VR and Steam days

January 21st, 2014 19 comments

Just got back from Valve’s Steam Dev Days. Definitely the best held conference I’ve ever been to – best chance for networking, great parties, and of course the best swag bag I’ve ever received. But the core thing I took away from it was that virtual reality really is going to take over the world.

Micheal Abrash talked about this on the second day, how he felt it would ‘transform the entire entertainment industry’, hitting mainstream culture with a larger impact than the movie industry. And at Palmer Lucky’s talk, he said he believed it was literally the most important invention in the history of man kind (he might have been slightly joking). Having only tried the Oculus dev kit I viewed VR as really interesting, and potentially a game changer, but mostly just another game peripheral like the Wii, or Kinect – basically just another way we would interact with games in the future.

But then I was able to try Valve’s VR tech. I put myself on the waiting list late on the first day so didn’t expect to get a chance to try it – it was a half hour demo, they had only 2 rooms, so out of 2000 people at the conference only about 40 people could be fit in. At the end of Abrash’s talk they announced the last 4 slots, and luckily the last person they announced wasn’t at the talk, so then I was next on the list (I kind of wanted to find that guy and thank him). So my opportunity to try this tech was unbelievably lucky.

For the demo, you walk into a small side room covered in what is somewhat like QR codes all over the wall (this was for positional tracking of the head mounted display in the room, since the HMD has a camera on it. Not actually QR codes but that was the best way I could understand it). Here is a image of Valve’s VR room to get an idea. In the center of the room is a rectangle rug about 4×4 feet across – this is so you know when you are stepping to far from the center (since the headset only has a certain reach, and they don’t want you running into walls). The Valve employee that gave me the demo was one of the engineers on the system (who was able to answer any question I had in incredible depth).

It took a few minutes to get the HMD positioned on my face right – I imagine just due to my massive brow, I had to tightened it to the point of constant pain to get rid of the blur (this isn’t a consumer ready product, so it isn’t surprising it isn’t designed for everyone’s face yet). There was also a slight hole on the bottom where I was able to still see my feet, again I imagine this is just due to the HMD not being designed for everyone.

The first impression of the tech, was that the current dev version of the Oculus Rift in no way compares. The resolution difference is massive, I couldn’t detect any visible latency, but most importantly the head position tracking seemed perfect. The actual feeling of presence was there – something I don’t imagine Oculus will have for years (Edit: What I mean is anything released for consumers commercially by Oculus. Based also on talking to developers who’ve tried the new HD version and Valve’s to compare).

The first demo scene was just a few cubes I was able to walk around and view. The first thing I noticed was how I was the same height off the ground virtually as I would be in normal life, which really added to feeling like I was actually in a room. It also helped get a scale of things – there is a massive sense of scale I found in these demos that I’ve never experienced in a game on a screen. When I saw a very large tower, it felt giant, I could feel it’s scale and really understand it’s size in relation to myself. There was a scene with these massive tree like objects I would have loved to climb.

The first few demos were pretty basic scenes – rectangles, some animated spheres – one with a ledge attempting to give some vertigo. I tried to lay down over the ledge (to see if that would increase the sensation more) but the camera jerk back since apparently my HMD could no longer see the codes on the wall/floor (this was the only time during the demos I had any sort of problems).
They showed a few skyboxes to show its use for 2d pictures and video (Appears to work well for scenes where nothing is too close to you, so you can’t see the parallax changes too easily, but still not at all an immersive experience, any content in the future will have to be 3d real time rendered.)
Other scenes had very detailed models and animations (with familiar Valve characters and scenes). Main thing I took from this was the detail you could see when you got close, moving your head to see the very detailed lighting on a character’s head was definitely different than just trying to walk close in a FPS game.
Another scene was an office space of various stick like men (and some more Valve characters thrown in). It was surprising how well it would work for overhead camera games such as RTS and god games – you literally felt like a god overseeing everything. Rather than zooming in and out you would just move closer to of one of your subjects, and would just stand back to get an overall view. I loved how detailed this office seemed – I could just kneel down to get a better look at the papers on one of the desks, and look around the virtual office at their level.
The last scene of the demo was without a doubt the most incredible – Valve used the cdak demo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCh3Q08HMfs. There isn’t really anything new I got out of this – was just incredibly beautiful and surreal. It was the only demo where my camera was moving, and I think they might have slowed down the demo scene’s camera movement.

There really was a sense of presence with the tech that I didn’t think was possible (or at least for decades). It’s possible my brain was just more easily tricked than others (and also maybe the extreme hang over and lack of sleep also added to this), but looking back my memories of it are like I was actually there and not just viewing pixels on a screen. It was better than real life – people will get lost in this and not want to leave. Nothing else gives the same escapism – I can imagine becoming completely lost in games for an entire day (something I in no way do currently). Linear non interactive experiences also will be more impactful and meaningful. I understand how VR will take over entertainment because nothing else has such a deep and visceral impact. I have no doubt VR rooms in houses will become a common thing in 5 years.

After the demo was over I talked to the Valve employee for a few minutes afterwards about the tech. And while standing and in the middle of a sentence, I had an incredibly strange weird moment of comparing real life to the VR. I understood that the demo was over, but it was if a lower level part of my mind couldn’t exactly be sure. It give me a very weird existential dread of my entire situation, and the only way I could get rid of that feeling was to walk around or touch things around me (or sit down, basically just get in a situation where I wasn’t just standing still like I was in the VR demo). I tried to walk it off but alcohol was really the only thing that made me shake the feeling completely. Unfortunately since I had to get away from the Valve employee having a bit of a existential crisis because of this I wasn’t able to actually discuss it with him.

It was so incredibly weird that it got me worried about the tech in general – people have worried about us not being able to distinguish reality from entertainment, but in my view there was never really an issue (the absolute lack of found correlation between use of violent video games and violence in real life is an example). But I am worried this will be different – that the line will blur and the entertainment we consume will not just feel like a story we read – it will be something our brains think we actually experienced. I think all entertainment before required some effort for us to be immersed, with reading the most effort, but even with TV and current tech we always have to try to pay attention and form the environment in our heads – I think this makes it naturally different. With this sense of presence, it literally puts you in the environment, I worry that will cause us to not understand the difference between reality and the virtual world.
I don’t just think that will mean desensitization to violence, I actually wonder if psychological problems distinguishing VR from reality will have an impact in the future. When I felt as if I was still in the VR room, that wasn’t a logical conclusion my mind made, I just started to question what input was real. It worries me that while virtual reality will have very little consequences for your actions, reality does, and while I may be able to logically understand the differences I am worried my entire mind won’t.

Even with those concerns, I still do plan to switch to entirely VR focused development in the near future. With a actual market still being at least 2 years away though I don’t feel rushed – and I am fine with others being first and discovering how it’s actually done.

Other Steam Dev Day takeaways:
– The Steam controller will take time to get used to, and will definitely be a worse experience for some games compared to a controller. But for FPS games it’s a massive improvement – the tactical feeling of the track pad makes a large difference – I think with practice I would prefer it over a mouse and keyboard.
– Thanks to some awesome Finnish developers I met, I took a tour of Valve’s offices. Definitely seems like a amazing place to work, very open and comfortable. I can understand how Valve and Google are able to innovate more than others in their industry – they pamper their employees to free them of distractions, and give them the freedom to work towards problems without thinking about the bottom line (Or at least, Google in the past)

Edit: For more comments on this there is a lot of great discussion on Hackernews and Reddit:

Categories: VR

Short Story – The Celestial Search

October 18th, 2013 No comments

A story written for a collection of short stories from myself and a few friends, available on Amazon here. This was inspired by various articles on digital philosophy, specifically Edward Fredkin and Stephen Wolfram – and also Arthur Clarke’s ‘The Last Question

Easier to read PDF available here



The Celestial Search

When Eli had joined the Celestia program two years ago the prospects of discovery were exciting. They were uncovering the very fundamental laws of the universe – getting closer to refining the unified theory to explain all interactions. They had accomplished their goals more than he thought possible in such a short amount of time. Yet all he could think now was how useless that knowledge was – that it would have been better to be ignorant of the universe’s future and grand design. They had discovered everything they could of their closed box – and now the walls were closing in on them.
“You’ll be working with the greatest minds of our time – working on the most fundamental problems of our universe. Unlimited tools at your disposal for research, with technology beyond anything you have ever seen” Edmund Morris had said, pitching the project to Eli before he had joined. Eli was at first reluctant: it would mean leaving his friends and family for months at a time to stay at the remote laboratory – cut off from the outside world and unable to speak to anyone about the research and technology. But he knew he couldn’t refuse – to him it was the Apollo project of his time – more than a hundred years after the Manhattan project and even more significant. The top scientists and engineers from all over the world were being gathered on this project. The immense budget of the project was paid for by the largest nation-states – yet most of the operations had been kept secret from the public. People had known that an extremely high-energy particle accelerator was being built under miles of the desert land, but he doubted that anyone understood the implications and the use of it. The high-energy particle accelerator was a year away from operations when Eli had joined, when he was first introduced to the quantum loop processor.
The output of any significantly large particle accelerator is in petabytes a second, requiring massive server farms to process all the interactions. But when Eli arrived at the Celestia Laboratory there was just a single machine at it’s center, a single server room with the quantum loop processor. The technology of the processor was completely hidden from the modern world – invented almost a generation ago at the labs of Applied Dynamics and kept in complete secrecy from anyone but the highest levels of the military and world government. The reason for this was the implications of the computing power – it made any encryption breakable with just pure brute force, using quantum computer technology to achieve a speed that previous theorists never imagined possible. Quantum algorithms allowed the machine to work on the calculations completely parallel to one another, harnessing all the distinct possibilities represented in a quantum probability wave so as to do many different calculations simultaneously. While the rest of the world advanced with computing technology – continuing Moore’s law doubling in processing speed every two years – only a small group of researchers were able to use the technology, focusing their efforts on bioinformatics and precise particle physics.
Eli had never imagined the implications of such computing power. He had used supercomputers in his past research as a physics graduate – working on small physical models of fundamental particles, but every case he was always held back by the speed and time required of the intense mathematical calculations. His previous simulations of physical interactions would only contain a few particles at a time, modelling the most basic interactions of electrons and photons, since the total computational power required would grow exponentially with every additional particle. But there were no such limits with this processor – he could quickly program a complete simulation of a star with a total amount of fundamental particles and interactions that was just inconceivable.
The quantum loop processor was able to process massive collections of atoms at the scale of solar systems, reaching levels of mass and complexity enough to simulate black holes of infinite density. The problem then became not one of computation but having the exact correct values. Previously in Eli’s work, at the micro subatomic scale, the results of the test seemed to model the real world – electrons behaved as they had been predicted in the standard model, and all the forces interacting were taken account for. But the errors in the simulations were only truly noticeable once you reached the macroscopic – once atoms formed, then molecules, then you could finally see the resulting errors. All simulations were essentially immediately a failure. Any matter brought together larger than an apple would immediately collapse in on itself – higher level atoms were unable to form, and all simulations became a useless cloud of data with no emergent properties. Thus the need for exact correct values for the fundamental forces at work – something that was only possible by measuring particle interactions at extremely high energy levels. Only at these high energies could you actually detect relativistic effects at the quantum scale, and where researchers were able to get the most correct data to find the true universal constants.

The Celestia laboratory’s purpose was not just to analyze the results of the particle accelerator, as Eli had thought before joining – their goal was to create a perfectly accurate digital simulation of reality: a celestial simulation. The research into the correct values for the fundamental forces and the physical simulation software then became complementary. New observational data from the accelerator could then be tested in the simulation, and as the precision of the fundamental constants increased the simulation became more stable and accurate.
Two years after Eli joined the project they reached a point where everything seemed to suddenly fit, where the simulations simply worked. The jigsaw puzzle was suddenly together, all the pieces meeting the precise requirements to function properly.
With this, they had achieved the grand goal of science, Eli thought. They now had the unified theory of everything – a perfectly accurate way to calculate all possible physical interactions. “What we can create, we can understand” was the mantra. Collisions of galaxies and supermassive structures became trivial for the quantum loop processor to simulate, taking only a few seconds to process the massive amount of interactions and possible outcomes over the span of billions of year of simulated time. With the correct data, any physical phenomenon could be simulated and seen. They were then able to analyze all of the small interactions never previously known – deriving the exact formulas for the thermal radiation of black holes to the properties of dark energy.
The next step then became how to simulate the conditions of the big bang, the beginning of the universe and of time. This would not only be the best test of their formulas and calculations, with the most extreme results possible, but it would also allow them to finally completely understand how their own universe was created. They simply needed to correctly model the first conditions – the inflation seed, the infinitesimally small speck of creation. The initial values such as total mass took refining and testing also, as any deviation meant all matter would either stay in a stable position in the singularity or collapse in an instant. Only once they had the exact correct values did the celestial simulation truly start – the explosion and massive instant growth, thousands of years of atom formation, followed by billions of years of stable expansion.
They knew it would not be the same as their universe, even if the first conditions were exact. Due to the uncertainty of quantum mechanics – the fundamental randomness of elementary particles – they could only test one possible universal outcome. With each fundamental interaction between particles the answer wasn’t definite – the final position of those particles was determined by probability. But what they could do was choose one of the possible outcomes – the most probable position at each step – meaning their simulation was only one in the large space of possible universes.
Eli remembered the enthusiasm of that day throughout the laboratory – they felt as if it was their final step, and that that was a reason to celebrate. They never thought about what they could find and how it would affect them – or what it would mean to truly ‘finish’ science, to completely understand everything – for the game they all loved to be over, the eternal truths they had searched for to be found.
The researchers ran the simulation and in almost an instant it was over. The quantum loop processor had taken 0.025 milliseconds to return the calculation – a noticeable lag in time that had never been seen before. They could watch back, looking just at the interactive graphs of the data at a large scale, how the universe had expanded, how the immense amount of particles had formed together to become atoms and soon stars. Eli read the massive values on the display and pictured the results as if he had seen the star in the sky, focusing on a specific star system. There were planets and maybe even earth-like ones, but there was no effort to analyze and search for any possible life at the time. He watched the star’s birth, the forming of the planets around it, and eventually its death, supernovae to form a new solar system.
13.76 billion years of expansion took place, all to collapse in a few thousand years to reform the singularity as it had started.
The excitement of the scientific accomplishment had clouded many of their visions for the first few moments. Only after looking into what had caused the collapse did Eli notice that this was not just a random outcome of the simulation – that the collapse was a fundamental property of the universe itself. That with each simulation they would run the same results would come – that the universe was destined to collapse within a few thousand years of Eli’s own time.
He kept thinking about a possible error in the simulation, that maybe there was a system error that caused the expansion variables to reverse. But as he analyzed further there was no escaping that it was a requirement – that for expansion to happen as it did the collapse was eventual and definite – another necessary piece of their jigsaw puzzle.


“We have to trust in God’s plan, Eli” Edmund said.
Eli and Edmund waited in the room for the other researchers to come in to discuss the simulation’s results. Eli was surprised that he was asked to come, as he was by far one of the youngest researchers on the project, and had barely known any of the other high level researchers coming. He had constantly debated with Edmund since he had arrived at the lab, arguing over every hypothesis until the results were verified, along with philosophy and essentially every subject that came up. It was because of this he and Edmund had a good rapport, able to discuss complex problems with ease. The main point of conflict had been Edmund’s view of ‘god’ – and of his spirituality and Eli’s apparent complete lack thereof.
Edmund had discussed this with Eli in depth before – “God had always been used to explain the unexplainable. Though we now understand the world and its mysteries, that doesn’t take away the fundamental need – to have that first cause, to explain that there something rather than nothing. You can ask if God created the universe then what created God – but that’s exactly why God is needed, to explain the unexplainable.”
For Edmund, God was a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought, one needed to explain what he felt the physical laws could not – consciousness, life, the first cause. While Eli had respect for this view, he had always believed that Edmund took it to an irrational extent – believing in a ‘designer’ universe created for a purpose. He was curious how Edmund could think that now.
“God’s plan?” Eli responded, shaking his head and smirking at Edmund’s ideas. “How could there be a plan to this? How could there be meaning to creating something and destroying it so quickly? Where’s the rationality or justice – where is the point? The universe was ending without a care – simply cause and effect.”
The other researchers walked in as Edmund ended the conversation with a nod – understanding Eli’s argument.


“Simply because it happened in this test doesn’t mean it will happen again – each simulation is different.”
“With each simulation we will get the same results – the same exact date for the contraction” Eli replied, becoming agitated arguing with the older physicist. “It’s not simply a matter of the test anymore – this total mass,” Eli pointed to a number written on the chalkboard behind him, “when reaching this level of expansion, causes the eventual collapse. It is simply math.”
Ten of the researchers argued over the results, as Edmund lead the discussion. Some had gone towards denial, Eli thought, not believing this result was possible and that surely it must have be an error. Others had still viewed this as just a abstract discovery in the simulation – that this wouldn’t apply to our universe the same way.
“It’s true this is only one outcome” Edmund said calmly. “One in the almost infinite supply of possible outcomes. Almost-infinite. What I propose is that we keep running the simulations – we go through all possibilities, one after the other. We run a large number of cosmic simulations parallel to one another, each going through a massive possible space of simulations. With each quantum possibility the simulation would branch off into another one, so that every possible space could be covered and eventually all data is understood. We would have complete access to the outcomes of all possible universes.”
Eli thought about the space of possible particle positions and configurations, realizing that the number of combinations was higher than a googolplex – a number with ten to the hundredths power of digits. It seemed an absurd idea, and a lost cause to him at this point.


“What exactly are you searching for?” Eli argued, confronting Edmund after the discussion. “Even with the power of the quantum loop processor it could take us decades to compute all of those simulations. Hell, more than decades, thousands of years, possibly even longer – longer than we have, or even this universe has. Are you in denial like the rest of them? Believing this collapse and eventual end is just some anomaly?”
“No Eli, I agree with you. Every universe we calculate will have the same fate, just as our own.”
“Then what? Why keep searching?”
Eli was sure he already knew the answer – that Edmund was just unable to accept the reality they had found, that he needed to continue his search as if there is something still to find.
“Because I believe there is an answer waiting to be known. Our search should be for something more” Edmund said, giving a deliberately vague reply. “I don’t just believe we are just modelling reality with our simulations, Eli – I think our simulations exist in the exact same way. Our simulation is simply just a mathematical model of rules just as our own universe functions – there is no distinction.
“We would no longer be just simulating a single universe – but all existence. It’s long been believed that each time a particle’s wave position collapses, each time a quantum outcome is decided upon, that it creates a new universe with each possible quantum state. The ‘Many Worlds’ theory of quantum mechanics. By setting our simulation to do the same, only then would we truly understand all of existence. We would no longer have a simulation of a single universe, but the entire multiverse.
“And just like the simulations we are creating – I believe the multi-verse was created to search for something. That God created this in order to find something – something emergent out of these base first conditions. The multi-verse could simply be a search function through all possible universes – just as we will do. We will find its purpose.”
Eli tried to understand Edmund’s logic. “What could we exactly find that isn’t just more data? That isn’t something I can go ahead and model digitally right now? Everything we try will have the same result – we know it’s fate – the same timed death once the 13.76 billion year time is hit.”
“We simply know the ingredients Eli, the first conditions. We don’t know the result – we have to find it. We have to discover it – find the reason for the multiverse’ grand design.”
“Grand design…” Eli scoffed. “So you still believe the reason the universe exists is to get to a point – to find something? To put the ingredients together to make this grand plan. Then why can’t it just simply exist that way? Why begin with the big bang and search all possible quantum paths towards something, when it can just start with that?”
“Because maybe the solution is unknown to even itself – it just knows the… answer. Just as we create these simulations find something, this multi-verse we inhabit exists for the same reason. It’s trying to find the solution to something, trying to achieve something.
“It could be life Eli, or something alike to life which we can’t even imagine. Life can’t just be created out of nothing – life must emerge. It can’t simply know what life looks like to create it. It’s impossible to start at the end conditions because the calculation to get to the point must be done. Just like for us to find life in our simulations, we must create it.”
Eli tried to understand what Edmund was getting at, giving him a blank stare forcing him to elaborate.
“What I am trying to say Eli, is maybe the answer is already known but the configuration isn’t.” Edmund looked up and closed his eyes, trying to figure out how to explain his reasoning.
“Let me explain something – the question of P equaling NP. Which is an unsolved problem of computer science. What it asks, in simple terms, is whether the computational power required to check if an answer is right equal to the power needed to find it. Most would say that they are not equal – that just because a problem is easy to check if it is right does not mean it is a easy problem to solve. Checking if an answer is correct, and solving a problem, are two very different things. Deciding on a problem’s correctness could be trivial – yet figuring out that solution could be incredibly hard.”
Edmund continued, connecting what seemed like a tangent of the argument to Eli back to the discussion at hand. “So whatever this multi-verse is searching for, whatever its reason, it might know what the answer looks like, but not the solution itself.
“Suppose you were building two large towers by stacking rocks of various sizes, and you needed to make sure the towers are the exact same mass. Now to check the answer to that is very simple – you just add up the rocks and test if they are equal. But to find the correct configuration isn’t that simple – in fact you may need to go through every single possible configuration in order to find the correct one. With 100 rocks, that’s 2 to the power of 100, meaning the amount of configurations is a number with thirty digits, and with each additional rock that number grows exponentially.
“The multi-verse is doing the same – running through every possible configuration searching for something. We must do the same to find it ourselves – whatever it is. Each fundamental particle is a rock, Eli, and the multi-verse is searching for the perfect configuration – the answer.”


“In the extremely rare circumstances where complex life existed – it seemed to be destroyed in almost an instant. A planet hospitable to life was rare, and an environment where complexity flourished and grew was even rarer. In some entire universal simulations there is simply no life to be found beyond the most basic of lifeforms.”
The researcher Dr. Joseph Shea explained this in a completely rational calm tone, simply analyzing the results he had printed out on the page. Only five researchers were in the room now, including Edmund and Eli – most having left once it was clear the eventual collapse was not an anomaly.
Edmund had started the search a year ago, running through what seemed to be an endless amount of possible configurations with no end in near sight. The outside world continued without knowledge of their initial findings, as they had thought would be best – they were not sure of the possible disruption that their results would have. Eli had stayed after many arguments with Edmund, acting as something of a devil’s advocate to what he began to believe also. But now his resignation seemed near. While Edmund had convinced Eli that finding something was possible initially, and inspired him to continue, as the results came in Eli’s faith in Edmund and his search for answers began to fade.
Nothing unknown or unexpected was found. The most complexity in the simulations that emerged was what they had expected – life. To search for life they had analyzed all the current calculated universal configurations for negative entropy – a property unique to life. But nothing was unpredictable, no unknowns were found. Strange life forms came and went – all eventually destroyed as the universes hit their 13.76 billion year timeline.
“We were able to find life that could be considered advanced. Some these lifeforms had language and tool use – and were able to understand themselves and the world around them. Self-awareness in many species seem to be a byproduct of language and abstraction. Once it was needed for a being to talk to others, it seemed to form the concept of self and be able to understand its own position as a conscious being. In one case a complex non-carbon life form existed that was able to understand how to repair and advance itself, evolving its intelligence rapidly through very few generations. But with the last generation it simply stopped progressing – since it was able to modify its own internal pleasure-based nervous system to it’s needs.”
Eli thought of Dr Shea as a zoologist of of some sort – analyzing these strange beings and measuring their progress and evolution. A recurring pattern Eli had quickly noticed after hearing these reports, was that intelligence was in no way the best path for many species. Brute force and strength would normally win, while too great of intelligence would lead to too much abstraction. Once a species begins to question itself, begins to realize its own subjective experience, then it loses the ability to fight as it had before. If the more advanced life simply died as easily as the rest, Eli thought, then life could not be the answer they were searching for.
“Tools use was prominent in species and much more frequent than complex language. But with this came self destruction and harm. With greater advance of tool use intelligence meant greater conquering of the environment and power in individuals rather than groups – leading to many of the species’ own self destruction, or even destruction of their home planet. With language and abstraction this became even more prevalent. With one species that could be considered close to humans – carbon life form, complex society with empathy, emotion, and art – it too simply destroyed itself and its environment once it reached a significant state of technology.”
The researchers were now able to watch as life flourished in their simulations, only to die off or never reach a state of significant complexity.
Eli could render the earth-like habitable planets on his office’s holographic screen – watching the entire time span of the planet’s life in only a few moments. In every case no matter how unique the species was, the eventual result was the same. Even if the species was in a state of equilibrium in their environment, even if they could last billions and billions of years, the final 13.76 point hit and it would all end. Civilizations would rise and crumble in an instant, as the weather would change, the environment would become hostile, and other species would rise.
“Can you see how wrong we are now, Edmund?” Eli said, interrupting the report. “How could this universe’s purpose be life, when it was so hostile against it? When it was so uncaring and unlikely. Life it seems was just a hiccup, a random fluctuation of still matter so easily fixed and replaced. A by-product that quickly solved itself.”
“Our search isn’t nearly complete, Eli” Shea argued.
“Will it truly ever be ‘complete’? Definitely not in our lifetimes, and very unlikely before the end of it all. What are you expecting to find? What will be your destination?” Eli directed his speech at Edmund. “Even if we find life as advanced as man it will still have the same fate – we will still be just an observer to its eventual death. Self-aware monkeys find self aware pelecypods! How is that a noble goal? What could another being teach us, or help us in any way? Our destiny is known. The Celestia program wasn’t about finding life – it was about finding the universal constants and we have done that. We are simply continuing this search because we all know there is nothing left to find. This program is over – we should now try to go back to the ignorance we had before. What the fuck does it really matter what we find now?” Eli suddenly burst out, adding emotion to what were usually his cold and calculated answers. “It all ends! That’s the result, no matter where we look it’s all going to be the exact same. We can run through an almost infinite number of different simulations all we want, nothing will change that. This program should have never existed, we were never meant to have the knowledge we have now. If our universe has no meaning we should have never found out, we should never had known. Just as if there was no light in the universe it would have been better to not have eyes – to not know it was dark, dark would be without meaning.”
Eli continued as the others stayed silent. “After its glorious few billion years of existence not even a memory will remain of all this. No tears will be shed, no great art painted in its honour – it’ll simply be gone. We’ve been part of the infinitely many iterations of the multi-verse exploding and collapsing in on itself, just as we were one of the trillions of planets in the universe, just as we were one of the trillions to the power of hundreds of possible outcomes. With the illusion of importance and meaning coming from us being lost in it. But both ways we look, from the macro to the micro, we see more how irrelevant we are. Lost in the infinite chaos. This world had started as just a random chaotic creation, and it’ll end just the same.”
“Lost in the infinite chaos, Eli?” Edmund said, speaking for the first time that meeting. “That’s a matter of perspective. When we consider the scale of our universe, something around ten to the power of thirty meters, compared to the size of the smallest distance – Planck’s length – ten to the minus thirty five meters, that doesn’t tell me how we are lost in all this chaos, what it shows me Eli is that we are in the middle of it. Maybe the purpose isn’t just life Eli – maybe it’s simply us. Maybe we need to change our search to find ourselves.”
“And what makes us so different from all other life Edmund? Why are humans so special? The path and patterns will be the same – some will destroy themselves, others will die out, and some might somehow reach a high level of technology without destroying themselves. What are we to gain by finding ourselves in this simulation? Sure we could go through man’s timeline and look at our history – or even look at all the wonderful possible histories we could have had – but we all know how it ends. Do you still hold the belief that man was created in God’s image, Edmund? That maybe this was all created just for man – and these other lifeforms are what, just experimental fuck ups? That the vast majority of the matter in the universe is all here for an almost insignificant amount of life? Why have this giant show for just us – the stage is too big for the drama.”
“We are unique Eli – in all our searching no other species has achieved what we have – no other species has been able to truly understand its place in their universe like us. None could have built the quantum loop processor. Or these simulations.”
“I thought the search was for something we couldn’t understand – to find something in the multi-verse that was beyond our initial conditions and predictions. To find something that could make sense of things. Now your saying this is all here, just so what, we can enjoy it? The universe’s purpose is just to have humans in it – just so we can be another life form that is sprung up and eventually dies? And what makes us special, is our ability to understand the universe? So that’s Gods plan then Edmund, as you see it, that God is so vain as to just create all this so there is someone to view his brilliance.”
“Maybe our purpose is not just to observe the universe, but to truly understand its grand design. What I saying Eli, is maybe the search will end with ourselves – maybe man was the goal of the universe all along” Edmund replied.
“Design? Goal?” Eli shrugged. “There is no design to this – there is no purpose. Just because we are here, does not mean this universe was created for us. Your stubbornness reminds me of the story of a puddle on the ground, Edmund – it wakes up one morning and thinks, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me so well, must have been made to have me in it!’ But then the sun rises in the sky, and as the air heats up and the puddle begins to evaporate, it still hangs on to the notion that everything is going to be alright. Because the world was meant for him! So the moment you disappear might catch you by surprise, might not make sense. But it was simply another cause and effect, Edmund.”
“You don’t believe that, Eli,” Edmund replied. “Otherwise why are you still here?”


“All I ask of you Eli, is you keep searching”.
Edmund had announced his retirement months ago, but only now was Eli realizing that without Edmund he was alone with his thoughts. The other researchers had all been replaced with analysts and engineers, to Eli no one else seemed to have understood the implications of what they had discovered nearly a decade ago.
“Even if we do find humans in these simulations Edmund, where will that lead us?”
“I don’t know, Eli. But I wonder, if we are able to find man, could we find man creating simulations the same as we are doing? Perhaps different tools, different teams, or possibly we could even find ourselves creating simulations – think about where that would lead.”
“To an infinite loop” Eli smirked. “The machine would keep calculating recursively into more simulations, never stopping.”
“So what I am saying Eli, is if there was a machine with infinite computing power, it could regressively create more simulations endlessly. If that is the case, then what makes us think we are on the top, that we are the creators? We could very well be a billion simulations deep into regressive simulations.”
“So this is a simulation then, is that your point?”
“Isn’t it more likely that we are part of a simulation, than not? If an almost infinite amount of simulations exist compared to one true reality? These simulations are closed mathematical realities – if we were in one there is no way for us to possibly know…”
“The quantum loop processor does not have infinite computing power Edmund, no machine does. If the quantum loop processor entered an infinite loop such as you’re suggesting, it would simply never exit. Our processor still requires time to calculate these simulations – if we were to enter an infinite loop our universe would still end eventually, taking the processor with it. As interesting as the idea might seem to you, it leads us nowhere. Even if we did have infinite computing power and were able to start infinitely creating simulations – what exactly would be the point? Why Edmund…. why!? Why would we want to continue this infinite loop, when everything has the exact same fate? How does this explain the first cause Edmund? Why is this loop started, and why should it continue? We would never be closer to explaining why all this exists in the first place.”
“What I am saying Eli is not simply that we are possibly in a simulation – but that is there really a difference? If a simulation exists in the same way as our reality, does it matter? If we can exist in either, both realities are just mathematical constructions. Maybe the transcendent property we are searching for is this Eli – this loop.”


Eli watched in the simulation as a few humans went about their lives – searching for food, caring for their families, fighting for their lives in the hostile environment. This simulation had only produced hunter-gatherers in its existence, yet they seemed to live in complete equilibrium with their environment.
“In all of the current simulations found with species closely matching the DNA of man, the vast majority of them had been the same. Man never reaching a significant level of technology – achieving nothing even close to the technology of the quantum loop processor.”
The young physicists explained the recent findings to Eli, as he watched the simulation displayed in front of him barely listening. Most of the original researchers of the Celestia project had gone years ago. Edmund had left over a year before they had found Earth, leaving Eli as the oldest researcher in the lab.
Eli pressed on the display to slow down one of the simulations being calculated, zooming in on a precise area to watch. He had read graphs and displays about the Earth’s data and progress, but had never taken the time to watch any of the interactions himself.
There didn’t seem to be anything particularly unique to humans – they had the same trends and habits as other lifeforms they had found. They had found lifeforms with what could be called ‘consciousness’ before – awareness of themselves and their environment, but before watching these humans interact with one another Eli had never really realized what that meant. What ‘self awareness’ in these simulations truly would mean – that they had been creating life just as their universe had. That these humans had their own subjective experience – and for the first time Eli could relate and feel empathy for them. As Edmund had said, if the physical matter in these simulations followed the same rules and had the same properties as his universe, does it not exist in the same way? Both were simply mathematical constructions.
With every step forward of the simulation, Eli felt he wasn’t just calculating another abstract model but actually creating something – it was more than just data. Before that moment the experience these humans were having did not exist – Eli was defining it.
“What… are you doing?” The younger researcher asked, as Eli stared at the display, watching the humans interact with one another.
Eli had always thought of these simulations as a predetermined calculation. But if he could stop the simulation, was it determined if it was never actually calculated? Did these lives in the simulations not still have free will the same as Eli, their actions and thoughts not existing until the calculation was done?


After witnessing the lives of the found humans, Eli decided to continue his own. He decided he had spent too much of his time away from society focused on these problems, when he should have been focused on his own life. As the senior researcher Eli made the decision to stop the Celestia program. He left the quantum loop processor intact however, completely self sustained, still running through the calculations and possible configurations with no one left to analyze the results. It had only reached a small amount of the configurations when Eli had left.
Eli had realized there was no need to analyze the simulations – that they would not find what they were searching for – but he felt it was necessary for the simulations to still run. Continuing the calculations, Eli thought, could mean he was creating life beyond the project, defining life and worlds that had previously not existed.
Centuries passed as the simulations were calculated and defined by the quantum loop processor – as humanity continued its existence up until the eventual universal collapse. Only an exact moment before the universal collapse did the processor stop its calculation – hitting its final configuration.
The processor had hit the exact same universal configuration of its own universe. It had defined itself, reaching its purpose.
Every fundamental particle was needed to reach this point, every interaction part of the search. Man was exactly as what was needed to created the quantum loop processor and the Celestia program. With the exact universal constants and properties that were necessary – the necessary conditions needed for itself to have existed.
Reality had defined itself, making A=A. It had been its own first cause – existing for the purpose of creating itself. It had finished its search.

Categories: Stories


June 18th, 2013 No comments

Almost another year since last update, and still working on Apotheon. The project has become massively ambitious, so release still seems far away. I am hoping for a release in 6 months, but that could very well be 9 months from now (rereading my past posts my game release expectations have been horribly wrong). It’s hard to say because Apotheon development was very different than Capsized’s – we spent a long time prototyping and polishing the initial vertical slice of the game getting all the mechanics done, rather than Capsized where we pretty much had all the levels done then polished the mechanics after. So now that we are done the first third of Apotheon, I am hoping developing the rest of the content is smooth and painless. I think we spent way too much time on the vertical slice for this project – only moving on to the actual real narrative of the game after almost a year and a half of development, before that the mechanics were in but the story was just thrown together to make the world make sense.
Having playtested Apotheon it seems to be getting a really good response, especially after the recent changes we’ve made to the story and adding a objective system. I used to think of the game as a sandbox RPG, where the player could just be thrown in and find their own objectives, and just have fun in the environment. But I realized that’s not what people would want from Apotheon – there just are not as many options for player customization (we can’t compete with Skyrim in assets and content), not enough freedom of movement and action to really find fun in a sandbox world. We noticed that once player’s couldn’t just keep going left to finish a level they felt lost and just gave up, rather than feeling any motivation to continue and explore. So once we redid the opening level and tutorial to be non-linear and objective based (making a non linear tutorial is a pretty hard design challenge, but it seems like Jesse did a awesome job on it) only then were player’s constantly engaged. The inspiration of Apotheon, greek mythology, also goes well with a really narrative focused RPG.
The combat system of Apotheon has evolved very nicely over time. It took about a year of constant tweaking and changes to get to the point where fights were where we wanted – requiring dexterity, tactics, and timing. It’s probably been through around 10 or so major revisions, complete rewrites, but we ended up with a very unique and fun system. The combat is really the core gameplay element of Apotheon, so I am pretty happy we got that right.
Hopefully me and Jesse will be doing a few talks this summer at PAX and later on GDC about the Apotheon development process – I think we have a lot to say on how a small team (2 core developers) can approach developing a very ambitious RPG game. How Jesse developed the art style is also very interesting, since Apotheon originally started as a sci fi gun action game.

I updated the Projects page to include Indievania and my short story writing, and also added a Apotheon page, which will hopefully some day have some more info.

Other projects right now I am working on is a Unity3d prototype I am calling ‘Automata’, inspired by physics games like Bad Piggies and Creo. It’s hopefully a side project I’ll actually be releasing, since the design of it has come so naturally and development has been really fun (which is usually a good sign).

Categories: Apotheon

Long post

August 26th, 2012 No comments

It’s been over a year since my last update, but I decided to keep this site going as mainly a archive of past projects.

My newest project, which takes about 80% of my time these days, is Apotheon with Jesse McGibney again.
We did a interview with GameSpot at GDC about it.
Without a doubt it’s the most ambitious project I’ve ever done – in terms of programming, production, design, it’s getting increasing more massive and complex. I love how the game is turning out – we still need to figure out a lot of very essential gameplay aspects, such as tweaking melee fighting and dealing with inventory management (something I don’t have enough experience with since I rarely played RPGs as a kid) – but it’s still far from release, I am hoping for April/May of 2013. People have responded very positively to Jesse’s art so far – and it really is a brillant art direction not only because of how beautiful and unique it is, but it perfectly fits into the game mechanics and the themes we wanted to pursue – and also is extremely good for production and reusing assets (very minimalistic, very pattern based for easy level design)
I sometimes wonder with Apotheon if I’ve spent too much time on the technical aspects and not enough on actual game design. A lot of development was spent making the physics system work with the skeletal animation system, and then making that also work with the networking – I think I was aware of not getting in the trap of pursuing something technically complex for too long and delaying development, but I still am envious of other indie developers who able to make great games with simple tech. Indie developers really shouldn’t compete with technology – unless it’s something very unique, their focus should always be on design. I can’t understand why an indie developer with limited resources would attempt to create their own engine. I really think developers need to understand where their talents are, and focus on that – the defining aspect of ‘indie’ to be is doing a lot with limited resources. We are pretty good at keeping things as simple as possible for Apotheon – but I can’t imagine myself creating another giant codebase for a single project like this again, hopefully we can either reuse a lot of this work for our next game or successfully move on to a more standard game framework.

It’s been over a year since Capsized was released, but it still seems to be selling quite well and there is still a lot of new players and interest in it. I think when we originally released we didn’t get the attention I was hoping for – just since we didn’t focus enough on marketing at the end of development. But after release, and we got 80% on Metacritic which was great, and had a few Steam sales, the interest and response to the game kept picking up. Every Steam sale we’ve had has been massive, a few times larger in revenue than our first day of release, which is something I didn’t expect. I think what would have been better for Capsized is if it was released on another platform first – like XBLA/PSN, then had a Steam release. That way we could have had the initial people try it and enjoy it – then a well publicized release for Steam. I think a few developers have understood the value of this – that even if popular games make the majority of their revenue from PC sales a console release first can still be great for initial promotion.
Capsized is still selling and being developed for other platforms – right now being ported to iOS by Indiepub (IPad release only right now), and also other PC platforms from other developers. I still have yet to see how the iOS version will really turn out – I still can’t imagine people responding well to a touch controlled Capsized – it’s already very difficult to control with a mouse + keyboard, and the game relies so much on fast movement and quick reflexes – but I’ll wait to see what they are able to do.

Illfonic’s Nexuiz was released February 29th for XBLA and May 3rd for Steam. I was extremely happy about how this turned out – Illfonic got the gameplay perfect and really enhanced what Nexuiz had been before. The only thing I miss was having basic deathmatch – their design was entirely team based, which I guess makes sense since that was the majority of online Nexuiz Classic servers anyway, but I still missed the chaos of a packed FFA deathmatch match.
It’s also good to see that the Xonotic project, a fork of Nexuiz from some developers, is still being developed and played. Definitely a different game design than Nexuiz was pursuing – and it kind of makes me realize I had opened Nexuiz development up too much to the community in the later releases (making the game design more generic than I think me and LordHavoc, the other designer, had initially planned for).

A few of my friends and my brother also compiled a book of our past short stories and released it as the Celestial Puppeteer. The main writer (and really the only good professional writer) is Dustin Geereart, and primarily he set the theme of the book while the rest of us matched it. A lot of the stories are pretty messed up – and some of my own are from when I was had just started writing right out of high school, so I am a little hesitant to promote it without first seeing some response to it.

Besides Apotheon, I have two other current projects taking my time. One is Indievania – a online marketplace for indie games. I started this site as a response to trying to sell Capsized online and having a horrible time with non-Steam PC distributors. They all took a very high percentage of revenue based on the service they provided – their sites were horribly designed, their game submission process was really inefficient, and I couldn’t stand how they paid developers (they’d send you sales reports every month and then you’d have to invoice them, and usually it would have to be over a certain amount to be paid). I decided there needed to be a site that allowed a game developer to sell games quickly, with very little headaches and problems, and retain their profits. So I started Indievania development about a month after Capsized was released, and opened up the beta last year around November. So far the site has over 300 indie games added, and continues to grow in popularity. Hopefully I’ll have time to continue development with it – I’ve tried getting help from other developers and moderators but so far no one has been very reliable.
The other project is a new 3d game project with my brother, which is a dream project we’ve had on our mind for a while. Right now we are mostly just focusing on the tech behind it with a lot of placeholder art – and then when Apotheon is released I am hoping we can move towards full production on it.

Categories: Apotheon, Capsized, Nexuiz, Stories

Capsized Released! And video interview with me and jesse

May 3rd, 2011 Comments off

After 2 years of development, about a year of part time work and another of full time work, CAPSIZED is released! April 29th on Steam, coming to Direct2Drive and GamersGate in the next few weeks.

The response so far has been great – but I’ve definitely noticed problems with how we launch the game, and possible small design mistakes. I think we player tested enough that we delivered a really solid product that all the players can go through and enjoy, but there were a number of things that could have been changed that I think would have given a better response from the public. Maybe I’ll put it all in a postmodern some day – an article focused on Capsized development and it’s player testing (having Ian Livingston help us with playtesting was incredibly helpful, I can’t imagine what Capsized would have been without his help). One of the biggest issues that we’ve seen from reviewers and player response has been the controls – I was able to add keyboard remapping right before release (about 5-10 days before release actually), but there was a lot of people frustrated with how we mapped the gamepad controls (I think maybe we should have heavily suggested to try keyboard+mouse first, as thats how the game was designed).

The other thing I learnt about releasing a game like this is how to properly deal with the media. When a release date was set, as April 29th, we sent out the video interview to a number of news sites along with a review code for them to try. We only gave them about 4-5 days notice, so basically none of them could get their review out for the launch date. I think for our next project I am going to definitely send review codes early, then ask the media to only release their review on the release day. This way we can have a large news day with Capsized seen everywhere.

There was one issue I had with the media though. I had one reviewer email me after the video interview was done asking for a code, he was from a small indie games site so I sent it to him. I usually just sent a review code to whoever asked hoping to get publicity everywhere. But, unfortunately with this reviewer, he immediately posted pretty wherever he could that he had received a review code and was trying the game. He was expecting a metroidvania style game, and when he didn’t get that he really disliked the game. So despite me asking for reviewers to not discuss the game before it’s release, he ended up complaining about the game on twitter account, posting comments on all these news sites about his experience with the game basically wherever it was mentioned, and released his scathing review. So when Capsized was released, the guy’s review from a small site was the only one out there. I am still bitter about this – bad reviews of the game don’t bother me, but an early reviewer like this has to understand the impact they are having when they are speaking about a game publicly like that. I enjoy reading reviews whether they are good or bad, but this person posting their early review wherever they could really pissed me off – I’ll have to be more careful about sending to reviewers early in the future

That did seem to be the main complaint with some players – when they saw the screenshots and media they thought it was going to be a metroidvania inspried game. But when they played it they found more FPS inspriations. So rather than judging the game for what it was going for, they judge it based on what they originally thought it was, which I think does make sense and would give a bad initial imperssion. I think this shows something we made a mistake on in the marketing – we should have been more clear on what the game was so players like this trying it would know what to expect. Besides that the response has been really good, we’ve got a good player base, and I hope me and Jesse can keep releasing quality products like this within a good time frame.

Interview with me and Jesse we did at SXSW:

Categories: Capsized