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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…

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Comments»

1. Durval - November 24, 2009

Immersion is about senses, and our senses are not just five. It is not only about perception, but also about body control. It is so hard to achieve independent control of our tem fingers! Our own mind in our body is the paradigm of immersion.

2. Cesar - November 24, 2009

It is true. Body control is also, in a way, a sense. Traditionally the 5 well known senses are the extereoceptive ones, but close your eyes and try to imagine how your arm is moving. We have that sense too. It is proprioceptive and alone it offers no information about the environment.

I would say involvement is abstraction. Games offer an abstraction of life and when our minds “capture” that abstraction, true immersion happens.

Now that I think of it, while it is true that multi-sensory experiences increase immersion, and as such the absence of the controller represents a rupture with a traditional gaming paradigm, our minds allow us to immerse so deeply in such narrower (meaning we use less senses to perceive it) experiences: listening to a symphony, reading a book, watching a good movie.

What, then, truly defines immersion? I think this probably deserves a new post.

3. Durval - November 24, 2009

Maybe transparence defines immersion. When you are not aware that there are a display and a control, you are inside the game. It is the way we perceive the world, we are not aware of everything that exists between our mind and our body interfaces, it looks like our mind presents us the world as it is. Thus Project Natal may be a big a step to immersion.

4. Mary - November 24, 2009

Looking forward to THAT version of Lumines!


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