Back in My Day…

…we didn’t have fancy 3D graphics! We had half-acre pixels and 8 colors and we liked it!

Today while visiting garage sales with my lovely bride, I stumbled across an October 1982 National Geographic with these ads for game consoles of the day. I was 12 when these ads were run, and remember fondly many hours whiled away with friends playing both Atari and Intellivision. (I never did much with the Odyssey², probably because I saw these ads and the “wizard” gave me nightmares.)

Intellivision Ad

In 1982, these screenshots actually looked different from each other.

Odyssey Ad

The Wizard has a Power Supply stuck to his fingers. Also, his legal department apparently lacked the acumen to get a proper "Wizard of Wor" license.

Odyssey Speech Synthesizer Ad

If the first word you typed upon getting the speech synthesizer module for the Odyssey² was "Geewizbang", it's a pretty good bet you had no friends.

1945: Our New Card Game

As some of you already know, Liam and I are designing a card game. It’s called “1945”, and is an easy to learn, fun to play, strategic game in which each player captures territories using a combination of armed forces, subterfuge, and special abilities.

We’ve been working on it since last summer, and have been getting enthusiastic responses and excellent suggestions for improvements from the folks who have graciously tried out our rough prototypes. We’ve recently enlisted Emily to do the artwork for the game, and after having received our first set of cards from the printer (with only 10% of the final art), are pretty excited about how it’s all starting to come together.

I don’t want to spam my personal contacts whenever we reach a milestone, but if you’d like to keep up on our progress, help test it, or have any ideas for the best ways to produce and promote such a thing, we’d love to hear from you. You can keep up on our progress through:

Big thanks to everyone who has played and supported us this far. We hope to release the game by Autumn.

Kids’ Day Out: 2011(ish) Edition

Each Summer, while the kids are out of school, I arrange a full day out with each of them. Sometimes that means taking a day off of work; on other occasions we squeeze it in on a Saturday. Regardless of when it is, it’s one of the things I look forward to a ton each year (and seems to be a highlight for the young people too).

This year, the first adventure was with Liam. Thanks to Kevin Huffaker, a friend of mine from the university who is not only an amazing polymath but also a tremendously generous guy, we were able to start our day with a SCUBA primer. Neither Liam nor I had ever been before. We both love being in the water, and found the experience utterly delightful. While the river was running low and water conditions turned cloudy pretty quickly as people upstream swam around, we had a great time learning how to control our buoyancy and seeing a bit of the river from a new vantage point.

From there, we treated Kevin to lunch at Valentino’s, Liam’s favorite pizza place in San Marcos, and then caught the then-current Harry Potter movie. A trip to the Blazer Tag center up in Austin was next, where he and I emerged 1st and 2nd in our game with 30 other people. (All those video games do pay off!) The center in Austin is one of the best arenas I’ve been to, and was a ton of fun. We finished off the day with a visit to the Nazi Pirate at Peter Pan mini golf, where I was able to salvage a bit of my honor after the thumping Liam gave me at laser tag.

Next up was my day out with Maggie. She loves nothing more than to be in the water, so Schlitterbahn has been the natural destination for us for many years. Repeatedly voted best waterpark in the country, it’s only 20 minutes away from our house, and is a much more agreeable experience than many amusement parks these days. (Free parking, bring your own picnic, and new stuff every year.) We were a bit disappointed to see that Family Blaster, a ride that uses high-powered jets of water to shoot a raft containing up to 6 people up a hill, had been retired, but we did spend a delightful day climbing on floating crocodiles, navigating our tubes down 20-minute long tube chutes, and slipping down slides. We even invented a word game while we were waiting in line that’s become a standard in-car activity for our family.

I took Abigail out next. Our first stop was Tacodeli, a vegetarian-friendly taco joint that’s both delicious and a quintessentially Austin experience. After that, we wandered Barton Creek mall for a bit, and then went to see Cowboys & Aliens, which I’d been looking forward to since seeing the first preview. Our next stop was Mozart’s, a wonderful coffee shop on the banks of Town Lake. We got tasty beverages, I introduced Abby to cannoli (one of my favorite treats), and we both pulled out guitars and played and sang together down by the water while the turtles looked on appreciatively. When our fingers tired, we moved on to Pinballz (the best arcade I’ve ever visited) and played Addams Family, Twilight Zone, and other pinball classics. Our last stop for the day was at the Alamo Drafthouse for Abby’s first Master Pancake Theater show: Twilight! She was a fan of the books, and had been disappointed by the first movie, so I figured a lampooning would be the ideal way to enjoy the second. She agreed.

In addition to the goal of simply having a grand time, I also set Abby and I the task of both taking lots of photos along the way, and picking out our favorites along the way to edit and post on Facebook as a record of our day together. Here are the 8 shots we deemed best.

Unfortunately, I had a dreadful time coordinating Emily’s and my calendars, but in March of the next year, we finally managed to find a day we both had open. After hearing of Liam’s mini-adventure, Emily was keen to try SCUBA as well, so we rounded up Kevin again and my friend Jason and set off for a larger-scale run: near the headwaters of the San Marcos River down to the whitewater course at the other end of town. Since we’d finally had some rain after a tremendous drought, the water was running clear and fast, and we had beautiful visibility as we swam under waterfalls, through valleys of endangered Texas Wild Rice, and past a variety of water creatures. Emily filled a bag with treasures she found in the water, and I reveled in the opportunity to see the river as we never had before.

After our swim, we regrouped at the house while eating big Subway sandwiches, and then Emily and I went north for her first Master Pancake Theater show: Back to the Future. The lads did a terrific job with it, and we had a great time eating, drinking, and laughing our heads off. We even got the surprise treat of getting to overhear some of a Young the Giant show as we walked past — a favorite of Emily’s that she hadn’t even known was playing that night.

I had a terrific time getting to enjoy each of our kiddos individually, and treat them to some unique experiences they all enjoyed. Thanks, squirrels, for the great time. Now, let’s get cracking and plan this year’s adventures!

My Standoff with the Police

Last Saturday, I took three hostages.

I had gone to the apartment where my ex-girlfriend lives with her parents to find her and get her back. After four months of living together, she had moved out a couple of weeks earlier, and I was desperate to find her. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there, and as things got heated with her parents, her dad stepped up on me, so I shot him in the shoulder. Shortly thereafter, the police showed up. I guess I should have expected that, but it took me by surprise.

The police had a negotiating team with them who called me to try to sort the situation out. They kept trying to get me to release her dad. I probably should have let him go, but I was scared, and felt like I’d lose my leverage without him there. Besides, they kept promising me things and then going back on their word, so I wasn’t too inclined to cooperate with them. About four hours into the standoff, my girlfriend’s sister escaped out a window, and I panicked for a while, boarding up the apartment and trying to make sure that nobody could get in the same way she got out. But I guess I knew at that point that it was only a matter of time. After repeated requests, they finally put my lawyer on the phone, and after talking with him for a while, I decided to surrender. I stepped out of the apartment with my hands above my head about 6 hours after the whole ordeal began, and was immediately arrested. I’ll be going to trial in a few weeks.

None of this, of course, actually happened.

This was all part of a training exercise for various police negotiating teams, and I was only playing the role of a hostage-taker. My dad is an expert in such matters — he literally wrote the book on crisis management– and helped to organize this training exercise. When he was looking for participants, he sent me and my brother a note saying “I need actors to play emotionally unstable, biploar, hostage-takers on the 10th of December (Saturday). Of course, you two came to mind, immediately.”

While I wasn’t actually holed up in an apartment, I did spend about 6 hours on a phone, talking with various negotiators from the New Braunfels team and giving them a chance to exercise their skills. It was fun, but exhausting, to play the role of a frightened, intransigent, irrational man-boy for that long. The negotiating team did a great job, maintaining their cool while I was being quite bellicose and disagreeable at times, and working hard to establish rapport and empathy without validating the destructive actions my character had taken. I was nasty enough that I felt the need to, once the exercise was done, apologize to them all and individually shake their hands. To their credit, none of them took advantage of the opportunity to shoot me — a homicide that, under Texas law, I’m pretty sure would have been considered justified at that point.

Thanks to Dad for the opportunity to be a part of the shenanigans, and to the whole crew involved for putting together such an interesting day. It seemed like the teams got something good out of it, and my siblings and I certainly got a fun story to tell. And delicious breakfast tacos. (Ironically, feeding me tacos is just about the best way to keep me from taking hostages in real life, so the crisis would have been pretty short-lived in reality.)

ZombieTown: A Free GURPS Adventure

For Christmas last year, one of the gifts I gave Liam was the opportunity to have a custom-made GURPS game, with pizza and a sleepover included, for him and a few of his friends. After a brief dalliance with the idea of a ninja setting, he settled a zombie-themed play session. So I got to writing, and he rounded up some of his usual RPG compatriots. When the designated day arrived, we all came together and had a rip-roaring good time, careering through a Colorado town, shooting up zombies, invading secret labs, and curing the zombie outbreak.

Since I invested a fair bit of time in writing the adventure, and there seems to be a dearth of free material out there for GURPS, I decided to go ahead and release it for other people to use. While it’s designed with GURPS in mind, should be able to be adapted for other RPG systems pretty easily. And while it’s fairly fleshed out, I haven’t spent the time to format and polish it up to a professional level. Thus, gamemasters should be sure to spend a bit of time with it before trying to run it to make sure they know how they’re going to handle various situations when they arise.

The adventure is released under a Creative Commons license. You can use it and adapt it, but not make money off of it or fail to credit me if you create derivative works. It also comes with many of the NPCs already fleshed out in the excellent GURPS Character Sheet software, and the documents available in Pages and PDF formats.

Without further ado, here it is:

ZombieTown

 

If you take a look at it, please drop me a note and let me know what you liked or didn’t like about it. I’d sure love the feedback, and would be especially tickled to know how it’s received if someone else runs it with players. Have fun!

Free Stanford AI Course

This October, anyone can take an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class, taught by professors at Stanford, for free.

This is great. But it gets better. In order to expand the scope of the class from the 200 people they’ve been teaching in person, the instructors will be using AI software to grade homework, aggregate discussion questions, and generally mediate interactions with students. Why bother? Because, to date, over 100,000 people have signed up for this course, and the enrollment is showing no signs of slowing.

The use of the software to scale allows students to get feedback on their individual homework assignments and quizzes, to interact with the instructors, and to get a ranking in the course compared to both other online attendees and the students enrolled at Stanford — feedback that would be utterly impossible to provide to that number of people if the instructors didn’t have the help of AI. It will be fascinating to see how the concepts taught in the class are used to administer it.

I’ve been intrigued by AI ever since reading Gödel, Escher, Bach way back when I was a teenager (and before I was really equipped to follow all of it). More recently, I’ve been increasingly interested in robotics and the applications thereof, which rely pretty heavily on some of the AI concepts that are in the syllabus for this class. And, of course, I have an enduring interest in games, which are probably where AI is used most often in modern computing.

So am I signing up? You betcha. And I hope some of my nerd friends will too, so that we can compare notes along the way.

This is one of the reasons I love living in the future: we have access to information and learning that is unparalleled in human history, opportunities to sit at the feet of experts that we could only have dreamed of even a decade or two ago. And wonderfully, access to an amazing education is increasingly being divorced from access to money, creating remarkable opportunities for people who are ready to work at their own learning, regardless of their backgrounds. I fully expect to be bested in the course rankings by smart 14 year olds in India and China, and will be excited to see it happen.

I’ll post some updates and reflections along the way, and possibly homework assignments too if they turn out to be interesting. This should be a fun ride.

(Thanks to Singularity Hub for the tip-off.)

A New Word Game

Yesterday while standing in a long line with Maggie, I came up with a word game to pass the time. It turned out to be pretty fun, and I played a few rounds with Kathy later on as well. Here’s how it works:

  • Player one selects a starting word.
  • Play then alternates between player two and player one, each trying to create a new word by adding, subtracting, or changing a single letter.
  • Once a word has been used once, it’s off-limits — you can’t use it again in that session.
  • The player who is unable to come up with a valid move loses the round.
  • Valid moves are limited to words in the dictionary. No proper nouns may be used.
  • Special starting rule: if player two can’t think of a valid move from the starting word, then player one must be able to make a valid move from that word, or she loses the round. (This prevents player one from starting with “antidisestablishmentarianism”, for example.)

Example play session:

  1. P1: CAT
  2. P2: COAT
  3. P1: COATS
  4. P2: COTS
  5. P1: CODS
  6. P2: CODA
  7. P1: CODE
  8. P2: CODED
  9. P1: CODES
  10. P2: MODES
  11. P1: MODEL
  12. P2: MODELS
  13. P1: YODELS
  14. P2: YODEL
  15. P1: can’t think of anything, so P2 wins the round

Try it out, and let me know what you think!

The Penny Game: A Way to Prioritize Tasks Among Many Projects

I’m a fan of agile practices in programming, and encourage my team to work along agile principles as much as possible. One thing that has always been tricky about that for us, however, is that we don’t really match the usual profile of a software team.

Most agile teams (at least in the literature) are focused on a single project, and have multiple people working together to get that project done. We, on the other hand, do all the development work for Texas State University’s Learning Management System (about 32,000 users), Content Management System (287 sites at current count), an Event Calendar system, the University iPhone app, a reservation system for training classes, a custom web content caching system, various custom-built content management systems for accreditation and regulatory compliance, and a bevy of internal tools — all with 6 people.

Needless to say, I’m very proud of my team.

Prioritizing the time of six people when we have ongoing responsibility for more than twice that many projects is, however, a daunting challenge. Our approach for a number of years had been to set release milestones for each project, to do release planning meetings to determine what should go into a given release based on our Planning Poker estimates, and then to try our best to get the work done in time.

This approach had a few problems:

  1. Release planning meetings were long and boring. We would walk through the list of unresolved tasks for a given project one by one to see if anyone wanted to prioritize that task. 90% of our time was spent saying “Ticket #666: add a green widget to the defrobulator. Anyone interested? Anyone? Class? Bueller?” (Only to have Bueller pipe up three tickets later: “Can we go back to ticket #666 for a minute?”)
  2. It was easy for people who had an interest in one project to commit 100% of the development team’s time to that project, while folks who were keen on another project would commit all of our time to that project as well. Our planning process didn’t reflect the fact that all the projects were competing for the same resources.
  3. If we finished all of the tickets for a release early and had extra time (a pretty rare problem, admittedly), we didn’t know what to work on next.

So a few months back, I decided to try an experiment. I got the stakeholders for all of our projects in a room together, gave them each 10 pennies, and explained to them the rules of the game:

“Today you are going to help the development team set our priorities. You each have 10 pennies, which represent tasks you can vote for. In order to vote for a particular task, write it on an index card, put that card in the middle of the table, and plunk down as many of your pennies as you’d like on that card. You can use all of your pennies on one task, or spread them among as many tasks as you like. Also, I encourage respectful argument. Try your hardest to persuade the people around you that they should put their pennies on the tasks you like as well. When we’re done, the number of pennies on a task will help determine its priority for our team.”

Good natured chaos ensued for the next 30 minutes as we wrote cards, passed them around, combined them, discussed the relative merits of the tasks ahead, bumped into each other as we moved around the table, tried to figure out what the heck some of the cards meant, and generally made a mess of the conference room we were working in. When we were done, we had a big, unruly pile of index cards with big, unruly piles of pennies on each:

After the meeting’s conclusion, the dev team took another 15 minutes to count the pennies on each card and put that count into a special “Bounty” field in our ticketing system, creating new tickets as needed. (We use “bounty” and “pennies” interchangeably.) When I was done, I told the system to sort our tickets by bounty, and suddenly had a prioritized list, across all of our projects, of what tasks had the most business value. Beautiful!

Task List Sorted by Bounty

Task List Sorted by Bounty

Of course, the number of pennies on a given ticket doesn’t directly determine the order in which we work on things. We also factor in the estimates for a given task we’ve come up with individually or during our Planning Poker sessions. One can divide the pennies by the estimated hours to get a “bang for the buck” rating for each of the tickets — a much more useful way to prioritize one’s work.

I don’t like to assign tasks to people on my team directly more than necessary. I find people to generally enjoy work much more when they are able to make their own decisions about what to spend their time on. On the other hand, I do want us as a team to provide the most real value we possibly can to our various customers. Since the penny game provided us a “here are tasks with business value” list, I decided to provide a couple of incentives for folks who were completing those tasks:

  1. I took a bizarre southwestern style pot that I had sitting around, labeled it the “Pot of Honor”, and told the team that it would be filled with candy and awarded to the team member each week who managed to complete tasks worth the most pennies during that span. Battling for the dubious honor of having this homely artifact rest on one’s desk for the week provides some silly, low-level competition and recognition for individuals.
  2. I set the team a collective, cumulative goal and told them I’d take them to lunch when they reached it. When we tally pennies for the awarding of the Pot of Honor, we also add up the number of pennies the whole team has completed and add them to a running total. Progress is noted on our work-area whiteboard, so we can all see how close we are to getting to have free food.
The Pot of Honor

The Pot of Honor

I’ve also made space on the whiteboard in our team area where we have our daily stand up meetings to put up the “Top 10” list of tasks that have accumulated the most pennies to help maintain focus on those high-value items.

The next time we played the penny game, a month later, it went much more quickly: we already had cards on the table from the last meeting, everyone had a better idea of what we were doing, and some folks had looked through the tickets in advance to see which tasks they wanted to support. I was surprised to see that, as we got more practiced, we were able to finish the entire exercise in about 20 minutes. We simply added the new pennies to the existing bounties in the ticketing system, making them increasingly juicy as they got older and people still had interest in them.

We’ve been playing the game for a number of months now, and I count our experiment a solid success. Advantages it has provided for us:

  1. Prioritization is way more fun and engaging. It also goes considerably faster than all of our individual release planning sessions did.
  2. The development team always has a clear idea of what our business needs are, and which of our tasks will provide the most value.
  3. Stakeholders cannot say “everything is top priority”, but are forced to choose where to allocate their pennies. The finite scarcity of pennies reflects the limits on developer time.
  4. Individual developers can exercise a good deal of autonomy and choose their own tasks while we still, as a team, deliver on the things we need to.
  5. There are a number of tasks that, while people say they are important, apparently do not merit the expenditure of a penny. As these persist for a sufficient period of time without accumulating any pennies, we can close them as not really being a high priority. (We can always reopen them later if someone decides to spend a penny to raise them from the dead.)

We’ve introduced a few refinements as we’ve gone along: Because some of our systems have tens of thousands of users, it’s ill-advised to get all of the stakeholders in a room at once. To account for this, we give the support staff extra pennies to distribute as proxies for the absent users. We’ve started writing project names and ticket numbers on the index cards to make it easier to correlate them to our ticket system. We’ve begun bringing as many laptops and iPads as possible to the meetings so that people can see the details on the various tickets in question. We now add a penny to each task whenever a user request comes into our support team.

I should note that during the time I was designing this process, I was also reading through Total Engagement, and consciously built in many of their 10 Ingredients for Games: Feedback across a range of time scales (completion of individual tickets, weekly discussion of bounties cleared, longer-term goal of team lunch), Reputation (the awarding of the Pot of Honor), Marketplaces and Economies (the game itself is a market to “buy” the development team’s time), Competition Under Rules that are Explicit and Enforced (there’s no ambiguity about how many pennies are on a ticket or how they’re assigned), Teams (working toward the common lunch goal), and Time Pressure (weekly tallies of points, implicit time pressure of not wanting to be the last person with pennies left to spend while everyone else sits around). I think these elements have been critical in making this a more engaging way for us to do things.

So, if you’re facing a similar challenge with more projects than you have people, feel free to swipe any of these ideas that look helpful. I hope they’re of some use to you. If you do give the penny game a try, please post here and let me know how it goes. Good luck!

Gamification Counterpoint

As I’ve discussed the idea of using game mechanics to help focus and motivate people with friends over the past year or two, I’ve received some tepid feedback at times, but haven’t been able to really grok the concerns they have expressed. Sebastian Deterding, at the recent Playful 2010 conference, does a brilliant job of putting the potential shortcomings of this approach into a form that even my oft-overenthusiastic brain can grasp. It would consider it an essential resource if you’re also a proponent of this sort of thing:

Mojo

All of you folks who are as interested in location-based gaming as I am have been checking in on Gowalla, Foursquare, SCVNGR, Facebook, Rally Up, or Yelp for a while now. But the lame thing about those services is that you actually have to go somewhere and do something to earn points! Enter Mojo, the web-location based game for folks who are shackled to their desks all through the day but still want the spurious sense of accomplishment that these games bring!

Teasing aside, it’s an interesting concept: allowing people to check-in on various websites and engage with the content there in various ways to earn credit. I’ve added it to the site here; feel free to play around with it if you’d like to see how it works. Just click that little “Earn Mojo” tab on the right to get started. (Though given how infrequently I get around to posting, if any of you earn the “365 Days in a Row” achievement, I’ll be forced to come over there and cut off your internet privileges. Don’t think I won’t.)