Juju posted on October 16, 2013 at 4:37 PM


I went to see Bastille perform live last night with some of my friends at the O2 Academy in Brixton. I'm not particularly into their music, obviously I recognise Pompeii, and my friends and I were certainly in the upper quartile age-wise. Nonetheless, they enjoyed the proceedings immensely. I, however, did not.

This is not to say Bastille are a bad band or the show wasn't well put-together or the venue was shitty (quite the opposite actually - Brixton Academy is a wonderful venue). They had some good lighting that was simple but effective, they ran to the minute, the crowd enjoyed it judging by the 110 decibel screams. Here's a brief run-down of the kind of shit that only I'd notice:

1) The lead singer's microphone was wired despite the fact he liked to wander around on stage. I couldn't see whether the other mics were wired or not. Wireless microphones are not that expensive, not that heavy, not that uncommon - every sound engineer and back stage technician will be able to cope with a wireless mic. I'm guessing there were some problems with the wireless packs? It'd have to be a licensing problem (don't ask - wireless mic regulation in the UK is pretty stringent) rather than a technical problem because the crew would have many, many spare wireless packs kicking around. Even then, it'd be very strange for a venue to have licensing issues.

2) The front-of-house mix nuked everything apart from the drums and vocals. I could barely hear the guitar, keys or live string quartet. The bass was just about "there" but not the same kind of midsy tone that you'd hear on their recordings. Now, I'm not 100% sold on making the recordings and the live show sound identical in all situations. For what is basically a pop band though, I'd imagine achieving a similarity in sound is high on the list of priorities. Furthermore, the bass on the recordings is midsy for a reason. It cuts through. It fills the space left by their lack of regular guitar parts. The drums and vocals dominated the mix in the room though. Kudos to the sound engineer on getting a kick sound that'd cut through an inch of hardened steel and a 90%-there vocal tone but, dammit guys, I like the other bits too.

3) The band only got visibily into it halfway through their set. All their movement around stage lacked genuine drama. Once they stopped acting interested and got interested, everything progressed much more smoothly.

4) The beer was expensive. Yeah, yeah - it's a gig. I get it. It still irks me.

5) The songs lacked dynamics in the sense of the inter-song relationships. The big, loud songs were OK but the quieter, more sentimental songs, really lacked intimacy. There weren't fragile or tender or intense. They sounded like a guy banging on a piano. I'm not sure if that's a product of some questionable mixing or hasty song-writing. It really made an effect on me in the sense the quiet songs did not affect me.

The thing is, as an outsider, I didn't recognise the songs. Perhaps if I had a more informed impression going into the event my ears would have filled in the gaps left by the mixing (look, I know I'm ragging hard on the mixing here but I reckon half the issue was the room) and I would have been drawn further into their music and, hence, their performance as a whole. All in all, not a great live show. 6/10

PS. Their banter was pretty good.

Juju posted on October 10, 2013 at 3:39 PM

On Level Generation

There's been quite a bit of effort put into platformer level design in recent years. Hoffstein wrote that "platformer level design cannot duplicated by any method other than careful design, calibration and testing." However, Game Maker's very own Spelunky by Derek Yu and Cloudberry Kingdom by Pwnee Studios clearly challenge this notion. There are countless examples of games that utilise procedurally generated environments to enhance gameplay. I feel that Hoffstein has unwittingly fallen into the trap laid by Clarke's First Law: "When [a distinguished scientist] states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

Spelunky and Terraria avoid the limitations of their generation algorithms by having an entirely deformable environment. If there is a problem with the orientation of obstacles in the environment, the player has sufficient agency within the game world to simply circumvent that problem. Note that this does not preclude an enjoyable experience! Cloudberry Kingdom takes a more rigid approach, an approach that arguably leverages more artifical intelligence (though the question is open as to whether or not the design itself is better or more enjoyable). In a similar vein to Mario ROM hacks, especially the harder ones such as Kaizo Mario World, Cloudberry Kingdom creates levels that are a complex interaction between rotating hazards, bottom pits and moving platforms. This, clearly, is a sublime example of artifical design. There's a good video on their Kickstarter page that show how unbelievably hard, and detailed, the game's levels can be.

How does such a system work? Platformers boil down to two basic activities: running and jumping. So long as both running and jumping follow deterministic rules, you can successfully model a hypothetical series of actions that is guaranteed to get the player from the start to the finish. In a way, you are generating a series of key presses that solve a time-dependant puzzle. Even the more complex platform abilities: wall-jumping, spin-dashing, spin-jumping and butt-pounding can all be modelled. Cloudberry Kingdom's generator simulates action after action as a string of events that must be executed at the right point in time in order to proceed. In a manner of speaking, it's not dissimilar to Guitar Hero.

The levels created by Cloudberry Kingdom's algorithms warranted a 68% approval rating on MetaCritic (at the time of writing). As with many games on the fringes of the games industry, it appeals to a niche audience of enthusiasts. 68% is not an impressive score. Indeed, the semi-procedural Rogue Legacy by Cellar Door Games scored a 85% on MetaCritic. The Destructoid review does a good job of covering the main flaws: bad music, inconsistent graphics, unnecessary storyline and some uninteresting character abilities are all cited. However, none of these flaws are a direct product of the level generation algorithm.

The Edge Online review claims that the levels are "cold, sterile gauntlets, straight off the randomised production line." There are two issues here:

1) It is highly unlikely that two players will ever experience the same level or event. Rogue Legacy and, the structurally similar, The Binding of Isaac use pre-designed rooms and pre-designed bosses to create a sense of continuity and shared experience between players. These two games are eminately discussable: conversations that begin with questions such as "What's the best tactic for Khdir?" or a statement like "The Bible is so handy for spike rooms!" are indispensible tools for creating positive emotion around a game.

2) The game does not feel natural, human and organic. It would seem that there is necessarily only a single solution discourages players. The enduring popularity of Rogue-likes indicates that procedural generation is a viable option for games with limited environments. Cloudberry Kingdom, in its pursuit of precision platforming, loses a great deal of character without the multiple paths and dead-ends of a Rogue-like.

Both these issues are a shortfall of the game design rather than the actual technology. Whilst the design decisions made are consistent with the initial scope of the game (to create an "artifical intelligence capable of doing the impossible: designing insane Mario levels."), they are design decisions that inevitably limited the appeal and scope of the game. Furthermore, these are two problems that can be rectified in a relatively straight-forward manner. Firstly, to create recognisable design elements that are consistent between players; secondly, to create a game world that can structurally and thematically accomodate multiple paths and dead-ends to break up gameplay.

Hoffstein has not been disproved yet. I believe it is only a matter of time before games catch up to what humans can design

Juju posted on October 08, 2013 at 12:23 AM

Halloween Game

Here's a throw-poop-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks blog.

Halloween competition is in full swing. I work weekends so that reduces when I can work considerably. In honour of losing a bit of momentum, I spend today writing music instead of programming a procedural level generator or whatever nonsense I was meant to be doing today: A theme, perhaps? Some other music. I'll probably end up re-using this bit of tuneage as well, though at a slower tempo (was I on fucking coke? What a ridiculous speed).

This'll be my first proper attempt at platform combat mechanics. They Bleed Pixels seems to have a decent movement/combat system that vaguely echoes Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. I've always appreciated Ninja Gaiden's surprisingly engaging two-button system but not the more complex mechanics of games like Soul Caliber (that spelling is painful) or Mortal Kombat (also painful) or basically every other fighting game. If I can't be bothered to learn combos and I'm making the bloody thing then no one is going get it.

I've given up doing live music... for now. I'm too busy working. A venue have hired me as their dedicated technical director so I'm responsible for buying new gear, repairing old broken shit and generally making everything run smoothly sound-wise. Not a huge amount of money but, hell, it's good experience. Fun too - imagine what toys you could get for £1000.

Oh, this whole government shutdown thing is a bit silly isn't it? I wonder if that's gameifyable.