Saturday, June 28, 2008

Death by Glow

Embarrassing. :)
In a race for who’s going to find the next coolest fluorescent colour to stick on your combat gear, and be sure to get shot within 0.158 seconds on the battlefield, I put an option on the pink, with, if possible, a heart shape gouged in the chest plate.

The problem, if there’s one – I think there is one – is that apparently, at some point, character designers forget about the people they’re creating, their purpose, and suddenly focus on the aspect to meet certain criteria and demand. Well, they’re asked to do so, and their stuff is greenlighted.

In some cases, it’s just for the worse. Wearing luminous beacons is not what I’d call a thoughtful moment of military design.

Most of them are well trained no-bullshit soldiers supposed to infiltrate epic enemy hideouts, or the most heavily guarded hives.
Monsters, aliens, spies, commies, whatever.

I’m not trying to badmouth those games. They are great pieces of actionware, and Dead Space looks absolutely promising.
But you know, in the army, shooting first is not an opportunity you’d turn down. Not being shot is even better, if you’d ask me. Making sure everybody can spot you in the dark is probably the last thing you’d actually put down on your wish list. I mean, why bother with camouflage and seamless colours then?

There are mitigating factors though. In Gears of War for example, the heroes are brutes with guns and chainsaws, they’re as sturdy as buffalos (I’m sure they couldn’t poke their noses with those fingers), and don’t wear any helmets, despite the presence of ranged weapons among the opposite army. So much for suspension of disbelief. But the game is about fun mindless high octane action, it’s not really meant to be that serious (though it does try in some ways), so this problem is not really one.

Another puzzling case is Haze. OK, it’s not true glow per se (even if promo shots have the gears literally puke yellow glow), but the spirit remains. Large patches of glaring yellow are featured on the combat suits, and they stick out so much that you still face a daring issue of nonsensical contrast which the super villain army doesn’t seem to care about. Why bother with high tech stuff and nectar biochemicals, when you give your men some equipment which dramatically reduces life survival on the terrain?
We understand nectar is yellow and is a big part of Haze, but you don’t see US troops wear red shirts with white stripes just because they may drink Coke.
Bee impression.

Now check out the Snakes, they’re given real stuff, gears which make a bit more sense.
On the good note, you also have the soldiers from Crysis (you know, the demo tech), or even Master Chief from the Halo series, thankfully spared the edgy glow. The Chief’s dark golden visor is reflective, but not shiny, if that’s what you want to know.

What really bugged me for all these years was how the much revered Tom Clancy would have games series, about tactical espionage and infiltration, rely on an action hero who wears goggles with three green torchlights in lieu of discrete hi-tech lenses. The Splinter Cell series take the crown here. The guy’s advantage is supposed to be his ability to slip through shadows, become the darkness, reach out from unexpected corners and ceilings, kill silently and return into the void. That’s without counting on the three stupid dots of light, which for some reason, seem to escape the sight of Sam Fisher’s targets. The game is cool, but I can’t help chuckle at this stuff.

In those dire times of design, where we keep hearing that games have to be more involving and have to rely on better storytelling, which means get infused an hefty does of credibility, even if the milieu is about fantasy or SF, you have to smile at the idea that those pleas for better immersion have to cope with credibility-depleted bullet-patterns of pure coolness blasting fist sized holes through the much precious faith.

Of course, games couldn’t be blamed for being alone there. In a large portion of futuristic TV shows, you’ll often see military men, humans or aliens, carry those gears or weapons with some glow on it, because glow is just so much better and, well, futuristic. If you have some glow, chances are that you’re advanced. In what? I don’t know, but you’re advanced nonetheless.
Somehow, this makes Old Snake’s sober gear even more primitive, coherently supporting the overall grandpa aura of the last volume.

At least, if you want to wear glow, do it right!

Thursday, June 26, 2008


I’m not a big fan of adventure games. They’ve always been, in my eyes, games about tiring enigmas, boring puzzles, inventory nightmares, plus lots of dialogue I’d gladly skip.
So I couldn’t truly appreciate nor contest what Ernest Adams pointed out at “Amnesia at the Game's Beginning”, in his “Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! VIII” which I commented here.
I didn’t fell there was anything wrong with the caveat as a whole.

That said, I’ve lately noticed the aforementioned amnesia pattern while paying closer attention to certain adventure games, notably two recent ones.

In Eden Games’ Alone in the Dark, your character doesn’t remember much, nor knows why he’s where he is.
In White Bird’s Last King of Africa, your character doesn’t remember much, nor knows why she’s where she is.
In Quantic Dream’s Fahrenheit, the character’s first steps were of a similar flavour, beginning in a room as he didn’t know what really happened, neither why he was there to boot.

There’s one thing all these studios have in common beyond the pattern in question.

Games are art

*Oh noes*

The most useless and redundant topic ever brought to life since the days of Adam and Eve. So we’ll try to get this done swiftly.

Anytime it pokes its ugly head in a discussion, half the audience looks away and leaves the room discretely, while those who remain engage themselves in long exchanges of… of what exactly?
I don't know, but many think citing famous people makes their arguments all the more solid.

If I had to think of an image, I’d say that it’s a topic as embarrassing as your toothless grandfather literally spoiling a good family dinner with remarks about how homosexuals wouldn’t get so much slack if they kept silent about their filthy ethics, when your new girlfriend is sitting next to you and comes from a family which is very open about those questions.
No, this is not based upon real anecdotes, although I can perfectly imagine this happening in Texas or Turkey. (For those who want to flame-mail me, you know where to click.)

Fun, money, interactivity and repetition have never been good arguments against art labeling.
For one, many paintings, revered as art these days, were the fruit of propaganda by the Catholic Church, notably against Protestants.
The Sistine Chapel’s ceiling paintjob was commissioned by Julius II for crissake! Yes, MONEY.
So many modern sculptures and towering architectures have a price tag attached to them.

Think on this:

It's art because I say so.
- Me, 2008.

Maybe monkeys think that yoghurt pots are art?

I think we need a game wherein you destroy art.
Or maybe a controverted FPS where you protect a group of young Jews from a bunch of heavily armed Nazis, with a stomach wrenching moral dilemma in the end where you have to let the kids be captured to complete an important sabotage mission in the prospect of nearby liberation.

The real, one, true problem is not about gaining respect by making high art, serious art or else through video games (and would they remain games then?), it’s about stopping lying to ourselves, and destroying that idea that games, under any form, are an embarrassment in that society where the workaholic is the next hero.
Everyone tries to find game principles in given domain or activities.
Political elections are nothing more than a game of combos and locks, Populous at trying to deceive pawns into getting their favours and support, with a winner in the end and the voting percentages being the top score.
The politician may think there’s a challenge, a mature responsibility, but it’s nothing more than goals, facing problems and winning while following rules.

Video games would probably earn more respect if a famous video gaming champion would gain as much aura as Ayrton Senna and André Agassi did get in their time.
Oh, sure, we’re still far from that. Fatal1ty?
Ah sorry, not there yet. Though we can hope, because there are not many reasons not to have adults sit around machines, play against each other, and have top list TV channels broadcasting the games, safe cultural bias, conservatism and a lack of preparedness from current economical powers.
After all, watching a football match is not more mature, nor more educating than watching a duel on Supreme Commander, right?

Oh, I see. The big fat lazy ass syndrome. Games are terrible because you sit (Hence Wii Sit, erm… Fit I mean). The problem is in the body position.

But… wait. How many people watch goddamn Who wants to be a millionaire again?
Sure, this is not ranking high in the charts of morality (maybe just above Janet Jackson’s wiggling boob) but there’s an audience there, there’s a business there, and people unite in front of the box to watch that.

I believe video games can do better.

I think some people are just too proud to ever “lower” themselves to the idea of playing games just because play and leisure are integral parts of us.
It’s also the whole Nintendo games are for kids again, with a different multicultural and global flavour to it, nothing more.

Now just try to imagine a world without any game.
See the collapse? It makes no sense.

So… to bring this post to an end, with no relation to the part above…

If you want to make a remarkable meaningful game, if you actually think you’re making one, or playing one, then bravo, fine, go on, may the Force be with you.
If you think games are just about entertainment, fun and sometimes barely worth a Hollywood B grade movie, OK, no problem, fine, go on, may the Force be with you.

But please. Not that. Not again.

If one unique, thoughtful and deep question shall remain regarding whether games are art or not, it would surely be “who gives?”

So much for making this short.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Prognosis on Mirror's Edge

It’s not everyday that you get a chance to see something sufficiently different from the run of the mill playware and announced WWII shooter, so let’s quickly build some hype people!
Dun dun dun. Sorry, I’m going to take the other route for now.

So what’s the recipe, chief?

As far as I saw it, it’s relatively simple:

Prince of Persia + Assassin’s Creed + Shadow of the Colossus + lotsa white + 1st person view: solving mazes through athletic super moves.

However, you still need a great cook to make the broth exquisite.

On the paper, I’d say that for certain elements, it’s “been there done that”. Safe for the different perspective. Of course, anyone knows that assimilating the meaningful details of any environment is particularly hard in a FPS.
Think about it. A 3D platform game with a first person perspective, I’m yet to find a single good demonstration that shows it works.
Even 3D platform games with third person perspectives still remain burdened by this depth gauging problem, and as a whole remain absolutely worthless, unless the paths are more on less “railed”.

I was looking at Next-Generation’s preview of the game written on toilet roll. It’s incredible how they are so hype proof. Really, I mean it.
So much that apparently, DICE is incensed as having perfectly nailed the concept of “building up speed before jumping or sliding”, like you know, nobody did it before in games.
Oh but nobody did it in a 3D game.
But… could it be that it was not the point of other games at all?
However, when they’re making a 3D platformer as Mirror’s Edge, you bet they’re going to brag about how you must run over a certain distance to complete a given jump.
Otherwise, what would be left to do?

Now, think about it. The Playstation-style 3D novelty aside, these functions are nothing new at all. Of course, you cannot always reinvent the wheel, so I shouldn’t be so negative about it. I have no real problem revisiting past game mechanics as long as it’s well done. Which I hope it is.

We’re been told the platform part will work great. Well, it might end being a tad dumbed down. Now look at the architecture. You can spot many possible paths. Now do they look exciting? Well they seem a bit predictable and observing the role of fillers, but we really need to know how far the work on the level design has been pushed, with more videos, notably to see if they’ve find a way around a real problem which occurs more than often in games which are primarily designed with an universe in mind rather than a very specific and working gameplay; that is, trying to cram a game design into a realistic environment which, at first, doesn’t seem to offer that many opportunities.

I mean, when you look at the screenshots, it’s rather easy to see how to get from a building to another. That ledge slightly higher than the opposite one, that double pipe over there, crossing the void between two buildings, etc.
In comparison, if you watch parkour videos on internet, you’ll see that most urban tracks are actually far richer and trickier than anything this game seems to provide. Structures and forms are far more varied.

The game’s principle is to find the exit of those architectural “open” mazes, and rather quickly when you’ve got a bunch of governmental dogs on your six.
There’s a good reason why the game’s environment is looking clean and luminous (one you can easily guess by yourself without watching the producer interview because, you know, it’s just that glaring).

The art has been following functionality, which is a good thing. Otherwise, the result would have been disastrous, in a game where you have to quickly understand and analyze your environment, to have most paths (pipes, poles, edges, ladders, ramps, etc.) blending with the irrelevant décor. Some of the elements composing the best paths are characterized by a red texture, and from what I’ve seen, serve as beacons for transitions either between buildings, or between indoor and outdoor locations. Not terribly hard isn’t it?

Does that mean the player is taken by the hand? Who knows… it seems that these helps disappear progressively along the game. Good.
Seeing your feet will be important. Well, how much exactly? The game’s wiki says it’s there to help you keep balance. So it’s not a revolution here, since we’ve been walking over abysses before without seeing our feet, and it was fine.

Well, there’s been one major demo thus far, and it left me quite underwhelmed. It was globally nothing more than seeing a character jump, slide, run and keep balance when walking down a narrow plank or tube of some sort (notice how the landing seems rather perfect, despite the executed jump and momentum you’re ought to get in such conditions), all that along a small playfield which displayed no challenge whatsoever.

I cannot say this was inspiring material. Oh but it’s seen through the eyes of a female Asian character.
Yes, an Asian character with all the expectable overdone stylish posing stances over ledges, numerous random tattoos and other cliché doodads. Luckily, we avoided the generous akimboobs.

Why not try a red head? Or a black girl? Or an Indian girl? We already got billions of Asian females in games, so what’s new here?
Oh, I suppose the excuse can be that she’s the lead female. Well, sure, female are slimmer and more graceful, so that fits the game (even if I’ve seen many gay men being as graceful as girls but nevermind).

My point being that it doesn’t make much difference, and while I’d like to see more real women in games and less stuffed up GI lolitas, I say don’t get all excited just because the lead is a female here. I’d rather see DICE and EA keep a low profile on it, instead of having representatives polarizing the topic once more.
Remember Beyond Good & Evil and Jade. It felt less… I don’t know… forced?

We can bet our pants, hats, pets and stock options that this will have to be mentioned like a hundred times as a key selling point in future appetizing PR stuff. Can’t wait!

I truly hope that Faith is lesbian, so the circle will be complete.

DICE has released a certain amount of videos and screenshots thus far, and what I’ve observed is a well marketed montage of totally mundane 20 years old game mechanics (ex: hanging to ledges, POP anyone?) wrapped into some fancy talk about how they’re putting us into a real body. Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know, this is not exactly what appeals to me.
Once you’ll be done with those elements, once you’ll be accustomed to the bleached rooftops and walls… what then?
Perhaps a simple experience of enjoying a fluid, free and efficient platform gameplay in a true 3D environment is what the game will pull off. Cross fingers?

We’re said Mirror’s Edge will try, a bit like Breakdown, to restore the essential meaning of the first person perspective in games, which has, thus far, taken a second seat in favour of shooting. What about FP horror games?
Fatal Frame? Having to take pictures of tormented ghosts through your ancient camera, with all the limited vision it implies, while they’re circling you and going through walls, roofs and floors, rocked a great deal.

To sum up, we have a huge amount of hype there, because it’s a game with more white than usual, and above all because it’s DICE man, freaking DICE, and they’re going to tell you that you have lowered your standards way too much when it comes to first person games! You literally HAVE TO be positive about this game.
Well, arguably, I’m positive about DICE’s new logo. It’s very nice.
I suppose that the idea is that after playing Mirror’s Edge, players enjoying the art of trick jumps in your random FPS will look as graceful as Dalek ballerinas.

Still… I advance with caution. I could be very wrong in the end, but usually, when I see a demo, I’m capable of catching the elements which tell me the game has that something which could translate as hours of fun when I’ll get my hands on it.

I didn’t sense anything like that here. I have that bad feeling that we could be dealing with a flashy gimmick.

That said, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for the next trailer, and see if my concerns were founded or not. For the moment, I think it’s going to be a meh game, sort of 7/10.

(What a fool! He’s giving an opinion without knowing much or having played the game – hey people, there’s that “prognosis” word up there, think about it.)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Age of Conan


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Fumito Ueda - gimmicks of Ico & Colossus

I think it was just a question of time before I’d have my first post about Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.
Next Generation (Edge, etc.) had a nice quick talk with the man behind almost everything about these two games, plus some reports of a conference (bweep).

Two points:

  1. It appears that most of the artistry of these games was not really intended. Call that an unwitting trait of genius or mere luck, it is rather fantastic that their ruminations and critical thinking brought them to such refreshing and enjoyable designs. Truth being, I think the guy did know where he was headed for. As always, art often takes control of your mind. You may have an idea, maybe a nebulous one, but it’s not surprising that what you had planned, or wanted to do, is not exactly what you get in the end. Yet, it can be just as good, if not better.

    It is interesting to note how the transition from a multiplayer game, which by the description relied on co-operative mechanics and not some kind of free for all system, ended being a single adventure, where the loneliness of the player reinforces the atmosphere of the game. I am not saying that the multiplayer experience would have been bad, as after all, Ico lacked a second player’s input, since you basically had two characters to get out of a castle, sort of helping each other (well, Yorda wasn’t that helpful but, still…).

    Nevertheless, the sequel was apparently geared around a small group (as evidenced by scans archived at Tokyopia), but I’m convinced that there are games which have to be played alone (oh yes, this does go against recent claims about eminent industrial figures telling you the exact contrary at Gamasutra and all over the press – well, f*** them).

    Like I said when I started this blog, I do love ruins, and Team Ico's games are riff with them. They convey a silent story, a mystery which has the audience build up a backstory on their own.

    Mystery seems to be so underrated these days, notably in Hollywood.

  2. Both games are summed up by one core idea, and I do think that they’re gimmicks, in the positive way. They’re simple but powerful ideas, and everything about each game appears to have been shaped around them.

    They stick out so much because these two games didn’t actually drown these premises into swamps of complicated overarching stories, meaningless events and whatever. In the end, it only made these gimmicks more powerful, and then fantastic experiences.

    One central idea, and everything articulated around it. That’s the way it is for me. It makes the games richer, and it allows me to play many of them and enjoying a different experience every single time.

    And this is why I’d play a thousand Icos and Shadows rather than a huge sandbox game, like some recent big name you could have not missed unless you were already dead.

Now, here’s more info about the development of Ico. It’s taken from an interview published in the Official Playstation 2 Magazine, which transcript was found at Cats Under a Tree. I don’t know if they’ve been the first ones to put the transcript on the internet, but I’d hate to see the transcript disappear, so here it is below.
+1 respect for citing Galaxy Express 999. ^_^

This interview with Fumito Ueda (abb. FU) published on Official PlayStation 2 Magazine UK (abb. OPS2) shortly after the release of ICO in Europe (February 2002), gives the reader a few interesting insights to the inspiration and motivation behind the game; the building blocks, research, its artistic approach and emotional connection between the player and the characters.

Set in a bewitching yet austere castle, ICO brings a rare beauty to PlayStation 2 gameplay. Official PlayStation 2 Magazine met the man behind the critically acclaimed masterpiece to unlock the secrets behind the castle walls.

Talking about what is amazingly the first game he has directed, Fumito Ueda remarks that in ICO he sought to create “a real fantasy experience”. The result is so much more - ICO is original, beautiful and utterly unforgettable. During his forthcoming trip to Las Vegas for the AIAS Achievement Awards (ICO has been nominated in several categories) Ueda-san is planning to visit the Grand Canyon to research his next PlayStation 2 game. Given ICO’s reception, it will definitely be one to look out for.

Official PlayStation 2 Magazine: What inspired ICO’s original concept?

Fumito Ueda: When I was in high school I saw a TV commercial with a lady holding the hand of a child, walking through the woods and the image just stuck with me. When I came up with the pairing concept I had a woman and a young boy in mind. There’s also a famous manga called Galaxy Express 999. It’s about a woman named Maetel who’s a guardian for the young hero Tetsuro as they adventure through the galaxy. I thought that even though it was an old story, it could be adapted into a new idea for videogames.

OPS2: Did you have any other ideas?

FU: Originally, ICO was meant for PlayStation and it was the girl who had horns. She was trapped in a small room and the boy was one of the slave workers in the castle, who found the room and helped the girl escape.

OPS2: When did the game development start?

FU: It began in February 1998. We originally used pre-rendered backgrounds and then switched to real-time 3D. All the animation was done by hand and I used Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair for the music - this later became the inspiration for ICO’s theme. We were halfway through development when PlayStation 2 came along. As a planner, I wanted to release the game on PlayStation because, at its launch, the PlayStation 2 didn’t have many good games - they were all rushed to be released on time. But as a designer, I was attracted to the PlayStation 2 high specs because you can achieve so much more, graphically.

OPS2: Both Ico and Yorda are endearing and original characters. How did you go about designing them?

FU: I wanted to achieve a look somewhere between a Japanese and foreign style. It was a long process of trial and error - actually I wasn’t sure what to do with them myself! For Yorda, I eventually asked one of the female team members to refine the character. It kept on changing things from the start, right up to the day before the master was due. I gave Yorda a haircut just at the last moment.

OPS2: Players comment that they really care about Yorda. How do you create a character that provides players with such a strong sense of attachment?

FU: The core team members and myself concentrated on characterizing her. For instance, outside of the gameplay Yorda often makes strange movements: she strolls around, follows birds and points to things. Some of the team members wondered why they were working on this stuff [laughs]. We are attracted by the quirks of girlfriends, right? We didn’t just want to use Yorda as an element to proceed through the game, we wanted to encourage the idea that the two are sharing an adventure, co-operating together. By putting in those particular movements, a player can feel that connection. Actually, I wanted to include more variations as these things were actually planned for the PlayStation version, but time was an issue.

OPS2: The design of the castle and the various puzzles are amazing. How were they planned and created?

FU: It started off as just a bunch of puzzles without textures, in a vaguely castle-like form. When the puzzles were okay’ed they were handed to the designers who would then add more details. It took a lot of work to have it all make sense because the stages were created individually. Occasionally, when we put the different stages together they didn’t fit too well, so we’d have to cut or shuffle areas around. It was a constant process of building and fixing that went on for about two years. The reason why I concentrated on this so much was that the castle had to be realistic in terms of architecture.

OPS2: What kind of research was involved in creating the architecture?

FU: I’ve never been to a real castle before and was inspired by the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an artist from 18th Century Italy. Japanese rural scenery was also inspirational, things like deserted cars near rice fields and semi-built-up areas near the countryside.

OPS2: Are there any technologies or graphic techniques in the game that you’re particularly proud of?

FU: It’s kind of hard for our team to compete with, say, Square or Namco in terms of realism, so we used different techniques to make big contrasts within the environment. When you look at the castle, for instance, there are shadowy places and bright, sunlit areas for a more dramatic expression. Of course, you could present a colourful, vibrant world, but ICO has a subtle and reserved style. Take movies as an example: even with modern technology available, some movies opt for a grainy effect for the visuals as a means of expression. ICO is lo-fi (running at 30 frames) and the modeling is in low-resolution. The team intentionally avoided using the maximum graphic specs in order to give the game something different and make it stand out.

OPS2: Will there be a sequel?

FU: At this point we’re not planning one, but I’d like to create a game that shares the same kind of atmosphere and concept. I’m actually in the midst of preparing another game at the moment, but I can’t really talk about it yet.

OPS2: What’s your view on the state of the videogame market?

FU: I’d compare movies to cars and motorcycles to games. The motorcycle market is smaller than the car market, which is similar to games versus movies. But when you think about it, riding a motorcycle is more practical in a city than a car. It’s cheaper and more maneuverable, but people still prefer cars because of the image: they’re more luxurious. Games still have an image of being for ‘gamers’, or the younger generation; I want to change that image. I also want to avoid the situation where producers make games that only target the core players.

On a final note, here’s an interesting and somehow logical observation about the inspiration behind Ico’s (good) box art.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

iGame - App Store

Well, maybe it’s time to take bets.

There are those enthusiasts gonzos who crave for any kind of news that would look like something big is coming this way, and there are those smart naysayers who believe that being cynical, pessimistic and jaded is cooler and better (sorry lads, there are just too many of you doing that right now, you’re a tad late).

As far as Forbes is concerned, they say YES to Apple gaming… while others laugh at the claim, and remind us of Apple’s former failures.

Why the craze? It’s because App Store is coming, a platform where developers will be able to put up their creations, to be downloaded by Apple customers.
This is what the PSP should have had. For one, we’ll see how the idea of attempted mainstream downloading of games will fare (this may make one Perry happy, right?).

You have to admit, the motion sensitive system included in the iPhone would have been absolutely purfect for a game such as Loco Roco.

But I remain convinced that Apple’s phones aren’t the best platforms gaming you could think of, and I mean it’s rather obvious. Too locked up, lacking correct ergonomics, controls still screen-dependant, and there are several technical limitations to these products, notably on the memory side.

Nintendo's DS is well too implanted into the market to be kicked off by any stuff by Apple. The DS has far too many games. The DS is a gaming machine. It won’t budge.

However, this sort of manoeuvre would represent a good first step into the gaming market. But the question is if Apple is capable, or willing to nurture real game projects and help the developers make their machines successful and game friendly?
Well, at least Apple is far more capable of launching a proper marketing campaign than Nokia is, and have the money to guarantee that. If they want you to know that they’re getting into the gaming segment, and if they’re serious about it, I’m sure they’ll make sure you know it.

My take on it is that I don’t see the iPhone making lots of ripples beyond what a potentially new challenger with a big name would do, and a real handheld, meant for games, will be the best way to get into the gaming industry for real.

Keeping an eye on the success or failure of App Store will be important. Plus counting the 100,000 SDK downloads from March, we may have something to talk about after all.

EDIT: According to PC Advisor, a total of 250,000 SDKs has been downloaded to this day. Not bad, eh?

EDIT2: Steve Jobs gave more details about the new iPhone, notably the sale of 8GB and 16GB versions, both ready for full 3G networking and GPS (community city-maze games ahoy!).

EDIToo many: I totally forgot those news back from February which revealed that Apple secured their trademark into other domains. For the reminder, the filing:

Toys, games and playthings, namely, hand-held units for playing electronic games; hand-held units for playing video games; stand alone video game machines; electronic games other than those adapted for use with television receivers only; LCD game machines; electronic educational game machines for children; toys, namely battery-powered computer games with display screens which feature animation and sound effects.

It's tempting to imagine that this goes beyong the iPhone and iPod Touch. I mean, these devices largely precede that filing.

iGame - Apple's hand held console, Part I

Friday, June 06, 2008

Retrospective // ea_spouse

It’s quite fantastic how man can be so imaginative when it comes to rules.

Man creates so many of them. It is compulsory. There has to be a gene of rule creation somewhere.

I suppose that they are given birth to bring order within groups of different sizes and compositions. These rules concern economics, religion, politics, culture, life style, etc. I assume that they’re meant, in a way, to shape our pocket civilizations, to differentiate ourselves from animals and, as a whole, the wild and hostile nature that surrounds us.

Yet, some of these rules just become nuisances.
They serve no purpose and are all the more burdens man loves to afflict himself with.
Some of these rules even reach beyond those moments of sheer absurdity and grow in power, totally out of control, so much that man becomes terrorized by the rules he created.
Then we become slaves to our rules, vampirized by them. They turn out to be so counter productive, so illogical, that they empower the wolf inside some of thus to ensure survival of the fittest, to raise leaders among the puppets, and soon we prey upon other individuals in utmost cynical ways.
Even when groups realize something is wrong, they feel terribly powerless. Others will be more or less satisfied with those intangible oppressing mechanics, and serve these new gods to get the better out of the weak who coils in terror.

This leads us, video games wise, to ea_spouse.

You could appreciate the quake her famous letter generated then, as reported on this site.
Don’t forget, it was less than four years ago. Yes, only that.

Things did evolve since that time though. The real person behind that ea_spouse nickname, Erin Hoffman, came out of the woods, started Game Watch, and since then keeps coming up with periodic columns and updates about the industry’s state, like she recently did at The Escapist, and she’s rather active in that department. A labour I salute.

I doubt things change that fast. However, the internet acts as a small catalyst, for sure. It compensates for the totally unlikelyness of ever seeing developers protesting.

Even if ea_spouse had never existed, how many actually wanted to believe in her? - or him, considering how the internet is riff of guys taking female nickname! :)
Even if it was a total hoax, even if it was my cousin dressing up like Queen Elizabeth and using his two fingers to clumsily type down a letter the day following an orgy of alcohol, sex and BBQ, the point would remain the same.

There was a huge demand.

For a moment in life, ea_spouse was iconic. Like, err…

A beacon of light amid the overwhelming darkness.
Jeanne d’Arc leading the French army against the Britons!
Moses guiding the Jews away from Egypt!!
Master Chief kicking Covenant butts!!!

There is a most basic truth to look for here: the more people who want to believe in a formidable source of inspiration and hope, in general, the more it’s due to the fact that they are going through a mediocre moment of their life, in a way or another.
It’s not a coincidence that (extreme) faith is extremely noticeable in the poorest parts of the world.
Shit holes, as you may say.

Sixty years ago, conservative economists would tell you that you couldn’t get rid of child work otherwise the economy would collapse, the world would burn, the moon would fall and whatever nonsense wrapped in a good dose of economic babble.

Now, these days, they say that unionization will destroy companies. Well, it will surely block affairs from the moment unions would feel like the companies are not being fair. But they’re afraid of loosing power.

The sadest part of it is that many were so scared to talk openly about it, they never complained to the point where it mattered. The terror, coupled to isolation and total lack of communication between the oppressed ones about this topic, led to new forms of lockout under disguise (as it happens over the whole world, in any industry), and where open speech is as possible as it is in a banana republic.

You can’t help wondering how long this nonsense would have kept going on, had ea_spouse never spoke.

So… well, thank you!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Sony's PSP is a pretty face

It’s not a secret to anyone who pays attention to the news that while PSP sales have seized the crown of juicy charts, notably in Japan, the amount of third party titles poking their nose on the mini thing is dramatically poor.
Rob Cooper (Ubisoft UK) is convinced that the handheld suffers from a lack of direction, and no strong communication as to what the console should provide, or whom it may need to be sold to.
The thing is, when you look at the console's sales (which surpass those of the PS3 now :/), then when you consider its new design, and when you give a quick glance at its games, you cannot help noticing that the console does sell because it’s pretty. And that’s about it.
It’s a PS2 with some simplified libraries, and the granny is still enjoying life as far as we can tell, notably, again, because of new paint jobs (and I must admit that the red version really looks neat).

Trouble is, when Sony will have circled the whole rainbow, what will they be left with?
Well, nothing. Unless they find a solution to their image problem, they won’t be able to entertain the fad that long.

The console is not horrible though. OK, it has mistakes, like the UMD drive, but the screen is fabulous, and is capable of storing, reading and playing various media files.
Plus, it’s very pretty, no denying that.
Now, all of this is fine, but the PSP is suffering from what is the much expected key feature these days: the touch screen.
In that, the PSP shows its age. It’s too close to the PS2, and doesn’t come with enough extravagant functions to compete against the simpler and yet, somehow, fuller DS.

Still, there’s something which can be done with such a screen mounted on a multimedia platform.

My point is simple: instead of trying to cram games which are typically crafted for “living room” experiences into this handheld, why not actually consider that we have a small and light(er) console, which can be easily connected to others, anywhere, and has a fantastic display apparatus capable of rendering pictures with crisp quality and replete with vivid and contrasted colours?

They could focus on JRPGs even more, and also churn out more 2D games.
But above all, why not focus on providing artistic experiences, which the DS and its low quality screen cannot?
You know, more fl0w stuff?

Yes, the PSP was first presented as a posh artsy thing.
Much like the PS3 actually. Then there’s that sharp U-turn which Sony completed rather early in the PSP’s life, and then tried to catch up with the DS. Which it cannot.
It’s one of those few times when you feel like Kutaragi’s vision would have helped a lot here.

So why not push this sort of trendy, high-tech and pompous pretence to its maximum? What is there to loose anyway? Not much I’m afraid.

Why not allow people to download even more content depending on their current location, like near a theatre, a museum, a rock stadium, etc?
Say, you’re attending a fashion show. You’re given a small flyer, with a simple and clear procedure telling you how to connect your PSP to the local hotspot, and then you get a continuous feed of information about the event, the models, the products’ line, the designer, history, photos, the programme and even interactive visual experiences (not really games but more like demos).

Why not allow the console to be used as a controller for other machines at electronic and science shows and conventions?
You know, that funny video of a guy who pretends that he hacked the signal of a large screen in a train station, in Utrecht, with a N95 Nokia… nice hoax. Yet, the idea is good, in terms of localized synchronous interaction with different people.
Why just not allow all people to do that for real? Certain concepts have been explored with sound & light devices being sensible to the presence or movements of people (interactive display at Target in Union Square, NY, or Monolith, Volume and another responsive experimental LED system, all three by United Visual Artists), or providing more synesthetic outputs according to inputs from mobile phones (Amodal Supension and some other interactive stuff I can’t find a link for, which was about talking in your phone and changing the colour of small light columns, in Japan I think).
I suppose it would be interesting to use infrared with the PSP to probe the environment, eventually using a small device that you’d attach to the top of the console, and form images and sounds on your screen according to the input.

Or could you imagine playing with people on that kind of light wall (first inclusion of a yaytube vid btw):

Well, of course, with that wall, who needs the PSP’s screen? Oi! It’s the spirit that matters, OK?!
Mmm… People would probably miss their train! :)

Let’em connect their PSP, and have them fiddle with the huge screen. Make it a continuous community event. Put light and music shows up there.

Put GAMES up there!

Working now, in order to reach new audiences, may be a worthwhile strategy, so your potentially faithful customers would be ready to make the jump to the next handheld (if there’s one).

I’m convinced that there are other things which can be done with this machine, even if I think all signals tend to show that the PSP will be short lived… unless Sony has the balls to spit a PSP 3.0 with a touch screen.
Then, they’d probably need to sell a thin touch screen controller, which you’d plug into the socket on top of the console and strap to the screen of the older versions.
However, you’d probably want to avoid that ugly baby, right?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Death of Level Designers

I’ve recently read a series or articles globally titled The Death of the Level Designer: Procedural Content Generation in Games, purporting the rather bizarre idea that PCG (procedural content creation) would lead to the “death” of level designers.
Well, I decided to drop a few stones in the comment section of chapter six (last one thus far).

As you may have guessed, I couldn’t disagree more.
Here’s a copy of my reply (with all typos included!):


I've been lured by this provocative title, and felt like it needed comments.
I'll be honest and go straight to the point.

First and foremost, you say:

"The Death of the Level Designer: Procedural Content Generation in Games"

After six pages of what should have been an argumentation to defend your eye-smitting hypothesis, I'm yet to see anything that would remotely provide a solid argument in favour of your bold claim.
Had you limited your article to the informative enumeration and discussion of new PCG technologies, it would have been fine. Trying to spin that into a sensational claim was an absurd choice.

We're looking at cases where the topology of the terrain doesn't matter much as long as you can complete independant and repetitive tasks, like hacking mobs.
There are concepts which this methodology works for. There are others where this fails totally.
There is no doubt that terrain generators help gain a lot of time, but this won't necessarily apply well to all genres.

Procedural content is a good topic, but it should be wise not to make generalizations.
PCG is most acceptable in games where the randomness - and may I say soullessness - of a level doesn't matter much. This is why, among other things, random maps for RTS isn't a tool as shocking as a competition map on a FPS for example... but I could pick a racing game. People would rather play a thousand games on the same Mute City track rather than play on thousand variations of said track, simply because the success of a game is about learning it, and learning the levels.

So what are your chapters about, in regards of the initial claim?

Part I-II:

Points 1 and 2 are appreciable lists of existing methodologies and technologies, but don't prove that the end is nigh for level designers (or whatever you wanted to imply in your premise).
You would rather find yourself be telling that new tools offer new forms of creation, and fasten production times, make level designers' lives a tad easier (which, actually, may be arguable for anyone who's toyed with Carmack's texture technology).

Point 3 gets lost in irrelevance in my opinion. There is an amalgam of technologies which do refer to procedural content to a degree, but in the end, they have more to do with LOD than anything else. Case in point: It was only a question of time before we'd get beyond the limitation of spheres that kill you if you get too close (Freelancer for example), supposed to represent a true world in space.
You also pretend that (endless) exploration of random landscapes will make for future thrilling gaming experiences.
Not only this would get boring after a while, but worlds which would be too detached from human direct intervention would have no real warmth to them, and not having humans get the final say, add the final and meaningful touch to the picture is a mistake.
Of course, there are degress of PCG, from totally created out of the blue based on variables, or at least merging precreated assets with the fruits of algorithms. PCG without human intervention as a future standard makes no sense. You'll still smell the tasteless fractal essence of a world you wander in.

Point 4 digresses totally from the main topic, and we can rejoice to the idea that we'll finally have genuinely different NPCs, it doesn't provide a shred of evidence that LDs will become pointless.
You always need very specific content at some point, and this will be part of the LD to get sure this specific content meshes well with procedurally generated content.

Point 5 picks the case of Spore, which most important aspect had nothing to do with level design, especially due to the type of game we're speaking of. You are relying on a product which, at this moment, and maybe for the years to come, will be hard to hammer with fiery negative criticism. You're not taking risks by citing anticipated and already appraised subjects, much contrary to your series' title.

Part III

Point 1: It's already happening. Carmack, for example, has made no secrets about his work on the next id Tech iteration, where PCG will be applied to BSP content texturing as well.
It's probably less flashy than the likes of the Unreal Engine or CryEngine at the moment, but the implication is huge, and it's done step by step. But he never dismiss the intervention of the designer. On the contrary, he shapes the tool to make the job more effective and easier for the artists to add his own detail after the construction is done. Depending on how you segment the level production, the one who may have less work to do would be the artist, but the level designer will still be crucial.
They'll phase out in games where careful and meticulous level design is less important, as in, for example, Diablo 2, but no one has played this game because of the incredible repetitive mazes.
It's rather obvious, by the way, that quality should prevail on quantity.

Point 2 assumes PCG will apply to "games" as a whole, which is just plain wrong, and is in error in thinking that procedural terrain generation will become the rule in MMORPGs. MMORPGs being games which need less of the traditionnal replay value tricks. Yes, people do like the world they have actually learned day by day, and I don't think worlds would make much sense if, for example, Middle Earth looked differently everytime you and your guild logged in (yes, remember, this article initially started with a bold and embarassing claim regarding level design).

Point 3 is a good point, in only that the success of Spore will possibly launch a (re)new(ed) trend. Say a new market. But other branches won't dissappear all of sudden. It would be most absurd to think so.

Point 4 wrongly that PCG would engender greater game design, while totally forgetting that many good game designs reveal their greatness through the existence of equally excellent, manually and cautiously crafted levels.

Point 5 sees PCG as a revolution and tying itself into games-in-a-box. What is that? Is it relative to classic retail? Sand box genre? File size?

"The consumers benefit because they get a well-designed game as opposed to the licensed rubbish that is often churned out at the moment."

I'd say the rubbish lies in the out of the blue claim more than elsewhere.
PCG won't magically make games better.
Cherry on the cake, there's no credibility to gain by citing Atari's ET as an example in favour of your argument. On the contrary.

Part IV is almost entirely irrelevant to the LD issue.

Part V is interesting by the introduction of the following subclaim:

"The one area that random map generation is missing complex 3d topology generation: and no game is currently doing this. Dwarf Fortress doesn't generate the fortresses for you - it still relies on human intelligence to go through the process of placing tunnels and building bridges and towers. When a game is capable of procedurally generating maps of the complexity of Half-Life 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Minerva or any other modern FPS, then PCG for random map generation will be completely 'solved'."

The only problem you will have solved is how to create a maze with no soul. Quantity and randomization doesn't make quality. Eventually, it only assures variety while having the same player do the same stuff on and on, which actually leads to waste of time and the creation of mirror houses, by likely supporting the addiction in certain genres, giving the player the illusion of playing something new, while it's not.
It makes gaming poorer.

Part VI is rather puzzling, as you build it upon the ending sentence of former article, "I believe the real strength of procedural content generation will be seen in procedural generation of plot and narrative content," and yet cite the skinner box behaviour, then expand on it by saying that "the same set of pattern matching tools are useful for the designer of procedural content generation systems. The semi-randomised output of PCG systems will be picked over by the player's brain, and the underlying systems hopefully understood and enjoyed."

An addict might enjoy his dope, but it does not make his/her drug induced trip objectively sane, nor enjoyable to someone who's actually healthy.

Then you wonder why Johnathan Blow is particularily negative against what you defend. But I think he's particularly spot on regarding this point.

I can see the benefits of PCG in adventure and puzzle games rather easily, but a key element I think you should have considered is that in many cases, possibly the vast majority of them actually, players like to evolve in very familiar environments, and for many games, this means worlds which won't change from a game to another.
Consider GTA for example, which wouldn't be the same without well known landscapes and key locations, because what matters most is not the rather uninspiring city design, but the core gameplay. This gameplay relies on factors which depend on resources, themselves accessibles at those key locations (like the special muscle car). Could you imagine player having fun ever trying to find said car?
Oh but maybe the city would be generated once, when you start a new game. But then, what would PCG add to the level design at all, in terms of content and variety, especially to a game which is already that long?
Well, nothing. Your city would just be different than your friend's San Adreas. That is all.
They expect to meet people on equal grounds, or in environments they know. In certain cases, they'd rather know the environment by name.

You don't even wonder if we might see, post PCG craze, people being tired of fast-food 3D content, and ask for a more noticeable human intervention in their games.

So, well, I hope you do have part VII (or more) ready to roll, to tell me where I'm wrong and why you feel LDs should feel particularily worried about PCG.