Games

“No Escape”: A Portal Movie

by Joey deVilla on August 23, 2011

No Escape is a short film set in the world of Portal, and it’s seven very well-done minutes.

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.

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Limbo

by Joey deVilla on July 27, 2010

I’ve been spending summer playing a couple of Xbox 360 games situated in dark nightmare worlds. One is Microsoft Studios’ and Remedy’s Alan Wake, which could be described as an homage to Stephen King (so much so that they name-drop him in the opening credits); the other is Limbo, an Xbox Live Arcade game: 

Calling Limbo a “2-D side-scroller game” does it as much injustice as referring to Red Dead Redemption as “a cowboy third-person shooter”. Limbo is the most gorgeous and haunting side-scroller I’ve ever played.

The world of Limbo is a monochromatic one, shrouded in gloom and fog and nothing but the game itself. The screenshot below shows what the game actually looks like while you’re playing:

Limbo screenshot: the boys runs towards some rolling flaming logs

No heads-up display, score or distractions of any kind: it’s just you and Limbo’s world. The controls are minimal – you just use the left thumbstick to move, the A button to jump and the B button to perform actions on things (typically push or pull objects). Where Limbo goes deep is gameplay – this game really sucks you in.

Limbo screenshot: the boy comes across a body hanging from a noose
You control your character, a young boy who wakes up in a dark forest, with no idea what’s going on. There’s no opening cinematic, no explanatory text, no little pop-up hints, but somehow the game manages to convey a sense of what to do next solely through the way the game reacts to your actions. The developers, Playdead – an indie game dev shop in Copenhagen – did an amazing job in programming Limbo to communicate just through gameplay.

Limbo screenshot: The body travels across a body of water in a boat

With its black-and-white graphics, smooth animation, minimal sound (you only hear things you need to hear) and the many, many ghoulish ways your character will die as you learn to navigate the game’s many deadly puzzles and traps, Limbo feels like the sort of ghastly-but-addictive game that Edward Gorey might have conjured up, had he decided to take up programming rather than becoming an illustrator.

Limbo screenshot: the boy encounters a pit filled with spikes and two children bearing spears

As of this writing, Limbo has a Metacritic score of 90, placing it just below Super Street Fighter IV and Red Dead Redemption, having earned heaps of praise from all sorts of reviewers, including this one.

Limbo may just be the best Xbox Live Arcade game ever released, and I suspect it’ll be in my “Top 5” for 2010. If you’re looking for a stand-out game for your Xbox 360, Limbo is well worth the 1200 Microsoft Points.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked

by Joey deVilla on June 28, 2010

Joey deVilla playing "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" on accordion at Loser Karaoke

One of the songs in my MP3 collection that’s on heavy rotation is Cage the Elephant’s Beck-ish, slide-guitar southern-rock-y ode to “doin’ what you gotta”, Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked. It practically begs for an accordion version, so I’m learning it in order to add it to my repertoire, which could stand a little refreshing.

Joey deVilla playing "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" on accordion at Loser Karaoke with Jason Rolland in the background

While I haven’t learned the song well enough to perform it unaccompanied, I’ve had just enough practice to do it as an accordion karaoke number, which I did at last week’s Loser Karaoke. Loser Karaoke is a regular Thursday night event at Tequila Sunrise where having a good time trumps singing ability. It helps that Jason Rolland is an entertaining karaoke host. As an added bonus, it’s where a lot of the people from Accordion City’s high-tech, startup, social media entrepreneur scene come to cut loose. For more on Loser Karaoke, check out their Facebook page.

I should feel ashamed to say this, but a decade’s worth of public accordion playing has attenuated my ability to feel shame: the reason I know about Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked isn’t because I’m dialed into the alt-rock music scene. Thanks to middle age, I used to be with it, but they’ve since changed what “it” was. I know about the song because of…well, a video game. Namely, Borderlands, which uses the song in its intro sequence:

For the curious (and the fans), here’s Cage the Elephant’s official video for Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked. Enjoy!

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Banner from the Hand Eye Society's blog: "The Hand Eye Society: Meshing Toronto's Videogame Communities"

The Hand Eye Society describes itself as a “not-for-profit coalition of people and projects in support of Toronto’s videogame communities”. Their goals are:

  1. To help people make games
  2. To connect game makers with each other and with an audience, offline
  3. To foster diversity in game creation and public perception of games

I shouldn’t be surprised that one of the people behind the Hand Eye Society is Jim Munroe. He’s a former Adbusters editor turned self-publishing author of a number of enjoyable science fiction books such Flyboy Action Hero Comes with Gasmask and Angry Young Spaceman, developer of indie games including the interactive fiction piece Punk Points (the online version requires Java), maker of movies and all-round Toronto DIY-espousing creative type.

Also connected with the Hand Eye Society are other indie videogame notables including:

Poster for Hand Eye Society's "social": "Free presentation and social event from the Hand Eye Society / May 27 2010 @ 19:30 EST / Unit Bar, 1198 Queen West / Featuring: Mr. Brandon Boyer, founder of Offworld, contributing editor of Boing Boing & IGF Chairman"

The Hand Eye Society is throwing a social this Thursday, May 27th in Toronto at Unit Bar (1198 Queen Street West, a shade east of Dufferin/Gladstone, halfway between the Drake and Gladstone hotels). The doors will open at 7:00 and there may be a set of curated videogames for you to check out.

At 8:00 p.m. special guest dignitary Brandon Boyer, Chairman of the Independent Games Festival and contributing editor for Boing Boing and Boing Boing’s games blog Offworld, will, as the Hand Eye Society’s blog puts it, “deliver some form of immensely significant communication to the assembled videogame creators, enthusiasts, organizers & slack-jawed onlookers.”

If I weren’t going to be in Montreal that evening for the Make Web Not War conference, I’d most certainly at this event (I’ll definitely catch the next social). If you’re in Toronto and love videogames (especially ones that break from the mainstream) and especially if you love making them, catch the Hand Eye Society’s social this Thursday!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Developer Junior: Creating Your Own Games with Kodu

by Joey deVilla on April 14, 2010

My tech show for kids, Developer Junior, premieres today on Butterscotch.com! In this episode, Junior (the puppet) and I (the human) take a look at the Kodu game builder system and go through a quick tutorial:

Developer Junior is a show on Butterscotch.com aimed at the younger set and is all about helping kids make the most out of the technology in their everyday lives. It’s about writing programs, creating media, playing games, and having fun with technology. (It’s also a dream come true for me – I always thought I’d be a great host for a kid’s show.)

There’s another episode coming up, in which Junior and I walk through the process of making a movie using Live Movie Maker. Watch for it!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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The Truth About Pac-Man

by Joey deVilla on October 19, 2009

pac-man

[Found via Certified Bullshit Technician.]

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.

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Mental Models, Mantras and My Mission

by Joey deVilla on May 25, 2009

This article also appears in Global Nerdy. Like the previous article, it’s about my role at Microsoft and doesn’t delve too deeply into technology, so I thought it was suitable for a more general audience and decided to republish it here. Enjoy!

Mental Models and Bill Buxton’s “Draw a Computer” Exercise

Bill Buxton

In the mid 1990s, well before he was Microsoft’s user interface guru, Bill Buxton often asked people to carry out a simple little exercise: draw a picture of a computer. Most, if not all, of the people he asked would draw something that fit the common mental model of the desktop computer of the era: cathode ray tube-type monitor, keyboard, mouse and that box housing the motherboard and drives that many people mistakenly refer to as “the CPU”.

If Buxton were to ask the question today, the drawings of computers might look like these:

Four computers from the 2000s - a laptop, a couple of all-in-one-desktops and a desktop with a "box" -- all with flat screens

If he asked the question in the mid-to-late 1980s, the drawings might’ve looked like these:

80s-era computers: Apple ][, Commodore 64, TRS-80 and IBM PC

And had he asked the question in the mid-60s, the drawings might’ve looked like this:

The classic fake "home computer as envisioned by RAND" photo

Buxton likes to point out that the changes in computers from the 60s onwards are largely in the implementation technology, processing power and outward appearance. When most people draw computers, he said, they’re merely drawing their mental model, which is based on the outer packaging.

However, if you use the mental model of a technologist, computers have been essentially the same instruction/ALU/storage/input-output boxes whether they’ve occupied whole rooms or fit in your pocket. They’ve been pretty much the same at their core, in the same way that fancy tech and hybrid engine aside, there really isn’t too much that separates a present-day Toyota Prius from a Model T Ford.

If Bill Buxton could approach Microsoft Corporation as a person — and hey, that’s the way the law treats corporations, so why not? – and asked him/her to draw a computer, I suspect that s/he would draw something based on mental model of a souped-up circa 2000 computer: a desktop computer with a nice flatscreen monitor, running Windows XP and having a somewhat limited connection to the ‘net.

I think that this is a problem. I also think that the source of this problem is Microsoft’s success.

Microsoft’s Company Mantras

“A PC on every desk and in every home” was Microsoft’s longest-lived slogan and the company mantra for the first 24 years of existence. Like the best slogans, it succinctly summarized the company’s goal. The problem is that the goal has pretty much been reached. In most parts of the first world, a good chunk of the second world and even a sizeable fraction of the third world, you can easily find a desktop computer, and it’s quite likely that it’s running some sort of Microsoft software.

Since 1999, the company mantra – I really hesitate the use the phrase “vision statement” — has been a little more vague. The company’s been thrashing between them a little more frequently, as you can see in this list of mantras taken from chapter 1 of How We Test Software at Microsoft:

  • 1975 – 1999: “A PC on every desk and in every home.”
  • 1999 – 2002: “Empowering people through great software – any time, any place and on any device.”
  • 2002 – 2008: “To enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential.”
  • 2008 – present: “Create experiences that combine the magic of software with the power of internet services across the world of devices.”

The post-1999 mantra all seem a little limp in comparison to the original. Reading them, I cannot help but think of a quote attributed to web design guru Jeffrey Zeldman:

"…provide value added solutions" is not a mission. "Destroy All Monsters." That is a fucking mission statement.

Because the old mantra lasted for so long and the new mantras just don’t have the same straightforwardness and gravitas (How We test Sofware at Microsoft quotes Ballmer as saying that we may never again have a clear statement like the original to guide the company), the original remains quite firmly etched in the company culture and mindset.

I think it’s holding us back.

The Desktop as the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg

Altair 8800 computer on display at Microsoft's Building 92 gallery

The original mantra doesn’t just focus on the desktop, it actually mentions it by name. In 1975, when computers were room-filling behemoths that you could access either via batch or time-share, the concept of a desktop computer was downright radical. If you think the iPhone is impressive (and yes, it is), imagine how mind-blowing the Altair 8800, the first commercially-available desktop computer, must have been to a geek back in the Bad Old Days. It was the platform on which Microsoft’s first product – a little programming language called Altair BASIC – was launched, and it was BASIC that in turn launched the company.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how the Altair 8800 was a golden opportunity for Bill Gates and his buddies at his fledgling company, then called “Micro-Soft”. Unlike a lot of other companies at the time, they took the desktop computer seriously. Even when IBM got into the desktop computer game in 1981, it was a product of their Entry-Level Systems division, a clear indication that they thought the PC was a machine you bought until you were ready to graduate to a real computer. I don’t think that this philosophy ended up serving them well.

An Applesoft BASIC cassette featuring a sticker that says "Copyright Microsoft, 1977"

Since the big boys were paying no mind to the desktop computer, upstarts like Microsoft had a big empty field in which to play, and they thrived. Crack open just about any late 70s/early 80s computer that had BASIC built in – even Apple machines — and you’ll see a row of ROM chips with a Microsoft copyright notice. It was Microsoft that swooped in with PC-DOS when a deal with Digital Research for a PC version of CP/M was slow in coming (and this is despite the fact that Gates recommended that IBM go to Digital for an OS). A lot of people’s experience with desktop computers (and Microsoft revenue) is defined by circa-1995 Microsoft thanks to Windows 95 and the results of Bill Gates’ memo titled The Internet Tidal Wave, both of whose influences are still felt to this day.

Once upon a time, it used to be unusual to walk into someone’s home or office and see a computer. These days, it’s unusual to walk into someone’s home or office and not see a computer, and Microsoft’s focus on the desktop had a lot to do with that.

The Desktop as Albatross

Albatross, shot with a sucker-dart arrow, falls on the head of a Disney-esque cartoon character

When electric motors first became available, engineers envisioned factories and eventually houses being equipped with a single electric motor. They imagined that the central motor would, through a series of gears and drive belts, be connected to whatever machines in the house or factory had to be driven by it. What happened in the end is that rather than relying on some central motor, electric motors “disappeared” into the devices that used them. Here’s an exercise to try: go and count the electric motors in your house or apartment right now. The number should be a couple dozen, and if you can’t find them, this article might help.

When big, room-filling computers first became available, engineers envisioned businesses being equipped with a single computer in a manner roughly analogous to the aforementioned big central motor. We know what happened in the end – while many businesses do make use of big datacenters, a lot of the computing power got spread out into desktop computers.

I have a theory that comes in two parts:

  1. Just as electrical motors disappeared into the devices that needed their work, and just as computing power got spread out from big mainframes into desktop machines, computing power is now both disappearing and spreading out into mobile devices and the web/cloud.
  2. Microsoft, with its desktop-centric approach, at least outwardly appears to be missing out on this migration of computing power.

Most of the company’s attention, at least to an outside observer, seems to be focused on Windows 7. Yes, chances are that with computer sales being what they are, Windows 7 will probably end up on more of laptops and netbooks than desktops, but I consider those devices to simply be the desktop computer in a more portable form. It worries me that there have been more concrete announcements about Windows 7 on netbooks than upcoming versions of Windows Mobile, despite the iPhone and BlackBerry-driven evidence that the real mobile action is in smartphones.

(Tomorrow, I’ll post an article in which I argue that netbooks are a dangerous red herring pulling away our attention from devices like smartphones.)

Microsoft ASP.NET

Even when the company reaches out beyond desktop development, there’s no escaping the desktop “gravity well”. Consider ASP.NET (that is, the “traditional” ASP.NET, not the recently-released ASP.NET MVC). To my mind, as well as the minds of a lot of other web developers, it’s a web framework that tries really hard to pretend that the web doesn’t exist. It makes use of a whole lot of tomfoolery like ViewState to create a veneer of desktop app-like statefulness over the inherently stateless nature of the web and a programming model that tries to mimic the way you’d write a desktop application. It’s almost as if it were designed with the mantra “the web is like the desktop, but lamer” instead of “the web is like the desktop, but everywhere”. Although the framework works just fine and there are a number of great sites and web apps built on it, I think a lot of developers sensed this design philosophy and went elsewhere for web development.

(An aside: My old boss at OpenCola in late 2001 told me that he’d been meeting with Microsoft people and suspected that Internet Explorer 6 would be the final version of their browser. The expectation that web pages and web applications would be replaced by Windows client applications pushed over the net, a prediction similar to one made by the Java folks a few years prior.)

Windows Mobile logo

The same situation exists with Windows Mobile’s current user interface, which is basically a subset of Windows’ standard UI controls for the desktop, scaled down to fit smaller screens, and with a stylus standing in for the mouse. It’s almost as if it were designed with the mantra “mobile computing is like desktop computing, but lamer” instead of “mobile computing is like a mobile phone plus PDA and an MP3 player, but cooler.” If the ASP.NET design mantra is a whisper, the Windows Mobile mantra is a scream.

I suspect that the reason the XBox 360 didn’t fall into a similar kind of trap — “set-top boxes are like desktop computers, but lamer and only for games” – is that the XBox team is situated off the Microsoft Campus and less susceptible to the desktop influence.

My Mission

Stick figure, chained to desk, breaking the chain

At my most recent one-on-one meeting with my manager John Oxley, we talked about a need for each member of our Evangelism team to define his or her area of focus. The Microsoft platform is a vast, nerdy expanse spanning the range from embedded computing all the way to Cray supercomputers; no single person can hope to cover it all.

He already had a good idea of what I wanted to focus on, and by now, I guess you do as well. I feel that just as computing expanded beyond the big computer rooms and onto our desktops, computing is expanding beyond our desktops into all sorts of different places:

  • Invisibly, into the web and cloud in the form of web applications and services
  • Visibly, into our pockets and living rooms, and embedded into all sorts of real-world things

While I believe that Windows 7 is a necessary part of the Microsoft platform, I’m not too worried about focusing on it – there are more than enough people at the company to promote and evangelize it. I want to focus on the platforms that I feel that Microsoft hasn’t given enough love and attention: the non-desktop platforms of the web, mobile and gaming, as well where they intersect.

It’s a big area to cover, but I think Microsoft needs to be active in this area if it wants to be true to its forward-looking roots. I even have a mantra for it: “To help web, mobile and game developers using Microsoft tools go from zero to awesome in 60 minutes.” I want to give developers both that rush when getting started with a new technology as well as the sustained passion to keep working with it, in the same way that Ruby on Rails and the iPhone got developers with an initial flash of excitement and turned it into long-term passion. It’s an ambitious, audacious mission, but no more so than the one coined by a bunch of scruffy nerds in New Mexico in the the 1970s: “A PC on every desk and in every home.”

Joey deVilla with cardboard cutouts of Microsoft's 1978 team

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