For the Love of Coffee

Green beans from Sweet Maria'sI recently wrote about things I have learned from taking a part time job in retail. However, something very important was left out of that post, because it’s a topic so large there are several websites, books and documentaries dedicated to it. I’m talking about coffee.

Working in a coffee shop with high quality standards meant that I was sent to Stumptown Coffee Roasters for training. Having been a passionate consumer of the brown brew for years, I used to make home espresso (until I wore my machine out, got it replaced and wore it out again), and I’d even experimented with roasting my own a couple of times. But now I was getting some professional training, along with knowledge about how the coffee bean behaves during roasting, storing, grinding and brewing.

Suddenly, I felt my interest in coffee surge. I had to know more. I started with Google, read articles at first, about regions and processing methods. Then I lurked in online forums, where other newbie enthusiasts were asking the same questions I had. Finally, I found myself reading reviews of home roasters. To be completely honest, I went so far as to begin reading about commercial roasters, before realizing I had gone too far.

Really, I just want to learn how to do it right, and come up with a few blends that tickle my tastebuds in just the right ways. It’s the kind of thing that takes both studying the beans, experimentation and practice.

Here is how I did it the first couple of times: first, I put the beans into a pre-heated oven, and stirred them up as much as possible without losing too much heat. I would wait for the “first crack” to end, pull the beans and cool them off. Embarrassingly primitive as this technique is, I did get some decent (if very unevenly roasted) cups of coffee out of it. Obviously, if you want a perfect, evenly roasted cup (which I do), this is not the way to do it.

Actually purchasing a roaster is a bit outside my reach at the moment (this is the kit I want). That said, I was so enthused by doing all the research, that I ended up ordering a couple of bags of green coffee beans I want to taste. I can’t wait to get started, and to share some of my experiences, successes and failures in coffee roasting.

Process and Progress on the Gamesalad Sim Game

Screen Shot of the game as it looked on 2013-01-14
I’d like to share a bit about my process and approach to building a sim game, using Gamesalad. I announced the project a month ago, and have since been working on it in my spare time. At this point I have a bare bones alpha version, with most of the basic features in place, but still no graphics, music or sound. And of course, I have a few more features to implement, bugs that need ironing out and content that could use some expanding.

As simple as it sounds, it started with wanting to make a game, I would want to play. It had to be about growth and maintaining balance, a game to immerse oneself in, with different strategies available but without the need for absolute micromanagement. I wanted a fairly confined game world, and decided that the story of settling and growing a medieval town would work perfectly.

I started by defining an end to the game, in this case if the town ever reaches population: 0, the game is over. As a result, a primary goal of the game is to grow your population (and thereby your town).

Next, I added a few parameters to play with. I started with just “taxes” and “happiness”, and defined a set of rules for how those would affect each other, and the overall population growth. This brought “resources” into play as well, as the in-game currency. Resources are gained via taxes and can be used for “upgrades”.

With the idea of “upgrades”, a new layer was added to the game. These upgrades (from eateries to workshops) are investments the player can make. By investing in a series of upgrades, special benefits are unlocked, on top of earning points. Invest enough in any one upgrade and you “max it out”, meaning you can no longer invest resources in that particular upgrade. Some upgrades require a minimum population to become available.

I decided to introduce another game element, and present the player with the occasional choice. For instance, you might be approached by a tribe seeking to settle in your town. If you let them your population will go up, but your “employment rate” will go down. By introducing these choices, I also ended up defining more parameters (like employment rate and average lifespan), that in turn would affect happiness and population growth itself.

For an element of randomness, I introduced the somewhat rarer “events”. From gifted artists appearing to earthquakes, these represent the world outside the influence of the player’s choices. Some events are beneficial, others are damaging – and their impact scale with the population (for instance, an earthquake will do more damage on a large town than on a small settlement).

From behind the scenes, these are the "actors" currently used in the game (click for large).

From behind the scenes, these are the “actors” currently used in the game (click for large).

With every new element introduced, the game balance is threatened. For that reason, I constantly go back and tweak various calculations, adjusting the importance and mix of individual parameters, and how they influence one another. This is by far the most difficult aspect of designing the game, because this is where all the elements come together.

I play the game a lot. I test run it for a few in-game years with every tweak, try different approaches and strategies, and deliberately look for ways to beat the game. Occasionally I will play a longer game, seeing how the math holds up as the numbers get higher. I also look for places where the game is too hard, or unbalanced, and try to decipher if I need to tweak the math or add yet another layer.

When the game reaches a point where it feels reasonably stable and balanced to me, I will ask others to prove me wrong. Which I am sure will be no problem for them to do. And then it’s back to the drawing board for more adjustments.

Ideas are Cheap but Not Worthless

Every day, several new ideas pop into my head. Many of them are incomplete, or frivolous and not very good. Occasionaly – let’s say once or twice a week – something genuinely fun, useful or with potential turns up. However, most ideas go to waste or are merely jotted down in a journal or a text document.

There is an overflow of ideas, to the point where even good ones are sometimes forgotten.

You probably get a lot of ideas too. Maybe it’s a business you want to start, a hobby you might pick up, a book you could write, a party you want to throw or a series of videos you could put on YouTube. Ideas come at us constantly whether we welcome them or not (in fact, they seem to come more easily when we are not looking for them, but that’s another topic).

The point is that ideas on their own have very little value.

It’s only when we act on our ideas, that their value increases. Whether you measure value in potential income, happiness or what-have-you, an idea by itself is fleeting; just a thought or a scribble. Actions make ideas real, give them substance and depth.

Caffeine and sugar are excellent idea stimulants, should you ever run low.

Caffeine and sugar are excellent idea stimulants, should you ever run low.

Since there are only have 24 hours in a day, and most of us have limited resources, the trick is to analyze your ideas, and determine which ones to act on, which to scrap, and which ones might be better off in someone else’s hands. This takes practice, which is sometimes referred to as “failure”.

Sharing ideas is not a bad thing. When you share ideas, you inspire others to get involved, to help you make it real or to develop their own ideas. Creative thinking is contagious, you see.

Too many people guard their ideas for no good reason. Secrecy can be necessary or helpful if you’re in the process of creating something for a competitive market (this is why we have NDAs). However, one reason I’ve heard over and over goes along the lines of: “I keep my idea a secret in case I want to make it real some day, so no one beats me to it.”

If that is your only reason to sit on an idea, you are not doing anyone any favors. Set it and yourself free, and go with an idea you can make real right now, rather than “some day”.

This post was inspired by an idea I had earlier today. This was for a video adventure game made for mobile devices. After writing down my initial thoughts, I read through them and realized this would be “some day” project. Mostly because it is too much work for me to do by myself, and I don’t have a team of developers, artists and writers standing by. So I decided to share the idea instead.

Maybe someone will make it happen, which I would love, whether I am involved in the process or not. I don’t think my idea is revolutionary, but it could be a solid, fun and potentially profitable game – if executed right. Continue reading