Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Dev Tools & Recent Workflow Upgrades

Sorry for the posting hiatus, but I've been pretty busy. Last week was consumed by making Pinewood Derby cars for my 3 boys (who all won trophies), while this week will be mostly taken up by a series of equipment/software/internet upgrades for the project.

If you're interested in the technical end of our development process, read on!

1) Development Computer

Eight years this thing lasted. Still quite usable for other stuff.
All of our development to-date has been done in Excel, Photoshop, and iBooks Author on my trusty old 2007 MacBook Pro which, despite a memory/SSD upgrade last year, is starting to struggle under the load of a large IBA project being open at the same time as Photoshop, a web browser, and whatever else.

Shipping: Please Wait...
IBA absolutely hates running out of system RAM, and will crash quite often if I don't close Photoshop before opening a web browser, or vice-versa. Forcing me to re-create whatever it failed to auto-save (which is what it seems to be trying to do whenever it crashes)

Being an older MacBook, it also lacks the hardware support for some important network capabilities like Bonjour. Which means that instead of being easily able to transfer files to and from my iPhone/iPad directly over WiFi, I have to first upload them to Dropbox, and then download them to the target device. A slow and cumbersome process that can take 5-10 minutes, compared to the few seconds it takes my phone and iPad to transfer files between themselves.
So... I've got a brand-new 27" Retina iMac on the way, which besides being much easier on the eyes and more screen-spacious, should have the performance, RAM capacity, and connectivity speed to handle our current and future needs. Especially the database and app development work that I'm anticipating doing over the next year to help support testing.

2) Digital Camera
A Nikon D50 Digital SLR Camera

The hassle of slow file transfers is especially annoying/critical because of how much my iPhone/iPad use has recently changed.

Previously, I took all of our miniature/game example pictures using a Nikon D50 DSLR camera, which at the time I bought it (2005) was one of the best prosumer cameras you could get. Most importantly, it can shoot in the RAW format, which is akin to a digital negative. Bring a RAW image into Photoshop and you can tweak the exposure, temperature, and shadow levels without losing any of the image's dynamic range. It was awesome.

645 Pro App For iOS
Then I upgraded to the new iPhone 6S, and... Oh. My. God.

With *sufficient lighting*, the 6S absolutely kills any current DSLR under $2000. What's more, there are apps available like 645 Pro that not only give you full manual control of all of the 6S's settings, but also let you save out a 15mb RAW-format TIFF instead of JPEG.

iPhone 6s photo of some assorted GW/Mantic/Gf9 minis and terrain. Click to enlarge to full resolution.
Using 645 Pro, I can take absolutely stunning pictures that can be RAW-processed in Photoshop for maximum color/tone control. All with the phone I'm carrying around in my pocket anyway.

What's more, the iPhone 6s is also one of the best 4K video cameras out there. Making it ideal for when we come to the point of making introductory videos for the game.

So suddenly I need the ability to wirelessly transfer very large image files to my main computer for editing in Photoshop or Premiere Pro.  Making Dropbox a non-starter as a solution.

3) Digital Drawing/Editing

In the past, I've used an iPad 2/Mini and an iPad Air for testing out the readability of the rulebook in both iBook and PDF forms. But they really weren't very useful for much else in terms of development. I tried a few different drawing tools with them, in the hopes of being able to get some artwork done on the go, but none really came close to enabling me to ditch the Wacom Cintiq that I have a love/hate relationship with.

For those unfamiliar, the Cintiq is a graphics tablet that has a built-in monitor under the drawing surface. So you can draw on it in Photoshop, Sketchbook, or Mischief much like you would on a tablet like the Microsoft Surface (which I tried but found wanting).

The problem is that you can't work with it anywhere but your computer desk. Because while it only has one cable coming out of it, that cable leads to a separate box that splits it into a DVI cable (to connect to your computer's video output port, a USB cable for the drawing input, and a power cable. Which turns the back of your desk into a rat's nest of wires while effectively keeping you from drawing on the couch.

Even aside from that, there are annoying issues:
  1. The resolution on the thing is a pathetic 1200x800 pixels. Which is super-cramped for Photoshop.
  2. There's 2-3mm of space between the plastic surface you're drawing on and the actual pixels of the monitor. So unless you keep your head in the exact same position it was in when you last calibrated it, your lines/painting won't line up visually with the tip of the pen.
  3. You can only draw straight/smooth lines in the middle of the Cintiq, because as you travel towards the edges your lines will become wobbly.
  4. There's a very noticeable lag, even on fast hardware, between the motion of your pen and the actions on the screen.
Enter the iPad Pro...

Unlike my earlier iPads, this one is much larger, and is specifically made for drawing/design. Not only does it have a super-high resolution display, but the drawing is pixel-accurate. There are no wavy lines, and there's maybe half a millimeter of distance between the drawing surface and the pixels of the display.

There are 2-3 really good drawing/painting programs for the iPad Pro. One of which, Procreate, is almost a Photoshop-killer in that regard.

But the most beautiful thing is that the iPad can act as a completely wireless Cintiq replacement using an app called Astropad.
Photoshop running on my iPad Pro through Astropad

Load up Astropad on both your Mac and your tablet, and you can start drawing and painting right away with a lag that's no worse than the Cintiq that this combo is replacing.

And that's with a hacked workaround to the problem of not being able to directly connect to my laptop via Wifi/Bonjour. So here again I should see a nice performance improvement with the new iMac.

The iPad Pro is also tops at letting me write and organize hand-written notes and quick drawings when I'm out and about.

The Great Software Hunt

One of our goals in making WarStrike has been to leverage some of the information technologies that companies like GW seem to either ignore or not be aware of in the first place. To sum it up, we want to be able to create web, desktop, and mobile apps that allow our players to create highly customizable forces that are properly balanced against each other. We also want an easy way to poll users on their preferences, and run analytics on what forces players are using and how well they perform. Giving players an easy way to gauge their skill compared to the community at large, while we look for patterns in the meta-data that either indicate opportunities for, or problems with, the direction of the game.

To that end, CaulynDarr and I are hunting down the best solution for storing all of our game information in a properly organized database that won't have the performance and complexity limitations of trying to do database-like operations in a spreadsheet like Microsoft Excel. Which I've  tried to make work, but which just can't handle even a relatively low amount of game data and its interrelationships with any efficiency at all. While Access is Windows-only and notoriously poor at scaling up.

The top two contenders seem to be MySQL and Filemaker Pro. MySQL offers greater scalability at a lower cost, but more complexity. While Filemaker Pro offers simplicity and good UI making tools at the cost of expensive per-user licensing fees that might limit our ability to scale up our number of users over time.

There's also the question of what IDE to use for app development. I'm favoring XOJO for its Visual Basic like language, easy GUI construction, and extensive cross-platform options. The only downside is that it's proprietary.

And Finally... Fiber Optic Internet!!!

For a couple of months now, a local internet company has been tearing up the yards and streets in my neighborhood in order to install fiber optic data lines to every home. Well, they've at last finished mucking about, and we were told last week that we could finally subscribe. We should be switched over sometime next week.

Same price as our current provider, with 10x the speed. What's not to like?


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