I Did Some Programming…

…for the first time in around nine months, and it felt pretty damned good, honestly. I’m not setting deadlines, I’m not pushing myself, I have no expectations other than making an interesting game. And slowly, but surely, a bit more of that has now taken place. I’ve probably done around twenty hours of coding in the last three weeks. A lot of that was figuring out what everything means and how everything pieces together, but I’ve done some work on the conversation system, and a bit of work fixing a bunch of bugs, too. Feels good. And more importantly, I’ve broken the mental barrier I had about “getting back” to programming after so long away, especially on such a big project, and especially when other stuff, i.e. academic work, now flows so smoothly and so easily out of my brain. But yeah: feels great to be “back”, albeit in a small, cautious way, and without any deadlines, or sense of pressure, or anything like that.

On an unrelated note, the new website is now almost finished, and I am ridiculously happy with how it looks. My designer has gone above and beyond what I expected or hoped for, and all being well, everything will be shifting over to there in the not-too-distant future. On the health front, things have improved markedly on both the physical and psychological levels (hence why I’ve been able to do a bit of coding), and I’m thinking through some serious life changes I think to overall be in a stronger place. Thanks, as ever, for sticking with me, everyone: it isn’t over just yet.

April 2018 Update

Hello everybody – my thanks, as ever, for being patient whilst this next update finds its way on to the internet. I’m sorry there was no February or March update; these turned into yet more hard months, mainly for health reasons, and finding the time and more importantly the mental space to sit down and type out a thousand words about this kind of stuff was surprisingly hard. However, as of now I have four main things to update you all on:

Health

So, my health has been less-than-great in the last few months since the previous update. On the plus side, the complication I discussed in previous posts seems to have faded away, and has just become something to keep an eye on. Naturally the complication has seriously boosted my several stress and misery levels, but right now it isn’t causing too many issues. Far more worrying is the fact that a month and a half ago, I got a symptom of the thing that almost killed me four years ago for the first time (this first sign being a particular kind of pain/discomfort). This, as I’m sure you can appreciate, is a strong emotional trigger for me, and I have not been in a good place these past few weeks. I now have to wait at least another month or two in order to see whether or not any more symptoms develop, or whether it was/is “just” a false alarm. That said, this new symptom itself has faded, which is either a good sign (it means nothing) or a bad sign (the first symptom also faded last time before the deadly symptoms kicked in), but the lack of being constantly reminded of it has meant I’ve been able to actually get stuff done. However, I want to add that I have deeply appreciated the support I’ve got here, on Twitter, and elsewhere, especially from others with serious or long-term medical issues. It really has meant a huge amount to me. So: hopefully this will the end of it, no more symptoms will appear, a month or two from now I can be confident the disease hasn’t returned, and can, again, start to properly get back on my feet. If not… then we’ll have to see.

Work

In times when I’ve been able to think straight, work has been going well. The University of Alberta has proven to be a really great working environment, both in terms of people and in terms of the practical, everyday structuring of work – which is to say, nobody minds if I work from home, or in a cafe, rather than from my office. I’m now a good 25% of the way through developing and writing my next book, and all that has just been sent off to the publisher we (my co-author and I) want to work with for the project. Once the contract is handled, I’ll be able to actually announce it a little more “formally” than I’ve been doing so far; it’s about streaming, and I can’t wait to show the outline to you all. I also have more several papers coming out soon, which will be posted here (and the new site) as and when: one about analysing crosswords and other paper puzzle games from the perspective of understanding them as pre-digital “casual games”; one about cheating in card games within casinos; one about depictions of “deep play” in cinema, so films like Battle Royale, The Hunger Games, Would You Rather, Saw, 13 Tzameti, etc; and at least two more on Twitch and live streaming (focused around disabilities and mental health, and emotional labour, respectively). More soon on this front…

Game Dev

In the last few weeks, for pretty much the first time since my health took such a serious downtown around August last year, I’ve actually opened up the URR file, taken a look around, familiarised myself with it a little bit, and started to figure out what precisely needs doing to get the 0.8 release out. As ever, it remains achingly close to completion; I need some more time on the conversation system, then some bug-fixing, and then we’re done. I still hope for a return in April, assuming my health does not take a turn for the, er, even worse. However, as I’ve said before, it just can’t be a priority for me at the moment, as much as I wish it could, but hopefully, finally, things might change soon. I hate how much this is dragging on, and I hate how much the project has floundered; but life is very tough at the moment.

New Website

I’ve started the development work on a new website (one does, after all, have to proceed on the assumption that one will live to a normal age, right?) and I’m pleased with some ideas that have been coming together. As before, the plan is still to create a new website to combine my academic and game dev stuff, and also to deal with some of the issues on this site. When I set up this website I didn’t really know what I was doing, and now the site is really beginning to buckle under its own weight. Frankly, I lack both the technical ability and the spare mental space to fix it, despite the very patient replies from my hosting company’s customer support. For that reason as well, it’s time to move to a new site. On this note: if anyone reading this knows of an experienced website designer with a good body of work I can look at (even better if they make games-related websites), so let me know. The new website is probably going to be WordPress again, but I’m looking to pay for a totally custom layout. If you know anyone who might be interested in this work – and also design work on two other websites for work projects – do let me know. All will obviously be paid!

Next

In the next couple of months I have quite a few engagements coming up; after two-thirds of a year of illness and not really having the strength to travel (although moving country obviously didn’t help), it’s good to be getting out there again. I’m off to a conference in Canada in mid-April to talk about disclosure statements in video game reviews, then I’m Skyping into a UK conference to talk about Twitch streamers and moderators, after which in late April I’ve been invited to speak at the Rio Esports Forum on the labour of the Esports career, then a talk here in Edmonton in early-May on videogames-and-gambling, and finally a Skype into Prague to talk about Esports cheating and game integrity. My health issues have really meant I just haven’t had the time nor the strength to do any of these things, but with the potential improvements above, I’m in a slightly better place now and strong enough to resume some wider dissemination and engagement. But still – the last eight months have been rough, and in many ways have pushed me back to a place I thought and hoped I’d left behind years ago. As ever, my profound appreciation goes out to all those who read this blog – hopefully the rest of 2018 will continue to pick up. I do hope you are all well, and I’ll update you all again soon, hopefully in the much nearer future than this time…

Interlude II: The Interluding

Hello everyone! It has been a little while since the first Interlude, so I thought it would be appropriate to post a sequel.

Firstly, thank you all so much for the amazingly kind words on the other entry (and which I’ve had through email, Facebook, etc) – they really mean so much to me, and they are deeply deeply appreciated.

Secondly, I’ve now successfully moved to Canada, found a flat (or rather, an apartment), signed the contract, and done the majority of all the admin and bureaucracy stuff that comes from moving to an entirely different country; I still need to get a mobile phone that functions in this country, and there’s one or two University-admin things I need to complete, but otherwise I’m settled, moved, I’m “in the system” in the Canadian bureaucracy, and I’m getting ready to officially begin this job just a couple of days from now. This has been a pretty huge task in the last fortnight, but it’s now coming to an end.

Thirdly, on the health front, the physical symptoms are improving, and the psychological symptoms are (more slowly) also improving. Things are still tough, but I’m making some good choices to improve the newfound psychological difficulties this complication from my older illness has dumped on me. In the short-to-mid term, I think things might be on the up (slowly), but it’s always so hard to know.

Fourthly, here’s the cover for my upcoming book with Bloomsbury. I’m so happy with the design! I should have more information soon about an exact publication date, but there’s lots of roguelike-y goodness in there to be had.

Fifthly, any of you folks who are interested in Twitch and live streaming might want to read this paper I recently published about it – you can find a paywall-free version here. In it we explore the backgrounds of live streamers, the everyday work and labour of being a professional live streamer, and their hopes and fears about the future of their practice. This is part of a larger project on Twitch I’ve been developing alongside my colleague Jamie Woodcock in the last year, and we should have some more exciting stuff on this front to announce soon. Stay tuned.

So yes, that’s everything for now. I’ll hopefully be able to post more again once I have some kind of stability. I’ve also been thinking over some pretty fundamental questions about the website, how I blog, how often I blog, my general online visibility, these sorts of things, so there might be some big changes coming in the future (once I feel a little stronger). In the mean time, take care, everyone.

Interlude

Just a short one this week, to say: my apologies for the silence over the last month. A combination of an unexpectedly high workload (five different paper revisions to complete in a short time-span), along with caring for an extremely ill relative, and preparing to move 4200 miles across the globe in around three weeks, has been quite challenging. I also managed to send myself on a trip to the Accident and Emergency part of my local hospital, which was all totally excellent, but has put me in bed recovering for quite a few days. And, to top it all off, a side-effect of the far more serious illness I got several years ago has just manifested; it’s not life-threatening, but it’s intensely dispiriting and depressing. I’m still alive (barely) but just absolutely swamped under everything right now; the injury and the new medical issue are both just extra things I could really, really, do without. I thought the past couple of months would be the proper restart on URR’s development, but apparently that isn’t going to happen just yet.

Nevertheless, I’ll be back to 0.8 as soon as possible. Things have to stabilise sooner or later… right?

Finishing 0.8 Part VII

This week has been a week of consolidating everything that was in place so far, continuing to test and refine and test and refine over and over the speech generation and the flow of sentences, moving around some of the code so that it can be handled more efficiently, and thinking about handling sentence variables in the future, which is to say, the parts of sentences which are things like “[god]” or “[nation]”, and therefore have to vary every time the same sentence is uttered. As such, here’s this week’s fairly substantial update:

  • Thanks to some great suggestions left in the comments list in the blog post from two weeks ado, I’ve added in a number of new responses. If you’re asking someone about a potentially suspicious topic, and you’re in a region with guards, they might (if they really like you) say something like “You shouldn’t ask such things, the guards will think you’re a spy!” or something of that sort.
  • Equally, if you’re asking a particularly “academic” rather than “practical” topic – the difference between “what is the nearest mountain range?” and “what is your religion?” – they will sometimes, very rarely, say “I don’t know, but you should go and ask [expert]”. I think these are both great changes, and again, add even more speech detail to the potential library of sentences the player will actually encounter. However, again, to prevent farming, there’s now basically a hidden counter, which varies significantly from iteration to iteration, and affects how often people will recommend that you go and talk to somebody else about the topic in question; equally, you need to be talking to people who both a) have the knowledge and b) have the inclination to recommend an expert, which will be a fairly small number of NPCs.
  • I then spent quite a bit more time developing the above in order to maximise the detail that people can offer the player, the variation in the sentences the player will read, and integrating all of this will knowledge and mood modifiers. So, now, if you hang around in a shop, and then a random person comes in, and you ask that person about the currency of their nation, for example, if they don’t want to respond they will point you towards the merchant in that shop, knowing that a) they and you are in a shop and b) you are asking a question that it would be relevant to talk to a merchant about and c) there is also a merchant in this shop.
  • These responses also vary depending on whether you’re in the nation or church relevant to the person you’re speaking to. So let’s say you ask someone something, and the relevant answer would be “You should ask a noble”. If you’re in the mansion of a noble from their civilization, they’ll say “You should ask a noble, such as the one in this mansion” or whatever; but if you’re elsewhere, they’ll say “You should ask one of our nobles, who dwell in accommodations like these”; if you’re right nation but outside and in the right district, they’ll say “You should ask a noble; several have their mansions here”, or in wrong distract, they’ll say “You should ask a noble; many dwell in our richest district”. Equivalents in a foreign nation would be “You should ask one of our nobles, who dwell in a district much like this”, or “You should ask one of our nobles, who inhabit the richest part of my home city”. The game can therefore now generate appropriate sentences both based on the player’s location – right building, right district, or just overall right region, or overall incorrect region – and the relationship between the person you’re talking to and the area you’re talking to them in (especially relevant when you run into people who aren’t native to the state they live in, for example).
  • I have to be honest and say that I’m extremely happy with how this context-specific recommendation system has developed; I’m really hoping this will produce some strikingly specific procedurally-generated sentences for the player to encounter in appropriate situations, and as ever, just generally provide greater variety in the conversation system. There are also a bunch of sentence possibilities which might be generated that I know are currently impossible, but might become possible later once the potential actions and schedules of NPCs expands further.
  • Going back to repeating questions, if you ask X, and then you ask X again, sometimes on the first repetition people will now be confused rather than annoyed or bothered; they’ll say “Didn’t we just discuss this?”, or “That’s strange, didn’t I just answer that?” or something like that; the potential mood drop will be the same, I think, but it’s just another little bit of detail for some NPCs.
  • Thanks to an outstanding suggestions left on the Bay12 forums, there is now a little bit of extra conversation detail in there which I hadn’t thought of. If you ask something, and get a positive response (they answer your question), when you say the next thing you say, it’ll normally start your next question with “Thanks” or “Understood” or “I appreciate you letting me know” or things of that sort; equally, if they didn’t reply, your next thing will often start with “Apologies” or “Ah, okay” or things of that sort. This adds a nice little bit of extra flow to the conversations; naturally even more flow will be added once they can ask you questions back, but for the time being, putting these in 50% of responses definitely makes everything look a little more human once more.

Next week’s blog entry will be a little different: I’m in the final fortnight of the extension period on my first book, and this week’s absolute priority is finishing that off. Next week I’m going to have the first non-URR entry since development restarted and write up some reflections on writing such a long piece of work about games, what I’ve learned from it, my future writing plans, and so forth; there’s just no way I’ll have more than a little time in the coming week for programming, and I’d rather return with a blast the week after. See you all next week!