September 15, 2020

Fallas

Tags: Travel, Spain

While I was staying in Valencia the city held its big annual festival, Las Fallas (or Las Falles in Valencian). Valencia was realtively quiet over winter, but as the weather warmed the city became increasingly noisy and busy as the locals prepared for Las Fallas. The festival takes place over a week long public holiday in mid-March, but offical events start from March 1st.

Unoffically, the city began to prepare in mid February. Street stalls started appearing, selling churros and pumpkin buñuelos or alcohol. Fireworks became increasingly popular anytime and anywhere in the high density city. One probably ignited the recycling bin outside my apartment. It was as if the whole city was waking up from a winter slumber and then staying up late. Increasing numbers of people in the gym looked tired with dark patches under their eyes.

After the stalls came the Fallas. Large scupltures made from wood and fireworks (a bit of foreshadowing there). Each barrio built one of these and there was a competition to see whose was best. Near the centre of town, there was a Falla every few hundred meteres. Most were very well made, although in a common style. Some made overtly political points. All were supposed to have some meaning, which I mostly didn’t understand. Walking around town looking at the Fallas was clearly a major local activity, and something I did for a few weekends (while munching churros).

For the last fortnight there were daily Mascletàs in the town square. This is like a fireworks display, but done during the day for the sonic effects rather than the visual. It looked like a load of firecrackers and smoke, but was extremely loud. The closest I could get to one was about 500 meters away, but I could hear them clearly at my apartment at a distance of 5 kilometers. There were also regular bands walking around town starting near daybreak, and kids setting of little firecrackers constantly. An incredible amount of constant noise.

During the festival proper, regular marches in traditional costume occurred shutting down all the major streets in town. Many of those, including the 6 lane road outside the main train station, were turned into multi-day street parties. A pyramid structure built from flowers was constructed near the central cathedral. There were nightly largescale firework shows. Then came the crescendo, known as La Crema. On the final night, all the Fallas and the flower pyramid are burnt in turn throughout the city. It is quite an impressive sight to see these highly flammable structures burn. However, the fire department must have been very busy. At the Falla nearest to me we had a firetruck constantly hosing down nearby buildings.

Some photos from the festival are in a short slideshow available here.


August 17, 2020

Cuenca

Tags: Travel, Restaurants, Spain

In May 2019 I spent a week in Cuenca just before it was time for me to leave Spain. This small city about half way between Madrid and Valencia, is only a hour from either of those cities on the comfortable high speed train. Despite the place crawling with Valenciano and Madrileno tourists over the weekend, it felt like a secret place. Perhaps because the whole place just seems to shutdown and is super quiet on Monday and to a lesser extent Sunday and Tuesday when the weekend tourists leave. Or maybe because it was the first place in Spain I visited where everyone else’s English was not better than my poor Spanish (although most people were at least as good).

Cuenca is a great place to spend a few days if you like living at a slower pace. The old city is pretty and there is plenty to look at with a few museums. The highlight for me was three walks that start in the old town and take you out into the surrounding countryside over the course of 5-10kms. It was pleasantly warm in May, although be prepared to walk up and downhill as there are a few steep hills (with the town itself built on the side of one of them).

Food in the town is at the extremes: many of the restaurants were uninspired tourist fare, but other were incredibly good. All were surprisingly cheap. The cuisine tends towards meat, don’t assume a dish has any vegetables except potato unless specifically mentioned. Two restaurants particularly impressed me, both with Michelin stars. Raff serves hardy fare with lots of game. Simple food, very well cooked, in large portions, with good service. It was hard to chose from short menu, it all looked good. Trivio served fancier food. It has no menu in normal sense, patrons just choose to have a 6, 9, or 15 course tasting menu, supposedly changed every day depending on what is good in the local markets. I had 9 courses and all were excellent and different (I especially enjoyed the red mullet with mushroom). There was a good amount of food and it was still cheaper than most other Michelin starred restaurants in Europe (only Raff & The Sportsman have been cheaper places I’ve visited).

My best photos from the trip are in a short slideshow available here.


June 8, 2020

A Year of Games

Tags: Games, Video Games

I have managed to find the time to play a few games over the last 12 month. Here are some capsule reviews of those I remember…

Fort Sumter: A computer card game about the start of the American Civil War that feels like a simplified version of Twilight Struggle. I like the mechanic that cards can be used multiple ways, but the most powerful ways will also help your opponent. A clever little game that does not require extensive study to be competitive (unlike Twilight Struggle). Although, I have not felt the need to return to it since the first hour playing even though it has been on my desktop for months.

Redshirts: Competitive social media game set among the lower deck (expendable) workers of a Star Trek like universe. Despite the rough production values, it is a nice idea told with a tongue-in-cheek comedic style. However, I don’t like social media in real life, so this was not enough to engage my interest beyond an hour.

Guards: This game works better than expected. It is a series of turn-based tactical battles on a grid as the player builds a band of warriors to take on various monster enemies. It feels to me like a PC port of a F2P mobile game (but with no extra money required, everything is available from just playing).The production values are definitely well into the cheap indie zone and the gameplay is not special in any way, but the game is inexpensive and fun for a couple of hours. Perhaps because it makes extensive use of progression mechanics and powers.

Bad North: I wish I had made this game, but then I wouldn’t have the fun of properly playing it. You play as a small force of soldiers defending equally small islands from Viking pillagers in a realtime with slowdown game that plays like a series of micro total war battles. Each battle takes only a few minutes, with a long line of (interesting) randomly generated islands promising increasingly powerful enemies, and power-ups to help meet the challenge. Some thought (and luck) is required to win each battle and then still have enough resources to win the next - giving the game a rogue-lite feel similar to FTL. It also has an interesting and distinct art style. Well made and addictive.

Dark Future: When I was young I loved the idea of the Mad Max style boardgame of vehicular battle, Dark Future, but never had the money to buy it. So now that Games Workshop is turning everything from their back catalogue into at least one computer game (or often way more than one) I was keen to play the PC version. While the board game is turn-based, this is a realtime but with the ability to slowdown or pause. I enjoyed this game for the 9 hours or so I played, although tactically it became a little repetitive.

GTA5: One of the best-selling games ever, and obviously contains a staggering amount of detail. For me it seems too packed full of different mechanics - it felt too thin. Also, I’m also not a big fan of driving (in reality or games) and there is a large amount of driving for the story missions. On the plus side: the radio is awesome; and just looking around the incredibly detailed map is a great way to waste time. In the end the story and gameplay just didn’t grab me - there was no improvement over GTA4 in those respects. So I stopped after running into some clumsy controls causing me to restart a mission so many times I rage-quit. Impressive game, but too big and not focussed enough for me.

Nuclear Throne: I am not coordinated enough or fast enough to play twin-stick shooters successfully, which is a shame for this game, because it seemed well designed apart from that premise. It uses randomised maps and some other rogue-lite progression features with 8-bit style graphics. Nice, but not my thing.

Surviving Mars: It is a rare citybuilder that breaks me out from a standard pattern of play. This game while very well executed, does not manage it. It feels like a very standard example of its genre, with the hook being that the city you are building is an early colony on Mars. At first it is fun trying to create both a pretty and functional city (and I always make a mess of it at first). However, eventually the fine placement of powerlines in positions that will not block later expansion, just becomes busywork. It is feels like the only goal is just to make a bigger city. Eventually (after a good 10 hours or so) it becomes clear how the system works and I want to start over, but I can’t bring myself to go through the early stages again - it just doesn’t seem like a good use of my time. So with nothing pushing me forward, I just stop. Perhaps my levels of OCD is just enough to start and enjoy these games, but not enough to continue. I think I need a citybuilder where the level of gameplay or simulation detail changes with the size/complexity of the city. Then again I sometimes find myself considering downloading the game again so I can just play one more game, but I haven’t yet.

Banished: another citybuilder, but more in a medieval survival style. Fun at first, but the trajectory was exactly the same as Surviving Mars (above) and I stopped around the 10 hour mark.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown: from 2012 sat atop my list of shame. It is a game that seems designed for me: a turn-based tactical team shooter (like Frozen Synapse) with a strategic layer on top and a story about defeating an alien invasion in the modern world. For the first few hours I loved this game, the turn-based part is just the sort of thing I enjoy and here it is done very well (just a few small camera annoyances) it also seemed to lean towards my standard way of playing these games, slow and steady. However, after about 20 hours I started becoming disillusioned with the game, and stoppped playing after 30 (with just the last mission to complete before finishing). The missions become repetive and the game outstays its welcome. Also there are a couple of game design issues that make the experience less enjoyable. Firstly, there is just enough randomness in this game that a run of bad luck will wreck your game and you might as well restart - a huge problem if the player is 20 hours in (I wrote more about my thought on this in my Tharsis review). Secondly, it is possible to make a bad decision in the strategic layer that will completely screw the player’s chances of finishing, but this will not be evident until many hours of gameplay later. You just need to know the “right” way to play in advance. Incredibly annoying and not a good use of my time. Despite this I would still give a warm recommendation for the game, just read some strategy guides before starting.

The Outer Worlds: A sci-fi RPG set on colony worlds in various stages of collapse around a distant star. Works mainly as a shooter with a nice tactical slowdown mechanic, but also some stealth and limited story choices. Decent writing, very pretty and smooth, but started becoming repetitive a bit over halfway through. Interesting, but just too long and I didn’t finish it.

A Short Hike: A gentle exploration adventure game. Took me about 2 hours to finish (with some backtracking). Surprisingly charming and pretty with a decent story about taking time along the journey to enjoy life. Not normally the sort of game I enjoy, but playing this was a pleasure - flying around was particularly cool.


April 28, 2020

New Goals

Tags: Goals

Right now I am quite happy I did not write the standard January blog post about my goals for the year. It would have been quickly completely out of date. I can not claim any foresight - the delay is because I was waiting for the last vestiges of my old life to end at the start of April (when I left Substantive Research). I have spent some time over the last few weeks thinking about what I want to do next, and so now is the time to set some goals for the last 8 months of the year.

  • Get my strength back the start-of-year peak before the end of the year This one is largely dependent on being able to get back to the gym, something that will hopefully be possible here in Australia in a month or so. At the start of the year, I set a bunch of personal bests at the gym, at the end of a 5 month plan. Since then I have gone backwards. It would be great if I can just get back to that level by the end of the year. I plan to write more about this in a separate blog post.
  • Be able to run 5km in 20min Since all the gyms shut 5 weeks ago I have taken up running again. At the moment I can do 5km in 25min, which is a good start for me. I think it is possible, but definitely a challenge, to drop 5 minutes. Historically, staying uninjured will be the hardest part of this goal.
  • Complete 3 game prototypes and maybe a full project Now that I am unemployed, I have rebranded myself as self-employed. Once again unto the indie gamedev breach. A “how is this done again?” prototype is in progress. The plan is to finish it within weeks, although I am starting slow. After that I will continue with more prototypes taking only a month or two or work each until I settle on a what seems to be a worthwhile larger project (taking 6 months to a year). There will be more said about this in the near future.
  • 12 blog articles and regular social media posts While working for SR in London and during the just finished transitional phase, this blog and other social media was largely ignored. I aim to slowly reverse that, with the unambitious goal of 12 more posts here before the end of the year. I will also look to reactivate various other social media accounts, although mainly towards the purposes of promoting my gamedev work.
  • Maintain other activities A lesson learnt from the last time I was working on my own projects is not to become overly focused on one project. So this goal is just to remind me to do other things. Go out occasionally, read books, play games, whatever. Learning Spanish would fit in here too, although I’m not sure if I will start again, it would be nice, but I’m not sure it would be worth the time.

April 7, 2020

All Change

Tags: General, Meta, A Gamedev Plays, Concealed Intent

The world is in a state of flux, and so is my life. As of last week, I am no longer employed at Substantive Research. Also 6 months ago I moved back in my hometown: Perth, Australia. The plan is to take the opportunity to try creating games again. I started prototyping ideas Monday. These new games will be smaller than Concealed Intent, but still in the strategy/tactics genre, as that is what I enjoy. I do not plan on any significant work on Concealed Intent. If there is a bug I will fix it, but otherwise that game is done.

I have decided to completely shelve the “A GameDev Plays…” project. The YouTube channel will continue to exist, but there are no plans to add new videos (not to say I won’t add one later if I get the motivation). The website is shutdown, and all the old content moved to this blog under the A Gamedev Plays tag.

In the next month or so, I plan to reactivate my communication channels (including this blog) and let people know what is happening properly.