Timeline

World of Warcraft

SomeRPGGame

World of Warcraft is probably the MMORPG that brought this type of game into the mainstream, and it’s still live and being played today.

So I thought I’d try it out. Luckily, a friend used to be a veritable WoW-fiend doing high-level raids, so I had a pro guiding me through the beginning, suggesting good races to pick etc.

WoW is great, and of course it’s an institution, but oddly, I found I did not enjoy it enough (compared to Star Trek Online, which I’m currently playing). Because that is rather weird, I thought I’d try to list the things I like and dislike about WoW, in the hope that it’ll make me more clear about what kinds of games I would like to make.

Mission duration

The thing that initially attracted me to STO was that it had story missions, which felt almost like episodes of a TV series. At least as far as I played, WoW’s missions are a lot shorter. Where in STO I play what feels like half an hour to finish a mission, from accepting it to getting the rewards, WoW favors shorter missions of a few minutes, meaning every time I get a tall un-moveable window containing a wall of text (“lore”) and a button to accept a mission or complete.

Even in STO (where it is at least moveable) I do not like mission windows. They take me out of the story, even though I enjoy the gratification of successfully levelling up. And it just feels hollow to get a big achievement for going from point A to point B.

While STO’s mission accept and completion dialogs are similar, they occur much less often, and one mission consists of several smaller quests in the WoW style. This gives them the opportunity to design the dialog before those missions as a real conversation, not just a monumental text dump. I guess it’s a matter of personal preference, where I fall on the side of conversations.

Beginner Help

Both WoW and STO have little help popups that introduce you to using the in-game UI. But like a lot in STO (which came later, so I’m really not blaming WoW for that), their implementation feels more like it would feel in a real computer program.

You can click all of them to either advance in the directions it gives you (which means it will pop up e.g. your inventory to show you how to equip a weapon), or close a single-popup instruction.

The WoW ones, on the other hand, have no obvious way to dismiss them (I tried all three mouse buttons), and at least in my case have the habit of covering mission rewards (and since the mission window is also immovable, if the mission description doesn’t scroll, there is no way for me to read the rest).

Also, the help in STO is tiered. You create a new character, it shows you every hint exactly once. In WoW, I repeatedly get reminded that I just received a new item and seem to be pretty much forced to equip it right then and there to get rid of the tutorial popups.

Moreover, after each mission, I get a large banner in the middle of the screen, telling me to press M to see the map. Even if I can see where to turn in the mission perfectly fine in the mini-map. Even if this is my 10th mission.

One mistake STO makes with help I don’t want to repeat is that popups contain static text and sometimes only point at fixed locations. So if I move an ability from the default spot in the tray, I just get help pointing at the tray, not the actual ability. Also, any keyboard shortcuts the docs mention indicate the default (they point that out, though) so do not reflect any changes I may have made to key bindings in the settings.

UI performance

I play on a Mac. STO’s Mac port is done using Cider, which means I essentially run a Windows emulator. Also, their UI feels like it is written like the game itself, i.e. it calls back to the server for confirmation a lot.

While this is correct for actual gameplay and mini-games, it means that on a slow or busy connection (whether on my side or theirs) a lot of the UI loses clicks, even for parts that aren’t timing-sensitive like the confirmation panels when ending a mission or moving between sectors.

WoW on the other hand feels different. Buttons just behave like you’d expect them to, and if you click a button it triggers an action (the exception being if you accidentally right-click instead of left-click a button, in which case it highlights but then never does anything — it should just not highlight in the first place on a right click).

Icon design

The symbols in your tray in STO have a clean, “iconic” look, made up of simple glyphs and (after an update this year) following a system that makes it easy to tell apart the various groups of abilities and match up abilities with their icons.

WoW’s icons are less clean, more fancy, as you’d expect from a fantasy game. I think I’d get used to them if I played it some more, but they seem to be at the slightly less self-explanatory level STO’s were a year ago. WoW would benefit from an icon redesign, I think, but that’s a minor nitpick, but a big thing to keep in mind for one’s own game designs. Structure them like STO’s icons, even if I may choose a fancier style for a fantasy game.

Damage feedback

Especially STO spaceships make it kind of hard to detect when your character takes or deals damage. Since WoW mostly deals in living beings, they can provide much more obvious feedback about damage dealt or received, where your character shrinks back or similar to indicate you’re not doing too well. Such cues on the character models are much better than having to keep a health bar or “hull strength” indicator in peripheral vision.

In STO it often happens to me that my ship suddenly blows up because I didn’t pay attention to that bar and the damage model has not quite triggered yet and an enemy hits me with an especially strong shot. I do not enjoy One-shot-and-you’re-dead enemies in my games.

If I wanted to have an instant killer enemy for story reasons, I’d make sure there is a little cut scene before the fight starts where it demonstrates this weapon on an unsuspecting NPC, and also that the weapon has some sort of “I have you in my sights” indicator that gives me a chance to evade it.

Cool-downs

When I fight in WoW, my character is constantly complaining “cannot do that yet”, “I have no target”, “not enough manna”, “this ability isn’t ready yet”. While I like the use of audio for feedback like this, it doesn’t help my immersion that my character constantly talks to me.

This is exacerbated by some misfeatures of the UI, where e.g. it doesn’t auto-target the next enemy, so usually I press buttons to swing the sword and the first press kills the enemy, but I don’t realize it because the animation takes its sweet time to make the character fall over, so I hit again, and hear “I have no target”.

Also, cool-downs and “manna” (or whatever power is used) are displayed separately in the UI. In STO, they’re one thing. If there is not enough power, the button for an ability stays inactive. In WoW, the button becomes active, but the manna bar is empty, and I get “Not enough rage” or whatever.

Now mind you, I’m aware that battle in STO is more real-time, like in shooters (it’s an action-RPG after all) whereas WoW follows the conventions of strategy games, where you click your enemy and then they’re supposed to be fighting it out while you watch. It’s about who you pit against who and what abilities you decide to use, not as much about each individual shot.

So maybe I just need to cool it down. Let the game play that part.

Range of actions

The way you play STO is fairly keyboard-heavy. You can use the mouse like in WoW, but the tutorial generally tells you which keys to press.

So usually every interaction involves walking up to something until an action menu pops up or an ability becomes available, and then to trigger it.

WoW generally expects you to use the mouse. This leads to a weird dichotomy for me because my character is roughly near the object and I can click it with the mouse (“my hand is able to reach it”) but then my character complains “too far away”. Because I’m not yet in range.

There are indicators, mind you. The mouse cursor is B/W instead of color if you’re too far away, and your character tells you it needs to get closer, but again, it doesn’t help my immersion, so I’d probably go with the STO approach even though it means there are additional popups onscreen which WoW avoids.

The games already show lots of HUDs like mini-maps and ability trays and manna bars, though, so just one more doesn’t weigh as heavily to me as the break in immersion.

Polish

WoW is definitely the more polished game. I’ve had one Mac where it would crash on launch, but whenever I got WoW to run on a Mac, it was solid. STO on the other hand, has crashed a lot for me on the Mac.

Also, WoW’s progressive downloading in the background is great. It shows you in the progress bar how much you need to start playing at all, how much they recommend so you don’t have to wait, and how much to have to hit the network the least while playing. And it seems to take only a few megabytes to start playing. The graphic design of the Battle.net client is also quite nice looking.

STO’s launcher OTOH shows you 9 different progress indicators before you can start playing, and even a fresh download from the server still requires an 8GB patch afterwards. And the progress indicator graphics are very eighties and at least in the Mac port text overflows the progress bar’s boundaries.

They may both be using HTML behind the scenes for all I know, but only STO feels like a web site with CSS bugs.

Also, WoW’s buttons highlight and track properly and responsively, and feels like one application compared to STO’s three. And STO has glitches when switching levels where the level is drawn, and only then the load screen covers it, so you get a glimpse of every scene before you enter it. Not a very smooth transition.

WoW also has great in-game details, like rats and foxes running around for ambience, or little children coming up to you and asking you whether you really did all those things you did in the previous quest.

STO only has static characters standing in groups or on corners repeating the same phrase with your name filled in, like “It’s great to see you, Admiral” or “The Federation is doing its best to support you all here”. The infrastructure seems to be there, but I guess they can’t afford to script and implement that in most levels … ?

Trolls and griefers

I just had WoW spoiled by ending up in a cave where I was supposed to kill a spider queen that spawned about every 10 seconds. A few higher-level mages were camped out there and killing the spider as soon as it spawned, with a single shot from a distance.

The worst I’ve ever had happen to me in STO was one guy who kept moving his avatar in front of me and making it dance, or someone triggering a bomb next to me (which doesn’t have any effect beyond making a “poof” effect because outside designated PvP areas all players are on the same team). The solution? I switched to another instance, which is randomly assigned to each player, and identical to the one I was in before. It also takes along my mission progress. No onerous “moving my character to another realm”.

STO seems to generally be engineered to avoid conflict between players. Between players, there is not even collision detection. Most quests require you to trigger enemies, so you have the first chance to get them because your enemies can’t know when they’ll pop up and get in before you.

Also, most battle zones not only have more enemies than you could be expected to kill in a short timespan you’d need to troll someone, they also reduce the level of all characters in a certain area. So my Vice Admiral (60) fights on Nimbus III as Level 20, like everyone else, making it just as hard for the troll to kill the objective as for me. Chances are I’ll get a success in.

So…?

Both games are great, both games do the basics extremely well, both games have their strengths and weaknesses. And both games let me learn a bit about game design in MMORPGs.

Why the new MacBook is a success

RetinaMacBook12Corner

To those of you following me on Twitter, it hasn’t been a secret that I’ve been waiting for a small, portable Retina MacBook for quite a while. Yesterday, Apple announced one, and it looks to be a good one. Since I’ve heard a lot of nay-sayers, I thought I’d point out some things that people may overlook.

Are you the target audience?

The new device is named “MacBook” and priced in the $1500 price range. Also, the old MacBook Air in the < $1000 price bracket is still available. This makes sense. The MacBook Air moved into the entry-level price bracket a couple years ago. Like with other Mac models, a Retina variant can't be made at that price profitably. So they'll keep the old variant for the price-conscious, as a way to attract new users who will then hopefully later upgrade to a more expensive model, or stay on at the low end.

So the people looking for a cheaper (but not the cheapest) Mac are one target of this new machine. Another main feature was that it's slim and ultra-portable. So if you would be fine lugging around a 15 incher, you're definitely not the target audience. If you're looking for a powerful Mac to run scientific simulations or build large programs using Xcode, you already have the 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro. It is only slightly larger and packs the power and extensibility you need. So why the heck would Apple build a machine identical to those existing ones?

The new MacBook is the future replacement of the MacBook Air 11″. If you wouldn’t have bought that machine, why’d you be surprised that this machine at the top end of the price bracket is not for you? It sells like sliced bread, so there obviously are people who want a machine like that.

That ‘single’ port

I’ve seen many people complain about that single USB-C port. But when I look at my and friends’ usage patterns on the MacBook Air 11″, it turns out that most of the time you don’t use a port. Either you’re traveling, on a train or plane with it (if you didn’t, you’d probably be fine with a larger machine), in which case you wouldn’t have anyplace to plug it in anyway.

Or you’re at work, or in your apartment, in which case you’re stationary. So you probably already have an external display that provides power *and* serves as an Ethernet adapter and USB hub, or some other dock, around which your wired ethernet connection or clunky devices that you’d need USB ports for are arranged.

In that situation, only having a single USB-C plug to attach is actually the most convenient solution.

And since USB-C is an industry standard, there’s no doubt that USB keys with C-plugs are only a matter of time. At worst, you may carry along a tiny plug adapter for attaching a colleague’s old USB storage sticks, probably smaller than a 30pin to Lightning adapter. And you won’t even have to pay the Apple Premium(tm), because lots of third-parties will probably be making these, too.

And they did leave in the combined headphone/mic jack, which is probably the only other port I’d use with any regularity, and which might actually be needed while something else is plugged in.

That M-processor

The MacBook Air has never been known for being the high-end machine of the product line. The biggest of the new MacBook’s CPUs Turbo Boosts up to 2.9GHz. That’s faster than the old entry-level ones, but not quite as fast as the old i7 variant. But neither machine is problematic for the entry-level crowd they will eventually be serving. You can write text and e-mails, you can browse the web, you can watch full HD movies. Heck, Photoshop will not be super-fast but probably be fine, and while Xcode may take some time, it will still run and get the job done. That’s not a change from before.

That Webcam

The Webcam is only 480p. That’s not much. Then again, if you’re calling home, you probably know what your kids or parents look like, and you’ll be able to make out whether the facial expression meant that phrase was irony or serious. That’s really all video calls are for. If you’re at a hotel, picture quality will probably be reduced to horrible macroblocks anyway, due to the slow internet. And very likely, you already own an iPhone or iPad, so you can always use their camera.

And if you actually want to take video, you’re likely using an external camera anyway, and not your webcam, which picks up the vibrations from your typing and has a limited angle that requires you adjust your screen.

Non-clicky trackpad

This easily had me worried. I’ve never been able to make touch-to-click work on old trackpads. I always caused clicks at the start of quickly moving the mouse, accidentally trashing or moving files in the process. However, with force-touch, this might work out. If it can detect the difference in pressure, it might have a decent threshold between a strong touch or a soft click. I haven’t actually used one yet, but all the hardware for this to work seems to be present.

The new power supply

I’ve had some issues with my MacBook Air 11″‘s power supply. My cable usually goes sideways off the hotel bed, so the plug being angled backwards means it bends off right after the plug. The rubber sleeve on the cable usually starts fraying and breaking after a while. Since the cable is attached permanently to the power supply, that made for some expensive replacements.

In addition, the MagSafe connector kept unplugging when I didn’t want it to. Oddly, when someone actually stepped on the cable, the sudden force would cause the lightweight MacBook to spin around first, so its back was facing in the direction of the cable. This in turn meant that the L-shaped MagSafe plug now functioned as a hook and would not unplug. In short, MagSafe never worked for me on that machine (It’s fine on my old 15″ MBP, because that weighs enough).

As far as I can tell from Apple’s web site, the new power supply is like an iPhone power bug. There is a separate USB-C cable with plugs on both ends now. The USB cable has a straight, not angled plug. As such, not only would it not get bent when the cable goes off sideways, someone pulling on it would also no longer turn it into a fishing hook. It’s much more likely that it’d unplug under force now than before. And if it doesn’t, it won’t be any worse than before for me.

Now if this power supply and these connectors make their way to the larger MacBooks, the lack of MagSafe may become an issue. But for this device? Not for me.

The Retina Display

If I read Apple’s web site right, the new MacBook has a 2304×1440 screen. At traditional scale factors, that would make it 1152×720@2x or 1536×960@1.5x. That first resolution would be a show-stopper for me. Back when the 11″ MacBook Air came out, most applications did not expect a new Mac to have a screen as small as 768. Lots of windows didn’t fit onscreen, with the “OK” buttons at the bottom ending up offscreen. 48pt less is worse, and will probably cause that problem again.

You can’t run a 12″ screen at 2304×1440 either. The menu bar would be tiny. You’d spend all day bent over the tiny laptop and ruin your back. However, the 1.5x resolution would be fine for me. The screen is a bit larger, so this should end up only slightly smaller than the old 11″ MacBook Air.

Is it ideal to run this device at 1.5x? No. Is it an improvement over the old non-Retina? Yes. More space to work with, and more pixels for text rendering.

I can’t say for sure that these resolutions would be available, though. Apple’s documentation mentions 2304×1440 at 226ppi, and then a number of “Scaled” resolutions which are really weird sizes like 1280×800. I presume these are just the additional resolutions like you’d find them under “Scaled” in the “Displays” System Preference pane, and that we’ll still have the 1x, 1.5x and 2x switches like we have on current Retina Macs.

That Keyboard

In general, I like better keyboards, and as a fast but not very precise typist laud the idea of a more stable key cap. The only issue I have with this one is that the new single-assembly butterfly mechanism seems to be using a thinner piece of material (and apparently plastic) as a hinge/joint of sorts. Usually that means that, after some wear and tear, this thinner piece will break. That would mean this device is engineered to break.

The verdict

In my not so humble opinion, people who are complaining are not real Scotsmen… err … not the target audience for this machine. You can still get one of the others, even non-Retina MacBook Airs on their way out. The features Apple cut or compromised on are the ones that will least affect the typical user. It’s a good machine. I’ll probably buy one once I’ve answered that final, all-important question:

… Space Grey or Gold?

Death to Booleans!

DeathToBooleans

One of the most annoying aspects of most C-descended languages is that function calls become kind of unreadable when they have more than a single boolean parameter. The calls start looking like:

    OpenFile( "/etc/passwd", true, true, false );

and you have no idea what effect each boolean actually has. Sometimes people solve this by naming all parameters in the function name, but of course that doesn’t permit adding more optional parameters to a function later, because you’d have to change the name:

    OpenFilePathEditableSaveSavingAllowNetworkURLs( "/etc/passwd", true, true, false );

A disciplined programmer will solve this by adding an enum and using that instead of the booleans:

    enum FileEditability { kReadOnly, kEditable }
    enum FileSafeSaveability { kSafeSave, kOverwriteInPlace }
    enum FileAllowNetworkURLs { kFileURLsOnly, kAllowNetworkURLs };
    void    OpenFile( const char* path, enum FileEditability fe, enum FileSafeSaveability fs, enum FileAllowNetworkURLs fu );

Or maybe just make all booleans a “flags” bitfield:

    enum
    {
        kEditable = (1 << 0),
        kSafeSave = (1 << 1),
        kAllowNetworkURLs = (1 << 2)
    }
    typedef uint32_t FileOpenFlags;
    void    OpenFile( const char* path, FileOpenFlags inFlags );

But that requires the foresight to never use a single boolean. And of course the actual discipline.

Wouldn't it be nice if C had a special provision for naming booleans? My first thought was allowing to specify enums in-line for parameters:

    void OpenFile( const char* path, enum { kReadOnly, kEditable } inReadOnly );

But to be convenient, this would require some rather too-clever scoping rules. It'd be easy to make the enum available to all callers when they directly call the function, but what about cases where you want to store the value in a variable? Maybe we could do C++-style scope resolution and allow saying OpenFile::kReadOnly ?

Would be a nice way to make it easy to name parameters, but not really readable.

I guess that's why other languages have named parameters instead. Avoids all those issues. So...

The boolean is dead! Long live the boolean! (as long as you have named parameters to label them with)

Using Jekyll for static web site building on a Mac

JekyllWithBeaker

Martin Pilkington occasionally mentioned the Jekyll static web site builder in his tweets, so when I wanted to start a new web site, I thought I’d give it a try, as I’ve been uncomfortable with having to back up WordPress sites in separate steps to get both the database and the image and movie assets.

Installing Jekyll

Make sure you have Xcode installed and its command line tools. Then just open Terminal and type:

sudo gem install jekyll

Creating a new site

To create a site, do

jenkins new example.com

This creates a folder named example.com in the current directory to hold the files for the new site.

Open the folder and in it the _config.yml file. Change the entry title: to what you want to call your new site, and url: to your domain name (in our above example, http://example.com). Feel free to change what few other settings there are, but you don’t need to.

Two neat _config.yml tips:

  1. You can leave entries empty, e.g. the email: or github_username:, and they will just disappear, including their icons.
  2. You can make files and folders that Jekyll would usually skip (like .htaccess) by adding an entry like: include: [.htaccess, .well-known, _foo.xml]. You can also exclude files from copying/processing this way, e.g. exclude: Readme.md.

Testing the site

Jekyll includes its own web server. Simply type

cd example.com
jekyll serve

the site is now available under http://localhost:4000. The server will automatically watch for changes to the folder and re-build the site. If you still need to manually trigger a rebuild (e.g. to deploy your site without launching the server), just use

jekyll build

Adding your own pages

Like WordPress, Jekyll has pages and blog posts. Any file that doesn’t start with an underscore is considered as a page. Be it index.html or about.md. Let’s edit about.md to describe our site, not Jekyll. Open it in a text editor.

The file starts with a section like this:

---
layout: page
title: About
permalink: /about/
---

called the “front matter”, followed by regular Markdown, as you’d expect from a .md file. This section specifies the info that Jekyll needs about the page, and tells Jekyll to substitute placeholders in the file. You can leave this section empty, just its presence tells Jekyll to process the file. So it’s easy to create a new page. You can also make up your own settings here, if you want.

The ones in this example are standard ones Jekyll knows out of the box:

layout: specifies that the file _layouts/page.html should be wrapped around this file, and this file’s contents should be inserted where that file says ||contents~~. This is how Jekyll applies themes and shows navigation on each page.

permalink specifies the address at which the page will end up in the generated web site. So in our example, you’d find this page at http://example.com/about/ instead of at http://example.com/about.html.

title: is actually just a variable used by the _layouts/default.html template. Any variable you define can be used on the page by writing e.g. || page.title ~~. So if you added a line temperature: 40 Centigrade you could put it on the page as || page.temperature ~~.

Other interesting variables are categories, tags and published.

Blogging with Jekyll

Jekyll offers special blogging support. Mainly this just involves saving pages into the _posts folder and prefixing the file names with an ISO date, e.g. 2015-01-30-My First Post.md. But it also has special functions to make it easier to link between posts in a stable fashion, and to generate lists of posts with teaser text etc. The Official Jekyll docs on blogging cover this well.

Importing from WordPress

Jekyll has support for importing from WordPress. First, install the importer:

sudo gem install jekyll-import
sudo gem install sequel
sudo gem install unidecode
sudo gem install htmlentities
sudo gem install mysql2

and then do what Jekyll’s WordPress Importer docs say.

Handling keypresses in Cocoa games

WASDKeys

At first blush, Keyboard event handling for games in Cocoa seems easy: You add -acceptsFirstResponder and -becomeFirstResponder overrides to your custom game map view, then override -moveUp:, -moveDown:, -moveLeft: and -moveRight: to handle the arrow keys.

However, if you play a game like that, you’ll notice one big difference to most other games: It only ever accepts one keypress at a time. So if you’re holding down the up arrow key to have your character run forward, then quickly press the right arrow key to sidestep and obstacle, your character will stop in its tracks, as if you had released the up arrow key.

This makes sense for text entry, where you might accidentally still be holding down one character while another finger presses the next, but for a game this is annoying. You want to be able to chord arbitrary key combinations together.

I found a clever solution for game keyboard handling on the CocoaDev Wiki, but it’s a bit old and incomplete, so I thought I’d provide an updated technique:

The solution is to keep track of which key is down yourself. Override -keyDown and -keyUp to keep track of which keys are being held down. I’m using a C++ unordered_set for that, but an Objective-C NSIndexSet would work just as well:

@interface ICGMapView : NSView
{
	std::unordered_set<unichar>	pressedKeys;
}

@end

and in the implementation:

-(void)	keyDown:(NSEvent *)theEvent
{
	NSString	*	pressedKeyString = theEvent.charactersIgnoringModifiers;
	unichar			pressedKey = (pressedKeyString.length > 0) ? [pressedKeyString characterAtIndex: 0] : 0;
	if( pressedKey )
		pressedKeys.insert( pressedKey );
}


-(void)	keyUp:(NSEvent *)theEvent
{
	NSString	*	pressedKeyString = theEvent.charactersIgnoringModifiers;
	unichar			pressedKey = (pressedKeyString.length > 0) ? [pressedKeyString characterAtIndex: 0] : 0;
	if( pressedKey )
	{
		auto foundKey = pressedKeys.find( pressedKey );
		if( foundKey != pressedKeys.end() )
			pressedKeys.erase(foundKey);
	}
}

Of course, you’ll also want to react to modifier keys, and like most games, you will want to treat them not as modifiers in a shortcut, but as regular keys, so people can press Command to fire, or so. That’s basically the same, just that you override -flagsChanged: and that there are no standard character constants for the modifier keys. So let’s just define our own:

// We need key codes under which to save the modifiers in our "keys pressed"
//	table. We must pick characters that are unlikely to be on any real keyboard.
//	So we pick the Unicode glyphs that correspond to the symbols on these keys.
enum
{
	ICGShiftFunctionKey			= 0x21E7,	// -> NSShiftKeyMask
	ICGAlphaShiftFunctionKey	= 0x21EA,	// -> NSAlphaShiftKeyMask
	ICGAlternateFunctionKey		= 0x2325,	// -> NSAlternateKeyMask
	ICGControlFunctionKey		= 0x2303,	// -> NSControlKeyMask
	ICGCommandFunctionKey		= 0x2318	// -> NSCommandKeyMask
};

-(void)	flagsChanged: (NSEvent *)theEvent
{
	if( theEvent.modifierFlags & NSShiftKeyMask )
	{
		pressedKeys.insert( ICGShiftFunctionKey );
	}
	else
	{
		auto foundKey = pressedKeys.find( ICGShiftFunctionKey );
		if( foundKey != pressedKeys.end() )
			pressedKeys.erase(foundKey);
	}

	if( theEvent.modifierFlags & NSAlphaShiftKeyMask )
	{
		pressedKeys.insert( ICGAlphaShiftFunctionKey );
	}
	else
	{
		auto foundKey = pressedKeys.find( ICGAlphaShiftFunctionKey );
		if( foundKey != pressedKeys.end() )
			pressedKeys.erase(foundKey);
	}

	if( theEvent.modifierFlags & NSControlKeyMask )
	{
		pressedKeys.insert( ICGControlFunctionKey );
	}
	else
	{
		auto foundKey = pressedKeys.find( ICGControlFunctionKey );
		if( foundKey != pressedKeys.end() )
			pressedKeys.erase(foundKey);
	}

	if( theEvent.modifierFlags & NSCommandKeyMask )
	{
		pressedKeys.insert( ICGCommandFunctionKey );
	}
	else
	{
		auto foundKey = pressedKeys.find( ICGCommandFunctionKey );
		if( foundKey != pressedKeys.end() )
			pressedKeys.erase(foundKey);
	}

	if( theEvent.modifierFlags & NSAlternateKeyMask )
	{
		pressedKeys.insert( ICGAlternateFunctionKey );
	}
	else
	{
		auto foundKey = pressedKeys.find( ICGAlternateFunctionKey );
		if( foundKey != pressedKeys.end() )
			pressedKeys.erase(foundKey);
	}
}

An alternative would be to just enlarge the numeric type used to store keys in your unordered_set. Instead of two-byte unichar values, you’d just pick uint32_t, and then define the constants as values that are out of range for an actual unichar, like 0xffff1234. If you’re using NSIndexSet, you’re lucky, it uses NSInteger, which is already larger.

Then add an NSTimer to your class that periodically checks whether there are any keys pressed, and if they are, reacts to them:

-(void) dispatchPressedKeys: (NSTimer*)sender
{
	BOOL	shiftKeyDown = pressedKeys.find(ICGShiftFunctionKey) != pressedKeys.end();
	for( unichar pressedKey : pressedKeys )
	{
		switch( pressedKey )
		{
			case 'w':
				[self moveUp: self fast: shiftKeyDown];
				break;
			...
		}
	}
}

Since your timer is polling at an interval here, and you can’t make that interval too fast because it’s the rate at which key repeats will be sent, it is theoretically possible that you would lose keypresses whose duration is shorter than your timer interval. To avoid that, you could store a struct in an array instead of just the keypress in a set. This struct would remember when the key was originally pressed down, and when the last key event was sent out.

That way, when the user begins holding down a key, you’d immediately trigger processing of this key once, and make note of when that happened. From then on, your -dispatchPressedKeys: method would check whether it’s been long enough since the last time it processed that particular key, and would send key repeats for each key that is due. As a bonus, when a key is released, you could also notify yourself of that.

You could even create “key event” objects of some sort to hand into your engine.

Adding Lua 5.2 to your application

LuaPlanetsInSpace

Note: The code in here is adapted from an actual project, however I’ve not yet had time to verify it doesn’t have typos. Give me a weekend or two. I just found so little information on the new version I wanted to dump this to the web now in the hopes of being at least vaguely helpful.

Lua is a really cool, clean little programming language that is easy to embed in your applications. Not only is it under a permissive license, it’s ANSI C.

However, recent updates have made most of the documentation about it on the web a bit outdated, so I thought I’d drop this quick tutorial on how to add Lua to your application and do some of the typical inter-operation things with it that you’d want to do when hosting scripts in your application.

Building Lua

Building Lua is very easy. After getting the source code, you duplicate the file lua/src/luaconf.h.orig under the name lua/src/luaconf.h. Then you point Terminal at Lua’s folder and do

make macosx test

(Or if you’re not on a Mac, use the appropriate platform name here, you can see available ones by just calling make without parameters in that folder)

This will churn a short moment, and then you’ll have a liblua.a file. Add that to your Xcode project (or equivalent) so it gets linked in, and make sure the header search paths include the lua/src/ folder. That’s it, now you can use Lua in your application.

Running a Lua script

To use Lua, you include the following headers:

#include "lua.h"
#include "lauxlib.h"
#include "lualib.h"

(If you’re using C++, be sure to wrap them in extern "C" or you’ll get link errors) Then you can simply compile the following code to initialize a Lua context and run a script from a text file:

lua_State *L = luaL_newstate();	// Create a context.
luaL_openlibs(L);	// Load Lua standard library.

// Load the file:
int s = luaL_loadfile( L, "/path/to/file.lua" );

if( s == 0 )
{
	// Run it, with 0 params, accepting an arbitrary number of return values.
	//	Last 0 is error handler Lua function's stack index, or 0 to ignore.
	s = lua_pcall(L, 0, LUA_MULTRET, 0);
}

// Was an error? Get error message off the stack and send it back:
if( s != 0 )
{
	printf("Error: %s\n", lua_tostring(L, -1) );
	lua_pop(L, 1); // Remove error message from stack.
}
	
lua_close(L);	// Dispose of the script context.

The script file would contain something like:

-- this is a comment
io.write("Hello world, from ",_VERSION,"!\n")

Now you can run a file full of commands. But how do you have it call back into your application? There’s a special call for that, lua_register, which creates a new function that actually wraps a special C function. You call it like this:

// Create a C-backed Lua function, myavg():
lua_register( L, "myavg", foo );	// Create a global named "myavg" and stash an unnamed function with C function "foo" as its implementation in it.

to register a C function named foo as a Lua function named myavg. The actual function would look like this:

// An example C function that we call from Lua:
static int foo (lua_State *L)
{
	int n = lua_gettop(L);    /* number of arguments */
	lua_Number sum = 0;
	int i;
	for (i = 1; i <= n; i++)
	{
		if (!lua_isnumber(L, i))
		{
			lua_pushstring(L, "incorrect argument");
			lua_error(L);
		}
		sum += lua_tonumber(L, i);
	}
	lua_pushnumber(L, sum/n);        /* first result */
	lua_pushnumber(L, sum);         /* second result */
	return 2;                   /* number of results */
}

This example function loops over all parameters that have been passed (using lua_isnumber to check they're numbers, and lua_tonumber to actually retrieve them as ints), which may be a variable number, adds and averages them, and then pushes two return values on the stack (the average and the sum), and returns the number of return values it gave.

You could now call it like:

io.write( "Average is: ", myavg(1,2,3,4,5) )

from Lua. The funny thing here is, in Lua, there are no functions in the traditional sense. It's a prototype-based programming language, so all functions are closures/blocks/lambdas, and can be treated just like any value, like an integer or a string. To declare a function, lua_register simply creates a global variable named myavg and sticks such a function object in it.

When you declare a function in Lua, it's also really just a shorthand for an assignment statement. So to run a function declared in a Lua file, like:

function main( magicNumber )
    io.write("Main was called with magicNumber ", magicNumber, "!")
end

you first have to execute it, which will create the global named main and stick a function in it. Only now do you look up the function object from that global and call it, again using lua_pcall like here:

lua_getglobal(L,"main");
lua_pushinteger(L,5);
s = lua_pcall(L, 1, LUA_MULTRET, 0);	// Tell Lua to expect 1 param & run it.

The 2nd parameter to lua_pcall tells it how many parameters to expect. Objects are likewise just tables (i.e. key-value dictionaries) where ivars are just values, and methods are functions stored as values. So, to create a new object with methods implemented in C, you do:

// Create a C-backed Lua object:
lua_newtable( L );	// Create a new object & push it on the stack.
	
// Define mymath.durchschnitt() for averaging numbers:
lua_pushcfunction( L, foo );	// Create an (unnamed) function with C function "foo" as the implementation.
lua_setfield( L, -2, "durchschnitt" );	// Pop the function off the back of the stack and into the object (-2 == penultimate object on stack) using the key "durchschnitt" (i.e. method name).
lua_setglobal( L, "mymath" );	// Pop the object off the stack into a global named "mymath".

To call this, function, you do it analogous to before, just that you first use lua_getglobal( L, "mymath" ) to push the object on the stack, then lua_getfield to actually push the "durchschnitt" function stored under that key in the object.

Since functions are closures/blocks/lambdas, they can also capture variables ("upvalues"). To set those, you use lua_pushcclosure instead of lua_pushcfunction and pass the number of values you pushed on the stack to capture as the last parameter. E.g. if you wanted to pass along a pointer to an object in your program that the session object wraps, instead of stashing it in an ivar, you could capture it like:

// Define session.write() for sending a reply back to the client:
lua_pushlightuserdata( L, sessionPtr );	// Create a value wrapping a pointer to a C++ object (this would be dangerous if we let the script run longer than the object was around).
lua_pushcclosure( L, session_write, 1 );// Create an (unnamed) function with C function "session_write" as the implementation and one associated value (think "captured variable", our userdata on the back of the stack).
lua_setfield( L, -2, "write" );	// Pop the function value off the back of the stack and into the object (-2 == penultimate object on stack) using the key "write" (i.e. method name).
lua_setglobal( L, "session" );	// Pop the object off the stack into a global named "session".

and inside the session_write function, you'd retrieve it again like:

	session*	sessionPtr = (session*) lua_touserdata( L, lua_upvalueindex(1) );

And now you know all you need to call Lua from C, and have Lua call your C functions back.

I want to make an MMORPG…

A demo session of the eleven chat client

I hear that’s the thing beginning programmers say to game developers. One of those naïve things people want to do who don’t know any better. But while I agree it’s an illusion to think we, as beginners, and a single person, could just write out the next World of Warcraft, I can totally understand why one would want to do it.

The reason why MMORPGs are near-impossible to pull off is the same reason that makes them so interesting: They’re a big honkin’ fun challenge. They combine all the fun tech and its problems. And they’re fun to use and well regarded as well. Think about the challenges:

  • Graphics and animation – often even on low-end machines, often in 3D, with bone meshes, inverse kinematics, several detail levels of models and customizable weapons, avatars etc.
     
  • User interfaces – often completely custom written on top of low-level 3D engines.
     
  • Maths – figuring out how leveling needs to work, how different weapons interact, but also pathfinding, and graph theory for the NPCs’ limited “AI”.
     
  • Social and economic science Managing interaction between players to encourage fun, discourage trolls and griefers, and balance gameplay between beginners and hardcore gamers or at least keep them from interfering with each other’s enjoyment. Often also involving trading systems.
     
  • Networking – Including load-balancing of lots of users, accounting for input lag, streaming level data and video.
     
  • Security – In addition to traditional hackers, you’ve got lots of players and script kiddies who are fans and are just trying to game the system a little for personal benefit.
     
  • Storytelling and content-creation – Non-sequential stories depending on user decisions, and lots of other content overlapping with graphics and animation to keep players coming back, and to bridge the gaps between story missions.
     
  • Databases – Includes storing all user information with good performance under heavy load and with transactional integrity even on sudden disconnects (e.g. so you don’t “pay” for an item and then don’t receive it).

I think the only thing from computing you don’t need to know how to do for an MMORPG is how to build hardware dongles and write their drivers.

And you want to build one?

Well, yes and no. I wouldn’t really want to run an MMORPG. I also already have a job. And I suck at 3D modeling. But a bunch of these problems are intriguing and fun to think about, so I’m tinkering with ideas, writing little test projects that implement this or that part that one would need for such a game. I’ve also been reading a lot of stuff on Stack Exchange’s GameDev sub-section, for example a question on how one calculates the leveling of characters.

So you might just see me blog a little more about game design in the future. Or this may be the first and only post I’ll do about this topic before I lose interest, who knows.

So what have you made so far?

Having played a couple hundred hours of Star Trek Online, I realized that a lot of the program felt like a graphical client talking to an IRC server that had a bot that ran the actual game logic. So the networking layer is what I wanted to start with. I’m not sticking to any IRC specification, but simply started implementing a modular chat server that is kinda similar to IRC, and has chatrooms (which are useful for separating maps and their communications overhead), and of course user accounts with blocking mechanisms.

The advantage of this approach is that, even if I don’t ever make a game that uses this, it may be useful to other people who are looking for some sort of networking layer, be it for chat, or for some other social program. And at the very least it let me practice sockets and is allowing me to learn how to use TLS to encrypt a connection.

Where will it go from there?

Well, the basic idea is to then build the “bot” that actually implements the game. It will live in chat rooms, one for each map (i.e. a city, planet or whatever) and let you connect to one. Once in a chatroom, it will send you all the data you need to get started.

In the case of a graphical game that would be models, level maps etc. as well as pending messages you may have (e.g. “crafting operation completed” or “spell prepared” etc., but also remind you of mission rewards you need to accept or present a mission introduction you haven’t confirmed as read yet). It will also send status about the player, like inventory, cooldowns of abilities you’ve recently used etc. and update you about changes in any of these, and inform you of nearby enemies and allies and what they’re doing (to you?).

You can now send commands to this bot, which include character movements, casting a spell, firing a weapon or whatever.

So, oddly, all of this feels a lot like it can be implemented fairly elegantly and simply as sort of an IRC/e-mail hybrid with read receipts. And this can all be done without needing to have a client, nor any graphics. Heck, you could test this by writing an ASCII client that looks like NetHack.

The game map

The game is streamed, so it might not be the best idea to download the entire map at once. Especially if you want to be able to maybe have large or endless maps, or maps that can be re-used for different purposes. You’d want to be able to only load those parts of maps that the user visits for this mission.

So the obvious approach so far seems to be to just split the map up into tiles that have relative locations to each other and then load the tiles surrounding your player’s location, and when the player moves load additional ones so you never run out. This can be a 2D tiled map to start with, but can easily be expanded into cubes that can also be stacked vertically.

To simplify, I’ll probably have only a 2D coordinate inside each tile. The vertical coordinate for a player or NPC inside its particular tile-cube will then simply be decided by the ground level underneath it. Since we can connect the tiles arbitrarily, stairs would still be possible to make. Just create a tile with the stair model at its end:

StairsOnTileMapExample

The player will seem to walk up the stairs because the ground level rises. If we now connect the left edge of the tile to the tile one level up, the user will easily walk up one level. The only downside of this approach is that a character won’t be able to hide under the stairs.

Another advantage of using such tiles is that they can be used for collision testing. You can just block an entire tile from being stood on.

That wasn’t too hard … ?

Well, this is still missing any item management, interaction, mission objective enforcement, combat or pathfinding mechanisms, so it’s far from a game, but yeah, it’s probably what I will try to implement after the chat server is finished. Or maybe I’ll just — oh look a butterfly.

How Drawing on iOS Works

Someone on Stack Overflow recently asked about the various drawing APIs on iOS, and what the difference between using CALayers directly or using them indirectly through UIViews is, and how CoreGraphics (aka Quartz) fits into the equation. Here is the answer I gave:

The difference is that UIView and CALayer essentially deal in fixed images. These images are uploaded to the graphics card (if you know OpenGL, think of an image as a texture, and a UIView/CALayer as a polygon showing such a texture). Once an image is on the GPU, it can be drawn very quickly, and even several times, and (with a slight performance penalty) even with varying levels of alpha transparency on top of other images.

CoreGraphics (or Quartz) is an API for generating images. It takes a pixel buffer (again, think OpenGL texture) and changes individual pixels inside it. This all happens in RAM and on the CPU, and only once Quartz is done, does the image get “flushed” back to the GPU. This round-trip of getting an image from the GPU, changing it, then uploading the whole image (or at least a comparatively large chunk of it) back to the GPU is rather slow. Also, the actual drawing that Quartz does, while really fast for what you are doing, is way slower than what the GPU does.

That’s obvious, considering the GPU is mostly moving around unchanged pixels in big chunks. Quartz does random-access of pixels and shares the CPU with networking, audio etc. Also, if you have several elements that you draw using Quartz at the same time, you have to re-draw all of them when one changes, then upload the whole chunk, while if you change one image and then let UIViews or CALayers paste it onto your other images, you can get away with uploading much smaller amounts of data to the GPU.

When you don’t implement -drawRect:, most views can just be optimized away. They don’t contain any pixels, so can’t draw anything. Other views, like UIImageView, only draw a UIImage (which, again, is essentially a reference to a texture, which has probably already been loaded onto the GPU). So if you draw the same UIImage 5 times using a UIImageView, it is only uploaded to the GPU once, and then drawn to the display in 5 different locations, saving us time and CPU.

When you implement -drawRect:, this causes a new image to be created. You then draw into that on the CPU using Quartz. If you draw a UIImage in your drawRect, it likely downloads the image from the GPU, copies it into the image you’re drawing to, and once you’re done, uploads this second copy of the image back to the graphics card. So you’re using twice the GPU memory on the device.

So the fastest way to draw is usually to keep static content separated from changing content (in separate UIViews/UIView subclasses/CALayers). Load static content as a UIImage and draw it using a UIImageView and put content generated dynamically at runtime in a drawRect. If you have content that gets drawn repeatedly, but by itself doesn’t change (I.e. 3 icons that get shown in the same slot to indicate some status) use UIImageView as well.

One caveat: There is such a thing as having too many UIViews. Particularly transparent areas take a bigger toll on the GPU to draw, because they need to be mixed with other pixels behind them when displayed. This is why you can mark a UIView as “opaque”, to indicate to the GPU that it can just obliterate everything behind that image.

If you have content that is generated dynamically at runtime but stays the same for the duration of the application’s lifetime (e.g. a label containing the user name) it may actually make sense to just draw the whole thing once using Quartz, with the text, the button border etc., as part of the background. But that’s usually an optimization that’s not needed unless the Instruments app tells you differently.

What it means to be a gamer

I’m reading this GG stuff and how they send threats and … I just hope it ends well and those @$$es get prosecuted for their horrible deeds.

When women simply voice their opinion on games, or make a game and get threatened with rape and death and have to leave their homes, and people support the initiative in whose name those threats have been made instead of founding their own, more sensible initiative, it is a sign of a mob.

I play games. And I’m embarrassed by these childish, hate-mongering people. Games are about challenge, fun, escapism, expression, inclusion. GG is pure newspeak. They start at good things, then reverse them. Supporting something is manipulation, while benefiting from something is OK? Really?

Intel made a huge mistake by giving in to the GG terrorist demands and taking down their ads. But they can fix it. They can take a stance. Intel can show them that you don’t blackmail a company that is in the right with hate speech.

I try not to be political on this blog, but that’s where these monsters have driven me. I don’t want this world they have given me. I want great developers and great journalists to be safe from these monsters. I don’t know what to do. But I can’t be quiet about this.

To good people supporting GG: Get away from this toxic group. Come up with your own that expresses what you believe, because GG surely doesn’t. Don’t risk being complicit in the proliferation of hate.

Getting started with Star Trek Online

My character selection screen on STO.

I’m not a gamer, I’ve never owned a dedicated gaming device, and generally only play games like the LucasArts adventures (including successors like Telltale and Double Fine’s Broken Age), or Myst. But recently I came across Star Trek Online and caught the bug. Since STO is a rather large game, it took me a while to get into the jargon and understand it. So I thought I’d present my findings here for others who would like to try out this game.

For the TL;DR crowd, the short blurb is that STO is a massively multiplayer online RPG, but with enough story and single-player missions (some very moody and scary) that even story-puzzle-adventure nerds like me can enjoy it without feeling that the grinding is too much of an err… grind. It is set in the classic Star Trek universe of the TV series, so is a nice Sci-fi spaceship setting. The major downside is that STO’s system requirements are rather narrow, and not easy to find, and the game will just randomly crash if you don’t meet them instead of alerting you to the mismatch beforehand.

How do I get it?

STO is a free download at The STO product page at ARC games, or from Steam. Note that, while the game is not even a 60MB download, that’s not all. Once you’ve started that app and created a new STO account, it will download about 8GB of “patches” containing the actual game data. These “patches” are a common occurrence, but subsequent ones aren’t generally as huge as the initial one.

I’ve got it, how do I play?

Create new Character button

In STO you have a main character, who is the only playable character, plus in the process of the game, you get Bridge Officers, which are the NPCs that make up your crew that accompany you on ground and space missions and that support you. Your main character belongs to one of 3 factions: Federation, Klingon, or Romulan.

Character selection screen

You have to pick a gender and race for your character. Available races are:

Federation Humans, Vulcans, Andorians etc.
Klingon Klingons, Orions, Gorn, Nausicaan etc.
Romulan Romulans.

All races also have a general “Alien” race that gives you a lot of freedom in designing your character. You start from a general human build, but can add brow ridges, hair, crazy skin colors, patterns, and take the proportions of the character to slightly more non-human levels (think more Dr. Phlox, you can’t really build an overweight or flat-chested person in this game).

You also pick a career (“class”) for your character: engineering, science or tactical., The career affects the extra abilities your character will have beyond being able to run/fly around and shoot. Scientist is a “healer” character supporting other characters, while Engineering means that you build little drones and force field shields and other more defensive or indirect attack mechanisms to support yourself, while tactical means that you’re the front-line person to throw grenades and lunge and kick at the enemies.

Among the factions you can pick, Romulans are a special one, because after the destruction of their homeworld (the only reference to an event from the new movies), each Romulan can choose for themselves whether they want to side with the Federation or the Klingons. The advantage of this is that you get cool Vulcan-looking aliens (or alien-looking ones), plus cool Romulan spaceships, but you also get missions, uniforms and items of one of the other factions. Sadly, you don’t get all of them. The Romulan uniforms are kind of a variation on Romulan/Fed uniforms, but not actually those uniforms.

If you’re following along, you may have noticed that I left out a few races. You see, STO is a free-to-play game. The way they make their money, is by selling you certain things beyond the core game. Among these things are additional races for your player character, and other extra items like clothes or cooler ships. You can tell those by a little coin icon with a “Z” in it, as in “ZEN”.

ZENs are roughly equivalent to Euro-cents in value, and can be bought on their web site. Once you have ZENs, you can go to the “C-Store” (the little coin-icon-and-“store” in the lower left of your onscreen mini-map) and buy stuff there, but note that especially costumes seem to be mostly available for Federation characters. There are a few more for Klingon characters, and for Romulans of either faction it seems you’re way more limited. Also, each faction has its own ships, and usually there are more paid ships for Federation characters than for Klingons, and again more Klingon ships than Romulan ones.

This is a general theme in STO. If you want to play some of the team raids, you’ll have a much easier time finding compatriots if you’re Federation, than if you’re Klingon (Same applies to Federation-aligned Romulans vs. Klingon-aligned, but there’s no difference in this regard between Federation-Romulan or real Federation).

Advanced customization of character outfit

Note that picking a character’s race, class and gender (and later faction, if applicable) are the only permanent things about your character. You can, at almost any point in the game, fly back to base and go to a “taylor” to change your outfit, picking from the free items that you see when you create your character (plus a few more you get as you choose a faction or get promoted, and of course any you decide to buy). This outfit, oddly, includes your skin color, head shape, height etc. For the “alien” race, that means you can pretty much completely change the way your character looks, and later you can have a “uniform” and a “costume” outfit slot which offers different possibilities.

There’s also a “save outfit” button with which you can save and load outfits into these slots, giving you a near-infinite number of saved outfits, but it seems those are cleared after a while and are saved locally on your Mac.

One warning: The switcher at the bottom of the initial character creation page looks like you could switch from Appearance back to Species and Career. Don’t. You will lose any customizations you’ve done to the character’s appearance if you do so. The same happens when you toggle a character’s gender when customizing head/body/uniform of your character.

On the last screen, you name your character and your first(!) ship. Then it’s off to the tutorial.

A ground mission in Federation space dock

The tutorials and gameplay at this point are pretty self-explanatory (that’s the point, after all). Just like later in the game, you’ll get windows popping up that offer you missions, and you can choose to accept or decline them. Sometimes you’ll get additional missions while you’re on another. It’s fine to click those away, you can always go back to the Missions window later and pick a mission you’ve been offered under “episodes”. One thing to know: There are two kinds of gameplay. Space, and Ground.

Space means you’re controlling a ship (tip for users of Mac keyboards without a num pad: You can set a secondary key combination for navigating in space battles. Set that to the arrow keys, that way you can use both hands. The default has the number keys as triggers, which places your hands on top of each other when using WASD for steering. You can now control your ship the same way you steer your character during ground battles).

The tray with weapons arranged by what way weapons face.

Also, you can right-click-and-drag items in the little tray at the bottom to change their order (and thus which num key they’re triggered by). That way you can e.g. move the melee attack (pushing away an enemy when you’re in tight quarters with a punch or the end of your weapon) on 1, where your left pinky finger is, and your weapon and its secondary fire mode on 2 and 3, and then your favorite other special action on 4.

Similarly, I arrange my space weapons so that the ones that mainly face front (see the thick part of the circle in the icon) are at the left, the ones that have a big radius in the middle, and the ones that face backwards on the right, so I can fluidly transfer firepower as the ship turns. (You can even add rows to the tray using the button in its lower right — The C1 row triggers on Ctrl-1 etc., the A1 row on Alt-1 etc.)

You can save these setups as a “Loadout” for your ship. I recommend you keep at least one Loadout and save your changed settings to it, as currently STO has a bug that sometimes just forgets your equipped weapons, and this way you can quickly put everything in order again.

Now you can get playing, have fun!

Space Travel

The Galaxy Map

To travel through space, you can bring up a larger main map. This map has 3 sections. A pretty graphical map that shows you (in a slightly compacted form) which sectors of space lie near which, so you can plan long-distance trips. The idea here is that each sector is a separate location containing several star systems and space stations. Once you’re at the edge of a star system, you are offered to warp to the next sector. Note that a few “blocks” (groups of sectors) are actually farther apart, but have been moved near each other and connected with lines. So e.g. going west from Eta Eridani block will not take you to Gamma Orionis Block. Rather, it will take you to Drellis Block. Also note that the blocks’ different colors indicate what faction they belong to. Some blocks can be traveled to by whoever you are, but e.g. a Klingon-affiliated Romulan can not just go into Sirius Block where Earth is.

Then there’s the Area Map, which is the classic game map that shows you where your character/ship is right now. This is the nice interactive map of your current location, where you can click stuff to fly there. You can also click little triangles at the edges here to plot a course to the edge of a particular adjacent block so you can warp there.

Third, there’s the system list. When you’re in sector space (i.e. not in a solar system where space fights happen, or on a planet/inside a station/inside a ship where ground combat occurs), you can see a list of all the systems/stations and adjoining sectors here, to more easily find them. Note also, that the little summary of mission objectives at the right of your screen usually only mentions the name of the system. So pay attention to what sector they mention in the dialog.

You can also call up the mission objectives window (behind the “Hail Starfleet” button) and that will actually mention the sector and block. Alternately, there is a “transwarp” button next to each mission’s headline that takes you to a mission’s starting location. That costs energy credits, but it asks for confirmation first, and that confirmation mentions the sector in which the starting location can be found. Just cancel out and you know where to go. Once you’re in the right sector, the Transwarp button turns into a “plot course” button that automatically takes you to the right location for free.

Shiiips iiiin Spaaaaaaace!

One final tip about space travel: Auto-navigation using the map is not perfect. Often you have to manually fly towards an object in space to get close enough to actually be offered to beam down onto the planet. E.g. near Earth, you can immediately beam to the academy, but have to fly close to the space station to be offered to beam over to the Dock. Also, sometimes auto-navigation will leave you right below a star system in space, and you’ll have to fly up to be offered to enter the system. Also, sometimes when the ship turns during auto-navigation, it will cross the edge of the sector, and will offer to warp into that sector instead of finishing its turn and flying to where you actually told it to go. So check what sector it wants to warp to, and if it’s the wrong one just close the window asking you to warp to continue on the mapped course.

Skills and Ranks

As you execute missions, you will earn skill points. At certain amounts of skill points, you automatically advance to the next level. The rank and level for your character are displayed in the upper left. You can click that box to see what ranks you can still achieve, and what benefits go along with it:

The Rewards Window

One of the benefits, for example, is that you occasionally get a new (additional!) ship. So you don’t have to spend money on ships right away, you can wait until you hit final rank and have all the free ships, if you want another ship. Your selection of ships also increases with higher rank, but of course lower-level ships then become less interesting.

Skill points are also the “currency” you use to buy abilities for your character. You can simply use the little arrows to “spend” skill points to make yourself better at a certain ability. There are mouse-over popups that tell you all the details. Note that different skills cost different skill points for different increments.

The Skills window

Bridge officers have a narrower skill selection (about one new skill for each rank), but they are another class than you, and can thus use special abilities your player character can’t. E.g. if you’re an engineer, you can build a support drone that fights alongside your tactical bridge officers while they throw grenades at the enemy. Or if you’re tactical, your science officer will come up to you and heal you, and set up little health re-generators, or your engineering officer will set up a force field dome around you.

While bridge officers have a limited number of skills, you can obtain training manuals in exchange for energy credits to get your ideal combination of abilities. Again, this is something you will want to do once you have reached rank 50 and tried out a few bridge officers and their abilities. Some work better to balance out your character’s flaws than others.

The game usually gives you the bridge officers you need to get through the missions. So if you constantly get your energy drained by an enemy, maybe station another bridge officer you have off-duty at the moment that has an ability you haven’t tried yet (in this case “Science Team” interrupts an ongoing energy drain).

Managing Inventory

Finally, during the game you’ll pick up lots of items, which will end up in your inventory, From there, you can drag them into the Status section of the same window that shows your skills. Depending on whether you’re on a character page or the ship’s, different items in your inventory will be greyed out, so you don’t put an engine into a bridge officer’s weapons slot.

The Inventory window

If your inventory is full, you have to empty it somehow, or you won’t be able to pick up new items. Apart from spending ZEN on buying more slots, I’ve found 3 options:

  1. You can click the “replicator” button in the lower right of the inventory and then pick items to recycle (you will get “energy points” with which to buy items again from the Replicator, but the selection is limited to standard, non-fancy items, while some of the stuff you pick up during the game is much nicer).
  2. You can go to the bank on the base (the flotilla/New Romulus, the space dock, or Q’o’nos), which is a little computer in which you can dump a limited number of items and pick them up later when you need them again.
  3. You can go to the “exchange” terminal on one of the bases (and many space stations), and offer them for sale to other players. Not all items can be sold (who would want a common Mark I phaser when they’re already at Level 10 and get Mark X stuff during missions). The prices on the exchange are sometimes higher than what you see printed on the items. I sometimes put up items I don’t really want to sell, but can’t have in the inventory right now. Then I later withdraw them from sale. Of course, someone might still buy it, but at least then I get some energy credits from it.

Comparing inventory

Also, when you get new inventory items, you may want to immediately use them. But what if you get a “Personal Shield Mk II [Pha] [Pla]” and a “Personal Shield Mk II [Dis]”? What’s the difference? Well, one will probably be in your character’s/ship’s corresponding slot. Make sure you can see your character’s status page, then mouse over the new item in your inventory. It will now show you a popup describing this item, plus one for each equivalent item your character/ship has. And now you can compare their stats. I don’t claim I understand their stats fully, but I guess if the Shield Capacity is bigger, the shield is better.

BTW — items are classified into different classes: Common, Uncommon, and Rare. So if they’re all Mk II shields, but one is Rare, it’s often the better one. I’ve even had cases where a Mk IV Rare was better than a Mk V Common one. Also, some items are “bound” to your character, or to your account. That means you can’t sell them on the exchange or e-mail them off in-game to another person (or even can’t e-mail them to another character you created on your account). Some are only “bound on equip”, which means if you just pick them up but don’t actually give them to one of your characters or ships, you can still sell them. So if you get something you don’t need, it’s sometimes handy to not try out that item right away, so you can maybe later sell it.

Devices and Kits

A lot of stuff you’ll find will be called “Devices”, and will look like food, or hypo-sprays (I.e. health bonuses) etc. You can put this in a character’s device slot on the Status page, and your bridge officers will use them up when they’re being attacked. If your player character has a device, you can drag it to the little tray at the bottom and trigger it. There’s even a bunch of Tribble devices. I guess they relax you and thus make you more resilient to certain kinds of attacks (like, “ice tribble” makes you less susceptible to Breen ice attacks, etc.).

The main difference in your character’s status page and that of the bridge officers is that you have a “kit” slot. At some points in the game, you come across a kit. Most will not match your character’s chosen profession, but those that do will give you bonuses and skills if you drag them to that slot, where they’ll kick the previous kit back into your inventory. There’s also a little bracket or three to the left of the kit slot that can hold one or more “kit modules” with additional abilities, like additional combat skills. Note that when you remove a kit and put it in your inventory, it will take along your kit modules, so if you want to use those in a new kit, take them out first.

Dilithium and Duty Officers

The Duty Officers Window
At some point, you will get a bunch of Duty Officers. Duty Officers are not Bridge Officers, they are more like bonus cards that you can draw. There are duty officers that can make your shields restore faster, duty officers that you can call for help on a ground mission to get an extra rifle against the enemy, and similar stuff.

There’s a whole separate window for duty officers that is basically covered in the tutorials. But there are 2 things you can do with duty officers: You can put them on Active Space/Ground Duty
(which means you will benefit from their abilities), or you can send them off on assignments.

Refining Dilithium

The latter is essentially a gamble where you are not able to use a Duty Officer’s abilities for a specified time (I’ve seen durations from 30 minutes to 72 hours, real time, but you don’t have to be logged in). In exchange, if the random number generator isn’t against you, you get small items, skill points (meaning you can increase your rank this way), additional duty officers (“refugees” or “prisoners”), Bridge Officers, or other kinds of currency. In particular, you can get Dilithium, which you can use to buy stuff at certain in-game stores. You can also get some of these items as occasional drops from missions, but getting them and not really having to do anything sounds kinda preferable.

That said, most missions give you about 5 Dilithium or so, and items in the Dilithium store cost somewhere in the 5-figures range. Also, once you have Dilithium, you have to refine it on the “Assets” tab of the window that has your inventory, and you can at most refine 8000 Dilithium per day. So even if you find more than 8000, it’ll take 3 days to get enough “refined” for one of the smaller items. And you can’t get it all from the few Duty Officers (assignments are limited, as are DOffs), so you’d have to also take on some of the repeatable missions where you mine or earn Dilithium.

Special Events

Star Trek Online often runs special seasonal or promotional events where stuff you would have to pay for is free for a little while. You can then “buy” those items in the store for 0 ZEN. Some events also include a temporary ceasefire, where e.g. even Klingon characters can fly to Risa in federation space and play some of the missions there. So keep an eye out for news on special events, particularly if you don’t plan to spend money. There is also a live stream on Twitch every week where they give away stuff.

Fleets and other Players

Whenever you’re in one of the bigger areas with other players, it can happen that you get a little pop-up window requesting you join a fleet. Fleets are groups of players. I.e. actual humans banding together and playing as a team on-line. There’s an NPC in the game that can give you more info, but you don’t have to join any fleets right away. Wait a little, get to know the game, then investigate what fleets are good for and which one you want to join later. OTOH, if you find a good fleet, they might help you get started with the game.

The Foundry

Vacation in your own engine room
The Foundry is the name of the user-generated missions on STO. Once you’ve completed the tutorial, you can play additional missions there (they have their own tab in the Missions window). I’ve found some quite well-written and fun episodes there, and before you start them you can even see a rating whether they’re ground or space missions (or a bit of both) or have story etc. I quite enjoyed The Mayns of Balnar Moon.

PS – Sometimes, there are balloons in the game. And why don’t you try visiting your own ship’s bridge and walk around the corridors and check out the engine room? Hint: You get there somehow using the mini-map window.

Update: Now that I’m past Level 40, I’ve corrected some of my conclusions. In particular, Romulan turns out to not quite be as cool as it originally sounded, and I added mention of the Exchange and arranging your tray.

Update: Now that I’m at Level 50, and have also created a few additional characters and leveled them up a bit, I’ve added more info on character classes and things outside the game, bridge officer skills, bound items, and accidental warping during auto-travel in space.

Update: Updated to reflect some of the changes in how duty officers now work differently from your character, and how you probably want to start out as a Fed character. Also added a mention of Loadouts to work around a bug, and a trick I found to determine mission start locations.