The Dog Faced Boy
This post reminds me of those long summers of childhood spent in a Paris bordello

Somebody kindly noticed that I haven’t blogged in a while and it’s hard in less than 1000 words to explain why. For weeks now I’ve been feeling a sense of spiritual exhaustion with the internet. I still use it daily, reading about the things that interest me, but even when I’m being selective about the places I visit, there’s something about the web that still makes me despair.

It would be difficult to give one example but to give one example: I hate the ubiquity of Outbrain’s promotions on nearly every website I visit. I get tired of seeing those tempting headlines at the bottom of articles which you know will take you straight to a website overburdened with advertising wrapped around content nothing like originally advertised. The web is like being trapped in a carnival freaktent with every exit sealed and some guy constantly barking the same instructions in your ear to come look at the dog-faced boy. Come look at the dog faced boy. This way for the dog faced boy. Come and see him. Dog faced boy…

Things get even worse in social media, which I now avoid like it’s some kind of West African blood plague. Yesterday I noticed that Colin Brazier, from Sky News, was being attacked on Twitter because he’d examined some luggage found amid the debris of flight MH17. He was wrong to do what he did but the level of hatred is depressingly familiar. People want his job, want to bring Sky News down, when the reality is that a good journalist made a bad mistake in a context that few of us can barely imagine and for which he immediately apologised.

And I think that’s what this comes down to. There is a notable lack of generosity in the world. Not just financial generosity (though there is that too) but a generosity of spirit that in better times gives rise to acts of kindness, forgiveness, and solidarity against our true oppressors.

My mood hasn’t been helped by recently discovering the amazing but depressing story of the great Vivian Maier, whose photography has been obsessing me a little. For background, I’d recommend last year’s excellent Alen Yentob documentary about her work but the gist of the story is this: an American nanny spends her entire life photographing life on the streets of New York and Chicago and keeps this vast achieve in storage, never sharing it with anybody. In her old age, she falls, goes into hospital, can’t afford to pay for her storage lockers, so their contents go up for sale. They are sold for next to nothing. She dies from her injuries leaving others to profit from the work of a woman who if now being recognised as one of truly great photographers.

I’m no Vivian Maier and I’m not mentioning her story because my own work gets ‘overlooked’.* What I am, however, is somebody who tries to produce ‘things’ in a world where the ‘producers of things’ are at the mercy of a new class of news aggregators and ebook merchants who would destroy centuries of culture for the sake of a quick dollar. Amazon sent me an email the other day announcing a new offer where I can make ebooks available for free to Amazon subscribers. If any of my books reach a certain threshold, I’d be eligible for a fraction of a few hundred thousand dollars. Sounds a great idea until you realise that it’s the ‘long tail’ scam in new clothes. It’s the death of quality publishing when a million authors make a ten dollars each, rather than earn just enough to carry on writing. I fear that we live in the age of Arianna Huffington and that the  age of Hunter S Thompson is long since past.

* A cynic might suggest I feel like this because of people’s reaction to my game but, on reflection, I realise that more people actually seemed to like it than didn’t reply. However, that minor victory is fairly meaningless given that the game was a poorly-timed attempt to satirise Michael Gove. Now he’s no longer Education Secretary, I’d need to de-Gove the game and I really haven’t the time nor the energy. I’ve been working on a second project, which I’m aiming directly towards the mainstream. However, I don’t intend to talk about. I’m becoming a master of blowing smoke, of taking about projects that never get released. My new project will probably go the same way as the last but I’m constantly learning to do new tricks.


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The Great World Cup Meh…
This post is a rehash of a joke we ran last week but this time we use a different pen

Gratified to see England lose last night, though I take little pleasure in saying that. I love watching England matches but Hodgeson is the wrong man. Since he’s been in charge, my indifference to international football has become total. He’s doing with England what he managed to do with Liverpool: turn a talented team into plodders. This morning he claims he won’t resign even if England fail to leave the group stages for the first time since, I believe, 1958. That’s the corporate mentality that the FA wanted and I’m sure they’re delighted to see it. Stick in their for your gold clock, Roy…

My lack of World Cup fever means I have more energy to devote to the game. Everything feels like it’s become more imminent. I’ve had a surprising number of responses to my request for Beta testers and I now realise that I’ll be having strangers look at my work. It makes me desperate to get it looking better than it is. I spent yesteray building a tutorial system which I hope will help people understand the basics of the thing I’ve created. I also recorded better music (I’ve sorted out the problem with my microphone).

Yet the harder I work, the more things need fixing. Introducing the tutorial system yesterday caused yet more problems I have to fix before the beta version can go out. I’ve taken an approach that overlays instructions on the screen whilst pausing the action in the background. However, touching the tutorial screen also interacts with the background controls, so I’ve got to go through and place conditional checks on every control to ensure they’re disabled when a tutorial screen is showing. It’s the kind of thing you don’t notice when playing a game and you might imagine takes little time. The truth is that most of my time is spent spotting and fixing this kind of problem.

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Beta Testers Wanted
This post is all about those long bucolic evenings spent whistling at nuns

Other than saying I’m still here, I’m blogging to see if anybody out there has an Android phone or tablet…

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

In the end, I had no choice. It was either buy a new drive or give up any serious hopes of ever again using this PC. I’ve also taken a deep breath and started to draw new cartoons, with the determination that I’ll now store them in more than once place, even if it means doing as Leg-Iron wisely suggests, backing things up to DVD.

And after a day of struggling to get my new WD drive into my machine (and, for the first time, I’ve stuck fans on it in the hope to prolong the drive’s life) I’ve now reestablished the basics of my work environment. After my email and browser (how many people must use Internet Explorer just to type the word ‘Chrome’ and then never us it again?), I also managed to get Unity up and running. Getting back to Unity has been the thing I’ve been eager to do since the crash on Sunday.

Late last week, I’d reached the stage where I’ve started to canvass thoughts aboutt game. I was delighted when the usual cynics I’ve shown it to were surprisingly positive and offered a few good (and the odd not so good) suggestions. This week is about putting these final touches to what will become Version 1.0 of the game which I aim to get onto the Play store before the end of the month, though that’s a big ambition when I still need to implement a tutorial system.

Which brings me to my offer, which I doubt will be taken up by anybody out there but I’ll make it anyway… If anybody fancies acting as a Beta tester of my game, then please drop me a line (via the Contact page or my email). You only need an Android tablet or phone and a willingness to lie and say that you’ve been reading my blog for a long time and would love nothing more than test a ridiculous game. At this stage, I just want to know if the game actually runs on a variety of hardware other than the Samsung phones and tablets I’ve had access to so far.

I wish I could afford to pay you but this is the internet and none of us get paid for anything we do but I will promise to include a juicy credit in my game’s acknowledgements screen.

You’ll also get a chance to be the first people to get to play the game, hear my bad guitar fingerpicking, voice acting, and (possibly — yet undecided — singing). At the very least, it should be a mildly amusing distraction from all the horrors of the world and, really, isn’t that all we can hope for?

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Never Turn Off Your PC
This post is actually a subtle homage to Polish cinema of the Soviet era

Never ever turn off your PC.

I’ve learned that the hard way over the last 12 hours. It’s why I’m writing this in Wordpad and why my spelling will undoubedly stretch the limits of what a man can claim to be a mere slip of the finger.

I never turn off my PC but, yesterday, since I was going to be away from it for a few hours, I actually shut it down. I remember thinking to myself: David, you’re taking a gamle. All that soldering has been running hot for so long. Don’t you know that failures often occur because of the cooling and heating process on circuitboards? There’s a chance this won’t start up again.

And so it proved. Late last night, I returned home and discovered that my machine wouldn’t boot. After about an hours struggle, I came to the horrified realisation that a hard drive had died.

I have (or had) four drives in this machine. A small drive for my operating system, two older drives that have come from previous machines, and a new Seagate 3Terrabye beast where I’ve done all my recent work.

Naturally, that is the drive that has died. Only now do I read the terrible reviews of the drive.

Not that bad reviews help me.

I had backed a few things up but not enough. My game, for one, is in a (hopefully) safe place but all the high resoltution files I’d created along the way to build the game are now gone. I’ve lost too many cartoons that I’m actually not trying to think about it. Possibly books too but, again, I’m not going to think too hard about what’s missing.

Instead, I’m sitting here hoping that Disc Partition software might actually recover some of the data. The drive was split into two partitions and three successive trial verions of data recovery software have identied the first of the partitions. Naturally, the first partition didn’t have anything that was actually worth recovering. All my important stuff was on the second partition and nothing seems able to see it.

Of course, I know the old mantra about always keeping a backup but I just couldn’t afford a second drive to back up so much work. And now I can’t afford to buy a drive to replace the one I’ve just lost. Today I’m just walking around feeling like this is all a bad dream. In the middle of realising I’d lost the data, my favourite chair broke. It had broke a month or two ago when a bolt snapped. Last night, a second bolt snapped around 1AM. However, as the Disc Parition software searched my 3 terrabytes for my work (4% and counting), I’ve mananged to fix the chair. It’s a small victory but I feel like it was a pointless one. Even if I have my chair back and I still have a place to work, it feels pretty pointless.

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Billy Bragg: The Video Game Hero
This post was the cause of funny though violent protests in Tewkesbury

It feels like I’ve been building this game for months but I discovered today that tomorrow will mark eleven weeks. As far as development times go, that’s nothing. For me, it’s been eleven hard weeks of learning something entirely new and working long long nights. And it does, finally, feel like I’m nearing the end.

The past few days has been about adding a few aesthetic effects and balancing levels so challenges are neither too easy nor impossibly hard. Last night, I had one of my most important breakthroughs: I managed to integrate interstitial advertising into the game. It’s a horrible business, inserting these ugly ads into something you work so hard to get looking good but it’s the ugly reality of this business. Nobody is willing to pay for anything and advertising is the only way I’ll ever make any money from this terribly doomed project.

I’m also tidying up some of my animations, which look okay, though sometimes just plain rough. A better example of my animations (and, yes, this is the ‘good’ stuff!) is my Billy Bragg character (above), who features as one of the game’s heroes or antagonists, depending on which side of the political spectrum you fall. The game, as I think I’ve mentioned, is broadly satirical and Bragg acts as a nemesis to the game’s chief protagonist along with other celebs and politicos ranging from Stewart Lee to the Mayor of London.

I’m posting this Bragg video today because I like to prove that I’m not idle and because it links conveniently into a brief ramble about the most depressing thing I’ve heard in a long time.

Billy Bragg has confessed (perhaps tongue in angora bearded cheek) that ‘the internet has changed my songwriting by taking up all the time I used to spend writing songs’. He was talking on the today’s excellent Guardian feature, ‘Seven Digital Deadly Sins’, where he proceed to suggest that he spends most of his days watching a variety of people falling down holes.

I’m sure Bragg was playing up to the camera. At least, I hope to hell he was playing up to the camera. If not, then I’ll take my ticket now and catch the next bus off this lousy planet.

If the dimternet has tamed Bragg then what hope the rest of us? Had George Orwell been around today, would he be spending his time watching ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ (a video, I’m happy to say, that I’ve never seen) rather than writing ‘1984’? Or would he, as I’d hope, be among the few of us who are genuinely trying to cut ourselves off from the online world or, at least, merely use the medium without it robbing us of our lives and souls. I’ve written before that social media is the soma of this generation and nothing has changed to make me question that. I don’t think I’m simply being reactionary to say that we are losing strength in our mental limbs and we must do everything in our power to retain focus on the things that matter. Social media boasts about ‘ease’ and ‘speed’ and its integration into our lives but I fail to see how that’s a good thing. It’s why I find Bragg’s confession so depressing. He’s spent his life talking about activism yet it’s left to Bill Bailey’s contribution to the debate to point out how political engagement has changed with social media. Politics has become a trivial and, frankly, no so interesting meme in a greater world of hamster videos and fat people falling over.

That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the power of a good one liner, wit squeezed into 140 characters, but there is also a place for length, pace, argument, and complexity. In a separate piece yesterday, Will Self (who also, incidentally appears as one of the ‘good guys’ in my game), recommended books for teenagers based on their length. He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less depressing. Explore the places of difficulty in your life. It’s where you always discover the most fascinating revelations.

I suppose I’m as much a victim of this change as anybody. Friends shake their heads slowly, clearly thinking I’m a fool because I don’t get involved in social media. I’ve certainly made decisions I’ve regretted. I always thought my book by Stan Madeley (the UK’s top Richard Madeley lookalike ) would have been more popular than it was. The fact I didn’t engage in social media and publicity was plain stupidity on my behalf. Yet I’m stubborn when it comes to my convictions. Bragg is probably right when he concludes by saying that ‘everybody wants to be famous, nobody wants to be scrutinised’. That’s the world where people are more interested in celebrities for their celebrity rather than anything they actually do.

I genuinely can’t see the attraction of fame. Scrutiny sounds far more interesting. I’d rather be disliked by a few than loved by millions. I’d rather be Will Self than Katie Perry, Billy Bragg rather than Stephen Fry. Social media is made for the latter, which makes it sad when I see it embraced by the former.

This is a ramble but I’m tired and I suppose it’s when I’m tired that I can see that my Android game is only going to be another expression of my stubborn unwillingness to join the throng. Only I could make a game that skips merrily past the mainstream and attempt to attract a very small minority. I only hope just a few people will smile and appreciate that I’ve tried something a little different. I’m hopeful, for example, that it will be the only video game featuring Billy Bragg.

Naturally, he won’t be singing but, so far, neither will I. The game looks pretty good but it still lacks music. I’m still attempting to finish recording my closing satirical song, though getting a quality track is killing me. I’ve fingerpicked a pretty good acoustic guitar pattern and even if my £12 USB microphone isn’t exactly studio quality, it’s not entirely bad. My singing remains the problem. I can’t decide if it’s a problem of my accent (I sound terribly northern) or simply a weak voice. I’ve been recording multiple versions in different registers so I can stack my vocals. Oddly, I think I probably sound less bad singing as a group than I do singing alone but I’m finding it difficult to mix them into anything reasonably listenable. Ideally, I’d like to just record myself singing over the guitar but one mike and a bad voice don’t make for a good combination.

But that’s another ramble for another day and I must go and make this blog post available on social media. [sarcasm=true; walks_off = “chuckling maliciously”;]

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Thinking Alpha
This post clearly explains the difference between 'gorse' and 'thicket'

My intention this week (yes, I know it won’t happen) is to have a build of the game ready to give friends and family to play and report back any bugs / ideas / impossible to complete levels. I also hope to get access to a Mac to see if I can build a version to test on iPads and iPhones, though that’s less important given that I can’t see myself spending the £100 to buy an Apple developer’s license anytime in the near future. However, I’ve discovered that there’s a way for developers to send apps over the web to Apple devices, which will at least allow me to see how the game works in that alien environment.

Today I have two jobs. The first is to throw myself into writing the game text. I’ve (somewhat foolishly) created a game with plenty of places to insert funny stuff. The only point of the game is to make the player laugh and so there are dozens of arrays to fill with as many witty one-liners as I can fashion. They’ll get served dynamically as you play the game, hopefully meaning that it shouldn’t get too stale too quickly.

The second job is to get the app’s size down. Last night it stood at a whopping 47mb, which was worryingly close to the Google’s stores 50mb limit. It’s a problem of textures. Many of graphics are still the size they came of my Samsung tablet, which is where I’ve drawn everything for the game. A megabyte for a pair of underpants definitely seems like overkill. I’ve started to tinker with the texture settings within Unity, brining many of the textures that were 2048×2048 to 1024×1024, those that were 1024 down to 512, and taking icons down much further. I can barely see a quality difference on the screen and the app is already down to about 33mb.

My biggest breakthrough of the weekend was to get my game objects flipping across the x-axis. I’d read last week’s Unity changelog and noticed they had claimed to have fixed the bug which broke the physics engine when scaling negatively. However, when I sat down and tested this claim, scaling the objects by -1 on x, any physics attached to the objects immediately failed. I either had characters looking one way but their bodies acting as though they were facing the other or I had characters falling in a heap of body parts on the floor. Clearly, the Unity bug hasn’t been fixed.

After a little work, I realised that the problem seemed linked to having objects in a hierarchy. If, for example, I had a human figure with arms and legs and I created the usual hierarchy of hand attached to lower arm, lower arm to upper arm, upper arm to torso, etc, then the physics would fail when scaled by -1. However, removed from the hierarchy, they would work.

My solution was to recalculate the object’s physics settings and apply them on the fly as objects changed direction. Since the problem only occurs when objects moved out of the kinematic state (that is, went from being unaffected by the game’s physics engine to having all forced acting upon it) I would also only keep them in the hierarchy when the object is kinematic and then dynamically flatten the structure when I needed them to work under physics.

Christ, all of this must sound so very boring. Is there anything duller than tech talk to anybody other than a very smaller number of people who enjoying reading tech talk? Is it a sad confession to say that I actually visit the Unity forums just to read about this stuff?

Okay. I have writing to do including as many insulting put-downs as I can manage for my ‘failure’ screen.

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Rain! Beautiful Virtual Rain…
This post is pregnant with meaning though we're still looking for the father

Two dull programming-related blog updates within two days? What am I thinking? Does anybody read this stuff?

But I guess I’m excited because it’s raining. In my game, I mean.

I keep saying it’s all about the small details but I genuinely think it’s half the battle. Being able to add little touches without impacting too severely on the performance is one of the ways that Unity never fails to amaze me. When I set out programming this game, I assumed that my lazy techniques would soon punish the game’s performance. I’m not by training an Object Orientated programmer, so it’s taking time for me to come around to not writing things in a very linear fashion. I’m also writing this game for tablets and (I hope) mobile phones, which means I haven’t got huge resources to play with. Each time I add a feature, I think the frame rate will be impacted hugely.

Last night I added rain. Unity barely flinched.

[Sidenote: the way I added rain was to create a long sprite, fading towards the upper end, a slight tear on the other. I then display about 20 or 30 of them (random intervals and timings on each) inside the camera bounds (don’t waste precious CPU cycles drawing rain you can’t see), and then I move them down as I very quickly stretch them. I also apply a gradual fade by adjusting the alpha values. Add a random angle of slant and with the right timing, they look just like rain. I keep reusing the same GameObjects to save time, repositioning/re-angling/retiming the line of rain as soon as it has faded from view. I also animated a few drops of rain splashing on the ground which I also randomly display. ]


The effect isn’t bad, as I hope you can see from this deliberately empty and uninspiring shot of my game. And, yes, it’s mainly in black and white but it does have splashes of colour. The lack of objects on the screen accounts for the framerate nearly hitting 70fps, as you can see in the top left corner. I added that frame rate display to show me the average performance and the numbers are surprising. On the PC, the framerate is effectively about 450 frames a second (though, of course, my screen doesn’t update that quickly). It means that the code could update the screen over four hundred times per second if called upon. In reality, 30 frames a second is what most games run at. Some of the newer games run at 60 frames a second, which is something of a gold standard for 3D games, and accounts for much of the current bickering between XBone and PS4 owners.

My game is 2D so it’s not quite so impressive to be hitting around 60fps on my tablet but that’s (apparently) it what it’s doing. It drops a little on my phone to somewhere in the 40-50fps but that hopefully means that I’m in a sweet spot given that my phone is neither the most recent nor the powerful. The more people can play this game, the more my efforts are worth it.

Today it’s about fixing more bugs, adding more content which I drew last night, playing and replaying each level to see if it feels right. I’m thinking about ripping out all the music since I also need to start to reduce the final size of the final app. It’s compiling into a 45mb package, which is just under the Play Store’s limit of 50mb (I believe you can go much higher but it involves breaking the app into different resource files, which is something I don’t want to do). 45mb seems far too big for this game, even if it is packed with hand draw graphics which don’t lend themselves to tight compression. The main problem seems to be five or six very large graphic files, which I’ll need to reduce in quality. Hopefully there’ll be no obvious visual impact on the game.

Hmm… I push on.

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On Vube Talent, Alan Gogoll, Google Ads and English Folk Music
This post is actually a subtle homage to Polish cinema of the Soviet era

Morning was creeping over the local church by the time I finally fell asleep last night. I’d been working late trying to get a website finished but also struggling with a problem with my soon-to-be-published Android game.

Taking a break from one kind of code or the other, I was browsing the web when I accidentally clicked on a link that took me a website called Vube. It seemed to consist of amateur (and not so amateur) musicians posting their work to be voted on by the public.

It was apparent very quickly that these people are serious about their music. For ‘unknowns’, the quality of the videos was astonishingly high. The sound quality of most of the recordings sounded, to these ears at least, on par with something produced in a professional studio. Yet as I browsed through the performances, amazed by some, I was equally depressed by others. It’s not the level of talent that I found depressing – though, I suppose the internet has collectively taught us that the world has an abundance of talent which routinely gets ignored. What I found depressing was the real lack of creativity.

By a huge margin, the majority of these performances involved the word ‘Cover’  and I very quickly established how many versions of ‘I See Fire’ by Ed Sheeran a man needs in his life before he starts to root for dragons instead of hobbits. The answer, incidentally, is five.

The experience reminded me of walking past those artists you usually find working in shopping centres. They work in pencil and produce amazingly accurate reproductions of famous faces. Because they work from published photographs, their work is a copy of another, so despite their copious ability with the pencil, it’s all a mechanical effect. There’s no true ‘art’ to their work. Nothing of themselves on the paper, though, of course, they clearly draw the chipmunk member of One Direction because that’s what will sell.

Likewise, there’s very little of the people performing the covers on Vube, just lots of pitch perfect good looking young women singing songs that involve vocal gymnastics. Lots of seasoned instrumentalists proving they’ve mastered their instruments as well as their heroes but have no message of their own they feel willing or able to convey.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course, such as the amazing Alan Gogoll whose genuinely original guitar work just shone above anything else on the site. It’s strange how Gogoll’s talent has lodged itself in my mind. I saw a video of his posted on another website a few weeks ago and (not recognising the name then) I stumbled across more here where his name has now firmly lodged. His is the kind of talent it’s good to see emerging via the web.

I don’t know. Perhaps I’m just jaded. Everything about my work is rough and imperfect. I like that but also recognise it as a huge defect. I’ve mastered nothing, even if I put my heart and soul into every one of my projects. It also saddens me to see in linking to Gogoll’s site that he earns a crust by performing at weddings. Reminds me of those amazing street musicians you see begging for coins as rich bankers stroll past. Some might say that the latter make the world turn but it’s surely the former, people like Gogoll, who make it worth lingering around in that world.

I’m neither a banker nor an artist. It’s been over a week since I last blogged and I’m still slowly getting there with my game. Monday night, Unity updated to version 4.5 and immediately my game blew a fuse. As far as I can figure out by looking over their changelog, they’d fixed a problem registering touches on the screen which meant that my game had been calculating certain things based on the wrong values. With the correct values suddenly entering into my equations, things began flying all over the screen. That was a worrying few hours as I struggled to get my game back to where it had started. However, things began working again and they perhaps now work better than they did before. I’m now looking forward to trying a few of the other things the Unity gurus have fixed.

Yesterday was what’s commonly known as a ‘ball breaker’. This week I’ve been trying to add ads to the app, which hasn’t felt right. I’ve worked hard drawing every graphic in my game and I really didn’t welcome the intrusion of ads for some woeful Kim Kardashian flab busting workout DVD. However, this is the world we live in, I need the money, and I had to face the more pressing problem of actually getting the game to compile with a library of code for Google Ads. At the same time, I’ve been using all my valuable time building a website for a nursery school (just as depressing as it sounds), with breaks from that relatively easy work broken my throwing myself into the ugly world of Java libraries, Unity plugins, and worse. Yesterday was a fourteen hour stretch of work (minus a couple of quick stops for food) but the website now looks complete but more importantly, the following appeared on my game’s level select screen in the last hours of darkness.


Damn, doesn’t it look beautiful?

The answer to my problem was to remove the old Unity plugin I’d been using to integrate my game with Google’s Play Services and use the official Google plugin, which didn’t  conflict with Google’s other plugin for AdMob, their ad delivery service.

Beyond all of this, the last week has been about bug catching (both real [damn this muggy weather] and virtual) as well as adding small details, such as a credit screen that isn’t a boring credit screen. I’ve also…

Well, I really hesitate to admit this given my criticism of Vube, or perhaps out of shame, embarrassment, or what Stewart Lee once described as the horrible thought of ‘a man trying to do something sincerely and well’… However, I’ve written a song for the game. The music has been bothering me since I began because I really like doing things myself and I didn’t want to use third party music, even if it’s in the public domain. I’ve been currently using a 1920s jazz recording as my soundtrack. I’ve yet to decide whether to keep it (it fits in with the theme of the game) or go without music. My song, however, is meant to accompany my credits. I can (but rarely) write songs but this, I think, isn’t one of my worst. The lyrics are nicely twisted and, in my few spare minutes, I’ve even worked out an arrangement of odd finger-patterns for the guitar. All was good until I sat down and tried to record myself singing it. The guitar part sounds surprisingly good but the recording sounded terrible. A bad voice, my battered old Gibson acoustic fitted with new strings, and a £12 USB microphone doesn’t make for a combination worthy of Vube. Yet amid the hissing and crackles, I could recognise something I’ve never realised about my singing before. I sound like a bloody English folk singer and that’s not something that fills me with particular enthusiasm to try again, let along post to Vube, here, or the Google Play store attached to my game.

I don’t know why I should find this odd. Perhaps it’s because I predominately listen to American musicians, with the notable exception being P.J. Harvey, so I my tastes are fairly attuned to American tones. My voice seemed naturally to drift to very different places which were purely English folk. Vocally I sounded a bit like John Renbourn or (now sadly late) Bert Jansch. My guitar work sounded like Bert Renbourn or John Jansch. Perhaps I need to hire a Vube star to record my song…

I’m not sure what makes me uneasy about English folk music. Perhaps it’s the image of middle-aged real ale-drinkers talking about church sculpture. I’m now trying to convince myself that it’s not all bad. There’s always Billy Bragg.

I was buying superglue in Wilko earlier in the week (trying to repair my favourite USB cable — yes, I have a favourite USB cables, mock as much as you like!) when they started playing Billy Bragg’s ‘Handyman Blues’. It’s a great track from an excellent album but never before had I thought about the Englishness of Bragg’s voice. Perhaps he doesn’t sound enough like me to make me aware of his sameness. I suppose it’s why, when I first started to read English poetry, I found Larkin unbearable. Eventually, I realised it was only because I was responding to a world he was describing which felt too much like the grim world around me whereas a poet like Ted Hughes felt elevated, distant, heroically what a poet should be. I found Larkin’s similarity  too unsettling and only after a very long time did I begin to enjoy his poetry without that sense of suffocating identification.

All of which is me rambling slightly because I can. I needed more sleep than I got last night. This is the dull reality of what should (and, in truth, usually is) a fun business. Today I really want to devote itself to rain, as I’m suddenly taken with make a late addition to my game in the form of an aesthetically pleasing rain effect. But perhaps I should just get the game finished and out the door. It’s taking far too long to get everything right.


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The Angel of High Satire
This post is a terrible indictment of inner city youth and polyester flared trousers

I seem to spend my life between identities.

What do I mean by that beyond trying to sound profound? I suppose I mean: I don’t know what I am. So many people seem to define themselves by their jobs or their religion or their marital status and number of children. I don’t really have any identity in those respects. I don’t think of myself as ‘a writer’ and even when I had a book in bookshops, to say ‘I’m a writer’ felt hollow and not entirely truthful. I never say ‘I’m a cartoonist’ because I haven’t had any cartoons published and I refuse to spend the rest of my life being Private Eye’s least successful would-be cartoonist. I’m not an illustrator, though I occasionally provide people with illustrations. I’m not a web designer though I sometimes build websites. Nor am I an animator, though I’ve made a few animated shorts. I can’t even say that I’m an academic because my PhD never led me into any academic post of significance. Now that I’m programming again, I am reluctant to call myself a programmer because the programming is only serving an end as far as another of my non-descriptors, that is, the cartoonist part of me.

cherubI’ve spent two months (or is it now three?), building a game which is little more than a very large satirical sketch or (more accurately) oafish cartoon. It’s taken as much efforts drawing the graphics as it has programming the code. I’m part proud of it as I am part ashamed of it. The whole thing is meant to be satire, which is why, over the weekend, I added the following character to the game. At the moment, he flies onto the screen at random moments to add a little difficulty (and some reward) to the challenges. Yet I suppose my ‘Angel of High Satire’ (is the minuscule penis too much?) is a way of my
acknowledging that everything I do is really directed towards satire. I suppose I might call myself ‘a devil of low satire’ because I think it’s always been the closest description I would recognise of myself had I actually achieved anything of note in that field.

I don’t think my game will change that, though I hope it will have a enough edge that people might share it and laugh for all of the few moments they play it before deleting it forever. The humour might not be up to quality demanded by the real High Angel of Satire, on whom I modeled my version, but it has amused me. And that’s the problem. My worry now is that the game contains too many of the things that amuse me such as the thought of a naked Ian Hislop providing the game’s hardest challenge. I wish I could have created something playable by somebody other than that person I see in the mirror. Next time, perhaps.

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Unity2D: Creating An Explosion Effect
This post is scented with jasmine, eucalyptus, and duck lard for your pleasure

A quick video I put together to show my workaround for the missing AddExplosionForce2D in the Unity engine. It’s probably of interest to nobody out there but it gives a good idea of how Unity works and the very basics of making things move around on the screen.

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Small Details
This post has been the cause of 11 unwanted pregnancies in members of the clergy

Writing this feels like I’m coming up for air.

I read an article somewhere the other day which suggested that it takes six months to develop even the simplest game. I’m not entirely sure that can be correct, but, perhaps taken as an average, it’s probably much closer to the truth than the fabled ‘couple of days’ it took the Flappy Bird genius to weave his magic.

At the other end of the genius scale where things don’t come easily and everything is a struggle, it only feels like I get closer to the end as I tick off the increasingly mundane tasks that dominate my ‘To Do ‘list. Beyond that, I spend most of my time fixing bugs and populating my levels with graphics. My problem goes back to the beginning when I didn’t so much design the game as start to play with Unity and a game gradually began to emerge. My game levels are potentially huge, though there are limitations which means not every square inch needs to be populated with landscape. I’m naturally reusing assets all the time but I need to break that up with unique graphics, which is where most of my efforts are not deployed.

The bug fixing takes the longest. A bug earlier in the week took two days to figure out but taught me an important lesson about the difference between Unity’s Awake() and Start() methods. Compared to that, coding new features is an absolute pleasure that rarely takes a very long.

The exception to that rule was the problem I faced creating explosions in my game. Having explosions came pretty late in the process and I thought it would be an easy thing to add. Unity has an AddExplosiveForce method  which you can add to game objects so they act as a bomb, pushing other objects away. However, Unity separates its 3D functionality from the 2D in an obvious way. If a method is designed for 2D games, it will have ‘2D’ appended to the end of the name. So, for example, there’s a RigidBody component, which makes a 3D game object respond to gravity and forces. There’s also a RigidBody2D component with does the same for 2D objects. AddExplosiveForce adds an explosive force to a 3D object and, as you’d guess, AddExplosiveForce2D would do the same for 2D objects.

Except Unity doesn’t currently have AddExplosiveForce2D which meant I had to write my own. It took a day but I solved the problem and my explosions are now working well, with sticks of dynamite even destroying other objects with a nice blast that radiates out. However, it’s an example of how I’m spending my days implementing features which are only a very small fraction of the finished game.

Not everything takes so long. I’d been putting off adding more online leaderboards to the game but I finished that just now, perhaps half an hour’s work to add 30 leaderboards, one for each level I’m currently planning to include in the finished game. I also finished adding the majority of my ‘achievements’ and they now stand around the fifty mark which means I’ll have to spend extra time checking that every one of them works, which means yet another game reset so I can play through it and unlock the achievements myself.

Even at this relatively late stage in the process, I’m learning new things. The surprising thing I’ve recently discovering is that it can be really small things that make a difference. Attention to detail is important. Just as a whim, I added a very small detail to the game about three days ago and it has completely changed the game’s dynamic for the better. It was an addition I made simply to add a little variety to the gameplay but it completely changed the way the game feels. The same is true of sound effects. I still have a few sound effects that don’t fit but those that do really make a difference.

In a way, I suppose all of this is my way of saying that ‘things are coming together’. As it stands, the game is pretty much finished in terms of the gameplay (though I constantly worry that there are times when the player doesn’t have enough to do). I have quite a bit of level design to complete, but that simply comes down to my finding the time to draw custom graphics for the different challenges. On top of that, there are things to write and I have to create some tutorial mode or, at the very least, provide instructions on how to play the game.

Then my final step will be to add some advertising, which I’ll do simply in the vague hope that it might earn me a few bob when others try this game. I don’t expect it to hang around on people’s smartphones and tablets for very long but I’d like to maximise whatever revenue I can generate. All this work should have a point and, I admit, at the moment, I fail to see what that point could be beyond my own amusement.


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This post is a reason why teenagers leave school unprepared for the world

A very long day yesterday thanks to Other Work but when not struggling to edit corporate videos, I found time to write some code. I also took the plunge and paid the $25 fee to become an Android Developer.  By the end of the day, I had my first online leaderboard up and running as well as my first two achievements unlocked. Today I need to code a method of keeping track of all the game’s many achievements (I want there to be about 30+) as well as unlocking them as soon as they’re achieved.

The game has taken huge strides since Sunday night when, in a moment of rare clarity, I finally wrote the algorithm that had been eluding me for a month.

The game runs in 2D and involves a fair degree of parallax scrolling. Parallax is an effect you see in many games, most notably in Ubisoft’s new Child of Light, which I’ve taken a little time to play simply to enjoy the stunning artwork.

Whilst I can’t achieve anything like the Child of Light effect (my artwork is pretty woeful), I have programmed about eight layers of parallax which seems to run well on both my new tablet and my aging mobile phone. In Unity, that shouldn’t be that difficult since it’s a 3D engine and if you set up your layers in 3D and move a camera across them, they would naturally move in parallax with the more distant layers scrolling more slowly than those in the foreground. However, I’ve not followed that approach. I wasn’t sure that building an entire 2D world in memory would be the most effective use of resources so I took a programmable approach.

My 2D layers are constructed from patches and I only display those patches which are visible to the camera. I thought it would be an elegant solution so long as I could get a simple script to move each piece the right amount depending on their  supposed distance from the camera. Finding that ‘simple script’ took about two months of work. Last week, I had about four different versions of my script working away at the same time, depending on the kind of scroll effect I needed for a particular layer. Each routine ran to a few hundred lines of code but, on Sunday night, half an hour of scratching on the back of an envelope and I’d managed to write a new routine which did the same job in 20 lines and could work for all my layers. It’s now running quicker and allows me to reposition the camera anywhere in the landscape. Previously I couldn’t move the camera around by any large amount without leaving the landscape lagging behind as it tried to catch up. Now I can switch the view from point to point as often as I like, as well as occasionally widen the camera’s viewpoint to open up a larger view of the landscape.

I got up on Monday so delighted that I completely removed another function which allowed the user to slowly move the camera using onscreen controls. I’d been shying away from using touch gestures but found a simple explanation online and soon had written a routine to handle pinch zooming and finger scrolling.

So, the game is looking quite good, feels like a real game, and now has the online connectivity that I wanted.

I wish I could just figure out the remaining problems with the gameplay. It’s fun but I’m not entirely sure it requires enough skill. That’s my job for today, providing Other Work doesn’t slow me down.

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New Month, Old Problems
This post is rated 18 for adult content and explicit talk about teeth

The start of a new month so I thought the very least I should (and could) do is write a blog post but, as you can see, ended up also posting a brief video about Unity. I suppose the video proves that I am actually working on something, even if my usual reticence about ongoing projects means that I’m not ready to send it out into the world. I’m also horribly aware that the previous app I wrote still hasn’t emerged. To be honest, I still haven’t decided what to do with it and I haven’t the time to invest in finishing it with the degree of polish I’d expect from any published app.

I just never have enough time. I’m not entirely sure what happened to April. The month went quickly, dominated as it was by trips to various local (and not so local) hospitals where my sister underwent a series of increasingly unpleasant (for her) investigations and then procedures. I’d like to say that she’s feeling better but she isn’t. Nor are we much more advanced in knowing the cause of her long time illness. Things have been found but no real explanations give. We have a few ideas, some theories, but, as ever, we await somebody who might actually understand it and wish to treat it.

As for myself, I’ve just been trying to keep my head down and plough on without stopping to think too much. Reflection breeds misery so I haven’t stopped drawing and coding. You might also have noticed that the month ended with a rarity. I exceeded my bandwidth and this blog disappeared for three whole days as I waited for the new month to bring a bandwidth reset. There might have been some way for me to keep it running but I refuse to plough what little money I don’t have into something that earns me nothing. I don’t honestly know why I keep on with this charade, though it was a little gratifying to learn that my outpourings are now being archived for posterity by the British Library. So, hello people of the future.  [Waves forlornly across time and space]

Speaking of earning nothing through my labours: as the video proves, I’m *still* toiling away on the game. I’m well past the stage where I should have abandoned it for something better. I have better ideas than this and the gameplay mechanic still has a flaw in that I still can’t widen the player’s view to give them better control over events. The only thing I can say positive about the game is that it makes me laugh on a regular basis and that, ultimately, is the only thing I’d intended when I set out to create this monstrosity.

I now feel like I’m in the Unity2D zone. I keep getting better ideas for better games which I think I could build. Last week, I had an idea for a simple game and I built a working prototype in less than two hours. If I had time to devote to it, I might work on that simpler game. I have a Unity mindset and my projects are now mainly constructed in code rather than using the visual editor and nothing in my game exists long than they are needed.

I think I’ve said before that the beauty of Unity is the ability to create and destroy GameObjects: which are containers for graphics, sound, and even game logic. If I were making a tennis game, I could simply create game logic for a single’s match or a different set of logic if you’re playing doubles.

The last couple of weeks have been about small things: getting menus working, unlocking trophies, and victory messages. I have a high score system in place, though it’s not connected to any internet leaderboards which I would eventually like. My one obstacle remaining is really learning about serializing data but that is for another day, week, or even month.

The other stumbling block is music. Sound effects I’ve pretty much solved by going around the house snapping twigs, hitting pans, and making grunts into the microphone. Again, I’m not much of a foley artist but the effects don’t sound too bad.

I wish I could say the same about the music. Ideally, I should find some musician willing to provide a little background jingle but I’ve ended up doing it myself. Not having a proper MIDI keyboard limits what I can do. I’ve borrowed a Apogee JAM from a friend so I can connect my guitar to the PC but I don’t have facilities to really record my battered old acoustic guitar and my (almost as battered) electric sounds too grungy. So far, I’ve had only limited success primarily because the sounds I like to make don’t at all fit the game which requires something more comical, possibly played on the tuba.

But I could waffle on like this all day and I have jobs to do instead of talking to myself and people in the year 2153 studying low-end blogging in the 21st century. I’ll blog again, hopefully before this month’s bandwidth runs out. Not that I’m complaining that the blog gets visitors but I’m sure it’s only people looking for America’s hugely successful Spine blogger who talks only about spines. That’s clearly where I’ve been going wrong…

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Getting Pretty Alpha
This post is puts three types of a positive spin on the issue of sandy bottoms

I guess I made some bad design decisions early on which have taught me to take longer designing any future project before I start hacking away at the code. However, I didn’t set out to write a full game. I thought I’d simply take a few days to see how Unity worked. Weeks into what has become the equivalent of writing a book (with about an equal amount of work drawing all the graphics), I’m still left with things that require too much work to get entirely right.

One such bad decision was the placement of my camera. I didn’t understand anything about the Unity orthographic camera when I began and I set it up pretty much at random, with no thought to what might be right or what I might need.

The problem is that the camera is now too close to the principal subject . I can easily pull it back but that exposes more of the background and I’m not sure that the code I’ve written to generate that background could work quickly enough to double or quadruple the amount of terrain than needs to be shifted. I’m tempted to give it a try. I installed a build of the game on my old Samsung G2 and it runs nice and fast and it is pretty playable… Or, at least, I find it a bit distracting.  I never intended it to be phone compatible so that’s an unexpected bonus. However, I’m not entirely sure where the G2 sits in the spectrum of devices out there.

But back to the problem with the camera: I’ve adopted a compromise by widening the camera’s view at certain moments and then returning it to the closer view. It works but I think I’ll need to start getting feedback. I’m reaching the stage when I really need some people to try the game, even in this early stage. In software development terms, I’m probably reaching the Alpha release where you can actually play the game but lots of things are rough and need work. There are about eight levels to play and complete and things to be won. But the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together as a finished project. I’m currently scouring the internet for free sound effects so I can liven up this generally silent world. So far, I’ve limited myself to making the noises myself, going around the house hitting objects together, dropping bags of sugar on bags of rice, and then strangulating myself simply to get the right sound effect.

Of course, finding people with Android devices isn’t that easy. Literally everybody I know has Apple and although Unity can easily build an Apple compatible version of my game (it’s all device independent), there’s no way I can afford to do that. Unlike Google who have a relatively friendly ecosystem (bar the £20+ they ask if you want to become an Android developer and have access to their cloud services), Apple won’t even let you develop or test for their devices without you first coughing up £99.

However, that’s something I guess I’ll deal with if ever the time comes that I think it’s actually worth exporting this to Apple devices. At the moment, I’m hoping all this will come together at the end. The beauty of Unity is how it separates the hard work of getting things to appear on the screen on difference devices from the less difficult but far more intricate work of getting the game logic working correctly. I seem to spend most of my hours either telling the software when to enable or disable controls and buttons or puzzling over some strange behaviour such as this morning when I spent an hour trying to figure out why some of my graphics were shifting through the z axis, i.e., moving behind other layered graphics in front of which they were meant to be sitting.

Yet when Unity is willing and if you’re filled with bargain Lucazade which I’ve started to drink to give me the energy to finish this project, things can happen very quickly. Last night it took me about four hours to build a reward system into the game. I want people to play the game simply to unlock the things I’m hiding in there. The way I’m doing this is probably the only good idea in the game and I’ve not seen done anywhere else but it’s precisely the kind of silly little attention to detail that gives me real pleasure. When writing my Stan book, it was actually things like the fake photo credit on the back cover that gave me the most pride. I love things that warp traditional formats and though my game is about as simple, mundane, and downright run of the mill as any, I hope there are things here that will give amusement to people will my own warped outlook on the world.

My next job is to draw a panel cartoon strip for the introduction. The game has very little story but a little context might help it feel a little less like the random product of a tinkering mind.

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The Mike Harding Conundrum
This post is cited in most angst-ridden diary entries but only spelt correctly in two

Mike Harding seems to be following me. Or I’m following him. The least likely answer is that there exists some strange quirk about the great universal cog that makes Mike Harding decide to visit Manchester’s Waterstones whenever I’m there. It’s been weeks since I last visited the Deansgate store and I remember the day because I was relaxing in the top floor restaurant (my favourite place in Manchester) when Mike Harding’s head appeared at the top of the escalator. It was followed by Mike Harding’s body and Mike Harding’s legs. He looked just as he looks on the radio.

DrewFriedmanYesterday I found myself in Waterstones after a rather sad trip to visit the University bookshop. It didn’t have any of the books I wanted to browse nor any real surprises. It was in Waterstones that I landed my bargain. Waterstones never ever have Drew Friedman books on the shelves. I check fairly regularly and the only time I’ve come across a Friedman, was a few months ago when they were selling one of his collections in their sale for a criminally low price. They had another sale on today and, sure enough, there was more Friedman books. This time both of his Old Jewish Comedians were sitting beside each other there on the shelf and each had been marked down to £3. I felt slightly ashamed taking advantage of the sale but delighted I’d actually managed to find a couple of books I’d been meaning to buy for a long time.

After that success, it was time for a coffee. And that’s when Mike Harding made his regular appearance. I guess you’d have to be of a certain time and place to appreciate who Mike Harding is and I’m not entirely sure that any of the other diners were quite a star struck as me. I’m tempted to say ‘Fred Dibnah with a banjo’ or ‘the Billy Connolly of the north’ but neither is quite accurate. Not being a folk fan, I didn’t follow his metamorphosis into one of the UK’s top champions of folk music. However, growing up loving comedy, his voice was always lodged deeper in my subconscious than I’d probably like to admit.

It’s a strange business seeing people you recognise from TV because the part of your brain that recognises them, doesn’t know where you recognise them from. Pure instinct makes you look and prepare to acknowledge them. Then some higher order thinking kicks in and you have to quickly adjust your eyes to look at something else.

The worst time that ever happened was walking down from the University in Liverpool. I was just coming out of Reid’s second-hand bookshop a few years ago and a tall guy was walking towards me. I sort of nodded and smiled and only then realised that Alex Cox has no idea who the hell I am. Cox is another of those important figures whose opinions always matter to me. His Moviedrome series was one of the most influential things in my early life. In many respects, film criticism on TV has never been as good as those seminal shows. In what just world does Cox end up teaching at an American University and Claudia Wrinkleface hosts the BBC’s premiere film show?

But back to Mike Harding (another victim of the BBC’s crass stupidity): this is now the third or fourth time I’ve been in Waterstones and he’s been there. I always feel temped to say hello and ask if he ever got the letter I wrote to him back when I was writing my Stan Madeley letters. Any reply would have been sure to make the finished book. It wasn’t one of my best letters but it wasn’t the worst either.



Okay. Today I want to devote to getting my ‘game’ closer to being finished. The level selection screen is working (I’m aiming for 20 levels to begin) and late last night I figured out a gameplay mechanic which hadn’t been working right. The only jobs remaining are getting a reward system in place, unlocking content as levels progress, high score tables (trickier than I thought) and then filling each level with as much work content as I can create. In honour of Mike Harding, I’ll even add his likeness to the game in one form or another. Everything I’ve drawn recently is finding it’s way into this game.

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