Thursday, December 17, 2015

Hazards of Video Editing

Here’s a story about the hazards of video editing.

For about two years I’ve use the same combination of programs to produce the videos for my Udemy classes and for my Game Design channel. For screen tests I capture slides made using PowerPoint (2003 version!) with Cam Studio, a free screen capture program. Unfortunately, Cam Studio is poor on my system in capturing cursor (mouse) movements. Fortunately, I rarely use such in my screen asts. I use an Andrea headset, the same one I use with Dragon Naturally Speaking, to record the audio. I then edit using Cyberlink Powerdirector 11. I render at 720 P and also render as a WAV file so that I can use Dragon Naturally Speaking Premium to convert the audio into text.

On the rare occasions when I do a talking head video I record the video with a not very sophisticated WebCam. Its sound is not good, however, and recently I have used an enormous Blue Yeti microphone to record the sound in that situation.

As part of Black Friday Cyberlink was offering Powerdirector 14 for $50, and I decided to try it. But when I tried to retrieve the AVI files made by Cam Studio, it refused to recognize them as proper AVI files. If I went back far enough in my old AVIs then PD 14 worked. I quickly determined that this was about the time that I changed from the Microsoft codec in Cam Studio to the Cam Studio codec. I changed in order to avoid occasional glitches in the recordings made with the Microsoft codec. The very same morning I had used PD 11 to process 55 minutes of videos, but the same AVI is that PD 11 took in stride, PD 14 could not handle.

Unfortunately, installing PD 14 had rendered PD 11 unusable - not intentionally I think, more accidentally, because PD 11 would start but then at some point would fail, sometimes without me doing anything, sometimes when I tried to retrieve an AVI file.

About this time I got Cyberlink support involved.  They wanted me to go through the usual “make sure your computer is updated” things even though the very same computer had handled the files using PD 11 the same day that I had installed PD 14. Cyberlink’s style of support is to do everything through the web, where you don’t even have an email address for the person who is supporting you. Every transition takes a couple days. And when they finally asked me to send (FTP) some of the offending AVIs, they weren’t paying attention and did not see that I had FTPed them already (and had said so), so that caused a delay of a few days.

At some point I installed PD 11 on another system and it processed the files just fine. I changed to the Microsoft codec briefly, made a recording, and ascertained that PD 14 did handle that just fine.  But that the codec had produced a glitch. . .

But then something happened that never had before, a typical Cam Studio AVI choked when processed by PD 11. Another made at the same time was fine. So I decided it was probably just some random glitch, and after some experimentation found a satisfactory free program, Format Factory, that converted the AVI into an MP4. MP4 is an allowed format for Udemy while AVI is not. Also, the MP4s made by PD 11 are a lot smaller than the AVIs.

Format Factory does not convert to 720p but does convert to 1080p. I was astonished to find that the 1080 file was immensely smaller then the AVI, and much smaller than the ones Powerdirector produces. Of course, I’m not doing any editing in this case, but probably nine out of 10 of my videos do not involve any editing. The other potential problem is that I don’t have the WAV files. But as it happens, Powerdirector 11 was able to produce a WAV file for the offending AVI even though it could not render it as video.

Of course, I record my AVIs at 1080, so I wasn’t surprised to see that the MP4 produced by Format Factory look just as good as my AVI did.

I also found that the resulting MP4 could be processed by PD 14, though the MP4 it made at a smaller resolution (720p) was about seven times as large as the MP4 made by Format Factory.  I don’t know how much of this is PD and how much the reduction in resolution. However, I uploaded the MP4 to YouTube and saw that it worked fine, even on a Smartphone, so using the higher resolution is not a problem.

And the word I finally got from Cyberlink support was to download another free conversion program and use it to convert my AVIs to MP4s for processing because PD 14 did not support the codec. Even though PD 11 clearly does.

I suspect I’ll ask for a refund for PD 14, and uninstall PD 11 as well, and then reinstall it on my SSD where it runs much faster (as I’ve already ascertained from my other machine). There just isn’t enough improvement in PD 14 to be worth the extra steps I face. The only good feature I’ve found is a screen capture program that comes with PD14 that appears to capture mouse movements decently.

Update: I uninstalled PD14, then PD11.  I reinstalled PD11 on the SSD.  It crashed, but when I applied the patch, it has worked OK so far.  (Two ancillary PD programs did not uninstall successfully, but those have been reinstalled with PD11.)  So I'm asking Cyberlink for a refund, since their new program cannot do what their old program could.  And the odds against me ever purchasing a PD upgrade again are next to none.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Screencast (video): Are you Designing a Game, or Throwing one Together?

This is sufficiently important for those who are teaching game design that I'm posting it here.

Here is the text of the slides.  The entire presentation (over 15 minutes), obviously, contains more than this text.

Are you Designing a Game, or Throwing one Together?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

This is Really Important
Yes, there is creativity in game design, but it may amount to 10% of the whole
The rest is more or less engineering: identifying problems, proposing solutions, testing the results of those solutions, and so on
Scientific method is involved, more or less
It is not trial and error
(I use the meaning prevalent when I was young, that of guessing what might work, then checking to see if it does)
There seems to be a notion now that trial-and-error is more or less scientific method: NO!

It’s not a Guessing Game!
Let me use an example from programming to illustrate
While I was a college teacher, I substituted for a teacher who was ill in a beginning programming class
The students had a program to work on, so I walked around trying to help
In general, their program didn’t work
Programming is very logical.  The proper response is to figure out the program flow, identify where it went wrong, change the program, and test the solution

It works the same way in game design once you’re playing a prototype
That “identify” might include some intuition, and the solution might involve some creativity, but mostly it’s logic
But the students?
Rather than try to figure out why it wasn’t working, they just guessed, changed the program, and compiled it again to see what happened
If that didn’t work, they guessed something else
They were using trial and error (guess and check)
And they were frustrated, of course
So I tried to show them how to figure out the logic and flow of the program, rather than guess

Certainly, different people have different design methods
Some design more “from the gut” than via logic, hypothesis, and test
Nonetheless, if you are actually designing something, you are primarily using your brain, I think (I hope), not just inspiration
Inspiration is not very reliable!  It comes and goes
And the more you treat modification as an engineering problem, the more efficient you’ll be

Art versus Craft
The more you think of a game as art rather than craft, the more you may be inclined to rely on inspiration and intuition
Perhaps we should call that “game creation” or “game inspiration,” not “game design”
Practically speaking, though, it’s mostly craft once you have a playable prototype

NOT throwing things against the wall to see if they stick
Trial and error amounts to “throw things against the wall and see what sticks”
This is a terrible way to solve a problem, if you have any alternative
I’ve seen this dramatically illustrated

Egregious Example
A beginning designer had his simple (< 30 minutes, cards and scoring only) card game playtested by players new to the game
The game has already been successfully Kickstarted, but clearly was far from done – most of the cards were hand-written (not even computer generated), for example
As he started the game (he played – also an error in my view) – I saw that he had no rules with him
His response was, he played it 6 or 7 different ways, and was changing it to satisfy backers as well
My comment: already Kickstarted and the rules writing wasn’t being tested, since they weren’t even at hand

But then he said he was trying out a particular rule change
How can you try a change when the rest of the game isn’t stable?  You’re only trying with one of those half dozen ways to play!
When you playtest you playtest the whole game not just the part that you're experimenting with
The next question was, “how are you recording the results of the playtest”?
He usually had a notebook, he said, but not today

Though he did have a laptop on which he took notes after the game ended
By the way, this game involved player elimination – NOT desirable nowadays, even in a 30 minute game
And though it was a scoring game, the designer hadn’t bothered to bring the scoring devices, so everyone scored on their smartphones!
This is just sloppy. You’ve got to test the actual game, not substitutes!

Obvious Flaws
It was a card game of direct attack on other players (in a more than two-sided game)
There was no constraint on whom you could attack
So while I didn’t watch the game much, I asked afterward if there was a strong tendency to attack the leader
The answer from the players was “yes”

The game suffered from leader-bashing, but I’m not sure the designer recognized that term when I used it, and only had glimmerings of why it was undesirable
Then people suggested solutions, but the first (only attack those adjacent) would have pretty drastically changed a game that’s already Kickstarted!

Why is leader-bashing undesirable?
It takes most decision-making out of the game
It makes people want to sandbag
It’s dull because it’s predictable

Part 2

What we have here is a case of somebody throwing things against the wall to see what will stick
He tries to playtest the game in various ways and see what seems to work better
That’s Trial and Error (in the older, undesirable, sense)
And it helps show that Kickstarter is often about ideas and intentions rather than about an actual game
The art (he had it for a small number of cards) looked good, and that probably helped the KS a lot

Here’s the proper way to go about this, not just trying this and that, with a fairly detailed borrowed diagram, and with a simpler version:

Or more simply
Scientific Method
Wikipedia’s description of the scientific method (accessed 14 April 09) can be taken as a guide to what you’re doing as part of (but not all of) this design process:
“To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.  A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”
This is a large part of the replan and especially the monitoring tasks

But More Than That
Unlike scientists, in most cases you must rely on fewer testing iterations
These are more like usability tests than scientific experiments (Nielsen-Norman group: or
On the other hand, you’re making changes in a design, as well as experimenting to see what happens

An Analogy
This engineering versus trial and error is comparable to how people learn software or home appliances/electronics
I read the manual (shocking). It’s amazing how much you can learn that way.  And far more efficient
Most people just dive in and try things
Or simply remain ignorant
The engineering style of game design is like reading the manual.  The T&E method is like diving in and trying things – much less efficient
Yes, not reading the manual is easier
(And yes, I prefer to read the rules to a game in order to learn it, unlike most people)

I’ve discussed this cycle at length in my “Learning Game Design” course on
The major point to make here is that you follow a process that relies on solving problems you’ve identified
But you also have to know what kinds of problems might occur
Such as leader-bashing in a card game
Or many others – which is why I make so many of my videos, to educate people about those possible problems

Trial & Error (guess and check) is poison unless you have no choice but to use it
If you rely heavily on intuition, more power to you
But that’s not something we want to teach to aspiring designers
If you think it’s all about inspiration, I think you’re “dead wrong”, any more than getting ideas is all about inspiration
You have to work at something to do it well consistently, not hope to be bailed out by random flashes of brilliance

For me as a teacher, I want people to understand a good method, and “inspiration/intuition” or especially trial and error are not good methods.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

"Get Rich Quick" versus improvement in hobbies and life

I've realized there's a distinct difference between Udemy and Skillshare classes.

Udemy is littered with "get rich quick" schemes, and courses that appeal to those who think get rich quick is the norm.  That is, classes that offer you the "complete solution" to something complex in one class (often, a not very long class).  After all, "get rich quick" is a part of a belief that:
there's a simple Mysterious Secret to success at most anything, and
that some people have that Mysterious Secret (that, somehow, most other people have missed)
that the teacher is going to give you this Mysterious Secret in a quick-and-easy-to-apply form
so that you'll rapidly become a Master at whatever it is you're studying

All balderdash, of course, that isn't the way life works.  But many people, often what some might call "losers", think there are Secrets and all they need to do is find them.  (Reminds me of conspiracy theorists.) In many cases, it's people who think you don't have to work to be really good at something.

It's the Age of Instant Gratification, and people convince themselves that they can get their instant gratification all the time.

Skillshare is much more about hobbies and improving your life, than about getting rich quick.  A large fraction of it could be called "artsy," a tag that could be applied to very little of Udemy's body of work.  I strongly suspect that in the minds of the Skillshare students there's an acknowledgement that you can improve, but there's no Mysterious Secret that is going to make you a master in no-time.

Udemy is pay-by-the-class, and that is dominated by Udemy's "kamikaze marketing" (which I don't participate in) that reduces prices through enormous discounts (75% off is one of the smaller discounts!). That very deep discount marketing itself plays into the notion that there are ways to avoid having to work to achieve something.

Skillshare is subscription-based, which may help reduce the get-rich-quick frenzy in and of itself.  When you've subscribed, you can enroll in any course you like with no additional obligation.  I think that encourages courses that are honest, that don't pretend to be the be-all and end-all, that don't provide a Mysterious Secret.

My Black Friday/Christmas sale on courses - the only sale I run during each year - is described at

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Skilfeed announces shutdown

Many of you know that there are (were) three subscription-based online learning platforms of note, Lynda, Skillshare, and Skillfeed (a subsidiary of Shutterstock). Several months ago something went seriously wrong at Skillfeed, at which point they said they would concentrate on web design and programming courses and would not take new courses of any other kind. Unfortunately this was poorly managed. Staff appeared to be severely cut.

Now they have decided to end the service altogether on 30 September.

Perhaps competition from Lynda was too much? I think it was a lot more than that. Fortunately for instructors, Skillshare seems to have found a unique online market for arts-related as opposed to technically-related courses.  We can hope for the best.

Friday, May 1, 2015

How not to deal with a problem

I have been offering courses via Skillfeed (a subsidiary of Shutterstock) for nearly a year.  I have 23 courses there, most of them quite short (one video) as seems to be popular on that site.

When I submitted the latest, about freelance game design and writing, I was told

Your course does not quite fit in our catalog at this time.Please contact with any questions.
I first wondered how the people who rejected the course, could not tell me why.  Already there's a disconnect.  But I wrote to the address supplied.

In the meantime another instructor had received the identical message and posted about it on Skillfeed's Facebook group.  A discussion (marked by considerable instructor unhappiness) followed. After all, this came out of nowhere, and we have no guidelines as to what fits the mysterious catalog, and what doesn't.  As the original poster said:
I replied back that they could have flagged me early on (like when I put in the title) to let me know this before I wasted my time submitting it in the first place. And that's the thing -How am I supposed to know if they are going to reject a course based on their catalog? Why should I bother submitting courses if that I'm going to waste my time? They could put up front (before you START the process): Here is a list of topics that we are not accepting at this time. How hard would that be?
One instructor had revised an already-approved course, then got the same message - and he says his course is no longer online!

This kind of behavior not only discourages instructors from submitting courses, it discourages them from updating courses.

Today is the eighth day since I wrote to the specified address to address, without reply.  So I went on Facebook to check status.

Lo and behold, the original message and comments are no longer there.  And new posts are now subject to admin approval, which was not the case a week ago.

So Skillfeed, rather than address or explain, has chosen the "ostrich method."  They've tried to hide the problem.  This is a classic case of shooting yourself in the foot.

I posted the following, but whether it will be approved is open to doubt.
Interesting that Lisa Frase's post (with many comments) about courses not fitting the catalog has been removed from this group.  Isn't the idea to engage with critics rather than try to pretend they don't exist?
It has been 8 days since I wrote to teach@skillfeed to ask why my course was rejected, without reply.

Well done, Skillfeed.

Addenda:  My Facebook message was approved, surprisingly.

After writing a second time to teach... , I received what appears to be a stock reply:
Thank you for reaching out. We appreciate you taking the time to submit your course to Skillfeed. However, at this time we are not accepting courses with that particular subject matter. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience! If you have further questions, please do not hesitate to reach out again.
I say stock reply because there's no mention of the actual subject matter ("that particular subject matter"), nor were my comments actually addressed. Is it because "freelance" is in the title?  Or because it's about games (freelance game design and writing in games)?  How can an author use this to determine what he might or might not submit?   Without knowing what courses are not accepted, but knowing that many are being rejected, why would you risk wasting your time?

It's an utter disaster for Skillfeed.  If they simply don't want more courses, why not say so?

Second addenda:
Finally, from support I get an explanation: "We are attempting to focus our efforts on courses related to web development and graphic design, per customer demand."

Now why didn't they just announce that to begin with?  Why do we have to "pull teeth" to learn this?  

In the universe of online elearning, the topics specified above seem to be the most common.  Focusing on them does nothing to differentiate Skillfeed from anyone else.  Skillshare, in contrast, seems to focus on "artsy" topics, or at least on topics other than web development (many of the artsy classes are related to non-techical graphic design).  That orientation may come from their project-based method, where students are offered a project to complete as the goal of a course.

"Always do right--this will gratify some and astonish the rest."Mark Twain
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Albert Einstein

"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Albert Einstein

"The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal." -- Aristotle