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Gaming

A 8-post collection

One input, two different results

Written by Michael Earls
 michael  development  programming  teaching  Gaming  Memories  writing

As if to give life to itself, two separate careers started as a simple "choose your own adventure" game on early 1980's home computers.

The setting

In the early 80's, myself and my best friend Joshua had home computers. Unfortunately, they were not the same model. He had the popular Apple II with the disk drives and I had the Coleco Adam with dual high speed tape drives.

Apple II

Apple II

Coleco ADAM Home Computer

Coleco ADAM Home Computer

However, despite being different hardware, they both shared the same version of the BASIC interpreter that allowed us to write code on one computer and manually transfer it to the other.

Natural role discovery

It quickly became evident that I enjoyed writing computer programs, but I wasn't that good at coming up with ideas for games. Joshua has an enormous imagination and is a natural writer. He easily found plenty of source material in his head to write stories that we turned into games. Games were not the only product of his imagination that I would emulate. He taught me how to just "let go" and not fuss over the technical details of writing comics and developed a simple "egg based" approach to character drawing. He would start with an oval and then fill in the details for each individual character. They each had enough detail to tell them apart, but not so much that drawing them got in the way of his story. Honestly, I was very jealous of his talents and worked hard to (unsuccessfully) emulate his process.

The game development process

We worked together on our games with him writing the stories and me expanding the computer code (he was also a good BASIC developer for the "choose your own adventure" style games that we created).

He would type the game into his computer, play it through, and then print it out on his printer. The next day, he would come over to my house with his printouts and I would manually type the program into my computer while he read the lines out. Doing it this way, I got to preview the results of decisions and how they led to either a nasty death or a victory. It was fun to play the game through because it was a matter of which decisions resulted in which outcomes.

I became more and more interested in how to expand on the simple GOTO statements and learned about subroutines (GOSUB statements that returned to where you left off) to provide more advanced logic. Eventually, I learned that you can POKE binary data to memory locations and take advantage of built-in capabilities of the computer. I also learned what an array was and how to take advantage of it to store related information for easy retrieval.

As I learned new programming tricks, I would share them with Joshua and they would show up in subsequent versions of his games.

It was a great partnership that grew into even more fun as we got older.

I have a big imagination and I am naturally creative. However, my creativity and imagination are very static and technical. I use my creativity to recognize and take advantage of technical abstractions and my imagination helps me envision ways to connect the abstract ideas with a concrete implementation (usually in the form of computer code). I occasionally stretch my wings with graphic design or music composition, but my gifts, talents, and experience are mostly related to computer software design and programming.

This has been developing in me since those early days when Joshua and I would partner to create all sorts of computer creations. He was always the idea factory and I would find a way to make it happen with his help. We had a lot of overlap because he had a good grasp of computer programming and I had a somewhat workable grasp of storytelling.

In addition to learning how to program, my parents bought me the MODEM add-on for the ADAM computer. It plugged into the peripheral bus and the telephone wire came out of the top of the unit and plugged into the wall. I used it to log into the local Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) in Atlanta and met people from all over the city.

ADAMLink MODEM

ADAMLink MODEM

It was the beginnings of the online systems (AOL - originally QuantumLink for C-64 users, Compuserve, EarthLink, etc.) These online systems were in place when the well-connected techie nerds began to offer consumer access to the budding Internet, which had previously only been accessible from colleges and government agencies. I was very much into the early days of the Internet and knew it was how I was going to make a living from a very early age. I can't imagine doing anything else.

I once built a speech digitizer for my Commodore 64 computer using the schematics from a home computer magazine. Once I finished it and tested that it worked, I didn't know what to do with it. Joshua was quick to find an application and we had a big laugh at the resulting confusion it generated.

As time went on and he moved away, I lost touch with Joshua. I recently learned that he has been very busy as a college educator and frequently teaches many of the topics that we grew up exploring together. He has published multiple novels and leads a group about academia on the web.

We are still the same people we were back then, but now we get to be adults about it and follow our passion to share our discoveries with the world.

He recently wrote a great article titled Would You Rather Read or Play a Novel? that inspired me to create this post. His article reminded me of the joy I get out of playing modern video games like "Elder Scrolls: Skyrim", where you wander around in an enormous open world, meeting people, doing side jobs, dungeon crawling, casting spells, and even crafting your own armor, weapons, and spells. Within this world are numerous book shelves. Most of the books on the shelves can be opened and read in-game. They contain small bits and pieces of the game lore that give you an insight into the environment you are playing in.

Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

It's just a more advanced version of the very first games that we wrote back in the 80's, fleshed out to take advantage of modern graphics, sound, and computing power.

Even though we both started out as computer programmers and authors, one of us became a college professor and author and the other of us became a professional programmer and technology hobbyist.

I think the main point of this post is to communicate that it is important to follow your desires and work hard to pursue the things you are passionate about, turning them into a career.

In short, I like to say, "To get a great job, find something you love doing and convince someone to pay you to do it for them."

One day, work and school will no longer feel like "work"

Written by Michael Earls
 programming  Gaming  future

When I was in my early twenties, I used to imagine a future where work and school were no longer considered "work". I envisioned a scenario where kids and young adults would simply sit at a desk and "play" a "game" all day (and get paid for it). The business logic and applied value of the game would be converted by the computer from a game to actual useful work that benefited the business.

Well, it seems that some professors have taken the first baby steps in this process and ended up with a somewhat successful result.

This excites me because it's becoming obvious that we're going to have to do something to find employment for people as technology replaces more and more "traditional" labor jobs. I've always believed that you should do what you love and convince someone else to pay you to do it. This way, people can do what they love and make a living.

One scenario that's easy to see is the job of a drone pilot. Many people spend hours and hours "playing" flight simulators on their computers. What if that flight simulator was a real drone that was delivering packages for a big retailer?

This article on Ars Technica explains the story...

Game Review - Destiny for XBox One

Written by Michael Earls
 Destiny  Gaming

There are an enormous number of game reviews for Bungie’s Destiny game written by professional journalists who get paid for writing game reviews, so I will try to give a personal approach to my review.

When Destiny was first released, I remember it being touted as the newest game from the people that brought us Halo. So, when I bought my brother-in-law a new game for his birthday last June, I picked Destiny, because he has played all of the Halo games and really enjoys them. At the time, I did not have an XBox one, and I wasn’t really playing games that much, so I didn’t get the XBox 360 version.

About a month ago, I got an XBox One and started playing more games. I decided to borrow Destiny from my brother-in-law because he was not playing it. After I played through the first few missions, I was hooked. It’s like an addictive drug – “the first one’s free”. That’s how I felt when the first White engram dropped from a slain enemy.

You see, in Destiny, like in many MMORPGs, you can sometimes get what’s called a “drop”. It’s special loot that you get from killing enemies. In Destiny, the loot comes in a few different forms. Either you get an actual piece of armor, a weapon, or other special item that you can use. The special items drop as what are called “engrams”, special items that must be “decoded” by a Cryptarch. The Cryptarch is a person at one of the social areas that decodes and sells engrams. There are different color engrams. The ones that I’m aware of are (in order of availability): White (plain and ordinary), Green (uncommon), Blue (rare), Purple (legendary), Gold (exotic).

For more info, see Engram on Destinypedia

Level 35 Warlock
My Level 35 Warlock – Almost at max level (40)
As you gain experience, you gain character levels. As you gain character levels, you get access to higher powered gear and armor, keeping you equal with the harder enemies that you encounter at higher level missions. At level 20, you gain access to what’s called an “armor shader“, which lets you buy color schemes to ensure that all of your armor pieces match. Without a shader, you might look a little disheveled. At level 18, you can upgrade your Ghost’s shell by buying a new one from the Speaker.

One of the main things I like about Destiny over other MMOs is the fact that when you die, your gear doesn’t get “damaged” and require repair. And, you don’t have to choose between 30 or so special actions and the various ways they interact to fight an enemy. It’s a first person shooter at heart, so you just have to engage your enemies with standard weapons, special weapons, heavy weapons, grenades, and a few melee and special attacks bound to the bumper buttons. It’s so much simpler to play than games like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic. I thought that Elder Scrolls Online was also easier, but Destiny is so much more fun.

Besides following the very expansive story modes to advance in the game, there is also the option of “patrols” on each of the planets that you can travel to. Patrols allow you to engage groups of enemies in an open play area and gain experience without moving the story forward. You can get what’s called “bounties“, which are special little missions that you can carry out in the course of your gameplay. An example of a bounty would be to kill 30 enemies of a particular type (there are multiple alien races that you have to fight in Destiny). When you complete a bounty, you gain experience.

Also, there are strikes and raids. Strikes are mini missions that you run with a few other players that last about 30-45 minutes. Raids, however, can last hours. Raids also have very complicated mechanics that must be executed in a particular order and very hard enemies to fight. Here’s the latest major boss fights from The Taken King expansion:

There are so many more little things that you can do. Here is a list of some of the little things:

Also, as with most modern games, there is a player versus player option. While most of the story takes place in public areas where you will encounter (and even assist) other players, there are game modes that are specially designed to pit you (and possibly a team of two or five other players) against other players. It’s called The Crucible. I am terrible at this mode. I am constantly getting killed. However, I have managed to make a few kills here and there, so I’m not a complete loser.

Overall, this is a fun game that I have trouble turning off at bedtime. In fact, bedtime has been extended a few hours to allow me more time to play…

My XBox Live Gamertag is “cerkit”. Add me and we can create a fireteam and knock out some Strikes or just wander around getting bounties and killing aliens (I’m not sure I’m ready for Raid mechanics).

Game Review: Ori and the Blind Forest

Written by Michael Earls
 Gaming  ori  PC  XBox

One of the reasons I chose the XBox Bundle that I did (besides the 1TB hard drive) was because of the games it included. One of those games was Ori and the Blind Forest.

From the very start, I was hooked. It has a great story and challenging gameplay.

Getting food with "mother"Getting food with “mother”

Aside from basic platformer shooting, there are also fun puzzles and, what is probably the best feature of the game, the escape sequences from the six major areas. These escape sequences give you very little time to think and no room for error as you use your skills to progress through the board with a very stressful natural disaster (or enemy) on your tail.

Perhaps the hardest sequence in the game is the first one, the Ginso Tree escape. It’s the hardest because it’s the first and you can’t make any mistakes.

One of the great features of the game is the ability tree that you have access to that lets you spend your spirit points (gained by killing enemies) to gain new abilities. I was one ability away from collecting all abilities. I missed that achievement. I just didn’t have enough skill points going into the final sequence. I’ve read that you can’t go back and explore after you win the game.

Ori's Ability TreeOri’s Ability Tree

After getting a new ability, I would go back to areas I had already cleared to get powerups that I could not get earlier in the game. I would also attempt to explore 100% of each area and get to all the secret places.

Map of the areaMap of the area

I am currently on the last sequence. It’s very difficult. I have the enemy on my tail. The sequence is a series of very challenging moves that require a mastery of all the skills (abilities also come in handy – like the triple jump) that Ori acquired throughout the game. Each section only gives you about 10 seconds to get through before the enemy swoops in and violently ends your life. Then you spend a few seconds getting through additional sections. If you spend too much time in an area that is not visible to the enemy, you still have to worry about the environment around you catching on fire. Basically, you can’t stop moving (much like the other escape sequences). I’m almost to the end of the sequence. Even knowing what’s coming next, you still have to execute the movements without faltering. The sounds of the enemy in the distance add a creepy ambiance to the sequence. It also gives you audible clues as to how much time you have left to finish your current section.

The following video does not show the ending with spoilers, it only shows the sequence.

I have to play these sequences sitting on the edge of my seat. It can be very stressful, but the reward for finishing is a feeling of great relief.

I have really enjoyed this game. It reminds me of the early days of playing Super Mario Brothers for the first time. The artwork is fantastic and the gameplay mechanics are fun. I find that it had just the right amount of difficulty.

Game Review: Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Written by Michael Earls
 Gaming  valiant hearts  XBox

One of this month’s Games for Gold on XBox Live is Valiant Hearts: The Great War. I downloaded it last night and started playing. The game takes you through the lives of four characters during World War I. It is a combination of puzzles and action sequences. The graphics are much like an animated movie would be. It’s an amazing game.

As soon as I started playing this game, I was hooked. We had to leave for a meeting after I had been playing for about an hour. During the meeting, all I could think about was getting home to continue playing. When I got home, I played through all of Chapter 1 and into Chapter 2.

The puzzles are fun and the action sequences are just hard enough to be fun without being discouraging. What I liked most about the action sequences is that when you messed up, it didn’t always start you over from the beginning of the sequence. It progressed far enough so that you could get progressively better at the new parts and skip the parts you had already mastered. A lot of the game is a side scrolling platformer. The boss fights are a lot of fun.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War_20140625204222

While you are playing the game, it reveals historical facts about the war that are very interesting to read if you aren’t educated on the history of the war (or want a refresher). There are also diary entries throughout the game that give some character development to the characters that you are playing and the ones they love.

Valiant Hearts

I’ve learned quite a bit about the war from this game and it’s interesting to read about the trenches and tunnels. You get to explore the tunnels as part of the gameplay.

At some point early in the game, you meet a medic dog. He stays with you through the adventures and becomes a vital part of your puzzle solving team. You can command him to fetch, dig, and distract the enemy. Since he’s a dog, the enemy doesn’t recognize him as being on your side (he started out in the service of the Germans), so you can send him into enemy territory to get things for you.

I would highly recommend this game to anyone that enjoys casual puzzle games.

Playing ESO and Getting more mileage from my Dell XPS 420

Written by Michael Earls
 Gaming  PC

I bought my desktop PC in 2007. I bought a Dell XPS 420 with 2 GB of RAM in it. It’s a quad core Pentium i5 running at 1.2 GHz. A few years later, I upgraded the video card to an NVidia GTX 550 Ti and upgraded the RAM to 4 GB (the most Windows 7 could recognize. I’ve since changed the OS to 64-bit).

The other day, I bought Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited so I could get back into playing games. I have played World of Warcraft and Star Wars: the Old Republic, but those get to be too difficult after a while. There’s just more to keep up with than I’m comfortable with. They started to feel more like jobs than games. So, ESO is a simple game to play and it has great voice acting in it (much like SWTOR). I like how there are fewer things to worry about in ESO.

After trying to play on High graphics settings, I noticed a lot of jerkiness while playing. It had some lag, too. So, I set the graphics at Medium hoping it would make a difference. It made the game run smoother, and it still looks pretty good, but I’d like to upgrade the graphics card a little.

I think for financial reasons, I’ve chosen the NVidia GeForce GTX 970. It’s a good price for speed and I’m hoping I can push the graphics quality to Ultra.

I’m also going to upgrade my RAM to 8 GB. That’s the maximum my motherboard will allow, unfortunately. Otherwise, I’d spend the same money and get 16GB. I have to buy special RAM for the Dell (at least that’s what I’ve come to understand). I have to buy 4 sticks of that RAM.

On the Disk side of things, I’m going to upgrade my boot drive to an SSD. I saw an article (some people in the comments accuse it of being an advertorial) on Ars Technica yesterday highlighting what looks like a good drive. It looks pretty solid to me. I already have two drives on my system, so I’d have a leftover HDD once I finished the upgrade and cloned my existing boot drive. I guess I could use that for some other purpose at a later date.

As time goes on, I’d like to be able to buy more PC games that look great on my machine. Upgrading it with these changes should give me a few more years of use out of it.

However, I will probably build my own gaming rig over the next year, so having parts I can reuse would be best. I’ll have to re-buy the RAM, but I can my another one of those graphics cards and set up SLI on them. I can reuse the drives, too.

X-Wing Miniatures Game

Written by Michael Earls
 Gaming  savannah  Star Wars  X-Wing

I finally bought my own copy of the X-Wing miniatures game yesterday.

Laurie was kind enough to play with me last night. It turns out she really enjoyed the game so I’ll probably get to play more of it in the future.

There’s an active community of X-Wing players here in Savannah and an even bigger group in Statesboro, GA (about an hour away) near Georgia Southern college.

There are a few tournaments each year as well if I ever get good enough for competitive play. I’m still learning the full rules but so far I really enjoy the game.

First Gaming Systems

Written by Michael Earls
 atari  c64  coleco  commodore 64  featured  gamer  Gaming  nostalgia

When I was a kid, our first home gaming machine was the Telstar Pong console.

telstaralpha

I think it had four “games” and three levels of difficulty (the size of the “paddle” got smaller). Oddly enough, I still have this thing, though I cut the video cable off of it for some project I was working on as a kid.

After that, we got an Atari 2600. Man, this thing rocked our world. My brother and I would always play the included Tank game (“Combat”). I also had a good friend that had one and we would swap games. I think it’s also the first game to have a “cheat”. You could bump the tank against the corner and “warp” to the other side.

Atari 2600

Combat

And, of course, no conversation about the Atari 2600 can go without mentioning the awesome “Pitfall!”

Pitfall!

After that, my first “real” computer…the TI-99/4A

TI-99_4A

We had a cassette player that we stored the programs on. Oh man, this thing was cool. I remember a dungeon crawling adventure game that I’d play for hours. I don’t remember the name of it, but it was cool. This was also where I was first introduced to “Hunt the Wumpus”, a great puzzle game.

wumpus

Wumpus Gameplay

After that, my mom got us a Colecovision “Adam” home computer. It was a gaming console, but it also had a built in daisywheel printer and it booted up as a word processor. We had CP/M for it and we had a machine language compiler, but that was over my head at the time. This was when I would have rather have gotten an IBM PC. It was pretty annoying because it had a high-speed tape drive and the tapes would get wrapped up in the spindle. The tapes had screws in them (a little foresight on Coleco’s part?) so it was easy to pop them open and reel them back in. It was still annoying, though.

Adam home computer

Them the big daddy of them all…the Commodore 64. My parents didn’t buy this one for me, I had to save up the money to get it for myself. I bought it off a guy in school for about $25 (including the hard drive). He was getting “old” and didn’t want to play with kid toys anymore. Sweet.

Commodore 64
(notice the price)

That’s pretty much it for my childhood gaming machines.

As a side note, compare the wumpus adventure game to this…

Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

That’s what I play as an adult on my XBox 360. If I could go back in time and show that game to me as a kid, I’d probably flip out and never leave the house. Oh, wait, that’s what kids are doing today, isn’t it?

Update: Here's the latest graphics from my XBox One (2016):

Destiny on XBox One

We've come a long way.