Pong

I’ve recently been reimplementing retro arcade classic Pong to show off during a celebration of World Digital Preservation Day 2018 yesterday at the Bodleian Libraries. Here’s how that went down.

Frak on the BBC Micro, amongst the rest of a pile of computing nostalgia
The Bodleian has a specific remit for digital archiving… but sometimes they just like collecting stuff, too, I’m sure.

The team responsible for digital archiving had plans to spend World Digital Preservation Day running a stand in Blackwell Hall for some time before I got involved. They’d asked my department about using the Heritage Window – the Bodleian’s 15-screen video wall – to show a carousel of slides with relevant content over the course of the day. Or, they added, half-jokingly, “perhaps we could have Pong up there as it’ll be its 46th birthday?”

Parts of the Digital Archiving display table
Free reign to play about with the Heritage Window while smarter people talk to the public about digital archives? Sure, sign me up.

But I didn’t take it as a joke. I took it as a challenge.

Emulating Pong is pretty easy. Emulating Pong perfectly is pretty hard. Indeed, a lot of the challenge in the preservation of (especially digital) archives in general is in finding the best possible compromise in situations where perfect preservation is not possible. If these 8″ disks are degrading, is is acceptable to copy them onto a different medium? If this video file is unreadable in modern devices, is it acceptable to re-encode it in a contemporary format? These are the kinds of questions that digital preservation specialists have to ask themselves all the damn time.

Pong prototype with a SNES controller on my work PC
The JS Gamepad API lets your web browser talk to controller devices.

Emulating Pong in a way that would work on the Heritage Window but be true to the original raised all kinds of complications. (Original) Pong’s aspect ratio doesn’t fit nicely on a 16:9 widescreen, much less on a 27:80 ultrawide. Like most games of its era, the speed is tied to the clock rate of the processor. And of course, it should be controlled using a “dial”.

By the time I realised that there was no way that I could thoroughly replicate the experience of the original game, I decided to take a different track. Instead, I opted to reimplement Pong. A reimplementation could stay true to the idea of Pong but serve as a jumping-off point for discussion about how the experience of playing the game may be superficially “like Pong” but that this still wasn’t an example of digital preservation.

Two participants play Pong on the Heritage Window
Bip… boop… boop… bip… boop… bip…

Here’s the skinny:

  • A web page, displayed full-screen, contains both a <canvas> (for the game, sized appropriately for a 3 × 3 section of the video wall) and a <div> full of “slides” of static content to carousel alongside (filling a 2 × 3 section).
  • Javascript writes to the canvas, simulates the movement of the ball and paddles, and accepts input from the JS Gamepad API (which is awesome, by the way). If there’s only one player, a (tough! – only three people managed to beat it over the course of the day!) AI plays the other paddle.
  • A pair of SNES controllers adapted for use as USB controllers which I happened to own already.
My Javascript-powered web applications dominate the screens in Blackwell Hall.
Increasingly, the Bodleian’s spaces seem to be full of screens running Javascript applications I’ve written.

I felt that the day, event, and game were a success. A few dozen people played Pong and explored the other technology on display. Some got nostalgic about punch tape, huge floppy disks, and even mechanical calculators. Many more talked to the digital archives folks and I about the challenges and importance of digital archiving. And a good time was had by all.

I’ve open-sourced the entire thing with a super-permissive license so you can deploy it yourself (you know, on your ultrawide video wall) or adapt it as you see fit. Or if you’d just like to see it for yourself on your own computer, you can (but unless you’re using a 4K monitor you’ll probably need to use your browser’s mobile/responsive design simulator set to 3200 × 1080 to make it fit your screen). If you don’t have controllers attached, use W/S to control player 1 and the cursor keys for player 2 in a 2-player game.

Happy 46th birthday, Pong.

Forza Horizon 4 is really very British

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

by an author

Forza Horizon 4

There is a phenomenon of culture that I’m not convinced has a name. Living in the UK, the vast, vast majority of the media I consume is from the US. And nearly always has been. While television was more localised, all my life the films and games (and indeed an awful lot of the TV) I’ve watched and played has not only come from America, but been set there, or created by people whose perception of life is based there. And, while we may share a decent proportion of a common language, we really are very different countries and indeed continents. The result of this being, the media I watch that comes from the US is in many senses alien, to the point where a film set in an American high school might as well be set on a spaceship for all the familiarity it will have to my own lived experiences.

Which makes playing Forza Horizon 4 a really bloody weird thing. It’s… it’s British. Which is causing my double-takes to do double-takes.

I’m not usually a fan of driving games, but this review of Forza Horizon 4 on Rock Paper Shotgun makes me want to give it a try. It sounds like the designers have worked incredibly hard to make the game feel genuinely-British without falling back on tired old tropes.

Notes from #musetech18 presentations (with a strong “collaboration” theme). Note that these are “live notes” first-and-foremost for my own use and so are probably full of typos. Sorry.

Matt Locke (StoryThings, @matlocke):

  • Over the last 100 years, proportional total advertising revenue has been stolen from newspapers by radio, then television: scheduled media that is experienced simultaneously. But we see a recent drift in “patterns of attention” towards the Internet. (Schedulers, not producers, hold the power in radio/television.)
  • The new attention “spectrum” includes things that aren’t “20-60 minutes” (which has historically been dominated by TV) nor “1-3 hours” (which has been film), but now there are shorter and longer forms of popular medium, from tweets and blog posts (very short) to livestreams and binging (very long). To gather the full spectrum of attention, we need to span these spectra.
  • Rhythm is the traditions and patterns of how work is done in your industry, sector, platforms and supply chains. You need to understand this to be most-effective (but this is hard to see from the inside: newcomers are helpful). In broadcast television as a medium, the schedules dictate the rhythms… in traditional print publishing, the major book festivals and “blockbuster release” cycles dominate the rhythm.
  • Then how do we collaborate with organisations not in our sector (i.e. with different rhythms)? There are several approaches, but think about the rhythmic impact.

Lizzy Bullock (English Heritage, @lizzybethness):

  • g.co/englishheritage
  • Partnered with Google Arts & Heritage; Google’s first single-partner project and also their first project with a multi-site organisation.
  • This kind of tech can be used to increase access (e.g. street view of closed sites) and also support curatorial/research aims (e.g. ultra-high-resolution photography).
  • Aside from the tech access, working with a big company like Google provides basically “free” PR. In combination, these benefits boost reach.
  • Learnings: prepare to work hard and fast, multi-site projects are a logistical nightmare, you will need help, stay organised and get recordkeeping/planning in place early, be aware that there’ll be things you can’t control (e.g. off-brand PR produced by the partner), don’t be afraid to stand your ground where you know your content better.
  • Decide what successw looks like at the outset and with all relevant stakeholders involved, so that you can stay on course. Make sure the project is integrated into contributors’ work streams.

Daria Cybulska (Wikimedia UK, @DCybulska):

  • Collaborative work via Wikimedians-in-residence not only provides a boost to open content but involves engagement with staff and opens further partnership opportunities.
  • Your audience is already using Wikipedia: reaching out via Wikipedia provides new ways to engage with them – see it as a medium as well as a platform.
  • Wikimedians-in-residence, being “external”, are great motivators to agitate processes and promote healthy change in your organisation.

Creative Collaborations ([1] Kate Noble @kateinoble, Ina Pruegel @3today, [2] Joanna Salter, [3] Michal Cudrnak, Johnathan Prior):

  • Digital making (learning about technology through making with it) can link museums with “maker culture”. Cambridge museums (Zoology, Fitzwilliam) used a “Maker in Residence” programme and promoted “family workshops” and worked with primary schools. Staff learned-as-they-went and delivered training that they’d just done themselves (which fits maker culture thinking). Unexpected outcomes included interest from staff and discovery of “hidden” resources around the museums, and the provision of valuable role models to participants. Tips: find allies, be ambitious and playful, and take risks.
  • National Maritime Museum Greenwich/National Maritime Museum – “re.think” aimed to engage public with emotive topics and physically-interactive exhibits. Digital wing allowed leaving of connections/memories, voting on hot issues, etc. This leads to a model in which visitors are actively engaged in shaping the future display (and interpretation) of exhibitions. Stefanie Posavec appointed as a data artist in residence.
  • SoundWalk Strazky at Slovak National Gallery: audio-geography soundwalks as an immersive experiential exhibition; can be done relatively cheaply, at the basic end. Telling fictional stories (based on reality) can help engage visitors with content (in this case, recreating scenes from artists’ lives). Interlingual challenges. Delivery via Phonegap app which provides map and audio at “spots”; with a simple design that discourages staring-at-the-screen (only use digital to improve access to content!).

Lightning talks:

  • Maritime Museum Greenwich: wanted to find out how people engage with objects – we added both a museum interpretation and a community message to each object. Highly-observational testing helped see how hundreds of people engage with content. Lesson: curators are not good judges of how their stuff will be received; audience ownership is amazing. Be reactive. Visitors don’t mind being testers of super-rough paper-based designs.
  • Nordic Museum / Swedish National Heritage Board explored Generous Interfaces: show first, don’t ask, rich overviews, interobject relationships, encourage exploration etc. (Whitelaw, 2012). Open data + open source + design sprints (with coding in between) + lots of testing = a collaborative process. Use testing to decide between sorting OR filtering; not both! As a bonus, generous interfaces encourage finding of data errors. bit.ly/2CNsNna
  • IWM on the centenary of WWI: thinking about continuing the crowdsourcing begun by the IWM’s original mission. Millions of assets have been created by users. Highly-collaborative mechanism to explore, contribute to, and share a data space.
  • Lauren Bassam (@lswbassam) on LGBT History and co-opting of Instagram as an archival space: Instagram is an unconventional archival source, but provides a few benefits in collaboration and engagement management, and serves as a viable platform for stories that are hard to tell using the collections in conventional archives. A suitably-engaged community can take pride in their accuracy and their research cred, whether or not you strictly approve of their use of the term “archivist”. With closed stacks, we sometimes forget how important engagement, touch, exploration and play can be.
  • Owen Gower (@owentg) from Dr. Jenner’s House Museum and Garden: they received EU REVEAL funding to look at VR as an engagement tool. Their game is for PSVR and has a commercial release. The objects that interested the game designers the most weren’t necessarily those which the curators might have chosen. Don’t let your designers get carried away and fill the game with e.g. zombies. But work with them, and your designers can help you find not only new ways to tell stories, but new stories you didn’t know you could tell. Don’t be afraid to use cheap/student developers!
  • Rebecca Kahm @rebamex from Pelagios Commons (@Pelagiosproject): the problem with linked data is that it’s hard to show its value to end users (or even show museums “what you can do” with it). Coins have great linked data, in collections. Peripleo was used to implement a sort-of “reverse Indiana Jones”: players try to recover information to find where an artefact belongs.
  • Jon Pratty: There are lots of useful services (Flickr, Storify etc.) and many are free (which is great)… but this produces problems for us in terms of the long-term life of our online content, not to mention the ethical issues with using services whose business model is built on trading personal data of our users. [Editor’s note: everything being talked about here is the stuff that the Indieweb movement have been working on for some time!] We need to de-siloise and de-centralise our content and services. redecentralize.org? responsibledata.io?

In-House Collaboration and the State of the Sector:

  • Rosie Cardiff @RosieCardiff, Serpentine Galleries on Mobile Tours. Delivered as web application via captive WiFi hotspot. Technical challenges were significant for a relatively small digital team, and there was some apprehension among frontline staff. As a result of these and other problems, the mobile tours were underused. Ideas to overcome barriers: report successes and feedback, reuse content cross-channel, fix bugs ASAP, invite dialogue. Interesting that they’ve gained a print guides off the back of the the digital. Learn lessons and relaunch.
  • Sarah Younaf @sarahyounas, Tyne & Wear Museums. Digital’s job is to ask the questions the museum wouldn’t normally ask, i.e. experimentation (with a human-centric bias). Digital is quietly, by its nature, “given permission” to take risks. Consider establishing relationships with (and inviting-in) people who will/want to do “mashups” or find alternative uses for your content; get those conversations going about collections access. Experimental Try-New-Things afternoons had value but this didn’t directly translate into ideas-from-the-bottom, perhaps as a result of a lack of confidence, a requirement for fully-formed ideas, or a heavy form in the application process for investment in new initiatives. Remember you can’t change everyone, but find champions and encourage participation!
  • Kati Price @katiprice on Structuring for Digital Success in GLAM. Study showed that technical leadership and digital management/analysis is rated as vital, yet they’re also underrepresented. Ambitions routinely outstrip budgets. Assumptions about what digital teams “look” like from an org-chart perspective don’t cover the full diversity: digital teams look very different from one another! Forrester Research model of Digital Maturity seems to be the closest measure of digital maturity in GLAM institutions, but has flaws (mostly relating to its focus in the commercial sector): what’s interesting is that digital maturity seems to correlate to structure – decentralised less mature than centralised less mature than hub-and-spoke less mature than holistic.
  • Jennifer Wexler, Daniel Pett, Chiara Bonacchi on Diversifying Museum Audiences through Participation and stuff. Crowdsourcing boring data entry tasks is sometimes easier than asking staff to do it, amazingly. For success, make sure you get institutional buy-in and get press on board. Also: make sure that the resulting data is open so everybody can explore it. Crowdsourcing is not implicitly democratisating, but it leads to the production of data that can be. 3D prints (made from 3D cutouts generated by crowdsourcing) are a useful accessibility feature for bringing a collection to blind or partially-sighted visitors, for example. Think about your audiences: kids might love your hip VR, but if their parents hate it then you still need a way to engage with them!

An Oral History of Leisure Suit Larry

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

a post

If you happened to flip through a PC gaming magazine in the late 1980s or early 1990s, you would’ve probably seen an ad for a game called Leisure Suit Larry, or one of its many sequels. It was a graphic adventure game first released in 1987 with the primary goal of helping its protagonist get laid. Since most games then leaned heavily into cartoon violence, Larry’s sexual innuendo stood out. To young boys at the time, it had the mystique of a shrink-wrapped Playboy in a convenience store.

AWOOOOO

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

AWOOOOO | The Obscuritory (The Obscuritory)
AWOO AWOOOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOO AWOO. AWOO AWOO AWOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOO AWOO AWOOOOO. AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOOO AWOO AWOOO AWOO AWOOOO AWOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOO. AWOO AWOOOOOO AWOOOOOO AWOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOOO AWOO AWOOOOOO AWOO. AWOOOOOO AWOO AWOOOO AWOO AWOOOO AWOO AWOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOOO AWOO. AWOOOO AWOOO AWOOOO AWOO AWOO. AWOOO AWOO AWOOO AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO AWOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOO. AWOOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOOOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO. AWOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOO AWOO AWOOOOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOO. AWOO AWOOOOOO AWOOOOOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOO AWOO AWOOOOOO. AWOOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO. AWOOOOOOO. AWOO AWOO. AWOOO. AWOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOO. AWOO! AWOO! AWOO! AWOO! AWOO! (AWOOOOO AWOO AWOOOO AWOOOO.) AWOOOO AWOO

AWOOOO

AWOO AWOOOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO.

AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOO AWOO. AWOO AWOO AWOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOO AWOO AWOOOOO. AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOOO AWOO AWOOO AWOO AWOOOO AWOO.

AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOO. AWOO AWOOOOOO AWOOOOOO AWOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOOO AWOO AWOOOOOO AWOO. AWOOOOOO AWOO AWOOOO AWOO AWOOOO AWOO AWOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOOO AWOO. AWOOOO AWOOO AWOOOO AWOO AWOO.

AWOO AWOOOO

AWOOO AWOO AWOOO AWOO AWOO

AWOO AWOOOOO AWOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOO. AWOOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOOOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO. AWOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOO AWOO AWOOOOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOO.

AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOO. AWOO AWOOOOOO AWOOOOOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOO AWOO AWOOOOOO. AWOOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOO AWOOOOO AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOO AWOOOOOO. AWOO AWOO AWOO. AWOOOOOOO. AWOO AWOO. AWOOO.

After The Obsuritory – a blog providing reviews of old and less-well-known video games – published a review of 1994’s Wolf, they followed-up with this additional review… written for a wolf.

The Internet is weird and hilarious.

Coding without a keystroke: The hands-free creation of a full video game

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Coding without a keystroke: The hands-free creation of a full video game (Ars Technica)
Coder wants to grow the speech-to-text coding community, uses his fun game to advocate.

Dig Dog screenshot

Dig Dog is a pretty fun little video game. Call it “Spelunky for kids”—and don’t think of that as a backhanded compliment, either. Dig Dog, which launched Thursday on iOS, Xbox, Windows, and Mac, shaves away some of the genre’s complications, controls smoothly, and has depth. It’s as if the modern wave of randomly generated, dig-for-surprises adventures had existed in early ’80s arcades. (And all for only $3!)

I liked Dig Dog enough when I stumbled upon it at last year’s Fantastic Arcade event in Austin, Texas. But my interest in the game spiked when its creator reached out ahead of this week’s launch to confirm something I’m not sure any other video game creator has done: coding an entire game by himself… without using his hands.

Lunar Lander

Just want to play my game without reading this whole post? Play the game here – press a key, mouse button, or touch the screen to fire the thrusters, and try to land at less than 4 m/s with as much fuel left over as possible.

In 1969, when all the nerds were still excited by sending humans to the moon instead of flinging cars around the sun, the hottest video game was Rocket (or Lunar) for the PDP-8. Originally implemented in FOCAL by high school student Jim Storer and soon afterwards ported to BASIC (the other dominant language to come as standard with microcomputers), Rocket became the precursor to an entire genre of video games called “Lunar Lander games“.

Source code of Rocket and sample output.
Like many pieces of microcomputer software of the time, Rocket was distributed as printed source code that you’d need to carefully type in at the other end.

The aim of these games was to land a spacecraft on the moon or similar body by controlling the thrust (and in some advanced versions, the rotation) of the engine. The spacecraft begins in freefall towards the surface and will accelerate under gravity: this can be counteracted with thrust, but engaging the engine burns through the player’s limited supply of fuel. Furthermore, using fuel lowers the total mass of the vessel (a large proportion of the mass of the Apollo landers was fuel for use in the descent stage) which reduces its inertia, giving the engine more “kick” which must be compensated for during the critical final stages. It sounds dry and maths-y, but I promise that graphical versions can usually be played entirely “by eye”.

Atari's Lunar Lander (1979)
Atari’s 1979 adaptation is perhaps the classic version you’d recognise, although its release was somewhat overshadowed by their other vector-graphics space-themed release in 1979: Asteroids.

Let’s fast-forward a little. In 1997 I enrolled to do my A-levels at what was then called Preston College, where my Computing tutor was a chap called Kevin Geldard: you can see him at 49 seconds into this hilariously low-fi video which I guess must have been originally shot on VHS despite being uploaded to YouTube in 2009. He’s an interesting chap in his own right whose contributions to my career in computing deserve their own blog post, but for the time being all you need to know is that he was the kind of geek who, like me, writes software “for fun” more often than not. Kevin owned a Psion 3 palmtop – part of a series of devices with which I also have a long history and interest – and he taught himself to program OPL by reimplementing a favourite game of his younger years on it: his take on the classic mid-70s-style graphical Lunar Lander.

Psion Series 3
I never owned a Psion Series 3 (pictured), but I bought a Series 5mx in early 2000 out of my second student loan cheque, ultimately wrote most of my undergraduate dissertation using it, and eventually sold it to a collector in about 2009 for almost as much as I originally paid for it. The 5mx was an amazing bit of kit. But I’ll blog about that another day, I guess.

My A-level computing class consisted of a competitive group of geeky lads, and we made sort-of a personal extracurricular challenge to ourselves of re-implementing Kevin’s take on Lunar Lander using Turbo Pascal, the primary language in which our class was taught. Many hours out-of-class were spent in the computer lab, tweaking and comparing our various implementations (with only ocassional breaks to play Spacy, CivNet, or my adaptation of LORD2): later, some of us would extend our competition by going on to re-re-implement in Delphi, Visual Basic, or Java, or by adding additional levels relating to orbital rendezvous or landing on other planetary bodies. I was quite proud of mine at the time: it was highly-playable, fun, and – at least on your first few goes – moderately challenging.

Dan's Lunar Lander (2018)
I sometimes wonder what it would have looked like if I’d have implemented my 1997 Lunar Lander today. So I did.

Always game to try old new things, and ocassionally finding time between the many things that I do to code, I decided to expand upon my recently-discovered interest in canvas coding to bring back my extracurricular Lunar Lander game of two decades ago in a modern format. My goals were:

  • A one-button version of a classic “straight descent only” lunar lander game (unlike my 1997 version, which had 10 engine power levels, this remake has just “on” and “off”)
  • An implementation based initially on real physics (although not necessarily graphically to scale)… and then adapted as necessary to give a fun/playability balance that feels good
  • Runs in a standards-compliant browser without need for plugins: HTML5, Canvas, Javascript
  • Adapts gracefully to any device, screen resolution, and orientation with graceful degredation/progressive enhancement

You can have a go at my game right here in your web browser! The aim is to reach the ground travelling at a velocity of no more than 4 m/s with the maximum amount of fuel left over: this, if anything, is your “score”. My record is 52% of fuel remaining, but honestly anything in the 40%+ range is very good. Touch the screen (if it’s a touchscreen) or press a mouse button or any key to engage your thrusters and slow your descent.

End point of Dan's Lunar Lander (2018)
“Houston, the Eagle has landed.” Kerbal Space Program, it isn’t. Here’s a very good landing: 3 m/s with 48% of the fuel tank remaining.

And of course it’s all open-source, so you’re more than welcome to take it, rip it apart, learn from it, or make something better out of it.

TFW a Twitter bot solves a video game mystery

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

TFW a Twitter bot solves a video game mystery | The Video Game History Foundation on Patreon (Patreon)
Official Post from The Video Game History Foundation: Something pretty fun happened yesterday that I wanted to share with you all: a bot on Twitter accidentally provided the clue that finally solved a 28-year-old mystery about a DOS game that never shipped.Yesterday, the VGHF Twitter account was tagged in a thread by @awesomonster, who was frantically

Something pretty fun happened yesterday that I wanted to share with you all: a bot on Twitter accidentally provided the clue that finally solved a 28-year-old mystery about a DOS game that never shipped.

Yesterday, the VGHF Twitter account was tagged in a thread by @awesomonster, who was frantically trying to figure out the origins of a screenshot:

StarTribes: Myth of the Dragon Lord

This Old Tech: Remembering WorldsAway’s avatars and virtual experiences

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

This Old Tech: Remembering WorldsAway's avatars and virtual experiences (PCWorld)
The year was 1995, and CompuServe's online service cost $4.95 per hour. Yet thousands of people logged into this virtual world daily.

WorldsAway

WorldsAway was born 20 years ago, when Fujitsu Cultural Technologies, a subsidiary of Japanese electronics giant Fujitsu, released this online experiment in multiplayer communities. It debuted as part of the CompuServe online service in September, 1995. Users needed a special client to connect; once online, they could chat with others while represented onscreen as a graphical avatar.

I was already a veteran of BBSes (I even started my own), Prodigy, CompuServe, and the Internet when I saw an advertisement for WorldsAway in CompuServe magazine (one of my favorite magazines at the time). It promised a technicolor online world where you could be anything you wanted, and share a virtual city with people all over the globe. I signed up to receive the client software CD. Right after its launch in September, I was up and running in the new world. It blew my young mind.

Benj Edwards (PCWorld)

Introduction (to SMAC)

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri[1] (which we fondly refer to here as SMAC, both as an acronym and in reference to its potent addictive properties) opens in an odd way for a science fiction game.  Most such games open with spaceships, star travel, or some futuristic technology.  They seek to hook the imagination.  But our game begins much more humbly.

SMAC begins with a largely static image of the stars as a woman reads a passage from the book of Genesis, telling the story of man’s final and irrevocable expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  The reading goes on for about twenty seconds, which is long enough for the lack of action to be quite noticeable.  The effect is that we, the players, are being invited to join the woman in literary contemplation.  This, in and of itself, is a strange thing to find in a game – and a strategy game, no less!

The attentive viewer will notice that as the woman ends her quotation, she cites her source as “The Conclave Bible, Datalinks”.  Odd … one would normally expect chapter and verse from a bible quote.  What are the Datalinks?  And which edition is the Conclave Bible?

There isn’t much time to dwell on those questions, though.  As the woman finishes, the music strikes up and we are treated to a series of disjointed images from the Earth we know.  The context isn’t clear, but the message certainly is.  These are scenes of chaos: fire; military equipment; rioting crowds; nuclear explosions; escalating debt – each one flashes by just after it has time to register.  The world is out of control.  It’s literally on fire.  And it’s hurtling toward calamity…

Steer! An Experimental Canvas/Websocket Game

As you may know, I’ve lately found an excuse to play with some new web technologies, and I’ve also taken the opportunity to try to gain a deeper understanding of some less bleeding-edge technologies that I think have some interesting potential. And so it was that, while I was staffing the Three Rings stall at last week’s NCVO conference, I made use of the time that the conference delegates were all off listening to a presentation to throw together a tech demo I call Steer!

Animated GIF from a video, showing a player using their mobile phone to steer a car on a desktop computer screen, all using the web browsers on both devices.
A player uses their mobile phone to steer a car on a desktop computer, using nothing more than a web browser.

As you can see from the GIF above, Steer! is a driving game. The track and your car are displayed in a web browser on a large screen, for example a desktop or laptop computer, television, or tablet, and your mobile phone is used to steer the car by tilting it to swerve around a gradually-narrowing weaving road. It’s pretty fun, but what really makes it interesting to me is the combination of moderately-new technologies I’ve woven together to make it possible, specifically:

  • The Device Orientation API, which enables a web application to detect the angle at which you’re holding your mobile phone
  • Websockets as a mechanism to send that data in near-real-time from the phone to the browser, via a web server: for the fastest, laziest possible development, I used Firebase for this, but I’m aware that I could probably get better performance by running a local server on the LAN shared by both devices
  • The Canvas API to draw the output to the screen

Infographic showing how Steer! works. Phone accelerometer determines orientation, pushes to Firebase (up to 60 times/sec), which pushes to browser (via Websocket), which updates screen.

The desktop browser does all of the real work: it takes the orientation of the device and uses that, and the car’s current speed, to determine how it’s position changes over the time that’s elapsed since the screen was last refreshed: we’re aiming for 60 frames a second, of course, but we don’t want the car to travel slower when the game is played on a slower computer, so we use requestAnimationFrame to get the fastest rate possible and calculate the time between renderings to work out how much of a change has occurred this ‘tick’. We leave the car’s sprite close to the bottom of the screen at all times but change how much it rotates from side to side, and we use it’s rotated to decide how much of its motion is lateral versus the amount that’s “along the track”. The latter value determines how much track we move down the screen “behind” it.

The track is generated very simply by the addition of three sine waves of different offset and frequency – a form of very basic procedural generation. Despite the predictability of mathematical curves, this results in a moderately organic-feeling road because the player only sees a fraction of the resulting curve at any given time: the illustration below shows how these three curves combine to make the resulting road. The difficulty is ramped up the further the player has travelled by increasing the amplitude of the resulting wave (i.e. making the curves gradually more-agressive) and by making the road itself gradually narrower. The same mathematics are used to determine whether the car is mostly on the tarmac or mostly on the grass and adjust its maximum speed accordingly.

Sum of sine waves as used to generate the track for Steer!

In order to help provide a visual sense of the player’s speed, I added dashed lines down the road (dividing it into three lanes to begin with and two later on) which zip past the car and provide a sense of acceleration, deceleration, overall speed, and the impact of turning ‘sideways’ (which of course reduces the forward momentum to nothing).

This isn’t meant to be a finished game: it’s an experimental prototype to help explore some technologies that I’d not had time to look seriously at before now. However, you’re welcome to take a copy – it’s all open source – and adapt or expand it. Particular ways in which it’d be fun to improve it might include:

  • Allowing the player more control, e.g. over their accelerator and brakes
  • Adding hazards (trees, lamp posts, and others cars) which must be avoided
  • Adding bonuses like speed boosts
  • Making it challenging, e.g. giving time limits to get through checkpoints
  • Day and night cycles (with headlights!)
  • Multiplayer capability, like a real race?
  • Smarter handling of multiple simultaneous users: right now they’d share control of the car (which is the major reason I haven’t given you a live online version to play with and you have to download it yourself!), but it’d be better if they could “queue” until it was their turn, or else each play in their own split-screen view or something
  • Improving the graphics with textures
  • Increasing the entropy of the curves used to generate the road, and perhaps adding pre-scripted scenery or points of interest on a mathematically-different procedural generation algorithm
  • Switching to a local LAN websocket server, allowing better performance than the dog-leg via Firebase
  • Greater compatibility: I haven’t tried it on an iPhone, but I gather than iOS devices report their orientation differently from Android ones… and I’ve done nothing to try to make Steer! handle more-unusual screen sizes and shapes
  • Anything else? (Don’t expect me to have time to enhance it, though: but if you do so, I’d love to hear about it!)