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Less buttons, more immersion November 23, 2009

Posted by Cesar in gaming me, thinking me.
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Immersion is one of the greatest goals every game tries to achieve. It is more obvious in what I call character based games. When you play Gears of War, you feel you are in Marcus Fenix’s shoes. When you play MGS4 you feel the drama of the dying hero as if it were your own. In Modern Warfare 2, every drop of blood on the screen makes you worry and get cover.

But it is also true for impersonal games; that is, the ones whose focus is not on characters. It is easier to notice it when I replace the word immersion for involvement. When playing Lumines or Tower Bloxx for example, you feel involved in the game: frustrated after a mistake, excited when a new level is reached, defiant when the score of a friend is beaten. Note impersonal and casual games are not the same thing at all. Chess is impersonal as are, heroes aside, most RTSs: replace one Zealot for another, there’s no difference at all. All sports games are like that too, with the exception of modes like EA’s Be A Pro.

Now, there’s a multitude of factors that contribute to how immersive a game is. I recently mentioned one talking about Demon’s Souls: challenge. A challenged player is an involved player. There’s also the connection between player and game at the fundamental design level: some people like puzzles, some like shooters. I will not get in the merits of each one, but if you like a type of game, you will be more into it. Style also plays a big role: when graphics and sound suit the game and your mood, they also improve immersion. In fact, I would say immersion is the reason behind most graphical updates in the games industry. From polygon count and texture size to shaders, in the search for immersion graphics chips are always evolving to provide better and more artistic or realistic visuals.

From here we get to the other facet of immersion I want to talk about: controls. No matter what game you are playing, connecting to it requires controlling it without trouble. You only get into Tetris when you learn how to move and rotate the pieces the way you want, you only appreciate Geometry Wars after getting used to moving the ship with the analog stick, you only feel like Sam Fisher when pulling all his moves gets easy, you only enjoy Fifa 10 when passing, dribbling and shooting becomes second nature.

Over the years, games became more and more complex. And with game complexity came complex controls. The Atari had 1 button. The NES had 2. The Genesis had 3. In the current generation, both PS3 and 360 have 4 face buttons, 2 shoulder buttons, 2 shoulder triggers and 2 clickable analog sticks. And I am not counting dpads, select and start buttons.

Most gamers are used to it. Hell, controllers could have more buttons and that wouldn’t be a problem, not to me. But with the last generation of consoles, we saw a big move in the opposite direction coming from Nintendo. The Wii has less buttons and makes up for it trying to detect something everybody knows how to do: move and point. When I first heard about it, I was very interested, both as a gamer and as a robotic perception researcher. To me, that meant games would become even more immersive, shooters would feel even more realistic.

It is curious that while it is true the Wii controllers increased immersion, that change did not affect most hardcore games. Nintendo correctly (from a business perspective) focused on using the more approachable controls to bring a new crowd to the video games era. And it worked very well for them.

Nintendo’s approach was so right that others have been following it ever since. After the success of the Wii, many game platforms started exploring new and more natural input methods. Touch screens and accelerometers became very popular.

But we will soon reach a new apex. Something I personally have been waiting for since I started studying computer vision. And Microsoft is the one about to pull it off: no controls. No buttons at all. If you haven’t heard of Project Natal before, go check it out. It is awesome.

The idea of a vision system in games is not new, the PS2 had the EyeToy. But there were many technical limitations: from sensor capability (one still eye won’t give proper perception of depth for example) to processing power, as robust computer vision algorithms require a whole lot of processing. Project Natal solves these problems in a very interesting way: a single camera is used for “texture” detection. And instead of stereo vision, they achieve 3D perception with a depth sensor. As for the processing power, Project Natal’s device features a custom processor, which is certainly there to reduce the load on the 360 hardware.

Like Nintendo did, Project Natal’s first efforts will probably aim the casual market and bring more gamers to the table. But that does not change the fact that immersion in video games will take a big leap. Imagine playing Lumines by grabbing the blocks and rotating them with your hands. Or simply using your empty hands to select your playlist. Wouldn’t it be cool? Heck, in Minority Report Tom Cruise needed cool glowing gloves to do what we are about to get with our bare hands. The future is here, my friends.

Anyway, as the number of buttons get close to the limit, after all we only have 10 fingers, new input methods are here to stay. I don’t have a Wii. But I will need a bigger living room when Project Natal becomes available.

See you space cowboys…

The can opener and the games industry November 16, 2009

Posted by Cesar in gaming me, working me.
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I feel bad for the first canned food users. Although canned food has been around since 1772, the first can opener was invented only 80 years later! So I suppose the real first can opener was the hammer and chisel. It was hard work to eat back then!

But in 1855, in the UK, Robert Yates started changing the world when he patented the first can opener. The mechanism was similar to the one on the left of the picture. And it was already very practical! A similar design was  unbelievably popular in the military since World War I, because it was really easy to carry and to use.

However, for some reason, mankind was not happy yet. So we continued working on our can openers until in the 80s we got to the very popular design we have today, that opens cans from the side using rotating wheels. But I have to be fair: the invention from the 80s was only an update to a design that was created in the US by William Lyman in 1870.

Was that enough? Of course not. As easy as it was to open a can, mankind decided it was still too much effort. Since the 30s, many electric can openers were developed, from handy small ones to big, fast and very impressive ones. So today if you think 30 seconds of continued attention and effort is too much to spend in front of a can, you can buy an electric one and just press a button. And probably watch for a few seconds.

Now here’s the interesting part: the vast majority of the can openers in stores nowadays open the cans from the side, creating dangerous edges. And the cut cans are not convenient to store after opening. Not only that, but you cannot simply open a hole in it, which is good for liquids. For that you have to buy a church key.

The simple can opener on the left of the picture, with the same basic design as the P 38, is practical, small, opens from the top and can cut simple holes if you want to. But it is really hard to find.

Games are also tools. And their purpose at its most basic level is to entertain. And they are also, in a way, can openers. The very first games were very simple, rudimentary, but got the job done. As technology evolved, they got more complex and, there’s no denying, more interesting. But mankind was not happy yet. Games continued becoming more and more intricate so that today, if you want to make a AAA title, you have to spend millions.

Recently, it seems the games industry realized the simple can openers were really good as well. And in all the complexity of the new models, some of the appeal of the old ones was lost. So not only Microsoft, but Nintendo, Sony and many others invest in platforms for the distribution of P-38s and other lever based, simpler, can openers. Cheaper to produce, cheaper to buy, easier to distribute. That heated the industry and many companies were created willing to develop really good and interesting but practical and simpler can openers.

That’s a very good thing. The extremely complex and expensive can openers offer something the simple ones cannot. But when the industry realized there was still space in the market for the basic devices, gamers got an option back. And it is a very good one.

Uff, that was a long post. I’m tired. So, if you excuse me, I will stop writing and go play Geometry Wars.

See you space cowboys…

Unreal Engine now free November 5, 2009

Posted by Cesar in working me.
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This is very interesting news for game programmers.  Epic recently made the Unreal Engine available for free and now joins Unity in the land of free engines.

The UDK has all you need to develop a game powered by Unreal Engine 3: editor, animations framework  and physics powered by NVIDIA’s PhysX. This is very useful not only for programmers willing to develop personal projects but also for professionals who want to get a grasp on the technology.

Careful though, the UDK is only free for non-commercial purposes. Anyway, I know where I am going for my next personal gameplay project.

See you space cowboys…

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