Games and Interaction design

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.


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