese, at least. Have a gander at the new Vista license, for an example. (I hate PDFs, incidentally.)

Here's a passage from the Windows 98 EULA:

"NO OTHER WARRANTIES. To the maximum extent permitted by applicable law, Manufacturer and its suppliers disclaim all other representations, warranties, conditions or other terms, either express or implied, including, but not limited to implied warranties amd/or conditions of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, with regard to the SOFTWARE, the accompanying written materials, and any accompanying hardware. This limited warranty gives you specific legal rights. You may have others which vary from state/jurisdiction to state/jurisdiction."

Woah nelly. Check out that run-on sentence near the top (and middle, and halfway through the bottom). I'd hate to have to diagram it. It's the kind of sentence that just makes you want to put hot sauce in the underwear of the guy who wrote it.

Compare that to the equivalent passage from the Vista EULA:

"NO OTHER WARRANTIES. The limited warranty is the only direct warranty from Microsoft. Microsoft gives no other express warranties, guarantees or conditions. Where allowed by your local laws, Microsoft excludes implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose and non-infringement. If your local laws give you any implied warranties, guarantees or conditions, despite this exclusion, your remedies are described in the Remedy for Breach of Warranty clause above, to the extent permitted by your local laws."

Well, it's not great, but it's a breath of fresh air, compared to the other one.

Old Comments

Signal to Noise

It would be fair to say that I've been to a lot of conferences. My first game industry related conference was CGDC 1998 (back before GDC took the "Computer" off the front of their name). So, I guess that makes it 9 years now I've been attending (and sometimes even speaking at) industry conferences, on two continents. I reckon I'm entitled to an opinion or three.

I have a big beef, but it is, in most cases, not with the conferences, themselves. No, my beef is with the myriad parties that inevitably pop up at these events. Don't get me wrong -- I'm grateful for the parties. I'm an extrovert, and I love a good party, honestly. I've had some fun times.

Now, I'm going to make a radical statement, which would seem to defy the expectations of every party organizer who has ever organized a single party attached to any of these conferences: Most people come to these parties to talk. Yeah, I know, geeks aren't supposed to be social, but it's true. You look around at any of these parties, and people are talking. Or, at least, they're trying to.

You see, the trouble is that it feels like most of these parties have been organized for 21-year-old club kids from Amsterdam, only with less drugs.

Now, dear party organizers, you should understand: I love dancing. I was dancing at industrial clubs when DJ WhoeverTheHellYouHired was learning his ABCs. I was at illegal raves under bridges, back before the US club scene discovered techno. I have even been known to dance at some of these conference parties -- but I must tell you, it's because it was too goddamn loud to talk to anyone, and I was honestly getting rather bored.

I have seen parties where every single person at the party was trying to shout over the music, and inexplicably, someone turned up the volume. Why? This makes no sense! I have seen friends and colleagues lose their voices from these events. I have heard people complain of their ears ringing after leaving a conference party. Ears ringing! That's hearing damage, people. I'm sorry, but your party is not worth anyone permanently damaging their hearing.

So, I'm making a plea: Turn the music the hell down. Stop making us miserable. Pay attention to your party-goers, and what their needs are. If we want to talk, then by all means, let us talk.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Geek Love

For those of you who still use vi/vim on the Windows platform, hang on to your hats. I know you're used to nothing ever changing, but there is, in fact, news. There's a new, less ugly user interface available for your old favorite text editor.

Yes, I know, user interfaces are superfluous. Yes, I know, you don't even know what those silly icons at the top of your vim window are for, and you can't even remember the last time you actually used one of the menus. Yet, I do have to recommend the upgrade. Check out the feature list. Macro recording! My God, we are marching boldly into the 1980s here, my friends. If you love vim, you should have a looksee. I'm taking it for a spin, myself.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Screenplay Workshop

This may be of interest to designers and other writers in the Austin area:

An film-maker acquaintance of mine runs a free screenplay workshop. Game developers are welcome. I'll be at the one on January 13th.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

I Hate Memes

Sara at We Can Fix That with Data has tagged me for the ubiquitous 5-things-you-don't-know-about-me meme, probably as some sort of sinister plot to try to get me to stop ignoring this blog. (As some of you have noticed, I keep another one elsewhere, which is updated more frequently, but it's more personal, lifey stuff.)

I admit, it's hard to think of things that people don't know about me. I tend to talk about bloody everything, if you get me started. But I'll try my best:

1.) I find it almost impossible to listen to lectures -- I zone out after about five minutes, tops. I once took an astronomy course with no textbook. Instead of going to class, I went to the library, and studied every book I could find related to the items on the syllabus. It was honestly easier for me to absorb the information that way than it would have been for me to sit through the lectures.

2.) I hate learning new games -- This is one of those things that becomes gradually apparent to anyone who hangs out with me long enough. This holds true of board games, card games, and video games. No matter how fun something looks, I find it frustrating learning the new button combos, or the obscure rules, or the meanings of all the various pieces and symbols. My well-meaning friends will try to explain everything, but #1 comes into play, and I miss half of what they're saying.

3.) I once won a talent contest -- When I was 10, I won a talent contest at my elementary school. I sang the theme song to "Flashdance." Is that embarrassing enough for you?

4.) I was originally an Electrical Engineering major -- I thought they'd let me tinker. Instead, I spent two years solving circuit equations, and doing dull math. Boring!

5.) I've helped out with the Special Olympics before -- Pin the Tail on the Donkey has never been this riveting.

I don't tag anyone. I hate memes.

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