Parallax Insider News

Brett Weir Shows the LameStation Game System: A complete build-it-yourself educational game programming kit that doesn’t suck at all

  • By: Ken Gracey Published: 16 July, 2014 0 comments

There’s nothing lame about Brett Weir’s LameStation game development system. Just to be sure I invited him to Parallax to learn more about his product at Brett’s target audience is education, a customer very close to Parallax’s heart. The LameStation hardware uses a standard Propeller circuit running at regular speed, programmed in Spin, taking advantage of everything the Propeller has to offer.

What’s your background?

I’ve been writing music since 6th grade, and messing around with video games since elementary school. My love of music began when I was given a copy of Cakewalk 9, software for music production, and I’ve been writing music ever since, even making my own album in 10th grade. My first programming experience came from a game, Graal Online, which was basically a Zelda 3 rip-off, but that had a level editor and a scripting engine so you could make your own game worlds. Later, I starting playing around with DarkBASIC, a flavor of BASIC built built on top of a 3D engine.

I didn’t get serious about programming until I went to college at the University of California, Irvine, where I studied Electrical Engineering. It was there that I built the first LameStation prototypes. After graduation, I worked in Panasonic’s in-flight entertainment division for two years before leaving to start my own company.

Why the Propeller?

The Propeller is a perfect fit for the LameStation’s needs. Instead of having to worry about crazy timing requirements and bloated operating systems, the Propeller behaves almost like software-defined hardware. The cores can be dedicated to an application without interfering with anything else. On the LameStation, this allows a display driver, graphics drawing library, audio synthesizer, etc., to run independently of the main application in their own cores, accessible by an easy-to-understand Spin interface, making it easy to build games around them.

What’s more, the Propeller is designed from the ground up to be easy to use. It’s not an illusion like with other platforms. The Spin/assembly combination is very pleasant and I love the clean architecture and deterministic parallel processing that the Propeller offers, and I doubt that the LameStation would have gotten anywhere near this far had the Propeller not been available to us.

Who is your target customer?

Hobby customers are often very tech-savvy already, and LameStation doesn’t offer them very much, when there are systems 10x more powerful than this one. But the LameStation isn’t designed for them; it’s for someone who has never done anything like this before, and for educators that want to give their students something fun to really get excited about.

The hardware itself is simple, minimalist, making it easy to understand, and with a through-hole design so you can build it all yourself. Then each kit contains all the parts and tools you need to assemble it, so that I could give 25 of these to a class and they could start building it without needing anything else.

Then, I’ve created extensive assembly instructions that take you step-by-step through the entire process so that you won’t get stuck along the way. The books and educational materials are maintained on a public wiki, so you always have access to the most up-to-date information.

Finally, I want to make it as easy as possible to create your own games. That’s why I’m including a collection of libraries, drivers, software tools, and free artwork so you can get started right away.

What would you like the users to do with LameStation?

I want the LameStation to be a kit that grows with the userfor this to be the beginning of an ongoing investment in one’s self. I want to show people the power in being a creator of technology, not just a user, and also the joy and excitement of building something yourself and watching it come to life, and understanding every piece that went into making it a reality. I also hope to see a community of people emerge to share LameStation graphics, games, customization tips, and more.

What sorts of demos would be possible on LameStation?

You can make all kinds of games on a LameStation. The LameStation SDK is fast and lightweight, using 2-bit graphics and other tiny data formats, so that even in 32kB of RAM, you have a lot of space for some pretty interesting games. One example is the game Frappy Bard!, which is nothing at all like Flappy Bird in any way. This demo is a complete game that requires less than 300 lines of user-written code. In that many lines, the game sets up a title screen, tile scrolling engine, controller for those obnoxious pipes, score keeper, and a player handler. All in all, the entire game occupies under 10kB.

Now that our friend, Marko Lukat, has come aboard the project, he has contributed major upgrades to the graphics system, making it faster and smaller than it ever has been. This has made possible much more sophisticated games than ever before, and it’s only getting better as development continues.

Students of what age?

Younger kids, around middle school. They’ll get the most reward from building, loading and programming a LameStation.

How about the through-hole design?

I went to great lengths to avoid using surface-mount components that are very difficult to solder, even for experience used all through-hole parts so students can build the entire system; no shortcuts! That’s also why the LameStation uses a serial port, and it includes a USB-to-serial cable.

Can a student create their own graphics for use in the games easily?

Yes, we’ve created a tool called img2dat which allows you to export your drawings as Spin files for easy inclusion in your project. We’re also developing a new paint program called LSPaint that will allow you to draw graphics as they will appear on the console, making it even easier to visualize your game while making it.

What’s open source about LameStation?

Everything! I’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that the entire platform is free and open-source, so that no one will ever be locked out and anyone is free to contribute. The SDK, hardware design, source code and documentation are free: Spin source code is released under the MIT license; content tools like img2dat and LSPaint are under GPL; and media assets, like graphics, music, and sounds, as well as documentation, are released under a Creative Commons license. Then, with SimpleIDE for Spin, Tiled for map creation, KiCAD for hardware design, and many other tools, the entire toolchain is free and open source from top to bottom and anyone can use it.

How will it be released?

Right now, I’m working on building up the LameStation community before it’s released to the public. Kickstarter is a strong possibility for launch, but before that, I’d like to do a managed release to educators and beta testers to get detailed feedback on the whole kit experience to make sure it’s the best it can be. We hope to make the kit available to the general public within the next six months, with a retail price $149 each.

- Ken Gracey, CEO