The Flamekeblog

I've been playing the 2015 Mad Max videogame and it's swirling around my head.

The main thing I can't escape from is that it's not supposed to make sense. I love the setting and it makes for some truly haunting vistas but the concept of a dried out ocean just doesn't hang together for me. I can't think of any plausible reason why resource wars and nuclear war could result in desiccation on this scale.

If you're not familiar with it a large part of the game takes place on a seabed. Lighthouses and shipwrecks sit atop small mountains, pipelines and oilrigs can be found, that sort of thing. It's a great place to set a post-apocalyptic wasteland but I just can't see a plausible way it could happen.

The closest things in the real world are the Salton Sea and the Aral Sea but they're much smaller scale.

The Salton Sea isn't small enough to be worth mentioning whilst the Aral Sea is really just a large lake. I mean, it's big but it's no ocean, and more importantly it's inland. The ocean could recede a bit but it's just too big to disappear.

As a result the game fills me with a sort of sadness at what could never be. Whilst I obviously wouldn't welcome such an apocalypse there's a strange sort of beauty to the devastated landscape. If only its implausibility didn't colour it with a permanent air of fiction....

 So, next project!

I'm not certain if this will do what I need but with any luck it just might. Ah, yes, the task? Well I have microphones. Unfortunately they need to be amplified before being suitable for use with most consumer-grade gear. They don't need anything beefy for this though - what they need is a pre-amp to bring them up to the right level.

The idea being that one could go out to interview someone with a couple of microphones and some cables. These could then be wired to a phone or MP3 player for recording. The gear to conduct the interview would fit easily in something as small as a handbag.

When recording multiple people one tends to find that they speak at different volumes. Not a problem in person (usually...) but to the audio gear they'll sound vastly different. The basic answer to this is going to be keeping the two sound channels separate. A 3.5mm stereo jack will be used for both input and output. Traditionally one would use 1/4" (6.35mm) audio jacks or even XLR plugs (to match the microphones). No dice for this job though as what they're going into is a L├Ąckerol tin I got from Scandinavia. There's room for a 9 volt battery and a bit more. With any luck I'll have the space to get the whole thing to fit!

Pretty small, as you can see. Here's it without most of the parts:

It's going to be tight!

So what's going in side?
Well the plan is for a slightly modified version of this project.

Well I don't know about you but some of those symbols aren't ones I initially recognise (I think they're ANSI symbols) so I did my best to redraw the diagram into something I'd stand a better chance of understanding at a glance:

Hopefully I didn't balls that up in some way. What you can hopefully see is that there's only one potentiometer in the circuit diagram (although there will also be a trimmer replacing that circled 100K resistor). There's two on the tin though...
Yeah... I need to get the circuit to fit twice! Stereo, y'see?

Also not pictured are the two 3.5mm audio jacks that are part of the design. Worst case scenario I could instead wire those to actual wires that hang out of the case but ideally I want it all to be internal. It's not all that many parts, thankfully. The ICs are LM741s that are fairly tiny, a few capacitors and resistors, and the rather small trimmers (potentiometers that aren't expected to change after being set).

So, things that need to be done:

  • Missing parts: 2012 me ordered the parts and missed out the 47K resistors I need. He also ordered linear potentiometers rather than logarithmic ones.
  • Wire. I could really do with a colour other than white!
  • Insulation. I'm not sure if it's required but it might be a good idea to lay down some plastic inside to keep the parts isolated from the case. On the plus side the casing should help filter out RF interference!
  • Knobs. It might be fun to add some cool knobs to the volume control pots.

Disclaimer: I'm still fairly new to this sort of thing and I've only just managed to solder something that wasn't a complete pig's ear. With that in mind let's dive in to what I've been working on in my spare time.

Many years ago I got my grubby meathooks on a book Games Workshop used to publish "How to Make Wargames Terrain". Not the flashy 2004 version mind you - the 1996 version. In all honesty I found it fairly worthless and uninspiring, especially in a time before the kind of tutorials we have access online today. There were a few nuggets of wisdom in there though such as the existence of this tool:

(From the original book)

Now I don't know about you but I'm not good at spending medium amounts of cash on myself. I'll save up for something expensive and buy it, I'll buy the odd small treat for up to about £7.50 but anything above that just feels a bit too much for just me. Well hot wire cutters fire into that price range (plus the cost of 4.5V batteries if one goes for the cheaper battery operated ones).

These days I'm older and I've got a lot of odds and sods lying around. One of these things is an ancient computer power supply. We're talking 140W.

It's on its own though so there's no way to turn it on. The kettle lead is plugged in but without a case button wired into it there's no on switch. Well that is at least easy to fix:

The black leads are all ground. There's only one green wire and grounding it immediately turns on the PSU. Sorted!

Right, then what's next? Well we've got lots of connectors that have both red and yellow wires. The red ones are 5V rails while the yellows are 12V. Oh and before we go on these are DC. The PSU's job is to convert AC input to DC output. 12V DC is, for the most part, safe. Probably unwise to handle it with wet hands, admittedly, but under normal conditions skin resistance prevents 12V being enough of a gradient to be dangerous.

The next component is NiChrome wire. A few metres can be had on eBay for bugger all. I bought the smallest amount I could - a metre of 0.5mm stuff - for £1.50 including postage. Man, making stuff was so much more expensive before eBay.

Ideally the wire for the hot wire cutter needs to be kept under tension. It's fairly stiff stuff but as we all remember from physics classes: metal that heats up expands. Hmm.

So I needed a device that could:

  • Keep the wire under tension even as it expands
  • Have plenty of safe handholds
  • Not melt when if exposed to a little stray heat
  • Take up as little space as possible

Lots of people make these using PVC pipe but I haven't got any that's the right size so that idea fell at the first hurdle. Wood would work though, assuming it was reasonably tough. I took a look in a nearby shed and found an extremely dead deckchair. The canvas had rotted off and it was riddle with woodworm and rot. Luckily some parts of it were still dry and reasonably tough.

A bit of sawing, drilling, and wiring later and I had a pterodactyl!

The rubber band keeps the wire under tension and the rest of the design allows it to be collapsed when not in use. In theory I could also mount a longer wire if I felt like it. Attaching one wire to a 12V rail and the other to a ground rail provided me with something that happily chews through even thick insulation foam:

It actually runs a little hotter than I'd like and so I'm considering testing it on the 5V rail to see whether that makes any difference when cutting simple polystyrene. Its current heat level is fine for thicker foam but it goes through white expanded polystyrene like it's not even there - not so good if one doesn't have a steady hand. A switch between the two might be a good addition if that works.

As I grow older I get increasingly uncomfortable taking part in online communities. I don't mean that in the sense of making conversation and posting normally - I'm thinking of being actively involved. Questions come up about what the community wants to do, or there's the overall suggestion that community input is desired.

This post isn't written in relation to an isolated example. I can think of at least three online communities that this has been an issue with in the last year.

The reasoning behind my discomfort is fairly straightforward - I don't feel like it's my place to have an opinion. I've never been much of a joiner - I tend to create my own communities or projects and have others join me. That said I've been doing my best to get involved but I worry that my opinions are too confrontational. In one community I was posting my reaction to a recent piece of content it released (after being asked to do so). I was, without exaggeration, shaken up by the content they released. When I expressed that in their call for feedback I was met with confrontation and hostility.

On another forum it was a question of policy change. Nothing all that important but in my eyes the vote was premature. Essentially the question was being asked without discussing the objectives. A little like saying "Should we buy these ingredients?" without thinking about what the dish is to be. No one else seemed to think it was worth asking what the community's goal was and I had to balance my reluctance to endure social awkwardness with my desire to be (at least as I see it) a good citizen. My question was merely met with a question and then ignored.

A third forum. This one I've been wading in heavily and trying to help as best I can. Forums are a dying medium for the most part and this one is no exception. In a year's time I would be surprised if it isn't completely dead given the current course it's taking. I say that with the hope that the ship can be righted but the fear that without significant change...well. I'm surprised no one else is willing to talk about the issue.

Of course in doing so I fear that I'm alienating the nebulous "community" that still exists there. I went through their formal channels and passed the special vote that they have. In theory I'm well within my rights (and verbosely encouraged to stick my oar in!) but I still feel like an outsider with no business interfering. They've been there a lot longer and presumably have some interest in the continued success of the community. But here I am as the new kid trying to take the time and energy to do something about the ailing forum. It's a bit of a pickle. I want to respect their experience and what they've put into the place but also can clearly see that without changes the writing is on the wall. Erk.

One can perhaps see why I'm more of a creator than a joiner.

In the past I've talked about solved and solvable games but today I've been thinking about what bothers me about various media and the concept.

Personally I dislike plays and stage adaptations that need to make frequent reference to events off stage. To me it feels lazy and it actively undermines my immersion in the story. The reason I feel this way relates to the fact that each medium has its own set of constraints. They can be somewhat flexible but attempting to break away from them entirely is rarely advisable.

One of my favourite TV shows is Bob's Burgers - it's a sitcom that mostly relies on banter between the existing characters and small-scale situations. Some of my favourite episodes use only a handful of locations. Some TV shows rely on novelty to keep things fresh but ultimately this becomes formulaic and tedious, at least in my view.

When it comes to games with too much scope I find myself unable to engage or confused. Minecraft is fun, for example, but unless I have something specific to work towards I struggle to find any real entertainment in it. Similarly without someone else to guide me through a story the scope of pen and paper RPGs is too broad for me. When asked to imagine something in the context of a nearly blank canvas it's hard to imagine anything at all!

Gorkamorka is a game I find very satisfying both to play and to write for. It's relatively small scale and requires innovation and creativity to come up with fun additions that fit. If one throws the constraints out then why not pay everyone in hugs and have the moon for breakfast? It's just as valid after all.

The reason I started thinking about this was because a nice chap on the YakTribe forum suggested vehicle capacities for Gorkamorka. The line of argument that appears whenever this subject comes up is that everyone's vehicles will end up with huge flatbeds in order to take advantage of the way crew capacities work (passenger capacity = however many models will physically fit).

Let's say we took away that rule and ran with fixed vehicle capacities. At that point what reason is there  to field anything but the standardised vehicle models (aside from personal drive to field odd creations)?

No longer does it matter how big a vehicle is - it might as well be as small as possible. Tactically that would be advantageous after all (and that's the line of reasoning that was originally posited).

Earlier I was talking about working within a medium's constraints. In this case the constraint in question is vehicle size. A larger vehicle is more difficult to manoeuvre and a much larger target. A small vehicle can't carry as many passengers. Both choices have their advantages and disadvantages. It creates a fixed space within which to operate forcing players to make choices and innovate.

One could even imagine it as a graph!

If one removes the capacity dimension then one might as well aim to minimise vulnerability.

Personally I prefer to encourage players to explore the medium as much as possible. I'm always happy to see innovative approaches that had never crossed my mind - it's something humans are remarkably good at!/

I've never been formally taught game design but I feel like I'm starting to get the hang of how things should work when it comes to my favourite game of all - Gorkamorka.

In order to understand this it's probably best we take a look at its sister game, Necromunda. This wonderful game was released in 1995 or so and features many similar elements. For whatever reason it was always the more popular game and received considerably more support, to the point where the models were only recently removed from Games Workshop's site. It also received an updated rulebook and a lengthy run of coverage in the form of its own magazines.

I love Necromunda but find it difficult to wrap my head around the vast array of materials available for it. The fact that such a rich base of content exists is wonderful but as with many other things in life I feel I need someone else to guide me.

There is one side effect of this - fragmentation.

Off the top of my head there's at least four versions of the core Necromunda rules. Not reprints, versions.

First there's the original set, let's call them "vanilla". Then there's Necromunda: Underhive, a newer version with some changes. Those are the two printed sets (The compiled hardback falls into the vanilla category, not a separate one).

Then there's the "living rulebook" available from Games Workshop's site, and lastly there's the Community Edition. There may well be other variants too but that's the four I know about.

So before we get into anything additional or esoteric there's four different sets of base rules. I'm sure that's not confusing for new players at all.

Gorkamorka is nowhere near as popular though and so doesn't have this problem. I don't think any of us expect Games Workshop to suddenly release a new version of the rules. As such we can have an interesting situation for game development: the core rules can be treated as immutable.

Whilst there may be fragmentation on how squigs work, for example, the core rules are unchanging. A new player can get the books and everything builds upon them.

This results in an interesting game design environment. New mechanics can be created, sure, but that means more complexity on top of an already fairly extensive system. Instead one has to try to work with the elements that already exist to create. Personally I find this a fantastic challenge and an exercise in elegant design.

The intended outcome is to create a situation where a new player can pick up any additional content and immediately have a good understanding of it. That's the goal at least!

Cheese it!

04 March 2014

Every now and then I come across one more mental tool for tackling the world around me. Sometimes this is a lens through which to examine things through, other times it's more of a handle to grasp and work from. Today it was an additional way to think about games and activities.

A little preamble - chess. Personally I'm not interested in the game. It clearly takes a lot of skill to play well, I don't doubt that, the problem I have with it is that it's not fun. I'm sure plenty of people finding immensely entertaining but sadly I do not count myself in their number. I can see how it'd be fun in a much more boring world, for example if played by post. That's not the world I live in and as such it seems intensely dull.

Listening to an episode of Radiolab I learned about "book moves":

Chess has a set number of moves. Certainly the number of possible games is a ludicrous amount but that's because each additional move drastically raises the count. As a result we have a whole library of ways to start a game. Fritz is basically that, from what I understood.

Essentially any given game will start out "in book" (a documented state) and at a certain point will go "out of book". When it reaches that state the game is unique.

My problem with chess is the fact that there's such a vast library of knowledge on how to play it. It's just a matter of time before it's a solved game. Don't get me wrong - that might happen in the next ten years or long after I die of old age, I'm not suggesting it's necessarily soon, just that it will, in theory, be solved.

If the game is solved then there's not only no point in being creative in playing it, it's actively detrimental to winning. To me that's slow death. I've felt this way for a long time but it's only today that I learn names and examples in order to be able to better explain it. What I love about Gorkamorka is that there's no risk of it ever being solved. There are combinations that work better than others but there are so many more elements in play as to make other strategies plenty viable. I love that!

Chess is not the only game that is affected by this, I feel, it's the same reason I don't enjoy competitive video games. There are a number of ways to best win and deviating from those strategies is tantamount to conceding defeat from the outset. I do not like to play games where I'm being told specifically how to play - I want to be able to be creative. Hearing strategies that have worked for others is fine, as long as they're not the way, merely a way.