Games and Interaction design

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Josh Randall Keynote @ Cybersonica

On Friday I was fortunate enough to have the apparently to meet Josh Randall, the creative director of Harmonix, as we were doing an interview for PlayStation.com as well as covering the keynote he gave for the first day of the Cybersonica festival.

In both the interview and keynote (entitled "Interactive Music for the Masses"), Josh detailed the background of Harmonix from its inception in the 90s - a venture from two graduates of MIT Media Lab - right up to the forthcoming release of Guitar Hero 2 . Its fascinating to see how the original vision - to develop ways for people with no musical training to create and interact with music - has been fulfilled and how the methods implemented to facilitate this vision have been refined over time. The first product that Harmonix created was "The Axe", a piece of software for the PC that allowed the user to create and improvise music using the mouse or joystick. This was followed by a modified version of the same software, combined with infra-red motion detection, for an installation based at Disney's retro-modern (and butt of several Simpsons jokes) Epcot Centre. Upon realising the potential for the widespread and familiar console controller to become a musical instrument, Harmonix's exposure really grew after SCEA saw an early prototype and snapped up what became Frequency, published in 2001. By scaling down the freeform nature of The Axe, and giving people a more directed sonic playpen, it made the software more accessible and suitable for mass market. While Frequency and its sequel Amplitude (I remember doing an online promotional sound sequencer toy for this while at randommedia a couple of years ago) were critically praised, they didn't sell in huge numbers, and it wasn't until they worked on Karaoke Revolution for Konami that their real break came in terms of sales. Karaoke Revolution's development and subsequent success demonstrated to the team the significance of the player's performance as an essential piece of the interactive music experience, and this is something that they have capitalised on, combining with their previous experience on Frequency/Amplitude to create the much adored Guitar Hero. Just check out some of the links on youtube to see how people have adopted the performance aspect of the game.

Its great to see people like Josh in the industry as the enthusiasm he has for his work (and for the culture surrounding interactive music) is infectious and the perfect antidote for the cynicism that can cloud the interactive entertainment industry at times.

The interview with Josh should be online on PlayStation.com over the next few days. In the meantime you can read an online feature on Harmonix here or more on the festival here.

Thanks to Chris for hooking us up with the interview and press passes - congrats on such an interesting conference.

Over_play at onedotzero

Seminar from onedotzero a week Friday (2nd June):

"an exploration of the future of gaming through emergent forms of gameplay and direct interventions into the physical and urban environment, featuring leading innovators in art, gaming and mix-realities. speakers include members of internationally renowned artists' groups: blast theory [uncle roy all around you, i like frank], who explore interactivity and the relationship between real and virtual space, focusing on the social and political aspects of technology, and greyworld, [the source at lse] who create art that involves human interaction in an urban context, with unexpected articulation of public spaces."

More details here.

Game designer hippies

So this is what game designers do when they retire

"These days Ea nourishes his soul by sun bathing on the rocky shore of Peaks Island, Maine, lets his soul speak through drum, dance and song, and ponders the remarkable implications of quantum mechanics for "miracles" which many rational "scientific" people claim are impossible"

Curious? You should be

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Armadillo run

Armadillo Run is a lovely little indie game from Peter Stock. A playset-style physics puzzle game, you have to piece together different physical objects such as cloth, rockets, struts, and plates to create a system to guide the little armadillo ball to where it wants to go.

As Matthew points out, its like a cross between The Incredible Machine and Bridge Builder. It has a really intuitive, easy to grasp user interface and encourages experimentation.

Found at Fun-Motion.


The Cybersonica conference starts tommorrow, offering a diverse line up of speakers over two days - ranging from interactive installation artists to game developers. The conference is held at the Science Museums Dana Centre in London. Tommorrow's keynote speaker is Josh Randall, the Creative Director at Harmonix, the creators of Amplitude, Frequency, and of course Guitar Hero.

Also, the Cybersonica Exhibition is on until Saturday at Phonica records, featuring a number of installations exploring the fields of audio and interactivity - including Fijuu, the PSP controlled Interchange, and the wonderfully playful Shadow Monsters.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The best of E3

Well, I got back from my first E3 yesterday, having spent a week at the madhouse that is the conference itself, plus the SCEI press conference on Monday, and it has certainly been an eye-opening experience. Most of my work out there involved sorting out video - from shooting on HDV to compressing various video collected round the conference and getting it online as soon as possible (on Playstation-E3 and Playstation.com). Being there on official Sony business, but also acting as Media, meant that I managed to see the conference from a number of angles, rather than just as a regular punter.

The biggest disappointment personally was not being able to get into the Nintendo stand - I was too busy to visit until the last day, and even at ten past nine the queue was 4 hours long! Thankfully I did managed to get a good slice of time with the wii controller and Red Steel, thanks to a behind-closed-doors demopod courtesy of Ubisoft (who are rapidly becoming one of my favourite publishers). The first thing that really struck me about the controller was quite how dinky it was - its really small. The game also uses the nunchuck controller and its a shame that it has to use a cable between the two as the elegant simplicity of the one-handed controller is considerably compromised with the nunchuck setup. Its quite strange to use initially - I kept wanting to bring my two hands together after so many years of joypad use, and it is also wildly sensitive to movement. I wanted to use my arms at first - but the designer of the game was on-hand to advise wrist use and to suggest pointing at the screen - to use it absolutely rather than with relative motion. Its not as intuitive a device as I imagined it would be but from a 10 minute session with the game you can really see the potential that will be exploited from the controller over time. I'm gutted I didn't get a chance to see the rest of the demos to get a better range of uses (I really wanted to play with some of the one-handed games) - but hopefully there won't be long until another chance to play comes along.

On the PS3 side, the game of the show for me was Assassin's Creed. Although Heavenly Sword looks stunning, and definitely has the edge visually, it was Assassin's creed that really stood out (in my opinion). Essentially starting off where the Prince of Persia series left off (with added sprinklings of Tenchu), this time you are cast as an assassin, using your parkour skills to negotiate the rooftops of medieval Europe. The core difference this time is not the focus on assassination objectives, but the nature of movement through the environment. While PoP was essentially "on-rails", with a series of linear paths to negotiate using the Prince's nimble movement, this time around you have much more freedom to move around the streets and rooftops of the town, again much like Tenchu or the Sly Cooper games with added flair. Also of note was the use of crowd simulation within the game and its positioning as a gameplay element - you need to work with crowds in order to conceal yourself or create a barrier between yourself and those that would attack you. Oh and you can even ride a horse for Buster Keaton-esque acrobatic leaps.

One other aspect that was really notable about some games at the show was how much more coherent and believable environments and characters will become in the next generation. Two games really stood out as examples of innovation in this area - Crysis from Crytek (being published by EA) and the new Indiana Jones game from LucasArts. The demo of Crysis available at the show was not playable (apparently due to its stability - its still only in Alpha) but watching one of the Crytek employees run through the demo was enough to illustrate advances being made. Following on from its predecessor Far Cry, the environments are brimming with vegetation - the detail and abundance is quite staggering - but the signifant difference is that now this vegetation reacts physically to actions and events within the gameworld. These reactions vary from the small - walking past a branch now causes the branch to bend and sway, appropriately affecting the shadows and sound, to the large - its now possible to shoot down trees (they bend and snap appropriately from where you sever them) with them falling to the ground, supported by any branches they may have. The abundance of trees in the environment makes this truly significant to the design of the game - its possible to create road blocks for vehicles or to fell a tree onto a building to block an entrance for example. Somewhat less realistically, it also appears to be possible to punch a tree in half (a feat that would turn even Geoff Capes green with envy). Even the subtler effects are significant in terms of gameplay - the simple swaying movements and changes in shadow of a character passing through vegetation are enough to alert a player to a physical presence nearby. This physical realism also extends to artificial elements in the game - buildings can literally be blown apart into their constituent pieces (an example shown was a shedlike building collapsing after being blown up by a grenade).

The new Indy game was taking quite a different direction with its innovation. While it does feature some rather tasty destructible elements in the environment - chuck a chubby thug through a wooden door and it splinters realistically (the door not the thug) - it is in the realistic AI and character-character and character-environment interaction that is truly impressive. Indy is the first game to be announced that uses Euphoria, the bio-mechanic simulation software from Cambridge-based Naturalmotion. Some demo videos are available here of Endorphin (the off line version of Euphoria). Essentially the software is able to take characters the next step on from ragdolls, and allow them to bridge the gap between an their aims and what needs to be done to physically achieve these aims in the environment using their bodies. An example shown was a number of characters whos primary aim is to stop falling (to their death) as they are chucked down a bunch of poles. Whereas a ragdoll would merrily bounce from pole to pole, these simulated characters are aware of their bodies, and will attempt to position themselves and grasp with their hands at the poles (or anything else nearby that is grippable) to slow/stop their fall. This even extends to a character gripping onto the legs of another character that is already hanging from a pole - truly emergent behaviour.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Soft bodies

Often new types of systems present themselves for simulation - and for people to study in order to find ways of exploiting them to numerous ends. Often the games industry will find many hugely creative ways of making the most of these simulations by making them interactive and creating goals for the player to reach by manipulating them directly or indirectly.

We've had many systems before now take advantage of the ability for ever-increasingly powered computers to create these simulations in real time - Rigid Body dynamics (in games such as Half-life 2), simulations of large groups of agents (in games such as Lemmings or Medieval Total War), even fluid dynamics (such as Wave Race Blue Storm, Plasma Pong and Liquid War although still hugely underused int he commercial sphere). Could Soft body physics be the next simulation darling of the industry?

I think the first time I remember playing with soft-body physics was when Sodaconstructor first blazed round the net (this probably isn't real soft-body physics. Please excuse any rubbish I may be ejecting from my fingers). Simple collections of springs manipulated by forces applied by gravity and the player can create hugely interesting a. Of course the popular indie game "Gish" also uses soft-body-esque collections of springs for its main character. Games as different as Rigs of Rods and Loco Roco (which greggman has admitted was inspired by sodaconstructor) both take advantage of such simulations and both give a really tactile, organic experience to interactions.

For lots more examples of physics-based gaming, make sure to keep an eye on the fun-motion blog.

Book Review : Level Design for Games

Continuing my subconcious attempts to purchase every book in the entire "New Riders Games" series (glad they've not moved into trashy romance novels), I picked up Level Design for Games a few weeks ago and finished it over the weekend.

The book is written to be very inclusive, covering even the most basic aspects of videogame creation, and dedicates a reasonable amount of itself to detailing game team structure and interactions, reasons why creating games is t3h b35t etc, but when it gets down to business its not a bad read. While he does primarily focus on 3D action titles (well pretty much exclusively FPSs) Phil Co does cover a much broader outlook on the process, from initial brainstorming for likely content in a level and methods of how to make an environment more coherent and believable - right the way through to actual implementation in UnrealEd. Some of the discussion of his personal views and reasons why he is drawn to level design (he has a background in architecture) are definitely of interest. I've not spent much time in bespoke editors like UnrealEd - all level creation for 3D games I've done before has been in Maya, so the BSP mapping process seems quite exotic. Since then I've dug out the Source SDK to have a play with Hammer (watch out for a follow-on post soon).

So in general I'd say it covers a lot of ground, and while focussed primarily on the FPS genre there is enough generalisation to be of use to anyone designing levels for Action Adventure titles, maybe even platformers or any title that has any element of spacial movement in a 3D environment, and it would certainly be of use for someone with little or no experience that was curious to find out what level design is all about.