Category Archives: computer games

#Unity3d hardware usage + implications – Summer 2015

There’s tonnes of blogs out there, so I only talk about the bits that other people have missed, or were too polite or inexperienced to cover. Often that means I’m the one pointing out the flaws (most people don’t want to write bad things. Screw that; ignoring the bad points does you no favours!).

Sometimes I get to talk about the good bits that – sadly – few people have noticed. Here’s one of those.
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Writing a #unity3d mini-game … to help you design a AAA game

One of my hobby projects is a testament to the Ultima and Elder Scrolls games – a massive open-world, where everything you do impacts the world around you. This has long been promised by commercial games – and it sucks from a gameplay perspective; it’s just not fun. But a very old ASCII-graphics game, Omega, showed a couple of ways of doing it that delivered on that promise while still being “fun” – very fun! That’s what I’m working towards.

It’s a test-bed for the high-performance Entity System I’m writing for Unity (more info here). I’m aiming for “gameplay considerably richer than Skyrim” with “graphics about the level of Oblivion”. To be clear: Oblivion was released almost 10 years ago! To reproduce those graphics today is fairly easy.

Challenge: Believable Cities that evolve over time

One of the things I have yet to see in any FPS RPG is believable cities, and more: cities that actually evolve. The nearest I’ve seen is the beautiful “large towns” of the Assassin’s Creed series (they represent cities, but the distances are way too small).

That doesn’t cover the “evolve” part though – even the AC cities are 100% static and unchanging. Hand-crafted, and because they cannot change (technical design choice) the player is incapable of altering them. You can’t burn down blocks, or build a new bridge. You can’t buy two houses and knock them together.

Hey, RPG industry, you can do a lot better!

This is one of the main new gameplay elements in my design. If all I managed was to take an off-the-shelf-RPG mod and add living, growing cities … I’d probably be content. What does this mean, though?
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Promoting an Indie game: what should you link to?


Every Saturday, thousands of indie / hobbyist game developers publish screenshots of their in-progress games. Unlike most forms of marketing, this is:

  • honest / genuinely representative (it’s actual content)
  • interesting (show’s the dev’s intentions)
  • exciting (pictures of games are usually more fun than words)

i.e. … it’s an amazing marketing tool.

But many game developers are screwing this up. A year ago, I posted a long list of advice, tips, and explanations – worth reading. But some devs are still misunderstanding / screwing this up. So, what should you do?

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How much should you use a Scripting language when writing a Game?

Ask 10 game developers if you should use more script code or less, and you will get 11 different answers. They are all correct: it’s very situation-specific. Use of scripting languages is highly dependent on the humans and the practical / project-management issues.

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Towards a Unity3D ECS: what GUI? What features?

This year, one of my goals was to build a sane, powerful, viable Entity System / Entity-Component System within Unity3D. Something I could build current and future games on, and save a lot of dev-time (both in ease-of-use and in easily adding missing features that I wish Unity had).

So, progress?
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World-exploration game, done differently

Inspired by Markus / @notch, and how he got MineCraft going in the early days, I’m live-prototyping a game idea I’ve been thinking about for ages. It’s about exploring a landscape … where cities affect dungeons, and dungeons affect cities.

(this is stress-relief for me, an “evenings and weekends” project. By day, I’m helping Schools teach children to program, but that’s HARD (no investors, lots of costs – at the moment, I get paid nothing))

Play in web browser here (very early prototype!)

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 12.31.23

July 2014

Current build focusses on the “City building” interface. Initially, you won’t be building cities, you’ll be building small camps / trading forts, etc. So this lets me play with the interface, the scale, the rendering, etc. Make sure it’s fun.

Create something – but take screenshots! Because there’s no “save” yet. Super-early prototype.

Long term gameplay

  1. Explore a huge landscape in FPS
  2. Any location, “create a camp”, and it switches to the isometric view you see in current demo. Build yourself a home/fort/etc.
  3. Fast-travel between locations, but this triggers “random encounter” events … or run between locations manually.
  4. Turn-based / DungeonMaster style dungeons are randomly generated near to each camp. Explore the dungeons for resources and to level-up.

Unlike e.g. Skyrim … when you find an interesting location, you can’t fast-travel to it. You have to build a camp next to it, and fast-travel to that. But your camp can be overrun/destroyed/stolen while you’re away.

So … you’ll be building (and maintaining) a lot of bases around the world. I want to be sure that base-building is easy and fun, even after you’ve done it lots of times already, before progressing with the rest!

(I’m trying to make it “repeatably fun” by having the landscape HUGELY affect your base design)

2014 Entity Systems: what are your Unity3D questions and problems?

In 2014, I’ll be making a new game in Unity that makes intensive use of an Entity System.

This will give me lots of ammo for a new post exploring the pros and cons of Unity’s “partial” Entity System architecture. I’ve been thinking about this a lot for the last couple of years, but I’ve been unhappy with the draft posts, and didn’t publish them.

Over the next couple of months, I’d love to hear from all of you the challenges, confusions, problems, and questions you have about this. I’m not promising quick answers – but it will help shape the blog posts I write, and as soon as I have a good enough set of answers, I’ll start posting them :).
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Indie Developers do an AMA…

A bunch of indie game devs (including various friends of mine) are doing an AMA right now on Reddit. Go have a look (and ask some questions) if interested.

I found the answers this question a bit depressing though, given that the audience has increased 100-fold in the last 2 decades. Sad that indie developers still find it almost exactly as hard today as they did in the 1990’s :(.

Round Earth? Flat Earth? Impossible to tell?

(unsubstantiated, but hilarious): “If the measurement is close enough to the surface, light rays can curve downward at a rate equal to the mean curvature of the Earth’s surface. In this case, the two effects of curvature and refraction cancel each other out and the Earth will appear flat in optical experiments.”

…”an increase in air temperature … of 0.11 degrees Celsius per metre of altitude would create an illusion of a flat canal, … [or if] higher than this … all optical observations would be consistent with a concave surface, a “bowl-shaped earth””

…”Ulysses Grant Morrow, … found that his target marker, eighteen inches above water level and five miles distant, was clearly visible he concluded that the Earth’s surface was concavely curved”

(the history of maps and globe representations of the Earth is full of wonderful things like this)

Tomb Raider 2013 shows games as a force for good

Ashelia/HellMode’s review of Tomb Raider 2013:

“Tomb Raider triggered me, sure. But it didn’t do it needlessly. It didn’t do it tactlessly. It didn’t do it for a cheap rise. It instead captured a real emotion and a real experience millions of women will encounter in their life. Some of them won’t be as lucky as I was. Some of them won’t be as lucky as Lara Croft was, either. Some of them won’t survive. Some of them will be silenced forever.

Some of them will die and some of their attackers will live.

Tomb Raider triggered me and that’s ok. Maybe that’s even good. I think it is because it means it’s the first realistic, non-gratifying portrayal of violence against women that I’ve seen in video games. It’s the first one I’ve seen that wasn’t exploitive.”

“We are a compromised profession” (Game Designers)

Carlo Delallana responds to the sensationalized report that “I think most game designers really just suck”:

“One of biggest problems that game designers face in their path towards mastery is respect. It’s easy to respect an artist with a demonstrable skill, no average person assumes they can do what an engineer does. But game designer? For one thing our profession faces a common misconception, that game design is coming up with ideas (as noted by Garrott’s comment on lazy designers). That all you need to do is clone, that you are no better than your competition (as noted by Mark Pincus).

We are a compromised profession, tasked at executing a formula to minimize risk. Unfortunately, executing on formula is counter to mastery of any skill. If the marching order is “status quo” instead of “challenge yourself” then how does a game designer grow?”

(NB: Gamasutra clearly did the IMHO scummy journalist thing of sensationalizing RG’s quote; and RG should have been a lot more careful – personally I believe he didn’t mean it the way it came across, but it came across … badly)

Either way, Carlo’s reply is worth reading in full

Teenagers learn to program, write own 3D game, in 3 weeks


Last year, Pearson ran the first ever Innov8 competition, giving tech startups a chance to make their own innovative new product/project. The grand prize was £5,000 towards building the product.

Most of the teams were adults (even: real companies), but a team of students from Blatchington Mill School won, with their idea for an iPhone/iPad app: “My Science Lab”.

Team: Quantum Games

The three students named themselves “Quantum Games”: Jon, Nick, and Oli. All three of them have been studying for their GCSE’s in parallel with this project.

They’ve been supported by Mark Leighton, Assistant Head / ICT Director at the school.

For mentoring and game-development expertise, they had me – Adam Martin – previously CTO at MindCandy and NCsoft Europe, now an iPhone/Android developer


The students chose to focus on a game that would help other students revise the “Momentum” part of GCSE Physics.

In summer/autumn 2012, they learnt the basics of game design and development. We didn’t do any formal teaching – they simply had to pick up the skills they needed as we went along. YouTube videos, and “trial and error”, were our primary techniques…

In particular, they learnt 3D-modelling and texturing (using Wings3D and Photoshop) and game-programming (using Unity3D and Javascript).

By the end of 2012, they’d written their own physics engine, some basic gameplay, and a simple simulation of an exercise/problem in Momentum.

Last month

The big thing this month has been BETT. Pearson had a large stand, and asked the students along to talk about the project. They gave an excellent presentation to an audience of approx 30 people at BETT, covering the background and some of the things that went well, that didn’t, and what they’d learnt from it.

Leading up to BETT, they worked hard to squeeze in a new build of the game, with a rethink on the interactive sections and how they hang together. Unfortunately, we hit what seemed to be a major bug in Unity’s camera-handling, and none of us could fix it in time (nor could we get an answer from Unity support in time). But the students managed to invent a workaround at the last minute which worked fine for demoing at BETT.

The game isn’t finished yet – GCSE’s and schoolwork left too little time to complete it before BETT – but we’re very close now. The students are aiming to finish it off this month and next, and I’m hoping I might even be able to take a copy to the GDC conference in March (taking place in San Francisco, GDC is the commercial games industry’s main annual conference).

In the meantime … you can sign up now on the Quantum Games website (, and we’ll email you as soon as the game is ready – or sooner, with a private beta-test!

All Game Developers should read Pat Wyatt’s blog…

I noticed a few months back that Pat Wyatt has been blogging rgularly and in a lot of detail last year. This (IMHO) is big news: Pat is an awesome developer who held key positions in the teams behind many of the bestselling computer games (e.g.: Diablo 1 + 2, Starcraft, Warcraft) and went on to co-found Arena.Net (creators of Guild Wars).

I worked with him briefly in the past, and he’s friendly and full of advice and knowledge – but while he was happy to share, IIRC it was rarely in published form.

I’ve had a tough few months, but I’ve been dipping into his blog a few times, and it delivers in spades. Here’s a few hilights:

Assertions: enable them in live builds

(I’ve always felt this was the “right” way to do it for servers – where you don’t have to worry so much about frame-time, and assertions are more valuable at runtime because they help with the hardest-to-trace bugs … but it’s hard to get broad data on what the performance cost is)

“The bug was easily fixed by upgrading the build server, but in the end we decided to leave assertions enabled even for live builds. The anticipated cost-savings in CPU utilization (or more correctly, the anticipated savings from being able to purchase fewer computers in the future) were lost due to the programming effort required to identify the bug, so we felt it better to avoid similar issues in future.”

…and a great rule of thumb for any Programmer:

“After my experience reporting a non-bug to the folks at Microsoft, I was notably more shy about suggesting that bugs might be caused by anything other than the code I or one of my teammates wrote.”

Some bugs are due to … user’s broken hardware

“Mike O’Brien, one of the co-founders and a crack programmer, eventually came up with the idea that they were related to computer hardware failures rather than programming failures. More importantly he had the bright idea for how to test that hypothesis, which is the mark of an excellent scientist.

He wrote a module (“OsStress”) which would allocate a block of memory, perform calculations in that memory block, and then compare the results of the calculation to a table of known answers. He encoded this stress-test into the main game loop so that the computer would perform this verification step about 30-50 times per second.

On a properly functioning computer this stress test should never fail, but surprisingly we discovered that on about 1% of the computers being used to play Guild Wars it did fail! One percent might not sound like a big deal, but when one million gamers play the game on any given day that means 10,000 would have at least one crash bug. Our programming team could spend weeks researching the bugs for just one day at that rate!”

AI cheats to improve game balance in RTS’s, starting with Warcraft/Starcraft

In most Warcraft missions the enemy computer players are given entire cities and armies to start with when battling human players. Moreover, Warcraft contains several asymmetric rules which make it easier for the AI player to compete, though these rules would perhaps be called outright cheating by most players.

One rule we created to help the computer AI was to reduce the amount of gold removed from gold mines to prevent them from being mined-out. When a human player’s workers emerge from a gold mine those workers remove 100 units of ore from the mine and deliver it back to the player’s town hall on each trip, and eventually the gold mine is exhausted by these mining efforts. However, when an AI-controlled worker makes the same trip, the worker only remove 8 units of ore from the mine, while still delivering 100 units into the AI treasury.

This asymmetric rule actually makes the game more fun in two respects: it prevents humans from “turtling”, which is to say building an unassailable defense and using their superior strategic skills to overcome the computer AI. Turtling is a doomed strategy against computer AIs because the human player’s gold-mines will run dry long before those of the computer.

Secondarily, when the human player eventually does destroy the computer encampment there will still be gold left for the player to harvest, which makes the game run faster and is more fun than grinding out a victory with limited resources.”

Reaction to CoH (City of Heroes) community, and NCsoft’s response

(background: after 8 years as one of the world’s mid-tier MMO games, City of Heroes (+ City of Villains) is being shut down. The community banded together to ask if they could take over running the world that meant so much to them; NCsoft (the publisher, and a company I used to work for) said: no)

“No means no”

NCsoft is basically saying: “Please. We love you, but … you just *don’t understand*. It’s more complex than you could possibly imagine!”

That’s not a dialogue; it reads like a “this conversation ends when I stop talking” monologue.

“Why on earth wouldn’t you say yes?”

Lots of people wondering that. Obviously, being a public company, no-one’s going to answer that in public. We can only guess. But hear’s a few (over the top) suggestions…

If the community succeeds … then THE FEAR IS: some Executive(s), somewhere, are going to look like bad (I’m not accusing; I’m just saying that in corporates I’ve worked at, this kind of *fear* is common). A lot of the work they do is guess-work. That’s fine, they’re paid to make the best decision they can, while never truly know if they made the right one.

But if a bunch of inexperienced, eager novices come along and offer to do it for free. And – the worst possible outcome – they succeed … that could make someone look really bad.

Another thing I’ve seen in corporate politics at this level is a lot of “horse-trading”. i.e. sacrificing one project (that someone else resents, or has been snubbed by) in return for that person helping out out with a problem on a separate project, that you’re trying to rescue.

Who (individually or collectively) made the decision, and what did they stand to gain or lose? (they are probably worried about / aiming for / trying to win … something bigger than this single game. c.f. my 2009 post on why NCsoft is so huge a company gains nothing from “profitable” games, they need “mega profitable” games)

“Software is software”


Has anyone found out yet what format(s) the data is in? Imagine the most insane, unwieldy, incomprehensible, inconsistent, unusable format that bears no relationship *at all* to the game itself … and you’re probably half way there.

This game was written *8 years ago*.

Read the biographies of the people involved. Were they non-game developers … academics with decades of expertise in distributed systems and real-time transaction messaging? … or … were they a bunch of smart guys trying to catch up with the academic research in the space of months, just enough to build and ship a major new computer game? And … most importantly … to make it “fun” before they ran out of budget.

I’ve not yet found an MMO where the people who made it feel – with hindsight – they had any idea what they were doing at the start. When they started, of course, many of them thought they’d covered all the bases, and were “well prepared”. Everyone tries their best up-front (or fails completely); but everyone finds it much harder than expected.

What should we/they do?

Looking at it analytically and logically, I’d give the community a very high chance of failing dismally if they were given the game. But … the eagerness, the excitement, the sheer determination: I’d give them a small chance of succeeding despite everything. Simply because: when you see this much determination, it often wins out and overcomes the obstacles in its way.

So, I say: Go for it.

They know the game they’re trying to (re-)create. The difficulty is simple: whenever you try to re-create a game, the temptation is always there to “improve” it … and 99 times in 100, you find you slightly misunderstood what you were “improving”.