Category Archives: Games and Puzzles

Bygone games

We’ve all heard about jobs lost to robots, but what about games?

A motion video game like “Kids on Site” (Sega CD and PC 1995) — which I worked on — may not be of interest to children in the near future.  Heck, they may not even understand why anyone would have ever been interested in driving a construction vehicle.  Built Robotics is inventing a self-driving track loader.  It may not be long before other automated construction vehicles are created.

Then there’s my old game “Truckin'” (Imagic 1983), where one or two players drive a truck around the country to compete for time and picking up loads.  Between the work being done on automating truck driving and the work on truck logistics (FleetBoard), how long will it be before there aren’t any kids who hunger for driving a big rig on the open road?  Will they even know that people used to drive them?  It’s a strange thought that someday a young researcher will be looking through genealogy records and wonder what it means that their ancestor was a ‘truck driver’.

I could always make a game about fixing robot trucks and robot loaders.  Well, actually, I did just release a game called “Pack A Truck” where the human player loads up a truck using robot remote controls.  Jobs move on, and so do games.

Back from Hawaii

Creativity requires energy and diversity, two things you get from taking a break and seeing new places.  This year we chose Hawaii at the end of summer.  We loved it!

Whether you’re exploring new tastes,

or hiking to red sand and black sand beaches,

or catching a glimpse of a perfect tropical waterfall,

or standing behind one,

or viewing hot lava,

or finding a secluded shore,

or even playing your favorite sport with an incredible view of Molokai island in the background (I made birdie on hole #4 by the way! — just follow the red line),

It all makes for a memorable vacation and energizes one’s creative spirit.

 

 

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.

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″…

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

Guide to Intellivision

I can tell you that countless hours of programming and lots of passion went into developing many of the Intellivision video games.  The long nights of devotion to designing and developing “Microsurgeon” will forever be ingrained in my memory.  I’m not sure I’ve posted this before, but here’s another link to a “Microsurgeon” review — “Games That Made Me: Microsurgeon”.

Graeme Mason contacted me recently and pointed out his new guide to Intellivision published by GamesTM Magazine.

PC version of Family Tree Solitaire

For those game players who would like to use a Windows PC to try my card game “Family Tree Solitaire” you can now download it from Amazon.com if you prefer not to or can’t load the Windows 10 version from the Windows Store.

Since I developed it with Unity3D, it will hopefully install — I only tested on Windows 10 desktop — and run successfully on computers running Windows XP or later.  It’s free, but I can’t guarantee it will install successfully on every Windows PC.

Enjoy!

FAMILY TREE SOLITAIRE FOR PC (Windows XP or later)

 

I’ve been to China

I enjoy many forms of creative expression, including writing, blogging, and game design.  No matter which I’m working on at the time, or thinking about, there’s few better options for enhancing my creativity than to travel somewhere new.  So recently, we headed to China!

My wife was already in Shanghai on business, so I met her in this sprawling and attractive international city of 25 million people.  Upon landing at PVG airport, I couldn’t resist taking the Maglev train at 180 mph for about $6.  If you go, the Maglev direction signs after passing through immigration are clearly marked.  The Maglev gets you within 5 metro stops of Pudong, which was where I was headed.  It’s an easy walk from the Maglev overhead exit across the way to the metro station at Longyang Rd.  The kiosks at the metro station let you choose English, which makes it easy to select the station you are headed to — I was going to Lujiazui, which cost less than $1.  The IFC mall and local hotels — Ritz Carlton and Shangri-La, for example — are very nice.

Other sites we saw in Shanghai: The informative Shanghai History Museum at the base of the Oriental Pearl Tower (an easy walk from Lujiazui station), the historical Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, very fun Shanghai Disney (the Tron and Pirates of the Caribbean rides are terrific, and the park wasn’t crowded on a 45F degree mid-February day), and the Shanghai Museum (cultural artifacts) and People’s Park.  All are easily reachable by metro at a very reasonable cost.  Just be prepared to stand quite a bit if you go during busy periods, which is most of the time.

Guilin, China — about 100-150 miles north of Hong Kong — is the site of the Li River Cruise and famous eroded mountains which line the river.  The view changes which each twist and turn in the river, with each new sight as exciting as the previous one.  The back of the 20 RMB bill depicts a scene from the river.   We loved staying at the Shangri-La Hotel in Guilin.

Chengdu, China, located east of the mountainous regions of Tibet, is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, now with 14-15 million people.  It is a combination of agriculture, manufacturing, and a large hi-tech area — our Hilton Chengdu hotel was great and located in the hi-tech area.  We were there to see the Leshan Giant Buddha — about an hour by fast train away — and the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base north of central Chengdu.  Through Viator, we arranged our Leshan tour with Lily Chen of WestChinaGo, and she provided us with a memorable day.  The next morning, first thing, we took the metro to Panda Ave. to catch the shuttle bus which goes (about 10-15 minutes) to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base.  We even were able to take our luggage along, dropping it at the 2nd floor information desk at the Research Base before seeing all the Pandas.  Afterwards, we caught a cab to the airport for our next days’ adventure in Xi’an.

Xi’an, China is about an hour south of the Terracotta Warriors museum.  The Hilton Xi’an has an amazing lobby and awesome service.  In Xi’an, it is worth taking time to see the ancient City Wall.  It was too cold for us to rent a bike, but if you can it looks like fun to bicycle on top of the wall.  Lily at GuideWe was our excellent Terracotta Warriors tour guide.  She even took time to show us the City Wall on the way back to town at the end of our tour.

We finished our vacation with a trip to Beijing.  The first day we visited Great Wall at Mutianyu.  It was 25 degrees Fahrenheit and it snowed!  We rode the chair lift up and got a work out climbing stairs to the next outpost or two.  Got some great shots of the wall in the snow and then return on the chair lift.  We wanted to take the luge down, but they close it when it snows.  All in all, a great time.  Our last day, we took a cab to the east wall of the Forbidden City, and then walked around to the south entrance.  It was easy to purchase tickets there and then enter the fortress wall.  It’s quite a bit of walking (especially in cold weather), but it’s a beautiful piece of history you just can’t miss.  The walk back from the north exit to our hotel was only about 20 minutes, as we stayed at the nearby Renaissance Wangfujing Hotel.  A very nice hotel and quite convenient if you plan to visit the Forbidden City.

AI and bluffing

I’ve recently been following the progress of computer AI in playing poker.  One area of interest is that the AI responds to bluffing.  Bluffing is a major aspect of poker that makes it interesting from an AI and gaming perspective.

Around 1977-1978, I programmed a chess playing opponent in 4k of memory on my first computer, a Processor Technology Sol-20 based on an Intel 8080 cpu.

I think the 8080 ran at 1 MHz to 2 MHz, so about 1 million to 2 million instructions per second.  Today’s Intel Core i5 processors run closer to 3 GHz — about 3 billion instructions per second — and that doesn’t even take into account multiple cores for parallel processing.  That’s 1.5 thousand to 3 thousand times faster than my 8080-based computer.  So you can see that at the speed of the 8080 an AI couldn’t depend entirely on cpu-devouring depth searches and tree pruning algorithms to determine its next move.   That’s why I added a bluffing component.

I don’t remember if my computer had 8k or 16k or memory, but just for reference today’s phones with 16GB of memory have 16 million times more memory — since 16GB = 16,000,000k.  Okay, so with just 4k of memory allocated to my chess game to handle the display, game logic, input, output, and AI, I was very limited to what I could do with bluffing.  Actually, the bluffing component was coded so simply that it was almost a random move injector.  But I believe it was that aspect of Fischer — the temporary name I gave to my chess program — that allowed it to sometimes compete with other chess programs at the time.  From time to time it would make a bold move — a leap beyond it’s ability to just search for the best next move —  effectively bluffing that it had a plan that the other program could not discover in a depth search of the possibilities.

So bluffing can be useful even in non-poker games, although that only works until the game has been “solved” by computers.  There are games like Checkers that have been solved by computers, meaning that the entire game is known from the start.  Even some games of Poker, e.g. Head’s Up Limit Hold’em, are largely solved.

In poker, bluffing is not a solution for an AI, but rather a necessary tool.  It’s built into the game of poker.  So far, looking at comments on Reddit, it appears that the best poker AI can play with the best poker players.  Good luck bluffing your way through the tournament.  Also, this might be the beginning of the end for internet poker.

If you have further interest in this subject, you might also like this recent research paper.

Playing surgeon

Microsurgeon” (Imagic 1982 and 1983) is the first, or one of the first, video games related to healthcare.  I was never a doctor, but I had a lot of fun making this game and playing surgeon.

My latest interview, with Graeme Mason of Wizwords, is now published (“Making of Microsurgeon”) in the Jan. 2017 issue #163 of Retro Gamer Magazine.  This link is for ImagineShop.co.uk, but I assume issue 163 will be on Amazon and other online stores in 2017.