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From books to games, anyone? February 25, 2011

Posted by Cesar in gaming me, thinking me.
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The other day I was thinking about this: what electronic games came straight from books? It doesn’t count if the game is just vaguely inspired by a book setting, like the Rainbow Six series, or if the game is based in a movie which is based in a book (anyone thinking Lord of the Rings?). Ah! And comic books / graphics novels don’t count either.

Mind you, I never googled for results either (although I did research the games I found). So instead I posed the question to many of my friends, including several game designers, and I was surprised to find out that the answers never come easy. It is hard to list games that fit the criteria. Many of the mentioned ones are old school games, like the text-based Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Hobbit. Modern games are much harder to find. It seems like books now get movie versions before the games industry takes a stab at it. However, it is still possible to find some, like the successful The Witcher.

Pinpointing the reason for this small number of direct translations from books to games is very hard. It seems like it was easier 20 years ago, but that might just be because the games were so much simpler: a single programmer fan could be enough to spawn a text adventure back then. But even that is not obvious, the numbers I got in my survey are too small for any conclusive analysis.

Below are the titles I got, I still can’t believe I found so few. If you remember any more, disagree with one or if you simply have a theory on the subject, let me know in the comments!

See you space cowboys…

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Video games and time: eternal brief moments August 6, 2010

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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Let me propose an exercise: think of games that have been around for a very long time.

If you thought of any computer game you didn’t think big enough. The first versions of Monopoly date to the beginning of the 20th century, when Lizzie Magie created a game to explain the downside of economical monopolies. It was published in 1924 as The Landlord’s Game. Charles Darrow’s variation, the one we know as Monopoly, was published in 1930.

Want to take it one step further? Poker can be traced back to the 15th century in Germany. Old versions of the game were played with 20 cards, the english 52 cards deck was introduced “only” in the 19th century. And if you think “new” variations are recent, the never so popular Texas hold’em dates to the beginning of the 20th century, more than a hundred years old.

Not old enough? Let’s talk about chess. The history of chess is huge and its precursors have been around for 1500 years. We can trace it back to 6th century India! And even the “modern” version, conceived in Europe and played across the globe to this day, has been around since the 15th century.

I could continue the list for a while. Olympic games are way older than chess. And I’m sure kids have been playing hide-and-seek since the beginning of mankind. But I digress, after all playing is part of who we are. So I will stop with chess for now and ask the big question: why is chess a secular game and video games have so short life spans?

When I initially thought about the subject, the first thing that popped into my head was depth: chess is a deep game, with millions of alternatives. No match is ever the same. It is probably true that a shallow game would have a short life, but video games history and theory defy the idea: since the games industry inception, games have been evolving pretty fast and as games evolve and grow more and more complex, the time people spend with them paradoxically gets smaller and smaller.

Look at the Atari generation: River Raid was played for a very long time. Then Nintendo came and we played Super Mario Bros for ages. In the Sega Genesis I played Sonic from the day I got it until I finally stopped using the platform. Even the concept of old games was fuzzy: we didn’t care if the game was from 1 or 2 years ago, we just played it.

But our games evolved and nowadays a game’s lifespan is much shorter (even though there are exceptions). For how long did you play Metal Gear Solid? What about Bioshock?

Someone might argue that, like I said before, Metal Gear Solid and Bioshock are shallow games. It is true, but not in a bad way. Some modern games are way more story driven. In old games, the goal was always to achieve the highest score possible. Some of them never ended and would loop back to the beginning so you could continue playing. When a game is too story driven, like Bioshock, it loses replay value. Of course you can play again with variances. But after 2 or 3 times, you got everything you could from it, unless you feel nostalgic afterward (like it happens with movies and books after all).

What really keeps a game alive is competition. We continue playing to beat the ever changing AI, a friend or ourselves, in score based games. So, in order to survive, a game needs to be entertaining, competitive and deep. And then I ask: how long did you play Modern Warfare 1? What about Company of Heroes (the best ranked strategy game at gamerankings.com)? Isn’t Company of Heroes deep enough? I’m sure it is.

So I was thinking about that. It is a bit sad that great games last so little, it feels like the cultural value of the game gets much smaller. I played Monopoly when I was a kid. My father taught me how to play chess. Yet somehow I don’t think I’ll be teaching my kids how to play Company of Heroes.

I think games are doomed with the curse of sequels. Be them direct sequels or not, the games industry is always recreating games. And the new ones replace the old inside the DVD drive. I stopped playing Modern Warfare 1 to play Modern Warfare 2. And stopped playing Modern Warfare 2 to play Bad Company 2.

The timing for this post is no coincidence. Last week Starcraft II, the sequel to the best RTS ever (IMHO), finally came out. Starcraft was a bastion for video game resilience: the classic from 1998 continued being played for 12 years without a sequel (just the Brood Wars expansion shortly after the original release), it became a national sport in South Korea. Is it probably just as complex as chess or even more. But its legion of players was getting smaller, the game surrounded by newer, better looking alternatives.

Last week, when reviewers started writing their impressions on the new game, probably the highest point of PC gaming in 2010, they mentioned innovations and improvements. And while I’m thrilled to see the sequel and craving to play it, I’m also a bit frustrated. It is sad to see a great game, that lasted 12 years, get a killing sequel. Starcraft was already loosing ground, even though many kept playing it even when Warcraft III came along. But I’m afraid it won’t resist a direct sequel. The old gives space to the new.

I’ll finish talking about the moments of joy games provide during their brief lives again. The current generation of players probably won’t teach the new one how to play Starcraft, not even Starcraft II. But while the games go back to the shelves, the genres continue alive and well.

In the constantly reinvented games industry, there’s no space for secular games, but there’s space for secular icons and concepts. The RTS genre won’t die. Nor will FPSs. And because the concepts remain the same, that’s what we’ll pass to the next generation, that’s the legacy of video games to the future.

And I’m sure Mario will be there too. That’s gotta count for something.

See you space cowboys…

OnLive and latency: the milliseconds chalenge June 18, 2010

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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OnLive is finally here. The system launched yesterday and the team is being very cautious about it. They intend to do a gradual release, starting with fewer users and slowly opening up for everyone. But I don’t have any feedback on the service yet and it will be a while until we have solid numbers, so if you are reading and have something to say, write! I’m particularly interested in access farther away from the servers or in borderline connections (5MB according to OnLive’s FAQ).

Anyway, Gamasutra published a very good interview with Steve Perlman, OnLive’s CEO. And some of what he mentioned made me worry about the service, mostly about the issue everyone is worried about: latency. During the testing phase, Perlman said “99 percent haven’t had any lag complaints”. That is very positive. But in this article at PCWorld, Jared Newman states he experienced choppiness and lag during his tests. OnLive blamed the connection at the convention center.

However, if you put the interview and these first experiences together, you get to my main concern right now: OnLive works, but it takes such a toll on latency that you must be sure everything else works flawlessly.

First things first, OnLive’s main argument is very valid. That is: most of the latency is introduced in what they call the “last mile”. The distance from the server allegedly doesn’t matter much as long as the connection from the computer to ISP is good.

So they are already blaming someone else, right? “Our service is awesome, the problem is with the ISPs”. If you think about the network structure, it makes perfect sense. I hope the new age of remote computing forces ISPs to improve their networks and reduce overall latency. However, it is very easy to say something works in a structure that doesn’t exist. It is like making the most beautiful game ever, but that runs at 5 fps, and blaming GPU manufacturers (anyone thinking Crysis?).

But the other arguments I saw in the interview are worse. I never heard a casual gamer complaining about monitor latency, keyboard latency or mouse latency before. And those are the other reasons for big latency according to Perlman. Again: “Our service is awesome, maybe you just don’t have the right mouse”. Is it fair to blame the peripheral industry? Is it fair to say their service works and throw the problem over the fence? OnLive is the newcomer that should adapt to the current technology.

In my view, if mouse latency is a huge deal, that means it is just the last drop. I interpret that as: OnLive has an acceptable latency by itself, in vacuum, but take it to the atmosphere of the real world and the small latency caused by everything else adds up to an amount that makes the OnLive experience problematic.

Be that as it may, by Perlman’s speech it seems like all problems are solvable. So if you have a good connection to your ISP and small latency peripherals, OnLive should work and work well. And that’s a huge accomplishment. The problems shouldn’t stop gamers from testing the service. More than that, the choice to acquire OnLive and other remote solutions might in the long run force ISPs and peripheral manufacturers start making improvements. And if you have a good ISP at hand, OnLive still means you can run top notch games at high resolutions in low budget computers, which is amazing. I myself intend to try it as soon as possible. I want to play high res games on my laptop!

Just don’t come saying everything is fine and start pointing fingers. That’s just not right.

Side note: on January 29, I wrote a post mentioning OnLive on the iPad as a distant dream and somewhat of a joke. While it is still distant, other people thought of it (or maybe they read gaming me? lol) and it ended up in a proof of concept you can check here. Isn’t it cool?

See you space cowboys…

Immersion: other takes on the subject January 10, 2010

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
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diving

That’s what happens when you don’t have time during the week. Many posts at once. Anyway, this is just a quick update on immersion in video games, a recurring subject of the blog. Gamasutra recently published a very interesting article on the subject, by Michael Tomsen. If you enjoyed the previous talk about immersion in video games, take a look.

See you space cowboys…

Project Natal: changes and concerns January 10, 2010

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Gamesindustry.biz recently announced Microsoft is dropping the internal chip from Project Natal. Even though there’s some talk about the move being related to making updates easier, it is clearly a move to drop costs. It is understandable, as the device must ship at a reasonable price to succeed.

However, from my previous experiences with computer vision solutions, this might represent a big drawback. Natal is not supposed to be a simple toy, targeting unique, exquisite experiences. It is supposed to act as a reliable replacement for controllers in many ways. Computer vision algorithms, like the ones necessary to process both texture and range data the sensors provide, require significant processing, specially if reliability and response time are big issues (as it is clearly the case).

That means not only old games will not get updates (because there won’t be a processor budget to spare for the vision algorithms), but also that new games using the technology will have to reduce processing somewhere else in order to make the system as responsive and reliable as it has to be.

Not all is lost though and I still have hope. I don’t think Microsoft would make this decision without some confidence most of the appeal will still be there. What I can say is that the presence of the range sensors (as opposed to a simple camera) means a lot of the algorithms can be much simpler than in texture only solutions. Tasks like background subtraction, for example, are almost free when range data is available. And pose detection, be that of the head, hands or the whole body, is also simplified, since the range information makes things less ambiguous.

But there’s also no question a dedicated chip would make the impact bigger and increase the usability of the device. Developers will now have to decide between keeping Natal functionality or improving AI and other gameplay areas.

In a related note, the article also mentions Microsoft is struggling with a 100 ms delay in the system. That’s a very common issue with imaging devices: just turn on your webcam and notice the lag. In a way that’s an even more serious problem than the drop of the chip, since a hardware delay cannot be fixed by software optimization alone, meaning no matter how simple the game is, the delay will still be there. But, again, there’s hope. The fact that it is a well known problem that MS is working to solve means it will probably not be there when Natal is released by the end of the year. Or at least that’s what I hope.

See you space cowboys…

Review for The Hidden Cases January 8, 2010

Posted by Cesar in working me.
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A quick update: IGN just recently released a review for CSI: The Hidden Cases, my first DS title! I am very happy with the 7.5 they gave it. It does not seem like such a high score at first, but if you look IGN criteria and other CSI game reviews, you’ll see it is a respectable accomplishment!

They even mention the new visual style and the gameplay engine as big improvements on previous games. Well done, team!!!

Anyway, I am very proud and just wanted to share.

The Indiana Jones void January 5, 2010

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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I noticed I’ve been having this conversation frequently: “don’t you miss the great action/adventure movies we had in the past?” Darn, it makes me feel old, missing something from more than a decade ago. But the point is that many do miss those great movies. I realized that I did too when I stopped to think about the current action movie actors. After Bruce Willis, Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford gave up on the action, no one was able to fill in their shoes. No wonder we saw many of them coming back to the genre for reruns (except for the Governor, who nonetheless saw a new Terminator movie be released certainly because of the success of Terminator 2). Don’t get me wrong: I like Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, but it is a different league. No comparison. They make decent action movies, but no remarkable action characters I guess.

Amongst all top action movies, however, the ones I miss the most are the Indiana Jones ones. The closest thing we had to The Last Crusade was, to me, The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, another movie with the fedora hat hero (did you guys know his inseparable hat was made in Brazil?). Not as good, but still fun. Other attempts in the same style, like The Mummy and Sahara, were good, National Treasure not by a mile. But again: no comparison.

I don’t know if the appeal of these movies slowed down or if the lack of top action stars is behind the slowdown, but the truth is Indiana Jones and John McClane left a void that has yet to be filled.

Well… At least in the big screen. Because if you, like me, miss top action movies and happen to be a gamer, stop reading and go play Uncharted 2 right now. You know, I have had a 360 for a while, and it was only by the middle of last year that I got the PS3. But the two best movie-like games I have ever played were on the Sony platform: first MGS4 and now Uncharted 2. Among Thieves is an amazing game, great to play and great to watch. Such an immersive experience. So much that I never play it when I don’t have much time because I don’t want to stop in the middle of a chapter. I’m always looking for the next cut-scene, the next plot twist.

This week I am busy at work again. So I can’t see myself playing any time soon. I can’t wait for the next chapter. But at least I found a way to get my Indiana Jones fix.

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…

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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