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Merry Christmas!!! December 24, 2009

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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Hi everyone,

I haven’t written for a while,  and this is definitely the last pre-Christmas post. So I would like to wish everyone a very happy Christmas. Have fun! Drink eggnog! Rest! Do all you want to do.

For me, after the 25th it will be time to rest. And play, of course.

See you space cowboys…

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Horribly Slow Murderer. Extremely funny. December 15, 2009

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
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A light topic for a change.

This is interesting. Richard Gale chose to make the premiere of his latest movie on YouTube hoping to reach a bigger audience, as usually short movies are only watched in festivals and a few theaters. The strategy worked. His “The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon” became an instant internet hit. And so far the IMDb page shows 7 awards, the Richard Gale site mentions 12. I guess the internet release won’t stop him from profiting after all.

Business aside, the short is very good and it is just as funny as it is slow. Which in this case is a big compliment.

See you space cowboys…

Less buttons, more immersion: addendum December 14, 2009

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
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Hi folks. I know, after three huge posts, another one about this is definitely too much. But  for completeness sake, I just have to do it.

What motivated the whole immersion subject was my interest in Project Natal. So that’s what I mentioned every time I talked about it. But it wouldn’t be right to neglect other efforts on the same field. My curiosity about Project Natal made me take a closer look into both the new PS3 motion controller and the already released Wii MotionPlus. Although they have a different concept, Natal being controller free and the others being wand based, all of them try to achieve the same goal, which is to increase immersion by either making controls more transparent or more engaging.

I think the philosophical prize has to go to Microsoft, not using controllers is the ultimate goal. But it is unquestionable that the wand makes some things much easier, specially for hardcore games. Pointing things, be they pens or guns, and swinging objects, golf clubs or swords, are part of a huge segment of games. And the mechanic is easier to simulate with a wand (although not impossible without it I must say).

I can actually see them going in different directions with each technology. No matter how they fight for controller supremacy, the winners are the players.

See you space cowboys…

Less buttons, more immersion: Final act December 13, 2009

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
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human computer interaction

Finally, we go back to the first post to talk about the third pillar of game immersion: interactivity. While it is true that raw interactivity is part of play, the quality of interactivity is a different subject. And, like I said before, it is what makes games different. There’s an interesting social component to it, but I’ll leave it for another day and focus on controls. I think control strategies in games follow roughly the same rules as graphics and sound: they must be good enough for our brain to accept them and fool us into believing them. And again, we compare them with what we know, be it reality or another experience. For some games it is a breeze. Grab any d-pad and play Pacman. If feels so natural! There’s no thinking involved. No need for instructions. You press up Pacman moves up; you press left, he moves left. Easy. Now think about Rock N’ Roll Racing: I don’t know about you but on games like this I always struggle at the beginning, until I get a grasp on the clockwise/counterclockwise turning. And then it is easy. My point is that there’s a learning curve involved and practice usually makes perfect. Once you control, you are ready to get involved.

Oh, but it is not that easy. When you play chess (I’m talking actual wood board and pieces, not on the PC), control is an abstraction kill. Your big hand grasping the tower to kill the bishop has very little to do with immersion. But it is easy to do. So I would break controls in two categories: transparent and engaging. I call transparent the controls whose goal is simply to not interfere with the rest of the experience. Like moving a chess piece with your hand. You don’t have to think about it. Just do it and move on. In these games, the controls are not meant to be part of the fun. Replace it with anything else that gets the job done and no one will mind.

Engaging controls are different. They are meant to be enjoyed as part of the game. Like shooting on MW2, hitting and performing air combos in BlazBlue, or CQC in MGS4. The examples are everywhere. In these games, it is not enough to be easy. In fact being difficult is sometimes part of the fun. But they have to make sense and feel natural. If, even after you mastered the controls, they still feel wrong, the fabric of game reality is torn apart and the nuisance breaks immersion.

Now let’s look back at Project Natal. Just like the Wii controls did, it will allow for interaction to be more transparent when it has to be. That means more complex games will be played without the controls being a hassle. In other words, transparency will be increased. For engaging controls, we can’t deny it should allow for a more natural and intuitive experience. When the gap to real movement gets narrower, more intricate games become more involving. One way or another, immersion takes a leap.

So there you go. These are in my opinion the three pillars of video game immersion. But I could be wrong! If you have any thoughts on the matter, I would love to hear it.

See you space cowboys…

Less buttons, more immersion: Part III December 13, 2009

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
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uncharted and verdi

The second reason for video game immersion is our mind and its incredible capacity for abstraction. This is the point games have in common with other art forms. Movies, music, literature, poetry, painting, all rely on the human mind to achieve immersion. But because we human beings have such a huge capacity of abstraction and imagination, most of these media still achieve immersion while offering vastly incomplete experiences. And that’s not a bad thing. A movie is very close to a full experience: it offers detailed visual and auditory stimuli. On the other hand, listening to a concert on an iPod offers nothing but audio and is still capable of moving us deeply. More impressive yet is abstract painting. Even with loose correlation to reality, it still makes us think and react. But perhaps the most impressive example is in literature. A romance offers nothing other than letters. Although it is not as interpretation heavy as an abstract painting, the feelings a book offers are completely created by the brain. The flat pages have no pictures, audio, smell or taste. But we are still capable of imagining all that from the otherwise meaningless letters and feel as if we were there, in a battle for Britain or in the middle of a rather funny version of the days preceding Armageddon (two of my favorite books by the way).

This is the immersion aspect that moves game technology the farthest. Graphics evolve at every new console or video card iteration in the search for immersion. But if you stop to think about it, isn’t this inconsistent with what I just said? If we can get immersion even from black letters on white paper, why struggle so much with graphics? Well, there’s a whole visual experience related to video games. It would be like asking Salvador Dali why he added so many details to his paintings. It is not just about activity immersion. Everything with a visual component can aim for a visual experience and for beauty. The same goes for all other senses. There are different types of immersion: you might love Assassin’s Creed II but still look at an individual screenshot and admire the beauty and level of detail in the 3D models and textures.

But that did not satisfy me either and I found the best answer from Richie Nieto, who helped me with my questions in the IGDA forums. Like he said, immersion depends on the suspension of disbelief. Which means our brain must fool us into believing the alternate reality the game offers (isn’t that the same thing we do with reality itself? Subject for another topic). The catch is that this depends on our experiences and our expectations. When a gamer plays a very abstract game, say Lumines, he’s taken to a weird world of falling blocks and intriguing sounds. We can, of course, admire the beauty of the graphics in combination with sound effects caused by gameplay. But in order for Lumines to be immersive, all it has to do is be consistent with itself. There’s no other world like it, our experiences and expectations are based on the game itself. Okami on the other hand also has a very unique art style, obviously non realistic. And while the lack of graphic realism does not stop us from getting involved, we have other aspects to consider. If gravity does not behave as expected, the player will notice. If the painted wolf’s head disappears behind a mountain due to a collision detection problem, it will bother us a bit. The experience is not ruined, but these details break the suspension of disbelief for a brief moment. It is even worse for a title like Metal Gear Solid 4. In this case, reality itself (well, at least as perceived by our senses) is the standard. That makes it so much harder to achieve immersion. Graphics matter a lot, as do sound, physics, movement, interactions.

So in short, the second reason for immersion is: the game must live up to its expectations and provide a consistent alternate reality. This alternate reality must not clash with itself or with the reality the player created in his mind, based on the game and on previous experiences.

Only one reason left. Keep on reading!

See you space cowboys…

Less buttons, more immersion: Part II December 13, 2009

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
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I have been very busy lately, hence the inactivity period. But that also gave me time to think more about immersion in video games, once again the subject of my blog. I confess I have been thinking about it since I wrote the first post. I talked to a lot of people and collected a lot of opinions. The subject is so deep I am pretty sure many have written PhD theses about it.

Be that as it may, it is my belief that we can break the fabric of video game immersion into three components. Let me try to elaborate.

First and foremost is the will to play. Huizinga‘s amazing Homo Ludens brilliantly discusses the importance of play and how playing is a primitive impulse. And I quote:

Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.

Play is not real life and the investment in this abstraction activity is deeply embedded in animal behavior, from little puppies to man! Playing serves many purposes, from relaxation and sheer entertainment to training, the latter being, I believe, the fundamental force acting on the selection of playful individuals to move forward, leaving the others behind. Many times we play to practice. And it is such a deep feeling that we never stop to think about it. But playful pretending is replete of mind and body exercises that serve as preparation for the challenges of life.

Contrary to other forms of entertainment, like literature, music or movies, which also carry big doses of immersion, video games are interactive. One can argue that literature and the other are interactive as well, since our mind reacts to the stimuli, creates new universes, feels. But while this is true, it is a different kind of interaction and only with direct interaction do we achieve true playing experience. And this is the basis of any video game. It is after all a game, and as such it triggers all key primitive impulses Huizinga describes so well. So to me the most important aspect in video game immersion is play itself. If we want to understand the subject, we have to start from that and understand that the reasons for playing electronic games are the same as the reasons for simply playing.

Humans, like most other animals, have a natural, instinctive, genetic if you will, predisposition to playing. When facing a game, our brains increase their receptivity to abstraction, we know beforehand we are facing a new set of rules, different from the ones quantum physics and society impose.

I doubt immersion in games can happen unwillingly. The player must want to play. That’s why I put this at the top of the list. The first step towards immersion is the desire to get into the new world the game offers, hence the importance of predisposition to play.

I had the opportunity to talk to Matthew Sakey about this, more specifically about the appeal of Demon’s Souls. We both believe Demon’s Souls success is highly related to its level of challenge. Challenge represents exercise, practice. It reinforces our basic instinct to play. So while the game still needs the initial impulse to get the player started, it reinforces the act of playing by offering a tough but fair challenge.

More on the subject very soon.

See you space cowboys…

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