Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bicycle Building: The Adventure Begins

A few years ago, following a long absence from bicycling, I got back into riding.  I was initially training for a sprint triathlon, but knee damage ended that in the 9th week of training, just before the triathlon.  I stopped running and swimming, but I kept cycling.  I can't resist learning about machines and attempting to mess with them, so I inevitably decided to modify a commuter bike I bought.  Last summer, I built up a road bike from a Milwaukee/Waterford frame.  This year, I built up a Handsome/Twin Six frame into a single-speed cyclocross (SS CX) bike.

I have another bike in the works, a titanium-framed hillclimber.  If this sounds excessive, I agree.  Five bikes is a bit much, but I really do enjoy the process of researching and selecting parts, then building up the bike.  I enjoy artistic things as well, so the next logical step in my mind is to build and paint a lugged steel frame.  This involves buying steel lugs and tubing, then welding (well, brazing, really) the frame together.  I don't need any more bikes, so I offered to build a bike for a friend.  She is currently going along with it.  I will not "out" her in case she changes her mind, but hopefully she will see it through.  To keep things inexpensive and classic, I'm using an 80s Italian groupset (Ofmega, Colnago, Campagnolo, and Ambrosio parts) I picked up off of Ebay.  They should look nice with a lugged steel frame.

I've ordered a "Jiggernaut", though this first frame may have to be done without a jig.  I'm going to be pretty straightforward with it, though I may wrestle with some problems when it comes to the frame geometry.  The would-be rider is... not tall, which means the frame size will be in the 50cm-52cm range.  The quill stem is non-adjustable and has a 125mm reach -- pretty long.  The wheels that came with the groupset are 700c -- standard size for larger frames.

What does this all mean?  Well, it all adds up to something called toe overlap.  When a rider pedals, his or her feet travel in a circle that comes near the back of the front wheel.  No big deal, typically.  When the rider turns the handlebars, the front wheel moves in front of one of the feet/pedals, but the bicycle's frame geometry ensures that the feet remain clear of the wheel.  If a bicycle frame gets smaller and the wheel size remains the same, the danger of toe overlap, i.e. the pedaling foot overlapping the wheel, increases.  There are ways to solve this:

* Use 650c wheels.  Smaller wheels = shorter radius from hub to tire = less risk of toe overlap.  It requires 650c rims, which means I would have to buy those rims, new spokes and nipples, then lace and true them.  It also means that the fork and rear triangle of the frame would have to be designed for 650c wheels; rim brakes have to be set up to reach the rim from where they are mounted, so you can't just throw smaller wheels on a bike built for larger ones.

* Increase the length of the top tube.  A longer top tube means the head tube (where the fork sits) is farther away from the bottom bracket (where the cranks turn).  Fork farther away = wheel farther away = less risk of overlap.  But again, the rider is small, so this will force her to stretch out, possibly uncomfortably unless I...

* Keep the stem short.  The stem of a bicycle connects the handlebars to the fork/steerer.  A shorter stem means the rider is less stretched out.  Unfortunately, my stem is a quill stem with a fixed 125mm length, so that's non-adjustable.

* Use shorter cranks.  Pedals are mounted on crank arms.  These come in different lengths.  Shorter cranks = less overlap.  Of course, these cranks are 170mm.  Not especially long, but not short.

* Change the head tube angle.  This only goes so far, especially with lugs (which are cast with certain angles in mind).  Essentially "turning" the fork and wheel away from the bike by changing the head tube angle can help prevent overlap, but... it's not really viable.

So this is my first big challenge, and most of it is self-inflicted.  As I start plotting out the target frame geometry, I'll post more updates.  Until then, here's a picture of the Colnago headset and 3TTT Colnago stem.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Kickstarter and Fanvestor-Oriented Game Design

I'm really happy to see game developers like Double Fine and inXile making high profile Kickstarter-funded projects.  I think these are great opportunities to give smaller groups of motivated fans niche products that would have difficulty finding publisher or venture capital funding.  Great.  This is why every fan loves it, really.

A semi-rhetorical problem I've seen folks propose is, "How do you deal with fans when they're direct investors in the product's development?  Fans don't know what they want."  Should forum posters define the parameters of a game's systems?  Its story?  Should fans be allowed to design a new ending for a game via crowd-sourcing if a bunch of people are mad about it?  How do you reconcile fans' conflicting interests?

This seems like an odd problem to propose, as though now, suddenly, the wants and needs of a diverse paying audience become problematic because they're kickstarting the game's development.  They're still the endusers; that hasn't changed.  What's removed are random staff members -- production, marketing, PR -- at the publisher shifting the project around in the pitch phase, pre-production, and during development.  Even though we're in the defining moments of this nascent trend, I have to forecast this as purely beneficial for everyone directly involved.

I started my career as a web developer for Black Isle Studios.  I was the moderator for a number of high-traffic message boards.  Facilitating interaction between the developers and community has always been important to me.  You can't make everyone happy, certainly, but you can help the community understand what you're doing -- and why.  When the community gains this understanding, their expectations can be framed in a way that appreciates the process the developers go through.  Not everyone will agree with the decisions developers make, but that's fine -- you can't make everyone happy, whether you're being funded by a publisher or the endusers.  We shouldn't try to.  But we should all try to engage our audience in the spirit of genuine interest, listen to what they have to say, give honest feedback, and formulate an experience that they will enjoy.

Design isn't about asking a client what he or she wants and then doing it, verbatim.  It's not about trying to make everyone happy.  It's about understanding the myriad, often conflicting wants and needs of a defined, diverse audience and developing a product that brings them satisfaction.  Satisfaction can come after shock, after frustration, after disappointment.  These moments of pain and fear don't detract, but add to the richness and enjoyment of the final product.  Like anything worth our love and devotion, the process to achieve it is often a struggle.  The worst we can do is disappoint our fans -- but that's always been the case.  For crowd-funded games, it's just gamers and game-makers.  It may not be the way all games can be (or even should be) made, but I'm so glad it's an option, and I hope that everyone involved embraces the potential for sincere collaboration and feedback it presents to us.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Do (Say) The Right Thing: Choice Architecture, Player Expression, and Narrative Design in Fallout: New Vegas

Terrible title for a GDC talk, I know, but it turns out the convention guides had no written descriptions of the sessions, so at least the topic was (hopefully) clear.

Eventually, GDC will make a video of this session available at the GDC Vault, though I believe it will require some form of membership.  You can check out my slides here in .pdf form.

Based on feedback I've seen online, I want to attempt to clarify a few things:

* My inclusion of the ME2 "ass" screenshot was to highlight its absurdity.  In the context of that slide, it's an example of how developers have improved things like butt-framing shots but haven't made great strides in choice architecture.  I don't have any problem with improving aesthetics, but I believe we should continue to refine how we develop choices for players.

* When I was discussing karma/reputation displays of +1/-1, I wasn't championing karma systems, but I was championing visible changes in the GUI for all of what I call "Indirect Reaction Systems" (e.g. karma, reputation, influence, etc.).  I think mechanical clarity is more important than immersion, and characters vary heavily in how much they emote reactions.

* Validating all choices specifically does not mean that they should all be subjectively equal.  I gave two examples of "good" choice agony from Greek tragedy: Orestes and Antigone.  Both of these characters have two choices for one decision.  The choices have good aspects and bad aspects, but they are not "six of one / half a dozen of the other".  The values implied by each choice are subjective.  There is not a single right thing to do for each character: both choices contain virtue and sacrifice -- and both are valid.  Validation also does not need to come through mechanics, though using something like reputation or influence (i.e. an Indirect Reaction System) can make an abstracted validation easier than hand-scripting specific benefits and drawbacks to every choice.

EDIT: For a more contemporary example, please see Mookie's choice at the end of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing, from which the title of this talk was borrowed.

I apologize for poor communication on these points.  If you have any other questions or criticism, please feel free to post them here or on my Formspring page.  Thanks.