August 12th, 2008


Q&A on NASA's ATHLETE robot.

Each leg has six degrees of freedom. Every leg is a complete general purpose manipulator, which is why we refer to them as limbs, not legs. There's also a tool adapter we have on every wheel called a power takeoff; it's a square key that happens to be a 1/2­in. socket drive, and it rotates with the wheel, so when you use the almost 2-hp motor in the wheel, it also turns that key, and you can clamp tools over that socket drive and actuate any kind of a power tool. Because it's on the end of this limb that has six degrees of freedom, you can maneuver that power tool any way you want. It has the exact same kinematics as the venerable PUMA Robot Arm used in industrial robotics.

Mukasey: "It's not a crime unless I say so."

[Mukasey] told delegates to the American Bar Association annual meeting, "not every wrong, or even every violation of the law, is a crime."

I sure wish *I* could just decide, after the fact, that some violation of the law "wasn't a crime." How handy would that be?

"When the president does it that means that it is not illegal." -Richard Nixon
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Captain Obvious

Business Requirements Gathering is bullshit.

Self-professed experts will tell you that requirements gathering is the most critical part of the project, because if you get it wrong, then all the rest of your work goes towards building the wrong thing. This is sooooort of true, in a skewed way, but it's not the complete picture.

The problem with this view is that requirements gathering basically never works. How many times have you seen a focus group gather requirements from customers, then the product team builds the product, and you show it to your customers and they sing: "Joy! This is exactly what we wanted! You understood me perfectly! I'll buy 500 of them immediately!" And the sun shines and the grass greens and birds chirp and end-credit music plays.

That never happens. What really happens is this: the focus group asks a bunch of questions; the customers have no frigging clue what they want, and they say contradictory things and change the subject all the time, and the focus group argues a lot about what the customers really meant. Then the product team says "we can't build this, not on our budget", and a negotiation process happens during which the product mutates in various unpleasant ways. Then, assuming the project doesn't fail, they show a demo to the original customers, who say: "This is utterly lame. Yuck!" Heck, even if you build exactly what the customer asked for, they'll say: "uh, yeah, I asked for that, but now that I see it, I clearly wanted something else."

So the experts give you all sorts of ways to try to get at the Right Thing, the thing a real customer would actually buy, without actually building it. You do mockups and prototypes and all sorts of bluffery that the potential customer can't actually use, and they have to imagine whether they'd like it. It's easy enough to measure usability this way, but virtually impossible to measure quality, since there are all sorts of intangibles that can't be expressed in the prototype. I mean, you can try — we sure tried on the OmniGo products — but in this phase nobody "imagines" that the thing will weigh too much, or be too slow, or will go through batteries like machine-gun rounds, or that its boot time will be 2 minutes, or any number of other things that ultimately affect its sales.

Dead Space gameplay footage

Levels look very good. Monsters still creepy as hell. Maybe a bit too much blood, not enough decay. Gotta mix those designs up a little bit to keep the horror high.

Aiming weapons seems clumsy, however. Especially that cutter thing, which you're going to need since lots of gameplay revolves around chopping off monsters' limbs. Some of this can be corrected by allowing a higher control sensitivity on the left-right turn rate in aiming mode.

But part of it is also the over-the-shoulder view that you zoom into when you aim. It pretty much destroys your peripheral vision. Count how many times the player was ambushed from the sides or behind while aiming. At one point in the greenhouse part, two monsters pop up standing side by side. Player aims at one of them and starts firing. The second one runs right at him... and you can't even see it coming. Going into aiming mode has narrowed his cone of vision so much that anything more than about 45 degrees off view-axis can't be seen.

How to fix this? Well, if you must go over-the-shoulder, how about zooming in less, and/or moving the view point higher up? Alternatively, maybe go inside the main character's helmet and broaden the FOV a bit. Widening the FOV will make it easier to aim at nearer monsters, but harder to aim at father away ones, which is a nice game balance feature. And you can show off some kind of cool HUD or something in there.

This is only combat footage, so I wouldn't expect to see puzzles. But I hope there are a few in the game. Blasting freaky mutant zombie monsters is great, but if it's the only thing in the game, it's going to get old quick. And these puzzles had better not be soley "fetch the item" quests. There's a place for fetch quests, but they're not the only kind of good puzzle on the planet. BioShock did a good job making the fetch quests interesting, so learn from that example. Physics puzzles are good too, but again don't over-use them. Since we're in space, can we get some kind of puzzles that involve zero-g perhaps? (I expect the dev team has already thought of this.)