Failed Fast

I came up with a goofy idea that I thought could make a decent app. In furtherance of a typical modern, webby, agile agenda, I decided to “fail fast” and put together some barebones proof-of-concept to decide whether the idea was viable.

The idea: ASCIIgram

Think “Instagram” meets ASCII art. Take photos, convert them into ASCIIfied versions, and share them on Facebook. This meets my first test: I can describe the idea in one sentence.

My Secret Plan

I had no monetization plan for this app. It met all of my needs for a test project:

  • Self-contained — the scope is small and manageable.
  • Easy feature roadmap that could be instrumented for metrics (I was thinking “colorization”).
  • Niche market — users who liked it would probably be fairly invested, but there wouldn’t be so many that maintenance would be a nightmare.

The Project

I decided that the minimum viable first prototype would be a web page that could accept a raw image and convert it to ASCII art. Why do the conversion on the web? If I made it to the mobile app step, I was hoping to leverage the Lua-based Corona SDK, as I’m a pretty hot hand with Lua and could stand up an app faster that way. I spent 3 days on a handful of prototypes, starting with a hard-coded little beast and moving up to the aforementioned upload-and-convert page.


I entered this project with only the barest minimum of previous experience with PHP, and none at all with Image Magick. Of course, I selected both of these technologies after a lengthy research session on Google, which I am completely exaggerating for artistic value, and the real reason is that my existing web host supports PHP easily. I managed to install and build Imagick and get it running happily under PHP. I got some basic image uploading / temp file pipelining and the like working, which was significant PHP learning for me. I even came up with a short, scripted series of actions that could transform an image into some kind of ASCII art. And here’s where my wonderful plans fell down.


The performance of my methods for converting to ASCII were miserable. In order to complete within a 30-second window, I had to cut the sizes of images I was working with enormously. Too much detail was lost at that point to get clean output images. I lost a whole day’s work to a math mistake, as I was accidentally matching to double-width tiles instead of single characters. In the end, I concluded that the PHP-based approach itself was fundamentally flawed; I’d either need to rely a lot less on Imagick and do a lot more full custom encoding/decoding/pattern-matching, or abandon my hopes of using Lua and instead learn Objective-C and do my own image processing on the mobile device. I’m not saying this wouldn’t, in the end, be a better plan, but it completely whiffed on my actual goals for the project.

The Results

Here are some samples of a source image and three types of manipulation: preprocessing with some edge enhancement, a “per-cell match” that attempts to match each 9×8 image “cell” to the best match from the adjacent 25 or so glyphs ordered by approximate brightness, and a “hybrid” approach that used a faster “randomized nearest brightness match” 80% of the time and only attempted to per-pixel image match 20% of the time. As you can see, while general shapes are recognizable, too much detail was lost in the downsizing of the source image to produce the quality output that would be necessary to get anyone using the app.

In my source image, I used a picture of a friend’s injured (and surly) cat.

Various stages of manipulation revealed recognizable gross shapes, but none of the detail needed to make an ASCII-fied picture compelling enough to bother sharing.

In the end, I still think the idea was entertaining. If I had a goal of doing some lower-level coding for this project, it could still have been viable — I bet another week would conclusive determine that one way or the other. But in the end, the project clearly wasn’t going to meet my goals, and now I’m setting the idea free. Ideas are easy; I have a half-dozen more I’m ready to start experiments with. Onward to more fast failing!

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And Then, Everything Changed…

After a bit of wrangling, discussing, soul-searching, and whatever else goes along with these actions, your friendly WorldIV writers came to a conclusion. WorldIV had gone entirely out of date. It’s time to reroll!

The Technology

Perhaps this is self-serving, but who uses a desktop computer these days? A significant and growing percentage of time is spent perusing the web on various mobile phones and tablets and the like. To accomodate this, we’ve installed the Skeleton theme, which is one of those fancy newfangled “reactive” layouts. This means that even if you stretch and squash the display by enormous amounts, you should still be able to use and navigate the site.

While at it, a number of plugins, widgets, and the like splattered here and there were grossly out of date in appearance. And content. And behavior. OK, they were just completely neglected. Anyway, supporting widgets have been upgraded and/or exchanged for newer, shinier models with that “new widget smell.”

Hopefully, the end result of all this housekeeping is a cleaner, more modern look. If you’re using RSS or other feeds, you don’t care about any of this. Sorry to use up some of your brain cycles with this completely meaningless update.

The Content

If it isn’t painfully evident that we’re flailing and failing when it comes to producing independent games, then you probably have never read those particular posts. As time has moved on, life has filled up for us and even playing MMORPGs has become a significant accomplishment that must generally be booked days to weeks in advance. Writing games is still a sometimes hobby, but it just plain gets hard to find the time, right? But we still need ways to fill the hours. We’re shifting and widening our material a bit. Expect more general “nerd maker” fare here, ranging from writing to development to various projects, experiments, and contraptions.

And don’t worry, we’re still all gamers and there should be plenty of that talk, too.

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The Summer of Dabbling

I didn’t really plan it this way, but I spent the summer dabbling in a number of games. This left me without much coherent or valuable to say about them — but when did that ever stop me, anyway?

I began the summer as a fairly dedicated SWTOR player. Sure, it was WoW-with-buzzie-lightswords, but I have this thing for Star Wars. Give me any pretext in which to play some Star Wars and I’m probably in. My guild began raid progression; we played weekly and all was fun. Then server consolidations hit. My guild fractured during its move to a new, high-population server. We got absorbed by a big and friendly guild, but missing the core, I’ve slowly fallen off. I don’t think I’m done with this game — if nothing else, I want to see how it handles the conversion to F2P — but it’s been on hiatus for several months at this point. And I’ve still only beaten Eternity Vault, and have only one character at max level.

EVE Online has been cancelled outright. While I dearly enjoy theorycrafting, min-maxing, and reading about all the exciting shenanigans in null-sec, the fact remained that “playing” EVE consisted of logging in whenever I had to requeue skills. I could see going back some day, but for now, I simply have nothing to do in that game, and not enough time to carve out a niche somewhere.

Diablo 3 was a highlight of the summer. It’s a well-assembled bashfest; my friends and I have always maintained that the core mechanic of Diablo 2 was clicking on things, and that’s been maintained, only with better graphics and more blood. I did not participate in the real money auction house; not from any principled opposition or anything, but simply because I do enjoy the game enough to grind. I got one character to level cap and Inferno difficulty, where I’ve gotten murdered repeatedly on my slowly-less-frequent attempts to play. After one paragon level, I have to admit that the auction house changed everything about Diablo, including (sadly) that I get less joy from grinding for items. After all, the optimum path is to grind for gold and just go buy things. I do still want to at least take Diablo down with each class.

I’d been following The Secret World very lightly since its announcement. Conspiracy theory + Lovecraft mythos sounded like a great game idea. When TSW went on sale early in its lifecycle (20% off at Amazon), I snagged it and promptly had a very fun weekend with my Claws / Chaos noob. The still screenshots looked OK, but the game in motion is absolutely gorgeous. Gameplay feels like a spiritual successor to City of Heroes, with fast pacing and heavy emphasis on positioning. Open-ended skill-based advancement also appeals to my inner min-max nerd. In the end, though, it was another MMORPG to get into, and I faded out within a couple of weeks. I wish the game well — if I were less busy, it’d have made the cut.

Toward the end of summer, I picked up Guild Wars 2, after unanimously glowing reviews from my friends and coworkers. This game also has gorgeous presentation. Gameplay is open-ended enough that I feel like I should be absolutely enthralled with it. Somehow, I’m just not. Again, I suspect this is just some kind of malaise as I’ve more or less outgrown “theme-park” style MMORPG gameplay. The biggest ties for me are social, and I haven’t yet played GW2 enough to even connect with the large percentage of my SWTOR guild who has ended up there. Fortunately, with no monthly fee, I’m likely to pick this one up again when time permits.

Interleaved with GW2, and in complete stark contrast to my malaise conclusion of GW2, I have slowly dabbled in World of Warcraft again. When I played seriously many years ago (in the Burning Crusade days), I had a Night Elf healer priest for a main and made it about halfway into Karazhan before losing interest. When I got reactivated with some local friends for Cataclysm, I decided to play a Worgen warrior tank. It never sat well with me that I hadn’t gotten my priest past level 70, though. With the upcoming Mists of Pandaria (which will re-engage some of my local friends, and therefore me — at least for a while), I got the bug to bring my priest along for the ride. At this point, I’ve gotten the priest to level 80, and have re-spec’d in the new Panda-style simplistic system. Part of me misses the “depth” of the old talent tree system; however, my inner game designer can admit that the talent trees were only deep on the surface. In practice, the number of numerically superior choices was relatively small, and overtly reducing the choice space isn’t the worst idea I’ve ever heard. Besides, every warrior should be able to have Bladestorm if desired.

I’m sure I played a few League of Legends matches in the mix, but I’m such a novice that I have no right to discuss that game here, other than to say I’m glad I bought Lulu and some skins.

A heavy workload and some minor surgery have kept my gaming time to a minimum in the last couple of months, and it’s always interesting to see what floats to the surface. Interestingly, I still have some hefty gaming in queue and no idea when I’ll start; the Mass Effect 3 extended endings come to mind immediately, as does a pretty ridiculous Steam queue that is primarily the result of one Humble Indie Bundle or another. iPad gaming has been a go-to for me (especially during times where my mobility was limited), but even in that space, I’ve been a dabbler, bouncing between Starbase Orion (a credible Master of Orion 2 clone), Organ Trail (a pleasingly zombie-themed riff on the classic Oregon Trail), and Bastion (best. narration. ever).

And Bejeweled. But that’s not dabbling — that’s an addiction, pure and simple.

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Whoa, sounds serious!

Phishing amuses me.

from: Mr. Michael Morgan
date: Thu, Jun 28, 2012 at 6:26 AM

Office of the Governor.
Federal Reserve Bank
20th Street and Constitution Avenue,
NW Washington, DC 20551
Our ref: FRB/Ohg/Oxd1/2012
Your ref:…………………….
Payment: file: FRB/BX5/12.

Attn: Beneficiary,

Payment notification of your funds.

I am Mr Michael Morgan, the secretary to Mr.Williams Dudley;one of the Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB), the (parent bank of all commercial banks) here in United states.

I was instructed to initiate contact with you by my boss the Director,Foreign Contol Unit of the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB) on
an urgent issue, kindly note that your funds were re-called and re-deposited into the “federal suspense account” of the
FRB last week, because you did not forward your information as instructed in the mail we send to you last 2 weeks.

My boss the Director of the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB), was visited in his office by three gentlemen today, really these men
were unexpected by him because their visit was impromptu. He ask them why they came to see him in person and they said that they came to collect the inheritance/contract funds bill which rightfully belongs to you as shown in your file with us, on your behalf and by your authorization.

Note that they actually tendered some vital documents which proved that you actually sent them for the collection of these funds. The list of the documents which was tendered to the bank today are:

1. Letter of administration.
2. High court injunction.
3. Order to release.

Due to the nature of his job, he cannot afford to make any mistake in releasing these funds to anyone except you who is the recognized true
beneficiary to these funds.

My boss asked the men to come back tomorrow so he can verify this fact from you first.Kindly clarify us on this issue before we make this payment to these foreigners whom came on your behalf.

Kindly direct your response to the private email address of my boss,Mr.Williams Dudley, the Director,Federal Reserve Bank (FRB), below for quicker deliberation and response from him on the release of your funds to you.

Please remember to contact the bank Lawyer Mrs. Janet Swing and indicate a phone number so she can instruct you on how to make claim. Private Email: Note that for security reasons you have been assigned a code/password which is {TT7270FRB},please note that this code is the reference number for your transfer and it’s being disclosed to you alone, guard this jealously and all your email response should carry this code as the subject.

Yours faithfully,
Mr. Michael Morgan.

Oops, I failed at the “jealously guard” part. Oh well. I’m glad Microsoft R&D has beaten me to my conclusion, calling phishing a “low-skill low-reward business” in their article A Profitless Endeavor: Phishing as Tragedy of the Commons. Well, as long as loss estimates are too high, I suppose I can still laugh at it.

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Wherein the Author, Attempting to Promote Change, Becomes Unpopular

I see some folks chattering about E3 booth babes and the effect they have on attitudes, perceptions, the roles of women in the industry, etc. This is a great conversation, so I’m jumping in by declaring that I presented game demos at E3 2011 and therefore award myself honorary status as a “bearded booth babe.”

Budweiser AdLook, the attitude of advertising products by draping them in sex is, well, sexist. This is what I like to call, in technical terms, duh. Having scantily-clad women present in person to advertise products targeted primarily toward testosterone-drenched male audiences is exploitative and makes a number of people uncomfortable, as well as reflecting poorly on the entire industry. I don’t believe that any rational person will actually argue these points.

That said, bitching on your blog and on Twitter is not a solution. (EDIT: What I mean here is, JUST bitching is not a solution. Conversation is only one step…) It’s ranting. It’s emoting. You probably feel great doing it, but you haven’t changed a damned thing. Here’s what I didn’t read based on these conversations:

“Wow, I never thought of these issues in these terms. Your insightful presentation of the issues involved really got me to reconsider my attitudes and enculturated opinions regarding sexism, gender equality, and inclusiveness in the video game industry. I can no longer stand aside, and have formed a coalition of industry insiders who are going to lodge formal protests with the governing bodies of E3 and the industry in general to see if we can change some attitudes and behaviors. Next year’s E3 will be a more inclusive environment!” – No one ever.

No, the quotes I’ve seen have fallen into two categories. “I’m an apologist of some stripe and before you even raised this issue, I had decided that you need to get over boothbabes because it’s how things are” is at war with “I am unhappy with the status quo and before you even raised this issue, I had decided that I totally agree and booth babes have to go.” Note the importance here: Arguing on the Internet is not changing anyone’s mind, much less actually generating action on the issue.

Booth babes are a form of product marketing. Marketing has one primary overriding purpose — to promote awareness of products and cultivate higher sales numbers. I cannot fault a marketing professional for deciding to use a form of marketing that is proven to generate interest and discussion, because at the end of the day, generating chatter and sales is this person’s job. Saying no to booth babes could, in the heat of business life, be a career-limiting move. It’s easy to sit comfortably behind a keyboard and demand that someone put their job on the line in the name of morality and equality, but it’s an awfully difficult action to take when it’s your own mortgage hanging in the balance. Still, I wish we could see exactly this decision being made. So, what should we do?

Gamers, it’s actually up to you. If you rant and cry out about booth babes, then it is your duty to intelligently boycott the advertised products. Step one is do not buy the games. I’m serious. If you actually believe in your cause, then standing up for a non-sexist environment is far more important than playing the latest, hottest game. If the marketing succeeded, then WHY WOULD YOU EXPECT THEM TO EVER STOP? Buying a game advertised in a manner you don’t like is explicitly condoning the conduct. While this makes me feel genuinely bad for the good developers who are hurt by reduced sales, the fact is that if sales aren’t reduced, this conduct will continue. But not buying isn’t enough; who can say why a sale wasn’t made? It’s non-data. Step two is tell them why you did not buy. Politely. In an email. Maybe even coordinate some followers to send many copies of a politely-phrased note, or a few multi-signed letters. Post them as open letters online. Generate a few hundred or a few thousand of polite, respectful, coordinated responses and I can almost guarantee a change.

And that brings me to my final thought — the moral high road is only available so long as you stay on it. I don’t mean to pick on this fellow, because I completely understand the sentiment, but here’s a perfect disrespectful response:

@br I’m not even there and I’m a male, and it’s an assault on my self-esteem too, because ‪#E3‬ implies all men are sexist twats. – Twitter / Webimpulse

That thought could have ended with “…because #E3 implies all men are sexist.” And I respect the pain of 140 characters for thoughts, but I think this is a conversation that can move forward faster with mutual respect. Some companies are engaging in regrettable conduct with ramifications on equality and sexual enculturation. Focus on that. There simply is no place for name-calling and emotive ranting if we want to make progress. Even if that means I can’t end this article by calling anyone a douchenozzle.

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Believe it or not, I didn’t abandon my earlier stories of indy iOS work. I had a vision for my first iOS app of a program near and dear to my heart. You see, when I scanned for diabetes-tracking apps, I found the following scenario.

  • Too expensive.
  • Too many features.
  • Too many clicks and taps to record anything.

I thought this was great. Fertile ground to build my own app and release it. I even connived a friend into helping with the important stuff that met his interests… er, OK, I mean the database layer that I totally didn’t want to write. And so, Sugar Wizard was born. The design goals were to minimize the number of clicks and taps needed to just record glucose readings over time, and then graph them and email those results back to a desired target.

Sugar Wizard early screenie

Sadly, we got scooped by a REAL COMPANY(tm) doing REAL BUSINESS STUFF with the release of iBGStar.

iBGStar Screenie

This app is… well, EXACTLY what I was shooting for. Only with better art, and real developers, and it even interfaces with specific hardware to automatically pull readings. It’s almost creepy how exactly iBGStar matches what I was trying to build. So I started using it, and my fire has gone out for this application; finally, someone has made exactly what I was looking for myself.

Back to the drawing board for me. Also, if you have diabetes, I highly recommend iBGStar for tracking glucose readings (and insulin if you use it), as it does barebones tracking and reporting in exactly the way I would if it were up to me. *grumbles*

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Farewell, Vineyard

Sadly, Playdom has announced the closing of My Vineyard on Facebook. It’s particularly bittersweet for me, since I worked intensely on this game for its launch. It’s sad to see a project that I was so involved in close, of course; on the other hand, Vineyard ran for 24 months, which is pretty darned good in Facebook-land. My Vineyard had a few features that were unique in the genre. You could hang out in vineyards and chat with people, decoration was more freeform than the grid-based standard that holds until today, the art style was complex and unique, and the game eventually introduced a mostly wide-open player-to-player marketplace for the reselling of game items including coveted “limited edition” decorations.

A screenshot I particularly like from the (admittedly sad and frustrated) My Vineyard termination official thread shows the game being used to construct a political statement. I think that’s an image of the game worth keeping.

Tibetan Vineyards screenshot

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SWTOR: 2 months in

Emi and I are still playing SWTOR quite regularly. We easily coasted our first characters up to level 50 and began dabbling in end-game content. For me, the winning combination at level 50 was to use Cybertech to craft a bunch of purple armor and mods, then jump into PvP to get the “low-hanging” fruit for a couple weeks of low-impact purple items. Now, my guild has enough folks at 50 to start with hardmodes and… I’ve never seen dungeons so routinely dominated by “is your DPS up to snuff to beat the enrage timer?” This is a new thing to me, so I’m enjoying the variety for now. Meanwhile, I really did enjoy the levelling-up game enough that I’m having fun with a few alts. And I’m considering checking out the Republic side, because the single-player storylines have generally been quite good over in Sithland. The population seems to be dropping, but not precipitously, so SWTOR seems to have some legs yet. Meanwhile, my #1 source of enjoyment is simply that the old SWG guild is still hanging out in SWTOR, and weekends are fun social time!

In “not-really-related” news, I finally cancelled my EVE subscriptions. I love reading about EVE. I love theorizing and strategizing. But I finally realised that I have no plans to really PLAY the game; I can keep strategizing, min-maxing, and hoarding stuff, but in the end, I don’t actually plan to jump in and play. Too bad; I finally got my Crow set up for tackling… PvP would completely grab me, but I’m not in a group that’s set up to engage in PvP and I don’t really have the time to invest to get into such a group.

WoW is still around, but I’ve back-burnered it in favor of SWTOR and then doing other, non-gaming things with my time. I know; that’s almost sacrilege to say. On the other hand, I played and won my first round of LoL in several months…

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