Games and Interaction design

Monday, January 30, 2006

Create your own (google) earth

Its great to see so many people mucking around with Google Earth, as demonstrated by the number of posts on Ogle Earth, a blog specialing in coverage of these terraformers-hackers. From mapping london to sticking big red dragons into new york, it seems that google's KML markup language is pretty extensible, not just for adding waypoints but for importing full geometry. If still bored, have a look at OpenGL Extrator from Eyebeam, a bit of software that apparently lets you dump a whole bunch of geometry data from almost any opengl application, in a format that can be brought into Maya or your package of choice. Now UVs or texture dumping yet, but it seems to be a project thats very much in full swing.

Indirect control

I've been playing through Kirbys magic toothbrush canvas (or something) on the DS, and trying to figure out what was so different and refreshing about the control method. Obviously its touch-screen based, using a pen to control the action, but thats not what the main innovation is. There are a number of games on the DS that use stylus control for input, but the thing that really makes the difference with Kirby is the implementation of indirect control for interaction.

With the vast majority of console titles, the control method is direct... that is that your movements directly correspond to a movement on the avatar or avatars on the screen. Press A to jump. Press left to turn left etc. The difference with kirby is that while there are some basic actions you can perform directly (such as the currently purloined ability), the real challenge and core of the game is in the creation of these magical conveyor belts used to guide the blobby pink umm gas thing around the environment (I loathe Kirby as a character. Someone at HAL was either lazy or drunk or the boss's nephew that came up with that one). In effect you are manipulating the environment rather than controlling the character. Obviously games have done this before (such as the wonderful Chu Chu Rocket), but this takes it far further. Rather than arranging blocks in a structured logical manner, you are drawing curves and guiding the avatar in a kind of symbiotic manner. You as the player are not kirby, you are not some kind of maintanence man removing rubbish from his way.... you take on an entirely different role. And its great, a genuinely new experience. A really new type of game design that could only have been realised on the DS.

Hopefully with the more widespread appearance of devices that allow gestural interaction (such as the DS pad and the revolution controller), this form of indirect interaction will continue to grow and evolve. Whether used to make waves in a water simulation to guide kids in bumper boats around an obstacle course, or throwing appropriate vines at an energetic ape, I think theres a lot to be explored.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Book roundup

Picked up a couple of great books over the last couple of months, and one not so hot...

First up is The Computational Beauty of Nature, a very ambitious and reasonably technical book, attempting to cover a wide variety of topics from neural networks to fractals, basically a lot of the fun aspects of computer science simulations that are great to code and muck about with. The stuff of processing heads dreams, its very well written so far (I've only had a light read through), allowing you to approach the book in a number of ways, from a vague interest in a particular topic, to a complete understanding of the gestalt of the subject being discussed. There's also downloadable source for those wanting to play without writing the whole thing from scratch themselves.

Next up is the The Art of my Neighbor Totoro, the latest in the series of Art books that have been translated by Viz. This covers a lot of the intiial sketches, concept art and a number of interviews with Hayao Miyazaki and the production team. Its also got a bunch of the beautiful cels used for the final movie. Definitely one of my favourite ghibli's (alongside Laputa, Spirited Away and Porco Rosso and .... well pretty much all the Miyazaki ones)

Lastly is the disappointing The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness, a game audio book that admittedly claims to have nothing about game audio, but genuinely doesn't . For a few pages, its genuinely intruiging and does contain a few amusing stories of the early days of game development and tales of stunts pulled at GDC, and while it might pique your interest, I found that it was really really padded, and contained nothing much of value. Its more like reading somebodies rambling blog. Filled with a lot of pictures of the author during his career, and with every other page a scrambled typographic motto, it is a disappointment, particularly because he is obviously a very talented guy. More discussion of interactive audio, systems like iMUSE, and general in-depth theory would have been great, rather than pure anecdote. ho hum. Guess I was warned on the back.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Open source

As my forays (or perhaps bunglings) into more "proper" game development have continued, I've had a bit more time to play with Ogre, (thats Object-Oriented Graphics Engine), the open source engine thats rapidly growing in strength, support and community. And its a wonderful thing (I'm starting to grow concerned that I spend a lot of time posting things that I describe as wonderful. Although I suppose I wouldnt normally post anything awful unless I had quite a considerable amount of time on my hands).

Anyway. Its great. It contains pretty much everything you need out of the box to get building games. Great exporters from the most popular 3D packages. Cross-platform, great functionality with everything from shader support, stencil shadows, physics, BSP support, skinning, you name it. And being open-source, of course, its totally free.

What I find a shame, though, is the barrier to entry - that is the pre-requisite skills needed to take advantage of the engine - are so high. While it does all the hard work for you (by providing libraries of all these features rather than you coding them yourself), you need to have a rough understanding of how these things work in order to actually create anything. You also need to have solid programming experience, a good understanding of C++ and 3D graphics techniques. If you don't know what a float is or a vertex is, and don't know how to set up a compiler.... its totally useless. I know its only aim is to be a great game engine, which it succeeds in fantastically well, but it would be wonderful if anyone could take advantage of it.

As there is a growing consensus is that the games industry needs to attract more talent from outside the industry, where are the programs for the hobbyists, that make creating this stuff easy? Director attracted non-programmers at an early stage, but is now being left in a corner to rot and die. Virtools is a wonderful piece of software, allowing non-programmers to create fantastic software, but is so expensive and has such restrictive publishing options that its priced way beyond hobbyists. Flash seems to be the most successful platform for hobbyist game developers, producing such wonderful titles as Samarost and Banja (and is what I really first started making games in) but even that is moving in a much more technical direction, moving to proper object-oriented, strictly typed code. So far, the best examples I've seen are the products from Blitz, such as Blitz3D, which do seem to provide a great deal of functionality and speed, with a low barrier to entry, both in terms of price (its only $100 for Blitz3D) and programming experience.

But surely it can be easier still. Theres some great interviews (which I cant find the links to right now) with John Maeda where he talks about these huge technical barriers to the average user that are being put in place by technology creators, and of the need to break those barriers down, even if it means reducing functionality, if it makes the end product more useful. Keita Takahashi spoke of the need to attract more people from diverse backgrounds to the industry, and how can we do this? By giving them really fun, really easy to use tools. New paintbrushes to allow them to paint! Ogre is a great step in giving something really amazing and useful away, but lets build a layer on top of that to allow anyone who wants to to experiment and create and play and make wonderful things.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The future is here.....?

So we've arrived at the next-generation. I've been fortunate enough to be generously given a 360 for Christmas (which I have to admit might be a decision kate may soon regret) . I've now had it exactly a week, and its quite a machine. That said, its not all roses either.

I'm a complete sucker for a shiny new thing and its only now that I feel I can have any sort of perspective on it. Like a sugar-fuelled infant with attention defecit disorder, all other toys have been dropped and pretty much all my playtime has been focused on it. I've got the premium pack with Gotham Racing 3, and with broadband at home its enough to hopefully get reasonable impression of what its capable of.

I spent about the first hour with the thing poking, prodding and trying to get it to connect up to as much as I could in the house. Linked it up to broadband, got my live account sorted, got it connecting to my itunes library upstairs (eventually after muchos pissing around, and switching to twonkyvision rather than MS's own media extender bollocks). Started mucking around downloading a few demos, having fun with Jeff Minter's lightsynth "Neon", getting all the free trailers, themes etc. And the result? Very very tasty. The infrastructure is very well designed, a great interface and everything fits together as it should. The system is always there at your command, whether watching movies, playing games....errr anything else. Little popups inform you of your friends activities, or any achievements. A menu can always be brought up to allow you to change music, check friends status, go back to the dashboard.

Anyway, so onto the main sales point of the 360... the games. Well PGR 3 is weird. At first I thought it looked shit, like driving though a model village. Then I thought it looked almost photorealistic (incar view through daytime vegas is stunning), and now I think it looks like a very pretty xbox game but shinier and with HDR lighting. I'm not playing in HD so not sure if I can really comment, but when you are concentrating on the visuals rather than the game itself at times it really is stunning. BUT the game is THE SAME! I know this has been said god knows how many times by people younger and uglier than me but theres no game innovation besides live support. The Kameo demo again looks lovely and is kinda fun but it doesnt make me rub my eyes like Mario 64 did. And the bricks are too shiny damnit. Perfect Dark Zero looks ok. Just downloaded the fight night demo and my god the graphics are good. The characters are amazingly realistic, I mean REALLY realistic.... no zombies here the skin and muscles are so well modelled (scanned?) and rendered (and I LOVE the fact that it was available for worldwide download within hours of Bill G's keynote speech talking about it.... nothing like not having to wait) but the game is soooooooooooooooooooo tedious and oldschool.

So in general.... next-gen infrastructure is a wonderful thing. Next gen graphics are nice and all (although you dont notice em after a few hours of playing) err and hopefully some new games will come out soon that do something a bit different with this stupidly powerful machine. Oh and xbox live achievements is the new pokemon. except you cant trade.....