Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Sprint Update 15.04.2015 - Encrypted Spring Cleaning

Our files and folders are once again blooming, and a prune here and there over the last sprint has helped everything burst tidily into spring!

When you are making an indie game that has a longer production lifetime than a couple of months, and more than one team member on that game, it can be pretty surprising how much project management and organization is required. That is why larger companies (that are well run) are more economically viable up to a point, as you can dedicate a role to handling much of the admin and smooth running of a company and its production schedule.

In a two man team, an agile / sprint based approach helps us keep on top of it and makes all our tasks answerable to each other in a clear set of units of work, to be delivered in a given amount of time each sprint. However, keeping that work well organized and backed up, duplicated is an ongoing task that often small teams can neglect, especially when attempting to hit deadlines or when in the ‘flow’ of creating a feature.

As you may know if you read our blog regularly, the main project and majority of our dev work is all back up to AWS servers via version control software called Perforce. However a lot of our source art and design documentation has at times been spread out over various accounts, cloud services, shared documents on local machines, and project management software we have trialed such as MindJet (which wasn’t flexible or affordable enough), Trello (which has been great) and others we are considering like Jira. This has largely been because of the fact that, historically, large amounts of cloud storage for centralising everything with a decent interface like Drive or Dropbox, have been prohibitively expensive, and AWS style services are priced based on flexible traffic and usage and so hard to forecast price. to add to that, unless you implement something like OwnCloud, server space has the added complication of a less friendly interface for when you just want to be able to send a new team member or artist to a folder to work in and out of. We’ve been keeping an eye on products for these purposes and weighing things up semi-regularly, and it seems recently that there has bee a sea change in the competitiveness of space for price.

Step onto the Market hubiC

By far the best option we have found recently though, and what prompted our spring clean, is a a service called Hubic, offering a whopping 10TB for 50EUR per year. The interface is good and it runs a web version and various syncable desktop/mobile folders. It’s not up there with anything like Spider Oak in terms of encryption and privacy but we have moved to running our own encryption of sensitive files that we want to share online. whether it be through PGP messages encrypted through Enigmail for smaller details, or ‘Safes’ or folders for sets of files on cloud storage encrypted using EncFS. Everything else is work that, although we’d prefer to share at our own discretion, is mainly concept art and design ideas that don’t need extreme layers of security, we’re not making Half-Life 2 here!

So with all that back ground, we set up a Hubic account and have gone about spending a bit of time starting to go over all our source materials and making sure they were in a tidy, central, regularly backed up location rather than spread over several machines, external disks and free cloud allowances!

The result is a relief, and the amount of space has meant we have been able to take large projects such as all the source material and project structures for our video work, trailers, animatics, etc. tidy the projects, place it all centrally, and forget about it! Phew! That’s why you spring clean right?!

So EncFS eh…

I mentioned encrypting sensitive files, and you Linux users out there will (or should) know that EncFS is easily available in Ubuntu and so a regular go to for folder-based encryption. However, a lot of the software we use, including Unity, means that we have to operate on the Windows side as well, meaning that any folder encrypted needs to be accessible from there too. We decided to set up EncFS on all platforms for safely sharing company docs through Google Drive, Hubic etc. If you are interested you can set up Safe or EncFSMP for accessing the encrypted folder from Windows and then (if using Google Drive) set up gdrive driver for Linux & create encrypted directory inside the Google Drive one..

Back, back, back… back it up

We also decided that after the pain we went through when Pontus‘s laptop imploded a few weeks ago, that for the companies sake, machine backups that are regurlary and seamlessly encrypted and backed up to a couple of places was a good idea, as we aren’t sure the NSA and GCHQ supply their backups of everyone’s data on request… ; P

If your interested in doing the same there are some good open source projects out there to cater to this. You should definitely check out Duplicati. (Linux users out there can just go for Duplicity, if you happen to run Ubuntu you’ll find out that it’s included in the default setup together with nice graphical UI integrated with the system and the file manager)

They are still developing the links into popular cloud services but its definitely a project work looking at. We’d also recommend continuing to do local backups yourself so you can save machine back ups locally to an external hard drive and then regularly upload encrypted back ups to HubiC or similar cloud storage too.

Its a lot to write about a relative inane subject, but its one of those things that most of us are at least a little lax with. As Semaeopus continues on as a studio and continues to produce work and resources, the bigger a loss it would be to lose work through lack of organisation or lack of regular back ups. Whether you are a studio or an individual, it’s definitely worth being cogent of the fact that, as our lives move increasingly online, it’s getting harder to keep sensitive or personal documents from eventually ending up needing to be emailed or on the cloud. So getting into keeping a safe or encrypted cloud folder is probably worth considering. I still wouldn’t put my life in the cloud as some people do, but if you have to put something you wouldn’t want to share with the entire world online then an encrypted folder is better than nothing.

So what has our clear of the decks freed us up to work on?!

Well we had a fun little project that we’ll wait to tell you more about in the next sprint, but a clue would be that it involved a sock and a video camera, nuff said…!

We have continued pushing and pulling the data mechanics and the systems that underlie them. We knew when we started this project that much of the battle would sit in user interface design and working out fun an intuitive ways of displaying large troves and tangles of data. Working on how all this is displayed is a continual task…

Easier-to-read DataPoints

In the last sprint we added different looking DataPoints for different types of data to make it easier for the player to differentiate between them and find the important stuff. Continuing the same work, we tweaked the opacity of the DataPoint itself and the displayed text to make the text stand out better. And to solve the problem with DataPoints being created close to each other and overlapping, we tweaked them so they will now automatically offset their location when necessary to make it easier for the player to select between nearby data.

Copy File

…and the reason why you’d want to select the data? To copy it to your phone, of course. We’ve been working on combining our data and inventory systems properly, and the first step is of course being able to store any data created in game (not just the data we’ve added to the library for story purposes) on your phone for better viewing and, in the future, to send it around and edit it.

While still rather crude system, it’s now functional at least and we’ll continue improving the system in next sprints so things should get pretty interesting soon.

No signal?

Not the biggest change gameplay-wise, but after tweaking our data system to handle data from different networks and changing our prototype level’s objectives to require connecting to them, we thought it would be a good idea to also visualize the network(s) you are currently connected to properly. And since the idea is that the game character is viewing the world through a set of AR glasses connected to his mobile phone, seeing the mobile & wireless signals in the UI makes sense anyway.

So, now you’ll see icons based on the networks you are connected to, and as you’d expect, the icon will change based on the signal strength. For now it’s just random, but who knows, maybe you’ll be able to hide in basement or wrap your phone in aluminium foil to stop it from being tracked. Or have some fun time trying to climb to high enough spot to make a phone call…

Playing Designer…

Part of designing games is playing them, but making sure you target your criticisms in a way that is constructive to your design work can  sometimes be tricky. It’s so easy to just end up enjoying yourself in a  good game! However, thankfully for a designer, bad games often present
design conversations, and I find comparing two games that handle similar elements of design 9one good and one problematically) can be a great  way of breaking down what it is that you find really enjoyable about  that title that does what you want to, really well.

For us, although we are making a non-combat game, the Metal Gear series holds up some of our favorite moments of tense stealth, and the latest installment in MGS:Ground Zeros also pulls in elements of data tracking and tagging, something we have been keeping central to Off Grid since day 1. Watchdogs in start contrast handles both of these elements badly in our opinion, favoring chases and head on combabt over tactics, and layering data over the top as a veneer to mask it as a new concept.

The most frustrating thing about Watchdogs though is the fact that your interactions with data seem arbitrary most the time, and yet they are still very much ‘placed’ and limited rather than being layers of data that you can work to gain access to all of. The fact that you can only read a single text message string on one NPC, or only access the bank details of another, with no real reasoning is completely counter to the notion that personal data is pervasive and a large trail we all leave. Metal Gear doesn’t attempt at this, but what it does do in stark contrast is allow the player to tag any and all targets and gives up specific and useful information on them, allowing the player to start to sort and capture useable data as reconnaisance. This ultimately makes data capture a tool, not a new-wave re-brand of poor quality NPC mumblings, something that Cliffski rightly coined as ‘gossip+quest+lifestory vending machines’ when looking at the NPC’s in Skyrim.

A Thousand Voices: Open Game Development

This panel at GDC on ‘Open Game Development’ lead us to spend a bit of time thinking about and formalizing our ideas on potential release patterns, and how we continue to open up lines of communication with you good folks, the people who take an interest in the game and what we are doing. It’s definitely worth a look and has some great insights from some of our favorite developers.
That’s about it, so hopefully we have inspired you to pick up a feather duster and give your own systems a bit of a spring clean, and either way catch you next time!

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