dhquest-logoart

So, like most (all?) things that I work on, one of my biggest goals from the outset of designing dhQuest was to have as clear of a visual communication with the game’s many features and forms, etc., as possible.  (There’s lots more to say about this kind of work regarding my other recent game project, The Reunion, as well, but I’ll have to come back to that in a future post.)

dhQuest checks a lot of design boxes at once, stuck as it is between the worlds of pen-and-paper RPGs and digital gaming.  The obvious inspirations to some of the design work are the great pen-and-paper RPGs (I probably don’t even need to mention Dungeons and Dragons by name, but I will anyway), which set the visual standards for a large portion of the tabletop graphic design work, and many of the game’s mechanics as well.

dhQuest-CharacterSheet

The Player Character Sheet (for the old-school pen-and-paper gamers!) that lets players record their character and their progress as they play.

 

But the larger design effort, at least for now, was the digital component.  The game leans pretty heavily on this half at the moment, since the tabletop version remains to be turned into the multiplayer experience it was designed to be.

So for the moment, what we have is essentially a digital single-player experience, and one that straddles the line between game and web application.  As a designer, my goal was make sure it looked just enough like both of those two things that it didn’t accidentally fall fully into the category of being just one or the other.

So, here’s a quick look at some of the design and development stages that went into making the current version of dhQuest‘s digital companion piece (and single-player game).

dhquest-questicons

Quest icons, to give players an at-a-glance view of the availability or completion status of quests.

Since most of the interface for dhQuest was essentially a quest logbook (think World of Warcraft, etc.), it was important to make sure that each quest had a distinct graphic presence depending on its availability, or completion status, to the player.  The goal was to let the player know at even a quick glance which obstacles stand between them and any of their goals, and to satisfy them that they had either met or completed those requirements, in order to progress.  (And, breaking with the subdued color scheme, the “help” icon on the lower right is the one instance of white typography in the mix, to make sure it stands out to the player that needs more guidance.)

dhquest-resourcesicons

The resources (Time, Funding, Staff, and Support), and ending goals (Credibility, Network) that players record during their game.

As with any project, it was important to create a library of simple icons to communicate the stats that the player has available to them.  I’ve been happier with other icon sets of mine, but for the moment this seemed to do the job well enough.  And, though it’s probably lost on exactly no one, the shield icons were a nod to the sorts of heraldic visual flourishes that go hand-in-hand with the medieval fantasy aesthetic of older tabletop RPGs.

dhquest-teamicons

Icons representing the Team Members players recruit throughout the game. (IT, Library, Faculty, Student Body)

Finally, the player’s other goal is to assemble a local team of experts to their research group, and I wanted to design a simple visual icon for each of these.

The result–for the moment, anyway–is an interface that combines to look like this:

dhquest-gamescreen

More soon, about the game itself, and the integration of these elements into the user interface.

dhquest-logoart

Retro Projects Retrospective

So this will be the first of probably many retrospective looks at (somewhat, but never quite) completed projects of mine, from the not-so-distant past.  There’s a lot of history to cover, and I didn’t take a lot of notes about the process of the work that went into most of it.  Let’s get started on fixing that.

dhQuest: Planning for the Digital Humanities

So today I’m talking about a game that I helped design (design as in, “how it works”) a month or so back, in consultation with my two co-directors at Hamilton’s DHi, Angel Nieves and Janet Simons.  Long story short, Angel and Janet were running a course at DHSI 2015 on implementing new digital humanities programs, and wanted to try to “game-ify” their content, hoping that it might help people take on a more vivid perspective of what that experience entails.  That might be their own experience (when people choose starting scenarios similar to their own real-life circumstances), or entirely fictional (when you randomly generate a character to guide through this experience).

To skip right to the outcome for a moment, the game was ready (just barely) in time for this same year’s DHSI — as in, made entirely in about 2-3 weeks, from first concept to playable prototype — and we were lucky enough to have an extremely helpful bunch of guinea pig game testers in their class.  (And, to any of you who might read this, thanks again, hugely, for all of the time, feedback, and extremely helpful bug-hunting and feature suggestions.)

This was a bit of a new one for me, too.  Sometimes (well, okay, most of the time), I like to work in my own little vacuum, sitting here at the corner desk of a dark apartment, somewhere in the midnight hours of my own little insomnia vortex. This project, however, was one of the living examples, for me, of how gratifying it can be to work in concert with people as you hastily develop a project practically in front of its audience’s eyes.  “Release early, release often,” they sometimes say in software.  Well, this was definitely that.

The Concept

So I’ll dive into the proper “how it was made” in my next post(s), but to set the stage, the core concept/goals of this particular game/project were:

  1. We wanted to make a game that made the experience of brainstorming–and ultimately building— a digital humanities program to feel “real” and, more importantly, immediate.  So, while some elaborate fantasy metaphor was tempting, and might have been fun, we wanted this to feel direct and as honest as a game might allow.
  2. But on that topic of fantasy, this is a game we’re talking about, and therefore thaumaturgy.  So, we need to have at least a bit of fun with it, if only to spare our audience’s attention spans as they navigate through a game that essentially just bureaucracy at its core.To that end, we went right back to our nerdy routes and decided to choose Dungeons & Dragons as our inspiration.  In the earliest concepts for dhQuest, the idea was to have small groups (3-5) of players form what are essentially questing parties, deciding as a group how best to approach their tasks.  In the final tyranny of time and deadlines, this part fell away for the first year, but the idea of being the adventurer (complete with stats-crowded Character Sheets) remained.
  3. The game needed to be accessible to people of any level of familiarity with games, or the sorts of game tropes I ended up choosing for this game’s mechanics.  So, less about “winning” and more about either “experimenting,” or, for the hardcore gamers, “maximizing.”  Anyone could theoretically “win” this game with enough time invested, but the experience of either improving in a second session, or pulling off an impressive outcome on your first try — this would be the temptation and challenge of the game.
  4. Lastly (and this would be the big one), this game needed to travel.  So, while the idea of a purely pen-and-paper tabletop experience was grand, we’d have needed to have this game done at least a week earlier to print and travel with it, and then we’d be carrying an extra backpack full of heavy paper and cardstock, which probably wasn’t happening.Thus, the “digital version” was born, and eventually ended up becoming almost exclusively the way to play this game, for now.This required a great many additional things — things like a database that would house all of the game’s quests and rewards, along with a web application that knew how to read and enforce rules, and how to reward players at each step.  And, unsurprisingly, this project also ended up requiring a lot of graphic and web design work.  (Like, a lot, a lot.)

So, with all of the goals decided, I had my marching orders, and it became time to sit down and start designing and developing the thing.  (More starting in the next post.)

iwata-wiiu

It’s very strange and sad to lose Satoru Iwata.  Whether or not Nintendo has looked much like the rest of the crowd since the early 2000s (when his watch began), the one thing Nintendo has always looked like is Nintendo.  (And imagine how truly tough that is, both as an act to follow, and as a ship to steer in some extremely strange new oceans.)

I know a lot of people don’t always realize what an instrumental figure he was even before he was the head of the company. A genius programmer, an extremely creative developer, and (most importantly) a true lover of games that led even a titan of a company like Nintendo in a way that always tried to be true to the fans and the unique magic of their brand. So much of the gaming industry has gone another way, while Nintendo has always tried to remain itself — and I think fans and developers alike owe a lot to the risks and innovations Nintendo took on over the last decade+ of his leadership.

I’m not sure I can really say how much it’s meant to me that Nintendo has always been exactly what it is — and that that hasn’t meant that it’s ever become some stale relic, or gotten lost in the times.

So here’s to the guy that always took great care of the company (and its many franchises) that I’ve loved since I was a kid.

Video (by IGN), below:

A Farewell Tribute to Nintendo’s Satoru IwataA Farewell Tribute to Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata.http://go.ign.com/thankyouiwata

Posted by IGN Video on Monday, July 13, 2015

So the first step gave us everything we needed in terms of our dictionary database, word searching, and phonetics.  That’s the better part of the foundation laid, but those by themselves are not quite all we need.  (Luckily, they should give us everything we need to figure the rest out for ourselves.)

So the question remaining is, of course, “how?”  Well, the first answer to that is to start figuring out what exactly “rhyming” means.

Disclaimer: I like to think of myself as a good student — back when I was one, and even now — but for some reason, with this project at least, I didn’t start by doing my homework.  There are a lot of reasons for that (where impatience is probably the main one), but for whatever reason I started this project wanting to figure out things like “what is rhyme” or “what constitutes a syllable” for myself.  That’s the “puzzle” aspect I was talking about — the fun of which is probably the second reason for skipping the required reading.

The point of this is, nothing about this part of the project is even kind of groundbreaking research, I know.  But part of the fun is diving right in, and using tools like that to check (and revise) your own work later.  Please, by all means, work smarter than I sometimes do.

So, what is a rhyme?

Well, according to the first stab I took at this (spoiler alert: this isn’t the right answer), a rhyme is when you can match up the tail ends of two words, counting their phonetic segments backwards from the end of the word, until you come to a vowel.

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From the last section, the phonetic segments (according to ARPAbet and CMUdict) of the word “phonetic.”

(And how do we know when we’ve found our vowel?  That’s easy enough, we just need a regular old regular expression.)

image06

preg_match() in this case will find any numerals in the $lastletter (a substring) of our word.

The lexical stress numbers, by ARPAbet/CMUdict’s notations, are the only numerals in the phonetics field.  So, we pattern match against the last character in that field and, if it’s a number, we’ve found our vowel.

image20

(So, counting backwards to the first vowel, it would give us these two bits.)

It’s easy enough to take that result (a string) and just feed that into a query against our CMUdict database:

query-lastvowel

On the ugliest, cringe-inducing rhyming level (think bad pop music), this is at least the start of a usable rhyme finder.  Granted, if we used this as-is, it would tell you that our word “phonetic” is a rhyming match with, say, “academic,” but, you know, close enough.  (Yeah, not quite.)

So, to make that into a slightly-less-horrible rhyme match, we can continue counting (backwards) through more of the word, gathering up any consonants that occur immediately before that vowel, and feeding those into our query string as well.  This will at least get the entire last syllable sound to match.

I did that next, continuing to match backward until I found another vowel, and then recording everything after (and not including) that vowel.

image08

This turned what was a search for the “-ic” of “phonetic” into a search for “-tic.”

image04

(Thusly.)

This does kill off those cringeworthiest matches (like “algebraic”), but it still leaves us with pretty weak matches like “aristocratic,” since it’s really only matching on that “-tic” ending.

So, at that point, it seems like we ought to include the next vowel sound before this last syllable after all.  (Of course, this is assuming that there is a second vowel — but, hey, maybe that’s a good thing if this excludes words with just one vowel/syllable… after all, does “phonetic” actually rhyme with, say, “click”?)

After trying that, we get:

image21

Now we’re getting somewhere.

It’s easy to see a huge quality jump in our rhyming here, with just this one more vowel.

We could go a step further, of course, and add the preceding consonants to that vowel as well, at which point our list would drop to words like “kinetic,” etc.  That’s certainly a closer match than words like “athletic,” but I’m not sure if it’s a significantly better rhyme.  (Again, I’m following no formal definitions here, but doing this first round just on “my gut.”)

So my question (to any/everyone)is:  is “phonetic / kinetic” a significant (or necessary) step up in rhyme quality from “phonetic / athletic”?  (I should probably keep my vote out of this, but whatever, my own answer would be “meh, not really.”)

So, at least temporarily satisfied to leave that there, I’d say that at this point there are already a few conclusions that I can come to:

  1. This level of matching is probably a “good enough” rule for rhyming, or at least good enough to leave this as it is for now.Obviously it’s not perfect, but it’s started to answer the task of the research question, providing passable rhyme suggestions to users that might not think of them on their own.
  2. This type of syllable-matching works great for this word, but has scaling issues at shorter or larger words.  Consider single syllable words — take “quirk”, for instance.  For this, we’d need to omit any consonants before the (only) vowel, so that “quirk” can find rhymes like “perk” or “lurk.”That would mean the rule for single syllable words would then be:“match the vowel and anything after”where, for two syllable words, it might be:“match the first vowel, and anything after”which we can obviously combine, as a rule, into:

    “find the first (even if it’s the only) vowel, and match that and anything after

    I’m satisfied with that.  But consider three syllable words again.  “phonetic / kinetic” is great (and, at least by the CMUdict’s phonetics, an exact vowel match in both syllables).  But “athletic / kinetic” — that’s a reasonable rhyme, isn’t it?  (I’m actually asking.)

    So, we could say, then, that:

    “the penultimate vowel and everything after it, are the only syllables that matter for rhyming in a 2+ syllable word”

    (Also, I just like the word “penultimate.”  …let’s see, “intimate,” “proximate,” “legitimate” — okay, I’ve been doing this too long now.)

    But, seriously, is this applicable to any 2+ syllable words, even if they’re a lot longer or shorter than one another?  Is “parthenogenetic” a reasonable rhyme for “phonetic”?  Or “hettick”?

    No conclusions here, sorry to say — just some questions to leave open in future steps.  Back to my last conclusion, so far:

  3. The way we’re matching (so far) is matching only the exact same emphasis per syllable.  While that definitely sounds the most graceful in terms of proper rhyming, should words that have different syllabic emphasis still be “good enough?”  And, if so, how do we revise that query?  (One solution is to remove the exact numerals and query instead with pattern matches that find those same phonetics with any numerals at the end of the vowels.  Regular expressions could handle that gracefully enough, I’d imagine.)

    query-noemphasis

    Something like this, only with more flexibility and hopefully less manual “OR” clause building?

Review of Goals 

I think at a moment like this, it’s important to review the actual goals of the project, since there are a lot of potential paths into some pretty scary forests, in terms of the time and effort that could go into making “good” into “perfect.”  (Especially considering that “perfect” might very well be impossible anyway.)

Since this project is meant to engage people’s interest in poetry (more than to create some ultimate rhyming authority application), I decided that, for now, our earlier solution was “good enough,” especially in that it gives fewer/higher-quality results, which I think is a nice way to lean when given the choice.  To a certain extent, opening our pattern up to weaker emphasis matching would only bloat the results list — and with weaker results, on top of that.

So our final rhyme rule, for now, is:

“Find the second-to-last vowel in any word, unless there’s only one vowel.  Take that vowel, and everything after it, and match it against other words that end with the same phoneme sequence, and the same emphasis per vowel.”

So… yeah.  That’s my rhyming solution.  (For now.)

One nice thing about applications like these is that it’s easy enough to call this the first version, working as intended (if not perfect), and revise/improve that bit later down the line.

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And, from my World’s-Most-Glamorous-Website test script, this is what my test code/page looks like.

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A few of the (50) matched words.

In terms of putting this into our application, we’ll Ajax-ify this (soon) to be something that we can call when the user clicks on a particular word.  That function (in Javascript) can ask this script for any rhyming matches on that word, and get back something we can then present to the user as a list of words.

Next, we’ll need to start thinking about the meter.  Which means getting the syllable counts for all of these words…

(And, in the next episode, if you haven’t been anticipating it already, there’s a huge lurking question here of “so what about words that aren’t in this dictionary?” <cue dramatic musical swell>)

 

So, my “official” web presence has been either cluttered or sometimes wildly neglected over these many years.  And while I’d love to pull the various little districts of my scattered portfolios, blogs, projects, and general digital scraps into something coherent, I’m fearing what the size or workload of such a thing would be.

So, instead, for now, I’m going the very simple route, throwing all of the old work into a “to-do” box, and starting a fresh new (simple) blog here, with the (hopeful) goal of doing a better job of documenting my various projects as they roll in.  There will definitely be some backfilling here, which I may or may not retroactively date to reflect their actual chronology… but for the moment, this will be a “current moment” kind of blog, and ideally something between a work log, portfolio, and general echo chamber of ramblings.

Let me know if there are any projects you’d like to learn more about, or to pull up from the archives a bit sooner than I might get to them on my own!  I always try to be snappy on email (gplord@gmail.com) or Twitter (@gplord) if you catch me there.  Thanks!