Monday, June 1, 2015

Painting Imperial Assault, Part 2: The Uniques

In part 1 of the series, I talked about painting the non-unique miniatures in Imperial Assault. Today, I share my experience painting the rest of the set. For all of these figures, I used the color schemes provided in the game or movies. These were all painted using black primer and then layering up to the highlight colors, once again following the basic technique endorsed by Doctor Faust's Painting Clinic. On most of them, I sparingly used black or dark brown ink pinwashing to enhance the contrast.

A friend asked for lots of shots, so I'm sharing pretty much all of my "done" pictures. I keep a private painting album on Google+ Photos where I keep notes about what I was doing, what paints I was mixing, and so on. Well, in theory, that's where I put those notes... it seems that lately I've been taking pictures and then forgetting to caption them until I cannot remember what I really mixed. Since they're one-off figures, it probably doesn't matter. The point is, I'm showing a lot of pictures, which I figure you won't mind, dear reader, otherwise why would you be here?

I started with Jyn Odan, and I think she is actually my favorite. The color scheme was fun and vibrant. Her shoes were not shown in any of the game's art: I decided to keep the bright orange-and-white theme, resulting in some cool space kicks. Her face did not have a lot of detail, but I believe I was able to give it some depth through layering flesh tones. The gun is rather conservative, but I think it works for her given the rich colors in the rest of the model.


Next, I turned to a cultural icon: Luke Skywalker. He's clearly in his Tatooine garb, so I used movie stills for inspiration. The outfit is not very interesting, really, but I am very pleased with the result here, in part because it was an experiment in warm whites. Looking at him in isolation, his shirt looks white, but put him next to the stark white of a storm trooper, and you'll see that it looks more like linen. Although he lacks the interesting detail and pose of the previous figure, I think the figure turned out well. Matching the skin and hair color may have been the most stressful part, but I think it's a fair match. Also, like the previous figure, the gun is pretty conservative, although I added some colored bits.



From son to father (which I suspect is not a spoiler for anyone reading my blog)—the next figure is Darth Vader. As Luke Skywalker was a study in whites, Vader is of course a study in blacks. Through many layers of grey I was able to get a result that fills the bill. The colored accents on his chest are subtle, which is good. The second picture shows how I used an object-source lighting effect to give the illusion of a glowing lightsaber: a few layers of red glaze on the cape make this work. I thought about making this even stronger, but I think I like it as a subtle glow. Also, the pictures don't show this, but the figure is also an experiment in multiple varnishes. Looking at stills from the first movie, it's clear that there are very different materials making up his outfit; on the miniature, I've used gloss varnish on his helmet, flat on the cloth parts, and a slightly-satin varnish on the rest. I think it works well, but it's hard or impossible to photograph.



Away from the icons, back to the game characters. Next up is Gaarhkan, who gets this set's prize for requiring the most restarts. I tried two or three times to build him up using drybrushing, as I did reasonably well with the cave bears in Wrath of Ashardalon... although looking back in them now, they are kind of bland. Anyway, I kept having a problem where the figure looked dusty, and I wasn't getting the color variations that I wanted. The face in particular was troublesome. Something inspired me to break apart the figure into separate colored regions. I tried using a darker base color on the legs and forearms, and a lighter one on the chest and upper arms, and then instead of drybrushing, I layered highlights onto the raised areas, as well as a few freehand lines to enhance the texture. This worked much better. My miniature is still probably a bit darker brown than the card art, but I think it's a good wookie, and nobody will complain if he looks like Chewbacca.

The weapon required some reworking as well, as my ink-over-metallic tinting approach went wonky the first time around: I ended up with some spots where the ink pooled or got extra layers, and it became splotchy. In the revision, I went to a more conventional approach to painting bronze or copper, with a brown undercoat and gold paint mixed with browns. Dark inks did help me add shadow and texture to the business end of the weapon.




Here is Gideon Argus, who, judging from his coat, used to work at Ralston Purina. It was actually several days after I thought I had finished him that I realized I forgot to paint the insignia on his coat, so some of the photos show this part still unpainted. He is primarily earth tones, and I think the highlights turned out nicely. Dark inks were helpful in accenting the shadows between his coat and his shirt. I painted the binoculars to look like the white ones from Empire Strikes Back, and this was a case where a black ink wash was essential to getting good contrast. I was a bit more creative with his pistol, where I used the same yellow-ink-over-metallic-paint effect as on the probe droids to get a nice copper sheen.

This figure's head was perhaps the most finely detailed of the heroes, and I am happy with how it came out. Conventional advice is not to paint eyebrows on miniatures, but I think these really help tie the face together, between the brown bald head and grey bushy beard. Incidentally, the beard was done with fine lines and edging, not drybrushing, as with the wookie.





Next up is Fenn Signis, who wins the Most Star Warsy Name Award. Like the previous figure, he's mostly earth tones, except this guy has a fabulous scarf. As he's the soldier type, I decided to go with a conventional gun design, by modern standards. I think his flesh tone is interesting. One detail of which I am particular proud is his right forearm: the model is completely smooth here, but I used some shading variation to give the illusion of muscle tone. I freehanded the Rebel insignia on his right shoulder, and I think it is decent, though hard to see due to low contrast.




Time for more non-humans. This is Mak Eshka'rey, a bothan who clearly likes black and green. This is another one that took a few tries to get the skin colors to match the illustrations, but I think the result is fair. Assuming I'm right about his being a bothan, he's supposed to be covered in hair like a horse. I tried to give this illusion by some thin parallel lines around the arm, which is molded smoothly. His hair—pulled into a pony tail in what I assume is a terrible artist's joke—was sculpted with ridges, which makes it easier to give the effect there. His eyepiece was painted first with a white-to-grey transition (top to bottom) and then hit with multiple layers of yellow ink. In the illustrations, his weapon is a monochrome metal piece, and so I used that here too. Also, for what it's worth, the "black" of his suit is actually an almost-black green, which gives a good variation in black shade when put next to someone like Vader.



The last of the heroes is Diala Passil. I think my mix of Vallejo Purple and white is a good match for her skin tone, although I did not highlight it enough on my first pass. The bandages around her hands and feet were frustrating. In the illustration, they are fairly loose, with flesh showing, but in the sculpt there was no easy way to see how I could accomplish this look. Also, the detail was not fine enough that a wash really gave the contrast I desired. The end result is passable in that, if you know they're supposed to be wrapped around her hands and feet, it looks like that, but I would have liked it to be more apparent. I thought about going back over it and trying to pinwash in the cracks, but as I said, the detail isn't really there, and I was not keen on revisiting this part of the model.

The other major frustration is the mediocre OSL job. I had everything else done, of course, when I tried to add a glow effect to her lightsaber. In re-reading about how to do this, one of the sources I came across referred to the problem of "chalkiness" with light-colored paints, and I think that's what bit me here. The effect works from arms-length, in that you can tell that it's a glow and not something else, but I'm not very happy with it. The OSL effect hits almost every color on her, each of which was a custom mix that would be very hard to match, so it's not like I could easy patch it and re-do it. Maybe I'll give her a full repaint job someday, but first I should figure out if she's worth playing or not. If she sits in a box, it doesn't matter if the effect is a bit sloppy. In truth, I was probably impatient with it: it was not work that was done in the quiet, relaxed focus of painting, but rather done as a distraction from work.




That's it for the humanoids, and so the last unique piece is the AT-ST walker. I saved this for last partially because I wasn't really sure what to do with it, and partially because I find painting big models to be kind of tedious. A friend told me that if you're not enjoying painting, you shouldn't do it; yet, can you imagine the incongruity of an unpainted walker causing mayhem to our heroes? I knew I could use a layering approach as I had with all the heroes, but given the large surface area, that would take a long time. I don't have an airbrush, so I needed something that would work with plain old brushes. I poked around the Web a bit and found Sorastro's guide, which was quite nice so I decided to give it a shot.

Unlike the guide, I started with black primer, because that's what I have. The base layers of grey went on fine. I used my own ink wash instead of the Citadel Nuln Oil; mine was mixed with black ink, a smidgen of sepia ink, Future Shine, and water. My walker came out much grimier than Sorastro's, I think because I washed too large areas before wiping it down: the ink had more time to tint the paint before it was removed. The result is not quite what I wanted, but it's not bad: it just looks more weathered. In fact, it looked weathered enough that I did not end up adding any more rust or grime effects. It does have a different motif than the other models in the set, for which I kept a very "clean" look. If I could do it again, I would wash smaller areas at a time.




With everything painted, I sat down with my wife and son to try the Learn to Play scenario. We had a good time, and I'm currently trying to gather a group of friends to try out the campaign mode. Here is a photo of the first time the painted minis hit the table.


I enjoyed painting this set. I grew up with Star Wars, and it was fun to reminisce about the movies and childhood make-believe while painting. I'm happy to have seen all three Star Wars movies, and maybe this fourth one coming out in December will live up to the hype.

Reflecting on the painting itself, I realized while working on this set that I should probably be using more contrast—brighter highlights in particular. Miniatures always look different under the painting lamp than they do on the table. I tried to keep the set coherent, but I think for my next project, I will try to practice contrast and highlighting. Also, I had some pangs of regret regarding not having based these miniatures, the decision I described in part one is probably still a good one. Sorastro's series mentions a similarly-justified decision in his first episode, that since the figures will be moving across many different terrains, it makes narrative sense to keep the bases neutral. Still, when I look at these and compare them to some other figures I have worked on, they do like kind of naked. I may need to make sure my next set gives me a good excuse for creative basing as well.

Thanks for reading!


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Story of Collaboration Station

I had an amazing team this past Spring—Space Monkey Studio—and we built an original educational game called Collaboration Station. The rest of the post is my reflection on the semester's activity.

Title Screen
This past academic year, I was fortunate to receive internal immersive learning funding to undertake a project in educational game design and development. My friends at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis served as community partners, and we agreed that it would be interesting to theme games around the International Space Station. In particular, we were interested in how the science of the ISS can be expressed in games that are accessible to kids.

I followed the same format as the last two years, where in the Fall, I taught an Honors Colloquium on educational game design, and in the Spring, I led a game production studio course. The colloquium introduced the students to fundamentals of game design and learning science, and each student created prototypes of original educational games. Teaching the colloquium gave me the opportunity to think about these game designs as well, and so I was able to use some of my own creative processes as a case study: that is, I was engaged in the same authentic learning and design activities as the students, and so I could share some of the tricks and techniques that help me. I had originally planned to share my iterative designs online through this blog, but other work took priority over that; I would still like to experiment in public design at some point in the future, but it wasn't in the cards this time around.

Memory Game: The first minigame
It's worth mentioning that this colloquium was one of the best I have led. It helps that I get a little better at it each time, of course. This group quickly caught on to the rhythm of activities and presentations. Many of the final projects ended up looking a lot like the example games I had students play, but this always happens. For most of the students, it is their first and their last encounter with game design, and so one should not be surprised if the results are relatively simple. The biggest challenge for me in that class is balancing the desire to introduce a broad range of game genres vs spending time on deeper discussions of analysis and design.

During the colloquium, I assembled a few of my ideas with some of the students' ideas to develop the core concept that would become Collaboration Station. In fact, that name was used by one of my students for a completely different project, but it turned out to be a good fit for what we were doing. Here's the introduction section from the game concept document:
ISS Mission is a local-network cooperative asymmetric digital game in which each player takes the role of an astronaut on the International Space Station. Players are faced with authentic ISS missions and have to delegate responsibilities among themselves. If the players are successful, they unlock more challenging missions. If the players fail, public support for science drops and the communists win.
The document cites Space Cadets and Puzzle Pirates as inspirations; not mentioned in the list, but also a critical inspiration, was SpaceTeam.

Sliding Tile Puzzle Game: Gets harder the more you play
I recruited a team of ten undergraduates to participate in the six credit-hour Spring Game Studio course. The team comprised six Computer Science major (one dual major with History), one English major, two Art majors (Animation), and one Music major (Music Media Production). The tech side of the team was relatively young in the major, but I knew that the networking side of the application was going to require some heavy lifting. I decided to do some tech experiments during Winter Break with the goal of having the basic networking back-end completed. I started by using WiFiP2P, which the documentation certainly makes sound appealing, and we began production with this as our target network layer. However, after seemingly endless problems, we switched to Bluetooth, which was much more consistent and reliable. In fact, one of the biggest learning moments for me was reverse-engineering how SpaceTeam is able to determine what local devices are running their service: the short answer is very clever use of Bluetooth device renaming.

I'm getting ahead of ourselves. "Networking is hard" was a theme during the semester, but I want to go back to early January and the first time the team got together. Of the ten, four of them had taken my colloquium in the Fall, which I believe is the most cross-over from any group. I really liked these four: they were reliable, intelligent, and funny, and so I was very glad that they applied.

Sequence-Matching Game: The one with the best sound effects
The past two years, I have tried to lead the studio students through a rapid design process. This led to several problems, which I probably mentioned in my lengthy post-mortems. The two biggest problems are these: that the students' designs are necessarily amateurish, and that students become disenfranchised when their designs are not chosen to move forward. This year, I decided to tackle this problem by taking on the  lead designer role myself. I came in with my "ISS Mission" idea, which had already been vetted and discussed in the colloquium as well as shared with the partners at The Children's Museum. Although this took some creative control from the students, it also meant that we could accelerate our production schedule, which, after the previous two years' experience, was worth the sacrifice.

Our schedule for the fifteen-week semester, then, was to have one week of orientation followed by seven two-week sprints. The orientation week served to help the team understand some of the fundamentals of what we were trying to accomplish, both in terms of educational game design and development methodology. I had been using Buffalo as one of my ice-breakers, and it's a great example because it's fun—it feels like a "normal" party game—but it's also a product of a research lab and has been shown to reduce prejudice in players. However, half the team had already seen Buffalo in the Fall and so they knew the twist, and in looking for something else, a friend recommended Two Rooms and a Boom. I used a print-and-play version of the game, and it was perfect for the job: it got everyone talking to each other, learning their names, working together as well as you can in a social deduction game, and laughing. I will definitely use this again.

Tile Rotation Game: The only one I am good at
For production, I fell back on my old standards: the principles of Crystal Clear combined with elements of Scrum, adapted for use in an academic studio context. I have a paper in press about the academic studio, and how I use it to balance the needs of production with the traditional values of academia; that paper will be published soon in Transactions on Computing Education. One of the primarily elements I use to frame our work is essential questions, taken from McTighe and Wiggins' Understanding by Design framework. I have been using EQs in all of my courses the last few years, and I find them to be a powerful centering and focusing technique. For this Spring Studio's work, I chose these four questions:
  • How do multidisciplinary teams coordinate activity to create original software products?
  • How does our immersive learning context—creating an original educational video game in collaboration with The Children's Museum—affect our software development practices?
  • Why and how do visual elements, audio elements, source code, and writing interact in the process of game development?
  • Why and how does the cooperative game principle impact us?
At the end of each iteration, the students wrote reflective essays in which they tied their experiences back to these questions. I asked them to write about specific instances rather than generalities, although some of them needed multiple reminders of this. As I am sure I've mentioned before, I have noticed that my students are much more comfortable writing in unsupported generalizations rather than taking ownership of their writing and addressing the challenges of specifics. However, most of them, when pressed, come to realize that the learning comes from the specifics.

Regarding that last EQ, I have been thinking a lot about the cooperative game principle lately, and at some point I need to make time to write out my thoughts about the strange loops between it, game design, and education. It was certainly the one least selected by students for writing about, but it helped me to focus my own perspective. I had thought about writing my own EQ-centered essays at the end of each sprint as well, but between sprints I also write sprint retrospective reports and curate the product backlog, and these two things took up all of the time I could allocate to this work.

Hold each other accountable for writing unit tests
As I was working on my TOCE article last summer, I was forced to return to a challenging conversation I had with an academic a few years ago. I was talking about my studio-oriented teaching, and I compared it to Lave and Wenger's communities of practice. He asked, "Centered on what?" The question was jarring to me, and it encouraged me to re-evaluate what the studio means from a CoP perspective. I realized that the best game development studio experiences I have had at Ball State have been those that have centered on my practice. That is—trying not to sound megalomaniacal—students did best when they could see how I work, when I could explain myself and guide them, and when I was actively contributing to the project. Based on this finding, I made sure that I was not just a mentor to the project this year, but also a bona fide team member. I think the students appreciated working with me in this capacity, although it's impossible for them to compare this experience to other teams' lived experience. My decision to be an active team member did lead to some internal conflicts between when I should be leading by example and when I should be letting them fail gracefully. At the meso level, decisions such as "When should I pass the keyboard?" in pair programming could become challenging, as I knew I could dump out working code faster than the students, but at some point, I needed to intentionally slow down production by switching to the navigator's role.

A reminder to change partners when pair programming

I read some advice a long time ago that said that you should not start by naming the team, because when you first start, you are not yet a team. This advice has served me well. After our first sprint, the team spent some time figuring out who we really were. The team centered on Space Monkey Studio, and one of our artists put together a snazzy team logo.

Team Logo (non-Kosmo version)
Shortly thereafter, one of the team members brought in a stuffed monkey in a space suit—certainly the coolest contribution to a team since someone brought in Computer Engineer Barbie for the Morgan's Raid project. The monkey was named "Kosmo," and like Computer Engineer Barbie, he was perched on a side of the whiteboard where anyone could contribute captions.

Kosmo gets a name
The rhythm of the semester was quite good. The first sprint went well, and it was designed to be a relatively easy win. The second sprint was where, in my feedback, I pushed back on the students a bit for being lax in their commitments. We had a good rapport, and they took this as the formative feedback it was intended, and the rest of the sprints went very well. Even Sprint six, which you can see from the burndown chart left some work incomplete, was a managed failure: the team recognized what went wrong, and we very quickly righted ourselves.
Seven Burndown Charts
Collaboration Station was developed using PlayN, an excellent open source library for game development that allows for cross-compilation to Android, iOS, and Java desktop. From the beginning, we agreed to focus on Android, since we only had one semester and we wanted to keep our scope limited. However, the game relies on Android devices with Bluetooth, which introduces to problems for automated testing: you cannot simulate Bluetooth within the Android emulator, and deploying to physical devices is slow. I developed a clever workaround where the network layer is abstracted so that you can run multiple instances of the game on the desktop and they will communicate over a local socket, whereas on Android, it will use Bluetooth. The reason it is a socket rather than another IPC solution is that the original networking layer used WiFiP2P, which is based on traditional socket communication, so this was a relatively easy abstraction to build in. I would like to add iOS support in the future, and that's something for which I am currently seeking funding.

I am a firm believer in the power of food to bring people together. Talking about this with the team, one member pointed out that eating together specifically encourages safety: if we are sharing food together, then we must be with people who can be trusted. This team ate like no other, and while many people did their fair share to bring treats, one in particular went above and beyond. The picture below shows our snack table near the start of the semester; by the end of the semester, it was a bounty of sweet and sustaining food—and some of us even knew about the secret stash of emergency Girl Scout Cookies in the cabinet. I brought down my Keurig from the office, which a few team members enjoyed. Others were tea drinkers, and so they brought in the Bunn on the left for heating up water. Our main-treat-contributor kept the team in constant supply of K-cups, teabags, and filtered water, in addition to the rest of the comestibles.
The snack table, with inspirational poster above
Early in the semester, the team identified several learning objectives for the game, drawing these from state standards for 4th through 8th grades. Our intention was to use these objectives to derive the minigames and narrative content. However, early playtesting revealed something unexpected: the players by and large did not know anything about the space program at all. They did not know what astronauts did besides "float around," nor did they know that the International Space Station was a real thing. Inspired by this finding, the team revised our vision away from the content-oriented state standards and more toward the broader goals, that the ISS is real and what astronauts do—still emphasizing the cooperative nature of space expeditions. One of the concrete actions this prompted in the team was to replace the hand-drawn images of our introduction screens with actual photographs of astronauts and the ISS, to drive home the idea that although the game is fictional, its setting is not.
A scene from our introduction, only slightly altered from the original photograph
The game evolved and grew during production. We started with a single mini-game, the memory game. In keeping with the agile spirit of regular delivery, we built a very loose narrative around the original version, where the player had to clean up the experiment area of the ISS. The images were drawn from experiments on the ISS. Over the course of the following twelve weeks, the story, all of the art, and almost all of the code within this minigame would be replaced, based on the team's learning to work together and to interpret player feedback. We added a sliding tile puzzle next. About 2/3 of the way into the semester, we hit stride, and we added the two final minigames: a tile rotation puzzle and a sequence-matching game. This gave us two minigames themed around the science of the ISS and two around the maintenance of the ISS; in the main narrative, then, the players must do both in order to succeed across the three scenarios that comprise the expedition. Other features got smoothed out as well during production, aided by the transition from WiFiP2P to Bluetooth mentioned earlier. Early builds allowed the player to specify their own name, but this was dropped in favor of the current approach, which maps players to countries.
Original Welcome Screen (Game Version 0.1)
I missed not having someone dedicated to social media as I did last year; we have not built up a following around Collaboration Station, so even though we launched a few days ago, we still have very few installations. However, this team did have someone who had a natural talent for local outreach and event planning. I find such work to be stressful, but students to whom I have delegated such work have often dropped the ball. This particular team member really shined here: we had hands-down the best presentations at the Ball State Student Symposium and the Butler URC, and our launch party at the Charles W. Brown Planetarium was a thing of beauty. I find myself wondering how I will recruit someone to do this kind of work in the future. Past attempts to recruit someone with a marketing, PR, and outreach focus has never worked out well, but twice now I have been lucky to have such people end up on the teams regardless of my efforts. I suppose luck is one of my skills.
In conclusion, I am proud of Space Monkey Studio and the work we did together, and I am also happy with the structural changes I made this semester. Taking the role of lead designer allowed us to start production earlier and removed the possibility of students being disenfranchised that their own designs were not chosen over their peers'. Using short, two-week sprints helped us keep a regular rhythm during the semester. Having a team member dedicated to social events and outreach took a lot of that pressure off of me. My being an active team member meant that we could take on a game with significant technical challenges despite the relative inexperience of the undergraduates.

Thanks for reading, or at least for flipping through the pictures! Check out the game on the Play Store, check out the project Web site, and feel free to leave a note in the comments.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What We Learned in CS222, Spring 2015 Edition

In the Fall, I had some nagging doubts about the balance between individual learning and collective learning of fundamental Clean Code concepts in CS222, and so for the Spring, I made a significant change to the first few weeks of the course. I kept the overall rhythm: three weeks of warm-up, a two-week project, and a nine-week project delivered in three iterations. In those first three weeks, I added weekly assignments designed to help students keep pace with the reading and to assess their learning of the same.

I recognize that the ideas presented in the book can be rather challenging, and many students deceive themselves into thinking they understand it when, in fact, they cannot apply the concepts in programming. I do not blame them for this, but rather, I see it as one of the big challenges of CS222 to level the playing field; for example, a student who comes in with relatively little understanding of what a subroutine does still needs to emerge with a stronger understanding of functional decomposition, that a method should do just one thing without side-effects. Hence, I decided to use a mastery learning approach where the three assignments are graded on an S/U basis—either you showed that you understood the assignment or not—and you can turn in one assignment for evaluation or re-evaluation each week of the semester.

I knew that this would increase my grading load, but I was also excited at the prospect of incorporating mastery learning into the course. This model should, in theory, allow me to address my concerns that some students were "slipping through" the course by having their partners do most of the heavy lifting on the nine-week project. However, in order for the assessments to be valid, I needed differentiation: if everyone was evaluating the same code, then it would be too easy for the unscrupulous or the panicked to copy a solution from a classmate. Hence, I reused an approach that I have used in the past, where I ask them to evaluate code that they themselves had written in the past. I also made available the option that they could evaluate open source project code instead of their own, although this ran into the standard problems (which I guess I had forgotten about) that these students don't know what open source means nor how to differentiate a real project from throwaway examples on the Web; the only result of this was that some students wasted weeks writing about low-quality, non-open-source tutorial code they found on a random search.

The last piece of the puzzle was how to ensure that all students actually earned their satisfactory grade on the three assignments by the end of the semester. I decided to make this overt and clear: if you don't complete all three assignments, you cannot earn higher than a D in the course. These assignments, after all, represent that you personally understand the required course content, in particular the use of good names, clear methods that do one thing, readable source code, and the single responsibility principle.

These good intentions led to some stressful times for both me and the students in the Spring. The most challenging impediment was the initial low quality of the code that students brought with them from their previous semester. Most students had relatively little trouble fixing names once they understood the standard conventions (methods should be verb phrases, for example), but beyond that, there were much deeper problems. Their past projects were rife with side-effects, long methods, mixing of model and view, forced garbage comments (such as "// end of for loop"), and no evidence of object-oriented decomposition: everything was static and public. Add to this the fact that the students by and large did not care about the code—neither now nor in the past—and you get rather a difficult slog through the assignments. The third assignment was essentially to refactor the code to follow SRP, but in most cases this required touching literally every line of code. Kudos to those students who got through it, and I know that there were some students who got through the assignments with a much richer understanding of course content as well as much improved metacognitive and code-reading skills. However, this came at a cost of unreasonable time spent by both them and me: there must be a way to achieve these learning and assessment goals with less pain.

At the end of the semester, I dropped the D-cap grading policy and instead instituted a quantum deduction for each assignment not yet completed, and I combined this with an offer for students who were "stuck" on the assignments to send me alternative evidence that they learned the material. Only one student took this approach, but what he did was brilliant: he restated the assignments, pointed out what intellectual work they required, and explained how he had shown his ability to do this within the final project. Right there, we have an example of what I mean: he showed me that he understood specific elements by clearly and proficiently writing about them.

One idea for fixing this part of the semester is to reuse some past game studio project code and give this to CS222 students for evaluation. Unlike their own past code, these projects were ostensibly written to follow Clean Code from the beginning, and so there should be fewer fundamental problems. I am not sure of a fair way to break up a project across thirty sophomores, and doing it randomly could end up with a struggling student inheriting some very bad code. However, this would have the advantage that they would be dealing with real project code that was written by students only one or two years their senior.

During the rest of the semester, I reused by achievement-based grading system as before, where earning achievements unlocks higher grades. I took away the "quest" system for simplicity, but I found myself missing the concept of leveled achievements. I am not yet sure if I will bring that back in the Fall. One piece I have spent some time thinking about is how the achievement system could use more peer evaluation. Reading about digital badges, I know that a common successful practice is to allow anyone to sign a badge, but that the perceived quality of the badge is related to the signer's authority and expertise. I would like to do something similar, allowing the students to grant achievements to each other, which would provide incentives for them to look at and think about each others' work. This could also serve as a high-pass filter, where students only show me their work if it has been vetted by a peer. I spend an unfortunate amount of time writing feedback of the form, "This method is not a verb phrase," and if I can turn that pain into a peer learning opportunity, all the better for it.

In the Fall, I am scheduled to teach two sections of CS222, which I have not done before. I need to think a bit this summer about what that means. Often I come to class with rough lesson plans but end up reacting more to what students are asking about or struggling with. With only one section, it doesn't matter if I shuffle the order of topics based on this interaction, but with two sections, this sounds like a recipe for a headache. I wonder if I should take a more studio-oriented approach, spending more time in class helping students with activities rather than modeling and moderating discussions. I have tinkered with producing videos to model behavior (a story for another blog post), but I find this to be very stale: so much of my in-class modeling is really an interactive performance, feeding off of the verbal and physical feedback of the crowd. If I drop a new keyboard shortcut in a live session, for example, I can see the perplexity and astonishment of the crowd and then talk about not just what I did, but how I did it. If I record a video, it's much more automatic and looks like magic, without students' being able to raise their specific questions at just the right time. On the other hand, the video does make it easier for students to rewind and hear me explain some theoretical ideas more than once instead of relying on their notes or, more likely, ephemeral memory.

I don't regret the changes I made this semester, but they certainly had some unintended consequences. I felt like I had some difficulty "reading" the class, perhaps because it was 8AM and so had more spotty attendance than usual. However, I felt that once we hit stride, I really got to know the teams, and I am proud of their final projects. As usual, there were ambitious projects that had to be scaled back, but really, all of them ended up successful.

At the end of the semester, the students rated these items as being the most important to them:
  • Test-Driven Development [11 votes]
  • Don't Repeat Yourself [11 votes]
  • Working on a team [10 votes]
  • Single-Responsibility Principle [10 votes]
Looking at the rest of the 112 items that they listed, there are specific practices identified which make up these top four, such as naming methods with verbs, respecting teammates' perspectives, and model-view separation. As the students came up to place their votes with stickers, a student asked if he could put a sticker on me, since he thought I was the most important part of the class. This was a nice compliment, and I don't think it had ever come up before in teaching this course. As another student heard this, he said that he wanted to put a sticker on my mug for the same reason, but he figured the mug was too sacred an artifact.

I will be revisiting CS222 this summer as I prepare for Fall, but for now, it's time to change gears. There are still many stories from the Spring semester that I would like to reflect on and share here. One of my early-summer tasks is to prioritize the rest of my summer tasks, and I need to be conscientious about making time for reflective writing. In the meantime, however, it's time for some breakfast. Thanks for reading, and as always, feel free to leave a note in the comments.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Getting practice at programming

Around the time that grades are posted at the end of the semester, I tend to get a few emails from my CS222 students, asking what they can do to get more practice with programming. The questions often come from students who got through the first two programming courses without really understanding some core concepts, and these deficiencies start rearing their heads during the nine-week project of CS222. This is a great awakening for the students, and I applaud them for the desire to invest personal time between semesters to improve their skills.

Also, I recently came across—though now cannot figure out where—the idea that we each have a limited number of keystrokes in us before we die. (The concept seems to be tied to keysleft.com, although I only found that today in trying to figure out who I saw writing about it.) From this perspective, all those emails I've sent to students over the years seem like a bad investment, not because it didn't help that one student, but because it could only have helped that one. This is related to the this semester's lack-of-blogging guilt, which I'm sure I will be able to write about in a few days.

Without further ado, let's get to advice for students (roughly sophomores) who want to get some practice.

First, if your main problem in CS222 was with Test-Driven Development, then the next step is easy: read Test-Driven Development: By Example. Then, read it again. The book is deceptively simple, but it contains the seeds for cognitive transformation. Then, the next time you want to write any kind of code, hold yourself accountable to TDD.

If you feel like your Java skills are just not up to snuff, spend some time with The Java Tutorials. The great thing about that site is that you can easily pick the area you want to learn about: the basic language, essential parts of the standard API, building a simple user interface in Swing, and so on. Another advantage of these official tutorials from Oracle is that they are precise and consistent in their use of language and terminology, and this can help you build your technical communication skills. Yes, you can do a random Web search for any of these, but Oracle's collection is well edited and presented.

A few sites have emerged in the last few years dedicated to helping programmers hone their skills with canned problems. Project Euler is one of the most famous, and I know students and alumni who really enjoy the challenges and the community. They make great training exercises if you are interested in programming competitions, such as the ones at the annual CCSC Midwest Conference or the ACM International Collegiate Programming Competition. Personally, I find them a bit too much like homework, but your mileage may vary.

A different take on this kind of exercise is the Code Kata. The idea behind this is that you get to be a better programmer through intentional exercises, exercises that both help you remember what you know and push you to extend your skills.

A talented alumnus recommended cyber-dojo.org, which includes a wide selection of exercises and a community of reviewers. A slightly more aggressive model comes up at codefights.com, which I have not tried but heard recommended by another alumnus.

There are myriad open source projects on the Web. Sometimes it can be difficult to see how to get involved, and I see that many people mistakenly think that "get involved" necessarily means writing production code. This article at SmartBear paints a more accurate picture of how these communities tend to work and how you can contribute, regardless of your programming skill level.

One of the best ways to motivate yourself is to build a thing you care about. Whatever your interest is, you can write programs for it. Games? Figure skating? Home security? Soccer? Whatever it is, think of what you can do at a very small scale, and build it. Keeping the scale small is important, because actually completing a project is much more difficult than just tinkering around with it. I do a lot of work with game programming, and many students come to Computer Science because of an interest in video games. Many of these same students fall into the trap of thinking that the first game they program should be their grand vision for a new strategic multiplayer role-playing 4x roguelike. Don't do it. Start by recreating the classics, like Asteroids, Space Invaders. Keep the scope small, so that you can get the learning that only comes from finishing.

No matter what you do, do it with reflective practice. Think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Write about it and talk to people about it. Find a community where you can share your findings and ask questions. This will help you develop your metacognitive skills. If you find that you want to learn more about how to learn, I recommend Pragmatic Thinking and Learning.

I hope this list has been helpful. If you have more favorite links, books, and tricks, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Painting Imperial Assault, Part 1: The Non-Uniques

I've had my eyes on Descent since before I got back into painting because of the quality of the miniatures. I still have yet to play, but it's a popular fantasy romp. When I heard about Imperial Assault, which is essentially bugfixed Descent + Star Wars, I think we all knew it was a matter of when and not if. It made a good Christmas gift to myself, and I think I started in on the miniatures the day after.


After cleaning up the miniatures, my next step was to think about basing. The tiles in Imperial Assault come in three fundamental types: badlands, forest, and indoor. It took some careful paint mixing to get the shades right, but I was able to match the badlands and forest ground color fairly well.


Even while I worked on it, though, I had some doubts. The game rules include the concept of "deployment groups," so for example, the nine Stormtrooper miniatures are deployed in groups of three. I thought that basing would be a good way to visually distinguish the groups. The more I got into it, however, the more I worried about a visual-story dissonance: badlands troopers would look kind of silly deployed in an imperial base, for example. I turned to Facebook to ask for some feedback, and two of my artist friends quickly responded with, essentially, "I'd just paint them black." It hurt a bit to undo the work that I had done, but I am also acutely aware of the sunk cost fallacy. On the positive side, this gave me the occasion to buy some Simple Green and try stripping. It worked well enough on the Imperial Assault miniatures and some other hard plastic ones that my sons wanted to repaint, but I was surprised at how poorly it worked on the handful of Bones miniatures we also threw in.


For the Stormtroopers, I followed the approach recommended on this BGG thread, namely, using a light basecoat and then highlighting the contours with greylining. All but one of the Stormtroopers was primed white, and after enough layers, you cannot really tell who was my black-prime test. The sequence of layers was a bit frustrating: I did the black after the greylining, but inevitably, I got black outside of where it should be, since it's all in recessed areas. The color I needed to clean this up was, essentially, the greylining shade. I switched the order for the gunners, as described below. I colored the shoulders of the units in order to distinguish between deployment groups. Painting nine nigh-identical Stormtroopers was a bit tedious, but I think they look great assembled together.


The probe droids started with a straightforward metallic drybrush on black primer. The two in the back were done together and were originally identical. The bronze color was achieved through two layers of ink, which did exactly what I hoped it would do. I had only recently built up my collection of inks, and it's been fun for me to experiment with inks alone as well as mixing inks and acrylic paints. I wasn't sure how to do the lenses, so I again followed the advice on the BGG thread, which is actually an old technique used for painting fantasy gems. I sat on the third probe droid for some time, trying to determine how to make it visually distinct from the other two. I ended up just giving it lighter tones all around, which, as you can see, is sufficient.


I am glad I am not the only one who is unclear on the pronunciation of "Trandoshan," but here they are. (I've fallen into the tran-DOH-shun camp, following on the lines that they are from planet Dosh. Thanks, Internet!) I did the yellow pair first and the brown-green ones a few weeks later. If anyone asks "How many layers of yellow did it take to paint these miniatures?" the answer is "One less than infinity." Clearly, the ones on the left are painted to look like Bossk, who, incidentally, is wearing an unaltered High-Altitude Windak High Pressure Suit designed for the Royal Air Force in 1962 (Thanks again, Internet!) I am pleased with the contrast between the smooth cloth suit and the rough, lizard-like skin. The photo does not really show it, but I also pulled some tricks with varnish here: the skin and metal bits are done with Liquitex Matte Varnish, which has more of a satin finish, and the cloth is done with Model Masters Acryl, which is flat/matte. The eyes and inside of the mouth are gloss varnished, and the effect is subtle but pleasing on the table.

If you look carefully, you'll see that the white flak jacket is painted slightly differently on the two deployment groups. On the right, I used the greylining technique as done on the Stormtroopers to bring out the contrast a bit more, whereas the left was done with pure layering. I prefer the ones on the right, as there's a bit more contrast. I have been thinking about contrast a lot lately and wondering if I should include it more deliberately in my painting. I find that I tend toward more gentle gradients that look good under my painting light, where sharper contrast may help the miniature read better from across the table. The Trandoshans are good example of this. All the yellows on the left two are very close to each other, even though I started with a medium brown and worked up from there. The two on the right, I tried more deliberately to separate shades and highlights, to what I believe is good effect. Of course, the colors are so vastly different that it might just be a matter of apples and oranges.

One last note on the Trandoshans: the yellow ones were the first in this batch where I was working deliberately with blacks. As I've mentioned before, black and white are challenging because you cannot shade black and you cannot highlight white. Yet, many of these Star Wars minis feature blacks and whites, Stormtroopers being the classic example. For the Trandoshans, I was careful to use shades of grey to highlight the backpack and cuffs, while trying to make them still "read" as black. This leads into the next set:


These Imperial Officers are wearing black suits, but again, they were painted in all shades of grey, with pure black only used in the deepest recesses and achieved with black ink. They are deployed individually, and so each had to be visually distinguishable from the rest. Since gloves are optional for Stormtrooper officers (wow, Internet, you have a lot of Star Wars information), I decided to have one gloved officer; his hair is also a mix of browns and greys, trying to make him look middle-aged, although the fact you cannot tell from the photo says it probably wasn't worth the effort. The Imperial Assault card art features Imperial Officers with trim goatees, so I decided to put facial hair on one officer to make him stand out. It works, but it also feels kind of strange to put a beard on a military officer. I don't remember seeing any facial hair throughout the Death Star. Anyway, it matches the card art, so we'll take it for now. I am pleased with how, again, the uniforms look black but still contain discernible highlights.


I believe it was while working on the royal guard that my wife pointed out how monochromatic the villains are. I suppose this reflects in the story as well: in the movies, these guys are scary looking soldiers that don't actually do much of anything. Red can be a tricky color to paint, but I am really happy with the result here. The shade layer is a mix of red and brown, going up to a main highlight color of flat red. For additional highlights, I use light shades of orange, but even knowing it's there, you cannot really see it: it simply looks like highlights. It's a bit hard to tell in the photo here, but the tips of their staffs are different, to make it clear that they are in two deployment groups of two. I also did some varnish tricks here, doing the helmets in the satiny Liquitex Matte Varnish and the robes in Model Masters Acryl flat. I was rather disappointed, however, to see how the Acryl muted the vibrancy of the reds. It's not just a matter of the helmets being more shiny: the actual tone of the red was taken down by the flat varnish. In future figures, after doing a bit of research, I've been thinning the Acryl with a little water. It's hard to say if this has changed it significantly, however, since no other figure has two sections that would otherwise be the same color but using the different varnishes.


These nexus are the only real monsters in the set, and so I was looking forward to painting them as a break from humanoids. Knowing there would certainly be some lore about them on the Internet, I looked them up, and I was disappointed to see that they come from the dreaded prequel trilogy. As much as I love painting, I wasn't sure I wanted to melt them down and mold them into some kind of baby rancors.

The fur is base coat, ink wash, and a few layers of drybrushing, with the stripes painted in sepia ink. My intention here was to try to shade the color of the fur rather than paint a stripe over it, and I think that worked. It probably would also have worked with regular paint, of course, but since it worked on one, I did it on the other. (Actually, in my first pass didn't go quite as well. The stripes were too far apart, and I tried adding highlights just to them. I ended up repainting them entirely to what you see in the photo.) The tails were done with the same basic approach I used about a year ago with my Mice and Mystics minis, using a flesh tone and a brown wash. The spines and claws were done in very dark browns, with varying varnishes again used to make the spines, eyes, and inside of the mouth shine. The mouth itself is done in dark purples, but looking at it here, it probably could have been brighter. Still, I'm happy with it, as it leaves the comically large mouth looking cavernous.


The Silliest Name in Imperial Assault Award goes to the E-Web Engineers. I ended up priming the gunner himself white while the gun, generator, and base were primed black. The gun was originally just layers of metallic drybrushing, but this looked drab after finishing the gunner, so I went back over several areas in the brighter steel color seen here. I have generally been working with black primer for the past several months, in part because I've been following a lot of the techniques from Dr. Faust's Painting Clinic. With these guys, I was reminded of how annoying white primer can be: it's easy to miss a seam between two colors, and so you get white spots are lines in what should be the darkest recesses. Unlike the Stormtroopers, where I used a basecoat and painted in the shadows, these were layered up from shade layer to highlight layer. It probably took longer per figure, but there were only two. As with the Stormtroopers, it was a good exercise in painting both blacks and whites. In case you're curious, these miniatures are deployed individually, and the only visual distinction between them is the readout on top of the generator: the one on the left has green details and the one on the right has red.

That's it for the non-unique Imperial Assault miniatures. Next up will be the unique heroes and villains, who are cleaned and primed but not yet started. I'll post a report when they're done. Who knows, maybe some day I'll even play the game.