Friday, 30 May 2008

How To BETA Test A Game

If you don't know what beta testing is, it is a process through which all new websites, games and computer programs go through before they are released to the general public - to remove all the bugs.

As much as I knew that my 3 months away from home last summer would change me, I had no idea the extent to which the change would happen or really even what parts of my life or personality would be affected. Knowing that I would be meeting a lot of new people I figured that I would become slightly more outgoing and I figured that the solo travels would mature me since I would be planning and undertaking the whole trip across North America on my own – excluding the few weeks spent with family in Calgary and Vancouver.

The three months were intended to be a break from the tough year of programming; working long hours inside at a screen. Working outside with kids was pretty much the opposite to my studies and I wanted the change. Even so, when I left the UK last June, I fully intended to live with some of my friends when I returned in September, continue the course until 2010 and eventually work my way up through a company until a few of my own ideas could become video games.

Towards the end of my first year, I had tried to be extremely proactive and submit some of my “third year placement” application enquiries before the second year had even begun; hoping to increase my chances of a placement at a respectable company. One of the companies was Sports Interactive; creators of the sport simulation games that I have played for around 6 years.

I started liking football in 1998 after watching England compete in France ’98 and chose Arsenal after Holland’s Dennis Bergkamp scored a brilliant late goal to knock out the team (Argentina) who had knocked out England! Although I had played football video games since I can remember (Italia ’90, FIFA etc), it was only after I became interested in football that I took up playing football management games – with knowledge of the players and tactics.

Instead of winning games 14-0 and quickly creating a dream team, the management games took real knowledge of the sport as well as being a challenge. Furthermore, SI was celebrated for the accuracy of their database – the game predicting future superstars, top-flight managers using the database and SI scouts being signed by teams.

Being off work for an extended period of time, and even exhausting my interest in movies, books, the internet and every other activity I tried, it was a nice surprise when I received the email from Sega to say that I had been selected to join their latest game world with 100 new beta testers. After a download and read through the pdf manual, I was ready to go.

The game is a start-from-scratch management game using real life players. For example, I had to create my team (Speedy FC), buy 20 or so players, scout out some future possibilities and then play some games against other human users to improve my rankings. Unlike most online management games, this game uses real players (eg. Beckham, Ronaldo) with actual stats - SI being famous for the accuracy of their stats!

Except for starting from scratch, the game is very similar to playing a multiplayer version of the offline game - where real teams are used and up to 5 players can play in rotation. In the online version, the only time AI (artificial intelligence) is used is when a real person cannot be online for a match so the game has to be played by their computer-controlled Assistant manager.

A major part of beta testing is playing the game long enough to find the obscure bugs so that the company can fix them before the game is released. As a games designer, it is often the first step into a company – even for anyone with programming skill. It can be very tedious and boring if the game is pretty bad or if it has a lot of bugs.

Fortunately, since there are 10 game worlds currently running - each with 1000 players! - most of the bugs are being found without my help so as long as I am checking to see if a bug is known, I can basically play a 95% complete version of the game for free (the full version set to cost "the price of a few beers per month").

Even after leaving the games industry - and being a lot less interested in gaming! - I still enjoy knowing that my feedback could change the game, as well as (of course) that I am playing a game before most of the people that will play it - and for free!

Sunday, 25 May 2008

How To Work With Youth

When I was 15, I remember wanting to be one of two things. The first was to do with making movies (a director or an animator) and the second was a school teacher. In June, the penultimate month of "Year 10", we were given the chance to spend a week working at a desired place of future employment to see how we liked it, for "work experience".

Having applied to Aardman Animations (the creators of "Wallace and Gromit" and "Chicken Run") with no success, I decided to try my second-choice career in education, heading back to my old Primary school for a week to work with the younger kids. This was partially because I knew people in the older classes, including my sister, so wanted to try an unbiased group and partially because I had long ago formulated a belief that kids got harder as they got older and I would have most fun with the first and second year children.

As it turns out, I had a lot of fun! Not only did the group adore me and all want to be the ones to follow me around at play time, I was invited to one of their birthday parties, given a bag of chocolates by another child and became “high demand” when it came to helping with classroom work. This experience caused me to consider my theory sound and I’ve continued to prefer working with younger kids ever since - despite very little negative experience with older kids or teens!

Despite enjoying the experience, I decided that I didn’t want to be one of the 24 year old student teachers that looked lost and got walked over. Initially I decided to wait until I was at least 30, and fill the 10-year void with another career. The career I chose, sticking loosely to my creative dreams, was a games designer. I figured that the games market was becoming huge and that creating a game could be compared to directing a film.

Last summer, working with children and young teenagers, I finally reignited my joy for teaching (4 years after moving away from it!) and let go of my self-destructive career path as a programmer. This was the fourth notable group of kids that I had worked with and they all seemed to enjoy my company as well as listen to and respect me as much as the previous groups of kids had. I decided that teaching was a good idea and travel/university could always fill the void before I turned 30, rather than an eye-rotting 10 years of dark rooms lit by screens filled by “nonsense code”.

When I arrived in Canada, I managed to get involved in a youth program called “Kids Club” through my cousin Thea, and joined her to help out with the “Grade 6’s and 7’s” – similarly aged to some of the kids at summer camp in Pennsylvania. This was the eldest single aged group that I had worked with and the first night proved my theory correct, in that holding their attention was a lot more work. I decided to introduce myself with some short stories of things that I had seen, whilst also trying to explain to them what the lunar eclipse was and why it made the moon orange.

As the weeks went on, I went from “strange British guy” to a new celebrity and the group of kids came to respect and adore me. After watching Juno, I learned a few of the songs and taught my age group them. The songs became a big hit and I am pretty sure that most of the group now knows at least one (Tree Hugger by Kimya Dawson!) which is amazing and was really uplifting when I first saw them spontaneously burst into song one time, singing the song that I had recommended!

Positive experiences with Kids Club encouraged me to work with slightly older youth and I soon signed up for my second weekly youth club, “FUEL”, in mid February. This was also a great experience and I was also able to hang out with the other leaders, who were my age range. The youth program was well structured with games, outings and community help mixed in every month and I had a lot of fun hanging out with the youth and playing football or chatting.

When both of these clubs came to an end in early May, I began searching for a replacement (my nightly activities now down to only one night a week (Thursday, football) instead of the 5 nights (2 youth clubs, football and work on the weekends) that had kept me busy in the winter. I found a youth program called “Fridge on Friday” which was for similarly aged teens to “FUEL” but was a lot less structured - seen as more of a drop-in centre than an organised weekly youth program. The night was much more popular too. Instead of 30 teens a night maximum, the program was averaging around 70!

Hanging out with the "fashionable" group at Fridge - having
my new haircut waxed and straightened!

I decided to keep this going until the summer and see how I could work with the more rowdy teenagers, another step away from the safety of working with really young kids. So far it has been really interesting and I have connected well with a few social groups. As the program winds down in early July, I hope to be one of the more popular leaders as I try hard to connect with the youth, and offer an ear if they need someone to talk to.

Maybe I could work with any age in education after all. These next few weeks will tell...

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

How To Longboard

When I arrived at the Bowen's house in January, I had no idea what longboarding was. Therefore I will start with the very basics. Longboarding is a board sport that is similar to skateboarding in part. The main differences are the board itself being longer (and lower to the ground) - for greater speed and stability - and the effect of these changes on the style of riding.

Unlike skateboarding, longboarding is more about going quickly than doing tricks. As well as the board shape being designed around this, the rider's stance is also different to that of a skateboarder. The rider leans forward, right over the front of the board and tucks the back leg behind the front one (which is used for steering - by leaning). The rider's back is flat and the centre of gravity is somewhere just above the front end of the board.

A few weeks before spraining my ankle at football, Jesse took me out one night and we went longboarding on the quiet streets of West Richmond. We waited until 10pm before leaving because we wanted the roads and hoped that most traffic would be gone by that time. We travelled around the local area, along roads and through carparks, as I tried to pick up the basics.

The first Canada-only national holiday of my trip was recently, falling on the Monday before May 24th. This essentially makes a three day weekend and many Canadians go out of the cities and to campsites or mountain villages. The holiday is known as Victoria Day, after Queen Victoria I because she was the person for whom the holiday was introduced. Since Victoria, it changed a couple of times for different British monarchs but has stayed around May/June and is also informally known as May Day.

For this three four (still injured so no work to worry about) day weekend, Garth and Barb were going to Barbs’ Mums house on the Sunshine Coast and Jesse was going to a campsite nearby for an international longboarding competition with concerts and campfires. I decided to go with him, with the opportunity to also visit the house and go kayaking. We decided to leave on Friday morning and loaded up the car with camping gear on Thursday night.

The journey was about 6 hours, including the ferry and queuing for it. Whilst the car was parked waiting for the ferry we went to a nearby park, where I had been with Uncle Ron last summer after he collected me from the Horseshoe Bay terminal when I returned from Vancouver Island. Along the way, Jesse and I managed to spot a few longboarders’ cars – obvious because of the branded stickers plastered on the back and the stacked boards in the back seats.

With Jesse (who was sporting a "protest beard" until his
girlfriend got back from her 5 month trip to Europe

The weekend was amazing and we watched the race on the Sunday as well as hanging out by the lake and meeting new people most of Saturday morning. In the evenings there were concerts and we had beers around campfires. On Friday we had stopped to buy a few things and ended up getting a giant stuffed bunny for a few dollars which was named “Crouton” by a fellow camper. This became our campsite mascot and we stood it at the entrance.

On Saturday and Sunday, between hanging out at the lake and watching the concerts/races, we visited the Sunshine Coast house and I spent some time on the water in the kayak. It was a lot of fun and in the evening on Saturday I went out again and raced an otter whilst a playful seal followed behind and popped up about 5 metres away every so often! We also saw bald eagles, hummingbirds, starfish and fish – all very near to the house.

The races were on Sunday and although Jesse had originally had his name down to be in it, they had mixed it up and he decided not to bother trying to get in after all. We watched from a quiet spot up the hill on the second corner as heats of 4 racers went down in knockout rounds. The races lasted most of the day and the event was the biggest longboarding event in the world, with over 100 racers. The eventual winner was a local from the Sunshine Coast.

I decided to try more longboarding when my foot healed and although an unfortunate trip over a tree root prolonged the injury I was excited to get better at longboarding. Maybe I will get a good few chances this summer.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

How To Not Take Things For Granted

One of the only assemblies that I remember from primary school was the one we had (probably when I was 8) about taking things for granted. The examples cited by our head teacher were things like food, water and clothes. Since then I have tried to be grateful for these things, most of the time. Even on aeroplanes or at summer camp, I am happy to eat whatever they serve because I know it could be worse.

Unfortunately, I never really considered most other things as things that could be taken for granted. As grateful as I was for gifts, phones, computers and household items that I used daily, I never really stopped to think what life without any particular one would be like. Additionally, I didn't even consider my health or lack of injuries as things that could be taken for granted - being young and "invincible"!

A short while ago I was hit by a car whilst cycling through Richmond! As I tried to go straight across an intersection, a car decided to turn right - into me - without signalling and probably without mirror checking (because I would have been pretty visible in broad daylight!) before they turned. The car knocked into me and pushed me (still upright - due to my pretty good balance!) a few metres before coming to a stop. Luckily there was little speed involved since the car was turning from stopped and there was no damage to me or my bike.

When the woman (who initially tried to drive off!) stopped and came to talk to me, I was pretty shaken up but quite glad that I hadn't been injured or killed. She came over to apologise and instead of ranting and raving - like many people since have told me they would've - I said "sorry" and "it's ok" and went on my way. I'd like to think that the experience of potentially killing someone changed her slightly and that next time she will check before she turns at an intersection but Richmond is renowned for terrible drivers so I doubt it. I’m pretty sure me getting angry wouldn’t have changed anything anyway.

A few weeks passed and I returned to feeling invincible - having now survived a car crash whilst on a bike! Unfortunately, I had been taking my health for granted and it came as a real shock when, whilst playing football (soccer not NFL), I sprained my right ankle. Trying to keep the ball in play I had jumped and awkwardly kicked at it before landing, with quite some force, on the side of my foot! I heard a small “crack” and fell to the floor - laying there for a few minutes whilst everyone rushed over. I remember biting hard into the fake grass because it hurt a lot.

Clearly excited to be on crutches and unable to perform simple tasks
(like carrying large objects or going up stairs) without a lot of effort.

Since I did not have medical insurance (the BC “care card” system requires 6 months in BC before you can get it) I chose to go home and R.I.C.E (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate) my swollen ankle - honestly believing it to be sprained and not broken. My justification for not seeing a medical professional immediately (knowing that it would cost me) was that I’d heard of hundreds of people getting sprains and none to my knowledge had died or required amputation! I decided instead to wait it out for a few days - hoping to be back to work, after a three day rest, the following Monday!

Around the same time, other things that I would usually expect to work without effort started failing on me. The first one was my phone. Having had it around in the kitchen at the Flying Beaver and in the dirt during landscaping, bits of dirt and dust had become trapped under the buttons and the “3” key had stopped working. As a number, this is useful but not always essential. As the letters “D”, “E” and “F”, this was massive. Trying to type a text message without one of these three would be tough. Having to type weird messages using uncommon words without explanation (since I could hardly type “my 3 key broke. I can’t use D, E or F anymore!”) became a real hassle. I am quite an avid texter and can send 2500 texts per month for free. This is probably too many (one every 15 minutes!) but doesn’t cost me any extra and gives me peace of mind knowing that I won’t run out!

I have decided to try harder not to take obscure things for granted but the irony of it is that you don’t usually realise until it is too late - “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone!” - so it’s na├»ve to expect myself to not take anything for granted ever again. For example, this is the second time I have written this blog because I took the internet for granted on the first one (as I have done before on other posts) and it erased the whole thing. Will this be the last time? Will I learn from this? Probably not...

But I'll try.

Monday, 5 May 2008

How To Be A Landscaper (Part Deux)

Back in January, excited about my new job, I wrote a rave review of landscaping and how I was looking forward to working outside immensely. Since then I have covered snippets of the job but have never really gone into detail about what it was that I had been doing since starting in January.

I will start with the obvious apology. I was wrong; I am very sorry to anyone that was inspired by my excitement for landscaping and thought that everything had worked out for me - happily ever after - in terms of my career. Landscaping has two major flaws. Firstly, "landscaping is boring. So boring" (John Fenn, ex-coworker commenting on my January "How To Be A Landscaper" blog post). Secondly, if the weather is bad the job becomes quite depressing and uncomfortable. In England this would only include a single snow fall all year with showers throughout Spring. Vancouver has as much rain but also gets snowfalls between November and April!

Looking back on the memories, I have naturally forgotten the bad things and kept the good ones so my general experience was a good one. I know that I will not make a career out of it but wouldn't be opposed to landscaping again one day for a short period if I needed too. Even the difficulties of working with any particular coworker have been forgotten whereas the memories of the long discussions and inside jokes have lived on.

Not only have I met people from all around the world, interested in a huge variety of things and in very different points in their lives but I have also improved my body with regular exercise, muscle building and a nice tan (on my face and arms at least!) and have made some good friends along the way.

The job itself has changed a lot since the first time I blogged about it. When I started we were mostly working on putting mulch down for the flowerbeds and raking the leaves from November that had since been covered by snow and become unreachable. By the end of March we had also started weeding the beds and trimming the hedges/bushes.

After Easter we began removing the "spring flowers" and planting lots of "summer flowers". We began working on the lawns and got into a weekly mowing routine for most of the sites. We also trimmed and dead-headed bushes and trees to make them look nicer.

As well as these general themes, from time to time we have also worked one-off jobs which include planting trees, installing water features, laying turf (4 tonnes of turf, up three flights of stairs!) and fixing sprinklers. These jobs are nice because they add a little variety into the monotony although they are all much harder work than picking weeds or walking up and down a lawn with a self-propelled mower.

Carrying a bucket of weeds to the truck on a beautiful day in South Vancouver

My highlight of the job so far was seeing the "X-Mark" for the first time. After weeks of Sal mentioning how cool I would think the new machine was and how much she was looking forward to riding around on it - complete with roll cage and "suicide bar" - I was imagining a ride on mower with fold down blades and insane speeds/manoeuvrability! I certainly was not expecting her to roll out of the new trailer on what can be best described as a Segway-mower combination! A defining moment in my commentary shone through as I coined the phrase "looks like it's special day at the nerd-lympics!" - between fits of laughter!

Some of the other interesting moments that spring to mind involve hearing Sal's various incredible stories ridden with bizarre quotes and phrases. Keepers include "Holy Toledo", "Don't Assume - it makes you an asshole", her view on sexism and when she admitted to having not only at one point seen a ghost (which initially impressed me) but to have also seen UFOs twice, a poltergeist that threw a knife at her, possessed people and other bizarre things that alone would probably could possibly pass as believable but together only further reinforced my view of her being insane!

Inside jokes with Danny, Sanoo, Jon, Shawn and Jason made the hours drag considerably less than when I had no music and no company. Topics usually centered on passers-by, Sal, nosy homeowners and friendly banter between each other.

In conclusion, since all good writings have a conclusion, I have enjoyed the experience and like with hiking will soon forget the pain and remember the awesome times along the way! The deep discussions about life, morality, ambition and past have helped me to grow considerably and I would attribute much of my personal improvement along the way since arriving in Vancouver to these conversations with my workmates.

To have made such great friends along the way, who in turn have introduced me to more people, has made this trip infinitely easier and more enjoyable so I am grateful for everyone that I worked with along the way - even if it was mainly to provide awkward situations and topics for banter in the case of Sal.