why I prefer not to teach kids visual scripting

I’m actually pretty adamantly biased against visual programming (sometimes referred to as block-based coding, or visual scripting). I’ll elaborate.

First, it’s important that you understand visual programming to be generally more limited in scope and capability than most (though certainly not all) text-based computer programming environments. Most block-based coding frameworks are written “on top of” some other coding environment, and will have only as many features as the programmers of them have bothered to (or had a budget to) implement as a subset of those features and capabilities of the original environment. But it’s also worth noting that the original APIs they are coding on top of will probably be changing as fast (or likely faster) than they have time to implement in the block-based equivalent. So even if the desire is for 1-to-1 feature parity, they will likely always be a subset. (Worth noting that as far as I know, no block-based coding environment has been written in a block based language, they are all coded in some other text-based language environment.)

So why is it bad that it’s limited? This is just for teaching right? Well, my argument is mainly that I believe we tend to prefer to do things the way we first learn to do them**. It seems like most proponents of block-based coding are in education, but I don’t think that the folks teaching it, while they are obviously well-intentioned, realize that there are a limited number of practical applications of block-based coding.

Obviously context matters here. If you are teaching a specific tool that exists for a specific purpose to someone who only wants to be able to do that thing, then maybe that’s fine. I’m mostly opposed to teaching kids (or more even adults) more generally the concepts of coding by teaching them those concepts using visual-coding or block-based coding.

I think it goes like this: if you are presented with the choice of teaching a kid to drag some cool looking blocks around a screen versus getting them to type some (possibly esoteric) syntax into a text editor, then drag and drop seems like the obvious choice! And I can even see an argument that teaching coding concepts, it might seem like decoupling them from a programming-language specific syntax seems like a good idea… but I think most people, when moving beyond learning the initial concepts, are going to prefer to do it the way they first learned it. And that’s where the problem comes in! if the way they first learned to code was with blocks, they’re going to be used to (and possibly prefer!) a fairly limited way of coding.

Code is text. Text is code. “visual coding” is putting a graphic design on top of text. You might argue that all programming languages are built on top of other programming languages, and that’s true, and I’m certainly not arguing everyone should learn assembly before they learn C. But I will argue that you should learn Python before you learn a VPL.

As an aside, I struggled to find a good metaphor for this article. The closest I got was this: It’s sort of like communicating with Emoji. You can definitely get some meanings across, but if you are going to be nuanced about it, or have something very specific you need to communicate, it’s definitely not going to be good enough. But if you never learned to spell, and only learned emoji, you would be at a serious communication disadvantage. This metaphor breaks down pretty quickly though.

**BTW, if it turns out you have (or know about) evidence that I am wrong about this basic premise, I’d love to hear about it. It fits with my understanding of human behavior, but I’m certainly no expert on human psychology!

Spiel 2019

This year I attended my first ever Essen Spiel, the world’s largest board game convention.

Bucket list item: Check.

I came back with this pile of games

…as you can see, they are mostly (but not all) abstract strategy games. And for the most part (with a couple of notable exceptions) they are games that I am unlikely to see in a store here in the states. I haven’t played them all yet, but I have made a dent, and I’ve quite enjoyed Control V, Nova Luna, Hetrix and Stackers so far. My family played a game of Miyabi, and my wife even declared she approved of the purchase!

I was demoing and exhibiting with Adam’s Apple Games, who had, months ago, during the kickstarter, hoped to have Thrive there for sale, but alas, there have been manufacturing delays, and it now looks like it’ll be next March (probably at the earliest) before we see the final production copies. You can see me here standing next to the 3D printed prototypes that we’ve been showing around for the last year or so.

Spiel is more like a trade show (they refer to it as an expo) than most of the other board game related events I’ve been to. Comparing it to Gen Con in particular is interesting, because at Essen there are really no “events” at all. Some exhibitors might post a list of events they are having in their booth, (signings or tournaments most likely), but the convention itself has no designated spaces for events, and doesn’t post a schedule. At Gen Con the expo hall is maybe 1/4th of the designated convention center space, and probably 1/2 of the total space is purely for events. (Many of which are ticketed and cost additional money.) Another difference is that most people expect to actually play games in the exhibitor booths. So most booths, even the smallest ones, have a demo table (or a dozen!), and folks sit down at them mostly to play entire games. Although many of the larger games at the bigger publisher booths (but not all) were just shorter-length demos, which is usually what you get to do, (if anything!), on the show floor at Gen Con. But of course Gen Con has all that additional space for events, most of which are just scheduled times to play specific games.

A lot of people attend Spiel, this year nearly three times as many as attended Gen Con. (If Wikipedia’s numbers are correct, 209k vs 70k.) But for that, it never felt significantly more crowded than Gen Con to me. Yes, there is more physical space, certainly, but I think another factor could be that more folks attend Spiel on day passes than Gen Con, and so you have fewer people at any given time. Certainly Saturday and Sunday did feel very crowded, but I saw very little shoulder-to-shoulder, wall-of-humans that is common walking the expo floor at Gen Con.

You don’t see stuff like this at Gen Con.

You can’t throw a stick without hitting a designer. Not thinking of the attendees so much, but as I walked around the convention, the folks staffing the booths were quite often the game designers themselves. This was definitely not as true in the larger booths, but the smaller ones it felt very common for the designers to be present, and if there was only one person staffing the booth, I’d guess it was 50/50 whether that person also designed a game being shown.

It was super multicultural. There were definitely publishers there from all over the world. I personally met folks from Australia, Korea, China, Spain, the UK, Ireland, and of course Germany. But as large as it was, not all the US publishers were there. I can only speculate why, but certainly some of them don’t think a cost/benefit analysis holds up, but I also think it’s just plain impossible to go to all the events all the time. I’m fairly certain you could find a board game event somewhere in the world to go to every weekend, if you tried hard enough.

I’m definitely glad I went, and I would do it again. I really enjoyed wandering around the show floor and seeing all the new games.

Nintendo Labo VR reviewed

As a VR developer, and self-professed Nintendo superfan, getting the Nintendo Labo VR kit was definitely a priority. I had the first couple of Labo kits, but I’ll be honest, I never even put together the giant robot one. (I’ll get around to it someday.)

My daughter and I spent an hour or two putting together the initial headset, and then checking out the 16 or so mini-games that are playable with just that. The headset itself feels a lot like google cardboard, but the larger screen size of the Nintendo Switch means the lenses are also really huge.

I think this also means it’s pretty forgiving in terms of eye placement in the headset. I took the kit to our local VR & HCI meeting earlier this week, and passed it around a bunch. Only one person mentioned they were having problems getting it to line up properly.

My daughter and I have probably also spent another 5 to 10 short (1/2 hr to 45 minute) sessions putting together various other accessories and playing their associated minigames. For some reason that felt quite a bit more satisfying than the original Labo kit, I think maybe because I have a natural tendency to want to only spend a minute or two at a time in 3DoF VR, and so the games feel like they are the appropriate length. And it helps that there are a lot of different experiences.

Additionally, I don’t know how to articulate this exactly, but I cannot stress enough how cool it feels to build your own VR accessory. In a way it feels like switching attachments in Budget Cuts or Cosmic Trip, but IN REAL LIFE, and you build the attachments yourself!

The camera attachment alone was easily an hour of assembly, and the underwater game you play with it (basically just pointing the camera at things and taking pictures) was pretty engaging for a good length of time. We also put together the blaster, (probably more like a 2 or 4 hour activity in total) and I think my daughter would have easily spent at least that long playing the alien shooter game it enables if I’d let her.

In general, I’ve found playing with someone else is a nice way to go about it, because, while in Build mode, it’s nice to have one person folding / assembling the cardboard, and the other person manning the forward button on the switch. And when playing, sessions longer than a minute or two definitely start to make me feel queasy. My daughter doesn’t seem to have that problem, but I’d still like to limit her usage, so taking turns makes sense.

So… I just this morning finished checking out the VR modes in Zelda and Mario Odyssey.

My short review of those: super underwhelming.

The camera still rotates around your character in Zelda, so moving my head at all made me feel pretty sick. You can still control the camera with the right stick, so it was playable if I kept my head still. After like a minute or two, my arms were tired, so I detached the joycons and played with my head tilted back and the Labo VR resting on my face. Made me wish for like a second it came with a headstrap, but it would be terrible, so makes sense that it doesn’t.

The edges of the screen had some chromatic aberration, which was most noticeable in the menus, which float in screen space, so you can’t turn your head to see the edges. Text was hard to read as well (although not as bad as I’d expected).

The whole game is playable in VR, so that’s something. But because the camera is essentially the same as in the normal game, it’s not like you can peer around and find new stuff. The only real novelty is stereoscopic 3D.

Mario wasn’t much better. Their game has the camera at a fixed point, and you HAVE to rotate the headset to look around. This doesn’t make me feel sick, really, but feels like a super low-rez way to play what is otherwise a good looking game. (For some reason, the low rez in Zelda didn’t bother me at all, but I wasn’t checking it out for very long…)

The gameplay in the mario levels (because that’s what they are, new smallish 3D levels, where the camera only rotates from a fixed point) was collecting musical instruments to give to the musicians scattered throughout. To get each instrument was basically the musical-note-fetch-quest that triggers by collecting the first note, (and then a bunch more notes appear to collect before a timer makes them disappear again). This is a mechanic already in the base game, typically with stars as a reward, and was rather disappointed it wasn’t a new game mode entirely. Especially because those are some of my least favorite types of stars to collect. And it’s worth noting you don’t even get stars for them here. You load up these new levels from the main menu, before you even pick a save slot.

You also have the option of playing the new levels without VR. But in that mode you CANNOT change the camera other than using the Nintendo Switch’s accelerometer. I was disappointed with the first level in VR, so I thought I’d try out the second one without it, and it definitely felt worse to me having to rotate the switch around to look anywhere, but without it attached to your face.

Overall, I am VERY pleased with my Nintendo Labo VR purchase. I just wouldn’t recommend getting it to play Zelda or Super Mario Odyssey. But there is a ton of content in the Labo kit itself. I still haven’t built the Elephant or Swan attachments, and I feel like I have a lot more content to explore even without them! I’m definitely looking forward to spending more time with Labo VR.

Thrive is on Kickstarter!

So Thrive is a game I designed during my game-idea-a-day project, way back in 2016! It’s a two-player abstract strategy game (which should surprise nobody), and the big innovation is that you augment the way the pieces move as you are playing the game. A little over a year ago it was picked up by Adam’s Apple Games, and just NOW, TODAY, it’s on Kickstarter.

This is my first ever board game getting a print run of any size. I’ve been extremely grateful to Adam for taking me along on this ride, keeping me in the loop on many of the decisions along the way, and allowing me to be such a part of this project.

Protospiel MN 2019

Last weekend was Protospiel MN. After how much fun I had at the Madison protospiel (was it just a month ago!?!?), my expectations for this one may have got away from me. I ended up spending quite a bit of time in the last few weeks prepping new prototypes. Here’s what I brought and tested:

Adam Rehberg and I both brought copies of Thrive in various states of quality. It was interesting to compare his 3D printed pieces to my own. (We are using a new model courtesy of local artist Colin Cody-Waters, and his printer does a better job with it than mine.) At this point, we are more in marketing mode than actual play testing, but we did have some new things to playtest.

Worth noting that there will be a kickstarter for Thrive at the end of February, or beginning of March, and at least in part to collect email addresses for that kickstarter, there is a Thrive print-and-play contest going on right now over at Adam’s Apple Games.

I managed to get a new “pyramid tile laying / fitting / stacking game” to the table several times. The tiles are (some of them) glued together in 1/4th overlapping shapes and patterns. (This is harder to describe than I realized.) I’ll include a photo of one of the end-game pyramids below, but you can’t really get a sense from the photo which tiles are actually glued together and which are singletons. The idea is that you use the singletons as currency to pay for the larger tiles. One of the last parts left to design was how to score the game, (though I had plenty of ideas), and I got lots of useful feedback on those ideas, as well as plenty of other helpful suggestions from my play testers. One of the games we ended up calculating scores for each player in 4 different ways. None of them fully met my criteria for how I wanted the scoring to incentivize building up rather than out, so I still have some thinking still to do on this one.

Oh Tetrominoes! – just the blocks – I made a version of this game by gluing 1-inch cubes together (pictured below). It was easy to get to the table, because it just looks and feels really nice, I think. Adam gave me some great feedback about wanting a “qwirkle moment”. And someone suggested having blocking pieces. Next time I play it I want to try where only the three polygons score, and the spaces marked X are blockers. Notably, the game board (with score track) was the first and only thing I’ve ever created in Illustrator, only about an hour of work.

Windrose – I did playtest this again at the convention. There were some new ideas thrown around. I sort of thought this was “done”, but the conversation left me bristling with ideas. I sort of feel like most of them would result in a different game entirely, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I did also bring my Blinks dev kit, which was running my game Takeover. I only actually brought it out on Saturday night, after the main convention hall was closed for the evening. Immediately after we played it, we played Oh Tetrominoes!, and someone paid me the compliment (paraphrased) “You’ve shown me both the most sophisticated (technically), and least sophisticated (physical components) games that I’ve seen this weekend.”

Other highlights:
– My standout game for the convention was a numbers-heavy (but not at all otherwise heavy) strategy game by Patrick Yang. He’s calling it Mathemagical, which is a great name, and I really liked the game.
– I got to play a tetromino stacking prototype called Lots. It was light and quite fun.
– My daughter attended with me on Sunday, and she ended up spending at least an hour (maybe two) prototyping a game in collaboration with another little girl who was there. I think they both really had fun, and there were even some neat ideas they came up with together.

Protospiel Madison 2018

This was my first time at this particular Protospiel. I do think the space was bigger than the MN one, but only by a factor of maybe 1.5x or 2x. I heard tell it was actually more space this year than previous years, but I have no idea if that was true. I also heard there was less of a publisher presence this time around. The only ones I saw, were Adam Rehberg from Adam’s Apple Games, (who I traveled over with), and the GameCrafter (if you count them as a publisher). Of course others may have been there incognito. (Or just less obviously.)

Adam (who is publishing my game Thrive) and I set up Thrive as a blind playtest on one of the back tables. This was the first time it had been shown with (some of) the new artwork, and we got a lot of praise for it. (I’ll post a photo.) I did feel bad briefly on Saturday when it was especially packed for taking up the space, but there was almost always someone playing it, and I had so much positive feedback, both about the game itself, and about doing a blind playtest at Protospiel (which several folks said they’d never seen before), that the feeling was easily allayed. We got good feedback on the rules, and added about 15-20 names/emails to our signup sheet to let folks know about the kickstarter when it happens. (Incidentally, we talked about a date for the kickstarter on the car ride home, and we are currently aiming to have it now in March.)

My personal goal was to get more games of my two current favorite designs in, and I got both on the table several times. The first, (with working title Oh Tetrominoes!), was played 3 times to completion, and only actually broke on the 4th play through. While it mostly felt like it works mechanically, I think the consensus was that it’s a bit fiddly, and not especially fun. It’s a mashup of three or four game ideas I had that all feature tetrominoes, and while they are integrated well (I got compliments on this!), they still feel weirdly disjointed, and one of them really feels like the core of the game (which I reluctantly agree with). After the last (failed) gameplay, one of the playtesters actually convinced the rest of the table (including me, but I didn’t need much convincing) to play a game of just that main core mechanic, without the other features. That went really well, and I’m definitely going to pivot the game a bit. (I mean really, I think it’s basically done, but I suppose I should playtest it a few more times to be sure. I’ll probably try and re-use the other mechanisms in a different game… someday.)

I felt like my other game, Windrose, had each playtest go better than the last. My goal for that one had been to play it with 4 players. as It had previously only been tested with two. I got in 2 more 2-player games, 3 4-player games, and one 3-player game (in that order). It really felt like it worked just fine with 3 and 4 players, although after the first 4-player game, we added a rule that changed strategies quite a bit without making the game feel all that different. I do think I prefer it with the new rule. Otherwise, the game didn’t actually need any tweaking, which feels kind of amazing to me. It’s another super simple abstract strategy game, and creating one of those that plays 4-players is really exciting to me. (Probably not something any publisher is going to be interested in, but you never know!)

Other highlights for me include:
– Playing a couple of new-to-me Adam’s Apple Games prototypes.
– A game played with “kite and dart” Penrose Tiles, which really looked cool.
– Seeing, (but sadly not actually playing) Cartographers: A Role Player Tale, which looked like a contender for my favorite take on the emerging “Flip and Fill” genre that is hot right now.
– Having dinner with Nick Bentley, who I have been acquainted with for some time, (I turned his game Catchup into an iOS app a few years ago), but until this trip might not have actually called a friend. We had such great conversations at dinner on Friday that we resolved to do it again on Saturday, and then I managed to convince him to play a couple of games late into Saturday night.

There were way more games that I was interested in trying out than I actually got to sit down and play. I did play a lot of games though, and I hope I gave some good feedback. I’d say the ratio of playing my own games to others’ was probably 40/60. All in all, definitely a great event for me. I’d recommend it, and definitely hope to do it again.

Joggernauts!!!

Last month I finished up working on this game, Joggernauts, with my friends over at Space Mace Games. Specifically, I worked on a lot of the saving and menu stuff. This was definitely a watershed project for me, since it’s the first game I’ve worked on that will be released on an actual game console. (The trailer I embedded above is actually on Nintendo’s YouTube Channel!)

I’ll definitely be posting about Joggernauts again when it comes out on the Nintendo Switch!

valuing quality in video games

This morning, I had a discussion with my daughter, trying to explain to her why I didn’t want to install a particular idle/incremental game on her iPad. Without naming names, it’s one of those idle games that just doesn’t have an end. I don’t think it’s a particularly bad game, but once you learn its systems, (which I do find interesting!) there’s nothing left to it but grinding for more of the same. I don’t particularly want my daughter playing games that are 99% grind.

This led me to think philosophically about why I want to play those games. I do value new game systems, and I think incremental/idle games have some of the more interesting systems being designed today. Depending on the game, it can take a while to reveal all the systems in play, but I think, if I’m being honest with myself, I am liable to play far longer than it takes to understand the systems. Or maybe by the time I’ve played long enough to understand them, I’m invested in my progress in the game, and feel compelled to continue.

One of my client projects right now is a game to teach kids about the dangers of smoking, and this has led to some discussion in the office about the nature of addiction. (Or anyway, some reading of the wikipedia page for addiction.) And I think the nature of these games (watching the numbers increase) is a sort of reinforcing / rewarding stimuli, meaning it’s possible to feel compelled to play, which I definitely do.

In the last year or so, I’ve kept a browser window open on my iMac (which is always on, on my home office desk), and there are usually between 4 and 6 tabs open to various idle games there. These are the type of games that do not have endings. (It’s worth noting that I also don’t like books or comic book series without endings!) I like to think that I basically just play these types of games in tiny spurts. But the truth is that I’ve been spending hours in front of that iMac at night. Hours when I could be making games. (And sometimes I am!) But these are hours that I could also be filling with any number of other higher-quality distractions.

I think playing games has inherent value! But when I think about where that value comes from, I find that it’s tied closely to having new experiences. Solving (and discovering!) new kinds of puzzles is especially satisfying for me, but experiencing new stories is also a totally valid benefit. So it makes sense that it’s the repetition of experience that I find distasteful for my daughter’s gameplaying. (Would I be as reluctant to let her spend hours playing Tetris? No, but maybe that’s a topic for a different post.)

Games that involve some grinding are totally fine. In traditional games, “grinding” is (optimistically) used to enhance the player’s feeling of accomplishment when they are finally strong enough to continue unveiling the story/experience. Pessimistically, it could be argued it’s often just an unintended consequence of the game’s mechanics.

And of course not all idle/incremental games are infinite grinding. The best ones do have an end. (Spaceplan or Universal Paperclips are some good recent examples.) But many do not. I’m not going to stop playing those types of game entirely. (I really do enjoy discovering their mechanics and systems.) I’m just going to try and become aware of when I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns, and stop playing then.

Pyramid Cards

I’m a huge fan of Looney Pyramids. Mostly because I think it’s the most successful game system ever produced. And by successful, I mean that it’s probably had the most games made for it.

Now that I’ve said this, I might argue that Chess is the most successful, especially by that metric, since there are probably way more chess variants in existence than pyramid games, but of course Chess was never meant to be a game system. Then again, we can’t actually imagine what Chess was meant to be, since it’s not even remotely known who invented chess originally. Maybe they imagined a future in 2 or 3 thousand years when their game would be used to play literally hundreds of games.

Okay, anyway, so over 3 years ago, I had an idea, chatting with a friend**, and asked another friend*** to make it for me. The idea was a deck of cards that depicted Looney Pyramids on them. I imagined you could make a ton of games using them. Then I imagined some of those games. I don’t think I really playtested any of those games much until months later.

But the point is that I never got around to posting the PnP files for the deck of cards. So without further ado:

Here’s v1.0 of Pyramid Cards, PnP edition.

…better late than never, right?

** Special thanks to Nate Yourchuck.
*** Special thanks to August Brown for making the art for these.