Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Jon Schneider Game of the Year awards: 2022

Starting with my personal Game of the Year for 2022, and continuing on with the rest of the top 10, these were my favorite games that I played for the first time this year (along with the platform(s) on which I played them)!

1. Persona 5 Royal (Switch)

Probably the most expansive single-player RPG I've ever played, I was hesitant to dive into the this game given the expected time commitment, but I'm certainly glad I did! Engaging turn-based combat system, check. Interesting story, check. Realistic and sympathetic characters, check. Getting to explore (in a limited way) the districts of real-life Tokyo, a fun bonus. All wrapped up in a package that tries hard to be super stylish and cool -- and actually manages to pull it off!

2. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 (Switch) 

I enjoyed seeing the lore of the first two main games in the Xenoblade series woven together here into something completely different, yet still congruent with the original pairs of source material. A key innovation here was an RPG with a large party of player characters where some PCs aren't present during combat; all 6 (or 7) of them are present, contributing, and playable. The way the game handles, in consistent fashion with the game's world, a mixed-gender party of (essentially) late-teens / early-20s characters with romance between characters (mostly) not being a thing was also an enjoyable novelty. 

3. Crystal Project (Steam / Mac / Windows)

This game was a real treat for me, a fan of old-school Final Fantasy games and similar JRPGs. Layering challenging turn-based on top of exploration of a blocky Minecraft-like world worked remarkably well. Like Stardew Valley a few years back, Crystal Project is a game that managed to pleasingly surprise me on a number of occasions after I thought that I had what the game had to offer all figured out.

4. Knotwords (iPhone)

The best word game app I've ever played. It's Sudoku crossed with crossword puzzles in a really smart way. Wonderful UX design (which inspired a Vigil RPG haptics update!). More-than-fair premium pricing model with no ads, premium currencies, or other typical mobile-game dark patterns. Multiple game modes, including daily and monthly puzzles. Knotwords' ability for the player to "recover" lapsed daily streaks is another innovation that should be universally copied. Highly recommended to fans of word games!

5. Isle of Arrows (iPhone) 

Another premium iOS game done right. Combines tower defense, a light puzzle/card game, and a cool aesthetic. I 100%'ed the campaign.

6. Phoenotopia Awakening (Steam / Mac) 

A smartly-designed, difficult-but-fair, cute pixel-art hybrid of Metroidvania and Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link gameplay styles, with great settings/locations and story.

7. Kirby Forgotten Lands (Switch) 

I played through this cute first 3D foray of Kirby through start-to-finish with my 10-year-old, with her taking on the role of Kirby, and me, Bandana Waddle Dee. I appreciate how this game caters to a variety of skill levels, with the the main story being well suited for the pair of us to complete, and also including a post-game suitable for experts.

8. Chasm (Steam / Mac)

Like Phoenotopia, a pixel art melee Metroidvania game, whose weapon/combat system seems to have been particularly inspired by the more recent 2D games in the Castlevania series (see: next entry below!). Slightly thin on story, but solid enough in terms of level design and gameplay that I did complete the main story.

9. Castlevania Aria of Sorrow (Switch port of Game Boy Advance game) 

Played through this game which I'd never played in its original form as part of the Castlevania Advance Collection. I'd previously been most familiar with the more traditional series entries including the original Castlevania (NES) and Super Castlevania (SNES); hat tip to TouchArcade and freelance game writer Shaun Musgrave, whose recent Patreon ranking of all(!) of the Castlevania series games inspired me to give this a play-through. 

10. Super Auto Pets (Web / iPhone)

This is the type of multiplayer-game that I tend to prefer these days: Quick and asynchronous, meaning low-stress! You start each game from scratch to build a team of up to 5 of animals, each with their own unique combat ability, and watch them engage in a series of brief auto-battles against teams built by other players who have done the same.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Workaround: Input Lag with Nintendo Pro Controller playing Steam games on Mac

I was having a problem where, when playing the game Phoenotopia Awakening on my MacBook using a Nintendo Switch Pro Controller connected to the Mac via Bluetooth, I was getting pretty significant "input lag": About half a second would elapse between me pressing a button on the controller, and the character reacting on the screen, making the game nigh-unplayable.

Oddly, this issue would only occur with my MacBook "docked" -- connected on my desk to my multiple monitors, wired ethernet, and various other peripherals. When using the MacBook as a standalone laptop, the game and controller would play just fine.

Even in the "docked" configuration, however, outside of Steam, an in-browser gamepad tester showed that the controller was communicating with the MacBook with no lag.

I found the following to be an effective workaround for the problem:

  1. In Steam (not in "Big Picture" mode, and with the game not running), locate the game in your Library.
  2. Right-click the game and select Properties.
  3. On the Controller tab, select "Disable Steam Input".

Steam game properties dialog > controller tab
 Voila -- No more input lag with the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, even when docked! 

 Hat tip to "Toms33" for posting this solution in a thread on the Steam Community forums. 

Friday, August 26, 2022

TimeSnapper: The power of being able to replay the past

To get this disclaimer out of the way right out front: I'm the author of TimeSnapper for MacOS. But like the guy in the 1980-something Hair Club for Men TV commercial: I'm not just the author, I'm also a client! A real event just happened where TimeSnapper enabled me to share a key bit of information with my team at work that I hadn't been able to come up with otherwise.

About a month ago, I came across a mention from a co-worker of a book as being a great introduction to the FinTech space: "The Anatomy of the Swipe" (2020) by Admed Siddiqui. At the time, I checked my local public library for a copy, but they didn't have one; so I took advantage of an awesome feature of the library, and put in a request via the library's website for the library to purchase a physical copy! They did so, and automatically put the book on hold for me! I picked up the book yesterday.

In a team meeting near the end of my work day yesterday, I mentioned the book, and promised to drop a link to the book in our Slack channel in the morning. I followed up on that this morning, intending to post the link along with the original post where I'd seen the book recommended internally.

I searched Slack for the earlier mention of the book that I remembered, and... nothing. 

No search results for "anatomy of the swipe". Or for "anatomy" "swipe". Or for "ahmed siddiqui".

Although I thought I'd seen the book recommendation via Slack, maybe it had actually been via shared Google Doc...? Or an email? I searched those places too, and... again, nothing.

At this point, I was momentarily stumped. I wanted to provide credit where it was due and share the original book recommendation I had followed... but where was it? Obviously I hadn't just imagined it; I had gotten the name and author of this particular book, in order to request my local library to order a copy, from somewhere.

And then, inspiration struck: I've got TimeSnapper! TimeSnapper, if you're not familiar with it, is a utility program that runs in the background on your computer, and saves a snapshot of the screen every few seconds. It also provides a "Play Your Day Like a Movie" feature, where you can rapidly scrub back and forth through an entire day's worth of these saved screenshots.

To get the time window for my TimeSnapper search, I went to my library's website, logged in, and and viewed the page with the status of my past purchase requests. Sure enough, it showed that my request for "The Anatomy of the Swipe" had been originally made on July 26, 2022 -- one month ago today.

I then fired up TimeSnapper's Play Your Day feature and navigated to July 26. Skimming through my day, I found the images of my visit to the library website where I'd initially keyed in my request for the book. Navigating a short way back in time from there, I saw myself visiting my company's Slack instance... and found the recommendation I had remembered -- not for the book itself, but a link to a blog article with a list of good FinTech introductory resources -- which is where the mention of the book has actually been located!

Thanks to TimeSnapper, I was able to post a link that Slack post with the link to the FinTech blog post along with the link to the book itself.

Obligatory closing promotional line: If this ability to go back in time and observe what you were seeing on your computer in the past sounds like a superpower you'd like to gain for yourself, you can read more about TimeSnapper, and buy a copy for Mac or for Windows, on the TimeSnapper website!

Friday, April 29, 2022

Nervous Flyer + Gamer? Try Playing Mario Kart

Hi! I'm Jon, and I'm a nervous flyer. 👋 Always have been!

Don't get me wrong: I totally understand and agree that riding on a commercial airliner is generally one of the safest activities that one can engage in. It's a lot safer than driving a car, for example.

Against my will, though, while flying -- especially during takeoffs, landings, and during turbulence -- some primitive part of my brain insistently alerts me that I'm in danger. Even though at the same time, I know that I'm not. It's pretty weird and annoying.

Past attempts to cope with this by distracting myself with movies, reading, or playing video games generally haven't helped.

In recent years, though, I've found a workaround that, quite oddly, actually is fairly helpful: Playing Mario Kart!

Luigi in a kart on the "Sunshine Airport" course of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

For whatever reason, while I'm playing a Mario Kart race, that primitive part of my brain that normally sounds the alarm as sensations of motion are happening while in flight, instead seems to interpret those sensations as motions that are happening in the game -- and the unpleasant "danger" feelings are largely ameliorated!

I've found that this works for me both with the latest Mario Kart game, Mario Kart 8 for the Nintendo Switch, as well as with the older (and cheaper!) Mario Kart 7 for the Nintendo 3DS.

To maximize my time spent in races (instead of between races), as well as to enjoy the gameplay more, on my airplane ride Mario Kart 8 games, I've taken to using the "custom rules" game mode (found on the game's main menu under Single Player > VS Race):

  • Items: "Mushrooms Only." More opportunities to take those fun course shortcuts that require a speed-boosting mushroom. And I don't miss having my racing interrupted by lightning bolts and blue shells!
  • Race Count: Depending on the available time, I pick some high value, like 24 or 48.
  • Course Selection: "Automatic - In order." 

Would this trick work with other racing games, too? Good question! Maybe? Mario Kart is the only driver-perspective (or behind-driver-perspective) racing game that I've spent more than a short time with over the past few years.

If you're a fellow nervous flyer who is also a gamer, consider giving Mario Kart a try next time you find yourself up in the air!  (And don't forget to bring a USB battery pack to keep that Nintendo Switch charged!)

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Investigation and fix: A SQL Server stored procedure slowdown

What happened?

At work this past week, I was alerted to a problem where a background job which processes incoming messages from a particular queue had slowed down dramatically. As a result, a significant delay had developed in providing certain event notifications to our customers.  

Our monitoring tooling showed that the culprit was a particular SQL Server stored procedure -- one that gets invoked as a part of processing each message from the queue. Execution time of that sproc had suddenly increased from near-instant to an average of 4 seconds, with spikes up to around 20 seconds. (The queue processing job is multi-threaded, so we were still processing about one message per second, but that was no longer keeping up with the incoming volume of messages during the busy hours of each day.)

No code deployments or changes to the environment had been made around the time of the initial slowdown; this problem had started occurring without an obvious root cause. 

Our investigation

The stored procedure in question comprises about a dozen individual SQL statements and queries. It wasn’t immediately clear which individual statement in the sproc was responsible for the slowness.

After a few initial investigative paths didn’t yield results, I decided to run a short trace on the live production database. The trace revealed that one particular SELECT query was consistently taking a long time to run during each run of the stored procedure.

Interestingly: When I ran that same SELECT query SQL manually, it completed near-instantly. However, when I ran some minor variations on that SELECT query, they did take a long time to execute.

Execution plans and indexes

SQL Server internally generates an “execution plan” for each query that it runs, whereby it decides how it will go about performing the operation that the query's SQL calls for. The SQL Server Management Studio tool is able to display these execution plans in a nice graphical format.

When the problematic SELECT SQL was run manually, the execution plan showed that it was – correctly – leveraging an existing index on the target table. That index had been originally added to support this specific query. It includes fields needed by the query’s lookup criteria.

Looking back at the results of the trace, the problematics SELECT queries being run during execution of the stored procedure were being run using a different execution plan – not leveraging the custom-designed index at all! A full table scan was being run by SQL Server to gather the query results. As that  table currently sits at a total row count of over 150 million, those queries were taking a while to run!

The specific SQL being run (simplified a bit here for readability) was:

FROM myTable t
WHERE t.CreationDate > DATEADD(day, -30, GetDate())
  AND (t.Email = @Email OR t.PhoneNumber = @PhoneNumber)
  AND t.CompanyID = @CompanyID)

The custom index includes the following fields:
  •     CompanyID
  •     Email
  •     CreationDate
  •     PhoneNumber

Can you spot the problem?

Take a look at the ID field. That field isn’t part of the index; but it is being used in the SQL’s ORDER BY clause! And that clause, as it turns out, is used by the database as one of the factors in how it seeks for the single (TOP 1) row to return.

Through its own inscrutable internal algorithms, prior to April, SQL Server had been using an execution plan that did leverage the custom index for this query, despite the presence of the ID field in the ORDER BY clause. After April, some tipping point in the database’s characteristics was evidently hit that made SQL Server decide to no longer use that index in its execution plan during runs of the stored procedure.

The fix was to adjust the SELECT query to ORDER BY CreationDate, rather than by ID. This had the same logical effect with regard to selection of the returned row; and it got SQL Server to once again use our custom index while running the stored procedure, resulting in the resumption of speedy performance in processing of messages from the queue.

How did we verify that the fix worked?

  • We observed that new records continued to be inserted correctly (and now, a lot more quickly!) into the database table.
  • Execution times for the stored procedure went way down. We could see this both from the database itself, and from the our queue's web interface – the green line here is the rate of messages being processed off the queue, with the fix having been applied just after the 10:20 mark:

So what are the lessons here?

  • Having the ability to determine which specific SQL statement was the root cause of the downstream slowness was key to being able to devise a fix. (The fact that our monitoring instrumentation only reported to the granularity of which stored procedure was running slowly -- but not which individual SQL statement within the sproc was slow -- made this trickier.)
  • The availability of multiple weeks of monitoring data from our instrumentation did make it quick and obvious to confirm that there had been a dramatic change in performance from one of our stored procedures, which was the cause of the problem.
  • When a particular SELECT statement is slow, ensuring that a properly-matching database index is in place – and that index is being applied to live queries in the expected manner – is a very good thing to check!

Monday, February 28, 2022

Tip: How to easily reorder bullet points in Google Docs

There's an easier way to reorder bullet points in Google Docs than cutting and pasting!

  1. Position the insertion point over the bullet point line you want to move. 
  2. Press Ctrl+Shift+⬆ (up arrow) to move the line up, or Ctrl+Shift+⬇ (down arrow) to move the line down.

I’ve found that this works a lot more nicely than cutting the item to be moved, and then pasting the item in the new location in the list (since often, line breaks need to be fixed up after the new item is pasted in).

If you select multiple items in the bulleted list first, then the aforementioned keyboard shortcuts will move them all together, as a group. 

This tip works for reordering or moving regular paragraphs, too, in addition to bullet points.

Want to do the same thing in Microsoft Word? Check out my (much!) earlier post, Tip: How to easily reorder bullet points in MS Word, from 2009!