Monday 3 June 2024

The 'Back-Burner'

 My exam season is finished, and I have finally attained freedom! No more Biochemistry, ever again! (well actually that's not quite true, but it's true enough.)

I've got a lot to get to work on now. I've got three games on the backburner...

- ULTRAFUN: This one has been on the backburner for absolutely ages. It's a free game, but it's a passion project. I might start something new with that one-- I have indeed had some new ideas. 

- Squid Chess: This has been my "main project" for most of the last academic year. Sadly, it's been mostly relegated to the sidelines for quite a while. I'm excited about where it's heading, but it needs a lot of work before it's ready. At the moment, it's still quite broken. I need to work with my teammate on how to guide its future direction.

- Land of Artificial Jellies: This is actually a game I'm a little less passionate about. I'm not too happy that it doesn't seem very fun to play. It's a bit repetitive and, well, I might save it for its own blogpost. Either way, it's a commercial game, and it's set to release in.... 3 months. Uh-oh!

That doesn't give me a whole lot of time to finish up Land of Artificial Jellies, but there's only really a few things left that I need to do. In fact, of the post-it notes on my wall, I can probably get those done in a week or less.

The really intimidating thing is, however, that Artificial Jellies is a mess. It's just not fun! I'm not sure if I'm even comfortable releasing it. I feel very negative about it. It's kind of a 'novelty' game-- most of the game is only there to showcase some (admittedly, it's quite a lot) text in each level. I'm not sure whether the right thing is to just 'juice it up', or to try to redesign any part of it. 

Given that I have only three months and not a lot of ideas, I'm more inclined to just make sure it's tight enough for what it is. The description on Steam calls it not a game, but a game-like land. This is true because, as a game, it contains this, 'absence of play'. There's a hole in the design that doesn't allow the player to really do anything except follow a very narrow and predetermined sequence of actions, without any skill-checks or obstacles in the way. 

Maybe I'm being a little too hard on myself, and I should let players just enjoy it for what it is: A short, novel experience about the great Land of Jellytopia.

Saturday 18 May 2024

What Makes Edu-tainment?

 One of the amazing things about video games is their ability to lead you into a new world, not just as a passive observer but a true participant in the strange machinations of the game. This worked excellently for the Star Wars franchise, where so much lore is expounded upon in many, many different titles. My thinking is, if this can be done for the Star Wars universe, why not other universes too?

What is it that makes the tie-fighters in Star Wars so much catchier than the behaviour of, for example, an RNA polymerase?

For one thing, that's a silly question. RNA polymerase is fairly boring. It doesn't have much of an intention besides "make the RNA" and it doesn't have much of a story beside "it evolved this way over billions of years by random chance". That's about as blank of a story as you can really get. 

Moving away from the comparison with Star Wars, I think the best-ever example of a functioning game in the edutainment genre is Duolingo. This app used to be considered a reasonably serious-business language learning software and less of a game, but over time, it has become increasingly game-ified to a point where I see it referred to and categorized as a game even more than anything else.

Duolingo is, in my opinion, the present-day champion of the edutainment genre. Nothing that I know of has even come close. It has a unique sense of poise, where it is primarily a no-nonsense language learning app (it only really attracts people who already want to learn the language), but showers the player in effects, goals, social incentives, metrics and points as they continue to engage. This makes the language learning experience very pleasurable, coordinated, and you know without a shadow of a doubt that if you complete a whole Duolingo course in your chosen language you will get some idea of the language, even if it's not a complete one. 

This is a game that presents a tangible benefit to the player. It isn't something abstract (like telling a good story), it's a truly intrinsic reward. That is, in my opinion, the strength of the edutainment genre. So why don't we see more edutainment games?

That's a good question, and really, I don't know. I think that the games industry has stagnated in the last few years, in part because of vacuous incentives present in most games. If you can be entertained by a story, why not watch a movie or a TV series? It's less practical effort, and you might enjoy it just as much. Some games already resemble movies with interactive segments spliced in.

One intrinsic benefit to games is the ability to show off your gamer skills to your peers. That's true of any skill-based game, but also of the multiplayer variety. MOBAs such as Dota 2 and League of Legends come to mind. These have the intrinsic benefits of providing essentially a platform for socializing. Team-based deathmatch games like Counter-Strike and Team Fortress 2 also come under this category.

However, you might already imagine that this edges out a lot of small developers from competing in this sphere. As are the same problems with the (already heavily game-ified, I should add) social networks, if you don't have lots of users already, you won't be able to recruit any more.

So to me, this speaks to an opening in the industry. Games can be used to communicate, incentivize, and provide rewards for the player-- why aren't we getting more creative with what those rewards are? There's only so far that a gamer can go without needing to get up, earn money, eat food. If we're asking them to share their time with our games, we need to make it worthwhile. 

Well, that's my thoughts for today, at least. I'd love to make a game that can include some real biological information. Perhaps I would be taking a page from Duolingo's book and positioning it as a purely "learning-oriented" app before a game. Alternatively, I could be making a "museum"-style thing. 

There's a long way to go before that dream can be realized, I think. For one thing, I need to finish my actual degree first!!

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Post-Mortem of 'Neuroscience Games'

As it turns out, the field of neuroscience is chock-full of interesting mechanisms for interrogating our favourite blob of pink meat, the brain. As the proud owner of a human brain, I actually quite enjoy having my senses interrogated. I actively like to have my cognition challenged, poked and prodded. Ok, not literally, but you get the idea.

Well anyway, I hope the same thing applies to you. I took four important tests of working memory (the Digit-Span Forward Task, the Spatial-Span Forward Task, the N-Back Test, and the Letter-Sequencing Test) and implemented them in my favourite game engine. Ten points if you can guess what game engine that is.

As it turns out, most of these are actually kind of... entertaining. As for what they really measure, it's not immediately clear to me. It's a reproducible metric that exists as a contextless point in the vast void of unknowns that is the field of neuroscience. Most of the skills involved in these tasks are not yet pinned down to a particular part of the neurological anatomy, and in my opinion, probably never will be.


Anyway, the purpose of making this game was half-way revision and half-way a challenge to myself to see if I could do it in such a short time. I spent only about three hours (with a break in the middle) to make the whole thing from start to finish. It's fairly unpolished, but most of the games have all the right 'beats'.

In terms of which one is my favourite, I would say the Digit-Span Forward Task (showcased in the video above). That's the only one that felt like a real game, and it's the first one that I set out to work on. In a nutshell, the idea is that the administrator reads out a list of numbers, and the subject just recites them back. Sadly I couldn't add voice recognition into my Godot Engine game (and really, do I want to?!) so I settled for a keypad instead. I settled for some crackly old voice clips of someone reading out numbers in a monotone (specifically created for the Digit-Span Forward Task), rather than recording my own.

The Spatial-Span Forward Task

The Spatial-Span Forward Task is nearly a duplicate of the Digit-Span task. The only difference between the two is that this one is visual rather than auditory. That being said, unlike the Digit-Span task, this one seemed very much to be missing something. It needed an extra menu, or a bonus effect. It feels a little empty. It ends very quickly when you lose, unlike the Digit-Span test, where the audio will complete itself even if you're staring at the GAME OVER screen. If I were to polish it up, I would most likely go back and add an extra animation before the playable grid disappears. Perhaps I would make the playable grid look better in the first place. An animation to appear, an animation to disappear...

Despite 'polish' having somewhat of a reputation for being the superficial after-thought, it can have a deep and visceral effect on the experience of the game. 

 The other two had a different set of problems. Perhaps I was getting tired by this point, but upon playtesting, I did not enjoy playing the N-Back Test or the Letter Sequencing Test even one little bit. Who would have thought that tests for neurological ability aren't packed with excitement? Well, this is particularly true for the Letter-Sequencing Test. The task is based around memorizing a list of letters and numbers and then ordering and alphabetizing them. It's not easy to alphabetize a list of 4 or 5 letters, and this game becomes a little exhausting once you play it more than once. 

The worst part of the Letter-Sequencing Test is possibly that the interface is quite ugly as well. Maybe. Ok, perhaps I'm being a little harsh on it. But it's true, I don't feel much excitement from the way my screen looks when I'm in the game.

 Finally, the N-Back Test has a reasonably attractive interface (though as with all of these games, it could be polished). The big draw, however, is this lovely wide progress bar at the bottom of the screen. It just tells the player how far along in the test they are. The main issue with the N-Back Test, aside from the fact it's also a little bit exhausting of my cognitive abilities, is that I am not entirely sure how to score it! Currently, it's all about "accuracy", i.e., the number of correct answers compared to the number of incorrect answers. However, I've seen more complicated metrics for extracting scores from the N-Back Test, I even saw one that included timing. I'm not that cruel that I would make it a time-sensitive game. However, I'm not sure if my current scoring rubric is doing it any justice at all.

As with all these games, the N-Back Test was never really designed to be a super fun playable experience. I suppose that more than anything, this was only an experiment in some interface design and a little bit of speed-development. I have to say, even though the games are mostly terrible, making them all in only three hours is something I'm quite proud of :D

Sunday 12 May 2024

What Is In My Future?

 Boy, well wouldn't I like to know!!

As a game developer, I've spent my career so far making a lot of games with all of the same shared restrictions. These are things like, two-dimensional, self-published, solo-developed (mostly), ... The natural continuation of this is to continue working on these types of games because they are what I know how to create

My general sensible-ness tells me, however, that I would be better off expanding my abilities in some way. I should go work on a three-dimensional game, or I should find some other people to work with. Well, that's a lot easier said than done. They say sometimes that in between plans of how you want to succeed, "life happens" sometimes. Well, I can only hope that when "life happens" it "happens" in the way that brings me to a greater fulfillment, and not in the "life happens" way that means I will one day get an anvil dropped on my head from off the top of a building.

I quite enjoy making the things I know how to make. I would be quite happy to continue doing that if I could possibly learn to do it full-time, all the time, I really would love to. Sadly, what I know how to make isn't enough. It's not enough to sustain myself in the present economy, and unfortunately, when I'm off learning disparate skills as financial band-aids for this problem, I'm only trapping myself in my little box of distracted non-growth. 


Well, if you're reading this, thank you for reading. I say, let's keep more things coming! :)

Thursday 9 May 2024

My Review Of An Unrelated Degree

 At some point in the last four years or so, I made the somewhat surprising decision to take an undergraduate degree in a field that I had no expertise nor prior affinity for. That field was Biology. After a year of Biology, I switched to Biochemistry, because I was after the really nitty-gritty low-down on the science of life.

Well, how's that worked out for me? Throughout my whole degree, I told myself and others that I was only in it for the love of the science. I wasn't ever likely to get a job in the field. At the present moment, I feel a little less strongly about it (I'm writing this in the middle of my final-ever exam season. Go figure) but I still feel that my future career will most likely take me away from the field of Biochemistry. 

I had a brief stint with a fast-track Master's course. Until quite recently, my plan had been to get this so-called "Integrated Master's" degree by taking an extra year to carry out a proper research assignment. I cut this short for the simple reason that the only purpose of this extra year was to support my path to a PhD, and then a research assistant, and then a research associate, and a research whatever-else until I eventually land as a highly-paid lab technician. Aside from the fact it would take about 15 years of my life to ever get there, I simply realized I didn't have much of a path in Biochemistry. 

My research project would likely have been something along the lines of a mycological bioinformatician. Well, putting it that way, it does sound a little fun.

But although I have a passion for the life science of fungi, the only research opportunities in mycology are predominantly concerned with killing them or using them to kill other things. There's a lot left unknown about the true biochemistry of fungi as opposed to other living organisms, including the mechanics of their symbioses and interactions with other organisms. This is almost by design-- there's just no money in it! My favourite research paper is this one, titled the "fastest short jump in nature", written about the careful mechanism of spore dispersal from mushroom-producing fungi. It's very interesting, and I advise you take a read if you're even a little interested. The part that brings me hesitation, though, is the lengthy part at the end of the article:

Like most mycological research, work on ballistospore discharge proceeds, albeit slowly and often with limited funding, because it is fascinating. As a justification, this aligns with all manner of artistic pursuits, and, fundamentally, ballistospore research is a creative endeavor.

Well, the odds are that I will never find a place to research fungi. If I really charge head-on with the brawn of my brain (rather than the brain of my brawn), I might be able to dredge data all day finding genomic targets for new antimicrobial drugs, but really, is that how I want to spend my life? I hate breathing mold as much as the next guy, but for me, it could be a very lifeless journey.

So, here I am. soon-graduating with a BSc in Biochemistry. Despite all the complaining I just did, my experiences have been so valuable. As challenging and out-right depressing as it was at some points, I would find it hard to say that I would trade it for anything. 

As one might expect, I learned a lot about myself-- both figuratively and literally. Ultimately, that's all I ever wanted out of this endeavor! The benefit of this degree over, say, Computer Science (or-- heaven forbid-- Game Development) at the university level is that this degree brings together so many demographics of people. The science of life is truly universally beloved, and it's given me the opportunity to meet people from places I would otherwise never have been able to meet. 

The social aspect of university is a major one. Perhaps if I had known all this from the beginning, then I would have gone to a Game Development course in the first place. That way, I'd probably be a little bit ahead of where I am now. 

Who's to say where I'll end up, anyway? Anyone know any "fun" mycology labs hiring? :)