Archive for June, 2006

Spank the monkey

Wednesday, June 7th, 2006

In an earlier article, I spoke a bit about tactile communication between game and player. Now after E3 the gaming world is buzzing with the sound of Wii, Nintendo’s upcoming innovative console. I can bet my hat (if I had one) that right now there are hordes of people thinking about what can be accomplished with the nunchuck and remote controller for the Wii (“Wow, how about an Errol Flynn fencing game?”). I also bet some of the people dreaming have thoughts along the line: “How I wish the controller also had the X functionality, ‘cause then I would be able to make the coolest game ever, where the player would be able to do Y.” Chances are also that the ideas you are having are fairly obvious and that there will be 10 games based on “your idea” out within short.

Now, there is nothing wrong with these kinds of thoughts. I tend to think like that now and then. For example, when I read about the Gizmondo (RIP!) and its GPS, camera and other functionality, I immediately started thinking about games that could be made specifically targeted for that platform. I had lots of interesting conversations around these things with friends and soon I realised that there were many ideas floating around that were kind of similar to the stuff I was thinking about.

Now, as my earlier article suggested, there is probably a lot of untapped potential in the current generation controller. I also believe that it is a good design exercise trying to design something that utilizes existing hardware (and in this specific case, the controller) in a new and interesting way.

To illustrate my point, I therefore wish to share a little idea that I have had lurking in the back of my head for some time.

Creature Training

Imagine a game that is about training a creature. The game starts by handing over to you a monster-like creature and then you are instructed to go out on an adventure with this creature. The adventure is a series of problems that need to be solved. One typical problem is a tunnel that needs to be passed in order to progress. However, the tunnel is on fire and your creature is very reluctant to walk through, it being afraid of fire and all.

The controller is handled a little like the horse-back riding in Shadow of the Colossus with “indirect” control over the creature. So instead of moving the stick left to go left, you hit a button to direct the creature and hope that it will obey, a bit like plunging your heels into the side of a horse to get it to turn. Note that you use the buttons for these actions. In this game it is important that you do spend a little energy pushing your creature in this or that direction – it should be felt in your fingers like guiding a horse when on the horse-back is felt in the legs and body.

Since this is a game about creature training, the creature you own has its perks. The creature is also quite wild when the game begins so it is up to you to work some manners into it. To do so, you have two basic tools: reward and punishment.

  • Reward is given by petting the creature (this creature really likes to be scratched and petted). To pet the creature, you just “pet” the controller. Gently stroke your palm over the four buttons in any direction. The game will interpret the light press on these buttons (they are all analog, remember) and detect the direction you move your hand based on in what order the buttons are pressed.
  • Punishment is given to the creature in the form of blows. As you might guess, this is done by smacking the controller buttons with the palm of your hand. Again, the analog buttons are able to detect how hard you strike.

To clarify, just let me give an example on how this might play out:

  1. The creature is standing outside the burning tunnel. You try to push it forward, but the creature won’t go there. It sulks and refuses to move.
  2. You pet the creature, hoping that it will be more comfortable. It stops sulking and slowly moves towards the tunnel.
  3. But when it is getting closer to the entrance, it stops again.
  4. You push forward and pets the creature. It won’t move an inch.
  5. The creature is trembling and you can hear it getting irritated. You hear it growling and feel it in the controller.
  6. You push forward again. Growling increases.
  7. Suddenly the creature ROARS and turns against you (the camera). It attacks with fangs and claws ready.
  8. BAM! You hit the controller buttons hard with your hand and thus slap the creature and it tumbles over, whimpering. (If you don’t, the creature will “eat” you and you die)
  9. The creature sits on the ground, tail between its legs. You push towards the entrance, genly petting the creature as it slowly gets closer (by gently stroking the controller).
  10. It manages to sneak through the tunnel. On the other side, you pet it and directs it to the goodie that waits. Creature is happy and is now a bit more controllable around fire.

This way of controlling a game has (to my knowledge) never been tried and it might be hurdles that cannot be overcome. Also, getting the right controller “feel” in a game is difficult and with a game like this – it could be a design nightmare. But still, I think it is an interesting thought and, again, I am perfectly sure that the current controllers have a lot more to give. And if you find a way of dealing with current technology in a new way – chances are that you can take those ideas even further with some additional new tech, and still be unique.


The HD window

Monday, June 5th, 2006

If you haven’t been living under a low-poly rock the last couple of years, you know that there is transition going on in the media industries. The DVD format is soon to be superseded by HD-DVD or Blu-Ray. These are new formats that utilize the HD capable television sets that are sold everywhere. In many countries, HDTV has been broadcasted for years. This change is also very present in the videogame industry and has the effect that the content problem is increasing further: rendering HD requires much higher quality content than rendering for stone-age PAL or NTSC television sets.

One might think that switching to HD has little effect other than new disc formats and better quality, but I want to share an idea about what HD might do in the long run.

Resolution

The notable difference between HD and “traditional TV” is resolution. On the Blu-Ray disc media, apart from higher resolution, the standard also includes much more powerful means of rendering menus and supporting material (I think they are using Java as a platform for this). Of course, plugging in more power into the menu and support system means that we suddenly will be able to do some new neat stuff with the discs. Perhaps will it be possible to run games with adequate performance on the HDTV? Who knows? What we do know, however, is that the resolution is going to be a kicker – in comparison to current (old) broadcast quality.

TV versus Cinema

It you ever watch a TV-movie you know that there are differences between those kinds of productions and “real cinema movies”. Most people can detect that TV-feeling quite easily, but what those differences actually consists of are somewhat more difficult to spot. One of them is production value; most TV-movies have less budget than the average Hollywood movie. But there is another, more striking, difference: media produced directly for TV is made differently – because of the format.

A TV-production has to take in consideration the small viewing window and the fact that it is harder to make out details on a TV-set (because of low resolution). Try watching C’era una volta il West on a 14” TV and you will see exactly what I mean. On that same set, then watch an episode of any TV-show you like and notice the difference. You will see much more close-up work, nore focus on dialog and less panoramic views. TV production has its special limitations that has driven its estethics. Of course, this has had an impact on movies as well, but if you start paying attention to those things you will notice that there are things that work better on TV than on cinema as well.

So viewed this way is the major difference between cinema and TV size and resolution. (There is also a difference to how the audience behave. In a movie theatre the audience is much more attentative and alert – which affects how much demand the narrative can put on the viewers.)

Computer Displays

With the advent of larger computer screens there has been an equivalent evolution. Increasing size and resolution affects how information can be and is presented. For example, working on a 30” widescreen display kind of makes the need for desktop switchers moot (well, a little). We can see the interface of operating systems being adapted to the more “spacey” world. Windows XP and Vista is not exactly slim in its design. And one might argue that they don’t have to. Aperture is an example of an application that requires a large display. I run it on a 17” widescreen, but I do feel cramped at times.

So, as the resolution and size goes up on computer screens, it becomes possible to, for example, give better and more detailed overview of information.

Football on HDTV

With the upcoming Football World Championship coming up, I had a conversation with my girlfriend about the merits of live football (on a stadium) versus in the sofa in fron of the TV. My experience is that it is easier to follow football on a TV screen. On the other hand, if you are on a stadium you get the whole picture better (if you have good seats). You see what is going on “outside the TV-frame”. Because of the format restrictions, football on TV is shown with frequent close-up shots. This is good since it reveals detail. You can see who’s controlling the ball and all the cool footwork. But you miss the bigger picture.

Now, with a large sized HD display, its higher resolution and ability to show detail, it would be perfectly possible to have the camera back out quite a bit and reveal more of the playfield. This would be a huge gain when watching a football game. With a large enough TV and high enough resolution, one can even imagine a fixed camera that shows the whole play-field all the time – a HD window to the stadium.

Games

I don’t think that fixed camera football will happen though. Static imagery contains less drama than a moving action camera, but can contain more information. We already see this change in games. Playing RTS games or WoW on a large screen allows the player to get a much better overview of the field of play. Games with large GUIs (like “Oblivion”) also benefit since they can bring more info up-front instead of hiding it in subscreens and menus (although Oblivion has its fair share of subscreens). But with larger space and more information the design needs to tackle information problems a bit differently. Instead of grouping things into menus, screens and such, other means of grouping becomes possible and necessary. Helping the player (or viewer) focusing on the right piece of information becomes another challenge. Furthermore, narrative may perhaps be pushed forward a bit differently since it becomes possible to pull the camera back to grasp a situation more fully, and still have the detail.

I think that within a couple of years, we will start seeing the effect of the HD transition. I believe it will have impact on TV, videogames and cinema, perhaps more so than we think.