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Have a blogroll

About 3 years ago I was wondering here how could we get the RSS back to what it was. It was a rhetorical question, and I didn’t provide an answer back then.

This is a topic going around the fediverse, and the usual suggestions are:

  • Have a personal website (or start a blog).
  • If you use RSS on your website, make it prominent so people know that it is there.
  • Have a blogroll, or a way to recommend the blogs you read.

The last point is important and, without thinking about it, I was neglecting it in this blog.

What is a blogroll exactly? According to the Wikipedia:

A list of other blogs that a blogger might recommend by providing links to them (usually in a sidebar list).

It also had a social component of this blogger reads me and has my blog in their blogroll, I will add theirs to mine. Which was a way of building your small blogosphere or community of blogs by sharing links. I made a few friends like that, and I still keep in touch with some of them after over 20 years. All because at some point we all had a blog.

Although I still haven’t found how to integrate it in the blog itself –I blame the mobile phones support for this, but it is all my fault–, I have now my public blogroll. It also generates automatically when I post and update the blog by processing ~/.config/liferea/feedlist.opml, because liferea is still my feed reader, so it should be up to date and reflect exactly what is that I’m reading.

In my old blog that run from 2003 to 2021, it had blogroll up to late 2009 –according to the wayback machine–, with a section on the right column suggesting blogs to read. On 2010 I started learning Python and, as an exercise, I rewrote my old PHP blog engine –using Tornado and Redis, in pure NoSQL hype–. At that point, I dropped the blogroll, but I can’t remember the reason.

I have the vague recollection of most blogs I used to read being inactive. Checking that blogroll from 2009, most of these blogs are either gone or stopped posting many years ago. Which is fair, I closed my old blog after all. A good blogroll has to be alive and updated to be useful.

Anyway, the idea of this post is to say: hey, I have a blogroll! You should have one as well, like the other cool kids. I still have to decide how I integrate it with the blog, even if most people read this pages via a feed reader!

Finding a free secondary DNS

I think I started hosting my domain because at some point the hosting provider I was using didn’t support all the record types I wanted to use –I have usebox.net since 2002–. Also, I was younger and had more free time. Go figure: I thought DNS was fun.

A haiku about DNS (from nixCraft’s blog):

It’s not DNS
There’s no way it’s DNS
It was DNS

Generally you used to get a secondary DNS service for free as part of the deal with your hosting company, as long as the primary was hosted on an IP in their network. It was like that –if I recall correctly– when I was with OVH, and later on with Memset –and I worked there for a few years, although it was acquired and things have changed–.

But now I’m with DigitalOcean and, as far as I can tell after looking at their docs, they only do secondary for you if you let them host the zone management. And obviously I don’t want to use their control panel and give up hosting the zone myself, or change hosting company –migrating services isn’t fun–.

Well, is not a problem because I have two servers anyway, so I can host primary and secondary, isn’t it? Not quite, because unfortunately I didn’t think this through and I ended with both servers in the same data center :facepalm:, which is not good as it is very well explained on the FAQ of PUCK Free Secondary DNS Service:

Q: Why do I need a secondary dns server?
A: You want to have (at least) TWO different DNS servers in two different physical locations. This will help you if your primary DNS server experiences a power outage or some sort of problem related to network connectivity.

So the question is: can I find a free secondary DNS service? Yes, I can! Although It wasn’t easy to get to that answer, probably because search engines have a difficult time providing relevant results these days.

There are a few for-profit possibilities, that give you some free stuff with some limitations; which can be too limiting to be useful. For example: the number of queries a month their servers will respond.

But some don’t have such limitations, two of them:

I decided to give FreeDNS a go. It provides an impressive number of free services, and it was very simple to setup.

I like their philosophy and the feel. If I had the need to pay for any of their services, I would do it with pleasure; as opposed to other limited services –not bad or even expensive–, that felt like a trial. Which is fair enough as their are for-profit, but when I got an email from one of those providers telling me that their servers wouldn’t respond to any more queries that month unless I paid them, it didn’t have the effect they expected –they could have sent the email before I was over the quota, isn’t it?–.

And I was delighted to also find PUCK Free Secondary DNS Service, which is a very simple service that they provide for free to “the community”. I don’t know the details, but I suspect it comes from the fact that nether.net used to be the largest public-access Unix systems with the least restrictions on the internet –according to Jared Mauch’s about page—. The domain was created on January of 1995, I’d love to hear that story!

The response times did look good, so I decided to use both, FreeDNS and PUCK:

$ dig NS usebox.net | grep -A 4 ';; ANSWER'
;; ANSWER SECTION:
usebox.net.             86400   IN      NS      puck.nether.net.
usebox.net.             86400   IN      NS      ns2.afraid.org.
usebox.net.             86400   IN      NS      ns1.usebox.net.
usebox.net.             86400   IN      NS      ns2.usebox.net.

Transistor

I don’t play a lot, and finishing a game is something that happens so exceptionally that I thought I would mention here that I finished Transistor.

This is not the first game I’ve played by Supergiant Games –I had played Pyre before, but didn’t get far on it–, and I had listened to different podcast episodes commenting their games. When I saw that Transitor was very discounted on GoG, and that it should play fine in my machine, I jumped straight in. And I loved it!

The Wikipedia article says Transistor is an action role-playing video game, but that sounds too generic and I’m not completely sure it fits this game. I would say it is more a turn based RPG, but I see that it can be played like it was an action one. For me it was more a strategy game: you plan your turn, Red –the main character– executes it, and then you need to wait until you can run another turn. The enemies act in real-time and, although Red can move, she is vulnerable until you can plan your turn again.

Transistor

It is a beautiful game

The world building and the mechanics on this game are fantastic. You fight against the process –some sort of computer entity that controls mechanical creatures and is invading the city–, and all the abilities your character gains in the game are “functions” in a programming mood that you can use in different forms: as a main move, as a modifier for an existing move, or as a passive move. As you gain more and more abilities, mixing those functions and knowing how to equip them to keep progressing is a real treat.

What I really loved in Transistor was the story: beautiful and tragic. The game looks amazing –isometric, all 2D!–, the voice acting is perfect, and the music elevates the whole package to a different level.

Is not easy, but not too hard either, because I’m not a great player and I managed to finish it. Is not a long game, but I found it a bit stressing and I played in small bursts of one to two hours. I think it was the right size for me, but even if I wanted it to be longer, I’m not sure how much they could have done considering the mechanics. The end affected me in a way that I didn’t feel like I wanted to do a game+ –as offered–, but may be some day now that I know the full story.

I have been playing more games, on and off, but nothing really for long enough to feel I wanted to mention it here. The last game I had finished was The Hand of Fate, which is quite different to Transistor!

Block ads and trackers

From Lichess’ block ads:

Lichess is safe, because it is free of ads and trackers.

But browsing the rest of the Internet exposes us to the following threats:

  • Advertisement sells our screen estate and influences us
  • Tracking sells our personal information to increase advertisement effectiveness

These don’t benefit us, the website users, in any way. In fact, they use a lot of our computing power and bandwidth against us.

Fortunately, there are simple and legal ways to protect ourselves from these invasions.

In case you don’t know Lichess, it is a free and open-source Internet chess server run by a non-profit organization of the same name; and you can go there and play chess vs other people. It is technically amazing –and the backend is written in Scala–.

The linked website on Lichess suggests different ways of blocking ads, but I would recommend that at least you should have an ad-blocker installed; ideally uBlock Origin because it is free, open source, and very good.

The situation with ads and tracking is getting to a point that I believe we must all take action. I don’t know if a future where ads are ethical and respectful of the users and their privacy is even possible, but current approach by big tech is indefensible and hostile to us all. I can’t even remember when I was not using an ad-blocker, but I truly believe that now it is important that you use one as well.

That’s why if you visit usebox.net main page and you don’t use an ad-blocker, the website will show a banner recommending you to install one.

Please block ads and trackers, it is completely legal and you must protect yourself when you browse the web. Don’t be intimidated by websites that want you to see ads and be tracked because their business model is completely broken and doesn’t respect you.

As a postscript, if you are using Chrome as your web browser, consider using Firefox instead, or any other browser that is not Chrome. There are plenty of reasons to ditch Chrome, protect yourself!

Retrogamedev IRC channel

I have been looking for IRC channels related to game development for a while, and I have found a few that are active, for example:

Then there are channels related to more or less retro-computing, that will discuss development (like #dosgameclub on AfterNET), but that was a bit hit and miss, or very focused on one specific system.

Long story short, all seems to be on Discord or, depending on the country, Telegram. So I was accepting defeat until I thought that perhaps I could start an IRC channel. And finally #retrogamedev on Libera happened.

Not that I have idea of IRC admin, but it is about hanging out and have a place to ask questions, share projects –including work in progress– and get inspired by fellow developers. Any system, from 8-bit to 64-bit –or whatever, as long as you consider it is retro enough–.

It is about socialising and building community around a very niche type of development.

Arguably we could have used XMPP or Matrix, but I feel like those two options may have less popularity than IRC or, at least, the subset of people already familiar with IRC and interested in retro gamedev may be larger.

So if you are interested on the topic, don’t hesitate to join us!

2023 Recap (sort of)

I used to do this type of post every Christmas, when I had my blog in Spanish, but for whatever reason is a tradition I didn’t port to this blog. Although I’m not sure I want to start doing it, 2023 has been weird in several ways and it may be interesting doing some reflection here.

A good example is that after leaving Twitter for Mastodon, turns out that the social network where I am most active is… IRC.

Weechat

My wife looking at my screen: is that... IRC?

I was a heavy IRC user on the mid to late 90s, but after that I only connected when I was working on an open source project and either I needed support or I was contributing and it was useful to be there –for example, when I was working with OpenStack Kolla–. For me, it was instant messaging with XMPP (Jabber back then) what replaced IRC, and I didn’t think I was going back. XMPP didn’t succeed the way I was expecting and that’s mainly why I’m only on Signal now–, but that is a story for a different day.

Where I am “active”? Mostly on Libera: #gamedev, and others channels like #haskell-gamedev or #cpc; and AfterNET: #dosgameclub and #ludumdare.

I also spent a lot of time on tilde, but because I was connecting to IRC via ctrl-c club; when I decided to connect directly from home because the club was kind of unstable, I dropped that network because there was no way to conceal your IP –unlike Libera via cloaking and AfterNet by default–, and I didn’t like it. I know it probably doesn’t matter, but there you are.

Although the channels are dedicated to specific topics, turns out people may talk about anything; which is kind of the opposite of Masto thinking about it: a social network about anything but we choose to focus on the topics we like. You find a lot of channels that aren’t very active, if at all, and sometimes there’s that user that is very annoying and that may even spoil the channel to the point of not being worth it; but that’s OK because you can just leave the channel if that’s the only thing you get from it.

The DOS Game Club podcast channel is a good example of good and healthy community, and links nicely with another thing I didn’t see coming this year until it happened: making DOS games. Also: one of the channel members lives in my same neighbourhood, which is a happy coincidence that allowed us to met for a beer!

This year I have released two very different games for DOS:

  • Gold Mine Run!: targeting the second age of DOS gaming; meaning 32-bit, VGA and Sound Blaster.
  • The Return of Traxtor: targeting early IBM PC/XT; meaning 16-bit, CGA and PC Speaker.

I’m happy with these two games, and I have released a library for DJGPP to make easier reuse the code I wrote for “Gold Mine Run!”. I started doing some bits with CGA/EGA, but I didn’t get too far. In any case, I think there are chances of more DOS games coming from yours truly.

I even streamed the development of one of the games, which was very intense because I tried to finish the game for a game jam, and there was no enough time. And then I stopped streaming.

I kind of like doing it, but I was making a big effort to ignore that I don’t like how both Twitch and YoutTube fund themselves with ads –and tracking users–. I investigated other options, like live streaming with Peertube or Owncast; but got to the conclusion that streaming video is expensive, and I’m not sure that what I stream is worth it. It is a bit like the cost of Mastodon, really –although it is much less, and I’m happy donating a small amount every month to the SDF social media efforts–. I may revisit my decision next year, but at the moment I don’t see a way forward with that.

I have worked on other things, but none of them got close to be on a finished state –most notably “Outpost” for the ZX Spectrum 48K that I really wanted to finish this year–. As I mentioned recently, I’m sharing my gamedev time with reading books, and that was a factor. Looking forward to see what will happen in 2024.

Outpost WIP

It is taking too long, but it will get there!

Finally, my return to old protocols didn’t stop with IRC. I also spent some times reading groups on Usenet; although I’m not posting often, so I guess I’m still not completely in. I’m keeping my notes on Newgroups up to date, in case anyone wants to take a look. Things move slow, but they still move!

Other than that, this blog keeps going, and posted a couple of times on my Gemini capsule –although I’m not spending time reading there, since last year–.

I have played games this year, but not long ones after I abandoned Persona 4 on the PS2 –another one to the unfinished pile–. But I discovered Lutris, and that has simplified gaming for the whole family. I linked our GoG account, and tinkering is over! Basically: if the game works on Linux, Lutris will make it work as optimally as possible, which is allowing us to play games I didn’t even know my humble PC could run. I still have a lot of games to play from itch.io –by the way, how disappointing has been their take on Masto–, but I don’t miss the time that sometimes take to get a game to run OK-ish!

My GoG library

Of course, I play one thing at a time -- also: Transistor is amazing!

Other than that, I have an Anbernic RG-350 that I bought in 2019 –and I haven’t used much– that now is my Pokemon Sapphire machine. Ready to pick up and play any time, I’m 13 hours in and it is good fun. I haven’t played many 8-bit games this year, old or new. Nothing has excited me enough anyway.

And I think this is enough for a recap, although I’m sure I must have left out some things. I guess if those were important, I should have written about them in the blog anyway.

Enjoying reading books

Life is busy. With work, family and all, there is that much time left for myself. And for a very long time I have been very focused in doing one thing, which means not doing a lot of other things. So I wasn’t reading many books because I was putting most of my free time into gamedev. No regrets there, but I like reading as well.

Last year I started reading more serious books with my younger son, not sure if it was too early. Anyway, you never know, so we started reading “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again”. Well, I was reading it. Then after that book came another, more appropriate to his age, and eventually he started reading the title of the chapters, then the first paragraph, then a whole chapter, and now he reads books on his own.

We have this routine that we read together for 30 minutes to an hour every day, before going to bed. He is reading whatever he’s got from the public library, and I do the same. Which means I have been chaining books non-stop since then, and that translates into 22 book this year –and I think I will finish another two before the end of the month–.

Until he decided he didn’t want to read with me any more, we read a lot of children books according to the library; although I would say they are probably more young adult, as some of them treat topics a bit too mature for my son. For example, the “How to Train your Dragon” series by Cressida Cowel, surely they start silly and perfect for a 6 year old, but being 12 books, the last three had a very serious look at very grown up topics like good and evil, love, age or death. These books are easy to read, not too long with a large font and some drawings, so it is very likely I won’t read over 20 books next year.

I’m also trying to include the occasional technical book, but I’m finding it hard. For example, this year I read “Writing an interpreter in Go” by Thorsten Ball, that is pretty good –without being as good as Robert Nystrom’s “Crafting Interpreters”–. After giving Go a good go, I decided that I didn’t want to spend more time with that language, and I think that affected my enjoyment of this book.

You can always put down a book, if it doesn’t work for you. We had to do that with “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, “Howl’s Moving Castle” or “Only You Can Save Mankind”; and that’s OK.

This year I have discovered Brandon Mull’s series: Fablehaven and Dragonwatch, and I enjoyed them very much –although after 10 books I must confess I was experiencing some fatigue–, and I’m enjoying Richard Osman’s “Thursday Murder Club” books –I have read two, and the third is already waiting for me on my desk–.

All this means I’m doing less gamedev, although I have released two games this year! The more paced activity may have a positive impact in my production, or it may do the opposite: the never-finishing-things monster is always there, waiting in the shadows. Beware!

New project: The Heart of Salamanderland

I guess it is was a bit unexpected, because there are other projects I could be working on. For example, the long running –and often neglected– “Outpost” for the ZX Spectrum 48K, a few ideas for DOS –including some sweet code to support CGA and EGA–. But that’s how creativity works: when inspiration comes, it is hard to not listen.

The working title of this new project for the Amstrad CPC is “The Heart of Salamanderland”.

WIP

A room to test the engine

The name is the work of my younger son, that is helping me with the script and the framing story, which is great and also hard!

I’m targeting the Amstrad CPC, 64K in a single load, loading from cassette or disk –there will be a CPR version for the GX4000 as well–, and graphics in mode 0.

I’m building on top of one of my two main engines for this type of game. I’m not sure if it is the right one, because it is performant but uses quite a lot of memory. At least I’m sure it will allow me to pack plenty of action on each screen.

I have been investing on a new map renderer based on meta-tiles of variable size and I think we may end with a good-sized game thanks to that –I wrote about encoding schemes for map data some time ago–. I’m not too stressed about it: if the game is not too big, I can make a sequel if people like it.

This project came about because I the last couple of months I read two series of fantasy books by Brandon Mull: Fablehaven and Dragonwatch, and I loved the adventure mood. So the game is a bit inspired by those books –the main character specially, I’m tempted to call him “Patton Burgess”–.

Another big inspiration is the classic Castlevania, that is a series that I love. So I gave Patton –let’s call him that for now– a whip, and in a way it works fine with Mull’s ideas. It is just that we don’t fight Dracula and friends. The quest is different, we are trying to find an old relic: the Heart of Salamanderland. And there will be undead, wizards and demons. I may be mixing realms, but that’s OK.

It is currently a work in progress and there are still things that aren’t clear. The usual memory constraints apply, so I have to decide what gets in and what doesn’t. But at least I would expect an action platformer, with a good number of interesting enemies, a few screens to navigate, and some puzzles so solve. All in my style, that is something that can’t be changed I’m afraid.

I usually post development updates on my Mastodon account and there’s a thread on CPC Wiki.

Thoughts about Godot

I have never used a game engine before and, when working with 8-bit, I have this thing of starting from scratch to learn the machine, even if sometimes there are good libraries available.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I tried Godot. Works perfectly on Linux and my machine, and it is open source, so two of the important boxes for me are ticked.

It all has come about because my 6yo son has been programming in Scratch –it works on the browser, but not that great on Linux; there’s Scratux but has its problems–, and we have now when is “TV time” that he wants to watch videos about programming. So we ended watching a bit about Godot, so here we are now learning how to make a 3D platformer. That escalated quickly!

My first impressions by looking at how the 2D part works is that there are forms, a lot of forms, which I see it can be an advantage –like it was a good thing for some people in Visual Basic or Delphi–, but I always found it a bit of a problem as things grow beyond some size. But then, you can control a lot –if not everything– from GDScript that looks very much like Python. So you may not need to deal with all those forms, and that can be a good thing.

In any case, when I was watching to some tutorial about the 2D part of it –because 2D and 3D are almost like two different engines–, I was thinking most of the time that I could make it simpler. But can I, really? I guess if I look at all the work I put into one of my small engines, is not that much. However, I make an engine focused and specialised in the needs of the game at hand, while Godot has to support lots of different takes of a 2D game.

And then is when we looked at the 3D part, that doing it from scratch is something I have given up since my awkward attempts some years ago; and I see the potential. Which to be fair is probably what people that can’t (or won’t) make their own engines from scratch may feel when they look at the 2D part of Godot.

At the end I suspect it is going to be down to the models, the textures, the assets; because looks like Godot has what is needed and it is very accessible.

A different topic is finding how to do it. The books don’t look like a good option because Godot is changing quickly –version 4 is quite new–, and there is also a lot of content with questionable quality abusing the idea of people that don’t know better and want to make a game. I haven’t been lucky finding written tutorials, because we live in an age that people will make a 30 minute video on YT for 5 minutes of actual content –all monetised, like, subscribe, and hit the bell; and there’s my Patreon–. So there is mostly videos, and those aren’t great for reference.

Anyway, we are having fun, even if we haven’t made anything significant. I guess at some point I’ll start looking at Blender again and, with a bit of lucky, it won’t be the end of this. But Godot is nice and has potential, I like it.

Kitsune's Curse is Open Source

A couple of years ago I released the Return of Traxtor source, because I thought it could help people willing to start making games for the CPC writing things from scratch, and also for some historical value: it was my first good enough Amstrad CPC game.

Since then I have been busy and I must confess I totally forgot about open sourcing more games –although Gold Mine Run! was open source from the start–. I have different engines for making CPC games that I consider current, and unfortunately not that many ideas –or time– to make games, so it is kind of sad that the code is not being used in new projects.

Kitsune's Curse

Kitsune's Curse screen

From my Amstrad CPC production, Kitsune’s Curse is probably my favourite, and it uses a very special engine that is intended to make mid-size games on 64K by using as little memory as possible. It implements what I called mini-buffers, as opposed to a large buffer covering all the drawable area.

It tracks dirty tiles and minimises the amount of drawing on the screen, which is nothing new, but by using small buffers that are dynamically allocated so background and masked sprites can be drawn to it, the memory use is reduced drastically. In “Kitsune’s Curse” only 2560 bytes are used for mini-buffers, compared to the 16384 bytes of a hardware back-buffer.

Yes, that makes things complicated and it affects performance, but “Kitsune’s Curse” had 60 screens, 8 different enemies, 64 tiles, and all in 64K with one single load; and can handle up to 10 sprites of 8x24 pixels. So I think it was a success!

I used the same engine in The Dawn of Kernel as well, but then I wrote two more engines: one focusing on performance (used in Brick Rick) and another one for vertical scrolling games (used in Hyperdrive). I should make more games and less engines, isn’t it?

In any case, the source code of “Kitsune’s Curse” is available on this git repo. Like in my previous releases, this is how the code was when I released the game in 2020 –although I made some effort to update the tools, so things compile in a current operating system and no Python 2 is required–. It is not a framework or a library. Yet I think it may be an interesting read or a good base to start new projects, who knows?

I have documented most of the generalities of the code in the README.md, specially the interesting bits regarding the engine. There is a lot of Z80 assembly but, when possible, there is also the equivalent C code in a comment. Hopefully that will make understanding the code easier!

Over the last few years we have enjoyed some great games that included the source code, and I have learned a lot from them. I’m glad that “Kitsune’s Curse” is joining that club.