Tag Archives: greymatter

Downs and Ups

I looked at the website today as Randi and I were searching for the renewal email, and it occurred to me that I haven’t posted an update in over a month. In fact, it has been closer to two months since I posted anything, and as of my last writing, I was still hard at work on boxing. I think the biggest reason for my absence has been that while a lot has happened, not much has been accomplished. Let me try to explain.

My last post was full of optimism about the coming break and the progress I would make on the boxing game. As soon as school finished for the year, however, I managed to contract a really nasty piece of malware, and I found myself having to reformat my computer. As I was upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7, however, I neglected the fact that the new install didn’t wipe out the old one, but rather installed alongside and throughout it. Thus, I wound up with a tangled amalgamation of two operating systems with a virus lying dormant somewhere in the ruins of the Windows XP side.

No problem, I thought. I’ll just reformat again.

This time, the reformat and reinstall went off without a hitch, and I figured I was Scott free. Side note: I bet there is totally some dude out there named Scott Freeh, and he probably gets a lot of grief from people. Poor guy. Anyhow, I set up Carbonite to start restoring my files, but a mislabeled checkbox caused the program to start dumping the entire backed-up contents of my old format into my pristine new one. This meant that I had directories for Windows 7 that were bare and desolate, and I had jam-packed directories that followed the Windows XP folder structure, all of which were hopelessly entangled once again. Because several gigs had been dumped into my pristine format before I realized the error—that’s what I get for restoring overnight—there was no way to quickly fix the problem.

You can probably guess what I ended up having to do yet again.

Amongst my 3 reformats were all the things that ordinarily occur throughout the holiday season: traveling, dinners, spending time with family, etc. As a result, New Year’s came and went, and I hadn’t written a single line of code. I ended up going back to work on January 2 having accomplished absolutely nothing during the Christmas break.

And then came the coding craziness. I finally realized, after banging my head against the problem for some time, that there was no immediately plausible way to carry out key commands that utilized multiple key presses. For example, holding up arrow and pressing a could not throw a left hook to the head using my current library. So I needed to find a new library—one that would allow me to press multiple keys simultaneously.

First, I tried looking for python-based solutions to the problem. The only solution I could find, however, was the Pygame library. In talking to other audio game developers, I found very little support for Pygame, with criticisms ranging from speed of execution to a lackluster sound library. When I brought up Sound RTS as an example of a great game that just happened to be written in Pygame, it was pointed out to me—accurately, I might add—that even it suffers from very slight execution lag on things like key presses.

So, scared off by the boogie monster of latency, I started looking at BGT, the audio game development toolkit written by Philip Bennefall of Blastbay Studios. Because the core components of BGT are written in C++, execution of almost anything is incredibly speedy. Another feather in its cap is the fact that Philip is an INCREDIBLY NICE GUY! I cannot stress that last point enough.

However, I soon discovered two problems with using BGT, neither of which had anything to do with the language itself. The first of these was the fact that I had already spent a year learning to program in Python, and I was loathe to throw away all of that practice and knowledge in favor of a different language. The second was that I had incredible difficulty switching from a Python mindset to a BGT one, and as almost everyone who has ever rerolled their character and become a newbie again will tell you, starting over sucks.

In order to reconcile the conflict in my head—Python versus anything else, speed of execution versus speed of development—I did what I should have done a long time ago. I signed up for the Pygame mailing list and started asking questions. I received a number of intriguing answers, but probably the best of them went something like this:

You’re so busy spending all of this time worrying about speed and lag and all of these other things that haven’t come up yet that you haven’t even written a single line of code. Many, many people have written great games in Pygame, and they haven’t run up against a speed barrier. So program something—anything—and if you start having problems with speed, there are work-arounds for that.

When I decided to adopt this mindset, it opened up a whole new world of possibility to me. Instead of seeing potential difficulties as obstacles, I started seeing them as barriers to be broken down. Instead of looking at things through a lens of negativity, I started finding more positives. So what if Sound RTS has a tenth-of-a-second lag on key presses. It’s not like that style of game requires lightning reflexes anyhow. And I didn’t even notice the lag until someone pointed out to me, so what did I care? It’s still a great game.

But I didn’t want that lag, because the kind of games I’d like to develop will require lightning reflexes. So I started looking into why it existed in the first place, and almost immediately, I found the answer. It turns out the chief Python critic on the Audyssey list was right, though it chaps my hide to admit it. The sound support for Pygame isn’t the greatest, and when used in a certain way, it can create all sorts of slowdown in programs to the point that, if you make the sound buffer size too large, it can take over a second to modify any currently playing sounds. Huge problem, right?

Well no. If the Pygame sound module slows things down too much, don’t use it. Problem solved! Seriously, it’s that simple!

And just like that, I’m back in business. I’m using the Pygame keyboard module to handle all of my key presses, and I’m stoked about the things it can do:

  • It keeps track of each key press that the user generates, and it gives the program the opportunity to act on these. If, when looking through the key presses, the program finds an “up” in the list, it can run through its analyses and decide to make the player jump.
  • It has a key_pressed function which allows the program to check what keys are held down. If, while walking across a level, the player holds down the control key, the get_pressed function will see this and make the player run.
  • It tracks when players release keys, and it can use this information to call additional events. If, for example, I wanted to program a laser gun that charged itself up as long as the player held down the control key, then fired when the control key was released, I could do that!

As for the sound library, I just switched back to using sound_lib, the library that’s served me well through both Block Party and boxing. It has all of the functionality I need to program with none of the lag, and if I need it to do more, I can tweak the programming myself.

With all of this in place, I have one last hurdle to overcome, and that’s learning to write comfortably in Pygame. I’ve made a car engine that revs up and fades as you press the up and down arrow keys and steers from side to side as you press left and right. I’m in the process of making a character that walks from left to right and back when you press the left and right arrows. These things still don’t feel fluid to me, though, and only time and experience will change that.

What does this mean in terms of game development? Sadly, it means it’s going to take a little while to get things back off the ground and headed in the right direction. More importantly, however, it means that game development is still progressing. Those of you following the twitter feed will note that activity has started to pick back up as I run Pygame through its paces. Things will get moving again, but they may take a bit longer than any of us would like. I’m not out of the race, though. I can promise you that.

Why blog? Why now?

I have been programming my boxing game for just four months, a figure which is significant because I have only been programming for four months. With all the learning, designing, actual coding, refactoring, and testing I’ve been doing, I’ve had my hands quite full. Upon reflection, though, I haven’t had my hands quite as full as they could have been …

When I’m not coding—a condition which is quite common—I work full-time at BLIND Inc., a non-profit, National Federation of the Blind training center located in Minneapolis, MN. After a full day of teaching, I have the privilege and pleasure of coming home to my wife, my cat, and an extremely comfortable couch. At such times it is easy to slip into a cozy lethargy of non-productive bliss—doubly so if I spend an hour or so exercising. As a result, I have spent many evenings whiling away my hours playing “Ouch! Ouch! Please stop biting my arm! Ow!” with my cat, reading a good book, catching up with people on messengers, screwing around on Facebook and Twitter, reading articles on Cracked and The Onion, playing my guitar, and, of course, spending time with my wife. While all of these activities are important for my mental stability, and the last, of course, is critical to my marital stability, I find myself all-too-often wasting more time on the first several activities than I spend on getting actual work done. Does this mean the game could have been done by now? I doubt it. It certainly could have been much further along, however.

                Part of the reason I haven’t said much—okay anything—about the project I’ve been working on is because I want to avoid the inevitable pressure that far too many accessible game developers have lamented—the type of pressure like “When are you going to release the game? When? When? When? Can I have a free copy? I want to beta test! Release the game! You’re lazy! I hate you but want you to release your product!” In worrying about this, though, I’ve realized three things.

First, the screamers are few and far between, and the nastiest of them can easily be taken care of by a smart tap of the delete key. Second, and far more important, I’ve left the community out of the development process—those of you with a real passion and love for the art form that is gaming. In worrying about a small handful of individuals, I have completely ignored the 99.9% of decent, fun-loving people out there whom I have spent the past eleven years forging relationships with. Finally, I have allowed my secrecy to act as a crutch on those days when I was just too lazy to develop. It is way too easy to tell myself that since nobody is aware of my project, nobody will mind if I take off tonight.

We need a change.

Starting today, I am pulling back the veil of secrecy to reveal the fledgling, often moody, Strunkenstein project that is my boxing game. I’m creating a development blog to keep everyone abreast of just what I’m up to, how the game is progressing, and any random thoughts which rise through the grey matter as I continue this journey. This means that you, the members of the blind gaming community, will get a first-hand look at what’s happening as it happens.

Are you ready? I am.

Let’s do this!