Friday, July 26, 2019

Summer 2019 Course Revisions

My main focus this summer was my first commercial game project, but I have always kept in the back of my head that I had some serious work to do to get ready for Fall semester. In fact, I was feeling a bit stressed about it a few weeks ago and took some time off of Kaiju Kaboom to sketch out plans for my game programming and game design classes. My third class for Fall is scheduled to be CS445/545 Human-Computer Interaction, but it is right on the edge of being underenrolled; if it doesn't make minimum enrollment, the dean's office will cut it and I'll be deployed somewhere else with very little notice. However, because my time to work on course prep is drawing to a close, I devoted the day to sorting out as much of that course as I can.

In today's blog post, I'll give some highlights for my three courses. This will be shorter than in some previous years, so I'm condensing it all into one.

CS315: Game Programming

I'm excited to be teaching game programming again, since this year we actually did get new machines in the lab—machines that are capable of running UE4. Last Fall's course went well, and so I am keeping most of the plan as-is, but trying to keep a pedagogic eye on how I can use in-class examples and workshops to drive some of the lessons home. I expect that we will do three to four mini-projects followed by a larger team project. This year, I have dropped the achievements, since I think the course is already quite full of places where students can make meaningful decisions about what to pursue. I am keeping both the specifications grading and the project reports, both of which served their purposes last year. I have been tempted to set up some kind of team role system or other accountability system for the final project, to prevent the case where one student carries the rest, but I am still unsure how to do this; perhaps I should turn that question around to the students and have them contribute to setting the rules.

Here is the draft course plan. Only the first of the mini-projects is posted, but I expect to re-use my progression from last Fall, where we went essentially from 1D to 2D to 3D across three projects.

CS439: Introduction to Game Design

I do not have an immersive learning project lined up for this academic year. Instead, I am using the year to try to intentionally explore how I can integrate some of the work I've done through immersive learning into formalized Computer Science department offerings. One step in this direction is offering a version of my game design course—which I have taught for several years as an honors colloquium—as a Computer Science elective that anyone can take. The easiest way to do this was with our "seminar" course, although this is not ideal for marketing the course, since it still shows up in the catalog as a 400-level CS elective. Still, I look forward to teaching this and seeing how the audience compares to the honors colloquium.

One way that I have made this "computer science-y" is to require our intro programming course as a prerequisite. This is not because I expect to do much programming, but rather because I want to be able to draw upon metaphors of computational thinking when looking at games system design. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but I have questioned this the more I've worked on it. Indeed, in my random sketching of how I would consider proposing this as a formal service course in my department, I've strongly considered dropping any prerequisite.

As for the course structure, here is the draft course plan. It is based strongly on what I have done in previous years. Even though the examples in the free online text we use are showing their age, I like both the presentation and the price. Once students build a core vocabulary, they can make use of the exhaustive supplemental information that is discoverable online. Without a community partner via immersive learning, the students will be working on projects of their own design without external constraints, which I haven't done in a class like this since roughly 2008. I'm eager to see what they pursue. As before, we'll spend the first half of the semester studying fundamentals and then the second half of the semester building projects. Some of the students who have enrolled are ones with whom I really enjoy working, and so I'm looking forward to spending time with them again too.

CS445/545: Human-Computer Interaction

The last academic year, I taught this course both semesters in a collaboration with the David Owsley Museum of Art. I had a fruitful meeting with their education director several weeks ago as we debriefed the experience. I am glad to say that we are continuing our collaboration, but we are narrowing the focus toward one specific problem: helping visitors navigate the physical museum. This means that my students won't have to do so much problem discovery, but I think that's OK. They really struggled with the idea of finding a legitimate problem vs. inventing a problem and then justifying their work. I think this new focus will help them get into the solution design part of the course, which is really more important for our single, elective course on HCI.

Knowing that this will be a relatively low-enrollment class allows me to treat it as a studio class. We will start with some common readings and structured exercises, but then I would like to move quickly into tackling this navigability problem, using my familiar tactics of just-in-time teaching and reflective practice to have a meaningful learning experience. The draft course plan only lays out activities for the first three weeks or so of class, after which I can work with the students to assess our situation and move forward as needed. It does mean there is kind of a hole around the grading policy of the course, and I hope that this does not cause the students any undue stress. My plan is to work with them to develop a methodology that embeds assessments into it, which I think they will enjoy and learn from.

A word about the sites

Careful readers may have noticed that my course web sites have undergone a visual overhaul. This is related to my learning lit-element, as I wrote about earlier this summer. Whereas my sites were previously based on the polymer starter kit, now I am using the PWA starter kit prerelease. I had to do a bit of finagling to get it to work on our departmental Apache server, but once that was done, I could easily replicate it across the three sites.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Kaiju Kaboom!

I am pleased to announce the release of Kaiju Kaboom, my first commercial game project. You can find it on Google Play, exclusively playable on Daydream.

Most summers, I set my own work and creative goals rather than teach classes or work on grant-funded projects. During the Spring semester, I decided that one of my summer goals would be to create a game from scratch and release it commercially. The outcomes of this plan are objectively measurable, and as of last night, I have met them, and I feel good about it.

The game

The game itself is an expansion of the concept that my son and I developed for Global Game Jam. Inspired in part by Terror in Meeple City, the player takes on the role of a kaiju who returns to its island home, only to find it infested with people. Of course, the people are meeples, the buildings are made from wooden blocks, and you are a miniature giant monster, but this both adds to the charm and simplifies the asset development for a novice modeler. The biggest change to the game is moving it to mobile VR via Google Daydream, but I also added randomized levels, meeples that fight back, and four different kaiju powers, three of which are unlocked through the high score system.

I spent some time around finals week building a proof of concept to ensure that the game would be enjoyable and within scope, and having a positive experience with that, I devoted the summer to it. I did not use any formal task tracking tools. Instead, I have a pad of paper on my desk where I would either write down features to explore, sketch geometric or software solutions, or record defects to address. I worked roughly eight to ten hours each day, sometimes up to twelve, and about half days on Saturday, with a few gaps for family trips. I showed an early build to some friends and family around Memorial Day, and this confirmed to me that the core gameplay was really enjoyable.

The tech

Kaiju Kaboom was built using Unreal Engine 4. I started the project in Blueprint and initially just added C++ for the parts that were faster to write in textual code than they were to prototype in Blueprint. In retrospect, there are parts of the core game loop that I left in Blueprint which I probably should have done in C++, because the Blueprint can get hard to follow. I don't think there's any real performance hit from using Blueprint here; the real problem is that Blueprint makes it harder to control modularity, so it's hard to intuit the dependencies after walking away from a subsystem for a while.

Getting up and running on Daydream was not much trouble, and the documentation is good. However, the Google VR branch of UE4 is clearly no longer being maintained. This led to a problem as I was getting ready to release, in which the game crashed on a friend's device. Scouring the web, reading semi-related threads, and trying various approaches, I was able to finagle a build system that worked for both of us. I continued to do my regular feature development in UE4.22.3. For releases, however, I downloaded and built UE4.22 from source, replacing its GoogleVR libraries with those from 4.20 release—the most recent release—of the googlevr-unreal fork. My friend also had some troubles that I thought might be due to texture formats, so the build includes both ASTC and ETC2 formats, even though only the former is needed for my own Pixel 2.

The null business plan

At this point, the thoughtful reader may ask, "Why did you target Google Daydream?" The simple answer is that I have one and it seemed like fun, both as a technical challenge and through that proof-of-concept I built in early May. Note that mine was a commercial project not because I wanted to make money but because I wanted to see what was involved in making it a commercial project. I know literally one other person who has a Google Daydream setup: my friend Chris, who was my lone tester. If I can sell ten copies, I'll buy some nice beer. I'm in the blessed and enviable position where I can invest a summer in learning and improving my skills without it having to be economically profitable. As I alluded to before, abother benefit of Daydream is that because it's low-powered for VR, I could get away with my own limited asset-creation skills, whereas I know I could not make something by myself in two months that would be competitive for, say, the Vive.

I did borrow an Oculus Go from a friend, in hopes that it would be easy to release on both platforms. Unfortunately, the logic of my character was tightly coupled with the GoogleVR components, and I didn't see a clean way to separate these. I would consider buying one of these $200 headsets and doing a port if I had any belief that my little hobby project could make at least that much back plus porting time, but right now, I don't think I can put that much more effort into it, since I need to transition into "preparing for Fall semester" mode.

The last two or three days, as I've geared up for the public release, I have thought that perhaps I should have planned on doing a more modern release, where the first part of the game is free, and people who like it can pay to unlock the rest. One reason for doing this is so that I could explore both the libraries and the platform support for DLC and licensing, which would be interesting. I decided to stick with my original plan, augmenting it slightly by releasing the game under the GPL. This means that if someone buys the game, they get access to the source code as well, and they are free to learn from it just as I did. I don't know if that will have any real impact, but it feels like the right thing to do, given my situation.

The learning

Originally, I had it in my head that I would try to make all the assets of the game from scratch in true artisan fashion. Along the way, I did use a few public domain sound effects, and as my available time quickly ran out, I added CC-BY music from indie- and jam-favorite Kevin MacLeod. I have written two other posts to detail some specifics about things I've learned through this project: importing Blender animations into UE4 and using UE4 LiveCoding for rapid unit testing. I did not keep a rigorous log of other things I've learned, and some things I had to learn twice because they did not stick in my head. Here, however, I am going to try a brain dump, in part so that I can come back here later when I need to re-learn something again.


  • UV Unwrapping
    • I found this video in particular to explain well how to unwrap and texture paint, which technique I used to mark out regions of a texture for manual painting in Gimp.
  • Normal maps
    • The technique involves modeling high-poly and low-poly models in the same file, exporting the low-poly one (by selecting it and exporting only the selection) for UE4, but exporting the normal map of the high poly one and using it. I used this on an early version of the blimp.
  • Smooth shading instead of normal maps
    • An easier way to do what I wanted with normal maps was to simply select Smooth Shading from the Tools menu in Blender, and to make sure this was exported to FBX.
  • Boolean modifiers
    • These modifiers enable constructive solid geometry; for example, the union of a plane and a sphere was used to generate the blimp's fins
  • Keyframes in video editing
    • Just as explained in this video, I had been doing gamma cross fade effects, but now can do more robust effects by keyframing. Right-click on a property, insert keyframe. I'm still not sure how to see all the keyframes and move them around, but this was good enough for me to compose the scaling and fading effects of the trailer.


  • Filters→Render contains all kinds of neat stuff to play with visual effects. I used the Lava and Cell Noise filters to generate quick but effective textures for the fireball and acid spit spheres.
  • Multiple monochrome images can be packed into the RGBA channels of a single image using the Colors→Components→Compose feature. Make each image into a separate layer, and then this tool allows you to directly compose the layers into the RGBA channels.
  • Two ways to add shadows behind text:
    • A "soft" shadow can be had by copying a text layer, darkening it, and then blurring it. I did this at some point in the past, though I cannot remember where.
    • A harder shadow is possible by using Filters→LightAndShadow→DropShadow.


  • AI vs Physics
    • An actor cannot be driven both by a behavior tree and by physics simulation. Of course not, he says in retrospect, that would make no sense.
    • There are actually two meeple actor types in the game: AIMeeple and PhysicsMeeple. AIMeeple is controlled by one of two behavior trees, depending on whether they are armed or not. When they are hit, they convert in-place to a PhysicsMeeple.
  • AnimGraph
    • I had done a little with AnimGraphs for an unreleased tech demo last Fall, but very little of that stuck in my head, in part because I may very well have been doing things wrong. For Kaiju Kaboom, AnimGraphs are used in a more conventional way, driving the animation states of both AI and Physics meeples.
  • Landscape Materials
    • The landscape has sand and grass layers, and it fades toward white with higher altitude.
  • Cascade Particles
    • I was hoping to learn Niagara, but it is not supported on Daydream. Still, I was able to learn enough of Cascade to make my own simple particle effects, such as the fireball explosions and acid spit splash.
  • Following a Spline
    • It's a fundamental technique in level building, but I haven't really done much level building before. The blimp's flight path is specified by a closed spline.
  • Efficient Materials
    • I learned some more about how to balance GPU and CPU processing. For example, my original implementation of the blimp's propellers involved using a rotating movement component for each. After watching some videos (possibly one of Tharle VFX's shader maths videos), I moved this to be computed by a shader using world position offsets.
    • Several of my materials use customized UVs so that they are computed per vertex instead of per pixel.
    • I have a few "master materials" and use a lot of material instance constants. I understand this to be more efficient, although I didn't go so far as to measure the difference.
  • Visualizing Shader Complexity
    • As mentioned above, I haven't really done a lot of level design in UE4, so I've never really needed to inspect my scenes for performance problems. On this project, I tinkered some with the different editor view modes such as shader complexity, in order to find areas that were not performing how I expected. Turns out, everything was performing as I expected, but it was still neat to see this.
  • Unit tests
    • I knew it was possible to write unit tests for C++ code in UE4, but I had never done it before. TDD seemed like the best way to approach my high score table: unlike experimental gameplay code, it had very well-defined rules. Here is the source code for the unit test. The testing library assumes all the tests are in one method, and so I have used macros to give a fluent layer on top of that assumption. This is not as robust as something like chai, but it's much easier to read than the alternative.
    • I did not have a continuous integration system, so I had to run the tests by hand, which means that I rarely ran them. If I were working on a team on a larger-scale project, I would definitely invest in CI.
  • Functional tests
    • As with unit tests, I have known for some time that it was possible to do automated testing through the UE4 session frontend, but I never took the time to really figure it out. In this project, I created a test level containing four automation tests in a 2x2 format to ensure that falling columns and floors damage AI meeples and physics meeples.
    • In my original approach, I was spawning the relevant actors in the PrepareTest event of the Blueprint. Later I realized that it was much more effective for me to create these actors as child actors within the construction script, since this allowed me to see and manipulate them in the level. 
    • The result is fun to watch, but the approach was somewhat hamstrung by the fact that I was not using continuous integration as mentioned above..

Wrapping Up

It seems like there's no end of good ideas that I did not have time to put into the game, ranging from minor quality-of-life improvements to major new features. The spirit of this project is inspired by Jeff Vogel from Spiderweb Software, who taught me this wonderful expression: It's better than good—it's good enough! I'm pleased to have this project more-or-less wrapped up for the summer. I have started doing some course prep, but I have more of that and other university-related business to take care of this summer, as well as family obligations. 

I've also done much of this work with an injured middle finger on my right hand, which, combined with the intensity of this project, has left me well behind on my summer painting goals. Now that Kaiju Kaboom is out in the wild, it may be time to clean up the office and get the paints out.

Thanks for reading! If you know of someone with a Daydream who you think might enjoy throwing boulders at meeples, please let them know about the game. That is, pretty much, my marketing plan.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

UE4 Live Coding for Unit Testing

TL;DR: Use the new Live Coding feature in UE4.22 as a workaround for the fact that automation unit tests cannot be Hot Reloaded.

My goal for the day was to write a high score system for my summer project, which I am creating in Unreal Engine 4.22. As I started thinking about the requirements, I realized that TDD would be a good approach. Of course, I've spent more hours diving into how to make this work than I would have spent on a brute force approach, but I'm hoping I'll recoup the investment in the future.

The Automation Technical Guide provided enough scaffolding for me to write a single unit test. I took some time then to pull this out into its own module—this seemed like a good idea, although developing with multiple modules is something else I've also never done. Orfeas Eleftheriou's blog post was instrumental in my pulling my unit tests into their own module.

I remembered reading months ago that unit tests in UE4 are not Hot Reloaded, and this is confirmed as expected behavior in UE-25350. The frustrating fallout of this is that the editor has to be reloaded in order to see changes made in the C++ test implementation. This slow and tedious process is anathema to good TDD rhythm. I came across Vhite Rabbit's workaround, but I could not get it to jive with the modular decomposition I gleaned from Eleftheriou.

Then I remembered that 4.22 shipped with an experimental new Live Coding feature, which promises to allow changes from C++ to be brought into a running game session, as long as they are not structural changes. I wondered, if this works for running games, would it work for unit tests?

The happy answer here is Yes. I had to restart the editor because Live Coding cannot be used after any Hot Reloading. The editor opens with a separate window that seems to be managing the Live Coding feature. I went into my unit test and turned its simple "return false" into "return true", hit the magic Ctrl-Alt-F11 combo, waited just a few seconds for the Live Coding system to run, and then re-ran my test. Sure enough, now the test passes.

I have essentially no progress on a high score feature after the morning's work, but hopefully by documenting my findings here, I can help others move forward in their unit testing adventures.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Painting The 7th Continent: What Goes Up, Must Come Down

I backed the expansion to The 7th Continent even though we had not gotten the base game back to the table since shortly after I painted up the tiny miniatures. The second curse we played just wasn't very good. It provided no indication of where to go next, so we had no real incentive to go in any particular direction. This killed our motivation, but I still remembered our narrow loss of the first curse as being great fun. I hoped that a little injection from the expansion would give us a little boost.

The What Goes Up, Must Come Down expansion includes three new characters and a goat. Here they are, all painted up. These are tiny miniatures that I just wanted to be a reasonable tabletop quality. They were brush primed in grey, then given base coats, wash, and highlight.

Tall guy in front

Short guy in front
The expansion also came with a barge as well as the hot air balloon evoked by the title. Here's the barge:
Tell them...
Large Barge sent ya
For the hot air balloon, I noticed that there were visible seams in the side, so I filled those with Milliput, primed in grey, and painted it up.

Hot Air Balloon Basket
I picked the color of the diamond shape on the front to go with the cardboard balloon that slots into that X. In fact, I was explaining this to my wife when I pulled out the cardboard balloon piece to illustrate the assembly. In my mind, the balloon pieces simply pushed into the X.
Uh oh.
Turns out, that's not the case. The basket—which arrived assembled—was supposed to be pulled apart and then snapped together again around the cardboard balloon. A thread on Board Game Geek mentions instructions in the rulebook that I don't remember seeing, but I probably just blipped over it.

Well, now I was in a pickle. Two options: (a) try to break apart the painted basket, reassemble it around the cardboard balloon as intended, and then patch the paint job; or (b) cut the balloon, stick the basket on, and glue the balloon back together.

Time for surgery

The ol' razor saw
The Razor saw did the trick

Better dry fit... not like it will make much difference now.
Studio Pic
The white glue seems to be holding fine. One of the advantages of making this a permanent fixture is that I could glue the crossbeams together for extra strength. The seam is clearly visibly if you pick up the piece and tilt it, but on the table, it's completely hidden by the basket. 

I thought it would be fun to tell the story of my error and repair in pictures, and maybe it will be useful should any other zealous painter also neglect to dry fit before painting.

I look forward to getting the game back to the table. I came across the designers' recommendations for quest order, and it's been long enough since our last run—and my wife and I will add a son or two to the team—so I think we'll start back at the beginning. 

Thanks for reading, and happy exploring!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Building an online randomizer app for Thunderstone Quest, and what was learned along the way

I have enjoyed playing Thunderstone Quest and am glad I painted the minis for it. For some time I have had an itch to make a tool to assist in generating random adventures. There is one out there already, but it has some frustrating defects, such as the selection of heroes not always matching the constraint that there's one per class. I talked to the developer about it and tried sorting through the implementation, but neither of us made any headway.

The other day, I received my To the Barricades expansion, which is the final component to my Kickstarter pledge. We've only had it to the table once, and we enjoyed it despite the inevitable rockiness of first plays. This really got my wheels turning about building a new online randomizer—so I did.

Thunderstone Quest Randomizer:

Source Code:

I worked on this from Thursday night through Sunday morning. It's not going to win any graphic design awards, but it has all the functionality that I wanted from it. The rest of this blog post contains a few things I learned while building it. I will focus on two things: jq and lit-element.

A friend mentioned jq to me several weeks ago as a powerful command-line tool for manipulating JSON. The other randomizer already included a transcription of most of the Thunderstone Quest cards, but it was not in a format that I wanted. This is exactly what jq is built for. However, I don't know exactly what I expected, but it wasn't what I found: jq's system of generators and filters was mind-blowing. It took me a while to wrap my head around it, and even after several hours I feel a bit uncertain of my grasp of it. I ended up crafting a filter like this to do the transformation:

 jq '[to_entries[] | .value | to_entries[] | {"Name": .key} + (.value | del(.Cost,.Types,.Keywords,.Races,.Summary,.Alert,.Light,.Battle,.Spoils,.Special,."After Battle",.Reward,.Entry)) | select(.Category)]' cards.json   

The whole command is wrapped in square brackets because I want the result as an array. The next few commands allow me to wade through the deeply-nested structure of the original format. Then, I push object keys as a new "Name" field into the rest of the object, filtering out all the data from the original source that I did not need. Finally, I pulled out the handful of cards from the original source data that had no Category specifier. Writing this command took several hours of pushing and prodding, but I'm glad I got it figured out.

Although I had pulled out much of the bad structure of the original format, I still had a lot of redundancy. I decided to grin and bear it until I reached a point where I wanted to add metadata about quests. In my first pass, quests were only represented as fields in objects: each card had a "Quest" key with a value listing the name of its quest. I wanted to pull that out so that I could describe a Quest more systematically, as having a code (such as "Q2") and as being part of a set (such as the Champion-level Kickstarter pledge). To do so, I needed to pull out each of the types of cards into their own lists and put these under the corresponding Quest. Unfortunately, I could not figure out how to automate this process for an arbitrary number of categories, and so I did some nasty copy-pasting of commands, manually entering what I would rather have parameterized. Get ready to cringe, because here it is:

 jq '[group_by(.Quest) [] | {"Quest": .[0].Quest, "Heroes": [.[] | select(.Category=="Heroes") | del(.Quest,.Category)], "Items": [.[] | select(.Category=="Items") | del(.Quest,.Category)], "Spells": [.[] | select(.Category=="Spells") | del(.Quest,.Category)], "Weapons": [.[] | select(.Category=="Weapons") | del(.Quest,.Category)], "Guardians": [.[] | select(.Category=="Guardians") | del(.Quest,.Category)], "Dungeon Rooms": [.[] | select(.Category=="Dungeon Rooms") | del(.Quest,.Category)], "Monsters": [.[] | select(.Category=="Monsters") | del(.Quest,.Category)]}]' cards.json  

If any readers know jq better than I do and see how to parameterize the management of each of those card categories, I'd love to know. Fortunately, this is a one-time transformation, since after doing this one, I had to manually enter the data for the new Barricades-level quests. There should be no reason for me to ever have to run this particular transformation again.

I have had an itch to learn Flutter, and I was excited to hear that there will be support for compiling Flutter apps for the Web. However, that's still in a technology preview state, so I decided instead to build my randomizer using Polymer. I've been using Polymer for a few years now, and it's a fascinating system, allowing the development of custom components with two-way data binding. At some point in the last year, I came across LitElement and lit-html, which provide very useful and terse expressions for binding values and also for iterating over arrays—syntactically much nicer than Polymer's dom-repeat. I decided I'd spend some more time with lit-element in my Polymer-based solution.

I ran into a problem in writing an element to filter quests, so that users could choose to get cards only from the sets they own. Making the element show all the quests with checkboxes was fine, and I could track the states of them from within the element, but the values were not reflecting back to the main app that held the filter element. This puzzled me for some time, until I ended up just moving that logic from a nested element into the top-level app: that's not a particularly good design decision, but it is a pragmatic one. At some point later, I was looking for help on the lit-element when I came across this excellent post by James Garbutt on the relationship between Polymer 3 and lit-element. This particular portion blindsided me:
Bindings are one-way in Lit, seeing as they are simply passed down in JavaScript expressions. There is no concept of two-way binding or pushing new values upwards in the tree.
I had been conceiving lit-element as just a way to use some cool lit-html features within a conventional Polymer ecosystem. Garbutt goes on to helpfully add, "Instead of two-way bindings, you can now make use of events or a state store." Events are familiar, of course, but a real part of Polymer's appeal to me was that I could get elegant two-way binding instead of tedious event plumbing.

Now, though, I have to show some of my ignorance, because I had to ask, "What is a state store?" With this term in hand, I discovered the work-in-progress PWA Starter Kit, which combines lit-element with Redux. "Redux" has the shape of a buzzword I would have overheard somewhere on the Internet, but I couldn't have told you what it is. I downloaded the PWA Starter Kit and started fiddling around with it, keeping the docs open beside it. This looked really interesting and exciting as a way to start building off of what I've learned using Polymer... but at this point I was hip deep in a project that I wanted to get done before the weekend was over. I put Redux and the PWA Starter Kit out of my mind, armed myself with the knowledge that lit-element is not what I thought it was, and I went back to the randomizer. I did end up keeping the card filter logic in the top-level application element, where it clutters things up but still works.

I jumped into this project with a relatively unstructured goal. I had an intuition of what I wanted, but I didn't do any sketches or write any specifications. I had a few regression defects along the way that made me wonder if I should have used TDD, but I think the whole project was really in the "experimental programming" mode. Making it free and online means that other people can gain some benefit from my work, but if I were to rebuild it from scratch, I would certainly be more careful about it. Indeed, it's tempting to rebuild it using Redux for state management, but this was already a four-day distraction from my main summer side project.

Incidentally, the randomizer itself is a progressive web app published on GitHub Pages. I was able to repurpose the approach I took for Elixer, my scoring application for Call to Adventure, which I don't think I ever wrote about here. That one is also an open source project hosted on GitHub. It took me a lot more time to make that a full-fledged PWA, but the second time around with the Thunderstone Quest randomizer was much faster.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Importing Blender animations into UE4

Last Fall, I worked out how to create simple animations in Blender and import them into UE4, using separate files for the mesh and the animations. I intended to make a tutorial video about it, in part so that I would remember the steps. Alas, I postponed that video for long enough that I forgot all the tricks, and so this morning, I had to sort it all out again. I'm going to jot my notes here on the blog in case I forget again between now and creating the video.

The steps assume you already have a properly rigged mesh with an animation action created and selected in the dope sheet. Make sure you rename the armature from "Armature" to something else, otherwise the scale of the animations will be wonky, as described in TooManyDemons' answer here.

To export the mesh, from the FBX exporter, choose to export the Armature and the Mesh, but in the Animation tab, make sure nothing is selected. Export that to a file named something like model.fbx.

To export the animation is a bit trickier. I found good advice here. Make sure the desired animation is the only action shown in the NLA Editor, and push it down onto the stack. From the FBX exporter, select only Armature, and in the animation tab, select everything except All Actions. Deselect all the options under Amature as well. Export this to something like model_boogie.fbx.

This allows you to import the model and its animations independently within UE4, although they can still be in the same .blend file.

Other notes that I will likely forget:

  • When adding new actions in Blender, tap the 'F' button to save the animation even if it has no users.
  • To delete an action, hold Shift while tapping the 'X'. This marks it with a zero in the popup but doesn't actually remove it unless the file is reopened.
Now I just have to remember next Fall that I wrote this note on my blog...

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Reflecting on the Spring 2019 CS445 Human-Computer Interaction Class

Regular readers may recall that I was given the Spring 2019 HCI course to teach on rather short notice, so I only made a few structural changes between it and the Fall 2018 section. The most relevant to this post are the increased attention to software architecture and the switch to specifications grading. I also gave the teams nominally more time for their final project, but not enough that it was noticeable from my point of view. We retained our collaboration with the David Owsley Museum of Art (DOMA) and the overall theme that student teams would identify and address real problems they face.. Yesterday, I shared my sending-forth message to the students, and today, I would like to share my reflection on the semester's experience. Feel free to reference the course page, which provides the policies, procedures, assignments, and assessments for the semester.

I used a similar approach to specifications grading as I did in the Fall 2018 Game Programming course, in which there were discrete criteria for each level of grade. I added a separate category of criteria for the project reports, which were designed to provide the process documentation that corresponded to the technical artifacts produced. As before, students had to submit a self-assessment along with their source code and report, the self-assessment's consisting of a checklist of criteria that were met. Unlike the game programming class, where there was rarely disagreement between the students and I about whether a criterion was met, there was a lot of friction this semester. This was especially the case on the final project's two iterations. As I wrote to several students in my formal feedback, I have serious doubts that many of the teams honestly conducted a self-evaluation at all. Consider, for example, one of the most missed criteria asked students to explain how their projects manifested particular design principles from Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things. Teams submitted a list of examples, with no explanations of them. It seems to me that if a team sat together and worked through the checklist, as I expected them to, someone would have said, "Have we explained this?" I don't think they had anything approximating such a discussion: I think they surveyed the checklist, said "Good enough," and marked the box. That is, I think they defaulted to the "hope for points" model rather than the "ensure success through unambiguous choices" model. Of course, the idea of self-assessment is not to save me grading time but to foster reflective practice and remove ambiguity. When students do it honestly, it does save me grading time, and when it is done dishonestly, I suspect that students might learn something about the importance of self-reflection. I need to think about what I might change in future uses of specifications grading to get around this.

An honest student approached me near the end of the semester, in part to share what he claimed was a voice of many students who were frustrated with the specifications grading system. I explained to him that the goal of the system is to remove ambiguity, both for students and for assessors. I honestly never got a good explanation of what precisely he or other students did not like about it, except that there were standards at all. I think the status quo is that students believe they start a project with full credit, and then I take away points for mistakes. One of the things I like about specifications grading is that it follows my contrary philosophy, which is that students start with nothing and must earn their credit. I think it is this idea, not specifications grading in particular, that students are upset about, because it holds the accountable to demonstrating understanding to earn credit. The fact that I get complaints about grading regardless of the scheme I use is probably testament to students' pushing back against having expectations rather than the particulars of the system. However, foreshadowing some of what is to come below, part of why a subset of students complains is likely that I actually draw upon knowledge they should have from prerequisite courses—knowledge that they may not actually have.

In the first half of the semester, I used a running demo project ("archdemo") to demonstrate some ideas of how to separate the layers of a user-facing software system. In the previous semester, I had done something similar, but using a context separate from our class collaboration with DOMA. Many students that semester did badly with the "warm-up" project, and so in order to help with on-boarding and consistency, archdemo showed a sample use of the DOMA data via the ContentDM database. The resulting application was called "Naïve Search," named thus because it didn't really solve any reasonable search problem: it just showed how to separate the layers of a system. While this worked in the short term, I think it also caused problems as students perceived more value in the example than it was meant to have. It was never intended as a template, but only an example of very specific course concepts.

One of the changes I made from Fall 2018 was that I required final project teams to use a subset copy of the ContentDM database in their projects. My intention here was that each team would have to demonstrate that they could separate the layers of a user-facing software system, regardless of what creative direction they wanted to take the project. The result, however, was that nearly every project looked a lot like archdemo with an added bell or whistle. Last semester, we had a broad range of concepts on a plethora of platforms; this semester, it was dullsville, as the teams just added some minor idea to archdemo. One team even consistently referred to their solution as "an improvement over Naïve Search," despite my repeatedly telling them in their formal feedback that this was not even close to our goal. I have no doubt that our partners at DOMA were uninspired by this semester's projects, although we have not had our wrap-up meeting yet. I would be remiss not to mention one exception, which was a clever interactive map that tied into the database in interesting ways despite the tight project timeline; those guys really nailed it, so if you're on that team and reading this, kudos to you.

Throughout the semester, we returned to five principles of design brought up in Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things: affordances, signifiers, mapping, feedback, and conceptual models. Despite this being a theme of the class, there is scant evidence that students understand or applied these principles. Instead, my professor's eye tells me that they designed whatever they wanted, and then they tried to shoehorn those designs into these principles, or to justify their work after the fact. Although they had several assignments and much formative feedback about these principles, students continued to show misunderstandings through the final exam.

What was missing? I believe a big part of it was that they didn't follow my advice. This is exemplified with one key example: taking notes. The course plan says explicitly that students should always have their notebooks available for taking notes and jotting questions, and furthermore, that they should not have their distraction machines (laptops and phones) in their way during class discussions. Taking a friend's advice, I even made a first-day quiz in which students had to answer questions about this aspect of the class. Yet, very quickly (and for some, instantaneously), their old habits took over, and I would stand in front of class looking at the backs of open laptops rather than faces. Almost no students took any notes on any of our discussions, and is if to drive the nail of the coffin, some of them only got out their pens when I wrote something on the board. Even if they had a glimmer of understanding about affordances and signifiers during class discussion, there is no way that they held on to this fifteen minutes after class unless they actually expended the effort to do so.

I wrote on Facebook the other day about how I was feeling conflicting emotions about this class. On one hand, I am unsympathetic that they did not learn the material because they chose not to follow my advice on how to do so. The advice is not complicated: it primarily involves reading and taking notes. However, at the same time, I pity the students, because I think a large majority of them—if not all of them—know neither how to read for understanding nor how to take notes while reading or discussing. To me it begs the question, "Where does the buck stop?" If I get undergraduates in my upper-division elective Computer Science courses who lack these skills, is it my responsibility to teach them or just to assess what is in the master syllabus?

There is a related puzzle, which was foreshadowed in my sending-forth message to the class. An uncomfortably large proportion of the class showed very little proficiency in fundamental programming skills. When I brought this up in honest, private conversation with trusted undergraduates, they showed no surprise: they said that it was fairly easy, and common, for students to "cheat" on assignments. This manifests in two ways: either copying the work of a peer and submitting it as their own, or stringing together bits and pieces of code found online. Neither approach forces the learner to confront the useful struggles required to build firm understanding. It reminds me of the advice from Make it Stick that I wrote about last December, and that in its absence, students really don't know how or what it means to learn.

Going a little further, I witnessed a curious phenomenon several times during a guest presentation by a CS alumnus and successful professional. The speaker is currently in a position with a lot of creative flexibility, and he has his own team of programmers to implement parts of what he designs. However, many students seemed to misunderstand his story, thinking that this meant one could just "have ideas" and tell others to program them. They missed the part where he worked on rather tedious programming tasks for ten years to prove his capability, vision, and leadership. Instead, they rejoiced, saying things like, "I cannot program, but I want to tell programmers what to do, so now I see that there's a job for me!" This sentiment was shared primarily among CS minors despite their having taken at least three programming courses in the prerequisite chain to this course.

These students don't seem to see a connection between the HCI goals of the class and the fundamental skills of software development. It appeared to me that these students were not being tripped up by the accidental complexity of software development (such as the placement of braces or the quirks of a UI framework) but rather by its essential characteristics, which include precision and sequential reasoning. How I frame HCI as a Computer Scientist is essentially that it is user-centered precision and sequential reasoning. What happened on the students' final project teams seemed to be that those who had programming skill were relegated to doing persistence- and model-layer data manipulation tasks—required tasks for the program to work at all—while those who could not program worked on the UI. The result is that the UIs were badly conceived and executed, because those working on them couldn't conceive of the problem as requiring precision and sequential reasoning. Part of my evidence for this manifestation is the difference between teams' paper prototypes and their final products. Every team decided upon a paper prototype that was developed from a user-centered design process, but practically no team's final product looks at all like their prototype. Instead, their products looked like the archdemo sample, but with a few more widgets added via SceneBuilder. One could say they did what they could rather than what they wanted, or more pointedly, they decided to fail conservatively rather than succeed differently—which was exactly one of the human failure modes we discussed in class.

A student confided in me that, when he signed up for the course, he expected he would learn how to design a good user interface. By this, he meant that there would be some thing I could teach him that would suddenly make him good at it—a silver bullet. He pointed out that some students seemed to think that it was all in the tools: if they learned the tools, they would be able to make good UIs. I am grateful that he took the time to share this with me. I asked him if, after studying this topic for fifteen weeks, he understood why I could not meet his desires, why I could not dump ideas into his head that would suddenly make him good at UI design. He indicated that he did understand it, but he also sounded disappointed.

As I wrote about yesterday, I had forgotten about the emotionally powerful reflection session I had with my students at the end of the Fall 2018 HCI course. I didn't schedule for it this semester, and so it didn't happen. I think it would have helped all the students to frame their difficulties and challenges within their authentic context: yes they struggled, but they did so because what we are doing is legitimately hard.

The puzzles I face in considering how to change the course for Fall 2019 are significant. I expect this week to be able to meet with representatives from DOMA to talk about their take on the experience. Our primary contact is their Director of Education, Tania Said, and she has intimated that she would like to see the class work together to produce something with more staying power rather than a series of prototypes. This makes me a bit nervous, given my previous experiences having entire classes taking on a project, but there may be a possibility to set it up like competing consultancies rather than trying to do a whole-class team. One of the reasons I wrote this up now is that it has helped me serialize and articulate some of my thoughts in preparation for meeting with her. I hope that conversation will help me turn some of these reflections into actionable course plans for Fall. As always, I expect I will be able to share my summer planning activity in a blog post in the coming months. Until then, I think it may be time to spin up my summer project.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Sending forth the Spring 2019 HCI class

I spent the morning computing final grades for my Spring HCI class. Last night, I came across a post I wrote at the end of the Fall 2018 section that I had forgotten about: my post about how powerful our final reflection session was. This, along with other thoughts and desire for closure, inspired me to compose the following final announcement for this semester's class. I have another post I am working on which is a reflection about the semester, but I also wanted to share this as an open letter here. If I didn't, it would be trapped away on Canvas where I wouldn't be able to reference or reflect on it later. What follows is the announcement in its entirety, except for the first paragraph, which simply dealt with the final grading formula and reporting mechanisms.

I regret that we didn't schedule a day for a semester wrap-up discussion. Because of the problems scheduling our final presentations with Tania Said, we went right from working on the final project, to technical presentations, to formal presentations... and now time is up. Even though this is a one-dimensional stream, I would like to share a few of my final observations, in hopes it is inspirational to you as you move forward in your studies and career.

A conversation just fifteen minutes before the final exam made me think of the perfect question for the final exam. Of course, it was too late to make any changes at that point, but I did post it up on Facebook for some of my friends and alumni to comment upon. It looks like this:
Many of you signed up for this course expecting that I could pour some special knowledge into your heads that would make you good at designing user-interfaces. Now that we've studied design methods for 15 weeks, explain why what you wanted is not possible.
The resulting conversation on social media has been interesting. A colleague who also teaches undergraduate HCI mentioned how he regularly gets students in his class who conflate visual design with HCI. A successful alumnus from about five years ago posted, "It's a field without universal truths except for, 'Know thy user, and thy user is not you,'" which I think is a brilliant summation. Another alumnus who does a lot of user-facing development pointed out that there are always accessibility issues in any design, responding to a nested conversation about how accessibility is important but also platform- and application-dependent. A friend who teaches game design in Michigan simply said, "People are broken in interesting ways," which also ties in to many of our discussions of design processes, working in teams, and confronting our human biases.

I share this with you to help you compare what you know now to what you new before the semester started. Undoubtedly, there is something you can do to take the next step of improvement in your HCI skills, and my hope is that this course helped you identify what that is. After all, the goal of a liberal education is not prosaic job training but helping people understand how much there is yet to learn. Successful professionals are those who engage in reflective practice: thinking carefully and critically about their work and continually improving. Keep close to the heart of agile.

It would be irresponsible of me not to share with you an observation I made from working with you on the final projects. For many of you, the thing that is stopping you from creating innovative and useful systems is programming. I was disappointed to see so many in this class struggle with fundamental topics from the prerequisite courses, such as variable scope (CS120), parsing a one-dimensional data structure (CS121), and naming variables and methods appropriately as verbs and nouns (CS222). There are prerequisites because a solid background is required to succeed at the level of discourse appropriate for a 400-level course. How a student may have gotten to this level of the curriculum without such knowledge is a question for their own personal reflection; prudence demands considering what to do next. What ought one do who wishes to improve their software development skills? As I shared with you from Brown et al. Make It Stick, "To achieve excellence in any sphere, you must strive to surpass your current level of ability."

A creative mind may come up with no end of possible hobby projects; for such a person, the problem can be identifying a reasonable scope. You can always look up the kinds of questions that are asked on technical interviews, participate in the mathematical challenges on sites like Project Euler, or join a community of practice around a passion area such as game development or humanitarian open source projects. If you're not sure what else to do, I suggest working through this semester's projects again. The course plan will stay online. You can start again on the short project, but do it from scratch: don't fall into the trap that every team did for the final project and assume that my naive search architectural demo had any implicit value. Build up something for which you understand every part. Hold yourself accountable to best practices, which you can refresh yourself on by re-reading Clean Code. It's possible that our image server will be taken down some time this summer, but that doesn't have to stop you: you can find another data source to draw from, as the first part of the final exam implied. In fact, the university is moving to a cloud-hosted ContentDM database, and I'll be talking with Ms. Said and Mr. Bradley about how future students might take advantage of that.

A. J. Liebling wrote, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Andy Harris said, "You want to be a game designer? You write the code, or you write the check." Steve Jobs said, "To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions." Kyle Parker told us that he was proving himself in the trenches for a decade before he was given a position of creative authority within the university. We are Computer Scientists—whether majors or minors!—and we are the ones who create value in the 21st century.

I hope that you have had a formative experience in this class. I wish you the best in future endeavors and will pray for your success.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Happy Accident Studio and Canning Heroes: Reflecting on the Spring 2019 Immersive Learning Project

It was a great semester in my Spring Game Studio class. I had more applicants than ever before, thanks in part to recruiting assistance from the Office of Immersive Learning. It made it harder to select a team, but it also demonstrated the demand for this kind of experience. I ended up accepting six Computer Science majors, one Music Media Production major, two Animation majors, one Journalism Graphics major, and one English major with a Computer Science minor.

This class worked with Minnetrista in the second semester of a two-semester sequence. They inherited a paper prototype that was selected by me and our primary contact at Minnetrista, George Buss, the Director of Experience and Education. The specific prototype was inspired by Cooking Mama and involved players preparing and cooking foods related to Minnestrista's herb garden and Farmer's Market. The Spring class was able to take this project in connection with the renovation of the historic Oakhurst Home, which is where the original recipes of the Ball Blue Book were developed.

The end result of this work is Canning Heroes, which is a cooperative game for 1-4 players. It is designed to be played on a large touch screen, and our partners at Minnetrista are currently working on the logistics of installation in the Oakhurst home. The source code is available on GitHub, and the executable can be downloaded from This is my first time releasing anything on, and I was pleased with how easy it was to post the game and add student collaborators to the project.

The students dubbed themselves "Happy Accident Studio," which is an homage to Internet-culture icon Bob Ross, who recorded many of his famous painting shows in Muncie right on Minnetrista's campus. I am very pleased with the work done by Happy Accident Studio. Like the best of my immersive learning teams, they were able to learn quickly how to work together and hit stride about ten weeks into the semester. This allowed us to make the necessary revisions in the tail end of the semester to really make the game shine. I think Canning Heroes is the most polished product to come out of my immersive learning classes, and I am hopeful that it will be installed at Minnetrista for public consumption.

Happy Accident Studio was a good team by any metric. They had their flaws as any team will, but overall, they really came to understand what multidisciplinary collaboration means and why it is necessary for this kind of risky and creative work. They struggled with accountability, as student teams often do. They had great eureka moments, particularly around playtesting and code quality. It turns out that except for two seniors, the rest of the team was juniors. This means they will be around next year, and it makes me wonder if we can make some hay while the sun shines.

This was the second immersive learning team I have mentored who have used Unreal Engine 4 for their projects, the previous one being last Spring's Fairy Trails by Guy Falls Down Studio. There was one team member from Spring 2018 who was able to join again this semester, and it was good to have another voice with some experience in the room. He and two others had done some work with UE4 before, and they were enough to seed the learning experience for everyone else. Once again, I was generally happy with how quickly students were able to learn the tools of the engine, particularly Blueprint programming. The team got up and running quickly, and the mistakes they make—such as poor functional decomposition or bad naming practices—are general code quality problems that dog all novices. That is, there was nothing lost by using Blueprint, and much to be gained. Also, whereas Fairy Trails was written entirely in UMG with an enormous amount of effort going toward platform support, Canning Heroes makes better use of the UE4 platform, even though it's entirely "flat" using Paper2D.

Reflections on Student Assessment

Two stories from this semester have me thinking about whether I want to change my student evaluation strategy in future immersive learning projects. This team experienced many of the common successes and failures during the semester, but these two stories stand out in my memory.

First, there was an artist who wanted to create tutorial animations for the game. Her instinct was to create them in After Effects so that then we could import them into the engine. I suggested that, instead, she learn to create the animations in-engine. The tutorial was already using assets that we had in the game, and if the animation were done using keyframes and tweening in-engine, then anyone could tweak them as necessary, for example if the assets or timing needed to be changed (both of which happened, of course). By contrast, if she had created the animations using her familiar tools, any change would require going back to After Effects and repeating the render and import process, decreasing the number of people who could make the change while increasing the bus factor. To this student's credit, she jumped right in, and within a few hours was as adept with creating in-engine animations of 2D assets as anyone else who had been using UE4 for months. In our final retrospective meeting, she brought this up as a great learning outcome of the course: that there are times to use familiar tools and times to learn new tools, and not to be afraid of either.

The second story is not quite so positive. Our music major was de facto audio lead for the team, being in charge of both original compositions and sound effects. Several times during the semester, I encouraged her to do integration work, following the value of interdisciplinary collaboration and multidisciplinary pairing that is explicit in the methodology. However, even at the end of the semester, her approach was to upload files to the server and then step aside: she could not complete the loop of creating a new sound, putting it in the game, and evaluating it. A related story is that throughout development, many team members desired to randomize the sound effects. Again, I encouraged the team generally to look into UE4 support for this, but it was never pursued. It turns out that just after the game was complete, I watched an archived UE4 livestream that prompted me to look more into the audio system myself, and I was crestfallen to see that what the team wanted could be done with a single node of sound cue. I am certain that, had this student shown the ambition of the artist from the first story, we would have a much better aural experience in the game today.

Reflecting on these stories made me wonder whether there was some kind of more formalized incentive that I could use to nudge the students toward manifesting the attitudes and behaviors I desire for them. Several years ago I looked into KPIs as an industry practice that I could adopt in the studio to maintain project authenticity, but my investigations at the time led me to conclude that the timeframe of KPIs doesn't match conventional course structure. Regardless of my pedagogic choices, I am still locked in a three credit-hour class that meets three times a week for fifteen weeks, which doesn't seem to have the breadth required for Google-style KPIs. However, I have also recently been tinkering with specifications grading, particularly toward the goal that grading criteria become unambiguous. At least in theory, removing ambiguity from the grading scheme should help students plan their actions prudently.

The alternative idea that crossed my mind, which I share here in part as an excuse to explore it further, is paths for team members. "Paths" at least is the word that came to mind, informed I suspect by my anticipation of the new Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set, but alternatives might be "roles" or "quests." Keep in mind that I manage the team using a philosophical model of team ownership inspired by agile practices. That means everyone owns everything: anyone can work on art, sound, story, programming, UI, and so on. Occasionally I have teams where one aspect of the game requires a lead who approves work in that area, but that's always in response to dysfunctional team members. Most of the time, I can get students on board with the idea of total team ownership and its concomitant responsibilities.

Paths might offer a concrete way to inform students about expected behaviors, potentially annotating them with incentives (that is, grades). We might start with something like Path of the Novice, which would include incentives for reading the team methodology document, getting accounts set up on Slack and whatnot, putting something on version control. From there, maybe one could branch out into:

  • Path of the Artist: create an asset, put it in version control, and integrate it into the game.
  • Path of Code: conduct a code review of someone else's work; have your work subject to code review.
  • Path of Quality: run playtesting sessions for the game, documenting the results
  • Path of the Robot: automate the game build using continuous integration 
Obviously, these are just off the top of my head. Perhaps students could choose a path each two-week iteration and provide evidence at the end about whether they met their goals. Perhaps it really needs levels of achievement. The clear problem that I can see is that it might constrain people in a way that total team ownership is designed not to: it may trick a team member into not contributing what the team needs at some critical point because it's "not their job" (i.e. not on their path). Maybe, then, the result of this reflection is that all I really need is a simpler rule: everyone needs to be able to integrate and test their work. Unfortunately, that really devolves into the existing rule, "Follow the methodology," which is missed by a subset of team members. 

This whole discussion of how to manage future projects has to be framed by Price's Law. I learned a year or two ago that there's a general rule that half the work is done by a square root of the team. It seems that this has strong implications for a group like my immersive learning class. Which disciplines are represented under the square root limit can strongly influence the direction the project can go. Yet, at the end of the semester, I still have to assign grades, and they should be done as fairly as possible. It's not the goal, then, to ensure that everyone produces equal outcomes, but rather than their work is fairly assessed.

What's Next

I've been doing the two-course sequence of immersive learning game development projects since Fall 2012, but I'm taking a little detour in 2019-2020. I received approval from my department to offer my game design class as a special topics class for CS majors and minors in the Fall, so I'm going to try that instead of teaching it as an Honors Colloquium. What I would like to do, as I wrote about two weeks ago, is try to transform my game design course into a regular CS course, which would make it much more sustainable. Fall's plan is set, then, but Spring is still up in the air. As I mentioned above, I would like to take advantage of the fact that I will have more students than ever who have experience with game design and development, but it will be a little while before I can determine what shape that will take.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The studio helps students succeed in other classes

I had the final formal meeting with my Spring 2019 Game Studio class today, and we conducted a final retrospective in a format similar to the one from Spring 2016: we annotated a timeline with details about what was learned and how we felt about it.

One of the most unexpected comments in the conversation was about how the studio class helped students succeed in their other classes. Many students agreed that they came to campus MWF for our 9 o'clock studio meetings, and since they were already on campus, they attended their other classes. They were quite explicit that if they did not have the studio, they would have skipped class much more often. I don't remember this phenomenon ever coming up in the studio before.

However, they also mentioned that their work in other classes often took a back seat to their motivated focus on the studio project, but hey, at least I got them to show up.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Two missing specifications in HCI

I finished grading my students' final projects for the Spring 2019 HCI class (CS445, used to be CS345). Before the start of the semester, I wrote about how I would try specifications grading in the course. After the afternoon of grading, I realize that I missed two important specifications. I will share them here so that I have a better chance of remembering when planning Fall's class, since I've been assigned to teach the course again.

I should have had a specification requiring all non-trivial processing to be done off of the event thread. This is, of course, a requisite for any kind of multi-threaded UI programming. I specifically chose a data source that would require handling slow load times and long processing times so that my students could practice this technique. I developed a sample project in the first half of the semester based around this common practice, and I explained to them why it was important. However, I neglected to have a specification about it. Three hours before the final project was due, I had a student ask for some last-minute troubleshooting. He said that he added a spinner while some images loaded, but it wasn't showing up. Of course, it wasn't showing up because he was loading the image on the event thread. I showed him (again) the example from earlier in the semester and explained (again) why this pattern was necessary. From their final technical presentations, it was clear that he was the only person in the class of roughly twenty students who understood this crucial point. I believe this is an instance of the old standard motto: if it's important, make it worth points. I simply missed it in my specifications.

The other specification deals with acceptance testing. There are two relevant specifications in the evaluation plan, one at B-level and one at A-level. Specification B.5.R says that the final report " describes the methods by which the solution was evaluated," and A.2.R says that "The documented solution evaluation includes both quantitative and qualitative elements that explicitly align with this semester's readings." The B-level specification is designed to be broad: you can earn a B on the project by doing any kind of acceptance testing. The A-level specification is designed to be more focused: do a mixed methods evaluation based on a theory we studied this semester. None of the five teams explicitly aligned their evaluations with the semester's readings. This didn't stop two of the groups from marking that specification as complete in their respective checklists, casting serious doubt on the implicit claim that they had conducted the required self-assessment for which the checklist is a result. (Perhaps, then, I need to add more rigor to the self-assessment itself, requiring them to link their claim to the artifacts.)

The problem with the acceptance testing actually goes much deeper than dishonest claims of completion. Among those who conducted any kind of acceptance testing, there was no evidence of their having learned anything from the assigned readings and exercises relating to Steve Krug's and Jakob Nielson's theories. Instead, they followed ad hoc approaches that were poorly designed and yield unreliable results. They did actually use quantitative and qualitative approaches, in keeping with A.2.R, but they did not do these well. For example, many groups asked questions like "What did you think of the application?" and then reported "3/6 users say they liked it." I pointed out in my feedback that 50% of users claiming they liked it is different from 50% of users liking it. More importantly, "liking" the application was not one of our design goals: we were designing systems to be used. Yet, only one of the groups conducted a task-based evaluation, where the user was asked to accomplish a goal using their system. Task-based evaluation is what I expected, and task-based evaluation is what I wanted. However, I wanted the students to realize that this kind of evaluation was the right choice, so I left the specification open to other options. The other options were demonstrably worse. Hence, in the future, and particularly in this introductory HCI course, I should just require them to follow the best practice rather than give them the choice to shoot themselves in the proverbial feet.

I have to wonder if the students would have spontaneously met these criteria if they had taken notes during our discussions

Thursday, April 25, 2019

A student's Eureka Moment with game state analysis

I was in the studio the other day with a student working on redesigning part of the gameplay implementation on this semester's immersive learning project. Incidentally, it's been an amazing semester for this team, but I've had other writing tasks eat up the time I would otherwise have been blogging about it. In any case, he told me that he had a solution in mind that would require using two booleans. I stopped him and pointed out that once we have more than one boolean, we need clearly enumerated states. This is good practice generally and it is also a rule in the Gamemakin UE4 Style Guide that we're following.

I took the student over to the whiteboard and we began analyzing the interactions involved, resulting in this diagram:
We talked through a few scenarios. When I was convinced that he understood the analysis, we went back to the workstation and I showed him how to create an enumerated type with three values. Then, we went into Blueprint and looked at the events. I demonstrated how we could switch on the new enumeration that we had defined and use that to encode the logic from the diagram on the whiteboard. At first he was kind of quiet and seemed to be thinking about the problem at the source code level. Then, around the time we added the logic of the second trigger, he spun around and proclaimed something like, "Oh! That diagram becomes the code!" It was a wonderful example of that eureka moment when the pieces click and, as a result, he became a more powerful developer. Now he has a new tool in his toolbelt, and I can work with him to understand how to recognize when the problem affords using such a tool.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

"Who Would YOU Rather Work With?" A classroom game show for my HCI class

On Tuesday last week, my HCI class gave their informal reports for the first iteration of their final projects. I neglected to post any real guidelines about the presentation, and so it was ad hoc. We did have two guests in the room, though, one being an expert user for the projects and the other being a software development professional. There were several points in the students' presentations when I cringed at how they presented their status and ideas. I considered for a while how to address this, and I ended up coming up with a classroom game show called Who would YOU rather work with?

This is a rhetoric game along the lines of The Metagame and CARD-tamen. There are two teams, each of which sends up a player for the round. The two contestant are shown a pair of fictional quotations, and based on these, must argue for who they would rather hire onto a team. We alternated which team went first, and each player had 30 seconds to make their cases. The winner was determined by popular vote. Even though a team could just vote for their own representative, I think the students understood that it should be a fair vote.

The original idea for the game was Is it User-Centered... or Not?, but I realized as I started working on the game systems that user-centeredness was only part of the equation. More of the problems were with students' rhetoric than with their technical or procedural approaches, and hence my choice to make this a rhetoric game.

We played the game last week Thursday. I had the students count off by twos in order to shuffle them around, so they would not be on a team with the person they usually sat with. The two teams named themselves The One Before Two and Los Dos. (Important note: The One Before Two insisted that the short name of their team was TOBT, pronounced "tot" with a silent "B".)

Here are the prompts that I gave them:

"The images take a long time to load, so the user just has to learn to wait."
"We will show a spinner to signify to the user that the system is still working."

"JavaFX is a pain. It's really fiddly."
"We thought we knew the JavaFX API better than we actually did. We talked about it and identified our main misconceptions, and we are working to overcome them."

"We were all really busy so we did not work on that feature."
"We documented that feature as a user story to consider for the next iteration."
[or, in a bonus round, "That feature is out of scope."]

"Git kept on destroying our files. It doesn't do what it is supposed to do."
"We had problems managing version control, and one of our impediments is our own understanding. We have prioritized finding the root cause so that it doesn't happen again."

"We are making this application using Java and JavaFX because Dr. Gestwicki provided an example with these."
"We have analyzed our target population's needs and have chosen a development platform that allows us to deploy a solution that meets their needs."

"We did a lot of work that you cannot see exposed through the UI right now, but it will be incorporated into the next iteration."
"Our source code provides the simplest possible solution for this iteration that maintains our standards of quality."

"We are not sure if this is an SRP [Single Responsibility Principle] violation or not."
"We have evaluated our code for compliance with SRP and, where we were unsure, we consulted with the professor to evaluate the structure."

"We know that what we have planned for iteration 2 is going to solve our problem."
"We learned from iteration 1 to help us improve our product and processes for iteration 2."

"We based our work on Dr. Gestwicki's example."
"We built a solution for this problem based on our users' specific needs."

The last one is quite a bit like #5, but that was in part to handle the case where everyone actually showed up to class and would get a turn. Of course, not everyone showed up to class, so we had enough questions that some people got to answer two.

One of the students hypothesized out loud, in round three or four, that the bottom answers were always "right." I pointed out that this was a rhetoric game: there was no objectively right answer, but rather a challenge to persuasively argue your position. Once the game was over, I explained to them that there was indeed a pattern, of course. The top item was more or less what I heard people say during their presentations, but the bottom is what I would have like to hear instead. This caused a murmur in the crowd as they considered what this means. It gave us a good excuse to talk about how you present yourself when applying for a job or internship: that the applications will be sorted into two piles, and you want to make sure you end up in the "Let's talk to this person" pile.

For the most part, students argued that they would rather work with the second person on each slide, using the kinds of arguments you would expect. The statements on the bottom tend to show capacity for reflection, eagerness to learn from mistakes, honesty, professionalism, accountability, and user-centered rather than developer-centered. However, it was not the case that everyone argued for the bottom. On #3, a student argued that the person on top was simply being honest, not really making excuses, while the person on the bottom was being political to the point of dishonesty.

In the end, it was a close game, with TOBT winning 5 to 4 over Los Dos. I think the students appreciated the interactivity and how everyone got a chance to speak their piece. When it was all over, I walked through the slides again to talk through some of the issues that came up, so I guess they didn't really get a reprieve from hearing me lecture to them. However, I think they felt like they had some skin in the game now, since they had already shared their thoughts about each issue.