Jim's Blog Ramblings about novels, comics, programming, and other geek topics


Halo: First Strike (Book Review)

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The third book in the Halo series is title "First Strike." Eric Nylund, author of the first Halo book "The Fall of Reach" returns to finish some of the unresolved plots from the first book. The book takes place between Halo 1 and Halo 2 video games.

The novel also provides the Halo gamer with insights into how Master Chief returned to earth after Halo: Combat Evolved (Halo 1) and how the Covenant discovered the location of earth.


Star Wars Padawan Training Available in July 2009

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I just discovered this unique and interesting toy via Scott Adams (Dilbert Blog). Well, it's not so much a toy as it is just a cool device.

Wearing a custom built device that slips on your head, you can use your brain waves to move a sphere vertically in a container. There's no wires and no interaction via control pads or buttons. The wireless headset reads your brain activity, similar to an EEG medical test, to translate the brain waves to physical activity.


Halo: The Flood (Book Review)

The second book in the Halo series is titled "The Flood" The book is written by William C. Dietz who's background of serving in the US Navy as medic might have helped him with the characters and background stories.

This book is a novelization of the first Halo video game (Halo: Combat Evolved). I never got a chance to play the first Halo game, so the events of the game were unfamiliar to me. For most other Halo fans, they've probably played the game and remember quite a few events of this book.


Halo: The Fall of Reach (Book Review)

I wasn't too familiar with the Halo series until last year when I played Halo for the first time. I knew it was a FPS (first person shooter) and knew that it involved running around and shooting aliens, much like most other FPS games. Since FPS games weren't my speciality, I had never spent much time playing or reading about Halo.

After I purchased Halo III, I was able to complete the game and learn a little more about the Halo setting. The game was fun and a bit challenging at times. However, since I don't have a XBOX Gold membership I wasn't able to play online versus other players - who probably would have easily killed me anyway.

A few months after playing the game, I noticed the Halo book series at a local bookstore. I thought it might be interesting, but I didn't think about the book series until almost a year later. After bringing only one book to read on my flight, I had finished it and needed a new book for my return flight. So I picked up the first book of the Halo series (Halo: The Fall of Reach) by Eric Nylund. The book is just over 7 years old.


Mass Effect: Ascension (Book Review)

Mass Effect: Ascension is the second novel of the Mass Effect series. The book is based on the game of the same name by BioWare. The author, Drew Karpyshyn, works for BioWare and has also written books on the BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic game.

I read the first Mass Effect novel before the Mass Effect XBOX360 game was released and I really enjoyed that novel. Now that I've finished the first novel and then finished the game (a few times), I have a decent idea of the Mass Effect universe so unlike the first book there wasn't a lot of introduction and general knowledge layout of the universe and species.


A Week of Wii

Last week, I got a chance to play with a Wii for the first time. I've been a recent console convert and picked up a XBOX 360 last year, so most of my comparisons will be versus the XBOX 360 and XBOX LIVE.

At first glance, the Wii interface is much more simpler than the current XBOX interface. (Note: The November 2008 XBOX UI upgrade is supposed to do a complete revamp of the UI. This was written before that update.)


Gary Gygax (1938-2008)

Most people will probably not know about Gary Gygax, but his influences have been instrumental in the gaming and fantasy industry for over the last thirty years or so.

If you've ever played a role playing game, such as World of Warcraft, Mass Effect, Final Fantasy, or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, then you've experienced some of his legacy.

Along with Dave Arneson, they created and pioneered role playing games by publishing the game Dungeons & Dragons. Later, he co-founded Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) which published Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (and later purchased by Wizards of the Coast and then Hasbro who now owns the rights to the gaming system). An estimated 20 million people worldwide have played dungeons and dragons.

Games give you a chance to excel, and if you're playing in good company you don't even mind if you lose because you had the enjoyment of the company during the course of the game.

-- Gary Gygax, Aug. 15, 2004

Mr. Gygax was ranked #18 on "GameSpy's 30 Most Influential People in Gaming" (tied with J.R.R. Tolkien). He was so popular that he even has a strain of bacteria named after him ("Arthronema gygaxiana sp nov UTCC393"). He was also ranked as the #1 Nerd by Sync Magazine.

He has also written several novels including a Greyhawk series, several game system books, and a few essays and articles for gaming magazines.

I believe that Gary Gygax done for fantasy gaming the same thing that J.R.R. Tolkien did for fantasy novels. Sure, there were fantasy novels before Tolkien, but his writings continue to inspire and influence all fantasy related creations. In the same way, Gary Gygax's gaming system wasn't the first for fantasy genre, but it has inspired and influenced nearly every role playing game (even outside of fantasy genre) since it's creation.


Does playing video games make you a better software engineer?

Jason Kealey of LavaBlast wrote an interesting piece of how Super Mario Brothers made him a better software engineer (or "junior engineer" in his Canadian terms).

I think this is an interesting viewpoint to take. I remember having one of the first Nintendo system of my friends, but even before that I had a Coleco system and an Apple IIc+ with games.

Did any of that influence me? I'm willing to say yes. If I had never played video games as a kid, then I'd used my computer for word processing and spreadsheets for schoolwork.

As a teenager, I played games and attempted to write my own games. This taught me the very basics (and frustrations) of programming. I think this helped guide my early thought processes towards a more logical path and allowed me to more easier think in terms of conditional (if/switch), iteration (for, do, for each), and jump (goto, break, return) statements along with logic processing, which gave me a bit of an advantage later in life as I began professionally programming.

I don't know if the actual act of playing video games made me a better programmer or software engineer, but I would credit the creativity the video games unleashed as the result of playing them as more of the influence than the time spent playing games.

When I was younger, I probably spent as much time trying to make my own games or hacking shareware games on floppy disks as I did playing them.

Does playing games today help me? Probably not, but it still unleashes some creativity sparks when I find a rather interesting concept or an exceptional user interface design. And regardless, it's still fun and a great way to relieve some stress after writing a design or requirements document or finding out that you have to re-code a large section of the application due to "unforeseen circumstances."

Another article related to this is by Tim Stall at the .NET Developer's Journal titled "10 Rules that Age of Empires Teaches about Development".

[Via Arjan's World linkblog]

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How to create a heightmap and skydome using Terragen for XNA

In this example, I'm going to use the Generated Geometry Sample provided by the XNA Creators Club as the code base, so we can just focus on creating heightmaps and the skydome.

Terragen is a great scenery generator and best of all, it's free for personal (non-commercial) use. However, the unregistered version has some limitations such as the image dimensions that you can generate. There's a great gallery of Terragen graphics showcasing it's abilities. Terragen also has numerous plug-ins for other 3D software packages such as Blender, 3D Studio MAX, LightWave 3D, Maya, etc.

The heightmap used by the sample is named "terrain.bmp" and it's dimensions are 257x257. The sky image used by the sample is named "sky.bmp" and it's dimensions are 2048x1024. Both of these images are found in the root Content folder.

Generating the heightmap

When Terragen opens, you will find the Landscape dialog at the foreground. To generate a random terrain, click the Generate button. On the Terrain Genesis dialog, you can play with the various options for a bit. Finally, click the Generate Terrain button and then the Close button.

To preview the terrain, click the Render Preview button on the Rendering Control dialog. Without a texture applied, you probably won't see much.

Exporting the heightmap

To change the file dimensions, click on the Size button of the Landscape dialog (located in the Terrain panel). You can increase the size to 513x513 with the unregistered version of Terragen. Registering the software will allow you to export to higher resolutions.

You can export the surface to a RAW image format and then convert it to an image format such as BMP, JPG, etc. that is more friendly with the XNA environment. Alternatively, you can download the FEO (For Export Only) plug-in that enables you to save your terrains to BMP, DXF, RIB, and OBJ formats (once you follow the install instructions for FEO, you can click on Accessories and Export to BMP).

Once you get the image into a BMP format (or other XNA compatible format), just copy the file into your Content folder. We'll get back to that after we finish the skybox.

Generating the skydome

Now that we have the heightmap finished, we can move on to the skydome. In this sample, the skydome is just one image that wraps around the terrain. We can create this by taking four images (North, East, South, West) from the center of our scene and stitching them together.

First, we need to setup our scene.

Uncheck the Fixed Height Above Surface for camera and target (2 checkboxes) in the Camera panel.

Find a good spot to use as the center point. I chose the center of my surface (x=128, y=128 terrain units). I played around a bit with the altitude (z) until I wasn't below the surface.

Increase your detail slider to the max (rightmost) in the Image panel.

We need to apply some texture to the surface so our image will look nice. Click the Open button in the Surface Map panel of the Landscape dialog. Terragen comes with a handful of surface maps that you can use (you'll may need to browse to your Terragen install directory). I'll chose GrassAndSnow2.srf for my surface.

Exporting the skydome

Set your Image Width and Height to 960 and 960 (the best resolution you can export with unregistered is 1280x960).

The next few steps will take the longest time. You'll need to change your camera settings, render an image, and save the image for each of our four directions.

Alternatively, you can download the script at the end of this article to automate the process. It will still take a while to render each of the images, but at least you can walk away for a few minutes.

View Name Camera Heading Camera Pitch Camera Bank
North 0 0 0
East 90 0 0
South 180 0 0
West 270 0 0

Change the camera orientation to the above parameters, render the image, and then export the image. Once all 4 images are done, stitch the images together in a clockwise manner (N->E->S->W or S->W->N->E, etc.).

You may need to reduce the combined width of the image to 2048 to run on your PC.

Testing the scene

Open the GeneratedGeometryWindows solution.

Note: If you overwrote the files from the sample using the same filenames, then you can skip this part and just start the sample application to view your work. You will need to rebuild the solution, so that the XNB files are updated via the pipeline otherwise, it will load the old XNB files.

Adding the files to the project

In the Solution Explorer, make sure you enable the Show All Files option by clicking the button above the solution tree. Expand the Content folder (you may need to refresh the file list).

Select the terrain heightmap image from the previous steps, right click, and choose Include In Project. View the heightmap image properties and change the Content Processor to TerrainProcessor.

Select the sky image from the previous steps, right click, and choose Include In Project. View the sky image properties and change the Content Processor to SkyProcessor

Make code changes

Update the code in the function called GeneratedGeometry.LoadContent. The model loaded for the terrain object should be the filename that you created (do not include the file extension). The sky file loaded for the sky object should be the skybox image that you created (do not include the file extension).

Run the application

Build your solution and then click Start Debugging (or just press F5) to see your newly created heightmap and skydome. You may also want to turn off the Fog effects drawn on the terrain (in the GeneratedGeometry.DrawTerrain function).

Notes on the Generated Geometry sample

The sample code uses a tiled texture for the terrain surfaces, so unless you replace "rocks.bmp" with a more fitting texture, your landscape scene might look a bit out of place.

Skybox Script for Terragen

Copy the following script into Notepad and save as "SkyboxScript.tgs". Execute this script in the above steps. The below script will generate 4 images in your C:temp directory by changing the camera orientation to the same parameters as listed in the table above. The frend (frame render) command renders the image and saves to your temp folder. The images will be named skydome0001, skydome0002, skydome0003, and skydome0004. So just stitch them together in the same order.

initanim "C:tempskydome", 1 

Zoom 1.0
CamH 0
CamP 0
CamB 0

Zoom 1.0
CamH 90
CamP 0
CamB 0

Zoom 1.0
CamH 180
CamP 0
CamB 0

Zoom 1.0
CamH 270
CamP 0
CamB 0

Update 1 (3/4/2008): Some of my friends remarked that this post was useless without pics. With 3G of upload space remaining here, I might as well upload a few.

Scene example - generated from Terragen, default parameters
Terragen Scene Render

Heightmap example - generated from Terragen, default parameters
Terragen Heightmap Example

Skydome image example - generated from Terragen, default parameters using script above
Terragen Skydome Landscape render


Democratizing Game Development

I've long been a fan of games and game development. I created my first game over 20 years ago and saved it to a cassette (remember those things we used to have in cars before CDs?) on my Coleco Adam computer.

I also remember creating numerous text driven games for my Apple IIc Plus using Applesoft BASIC and saving them to my 5 1/4 inch floppy disks. A few months ago, I found my first game development book (for SmartBASIC) and a stack of 5 1/4 inch floppy disks in my parents basement...

Well, that was a long time ago. Today, there's lots of great gaming libraries and 3D engines for the PC. I experimented with a few of these using C++, but I've rarely finished any of games before I got distracted on another project or something else came up.

A few years ago, Microsoft released the XNA framework for Visual Studio. This framework allowed developers to make games compatible with both PCs (Microsoft operating systems) and XBOX 360s. I participated in the version beta prior to it's release and I've worked with the 1.x and 2.x versions, but I still haven't finished any games so far.

I'm still pretty excited about the XNA framework and it's impact on the programming industry.  I've thought this was great for Microsoft since I heard the first rumors. I believe the XNA framework will bring young developers into the .NET world and even though very, very few will get into the game industry, they will take their .NET skills into the marketplace. Some colleges have even designed programming courses around the XNA framework.

At the Game Developers Conference this week, Microsoft announced their plans for the next version of XNA.  Version 3 will include "XBOX Live Community Games". They also announced support for game development on the Zune, which I think is a good direction also.

This provides developers the ability to upload their games to a community site where peers can download and review your games. If your game passes the peer reviews, then it will become available to all XBOX owners to download and play.

TalkingAboutGames provides a little more details stating:

Gamers will be able to rate user-created XBLA titles through XNA Creators Club once the service goes live... Once a game is submitted, it goes through a peer review process (which eliminates copyrighted material and/or prohibited content), and if it passes, it's made available for download over Creators Club, which will be located on the Xbox Live dashboard. If that's not enough, XNA games can now be played on your Zune as well.

Gamasutra has a lengthy article titled, "Democratizing Game Distribution". The article provides general instructions on the game submission process. The submission form will contain options for the developer to rate violence, sex, and mature content on a scale of 0 to 5, upload screenshots and movie trailers, and upload the game package (.ccgame file).  Next, fellow XNA Creator Club members can submit reviews and game defects (bugs) for the game. Once enough positive reviews have been submitted, XBOX users can download the game via the XNA Game Launcher.

There is a special preview of this ability available until mid-March. You can download the XNA games of The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, JellyCar, Little Gamers, Proximity HD, Rocketball, TriLinea, and Culture.

Maybe it's about time that I get back to work on my own game!