August 28, 2014

Random Show Episode 25

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A new episode of the Random Show with Kevin Rose (founder of Digg) and Tim Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Workweek) is out! This is episode 25.


Lessons learned
  • Tim Ferriss is a guy who likes to experiment with his own body. For example, he has experimented with how much he really needs to sleep, or if he can stay off-screen during each Saturday. His latest experiments is NOBNOM - short for No Booze, No Masturbation for 30 days. That's why Kevin Rose is the only one in this episode who's drinking wine
  • Kevin Rose is trying to become better at meditating, and he recommended the meditation app Headspace. Kevin Rose recommended Sam Harris's website if you want to learn more about meditation
  • Kevin Rose has found a new way to make exercising fun. He puts on a 20-pound [9 kg] heavy weight-vest, jumps on a treadmill, opens a game on his iPad, and walks for 45 minutes

Recommendations

If you want to watch the rest of the episodes, you can find them here: The Random Show with Kevin Rose and Tim Ferriss

August 26, 2014

Why is Chess so popular?

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Of all the games we play today, which games will we still play in 100 years? Which games will we play in 1000 years from now? To answer the question, I decided to find out why chess is so popular. I learned how to play chess when I was maybe seven years old, but I've never been really interested in the game. Instead I played a lot of computer games. The difference between those computer games and chess is that a computer game lasts for a few years (if the developers are lucky), while people have been playing chess for hundreds of years.

Knights Templar playing chess in 1283. Source: Wikipedia

To find out why chess never gets old, I decided to try a new tactic which is called reasoning from first principles. It's a strategy I found when I wrote a book about the entrepreneur Elon Musk, who is using the strategy. 

This is how the strategy reasoning from first principles works. When you want to find the solution to a problem, you have two choices. The first is reasoning from analogy (experience), which is the fastest way but will not always give you an accurate answer. The other is reasoning from first principles, which is slower but will give you a more accurate answer. Based on experience, you can say that chess never gets old because it's easy to play if you are two people because almost everyone has a chess board laying around, or whatever you think. But if you reason from first principles, you have to dig to the bottom of the problem. 

To get to the bottom of the problem, I decided to read the book The Immortal Game - A history of chess by David Shenk. What I learned from the book was that we don't know for certain when people began to play chess. What the author has found is that we began to play some kind of chess about 1400 years ago. The rules have changed during these 1400 years (it's said the reason why the queen is so powerful was because the powerful Isabella I of Spain wanted the piece to reflect herself) but the basic game is the same. Other celebrities who are known chess players include Benjamin Franklin and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had a permanent chess table in his movie set trailer.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is playing chess. Source: Oakland

While reading the book I found these basic principles that might describe why chess has survived the history of mankind:
  • You need a strong psychology to play chess. "The game is often as much about demolishing your opponent's will and self-esteem as it is about implementing a superior strategy."
  • It's easy to learn how to play chess. "The pieces and moves are elementary enough for any five-year-old to quickly soak up."
  • You always play a new game of chess. "The board combinations are so vast that all the possible chess games could never be played - or even known - by a single person."
  • You can't bluff like you can in a poker game because nothing is hidden and you can't win because you're lucky. "In a critical departure from previous board games from the region, these games contained no dice or other instruments of chance. Skill alone determined the outcome."
  • You can learn something while you're playing chess. Chess improves a person's:
    • Foresight - looking ahead to the long-term consequences of any action
    • Circumspection - surveying the entire scene, observing hidden dynamics and unseen possibilities
    • Caution - avoiding haste and unnecessary blunders
    • Perseverance - refusing to give up in dim circumstances, continually pushing to improve one's position

There are several then-popular games that didn't survive. One example is the Irish board game fidchell, and another is a game played by Vikings called hnefatafl. To this list of then-popular games, we will in the future probably add now-poplar games, like Angry Birds, because they don't have the same basic principles as chess has.

Update! A few years later I read the book A theory of fun for game design. It argues that chess is fun because each new game of chess is a new puzzle to solve. If you play chess against a physical person then each new game is a new puzzle to solve, so chess consists of an endless amount of puzzles. Also, each new game of chess is similar to all other games of chess. This is yet again why chess is popular. Each new game of chess is a new puzzle, but the difference between each new game of chess is not too different, and we humans don't like to solve puzzles that are too different from each other.

August 25, 2014

Battle of Khe Sanh - Or how to make a game in 48 hours

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This last weekend there was a competition called Ludum Dare where the goal was to make a simple game in 48 (or 72) hours. I believe the organizers run the competition two times per year - one in the spring and one in late summer. This was the second time I participated in the competition, you can read about the last time here: Max Manus.

Each Ludum Dare competition has a theme and the theme this weekend was "Connected Worlds." It took a while to come up with the idea, but the idea I decided to test was a sort of logistics simulator where you are a Logistics Officer in the army and is the only one who's connected to the outside world. To make it more realistic, I decided to find inspiration from a real battle during the Vietnam War. During that war, for a few weeks, the US Khe Sanh Combat Base was surrounded by enemy forces. If you want to learn more about the battle, you should watch this documentary on YouTube: Battle of Khe Sanh.  

If you are participating in the shorter 48 hour Ludum Dare competition, you have to create everything during these 48 hours - down to the smallest sound and texture. I didn't read the rules before I started working on the last competition, so I had to submit that game to the longer 72 hour competition. I began this competition by creating the models, including the main map where I used the real map from the battle and the C-130 cargo plane that will deliver everything you need. What I noticed was that it's much easier to make something in 3D than what it is to draw something in 2D. 


After a few hours of work in Blender, the models were finished and the work in Unity began. I hadn't made a similar game before, so I learned a lot. The most difficult part of a game where you simulate logistics is to tweak the parameters. The game has to be difficult and fun to play at the same time, and that requires a lot of tweaking. Anyway, this is the final result:



...and you can play it here: Ludum Dare - Battle of Khe Sanh