A fresh start

On Friday I left my job on an IT graduate scheme at an airline, there’s a bunch of not so great reasons that I left but those aren’t important now, the main focus from here on out is doing the thing that makes me happy.

To that end I’m going to put all my effort into making a game. It’s been my biggest passion for years now and if I don’t make a go of it I know I’ll regret it, and hey maybe I’ll even make enough money doing it to make the next game, but if not then at least I have a portfolio piece to use going forward in a ‘real job’.
I’ll pick up a part-time job to support myself, and maybe do a little bit of volunteering. But without the pressure of a full-time job, and having moved somewhere a little less hectic (oh also I’m moving in a few weeks) I should be able to put something substantial together inside the next year.

A couple of years ago when I was putting out games semi-regularly I mentioned in an interview with Owen Good for Polygon an idea I had for a game I was working on: you know when you see someone on TV “playing” a video game, waving the controller around uncontrollably, furiously mashing away at buttons? I wanted to make that game, tracking the light bar on the PlayStation 4 controller to force the player to act out “acting” playing a game.

I spent some time working out what that would look like, and in various iterations that took the form of a music rhythm game, a Dreamcast-era Arcade style game, and even a clone of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
Eventually I found a gameplay style that worked, at a scale that made sense, and most importantly for me, in a style which will allow me to work independently, not being blocked from working because of waiting for someone else. If I need it, I will be able to complete 100% of the project solo, code, art and music (fingers crossed it won’t come to that, but I need to have the option).

I’ll be ready to talk more about the game in a little while, it’ll take me a little time to sort things out in my life here, sell my flat and move, before I can get to work full time, but starting Monday I’ll be treating game development as my job, and hopefully you’ll get to join me in making something weird and fun.

Hitman is the only game I needed from 2016

For various reasons ranging from a lack of interest to just not having any money, I’ve kinda sat out new game releases in 2016, instead spending most of my time playing some retro gems that I never got around to, or just seeing how many times I could find an excuse to get Waluigi on the SD card of my newly hacked GameCube.
The big exception to that this year is the monthly(ish) episodic Hitman releases at have kinda been a blessing to someone who’s had no spare cash for new games for most of the year.

I remember not really being that interested in the game pre-release, weird stuff was floating around about what the game actually was, and then the revelation that it would be episodic started making it seem like the game was a disaster waiting to happen.
So I let it pass me by until one day I saw a video pop up in my YouTube feed from Hitman superfan ManyATrueNerd showing off the opening tutorial levels and my first look at the stunning Paris fashion show level. I could tell straight away that it had the potential to be something special, and even if I dropped off it like I have so many other episodic games before this, at least I’d have a few hours of in depth fucking around in a weird plywood yacht.
It’s precisely that ability to fuck around making weird things happen that has always made the Hitman series a good time, and by god they knew that was the case going into this game.

Every level is a masterclass in sandbox level design, some like the truly wonderful Sapienza more perfect than others, and whether you want to play it in a serious “Leon The Professional” roleplaying mindset or just dive in head first with exploding golf balls, drum kits, and catwalk shows, the game is more open to that than the lukewarmly received Hitman Absolution was at any point.

This is enabled even further by the Opportunities system, which I mean could have been a total mess which made the game too linear, the paint by numbers Hitman that I saw more than a few people describing it as at first, but instead it ends up being a great way to introduce you to the map and some of the possibilities in it, usually with a hilarious payoff at the end.
The success of the Opportunities system is absolutely tied to them choosing to put the game out episodically, as if all the maps had of been available right away I can see myself just rushing through each one, treating it as a linear interactive story rather than exploring the sandbox.

The promise of episodic games has been floating around for years now, and outside of the Telltale storytelling way of doing it I don’t feel like anyone has ever managed to make it work in a meaningful way. Hitman it turns out is such a good fit for that style of release, a “hey here’s this cool place for you to mess around with and break in a thousand different ways for a month”, that I really felt like getting that season pass at the start of the year was like buying a ticket for this wild ride that followed for the remainder of this year.
Honestly if I was just picking up the complete season now I would feel like I had missed out on a vital part of the Hitman experience, and that’s without me even mentioning the “elusive targets” that have popped up every once in the while, which have made the game feel so much more like this living breathing thing, this wild ride I talked about where getting a notification from the app (yes I’m lame and got the app, and you should too) telling you that there’s a something new and exciting going on that makes you rethink these maps you already know so well, it’s rewarding, even now at the end of the year.

I’m not usually much of a “game of the year” kinda person, but what I will say is that for me at least Hitman has been the game that has defined 2016, more than any single game has for any year I can remember. I can’t goddamn wait for season 2.

15 years later we finally beat Harry Potter on PS1

harry-potter-ending

Back in 2001 the Harry Potter phenomenon was in full swing, I read all the books, loved the movie, and like every other kid in my class that year couldn’t wait to get my hands on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for the PlayStation. Whether it was a good game or not was irrelevant, it was Harry-motherfucking-Potter.
The game itself was one of the few bought new PS1 games I actually owned, it being 2001 and in Washington, Tyne & Wear most of my games were pirated, and this would have been no exception had the disk I got worked properly (bad dump? Maybe the tools just weren’t as up to scratch back then?), so I ended up getting it as a gift for my 9th birthday.
I played it for hours, got every weird jelly bean collectible thing, every bullshit wizard card waste of time, every point for the house cup, before eventually getting stuck on a weird out of place stealth section and giving up on it. The bloody cat caught me every time.
So I pretty much forgot all about the game, before a fit of drunken nostalgia between me, Lisa and our friend Jen compelled me to dig around in my parents loft for it.

Putting the disk in my PS3 and a JD and Coke in my mouth, it seemed like a decent way to kill an evening. But honestly, besides a couple of nearly unforgivably infuriating sections, it turned out to not be a bad game for the era, and probably doesn’t deserve all the hate it gets.
Hell, for a kid obsessed with that world way back when it must have been a pretty immersive place to explore. It has a little piece of everything in it, so no matter whether you fantasied about potions class or being a Quidditch star when you were reading the books by torchlight, it had you covered.
And that’s how it became a thing for the last few months for us to get blitzed and pass the controller around for a couple of hours.
We soon passed that invisibility cloak area that I got stuck at as a kid, and this weekend finished the thing off for good (until we see Chamber of Secrets for 50p in CeX at least).

It’s far from perfect.
Some sections are punishingly hard, even for me now, an adult who has spent most of his life getting the hang of playing games. There are impossibly precise jumping sections, a general lack of information on what you’re doing or why, those terrible camera controls, and don’t even get me started on that whole Gringotts rail section.

harry-potter-time
To be fair they were 5 very long hours

It’s unforgivable for a kids game, and kinda just came across as one of those old “hey let’s make the game super punishing so that they can’t rent it and beat it over a weekend” things.
I can only imagine that this was an intentional attempt at extending the playtime. We weren’t going off and doing every little side objective, but we weren’t exactly going for a speedrun either, and even with the game occasionally left on pause for 20 minutes our final time only clocked in at 5 hours 7 minutes.
In spite of some of the dated mechanics and the short playtime (of perhaps because of it) I could actually see myself playing this again sometime, or at the very least it’s given me enough curiosity to check out the rest of the series.
For now I’m headed back up north to my parents place again for a couple of days. I might have to dig around in the loft again and see what excuse for drunk fun I can find.

Making Twitter Trading Card Game

twitter-trading-card-game-ttcg

I think it was about a year ago that I added this to my game ideas note in Evernote:

  • Randomly assign all twitter users some pokemon cards (by twitter id), allow trading by hashtag

Well after a year of having life get in the way, realising that I didn’t know how to use php and having to learn it, switching my hosting, and playing weird GameCube shit, here we are.
Three weeks ago I left my old job, and with a week off before starting at my new place I decided to take on the task of finishing what by then was called #ttcg, or Twitter Trading Card Game, and on the 11th of September 2016 it was set live.

So what exactly is #ttcg?

To be honest I think that note I made a year ago does a pretty good job of covering it. Once you know what cards you have it’s just a case of sending a tweet that looks something like this:

@BulchyC POK79 #ttcg

The site takes care of the rest.

So how does it work?

When you log into the site at chrisbulch.com/ttcg with your twitter account the site gets access to your unique user id (I guess this exists so that you can change your account name without it causing problems, as your user id always remains the same), from there it checks your id to see if it already has cards listed in a MySQL database.
If you’re listed in the database, then great! The site loads in all the cards you have. If your id isn’t found in the database however, then your twitter user id is used to seed a random number generator, which then spits out cards for you.
This is a nice set up as using a seeded RNG means that the site only needs to save a user in the database once they’ve sent or received a card, and if someone searches to see the cards a user who hasn’t played yet has, they’ll pull up the same cards that the user will if they ever decide to log in, all without the site needing to keep track of them.

twitter-trading-card-game-cards

Ok so we’ve assigned everyone a bunch of cards, I decided on 24 each to start with, partly because it seemed small enough for people to easily remember more or less what they have, but big enough to get some variety, and partly because it happened to fit nicely into the three column layout I used for the cards.
So now what we need to do is figure out how to trade. I ended up setting up a cron script to run once every 5 minutes (I would’ve liked it to be more frequent but then you start to run into issues with rate limiting on twitter’s API), this searches twitter for “#ttcg”, which happened to be in use already by some Japanese cinema chain but fuck ’em I guess.
So once we have a tweet containing the #ttcg hashtag we need to look for two other things: a recipient and a card, the recipient is easy, it just looks for the first bit of text following an ‘@’, we can do a similar thing for the card by just pulling whatever follows ‘POK’.

Once we have our tweet containing a recipient, a card and the hashtag, it’s just a case of removing the card number from one user in the database and adding it to the other (after a TON of logic of course).
And that’s it.

I did decide to throw in a little something extra when I saw a fun thing I could do though.
Part way through implementing the twitter user id stuff I realised that I could check those ids against whatever the hell list I felt like. So what could be funnier than actually taking a game away from those annoying cunts on twitter that are always accusing people of trying to take their games away?
So a quick shitlist later (the cron job that runs once a day is actually called updateShitlist) and all of those people are blocked from trading, with only one card assigned to them, as a reminder that they need to quit their macho bullshit 😉

twitter-trading-card-game-banned

Softmodding my PS2 with Free McBoot

free-mcboot-ps2-boot-screen

UPDATE 2016/09/24: oh yeah burning a disc and using ESR totally works for the problematic games, just be sure to use the ESR patcher tool on the ISO first. Oh and there’s a completely different compatibility list for doing it this way

Despite having moved out six years ago now, every time I head up North to visit my parents they seem to find more junk from my youth to send me back with. The most recent thing I got saddled with being my old fat PS2.
Now I’ve never been much of an emulation guy, it’s the real hardware or nothing for me, so it’s been a good long while since I got to check out some of the PlayStation 2 classics and maaaann once I picked up a nicer component cable and a new set of thumb sticks did I spend more than a few hours playing The Simpsons Hit & Run, THUG2 and 007: Nightfire. But what about some of the better games that I never got to play? Let’s face it, I was pretty much judging games from the box art and a few screenshots in GamesMaster back then.

Since I had a more or less straightforward experience installing a modchip in my GameCube, I thought it might be worth checking out if anything similar existed for the PS2. Well it turns out that the homebrew scene has been busy, and these days you don’t need to make any permanent modifications to your console at all!

You see, it turns out that the PlayStation 2 was designed with upgradable firmware, a strange little feature that was officially only used once in order to make changes to the DVD player software, an upgrade that was distributed with demo discs at the time (and also took up half a memory card, which might explain why the feature didn’t see wider use).
Well once hackers figured out how this all worked it opened the door for easy softmods, all of which were perfectly reversible by just removing your memory card.

playstaion-2-network-adapter-hard-drive
*Probably* won’t set fire to my flat in the night

It also turned out that with the current firmware (called Free McBoot) you don’t need to faff on with a load of blank DVDs and a spare memory card, and can make use of the network adapter add on and an old IDE hard drive to:

  1. Install Free McBoot straight to your hard drive, saving yourself from filling up a memory card
  2. Load the hard drive up with game backups, saving yourself from burning a folder full of DVDs
  3. FTP those game backups right to your PS2, saving yourself from even having to open up the thing again

So off I went to AliExpress and got myself a cheap knockoff network adapter, and while waiting for that to show up from China I hunted down a 250GB IDE hard drive for a tenner from CeX.
Oh, and I also had to pick up an IDE to USB adapter from Amazon, because to be honest I don’t think I’ve seen an IDE connector since I was a kid.

ps2-ide-hard-drive-adapter
Fuck me what a mess, and that’s not even getting started on my cable management

And here we run into our first mistake, or well misstep at the very least. Just look at that fucking mess. I’m going to need to open up my PC and string together that mess of wires every single time I need to connect the hard drive to my computer. Thanks to the whole FTP thing that shouldn’t be too often, but really I would have been better off getting a dock style connector for the IDE hard drive instead of this thing that needs two different power sources, both for the drive and the adapter itself.

chinese-ps2-network-adapter
Well shit. This is what happens when you buy cheap crap. Nothing some hot glue can’t fix I guess.

Eventually I managed to get the hard drive to detect properly and I copied over an disk image I found, the FHDB “Noobie Package”, which contains every tool I should ever need on my PS2. This was a great find, because otherwise I’d still probably be fucking around trying to find the right downloads now.

With the Noobie Package installed and a ton of games that either I just missed out on, ones that I used to play at friends houses, games have since become cult hits, or even just some bizarre shit that never came out in Europe all copied over using WinHIIP (again a nightmare, if you’re using a hard drive over 120GB make damn sure you’re using the 48bit setting), I think it’s time to check some of this stuff out eh?

free-mcboot-ps2-browser-menu
I have no idea what I’m doing

So with some flashing orange lights on boot (apparently a hard drive access light flashing, nothing to worry about) my PS2 now loads right into Free McBoot! As you can see it’s all pretty familiar stuff, but with a load more menu options now showing up.

There’s some interesting stuff included with the FHDB Noobie Package, including an NES emulator (although I can’t work out how to get any ROMS on my hard drive, I guess I just put them on a USB stick?), and also a tool that apparently should let me force games to run at higher resolutions, but any attempt I’ve made at whacking something up to 1080i just ends in the game loading into a black screen, I guess there are compatibility lists for each game somewhere but to be honest I’m not that bothered about the resolution all that much.

free-mcboot-opl-ps2-game-menu
Like, 95% of this is nowhere near as good as you remember it

Now here’s the thing that I’m really interested in, OPL (or Open PS2 Loader). From here I can run games straight off my hard drive, and even set up virtual Memory Cards so that I’m not having mine filled up right away!
The first few games that I tried out all worked beautifully, loading straight up (super quickly too!) and with no glitches or crashes to be seen. Timesplitters: Future Perfect, Half-Life, Ape Escape 3, Dogs Life and Katamari Damacy all ran superbly!
It’s when I tried to run Tony Hawk’s Underground and THPS 3 (two games that I somehow missed at the time) that I started having issues.

Unfortunately it turns out that compatibility with some games isn’t 100% (THUG crashes after the first level, and THPS 3 doesn’t even boot at all), and if I had known what I was looking for I would have easily found a pretty comprehensive compatibility list for hard drive games online.

katamari-damacy-ps2
Naaaa naa naa na na na na naaa naaa

I’m not that upset that a few games don’t work off of the hard drive, there’s still a hell of a lot of games out there that work perfectly, but for the few that don’t I *think* I might have a workaround.
Google tells me that using ESR Launcher (also included in the Noobie Package) I should be able to launch games that I’ve burned to disc just fine, and well it’s worked out nicely enough with my folder full of Dreamcast and GameCube games so far, so I think soon I’ll be picking up a stack of DVD-R’s and seeing if I can get a few of those tricky ISOs running nicely.

For now though, I’m happy playing some curiosities of the PlayStation 2 back catalogue along with some old classics that aren’t in my collection any more. And it’s always fun getting the Katamari theme tune stuck in everyone’s head.

Reigns messes up its best feature

reigns-swiping

Reigns is a neat game out on mobile (and PC because why not I guess?) that puts you in charge of a medieval kingdom where whether you live or inevitably die at the hands of your subjects comes down to how well you can juggle the needs of the populous and its various factions by making a series of difficult and often hilarious decisions.

The mechanic for making these decisions is an inspired use of Tinder’s swipe left/right interface that makes for excellent short form storytelling. It’s genius, and just hearing about it made me kick myself for not having thought of it first.

The Problem

So here’s the thing, with such an effortlessly brilliant mechanic that syncs up with the storytelling in such a way that you can’t help but fall into an hours long hole trying to escape from a dungeon. At least, that’s how Reigns seems like it should be, but after a short session something just doesn’t feel quite right to me and I lose the will to go on.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The game is perfect for a quick run while you have 10 minutes to kill, but there’s something lacking that puts a stop to that “one more go” feeling you get from games like this.

So I figured out what feels off to me. It’s the swiping. You know? The whole reason why I got so into the idea of Reigns in the first place.
You see, on Tinder when you start to drag your thumb across the screen that users card will follow your thumb wherever it goes, up, down, left, right, it’s glued to you. It makes flicking a profile off the screen feel so satisfying, there’s a real weight to the object and it behaves exactly as you expect it to.

Contrast this with swiping in Reigns. When you go to swipe left or right the card seems to be moving on a fixed path, sure there’s a few pixels of give where it’ll move up or down a bit, but it’s more like a slider than a physical card that you have some control over.
You don’t even get the satisfaction of flicking the card off screen, as you hardly get to move the card at all before it reaches its end point, where after should you let it go it just rolls into what seems to be a prebaked animation.
You’ll barely notice it at first, but after a little while it wears you down, and you just need a break, a look at twitter or even your home screen, where your swipes feel like they have some weight to them instead of this weird disconnect between your input and what is happening on screen.

You get a lot of games popping up on Steam these days which look and feel like they were made for mobile and cynically ported over in a cash grab. Reigns perversely feels like the opposite, I feel like I should be controlling it with a gamepad rather than on a touch screen, and that is absolutely insane considering how well suited to mobile this game is.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be playing a lot more of Reigns, but man I would love to be able to get in a night long session without feeling frustrated by what should be one of its highlights.