Brad Wardell's Blog


GalCiv IV Dev Journal #2

Published on Thursday, May 20, 2021 By Brad Wardell In GalCiv IV Dev Journals

So how do you make your galactic civilization feel like it’s a living, breathing thing? Put (simulated) living, breathing things in it: characters.

We have moved everything that makes sense from being an abstract number to being a character.  Population? Instead of it being 3.2 billion, it's just 3 characters. Every character has stats and background.

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Every character has a set of skills with numerical values to them.  They also have a backstory and can be interacted with in various ways.  These characters do everything, from acting as your representatives on planets (governors – not AI governors – they don’t make decisions for you, they carry out your will), to managing your technology policies (and again, they don’t make decisions for you, they carry out your will).

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When a character is put in charge of a planet, their stats provide perks to the planet. But like real people, they have needs and ambitions, and if those needs and ambitions aren’t satisfied bad things can happen, including them going independent and taking their planets with them. We’ll be talking about core worlds vs. colonies in the next journal. Suffice to say, these characters are pretty powerful.

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On planets, population now grows in whole numbers since each population is now represented by a citizen character with their own intelligence, social stats, etc.

Jobs

Characters are given jobs in the game. All jobs make use of one of the character’s skills. Make someone a scientist, and their bonus to your colony is based on their intelligence. Make them an entertainer, and it’s based on their social skill. Make them a farmer, and their bonus is based on their diligence skill. Make them a soldier, and their resolve stat comes into play.

Similarly, characters that you make into ministers provide global bonuses based on their stats:

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And of course, every species has pros and cons on these stats.  Humans are, naturally, decent overall but not great in any of them.  Drengin are very high in resolve but very low in social, for instance.

You, as the Emperor/President for Life of your civilization, must herd these cats while simultaneously dealing with guys like this:

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But fear not - while there are thousands of characters out there, you only need to really care about a handful. Which handful you should care about depends on who you give what power to. Put someone in charge of 37 colony worlds and now you should probably care about them. But, some colonist on Backwater world 53 is probably not someone you need to think about…until it turns out that they contracted a parasite that takes over everyone minds and that it has since spread to nearby worlds. Or maybe that scientist on Urara IV whose wife is being held captive by the Drengin Empire and has been supplying them secrets in the hopes of getting her back.  But you know, otherwise - nothing to worry about.

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GalCiv IV Journals

 

GalCiv IV Info Guide

Published on Tuesday, May 11, 2021 By Brad Wardell In GalCiv IV Dev Journals

Galactic Civilizations is a 4X space strategy game set in the future right after humans have launched their first colony ship into space.  The popular franchise is well known for combining good AI, free-form ship movement, and a ship designer.

The current edition, Galactic Civilizations III, was released in 2015 to much praise from both gamers and reviewers with particular emphasis on its high replay value, extensive technology tree and clever computer opponents.

Now, 6 years later, Stardock returns with Galactic Civilizations IV.

  • Title: Galactic Civilizations IV
  • Developer: Stardock Entertainment
  • Platform: Microsoft Windows 10
  • Early Access: Summer 2021 (Alpha version)
  • Release Date: TBD
  • Homepage: www.galciv4.com

A Recap

Galactic Civilizations is a strategy game of the 4X genre.  4X stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate.  Other games in this genre include Master of Orion, Civilization, Endless Legend, Alpha Centauri. There is no hard and fast rule on what makes a game a 4X game other than that the games typically involve those 4 elements.

At the start of the game, players have Earth – assuming they choose to play as the humans. The first colony ship has just launched and a sea of stars awaits them.  Over the course of the game, players will encounter other civilizations and soon run out of unclaimed planets to colonize. Players research new technologies, fight wars, trade goods, engage in diplomacy, improve their worlds, and ultimately win either through conquest, uniting with the other civilizations, or technological ascension.

Galactic Civilizations' best known features include its ship designer, which allows players to create and share starships of their own design, its open universe map, its attention to good computer AI, and use of star bases to spread influence and improve planets.

What’s new in Galactic Civilizations IV

GalCiv IV aims to take the best elements from GalCiv III and take it to the next level.  Below are some highlights:

An Empire of Empires

Previous GalCiv games involved an AI for each computer opponent.  In GalCiv IV, each civilization is made up of hundreds of characters each controlled by an AI. These characters have their own strengths, weaknesses, and backstories. They carry out the player’s orders, but they also have their own agendas and can be influenced by things like opposing civilizations, their own greed and ambitions, or the current state of the galaxy.

A Maps of Maps

GalCiv is well known for its free-form maps. The player selects a map size and ships can move in any direction hex by hex.  GalCiv IV takes this concept and builds on it by having a given “map” be a sector, which is then connected to other sectors. Early on, players can only travel between sectors through specific pathways calls subspace streams. Later, players gain the ability to travel directly through subspace. This change means that the exploration and expansion periods of the game continue throughout the game rather than being only at the start of the game and allows for much bigger playing fields for the civilizations.

A Story of Stories

Earlier entries in the series included a single campaign story and then a separate sandbox mode.  In Galactic Civilizations IV, the campaign is gone. In its place is a vastly larger epic that could never be contained in a hundred playthroughs, let alone a single one. These stories, now called missions, originate from the characters and events occurring through a given playthrough.  The result being that each game is designed to feel like an epic story.

The Evolution of Space Strategy Games

These major changes are only the start of what amounts to a major reimagining of not just Galactic Civilizations, but the nature of 4X games entirely.  As computers have gotten more powerful, games such as Galactic Civilizations have the opportunity to depart from the board-game like nature of their ancestors.  Galactic Civilizations IV is essentially an AI-driven simulator with a turn-based strategy surface. 

Traditionally, strategy games have been designed in terms of equal or near equal allies and opponents.  But nations are made up of states. States are made up of counties. Counties are made up of cities and so forth.  Galactic Civilizations IV aims to give users the sense that they really are the leader of an interstellar government with people who may have their own agendas and merely require the opportunity to act on it.

With Galactic Civilizations IV, Stardock looks to greatly increase the immersion of the game by having each game be its own epic story.  The player’s galactic sandbox is so different from game to game now that each game is best described as its own campaign.

Screenshots

GalCiv IV Dev Journal #1

Published on Monday, May 10, 2021 By Brad Wardell In GalCiv IV Dev Journals

And so it begins…

Make sure you check out www.galciv4.com, and in particular the FAQ and Game pages, which will give you a lot of details on what’s coming.

A little background

Before we start, I should introduce myself. I’m Brad Wardell. I designed and programmed the very first Galactic Civilizations game back in 1993 for OS/2. I literally programmed it out of my college dorm room after picking up “Teach Yourself C in 21 days”. 

While OS/2 didn’t take off like IBM thought, it gave me the opportunity to make a game that focused on really good AI and a unique style of gameplay. For the past 30 years, I’ve been making space strategy games, albeit with more resources than back in 1993 when I was hand drawing space ships with an icon editor.

Two philosophies

While I was programming on my 386SX and talking on Usenet, the guys at Simtex  were making a game called “Star Lords,” which was eventually released as Master of Orion. These games represented two main philosophies on how to do a space strategy game – the free form movement style of Galactic Civilizations, and the phase-lane/star to star method of Master of Orion.

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Most space games seem to have taken the MOO route of point to point. It’s not hard to understand why. Every tile, even in space, uses RAM. Think how small Civ maps were back in the 90s. Since GalCiv was on OS/2, we had entire MEGA-bytes of memory to work with.  Even in GalCiv III, those huge maps consume a lot of RAM.

Modern Space Games 

In the early 2000s, we became friends with a company called Paradox.  They were our European distributor for Galactic Civilizations II.  The guys at Paradox and Stardock worked like peas in a pod. In 2012, the Master of Orion IP went up for auction. Both Stardock and Paradox were eager to get this IP. However, we were both narrowly outbid by Wargaming.net, who later went on to make a new Master of Orion.

Instead of a Stardock or Paradox Master of Orion game, we ended up with Galactic Civilizations III and Stellaris.  While one can speculate how things might have gone if either of us had acquired the Master of Orion IP, I think most people are glad with how both games turned out.

Galactic Civilizations III preludes

After Stardock sold its Impulse platform, I decided to focus my energies into co-founding a couple of start-ups. The first, Oxide, was made up of the lead Civ devs over at Firaxis.  They had recently finished Civilization V and some of them had interviewed over at Stardock to investigate what came next. We ended up hiring Jon Shafer, who was the lead designer of Civilization V - he did the original design for Galactic Civilizations III.  A whole bunch of our internal terminology is based on some of his UX innovations (such as the “Shafer button”).  

The Oxide team was focused on making a next-generation game engine.  Stardock had tried to make a 4th generation engine for Elemental and it was a disaster. Oxide developed Nitrous, which powers Ashes of the Singularity.  Today they’re working on a big secret project.

Meanwhile, Soren Johnson and I were putting together another studio made up of some Firaxis vets called Mohawk to create Offworld Trading Company.  Today they’re about to release their second game, Old World.

Being the CEO of Oxide and the President of Mohawk (and President and CEO of Stardock) meant I wasn’t available to work on Galactic Civilizations III. Early on, Jon left to make At the Gates and Cari, the lead developer of GalCiv I and II (for Windows), was on extended maternity leave. So, GalCiv III was quite a challenge to develop.

Launch

The GalCiv III that launched in 2015 is a very different game than the one in 2021, as the two screenshots (launch and current) make clear.

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At release, Galactic Civilizations III got great reviews and was a good game at launch.  But it wasn’t a great game.  We had our work cut out for us.

Lessons from GalCiv III

To understand why some people felt GalCiv III was a step back from GalCiv II, we need to look at GalCiv II.

GalCiv II was filled with story-driven events.  I hard-coded these in C++, but made a lot of them and they could be very in-depth and interesting.  This meant that every game of GalCiv II could end up feeling like an epic story.

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But it wasn’t just the events, it was hundreds of tiny touches that increased immersion. For example, the player could look on any species ship and get a readout of its equipment with race-themed named for these components. The Altarian weapon names were always super passive aggressively named like “Not necessarily friendship giver Mark IV”

Plus the stats. The endless, unnecessary stats.

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Even the combat seemed more interesting.

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But, Galactic Civilizations III was a design of its time.  Designed in 2012 and released in 2015 the goal was to make it more mainstream.  "Streamlining" was the word of the day. GalCiv III wasn’t the only casualty of this line of thinking.  Elemental: War of Magic might have been buggy, but it had depth. So many details. 

But by 2016 we were making Sorcerer King, which had streamlined all the “rough edges” out. In a pre-Unity world, this strategy made sense. We wanted to make sure these games would appeal both to hardcore gamers and also more mainstream gamers (not “casual,” but people who might not appreciate a half dozen modifiers on a weapon).

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Once Unity games started to flood the market, GalCiv III found itself to be too complicated for the casual market, but too light for the hardcore gamer who now had options like Stellaris.

New Directions

If you ask someone if you should get Galactic Civilizations III today they will say “YES But you have to make sure you get Crusade”.   After Ashes of the Singularity and Offworld Trading Company shipped, I was able to come back to GalCiv.   I had had my own design document for GalCiv III back from 2010 which focused heavily on the concept of citizens and civil wars. Some of these ideas went into GalCiv III: Crusade.  We were able to begin adapting GalCiv III for the new market reality.

Updating GalCiv III’s design via expansion packs, however, is a bit like trying to find new missions for jet aircraft whose designed mission has become obsolete. This is where GalCiv IV comes in.

Where we want to go

With GalCiv IV we now have enough memory and processing power available to build what amounts to a simulator behind the scenes while presenting it in a nice, easy to understand, turn-based strategy game UI.  What this means is that we want a game of GalCiv IV to feel like you’re actually running a space faring civilization filled with interesting characters. Rather than having an AI just for each alien player, we want an AI behind every single character in the game – and your civilization is made up by a lot of characters. And every character has a potential story to tell.

This means, from a gameplay point of view, that the player is still in charge of a vast, interstellar empire that is exploring, expanding, exploiting and exterminating things, but the galaxy is a livelier place than it was in the past. There are many more mechanisms in play that can affect things, a lot more moments of “Well crap, in hindsight, I feel like I should have seen that coming..” which results in players feeling like they keep getting better and better at the game each time they play.

The gang is back together

So Cari is back from maternity leave, I’m back from managing Oxide and Mohawk, we have Derek (Kael of Fall from Heaven fame) as the lead designer. Paul is back to being able to focus on UI and space ship making, Jesse is back to make sure our graphics are amazing, Sarah is back to make sure our underlying UI system is insanely powerful and useful, and we have new people on the team who previously worked on games ranging from Star Control to Sins of the Prophets. 

It’s going to be a good time!

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GalCiv IV Journals

GalCiv III AAR: The Last Empire

Published on Monday, May 10, 2021 By Brad Wardell In GalCiv III Dev Journals

I don’t know if this will be my last AAR of Galactic Civilizations III.   As I type this, the game is about to turn 6 years old and is still going strong.

We’ve been working on an update for the game for awhile and are hoping to get it released before the anniversary (fingers crossed).  This AAR will kind of act as a retrospect on the game, mention some changes we’ve made and hopefully be entertaining.

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I am playing as the Terran Empire. 

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I choose to beef up productivity and economics and have the colonizers (more admin power) and inventive (free constructor and engineering).

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I also give my ships a bit of a different look than standard.

 

Start of game

The year is 2243 (new version increases the year by 1).  The Terran Empire finds itself ready to expand into the universe.

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In the new version, the stars are slightly closer together to improve early game pacing.

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Techs like Universal Translator also increase administration points.

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Earth here starts with an artifact whose study will give us a cool new power.

The economy in Galactic Civilizations III works like this:

A planet has raw production.  This raw production can be increased with various types of improvements and channeled in various ways like into research, ship construction, wealth generation and planetary improvements.

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I order Earth’s ship yard to fast-build a constructor.  I start with a lot of money so I use that to quickly build up ships.

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I soon am presented with a moral dilemma.  An illegal cloning operation that will quickly build up population if we let it continue.  But the DNA in the clones was stolen from people.  We can stop this or continue forward.  Each option has different consequences attached.  I choose the benevolent path mainly because I find clones creepy.

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Earth’s influence has increased to the asteroid belt. I can select asteroids and spend money to build on them.

My colony ship has reached another solar system.

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It’s going to take a lot of turns to get this planet up to speed.  While landing we found that the pools were populated by a sentient species.  We decided we would not make use of the pools to protect that species.  This provided some additional benevolence ideology points which I now spend here:

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In GalCiv III, there are 3 different ideologies: Benevolent, Pragmatic and Malevolent.  You get points in each category based on the action and when enough points are collected you can purchase an ideological aspect.

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I choose Educated so that I can get some free research.

I also meet my first alien, a species known as the Krynn Sydicate.  We’ll be worrying more about them later.

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I also build my  first starbase:

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Starbases allow the player to collect the resources nearby as well as spread influence.  Player influence, especially when contiguous to the player’s home world, generates tourism income if your planets have any attractions.

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Every 10 turns, my civilization gets a citizen.  I can choose the type of citizen (and the # of types increases as players unlock them through research).  I choose engineer so that I can up ships faster on my home world.

I also settle on Snyder II which is a mere class 3 planet.  The new update will have a lot more class 2 and 3 planets as they can be set to Aid the economy of the player with relatively little oversight.

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We are on our way.

The Early Game

One of the first things I do is set my shipyard to be fed by other planets in my civilization.

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This boosts that shipyard’s production and with it, I build some supply ships which I can use to build up other planets.

I now present to you…

The Drengin Empire.

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As an experience player, I quickly realize I have two issues.

First, I was too slow in capturing galactic resources so I am at a severe disadvantage in the long term.

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Second, I have a slight advantage in the number of planets I have which means, at least for awhile, I could potentially win in a war and capture some of the resources I need.  I am in particular interested in the Lisa system which has a ton of resources in it.

Thus my strategy is to first get the technology to invade planets and then to a lighting strike to take both Lisa III (the planet) and destroy the starbase and replace it with my own before the Krynn can overwhelm me.

In the power rankings, we are neck and neck with The Krynn but this won’t last.

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Meanwhile, the Krynn have already built a hypergate:

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This is not a good sign for me as it takes quite a bit of manufacturing might to build this.  You can see Earth and the Lisa system on this map.

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I quickly conquer Lisa III and see how I can take this one transport as I have an early lead in this one area of technology.

Lisa III, btw, is pretty awesome.

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I also begin stationing garrisons on my planets.  I don’t have enough manufacturing capacity to defend my planets effectively but I can make sure invasion is not easy.

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The Krynn quickly put defenses in their systems and start building cruisers.   We maintain a technological advantage for now in the military department.   My hope is that we can take their home world.  Doing so would effectively take the Krynn out of the game.  This looks promising.

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Followed up by an easy conquest.

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And another amazing world.

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Soon enough, the entire Krynn home system is under Terran control.

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Next, the Terrans focus on having large fleets since the quality of our fleets is pretty low.  But I can’t make a dent on the Krynn starbase.

I design the Sawtooth class cruiser to see if I can use a fleet of these to crack the now well fortified Krynn starbase.

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The Sawtooth is successful.  However, the Yor have a starbase closer than mine which picks up some of the resources.  I need that Durantium!

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I might as well deal with the Yor now especially if I have help.

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The Yor are more powerful.  But the Slyne plus the Terrans are enough to overwhelm them in theory.  We make peace with the Krynn and focus on the Yor.

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The Yor are evenly matched technologically with us.  But we had a head start.

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After some heavy losses, the Yor starbase is removed and the Duranthium is ours.  We are now in a very strong economic position.   However, the Yor  have become even more powerful.

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Not too far from Lisa is Iconia, the Yor homeworld.  Well, the world the Yor stole from the Iconians around 100,000 years ago but that’s another story.

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And the Yor go down!

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For the climax of the Human Yor war is the Preemptive class cruiser.

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Despite their losses the Yor were a formidable opponent.

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Their invasion fleets were well equipped, well armed and well positioned.

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It is with some irony that the AI is better at the “death stack” than the human in this case as my forces are spread across the map. Unfortunately for the Yor, the new Empire class capital ship had just been designed.

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And trade with our partners was going very well:

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When the Yor sue for peace, the new map looks like this:

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Mid Game

The Krynn had a great start.  They just had bad neighbors.  I would know.

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Now they’re gone.

Like the old Soviet Union, the Terran Empire was powerful on paper.  But its enormous military was expensive to maintain and ship per ship inferior. Its economy was weak and the people unhappy.  To remain viable long-term, we would need to modernize our economy while hoping that our military would remain relatively strong enough to discourage aggressors.

My general strategy is threefold:

  1. Build economic starbases around my worlds.
  2. Make sure every planet has at least one economic and one morale structure.
  3. Build a fleet of freighters and start making money.

While this was going on, I bribed other civilizations to take down potential rivals such as the Drengin.

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Basically, I gave them my older but still quite lethal ships in exchange.

 

Late Game

Years have passed.  The Terran Empire’s economy has successfully modernized.

We have the new Pip fighter in mass production:

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Using high-density materials, it basically shoots pellets at near the speed of light.

We run a balanced budget with the tax rate at 32%.

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The major powers are at war with one another and have eclipsed mine in terms of raw numbers but we have become a much more powerful civilization overall.

 

Some thoughts…

At around turn 200 the galaxy is a known thing.  What the game needs are additional objectives for me to pursue.  Not quests and not new victory conditions.  Rather, more like directed achievements that are within the game universe’s lore.

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For inspiration, let’s take a look at the galaxy situation at turn 200.

There’s a lot of war going on.

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OBSERVATION 1: I think there should be more outcry on the home front. Like, literally, every turn war should generate a small amount of unrest on all the planets.  This would enourage wars to end.  Right now, the winning side never has a reason to give up.

OBSERVATION 2: There should be an achievement for bringing peace to the galaxy.  The civilization would then gain the “Peacemaker” ability which would be +1 to diplomacy for the rest of the game.

OBSERVATION 3: There should be “named” Precursor relics in the galaxy.  RIght now we have a “Manufacturing Relic” and there are several of them.  But what I mean are special named relics that if you have all of them give you various bonuses.  The idea being that capturing these would become an object.

OBSERVATION 4: Same as 3 but with special Precursor planets.

OBSERVATION 5: An achievement related to tourism and trade income.  Basically, if you have >X amount and are above Y% of the total, you get a special achievement that gives you bonuses.

OBSERVATION 6: There should be a chosen one effect. We had an event in GalCiv II and supposedly here but I never see it where the Civ that is in last place will tend to get an event that results in its raw resources getting a +1% bonus per turn.  Let them live long enough and they’ll win the game.  You never know when it’ll come up but it forces the player to not just sit on getting ascension crystals or diplomacy victories or whatever.

OBSERVATION 7: DOOM FLEET. I wish there was a Doom fleet (Dreadlord events) sort of like what we had in GalCiv II where you got this crazy, massive fleet would spawn but moved very slowly to the most powerful planets one at a time destroying stuff.  It would slowly get widdled down.

OBSERVATION 8: CRAFTING. If you look at my resources above, you can see I have a lot of different ones.  It would be nice if there were “Recipes” and things I could build with them (same for the other Civs).  I know ships and improvements require them but I mean more like a separate screen for experimental (to use a Supreme Commander term).  One of a kind ships that do various interesting things.

OBSERVATION 9: Planet management should evolve over the game.   I like the placement of buildings and such early in the game.  But eventually, all I really want to do is just see them get upgraded.  I don’t really want to keep placing down buildings late game.  Late game my available actions look like this:

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Goes right off the screen. 

Let’s look at the actual TYPES of structures here:

  1. Wealth Buildings
  2. Ship production buildings
  3. Manufacturing buildings
  4. Research Buildings
  5. Food buildings
  6. Population growth buildings
  7. Diplomacy Buildings
  8. Influence Buildings
  9. Morale buildings
  10. Tourism buildings.
  11. Defense buildings

While this may be hissed at, I don’t really love all the building pictures.  I’d rather just designate the types, make use of the adjacency at the start and from then on, I simply put in points to upgrade one of the categories of buildings.  I think some, like population growth and separate ship/improvement production could be eliminated or combined.  Get it down to 10 types of production and then decide how you want to upgrade the planet rather than messing around with giant lists like this.

OBSERVATION 10: Adversaries. In this game, I didn’t really feel like I had adversaries.  I had victims for sure.  Enemies? Yea.  But I mean, a visceral, they’re going to screw me and I can screw them back.  In the OS/2 version of GalCiv I had things like destabilization and sabotage and all sorts of other stuff I could do.  I also liked that foreign aid was kept separate from trade.  I could literally just send ships and money to someone fighting a war rather than conducting an imbalanced trade.  It helped the AI know who to be grateful to and why.

OBSERVATION 11: Annexing. There are nearby civilizations that I could easily conquer.  Why should I have to fight them?  Imagine a resource like diplomatic capital or something that I could use to simply get them to join my civilization if there’s enough power difference between the two and relations are positive?  This would help move things along in the later game. 

OBSERVATION 12: Invasions should be simpler. What I mean by this isn’t that they should be “simple” in terms of game mechanics but mainly less tedious.  I’d love to see it where all ships have a “occupation force size” variable.  Tiny would have 0.1, Small 0.2, Medium 1, Large, 2, Huge 3 and an actual Transport 10.  I don’t see why I need an actual separate transport action to conquer a tiny rock in space.  Sure, invading a capital world should be a production.  But these tiny worlds? 

Anyway, I’m going to leave it here for now.  There’s a bunch of little improvements I’ve put into the code based on this experience that I think players will like.  Mostly having to do with not requiring resources to build the first level starbase upgrades.

Having been playing this game for 9 years (3 years of development, 6 years since release) it sure has come a long way.  I enjoyed it when it first came out but it felt a bit too streamlined.  Now, I feel like it has a lot of depth and lives up to its original design from years ago.

DeskScapes 11: A Guided Tour

Published on Thursday, May 6, 2021 By Brad Wardell In Stardock Blog

DeskScapes is a program designed to make it easy to have really cool Windows desktop backgrounds.  It doesn’t just manage wallpapers - it integrates native animated wallpaper support into Windows. 

Version 11 includes a bunch of cool new things that make it pretty compelling for every PC user.  Here is a quick tour of some of those features.

Part 1: The interface

Once installed, you access DeskScapes by right-clicking on your desktop.

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The interface is designed to make it easy for you to access wallpapers that are already on your computer, as well as ones in the cloud.  DeskScapes 11 seamlessly integrates into the cloud, giving users access to hundreds of thousands of desktop backgrounds, both traditional and animated.

Part 2: The Cloud

I am generally a minimalist.  That’s why I use Fences to keep my desktop as clean as possible.  In my case, I stare at a lot of different monitors but even on a laptop, I like to occasionally switch my background.  The problem is that I can never remember where I put cool backgrounds I found.  That’s where the cloud helps.

I’d be the first to agree that this should be part of Windows.  But it’s not, so here we are.

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I can type a word in and it goes out and finds desktop backgrounds I want.  I can pick between normal (static) or animated ones. 

But more commonly, I’ll see what the current most popular ones are.

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While DeskScapes is often thought of as an “animated desktop” program, the Stardock team looks at it as a background is a background is a background.  So it makes both easily available.

Part 3: Clever backgrounds

A bunch of really clever backgrounds are already installed with DeskScapes 11.  Not just pretty pictures, but backgrounds that you could imagine being their own apps.  Let’s take a look:

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Colored lights is one of my favorites.  It just changes throughout the day.  It’s like having a mood ring as a a background. 

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Blurry blobs is another background that you could imagine being its own app.  It is kind of like having a lava lamp.  It’s super subtle and interesting.

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Desktop Earth is one I always run on one of my machines.  Except I don’t have the earth rotating.  Here’s why:

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It slowly changes over the course of the day.  Based on your Windows settings, it shows where you are in the world and you can slowly see when nighttime comes. 

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Desktop Collage is one of my favorites.  Basically, it just places pictures from target folders onto the background.  Here at work I have pictures of my daughter from ages 0 to 14 that are placed on my desktop.

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Moving wallpaper is pretty neat.  That said, I have it move very, very slowly. I don’t want to be distracted.  So it takes images and such and gradually rotates through them in a kind of Ken Burns type effect.

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Photo Dream is similar to moving wallpaper, but it treats the backgrounds at 3D images.  I usually have this one running on on my my monitors, as it’s one of my favorites.

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Stars is one I often run. I typically have the stars running very, very slowly. Like, you can barely tell they’re moving.  These work via DirectX, so unlike, say, a video of stars running, these basically use no resources.  At night I will run these on all my monitors at times.

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Part 4: Playlists

Depending on the day and the time of year and other considerations, I will run a given playlist.

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Playlists are super easy to make and once you make one, it’s basically the same as it is with music. 

Part 5: Customizing

So you’ve got a normal desktop background.  As I write this, it’s Spring.  So I have applied a normal background.

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But look at the buttons in the upper left.  The first one down lets you customize the background.

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There are a lot choices to apply, which would require an entire article just to go over them.  The one I find myself using the most is “porthole".  It makes the edges of a background dark.

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Should this be part of Windows? Probably.  But it’s not.  This feature makes almost any desktop background useful.  But there are lots of other ones too that are very interesting and helpful.

Part 6: Universal Resolution Support

Windows has a few fit options for backgrounds.  But not nearly enough.  If you’re someone who runs a monitor with an unusual aspect ratio (or have a rotating monitor), you already know how limited the options are.

DeskScapes has a lot of options.

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And this is super useful if you get a background that doesn’t support your desktop’s resolution, but still looks cool.

Part 7: Colorization

Apple, Microsoft and others make some great default wallpapers.  Unfortunately, they tend to be a particular color, which is fine - until it’s not.

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These are great wallpapers, to be sure. But I tend to like my backgrounds a little less saturated.

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You could also make it a totally different color.

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You can also mix it with the customizations to get something totally different.

Part 8: Creation

DeskScapes 11 includes DreamMaker Pro, a full-on animated wallpaper maker.

Now, personally, I lack the artistic skills to make something cool.  But I’ve used Adobe After Effects enough to know I can take create something from something else that’s cool.

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If you’ve ever used an art program of any kind, you already know how to use DreamMaker Pro.

When you’re done, just Export it as a DeskScapes file and voila.

I tend to use this for games I play a lot and have those as my backgrounds.

Conclusions

So where can you get DeskScapes? Right here: Animated Wallpapers for Windows : Stardock's Deskscapes

Invincible Season 2 Episodes Spoilers

Published on Tuesday, May 4, 2021 By Brad Wardell In Movies & TV & Books

I hope you enjoyed season 1 as much as I did!

It's going to be a long time until season 2 so I decided to put together an 8-episode guide prediction which I'll share here.

I have no inside knowledge but I have read the comic. This post has changes from the comic that I think make it more compatible with an episodic TV show.

Obviously, this isn't how it will actually go down. But it is likely to go down something like this so major spoilers. Stop now if you haven't read the comic book.

Spoilers

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Episode 201

This episode starts at the point where Invincible and Omni Man are talking from 108 where Nolan is trying to convince Mark to join him.  The only change is that he doesn't call Debbie a "pet".  Mark agrees to join him.

Fast forward to Invincible being shown from a big screen explaining why they are taking over and how this is a good thing for Earth. We then cut to a big battle in town as they take down the Guardians of the Globe.  We are shocked to see Mark and Nolan killing the new guardians with Mark quipping to Rex "the feeling was mutual" as he kills him in response to Rex saying "I never liked you."

The only difference from OUR Guardians is the addition of a scientist named Angstrom Levy who is about to be killed by Invincible when a portal shows up behind him with another version of him saying "You're embarrassing us." while pulling him through.  Mark and Nolan look at each other in confusion.

The two Angstroms find themselves in the middle of absolute chaos with Angstrom prime thinking he must have taken them to the wrong Earth.  But sure enough, it's the right Earth, it's just being invaded...again.  He takes Angstrom 2 to a safe house where he meets hundreds of other Angstroms.  Angstrom 2 says "I sure hope we're safe here from...INVINCIBLE."

We then switch back to the conclusion of the battle and get reacquainted with Mark, Eve, Amber, etc.  Mark has gotten a black eye and must rush to graduation.  Things between Mark and Amber are pretty good.

Episode 202

This episode starts with Mark at college and being called away to deal with a turf war between Titan and the Dragon (Mister Liu).

The bulk of this episode deals with an invasion from Mars of the Sequids and the chemistry between Mark and Eve.  Meanwhile, Amber is frustrated with Mark constantly being gone.  She understands but is frustrated.

Mark, Eve and the others stop the Sequids from reaching Earth...so they think.  In the after credits they discover that the astronaut had one left on him and must slowly repopulate.

Episode 203

This episode opens with the Mauler twins in jail.  We get a day in the life of what being in a super prison is like and we get to see a bunch of the other super villains in there including the Elephant and a few others that comic fans will recognize (more Multipaul).

Suddenly Angstrom Levy shows up and breaks the Mauler twins out of prison and they go through various dimensions before reaching the safe house we saw in episode 201.

The main plot for this episode is Seance dog showing up to take Mark to an alien world filled with insect people. When he arrives, he finds his dad and they reconcile (kind of).  Nolan realizes he can't return home but he is hoping he can talk the Viltrums into accepting this world in lieu of Earth but wants Mark as backup in case that fails.  

He has already contacted the high command to welcome this new world into the empire.  Three Viltrums show up and after a brief discussion it is obvious that while the world's resources might be useful the insectoids needs to be wiped out.  Nolan objects which escalates into a battle.  Mark and Nolan are eventually overwhelmed.

The good news is that the Viltrums don't yet know Mark and Nolan are refusing to give Earth to Viltrum. They believe that Nolan was defeated on Earth by the locals or something.  They respect Mark for following his father's "orders" but now it's time to return to Earth and prepare it for Viltrum takeover.  They patch up Mark and leave with Nolan as a prisoner.

As Mark is recovering he is introduced to...Oliver, his new half-brother.

Episode 204

Mark returns to Earth with Oliver.  Amber is pissed as he's been gone 2 weeks.   Yes...she understands but her college friends are giving her a hard time about her absentee boyfriend and she can't explain why Mark is gone without revealing his secret identity.  

Mark tries to make it up to Amber but is called away to deal with the Mauler Twins.

Mark arrives to see the Mauler Twins and Angstrom Levy (lots of Mauler Twins and lots of Angstrom Levy's) performing some sort of experiment.  Mark concludes that if the Mauler twins are involved, it has to be bad and tries to find a way to stop them.  

However, Mark quickly gets overwhelmed by Mauler Twins and Angstrom Levy Prime, who only knows Mark as the hero who saved the world from Omni Man and is himself, part of the guardian of the globe in many dimensions, demands the Mauler twins stop trying to kill Mark -- just restrain him.  But the Mauler twins refuse to stop.  Levy stops the experiment (which we had previously learned was to merge all the knowledge of all the Levy's together so that he could more easily hop dimensions) to save Mark but in doing so causes an explosion that leaves Levy disfigured and all but one of the Maulers dead.

The experiment is a success and Levy knows all the dimensions but is now deformed. He flees to another dimension for medical treatment leaving the lone Mauler twin to his own devices.  Mark comes up from the rubble just as the Guardians of the Globe arrive with Eve.

When Mark gets home, Debbie agrees to raise Oliver and Cecil sends over a tutor.

Episode 205

(if the Sequid Mars attack episode wasn't before it'll be here instead) but anyway...

Mark is sent by Cecil to Midnight City to find out what has happened after it was put into perpetual darkness.  Naturally, Mark was on a date with Amber when this happened.  When he arrives he finds Darkwing -- well technically it was NightBoy before (he was a sidekick).  Mark quickly discovered that this new Darkwing has an interesting power: The shadowverse and he has been murdering criminals -- regardless of the crime.  

After a brief skirmish involving a failed attempt to trap Mark in the shadowverse (Mark simply holds onto Darkwing and refuses to let go forcing Darkwing to bring them both back to our universe) he brings Darkwing into custody and leaves him with Cecil.

Suddenly, Mark gets a call from an unknown man who tells him he needs to get home.  When he arrives he finds Angstrom Levy who has gone mad and seeks to kill Mark in revenge for disfiguring him. Mark tries to explain that he had nothing to do with that, that Angstrom did this to himself when he stopped the process midway.  But Angstrom's memories are so jumbled that he doesn't remember it that way.

Meanwhile, Angstrom has severely beaten Mark's mom and Mark is enraged.

After sending Mark to numerous universes, Mark finally is able to pull Angstrom through one of the portals where they fight on a barren world.  Enraged, Mark beats Angstrom seemingly to death though not on purpose because Mark has not yet mastered how much he has to hold back based on how durable the opponent is.  Mark realizes that he's now stranded on a barren world.

Suddenly, a portal shows up and it's the Guardians of the Galaxy - except quite a bit older. An older Eve is with them.  They explain that things on their world have gone badly.  The Viltrumites have taken over the world and they exist in hiding.  They believe that if Mark had not disappeared "all those years ago" things might have gone differently.  

They open a portal for him to return to his time. Before he goes, Eve confesses that she's been in love with Mark and that his Eve is in love with him as well.  Before Mark can say anything the portal closes and the Episode ends.

Episode 206

We get a mini Allen the Alien adventure combined with Amber and Mark trying to reconcile.  

Allen visits Earth only to meet Immortal instead in space.  After a quick fight which shows that Immortal is no match for Allen Mark shows up and he warns Mark that the Viltrums will be coming to Earth.

We get a montage of Cecil training Mark by having him lift crazy sized weights and other activities to try to make him tougher.  But we also see that Cecil isn't being fully honest with Mark as he continues to work on the Reanimen and is developing sonic weapons that he thinks will hurt Viltrums.

The bulk of the episode is a visit from the Viltrumite Empire in the form of a powerful female Viltrumite (Anissa) who has arrived to evaluate Mark's progress.  They do an adventure together saving a cruise ship.  Soon after, she asks if he is convinced that the Viltrum Empire would be good for Earth.  Mark is not convinced and there is a brief fight.  

Unlike with Nolan, this battle isn't brutal. She simply demonstrates, with absolute clarity that she is far more powerful than Mark and knocks him to the ground and holds him down. He is unable to move or break her grip.  She says that she will leave and let him consider his stance with the Viltrums.  But the next visitor will not be as gentle as her.  She leaves.

On her way out, she encounters Allen the Alien who is seeing to find out what happened to Nolan.  He feigns being defeated by the Viltrumite and is taken prisoner.

Episode 207

Dr. Seismic is back! And he has successfully captured most of the world's heroes in his vast underground lair.

Meanwhile, Mark and Amber break up.  She says she loves Mark but they just can't relate to each other.  He understands.

He talks to William (his college roommate now).  Mark decides that college really isn't working for him anyway and that he was only coming here to be with Amber.  But the fact is, he has nothing in common with Amber.  

He gets a call from Cecil about Doc Seismic and leaves.  Shortly after Eve shows up and asks William where Mark is and he gets filled in including the part where he and Amber have broken up.

Mark reaches the spot where Cecil says is the closest surface point for where all the missing heroes are.  But the heroes are actually a couple miles below the surface.  Just as Mark is trying to figure out how he's going to get down there, Evil shows up and with her powers they are able to quickly get down to there Doc Seismic is.

The Lava trolls are able to capture Mark and Eve in the same strange containers that the other heroes are in.  Mark asks "So are you going to get us out of this or what?" and Eve answers with a grin "Just a sec, but first, are we dating now or what?" then suddenly, DarkWing shows up in front of an army of Reanimen.  Eve quickly frees everyone and together they are able to defeat Doc Seismic and the Lava trolls.

However, Mark quickly knocks Darkwing down and demands to know how he escaped.  The other heroes question Mark as they don't understand why he attacked Darkwing.  Mark explains he's a murderer and Darkwing says he's "better" now. 

Mark flies off to confront Cecil where he not only discovers that Cecil has covered up Darkwing's murders but he's actually employing DA Sinclair.  Mark says he can't work with him anymore and quits.

When Mark gets home, Eve shows up and they talk.  During this conversation he tells her about her future self from that alternative universe.  Eve is shocked leaves in distressed.

Meanwhile, a little globe camera is watching all this.

Episode 208

Evil versions of Invincibles are showing up everywhere and wreaking havoc.  This is an episode of extreme carnage.

Mark confronts one and the two battle with our Mark coming out on top.

After Eve is severely injured by an Invincible doppelgänger, Mark stays in the hospital while the evil Invincibles, brought here by a very much alive Angstrom Levy, brings the world to its knees.  

The most horrifying part is that the full might of all of Earth's heroes aren't even able to kill a single Invincible with two exceptions: One killed by Mark and another that ends up in the Shadowverse. The Reanimmen and all the other heroes are largely wiped out.  A young Oliver is nearly killed by one.

Victorious, Levy demands to know where Mark is.  When Mark shows up, Levy says to the other Invincibles "your services will no longer be needed" and opens portals behind the evil dopplegangs and knocks them through with clouds of "ball" devices.  

Angstrom Levy has been genetically enhanced and now that this Earth is demolished he will kill Invincible and let the world know that their destruction is because of Invincible's failure.  

However, Invincible is much stronger than he was in 108 or even the last time that Levy faced Invincible.  This is evidenced from early Mark vs. one of the other Invincible's where Mark kills one.

Their fight, while intense, shows Invincible getting the upper hand.  Levy tries to escape but Mark grabs ahold of his arm.  Levy closes the portal anyway leaving Mark holding just an arm.

Mark passes out from the battle.  

When he wakes, he is in the familiar hospital bed.  Cecil tells Mark how Darkwing sacrificed himself to take out one of the Invincibles and that the Reanimen bought the President enough time to escape.  Mark admits that Cecil's methods might make some sense.

Mark then sees Eve who has recovered enough to see him. Mark tells her that when he thought he might die, he could only think of her and how much he cares about her.  "You and I?" she smiles. "Yea, you and I."

End of season 2.

Notes

Fans of the comic book will notice quite a few changes and reorderings here.  First, Rex ends the season alive and well.  Second, the conflict between Mark and Cecil is diminished a great deal from the comics and more in line with the more nuanced behavior we see in the show.

The season culminates with the Invincible War and Mark and Eve's relationship.  This is a very different order from the comic books.  I just think that from a show pacing thing that this is most satisfying.

I also have Mark quite a bit tougher and the Invincible's quite a bit tougher.  In the comic quite a few Invincibles were killed in the Invincible War.  I found this highly dubious given how things later developed in the series.

I also changed the nature of the Viltrumites a bit to be more nuanced and rational.  In the comic they wreck Oliver's home world just to piss Nolan off.  I suspect/hope that rationale is changed and that they simply don't see the point of having a bug race that lives 9 months be in the empire.  It doesn't occur to them that Nolan left Earth because of his feelings.  They think he was weak and somehow defeated and took his son to this planet.

 

DeskScapes 11: Preview Guide

Published on Tuesday, May 4, 2021 By Brad Wardell In Galactic Civilizations III

I like wallpapers.  Or desktop backgrounds, if you prefer.  But what comes with Windows is really…lacking.   That’s why I use DeskScapes. It adds a ton of features that arguably should have been part of the OS.  Millions of people use DeskScapes already, but there were a number of missing features that I think kept it from becoming a “gotta have” app.  DeskScapes 11, I believe, adds those killer features.

The new features

Below I’ll highlight some of the bigger features we’ve added:

Cloud Integration

I have a confession to make: I generally prefer normal backgrounds.  By that, I mean non-animated.  I mainly use animated wallpapers when I want something behind me if I am streaming or doing a demo.  But typically, I don’t run them.  This is why I, and others like me at Stardock, felt that DeskScapes 11 needed to become absolutely compelling for anyone who just likes regular static backgrounds.  Hence, cloud integration.

Bing Integration

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Bing has an image of the day.  You’d think Microsoft would incorporate this into Windows directly.  I don’t mean a web link to an app or something, I mean right into the background UI.  DeskScapes does.

 

WinCustomize Cloud

Another obvious feature is being able to use the cloud to instantly search and get new desktops. 

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You can even do a search:

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You can also subscribe to popular artists:

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You get the idea.  It’s like your favorite music streaming service, except for desktop backgrounds.

 

Background Tweaking

When you go to apply a wallpaper there are a bunch of tweaks you can make to it.

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If  you look over on the left, you will see some tabs. Here you can apply (and mix) a bunch of cool effects.

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One of my favorite features here is the portal effect:

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Even the noisiest (but pretty) background can be made usable by simply putting it in a portal.

Check this out:

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You can also do color blending here too.

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Here I made a weird, muted desktop background if I want to reduce the amount of color I’m looking at.

 

Playlists

Another feature new in DeskScapes 11 are the playlists.  The easiest way to create them is to do this:

Step 1: Create the Playlist

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Step 2: Go to your installed tab

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AND RIGHT-CLICK on backgrounds.

Step 3: Add them to your playlist

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Step 4: Apply

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I have mine change every hour.  And you can specify which monitors you want them on and so forth (I only have playlists changing monitor 3 here).

 

DeskScapes Wallpaper Creation

What if you want to do something a bit more advanced? Imagine you have a wallpaper a favorite game or something.

Let’s start with Star Control.

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When you go to apply it choose this:

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This will open up the DeskScapes Creator.  It’s extremely powerful.

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Let’s go ahead and add some light sourcing and glowing…

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So here all I’m doing is using the brush on the green and white “lights” already in this image.  It turns these dots into light sources.

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And each affect has a bunch of options available to it.  Did I mention it supports layering too?

Just as a fun tool by itself it’s pretty amazing and you can use this to create any background effect you can imagine.

And naturally in the untalented (like me) you can do all kinds of obnoxious stuff too.

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If you’re familiar with something like Photoshop you will have no problem here. 

When you’re done, hit EXPORT:

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Then just fill out the fields, hit export, and voila.

 

Just the tip of the iceberg

These are just a few of the new features.  DeskScapes 11 is basically a rewrite of the app designed to be a must-have for anyone using a Windows PC.  There are dozens of small tweaks and enhancements to make customizing your desktop easier and more fun.  It also uses hardly any background memory or CPU (Admittedly, we can thank modern GPUs and CPUs for a lot of that since everything DeskScapes does now is accelerated).

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What little memory it does use is actually the desktop background (multiple monitors X resolution) which previously would have been used anyway via a svchost process or something.  In the above example, it’s running an animated desktop called “Shapes” on 3 4K monitors.

 

Availability

DeskScapes 11 went into beta on Object Desktop, Stardock’s full suite of desktop enhancements that includes programs like Fences, Groupy, Curtains, Tiles, etc.  It will be available as a stand-alone program later this Spring.

Mac and PC side by side

Published on Thursday, April 15, 2021 By Brad Wardell In Personal Computing

So I keep my Mac and PC next to each other.

Broadly speaking, even taking multiple monitors out of the picture, I find the PC more productive.  This is primarily a difference in how Windows and Mac work.  This wasn't always the case but over time, Microsoft has added a lot of nice little short-cuts and tweaks that just don't seem to exist on the Mac.

Even little things in the Mac seem needlessly complicated. For instance, on Windows 10, I can hit Windows Key - Shift S to take a screenshot.  On the Mac is's Shift, Command 4.   This minor difference forces me to look up and in fact a lot of programs seem to not take power typers into account (hot key placement awkwardness).

Here are a few other observations.

Resizing windows on the Mac is often frustratingly difficult compared to Windows.

I find Mac a much more productive laptop environment to use because of the 4 finger full screen slide.

I really like the window snapping feature on Windows. 

File management in Explorer is a lot easier, faster than on Finder.  On the Mac, you really need to download a third party file manager if you're doing serious file management.

Installation on the Mac is much better.

UX on Mac is much nicer. Windows is full of annoying flickering and jankiness.

The Windows 10 system management stuff is much better now than the Mac System Preferences which seem to be from a bygone era.

I have to use a utility on the Mac to not have the mouse wheel work backwards from expected when I have a separate trackpad that I am expecting to work as it would normally.

Broadly speaking, the Mac is more pleasant to use and Windows is more productive to use.

Just some random thoughts.  Do you use a Mac and Windows daily? If so, what are your observations?

Airplay: Documentary on Games Journalism

Published on Tuesday, March 30, 2021 By Brad Wardell In PC Gaming

This is really interesting documentary broken up into bite sized chunks.

It deals with the transition in games journalism that we saw starting around 2010 with the changes to the underlying business models of the media and in particular the games media.

Here is part 1:

Star Control 3 canon

Published on Saturday, March 20, 2021 By Brad Wardell In Star Control 3

The lore that exists in the Star Control games is pretty convoluted due to the various splittings of copyrights in the series.

It kind of reminds me of some of the Man-Kzin Wars books where Larry Niven has a "Known Space" universe with many others having written Man-Kzin war books and own, presumably the copyrights for their own works.

I don't know if Larry Niven ever got into talking about canon in those books.  

As far as we're concerned, we look at it like this:  Star Control is a series of science fiction games and Star Control 1/2 take place in one universe which we call the Ur-Quan universe and Star Control 3 takes place in a separate universe which we call the Kessari universe and Origins takes place in a third universe (Origins).

The idea, at least back in 2013 and what not, was that you would see Star Control games that licensed the IP of various universes.  So picture a Star Control game that uses the Babylon 5 IP or another with the Farscape IP.  That was the thinking at the time.  

We hope to get back to that plan someday in the future once we have our engine ported.  Things got a little side-tracked with Covid (limited console dev kits don't mix well with everyone working from home).  

 

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