Author Archives: Seth

Postmortem: IGF 2003 finalist Teenage Lawnmower – now free, open sourced

Originally $19.95, our old game Teenage Lawnmower (originally released in 2002) is now a free download.  It requires Windows XP or newer to play. Tested fine on Windows 10.

I’ve released a new  V1.17 “final freeware” release with the following changes:

  • Tweaked the optional gamepad controls to work with the Xbox 360 pad (at TLM’s launch, the 360 pad didn’t exist yet)
  • Payment for mowing jobs is now slightly randomized, it was an easy change, just had to edit some .c scripts, makes the game slightly easier as well.
  • The text version of the .c script files are now included uncompressed/encrypted.  You can edit a .c file in any text editor and the game will instantly be changed – its scripting system doesn’t require compiling or anything.
  • Signed both the .exe and installer with the RTsoft Windows certs (it’s no longer “untrusted”) and will properly show Robinson Technologies as the maker of the installer

Download Teenage Lawnmower V1.17 (full version) for Windows here. (14 MB)

For posterity the source code/etc is now on github.  Anybody is free to steal its 3D engine, its C style scripting engine, or try to port the game to something else.

Warning & disclaimer: It’s 15 years old, I don’t recommend learning from or re-using this code. I mean, it’s better than Dink Smallwood’s code, but I wouldn’t call it elegant or anything.

The Teenage Lawnmower postmortem

Now, while I’m here, I thought it would be fun to talk about the experience Akiko and I had of developing it, how many copies it sold, stuff like that.  For reference, I’ve kept the original TLM website frozen in time here.

“Get ready to smoke some weeds” the website says

My dream was to write a 3D RPG.

In those days, that meant writing your own 3D engine – there was nothing off the shelf you could start with like there is today that would have the power I’d need.

Having been through the gauntlet of completing something as massive as a role playing game previously (Dink Smallwood) and barely surviving, I knew that the key would be to develop the engine using smaller sub-goals.

Teenage Lawnmower (TLM) was a game design that didn’t require a single human 3D model and was very flexible for how many assets/levels we wanted to create.  It could test our 3D engine features like scripting, terrain, and weather, and could even be sold for some extra bucks. (in theory…)

Akiko uses Poser to create a redneck for Teenage Lawnmower.  Poser was kind of the Unity asset store of the day.  (photo by Seth Robinson, 2002)

TLM was the stepping stone to something greater.  Spoiler alert, looking back, it was the only game I sold that was completed using my 3D engine, the RPG never happened.

So without this “stepping stone” I probably would have nothing at all to show for all that work on the engine.

Working for years on engines and ending up finishing nothing is very common in my circles, big games are <font size=1,000,000,000>REALLY</font> hard to finish.

How long did it take to write?

It took around four months from start to finish.

I’d already been working on the 3D engine for a while before we started TLM though, if I included that, it would be much longer.

The order/key/DRM system

Ordering via RegNow (and later Paypal) would automatically generate and send a custom text key to the buyer within a minute. (sort of like a Steamkey)

It worked like this:

  • They run the full version, it asks for an unlock key
  • After entering it, it would connect to the server running from my house
  • The server would generate an unlock key based on a unique id that the client sends with the unlock key (a checksum of the user’s hard drive serial if I recall correctly)
  • The server would refuse to generate it if the max # of unlocks were reached (5 per year?)
  • There was a utility that could be run to register games on computers that didn’t have an internet connection, but it was a hassle for all involved

I went overboard with the DRM.  I think I was overlay concerned about this because previously Legend Of The Red Dragon was pirated at a huge scale and our RPG Dink Smallwood had hit the warez sites the same day as its release.  It hurts to know someone who pre-ordered the game probably only did so to pirate and share it.

TLM was never pirated as far as I know.

I later used this same anti-piracy system for Toolfish and Dungeon Scroll.  After a few years, I removed the DRM from all of my software.  Did I ever really need it?

Sales figures

I still have all the sales data so here it is. We started selling it using a payment processor called RegNow.  The first sale happened on August 28th, 2002.

Sales at $14.95 to $19.95 via RegNow: 399
Sales for less ($5 to $15): 58
Sales net revenue: Around $6,500

So that breaks down to $1600 a month (ignoring support and just looking at the four months of development) for two people.

How could we survive on only that revenue?  Well, we didn’t…

  • I spent most of the year before doing programming contract work for clients
  • We were living with Akiko’s parents as we saved for a house
  • Akiko was teaching English part time at a Yamaha English school

The Independent Games Festival

A friend clued me into the IGF and told me I should enter TLM. (Thanks Geoff Howland!)  The IGF entry deadline pushed me to finish the game quicker, I sent off the entry submission CDs the day after the game was done.  (yeah, in those days you had to send 10 CDs)

We were energized by being chosen as a finalist, despite the $2000+ cost for the two of us to attend the conference from Japan.  I mean really, that ate up a third of our earnings from the game!

I didn’t learn though, I went back in 2003 when Dungeon Scroll was a finalist as well.  We joked that we just couldn’t afford to enter the damn IGF anymore.

A frazzled Seth shows off his game at the IGF (photo by Akiko, 2003)

My cheapo laptop could only run the game at 20 FPS or so.  Hosting a booth takes a lot of energy, the ability to talk up your game, and an outgoing personality.  Yeah, I’m zero for three.  I’ll be happy to never run a booth again!

Akiko sits at the finalist table during the awards show. She’s 5 months pregnant with Cosmo. (photo by Seth Robinson, 2003)

Was it worth spending that much to go even though we didn’t win jack? I don’t know, it was a good experience or whatever.  It was my first time to the Game Developers Conference.

Being a finalist didn’t seem to generate many sales or website hits, not enough to notice anyway.  It did score me a few interviews; I found this one with Gamedev.net.

Dekochan

Hard to see in this pic, but those are beagles down there!

The beagle was modeled and textured from our real-life Beagle, dekochan.  It’s really his bark sound effects in there too.

He passed away earlier this year (2018), but I’m glad he got to be immortalized in this and other RTsoft games first. (Photo by Akiko)

Dekochan’s 3D model also made an appearance in our iOS game Tanked.

The connection to Tarzan

How would Tarzan put out forest fires? Actually the less said about this game the better

So what about this incredible RPG engine that was sure to be an investment in RTsoft’s future? Well, before TLM we did use it in another “stepping stone project”: a game called Tarzan: Guardian Of Earth for a gamedev.net contest.

Lightning that can set trees on fire and some other effects were re-used in TLM.

Tarzan won first place in the contest, which is why I politely shame the gamedev guys to cough up the prize for it in the interview I linked earlier. I was kind of bummed with the delay because I really could have used that graphics card.

They ended up buying the prize at a Toys R Us and giving it to me in person at the IGF event, nearly a year after I’d won it.  Unfortunately, graphics cards tend to age quickly…  (No, I’m not bitter at all, why do you ask?)

Fifteen years later, is Teenage Lawnmower any good?

The mowing itself isn’t quite as fun or interesting as it needed to be to not feel a bit grindy and boring after a while.  The mowing mechanic is kind of like Splatoon, you need to cover the ground (mowing is a little like painting) and there is a bomb thing that can mow a large area.

There are 17 “lawns” (think levels) which customers will ask you to mow.  You can say no to lawns you don’t like, and other customers will ask, but you’ll lose precious time in the day.

The  idea is that every lawn has a unique theme that is tied to story surrounding the customer.  Sometimes that story is even tied to the main story, like when your mom dates one of your freakier customers who live in the woods with dogs.

In the movie at the top of this article, you see a bunch of lemonade pitchers on the lawn.  The owner is an older woman trying to seduce you, she’s drugged the lemonade.  If you touch one with your mower, your controls get reversed, making it much harder.  If you touch three, well, you pass out and unspeakable things happen.

The second part of the video is mowing a guy’s lawn who has a mole problem.  If you kill a mole, that’s bad, but if you hit an empty hole, it gets removed and generates bonus dollars.

Later levels are more liberal with power up placements

A cemetery has skeletons reaching up through the dirt, a rich guy has money randomly spawning around his mansion, a golf course has ducks (yup, the one from Dink Smallwood) and a lady with only a tiny grass patch in the city presents a moral quandary concerning stealing from her wallet.

One of the crazier lawns in the game

The metagame to tie together the arcade sequences is earning money to meet various demands at home, which is the “story” portion.  The scripting system made it easy to quickly write and test dialog.  The story deals with topics like alcoholism and domestic abuse.

I was trying to get the player to care about what happens and push through to the next story dialog.  Choices you make can matter, for instance, your stepdad Todd will treat you differently depending on if you took his steak from the fridge or not the day before.

On day thirty you’re treated to one of three story endings based on which difficulty level you’re playing.

A note on scripting

I’ve un-protected the scripting files for this public release, so if you navigate to the script or scriptg directory, you can see how a game like this is setup and uses 99% scripts that can be edited on the fly.

Look at a few and make changes, you could make your own story or cheat!  The directory script/event holds the story for each morning/night, and script/levels holds the level logic for each lawn.

.pss files are particle systems I think, .wet is weather, I think .zon is the level and its terrain, and .obj describes the objects in the level.  Maybe.  The .X files are the models. Remember .x files?!  .dds files are textures.

Conclusion

Give the game a spin here if you dare. (14 MB)

So that’s how it was being an indie dev in the early 2000s.  Cya!

Random thoughts on software death

If you write a book, it lives forever.

If you write an iPhone game, it exists until you stop updating it?

Remember my game Blip Arcade? (that’s ok, I barely do either)

It’s no longer purchasable because Apple removed it.  The reason: “We noticed that your app has not been updated in a significant amount of time”.

I’m not the only one either, Jayenkia posted about the same issue a few days ago, if you click below you can see some discussion about it:

It gets worse

Being delisted is one thing, but another worry is platform death.  

<raises a glass to the following dead platforms I’ve released software on>

Worldgroup/MBBS, WebOS, Blackberry 10, BREW, Tapwave Zodiac, Zeebo

Some of these can be emulated but newer platforms are increasingly relying on cloud services  to do anything, backends that get shut down without ever being publicly documented.

Good luck, emulator writers and software archivists, we’re counting on you.

I’m doing my part gif

In some cases we developers can help out by releasing legal free versions (sans DRM of course) of old stuff that is no longer commercially relevant.

Source code too, when the situation permits.  I just need to get around to doing that with my old stuff before it’s lost to the ravages of bad sectors…

To that end, I shall be making another old game of mine free tomorrow as well as open-sourcing it…!

How do you describe your job to non-developers?

Sorry honey, I’ll be right there in a click or two. Just need to tighten up this game design first

The evolution of how I’ve described my job to non developers:

  • 1989 – “I’m a BBS door author”
  • 1993 – “I’m a programmer”
  • 1997 – “I’m a game developer”
  • 2003 – “I’m an indie game developer”
  • 2013 – “I’m a game designer”

I like “game designer” as it sounds more glamorous.  It evokes the TV stereotype of the pensive genius sitting on the beach, tapping out creative masterpieces between sips of wine.  I want people to think that’s what I do all day.

To fellow developers I say “tiny two person indie dev team” to make it clear that we do the arting and coding and aren’t just “idea people” looking for someone to make our game or whatever.

The mundane truth

The experience of running a tiny indie game company from home for nearly thirty years is more like being a rat desperately jumping between sinking ships as technologies and digital storefronts boom and bust in never ending cycles.

You stay flexible or you’re done.

Pair programming with Cosmo in 2003

It’s fighting with software libraries, editors and engines.  It’s figuring out why ssl stopped working on our websites.  It’s dealing with soul killing (well, for me, anyway) things like conventions and marketing.

All things considered, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

PaperCart – Make an Atari 2600 that plays QR codes

What is it about the Atari 2600?

It was the summer of 1983 at Jeff Mccall’s slumber party when I saw my first game console.

Crowded around the small TV we gawked at the thing – an Atari VCS.

The seven of us took turnst. Passing the joystick around like a sacred relic we navigated Pitfall Harry over hazardous lakes, crocodiles and scorpions.

One by one the other kids fell asleep.  Having no need of such mortal frivolity, I played Pitfall all night!

I fainted in the street the next day due to sleep deprivation.  Worth it.

The challenge

It’s kind of mind-blowing that games that originally sold for over $30 ($70+ in 2018 money) can now be completely stored in a QR code on a small piece of paper.

As a poignant visual metaphor for showing my kids how much technology has changed, I decided to create a Raspberry Pi based Atari that accepts “paper carts” of actual Atari 2600 games.

The requirements for my “PaperCart” Atari VCS:

  • Must use the real QR code format, no cheating by tweaking the format into something a standard QR reader couldn’t read
  • 100% of the game data must actually be read from the QR code, no game roms can be stored in the console, no cheating by just doing a look-up or something
  • Runs on a Raspberry Pi + Picamera with all open source software (well, except the game roms…)
  • Can convert rom files to .html QR codes on the command line, sort if need this or we’ll have nothing to print and read later
  • Easy enough to use that a kid can insert and remove the “paper carts” and the games will start and stop like you would expect a console to do
  • Standard HDMI out for the video and audio, USB controller to play

All about QR codes

The QR in QR Code stands for Quick Response.  It’s a kind of 2d barcode that was invented by a Japanese company named Denso Wave in 1994.  They put it into the public domain right from the get go, so it’s used a lot of places in a lot of ways.

QR codes have a secret power – they use something called Reed-Solomon error correction.  It has the amazing ability to fill in missing parts using extra parity data.  More parity data, more missing data can be reconstructed.  Not certain parts, ANY OF THE PARTS.  I know, right?

Reed-Solomon is also used in CDs, DVDS and Blu-ray, that’s why a scratched disc can still work.

Remember those .par files on Usenet you’d use when you were downloading a bunch of stuff in chunks?  Yep, parchives were based on Reed Solomon.

I hid a fun Atari fact in this code.

I’ve encoded some text in the above QR code with error correction set to Level H (High), which means up to 30% can be missing and you can STILL read it!

Go ahead, block some of it with your fingers, put your phone in camera mode and point it at the QR code above.  Does it work?  That’s the Reed-Solomon stuff kicking in.

QR codes automatically jump to larger sizes to encode more data – from version 1 to version 40.

Can you find your way out of this maze?  Does your brain hurt yet? Hope no one took that seriously and actually tried.

Above is a version 40, the most dense version.  My iPhone is able to read this one right off the screen too.  If you have problems, you can try zooming into the page a bit maybe.

This is the first 2900 characters of Alice In Wonderland.  We can store a max of 2,953 full bytes.  A byte is 8 “yes or no” bits.  With that, you can store a number between 0 and 255. 

Because text doesn’t need a whole byte, there are smarter ways to store it which would allow us to pack in much more than we did here –  but let’s ignore that as we’re only interested in binary data.

If I show the QR code too clearly, I might be enabling rom piracy and get in trouble. Weird, right?

This game (Stampede) has 2,048 bytes (2K) of rom data so it easily fits inside a single QR code.

Other Activision classics like Fishing Derby and Freeway are also 2K games but Pitfall! is 4K game.  Using gzip compression saves us nearly 20% but it’s still a bit too big to fit in a single QR code. To work around this I’ve added a “Side B” to the other side of the Pitfall! card.  Cart. Whatever it is.

My paper cart format stores some metadata so the reader can know how many QR codes are needed for the complete game, as well as if the data is for the same game or not by storing a rom hash in each piece.

Emulating a 2600 on a Raspberry Pi 3

I started with latest Retro Pi image and put that on a micro SD card.  RetroPi has an Atari 2600 emulator out of the box that can be directly run from the command line like this:

/opt/retropie/supplementary/runcommand/runcommand.sh 0 _SYS_ atari2600 <rom file data>

So now I just needed to write some software that will monitor what the Pi camera sees, read QR codes, notice when no QR code is present or it has changed and start/stop the emulator as appropriate.

Writing the software – PaperCart

Naturally I chose Proton SDK as the base as it handles most of what I need already.  For the QR reading, I use zbar, and for the webcam reading I use OpenCV and optionally raspicam instead. (no need for OpenCV on the Raspberry Pi linux build)  I put it on github here.

The PaperCart binary can also be used from the command line to create QR codes from rom files. (It uses QR-Code-generator)

RTPaperCart.exe -convert myrom.a26

or on the raspberry:

RTPaperCart -convert myrom.a26

It will generate myrom_1_of_1.html or if multiple QR codes are needed, a myrom_1_of_2.html and myrom_2_of_2.html and so on.  I opened in the web browser, cut and pasted them into photoshop, scaled them down (disable antialiasing!) to the correct size and printed them.

A quick note about zbar and decoding binary data in a QR code

If you want binary data to look exactly as it went in (and who wouldn’t?!), you need to do a little processing on it after zbar returns it with iconv.  Here is that magical function for any future googlers:

string FixQRBinaryDataEncoding(string input)
{
	iconv_t cd = iconv_open("ISO-8859-1", "UTF-8");
	if (cd == (iconv_t)-1)
	{
		LogMsg("iconv_open failed!");
		return "";
	}
	int buffSize = (int)input.length() * 2;

	string output;
	char *pOutputBuf = new char[buffSize]; //plenty of space
	size_t outbytes = buffSize;
	size_t inbytes = input.length();

	char *pOutPtr = pOutputBuf;
	char *pSrcPtr = &input.at(0);

	do {
		if (iconv(cd, RT_ICONV_CAST &pSrcPtr, &inbytes, &pOutPtr, &outbytes) == (size_t)-1)
		{
			LogMsg("iconv failed!");
			SAFE_DELETE_ARRAY(pOutputBuf);
			return "";
		}
	} while (inbytes > 0 && outbytes > 0);
	
	iconv_close(cd);
	int finalOutputByteSize = (int)buffSize-(int)outbytes;
	string temp;
	temp.resize(finalOutputByteSize);
	memcpy((void*)temp.c_str(), pOutputBuf, finalOutputByteSize);
	SAFE_DELETE_ARRAY(pOutputBuf);

	return temp;
}

Want to make your own?

It’s pretty straight forward if you’re comfortable with linux and Raspberry Pi stuff. Here are instructions to set it up and download/compile the necessary software.

(If you really wanted, it’s also possible to do this on Windows, more help on setting up Proton on Windows here, you’d also need to OpenCV libs and Visual Studio in  that case)

  • Write Retropie image to a microSD card, put it in your pi
  • Make sure the Atari 2600 emulator works in Retropie, setup a gamepad or something
  • Enable SSH logins so you can ssh in, I guess you don’t have to, but it makes cutting and pasting instructions below a lot easier

Open a shell to the Raspberry Pi (as user “pi” probably) and install RTPaperCart and the stuff it needs starting with:

sudo apt-get install libiconv-hook-dev libzbar-dev

Now we’ll install and compile raspicam, a lib to control the camera with.

Note: It acts a little weird, possibly because it’s using outdated MMAL stuff? In any case, it works “enough” but some fancier modes like binning didn’t seem to do anything.

cd ~
git clone https://github.com/cedricve/raspicam
cd raspicam;mkdir build;cd build
cmake ..
sudo make install
sudo ldconfig

Before we can build RTPaperCart, we’ll need Proton SDK:

cd ~
git clone https://github.com/SethRobinson/proton.git

Build Proton’s RTPack tool:

cd ~/proton/RTPack/linux
sh linux_compile.sh

Download and build RTPaperCart:

cd ~/proton
git clone https://github.com/SethRobinson/RTPaperCart.git
cd ~/proton/RTPaperCart/linux
sh linux_compile.sh

Build the media for it.  It converts the images to .rttex format.

.rttex is a Proton wrapper for many kinds of images.

cd ~/proton/RTPaperCart/media
sh update_media.sh

Now you’re ready to run the software (note: pkill Emulation Station first if that’s running):

cd ~/proton/RTPaperCart/bin
sh ./run_app.sh

You might see errors if your camera isn’t available. To enable your camera, plug in a USB one or install a Picamera and use “sudo raspi-config” to enable it under “Interfacing options“. (don’t forget to reboot)

If things work, you’ll see what your camera is seeing on your screen and if a QR code is read, the screen should go blank as it shells to run the atari emulator.

You can point your camera at a QR code on the screen and it will probably work, or go the extra mile and print paper versions because they are fun.  You don’t have to laminate them like I did, but that does help them feel more sturdy.

You might need to twist your camera lens to adjust the focus. 

I setup mine to automatically run when the Pi boots (and not Emulation Station) so it works very much like a console.

Running RTPaperCart /? will give a list of optional command line options like this:

-w <capture width>
-h <capture height>
-fps <capture fps>
-backgroundfps <background capture fps
-convert <filename to be converted to a QR code. rtpack and html will be created>

3D Printing the stand

I sort of imagined designing a stylish 2600 themed case with a slot for the paper cart and fully enclosing the Pi, but that would take skill and also require some kind of light inside so the QR could be read. 

So instead I did the minimum – a thing to hold the PI, camera, and easel where you insert the QR code paper.

I used Fusion 360 and designed the stand parametrically so you can fiddle with values to change sizes pretty easily.  The modules are designed to snap together, no screws needed.

You can download the Fusion 360 project here, the download button allows you to choose additional formats too. 

You need to kind of use common sense and print with supports where it looks like you need them.

Conclusion

So that’s great, but you’d like to store Grand Theft Auto 5 as QR codes because they are so convenient?

Let’s see, 70 gigabytes.  No problem. To convert that you’ll just need about 25 million QR codes.  You might want to order some extra ink now.

At one code per paper, the stack would reach a mile and a half into the sky.

If you got this far, you must also be a connoisseur of gaming history and old hardware.  Check these out too then:

They Create Worlds (Podcast on gaming history, no fluff)
Matt Chat (Interviews and info about old games in visual form)
The Retro Hour (Podcast with retro gaming interviews and news)
Atari 5200 Multi-ROM Cartridge Using Raspberry Pi  (Cool, something like this might make it possible to mod a real 2600 to read “paper cartridges”.  Small world, Dr. Scott M Baker wrote BBS stuff too, including Land Of Devastation as well as Door Driver, a utility that allowed a dumb kid like me to write BBS games)

How to setup quadview for competitive gaming

Why would you want a quadview setup?

I (badly) play PUBG with my family in a room where we can’t really sit close together and this always happens:

“Sniper in that building.  Upper left window”

“Which building?  Which window?!”

“Look at my screen…  here!”

Turning around to crane your neck at someone else’s computer will get you killed – quadview to the rescue!  A quadview setup puts a live feed of everyone’s screen next to your normal screen.

In the very unlikely chance you’re in a situation where this could be useful, here’s how to do it.

Hardware I use

An HDMI Quad Multi-viewer (like this one $99) – this has four HDMI inputs (to plug in each person’s view) and one HDMI output.  This is the thing that can actually take the four views and smoosh it into one HDMI signal.

Assuming that each team member is sitting far enough away from each other to need their own quad view, you also need to split this HDMI out into up to four outputs.

An HDMI 1in 4 out splitter (like this one – $18)

Up to four extra monitors to show the quad view – if you’re like me, you have random old monitors (or Contique) laying around that can display HDMI signals.

Getting the inputs – Use OBS, NOT screen mirroring!

So now you need a signal from each person’s computer to plug into the switcher.  I don’t think it’s possible to buy a video card that doesn’t have an extra HDMI out on it these days, but having that is step one.

Run an HDMI cable from the switcher input to a free HDMI output port on your video card.  Open Windows’ Display Settings and verify it’s showing up as the second display.

You may be tempted to choose “Mirror display 1 on display 2” – this will only give you headaches later!  It will reduce the refresh rate and resolution of your main monitor to match this second one; you probably don’t want this.  It’s also kind of weird and buggy in my experience.

Note: I play 100 hz refresh at 3440X1440 – the method we use below will automatically letterbox the screen to fit the 1920X1080 output for quadview nicely.

The best way is to “extend desktop” to the second monitor.  We’ll also need OBS Studio. It’s a great free open source app used primarily for streaming but works great for this.

Configuring OBS Studio

After installing OBS, the setup is pretty simple.

Add a “Game capture” to the sources property.

Now, this is key, right click your scene’s name under “Scenes” and choose “Fullscreen Projector” and set it to your second display.  If you start a game, you should see its output being “broadcast” via the HDMI going to the quad-view box’s input.

If you want to be cool, add name overlays in OBS.  That’s it, you’re ready to roll.

Some tips

  • It takes practice to use,  easy to forget it’s there.  If a squadmate is in a fire fight a quick look can give you important information on her situation before choosing to bust in crazy-like or stealthily approach from a specific direction.
  • If one of your local squad dies and you’re playing with a remote player, the dead person can switch to the remote teammate’s view so everybody can watch what he’s doing as well.
  • Turn “equipment hud” and “weapon hud” options to ON –  if the display is big enough it’s possible to see the players backpack, armor, and gun situation.
  • If you’re REALLY serious you can buy a more expensive box that puts the four inputs together into 4K output –  don’t know about you, but I sure don’t have extra 4k monitors sitting around though.