USA Games News

October 31, 2011

Introduction

Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of the USA Games News.
As we haven't put out a press release in quite some time and today is
Halloween we thought now would be a good time to bring the community
up to date with the latest changes and news.

First, an apology is in order. Late in September we mentioned we were
considering putting out a game for Halloween. At the time it was
something we could do fairly quickly, and because we weren't going to
market the game we were not going to add all the features we could.
Which means the game probably would have not been up to our usual
standards to begin with.

However, early on in production we realized that we did not
necessarily have all the music and sound effects necessary to create a
game of the type we had in mind. We were looking at investing a few
hundred in music and sounds, and since we had just purchased new
64-bit laptops there was no money to speak of for sounds and music for
this production. The end result would have been cheaply done without
it, and to do the game right we would have to end up charging for it.
So that didn't square well with us.

The other issue was time. Once October got started my wife and I were
constantly busy with one thing or another. Halloween parties, a fall
cookout, antique festivals, or just sitting back and watching
Halloween movies on TV. Basically, it came down to a choice of working
on a game for little to no money, or spending that time with our
family and friends. In the end the family/friends won out, and before
we had time to really get a serious start on it there was no time left
to work on the project before Halloween was upon us.

So at this point the Halloween game  is not completely abandoned but
has been postponed. Since there is only about two months until
Christmas we need to get things back on track in terms of our
commercial projects. Mysteries of the Ancients is nearing
completion---as will be discussed at further length in this news
letter---and Raceway still needs a lot of work to be completed before
we can have any kind of public beta or demo. So our development
schedule is pretty full until the end of the year on our main titles.

We would like to apologize for not delivering this game as intended,
and we hope next year we will be able to have more time to spend on it
for next Halloween. Until then though we have our hands full with
other projects.

Genesis 3D

One of the projects that has been getting a lot of work over the last
month or so is our Genesis Engine, G3D, which we think will help
improve all of our projects. It will speed up development time in the
future as well as add some more flexibility in the kinds of games we
can create.

For instance, we've been looking at creating an RPG style game for
quite some time, but unfortunately with that type of game prerecorded
speech is totally impractical.  There is no way to add custom names,
classes, or weapons to a game without recording the files and having
the game load and playback the wav file. Not to mention with that kind
of game its easy to have hundreds of weapons, special items, and
several characters and places all that would have to be prerecorded.
It goes without saying that recording and editing hundreds perhaps
thousands of speech clips take a very very long time to do.  Finally,
the worst part is because all of the speech clips are prerecorded
there is no way to change the pitch, rate, volume, or voice on the
fly. If that needs to be changed it requires rerecording, editing, and
testing  everything from scratch. Its such a time consuming process
that it is not really ideal for any kind of game let alone a large RPG
type game.

One thing we briefly looked at was some kind of text-based user
interface. We wrote a simple blackjack game, drew a standard window,
added a textbox, and printed text to the screen. It worked, but wasn't
a good solution to the problem mainly because in order to read the
text on the screen the player constantly had to review the screen with
the Jaws, Window-Eyes, or NVDA review cursor. If a gamer wanted the
text to be spoken automatically they'd have to use frames, user
windows, or write scripts to capture the new text and speak it aloud.
Needless to say it really wasn't a good option either.

This, of course, leaves us with something like SAPI support. SAPI
support is fine, but there are a few issues that make it less than
ideal as well.

The first issue is available voices. A lot of people--including
myself---have recently purchased new 64-bit computers running Windows
7. Unfortunately, most of the voices out there from AT&T, Cereproc,
etc are 32-bit voices only. While most 32-bit voices will run on a
64-bit version of Windows 7 it is still problematic to get some games
and applications to use them. I've actually had applications and games
crash when using a 32-bit voice where the same application or game
runs fine when using a 64-bit voice like Microsoft Anna.

As you might expect the recommended solution for this problem is to
purchase 64-bit voices from Ivona, Cepstral, or use Microsoft Anna.
The problem is that it could get expensive purchasing all new 64-bit
voices and speech engines. That's not precisely a desirable solution
either.

The second issue is licensing. Over the last three/four years or so
we've noticed a trend among developers to switch from using an open
standard like SAPI 5 support to exclusive licensing per product.

The RealSpeak voices from Nuance is a case in point. A few years ago a
customer could  purchase the RealSpeak voices from Nuance or a
third-party reseller like Freedom Scientific and use it with Jaws,
Window-eyes, Openbook, NVDA, Text Aloud, or any other SAPI compatible
product for Windows. However, now the RealSpeak voices are only sold
to developers on a per product basis and will only work with that
specific product weather it is TextAloud, Jaws, whatever. Since USA
Games is a small independent company and we can't afford to license
those voices that means we can not  directly support them with our
products.

Last but not least, SAPI has had a reputation of breaking and crashing
unexpectedly. We've been a member of the Audio Games community long
enough to see it happen more times than we can count. As a developer
of audio games we do have to consider this potential problem as well.

Fortunately, there seems to be a viable solution for all of these
problems. Many of the audio game developers such as GMA allow the
player to choose the type of speech service to use weather it is Jaws,
Window-Eyes, NVDA, System Access, or Sapi. Over this past year two or
three other audio game developers have began using this method for
text to speech as well, and so far it looks like a good solution over
all. So that's where USA Games is headed as well.

Over the last few weeks we have been upgrading the G3D speech engine
so that you will be able to select a screen reader like Jaws, NVDA,
etc or use SAPI for speech output if no screen reader is available.
Adding this feature will be extremely helpful for a number of reasons.

First, its very flexible and customizable. Over the summer during beta
testing of Mysteries of the Ancients there was some negative feedback
as to the voice being too fast, too slow, or the customer simply
didn't like the voice we chose to use. This way if there is a voice
you happen to like that works with your screen reader or works with
SAPI directly chances are you will now be able to select it and use it
with our future products built using the Genesis Engine.

Second, its a lot easier to use and is a lot faster than creating
prerecorded speech clips. This way if we are creating a menu item we
can just type something like
    SpeakMessage ("New Game (n)", true);
and whatever speech service the engine happens to be using by default
it will speak it. We don't have to do anything else to have instant
access to speech which suits us just fine.

Finally, we've noticed a dramatic increase in performance once we
switched over to using something like NVDA for speech output. Instead
of the game having to load, play, and unload a speech clip it sends
the text directly to the screen reader which is nearly instant
feedback. As a result moving through menus, lists, etc is much
smoother and more natural. Not to mention removing those speech clips
saves at least fifty MB of drive space, and the download is much
smaller too. So all around its a better solution in the long run.

Another area of development is that we've finally started cleaning out
unnecessary code and removing various open source dependencies. We've
decided that because Windows is our primary target group what we need
is a stable engine running on the latest and greatest Windows APIs and
technologies and not one that uses a lot of open source APIs and
technologies. There is a good reason for this.

For months development on the engine and our other products were held
up because we were experimenting with the possibility of creating a
cross-platform engine that could run on Mac OS, Linux, and Windows
based on open source technologies. We could have done it, but as we
found out the hard way many of the APIs we would have had to use such
as SDL, SFML, and ESpeak aren't up to the same standards as DirectX
and SAPI. We would  have had to leave many features out, and there
were plenty of platform specific issues to deal with. In the end it
became too much to deal with for very little gain.

Plus as several of our fellow developers pointed out there really
isn't a strong financial market for those platforms either. Most VI
computer users use Windows XP, Vista, and now Windows 7. There are
maybe a couple hundred VI Mac users we know of, and probably that many
VI Linux users, but its still a small minority. Its hard to say how
many extra sales that would be, and if the effort to produce
cross-platform games would really be worth the effort in the first
place.

Whatever the current status of Mac and Linux gaming is Windows still
has the lion's share of users, and it has very good game APIs and
tools. Microsoft's XAudio2 library, which has replaced DirectSound on
Windows 7, has superior sound support when paired with a 5.1 or 7.1
surround sound soundcard. Microsoft's XInput library is the way to go
if a game developer is intending on supporting something like XBox 360
controllers. Microsoft's Speech API, SAPI, is still the easiest way to
support several high quality voices and speech engines for the Windows
platform not to mention using SAPI  for speech recognition and voice
input. The bottom line here is that Windows for all its faults still
has a lot of great technologies that make it a great gaming
environment, and has lots of technologies to be picked up and used. So
we might as well support them, and include those technologies we find
useful in our engine. There is no sense in holding the engine back
hoping to find some open source solution that compares to what is
already available.

So we've been cleaning house. We've removed a lot of test code added
to the engine over the last year or so, and have been replacing it
with stable Windows technologies and APIs we hope will be useful in
creating future games. In short, we are just getting the engine stable
so that games like Mysteries of the Ancients and USA Raceway will be
using a stable and rock solid engine written and designed specifically
for Windows rather than using any number of oddball components and
technologies.

Mysteries of the Ancients

To tell the truth we haven't had a lot of time to work on Mysteries of
the Ancients for the past month or so, but I can definitely tell you
where we are heading starting in November.

Basically, as far as Mysteries of the Ancients is concerned there is
not a great deal of work that needs to be done to get this game ready
for release. We have plans to update the game to use the latest most
stable version of the Genesis 3D  Engine, and  then we are going to
add and fix various minor things we've overlooked until now. We will
add the final game levels, and add the product registration system to
the game. After that, probably in early December or so, we hope to put
up release candidate 1 for testing. So there isn't much more to say
about the standard version here.

As for the FPS version of Mysteries of the Ancients its also in
production. There are a number of things that need to be updated, but
once we get the side-scroller version well o its way the FPS version
shouldn't take too long to update and release. It shares quite a bit
of code with the side-scroller version so a lot of the changes I'm
doing now to the side-scroller version can be easily merged with the
FPS version at the same time speeding up production. Hopefully, we
will have two very decent products ready around Christmas time. Only
time will tell.

Superslam

As some of you might recall over the summer we started work on a new
wrestling game named Superslam. Originally it started off as a remake
of Piledriver, but thanks to many hours of development its turning out
to be a far better game in the long run for a number of reasons.

Unlike Piledriver Superslam is fully self-voicing. You can use Jaws,
NVDA, or SAPI .Window-Eyes, System Access, and Hal currently aren't
supported, but we hope to eventually support those screen readers
directly as well. Having this direct screen reader support is very
responsive and tends to give play by play action in real time rather
than having to review the screen constantly for new text.

Another huge advantage over a game like Piledriver is sounds and
music. While there is still a lot of work that needs to be added to
this part of the game it is still pretty cool to hear your performer's
entrance music play when you enter the ring or win a match. Not to
mention hear the crowd cheer, boo, and react to what is happening in
the ring. Its so much more entertaining having that background
ambiance while you take turns wrestling the computer opponent.

Also unlike Piledriver Superslam actually has pull down menus you can
scroll through rather than picking a number and pressing enter. One
thing that drove me crazy about Pile Driver is I might have a list of
280 performers and I had to look up their ID and type it in and press
enter to go to the next screen. In Superslam it uses standard menus
which makes things a whole lot easier. When you begin a match it will
display a menu of performers. You can simply arrow up and down through
the choices, and press enter to select the one you want. That is so
much more user friendly than Piledriver.

Superslam also comes with a completely up to date database. Piledriver
was written in the mid 1990's so a lot of the performers were from the
1980's and 1990's from the AWA, NWA, WWF, and WCW. Superslam uses
current superstars from WWE Raw and WWE Smackdown. Both male and
female performers are supported so chances are your current favorite
WWE performers are already in the game.

Finally, last but not least, is being able to select and play at
special events. A number of special events are being added to the game
including Hell in a Cell, Vengence, Wrestlemania, Summerslam, Night of
Champions, etc so you can pretty much pick and choose what events you
want to enter your performers in and where to play them.

So in conclusion we've been working hard to make Superslam a great
accessible wrestling game, and so far games like Piledriver and
Wrestling league Manager can't hold a candle to this one. I myself
have had a lot of fun testing it, and it will be even more fun once it
is complete and all the bugs are worked out of it.

As to when it will be released we don't have any idea. As metnioned
earlier all of our time will be spent on MOTA throughout November and
December so there will be little time if any to work on side projects
like Superslam. So stay tuned and we'll provide more information about
this title as it becomes available.

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