jump to navigation

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

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
Tags: , , , , ,

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…

Less buttons, more immersion November 23, 2009

Posted by Cesar in gaming me, thinking me.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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…

Demon’s Souls: the joy of dying October 23, 2009

Posted by Cesar in gaming me, working me.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment


If you have a PS3 and are a hardcore gamer, you have to try Demon’s Souls. It is a dungeon crawler that does not take you by the hand every step of the way. Dying and trying again is part of the game. And it is also the reason this game feels so rewarding.

I won’t make a review of the game or talk about its unique multiplayer. For those, you can check any of the reviews on the game, as they are all good. Instead I wanted to talk about how nice it is to see a truly difficult game on the shelves. Nowadays, even the so called hardcore games can be pretty easy. No one has any trouble getting to the end of GTA IV or Gears of War 2. Long gone are the days of trying the same level over and over again.

And that’s the scenario where Demon’s Souls comes in. It is a great game, it is really difficult and it does not feel broken. In a way, more than creating a real challenge, I believe the difficulty of the game has the capability of increasing immersion without any help from graphics or sound. In the case of Demon’s Souls it forces players to focus more, pay great attention to the environment, be careful about every encounter. Just like your character would do if it were a real person. And when you beat a level or major demon, the reward is also much bigger.

On a side note, I find it curious that platforms and business models created for casual games ended up as the media for some hardcore, old style games. Like Alien Hominid, Ikaruga or N+,  just to name a few. But that’s a different topic. For now, just go play Demon’s Souls.

See you space cowboys…

%d bloggers like this: