All posts by Richard Levine

Richard S. Levine has been a math teacher, a software engineer, and a video games designer. Now he’s busy writing speculative fiction.He has had stories published in Emerald Tales, OG’s Speculative Fiction, Raygun Revival, The Fifth Di, The Lorelei Signal, and other online and print magazines. “A Comic on Phobos” received a nomination for Samsdotpublishing’s James award. To learn more about Mr. Levine’s writings and his award winning classic video game, “Microsurgeon”, please visit rickslevine.com.

“Captain Z-Ro”

You might be wondering what “Captain Z-Ro” is, so I’ll get that out of the way right now.  It’s probably the first time travel television series.  Yes, even before Mr. Peabody and Sherman traveled in their way-back machine to interact with history on the Bullwinkle animated show.

Time travel is my favorite genre for both readings and writing (see my time travel e-books) and I’ve also enjoyed many time travel television shows — from the early days of “Time Tunnel” and “Quantum Leap”, to several episodes of various “Star Trek” series and “Seven Days”, to more recent shows like “Fringe”, “Continuum”, “12 Monkeys”, and “Timeless”.  That’s not meant to be comprehensive, these are just a few I can think of right now.

I think what appeals to me is the variety of time travel mechanisms, and the way characters handle the paradoxes and situations that develop.

I have often written about classic gaming in my blog, so it was time to talk a little about classic time travel.  “The Time Machine” is about as classic as it gets, but for television let’s hear it for “Captain Z-Ro”.  It’s a bit predictable, and definitely corny compared to today’s sci-fi time travel efforts, but it led the way.

Robot reflections

Will robots learn to be compassionate and creative, or will they learn to kill?  Perhaps both, but I greatly prefer to be chased by an empathic robot.

Elon Musk — CEO of SpaceX and Tesla — has called for a ban on use of killer robots.  More specifically, autonomous robots that can kill without a human in the decision-making process.  But what happens if some countries decide to develop autonomous killer robots, while other countries decide not to?  Negotiating a ban on killer robots worldwide sounds like a good idea, but killer drones can probably be made fairly small.  How does the United Nations or other enforcing group insure that nobody is actually making such machines undercover?  If a nanobot were to be weaponized, it could be almost undetectable!

As a video games designer, I would vastly prefer that robots were used to bring joy into people’s lives.  Some robots are currently learning to play and become experts at several board, card, and video games.  Other robots can play a bit of table tennis, soccer, and other sports.  Let’s have a worldwide robot Olympics where robot teams compete in video games, baseball, tennis, and other sports.  Maybe even against humans.  A much nicer way to decide which country has the better programmers and robot scientists and algorithms.

And why can’t robots be compassionate too?  Okay, that’s a difficult thing to put into AI right now.  But it seems like a good goal.  The robots below probably don’t have any empathy yet, but they sure know how to make me smile.  If you enjoy robot stories, you may be interested in my e-book anthologies “Science Fiction: Robots & Cyborgs” and “Science Fiction: Time Travel and Robots 2”.

More on “Pack A Truck” game

I’ve been busy this week putting my new game “Pack A Truck” on more stores for more devices.  You can now find “Pack A Truck” on the following stores or on the web.  Soon it will be on Amazon as well for both the Android version and a PC Standalone version (for Windows XP and more recent Windows operating systems).

Itch.io (web version of Pack A Truck) – requires a browser like Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge that supports WebGL

Google Play Store (Android version for phones and tablets)

Microsoft Windows Store (runs on Windows 10, and 8.1 I think)

 

 

My latest video game, “Pack A Truck”

Those of you who are familiar with my classic game “Truckin'”, know that I have an interest in logistics — management and coordination of a complex operation, such as the transport of goods.  My new video game “Pack a Truck” takes a closer look at the specific activity of preparing to move.

It’s more of an arcade game than a simulation, but it does give players food for thought in geometric terms.  Think of each game as a puzzle of sorts, with many combinations of the packing items possible.

So far, I’ve published “Pack a Truck” as an app on the Google Play Store.  If you have an Android phone or tablet, you should be able to install it from there.  I will be working on Windows and WebGL releases soon and possibly other device support.

Classic video games and silent films

What do class video games and silent films have in common?  They started an industry.  As a video games developer going back to the 1970’s, I have long been fascinated with this comparison.  My interest was rekindled upon seeing this online entry about “A Bookshelf of Silent Film Memoirs & Biographies“.

I wondered if anyone had blogged about a similar collection for video game memoirs & biographies.  Sure enough, just do a search on Google or Bing for “video game developer memoirs” and you’ll find several video game memoirs.  Of course, there are many such stories in gamer magazines online and in print as well.

It’s now over 40 years since video games came into our homes, and just like silent films were eclipsed by talkies, classic video games have been relegated to history by many successful modern games and apps.  But there will always be movie lovers who enjoy researching and watching (or re-watching) silent films.  So, it shouldn’t be surprising to find that many video game players today enjoy researching and playing classic video games.

Perhaps video game developers from the past don’t always have the dramatic and romantic stories of silent film stars of old.  But just as the history of silent films has been honored in such movies as “The Artist”, video game developers and history are being remembered in films such as the upcoming “Ready Player One”.

“PBA Bowling” among 100 greatest

I only recently realized that “The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987” (August 28, 2014) by Brett Weiss includes Mattel Electronics Intellivision game “PBA Bowling” in the list.  

Mike Minkoff and I were the first in-house Mattel Electronics programmers to create an Intellivision game.  We designed and developed “PBA Bowling” — John Sohl, developer of “Astrosmash”, helped with sounds — while working at APh Technological Consulting offices in Pasadena.

As a long-time bowler — about a 150 average growing up, and 160’s to 170’s in college — and part of a family of bowlers, I loved to bowl.  I had already programmed Mattel Handheld Bowling (1979, I think) and looked forward to incorporating more aspects of the sport into the console game.  Just to give you an idea of how much I was willing to do in order to bring the game to life, here’s a map of the kind of driving I was doing back then to work with Mike at APh in Pasadena, sometimes go into the office at Mattel (Hawthorne area), sometimes go to the computer lab at night at UC Irvine while I worked on my BSCS (Computer Science ’81), and then return home to Huntington Beach, CA.  This was a major reason why a year later I chose to take a job nearer to Irvine to complete my degree.

But it was only decades later that I discovered that one of my cousins, Mort Confeld, holds (or has it been broken?) the American Bowling Congress record for conversion of 5 consecutive 5-7 splits in Minneapolis, MN 1957.  An amazing feat, and quite a nice bowling history coincidence!  “PBA Bowling” is featured on the PBS website regarding the movie “League of Ordinary Gentlemen” about the history of bowling.

Math and games

Origami, folding paper into fascinating shapes and recognizable objects, is a form of gaming.  Now, computation geometry is being used to help folders perfect their origami creations.

Mathematics has long been the secret ingredient to games.  Many players don’t even know they are dealing with math, but it is often there nevertheless.  Did you know “Candy Crush” is a hard mathematics problem?

Really, mathematics is necessary in all kinds of video games ranging from complex simulations involving logistics to casino games, often requiring difficult statistical verification before release — to insure that the game does not bankrupt the house.

Even my games “Microsurgeon” and “Truckin'” relied on a number of decisions and logistics — highly related to mathematics — in order to save a patient or make cargo deliveries on time.  Speaking of logistics, “Tetris” is probably the most famous video game related to selecting shapes into rows in order to score points.

But did you know that packing your bags or Amazon packing your order is a logistics problem too?  If you find this kind of thing fascinating, as I do, you might like my upcoming video game.  More on that soon.

In the meantime, if you haven’t tried it already, you might like my game “Family Tree Solitaire“.  Since one hand’s score in the tree is connected to another hand’s score in the tree, there is mathematics behind the scene.  But all you really need to do is just enjoy playing.  It’s free.

Short form art

I refer here to short form as meaning artistic creations that are short by nature, such as short films, short stories, comics, many classic and more recent indie games [created in months, not years], and other short creations.

I’ve always thought that the beginning of the video games industry was not unlike the start of making silent films.  Little and limited technology, but lots of imagination and hard work.  Not everyone in the early games industry made it into the modern games field, just as many silent film stars did not make the transition into talkies.

Today, I dabble in short story writing and making small indie style video games.  These are my short forms of choice.  I’ve considered writing a novel, and maybe I still will, but I love short form.  It suits me, and I have always enjoyed and appreciated the work of others in the short form.

It is with sadness that I report the recent passing away of Keith Robinson who with his company kept Mattel Intellivision games in the minds and hearts of classic game players everywhere.  Keith’s many talents will be missed.  He wasn’t just a developer and entrepreneur of games.  He was also adept at creating comic strips, another wonderful short form.

 

 

1911 robot car

From the imagination and trick-filmmaking ability of Walter R. Booth — also a magician — comes this highly imaginative 1911 short film called “Automatic Motorist”.  

It’s amazing that back in 1911 movie makers were already predicting robot cars – or in this case, a robot chauffeur driving a car.  This 6 minute silent film has some nice little special effects for 1911, and although it literally and humorously goes “out there” in terms of what is possible, it gets the point across that automatic cars are potentially a dangerous thing.  I love the scene where the robot drives the car in a circle for a while.  A funny, but somewhat accurate prediction from 100 years ago.  It is feasible that without the proper failure mechanisms in place a robot car could get stuck in such a loop due to some software glitch.

Reminiscent of “Futureworld”

Scientists are just at the beginning of reading images from minds — in this case, from monkey’s minds.

In the movie “Futureworld” — sequel to the movie “Westworld”  — you might remember the Yul Brenner dream sequence, read from the mind of one of the main characters.  I don’t know how long it will be before researchers can achieve something like that, but it’s simultaneously exciting and frightening.

It was interesting to see HBO’s new “Westworld” series reimagine the original movie.  In particular, long dream — mixed with non-dream — sequences are being read from the minds of robots in order to test their memories and repair or modify them as needed.  Also exciting and equally frightening, especially since those in power think they know what’s best for the minds of their robot property and for the guests of Westworld.

Fighting Gorn in his 80’s

A few years ago, in an ad for a new “Star Trek” game, William Shatner was seen in his living room fighting the Gorn — according to Adweek.com.

I’m not touting the video game, but rather the fun little jab and nice memory of the scene between Captain Kirk (played by Shatner) and the alien Gorn in the wonderful old “Star Trek” episode, “Arena”.  It’s neat that an actor in his 80’s is fondly remembered for a television character and episode made 50 years ago.

Makes me wonder what I might be doing in my 80’s.  Classic (retro) gaming is still doing well around the world, remembering old video games from the 80’s.  Seems like a couple of times a year I’m still contacted for an interview or I read a tidbit online about my old games.

Microsurgeon” will be 50 years old in 2032.  Who knows, we might be going to Mars that year, so the world’s attention would certainly be on that.  But will classic gaming interests have moved on to games of 2002 or 2012?  Will anyone still play video games developed in the 1980’s?  I don’t know, but when I blog often I like to ponder such things…

It’s the 2030’s, and I see myself on a holodeck in my house battling life-size bacteria, viruses, lung cancer, and numerous other ailments to save my patient in “Microsurgeon: 2032″…

Bark or Woof?

New Scientists discusses robot dog sounds this week.  They say that sound, especially tuned to the size of the object, is an important element of companion robot pets.

Even if you decide you prefer a robot pet over a real one — or want both — and this algorithm will automatically handle sizing the voice to the robot — you still have to choose whether you prefer bark or woof or whatever other sound you like.

Robot Dog clip art

UI can cost your company money

According to The Washington Post, The Federal Trade Commission announced recently that parents whose children made Amazon purchases on mobile apps without their permission can begin getting their money back — possibly amounting to more than $70 million.

Something to think about when designing a user interface that involves purchases.  As shown in the video below, eBay got negative press over the same issue — children accidentally purchasing items with smartphones — a few years ago.

1989 Defender of the Crown CD-ROM

Back when I was working at Cinemaware in the late 1980’s, I was given the task of adding CD quality audio to “Defender of the Crown” for the PC (Mirrorsoft publisher).  It was already a successful game, but video games didn’t have high quality audio back then, so it was a neat thing to do.  Dave Riordan took care of creating the CD quality music and voices, while I added hooks to the code to play the music and narration off a CD-ROM.  Note that the version I created (shown at a conference) was not a mixed mode CD-ROM, as the code did not reside on the CD-ROM — I don’t know if Mirrorsoft later placed the code on the CD-ROM when it was published.

I had no idea until recently that there was a 1989 “New Scientist” magazine article about Mirrorsoft’s “Defender of the Crown” for CD-ROM.  I don’t know if the reviewer was talking about the specific Hitachi CD-ROM version with CD quality audio  I helped create, but it might have been.  The review is not especially flattering, but that may be because the reviewer calls himself “a games hater”

Wikipedia states, “The earliest examples of Mixed Mode CD audio in video games include the TurboGrafx-CD RPG franchises Tengai Makyo, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto from 1989 and the Ys series, composed by Yuzo Koshiro and Mieko Ishikawa and arranged by Ryo Yonemitsu in 1989.”  But I worked on “Defender of the Crown” with CD quality audio in 1988, so it’s possible that Mirrorsoft’s version was the first video game to include CD quality audio.

Compact Disc 3 clip art

Artificial Intelligence is tops at Go

MIT Technology Review reports on how AlphaGo defeated the top human Go player in the world.  Now A.I. researchers are looking at even more complex games, like StarCraft.  It is interesting to note that StarCraft AI currently has over 60 bots listed.

It will be interesting to see if new bots take advantage of input speed — faster than humanly possible — or match human speed and test their creative and planning skills instead.  If we’re talking about a military bot in a simulated environment, perhaps the bot won’t limit input speed or any other factor.  After all, in the real world a bot will take advantage of whatever it can — like in Terminator.  But if we’re talking about strictly a test of intelligence, it would seem to me that is more important to limit input speed to human capable speed, thus testing pure intellect — creativity, craftiness, planning, team building, etc.
Game Of Go clip art