“I can hear you breathing… sorry kid, but you’ve got to stop or leave the room” is something Cosmo has heard many a time while using the computer next to me.
As my long suffering family can attest, I’ve had a “thing with sound” for a long time. It’s one of the reasons I love my job – I’ve worked alone in a room for most of the last thirty years.
Introducing… my white noise app! I wrote it because I couldn’t find another app that would automatically “mix” a small amount of noise to the podcast I like but have it switch to a different setting when it detects no other audio is playing so I can sleep through the night.
It’s easy to use, has the perfect custom mixable sounds, and is totally free. If you use white noise at all, check it out.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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)
int buffSize = (int)input.length() * 2;
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);
if (iconv(cd, RT_ICONV_CAST &pSrcPtr, &inbytes, &pOutPtr, &outbytes) == (size_t)-1)
} while (inbytes > 0 && outbytes > 0);
int finalOutputByteSize = (int)buffSize-(int)outbytes;
memcpy((void*)temp.c_str(), pOutputBuf, finalOutputByteSize);
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)
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.
git clone https://github.com/cedricve/raspicam
cd raspicam;mkdir build;cd build
sudo make install
Before we can build RTPaperCart, we’ll need Proton SDK:
git clone https://github.com/SethRobinson/proton.git
Build Proton’s RTPack tool:
Download and build RTPaperCart:
git clone https://github.com/SethRobinson/RTPaperCart.git
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):
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.
I setup mine to automatically run when the Pi boots (and not Emulation Station) so it works very much like a console. (To do that, edit /etc/profile.d/10-retropie.sh)
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.
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)