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January 18, 2009

Tiki Towers

Because I haven't been blogging lately, I haven't written about Tiki Towers -- it's the first game based on a design of mine to ship since Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, for which I served as one of the original co-designers. Tiki Towers was created by Republic of Fun, published by RealNetworks, and shipped in December for the Wii (as a downloadable WiiWare game) and the iPhone, and I understand it's shipping on various mobile phones internationally under the name Tropical Towers (in a version essentially identical to that for the iPhone).

The Wii and iPhone versions of Tiki Towers were done by different studios and are quite distinct. Both are based on the essential idea of using monkeys to build towers based of bamboo and coconuts. The iPhone version plays like a modified version of Lemmings -- the monkeys stay in a box while you build your tower using a finite set of pieces. When you're done, you release them and hope that your structure is built properly and enables them all to clamber to the goal. The Wii version also has you trying to get your monkeys to a goal, but you build the tower in real time while a chief opposes you, using spells to weaken your tower.

Predictably, neither version is an exact implementation of my original design. Each version is tailored to the specific requirements of the platform and incorporates the creativity of the studio that implemented it. I'm hoping to have the chance to see sequels ship that may include more of the ideas I originally came up with, but that will depend on sales, obviously. So far, the good news is that the iPhone version is the 13th best-selling game and the 3rd best-selling puzzle on the iTunes App Store, so I'm hopeful.

Many thanks to my friends at Republic of Fun, to the good people at RealNetworks, and especially to the teams at the studios who built them: Mr Goodliving in Helsinki (iPhone / mobile) and Mock Science in Austin (Wii).

March 09, 2007

Thoughts on the Game Industry from GDC

It's the final day of the Game Developers Conference. I'm not blogging individual sessions as I did last year (search this blog for "GDC 2006"), though I will post pictures from a couple of noteworthy talks. I did, though, want to post my thoughts on the evolution of the game industry -- thoughts that have been forming for a few months now, and that have coalesced during my week here.

It's an axiom of the gaming industry that new platforms fuel surges in creativity, as game designers and developers imagine and then create new game experiences that wouldn't have been possible with previous platforms. Our industry is in the early stage of a new platform cycle, and as ever, this new cycle is fueling innovation and creativity. However, unlike previous platform cycles, the amazing new technical abilities of the most advanced consoles -- the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 -- aren't driving innovation. Yes, developers are taking advantage of these consoles, and they are producing some very cool new games. But these new games aren't radically innovative. They're shinier than their predecessors, to be sure: better graphics, better audio, larger worlds, you name it. But if anyone can point to something fundamentally new about them, I haven't seen it.

The Wii is definitely enabling -- demanding, even -- innovative game design. Nintendo has shown that they can be successful with an approach that combines low-end, low-cost hardware -- basically, graphics that are last-generation plus just a little bit -- with radically new controller design. I believe the Wii will do extremely well for Nintendo, and I think we're going to continue to see cool new games for it. But I don't see the Wii Remote as appropriate for every kind of game, and I don't want to wave my arms around to play every new game I buy.

To me, the enabling platform for the industry's next surge in creativity -- which is already underway -- isn't the 360 or the Playstation 3 or even the Wii. In fact, I don't see the platform as any one piece of hardware or software. It's a collection of technologies, design techniques, and business practices, all centered around the transformation of the industry from a hits-driven model to one in which independent, innovative game development is seen not as a labor of love, but as a profitable pursuit.

A friend of mine here at GDC put the argument this way: in the 1990s, Hollywood went through a transition from its pure blockbuster model to a model that preserved the blockbuster, but also enabled the profitable creation of independent films, such as short films, foreign films, story-driven ensemble films on the cheap, documentaries, short animation, you name it. Just look at the state of documentary films today: 8 of the 10 highest-grossing documentaries of all time have been released since 2002. It's now possible to make documentaries that make money. Generally speaking, that wasn't the case 10 or 15 years ago. How did this come about? I'm not a Hollywood expert, but my impression is that it was a variety of changes, from new methods and sources of financing to new distribution mechanisms (new cable TV channels, 'long tail' DVD buying on the Internet, short film Websites, etc.), from a new understanding of techniques for writing and directing documentaries that viewers would find compelling to the evolution of a new audience of consumers hungry for more good documentaries.

This same sort of thing -- the rise of indie-style development and distribution -- is evolving right now in the game world. I'm not talking about cheap, imitative casual games. "It's bowling, but with penguins." "It's miniature golf, but in outer space." "It's a match three game, but with glowing alien fruit." Yawn. I'm talking about truly innovative game design: games that aren't large and expansive, but that within their limited scope, offer new types of gameplay and new experiences for their players.

Put another way, I believe there's a creative high ground in game design, between the ultra-low budgets of most of the PC casual games industry and the ultra-high budgets of the console and PC AAA-level games industry. At the low end, budgets are so small that they constrain innovation, leading designers and developers to think first of imitating successful competitors (because they don't have the money or time to do anything else). At the high end, budgets are so large that they, too, constrain innovation, leading publishers to avoid taking risks (because failure would be devastating).

Where is this creative high ground, this sweet spot for innovative game development? There's no hard and fast rule, but I'd say that game budgets between $100,000 and $1,000,000 sound about right. It's possible to create games for less than this that bring it all together (DEFCON comes to mind), and there are games with larger budgets that nevertheless have an independent feel to them (see LocoRoco), but in general, a budget in this range is large enough to enable creativity and innovation while staying small enough that risk-taking is still possible.

I described the platform driving innovation as a collection of technologies, of design techniques, and of business practices. There's no such thing as a definitive enumeration of these components, but we can point to a variety of things that play a role. Low-cost, high-performance game engines such as Torque make it possible for developers to create compelling games without spending half their budgets on engines. Financing schemes such as project-specific LLCs make it possible for developers to find the money for their projects without going to traditional publishers (often losing creative control and ownership of their intellectual property in the process). Community-based game sites such as Kongregate make it possible for developers to find an audience while retaining more control than would be possible with traditional casual game portals. Console game download systems such as Xbox Live Arcade give console owners a continuous stream of fresh new games, most costing $5-10, as a complement to their high-profile AAA-level titles that cost $50-60 (and that cost $5-25 million to develop).

The result of all this is that I do believe we're in the early stage of a huge creative surge in the game industry, but one unlike any of the platform-driven creative surges we've seen in the past. It will change the industry for a long time to come, if not permanently, and this change will be for the better.

October 14, 2006

"South Park" on "World of Warcraft"

I'm sure I'm one of the very last people to have seen this, but for those few stragglers out there, South Park's episode satirizing World of Warcraft is spot-on and hilarious. If you've ever played WoW (or another massively multiplayer online game), or if you've been curious about it, it's a must-see.

As Cartman says:

You can just hang outside in the sun all day tossing a ball around, or you can sit at your computer and do something that matters.

September 16, 2006

The Blizzard Entertainment of Movies

For those of you who are fans of Halo, this interview with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, executive producer of the forthcoming Halo feature film, is encouraging to say the least:

Peter Jackson: Fran [Walsh], Philippa [Boyens] and I are not writing the script, but, in a sense, one of the things we're contributing with our involvement in the project is being the police, the script cops! So, nothing is going to end up on the screen that doesn't get our stamp of approval. We're going to be pretty tough with the script. We're not going to spare people's feelings...

We obviously know a lot of the world of HALO that the story's going to take part in. So, there's a lot of very productive work that's underway at the moment while the script takes whatever (amount of time). As far as I'm concerned it should take as long as it needs to take until it's a good script. We are slowly tugging away at it, getting it there...

Peter Jackson: the Blizzard Entertainment of movies. (Or if you prefer, Blizzard Entertainment: the Peter Jackson of games.)

May 17, 2006

Historical Console Prices

Via Boing Boing, an interesting chart from Curmudgeon Gamer showing the inflation-adjusted prices of game consoles over the last 20 years.

Relative Console Prices 1976-2006
I'm tempted (but don't have the time) to research and chart the true costs of these systems when fully equipped. For example, as I noted, with wireless controllers, a wireless adapter, a starting set of games, an Xbox Live subscription, and some Microsoft points to spend, an Xbox 360 Premium system approaches $1,000 in total cost. Sony's total cost for a PlayStation 3 will undoubtedly be even higher -- $1,100 to $1,200, I would guess.

At the same time, it would be equally interesting (but difficult) to chart the functionality of game systems over time. Yes, an Xbox 360 Premium system costs about $1,000 when fully equipped -- but how much more does it include and do, objectively speaking, than a system from 10 years ago -- a PlayStation 1 or a Nintendo 64?

May 15, 2006

The Biggest Story of E3

For my money, the most notable news coming out of E3 wasn't the trailer for Halo 3, which is stunning, or Sony's Ken Kutaragi saying that $599 is "too cheap" for the PlayStation 3, or Nintendo's Wii controller. Technically speaking, the most notable news wasn't even news from E3, but rather the coverage of news from E3. From an article in The New York Times:

Online Game Galaxy Gets a New Race of Characters

LOS ANGELES, May 10 -- Ever since last year, when the makers of World of Warcraft, one of the world's most successful video games, announced that they would release a major retail expansion in late 2006, the game's millions of players have eagerly awaited additional details about what lay in store.

As the video game industry convened here on Wednesday for E3, the top annual game convention, those players started getting answers. In the biggest piece of news, Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind the game, announced that the expansion, called the Burning Crusade, included the introduction of an otherworldly species called the Draenei. The Draenei are the new playable race for the Warcraft group called the Alliance.

Much of the story line in World of Warcraft, which now has more than 6 million paying subscribers worldwide, revolves around the strife between two competing factions, the Alliance and the Horde. Players can join either side of the fantasy conflict; the Alliance includes races like humans, dwarves and gnomes, while the Horde includes orcs, trolls and the undead.

Blizzard announced last year that in the expansion the Horde would receive a new playable race called the Blood Elves, but until Wednesday the identity of the new Alliance race had been a secret. On Web message boards players had spilled hundreds of thousands of words debating what the new Alliance race would be.

The story goes on for another five paragraphs.

In other words, America's paper of record ran a full-length article, listed in their main RSS feed, not on a new game, but on the unveiling of a new character type within an existing game. Partly this is the growing importance of computer and video games, but mostly, I think, it's the fact that World of Warcraft is now more than a half a billion dollar business -- 4.5 million players (excluding China) at a minimum of $12.99 per month equals over $700 million per year.

Also, to see The New York Times publish a story with lines like...

Players can join either side of the fantasy conflict; the Alliance includes races like humans, dwarves and gnomes, while the Horde includes orcs, trolls and the undead.
...is a treat I won't soon forget.

May 14, 2006

Shows Good Enough to Pay for Them

On PVRblog, Matt Haughey writes:

The success of show sales on things like the iTunes store definitely points towards the future of TV: make shows good enough that people willingly pay for it (sans ads). Of course, cable outfits like HBO and Showtime have been doing this for decades so it will be interesting to see how the major networks compete in the future. I'm still hopeful the networks can create great programming worthy of purchase and adapt to this new world instead of the alternative: relying on lawsuits to block any technology that doesn't fit their current business model in a perpetual war between them and their own customers.
This is a great point. Networks have been trying to figure out how to get more money from product placements and other mechanisms that can't be skipped with a DVR remote, but it does seem that in the end, the best route is to make shows we're willing to pay to watch. Speaking personally, I can think of four:
  • Battlestar Galactica: Not only have I bought the one-and-a-half seasons already available on DVD, when I reached the end of the DVD set of the first half of the second season, with further DVDs months away, I bought all 10 remaining episodes on the iTunes Music Store to watch on my iMac and my iPod, because I didn't want to wait to see them.
  • House: I'm a recent convert, and am thinking of buying the first season on DVD to go back and watch it from the start.
  • Rome: If HBO offered this on DVD before airing it, I'd buy it in a heartbeat.
  • 24: This is a little shaky for me, because unlike the other shows I've listed here, 24 doesn't seem like the kind of program I would want to watch more than once. But it might just make the list.
That's four shows, or four hours a week out of how much original prime-time programming produced by the various networks? Hundreds of hours? But it's a start. If Hollywood can make more shows at this level of quality, and let me buy them however I like (DVD, iTunes, or premium cable channel subscription), then they could effectively take on the DVR and live to tell about it.

Of course, there's the small matter of making more shows at the quality level of the four listed above (and others I know to be good but don't watch, like The Sopranos). Easier said than done.

May 01, 2006

Baltar's House

It's easy to take the Internet for granted, now that we're so used to it -- it's easy to use it without reflecting on how much it has changed our lives, in ways large and small.

My son Cameron and I have been catching up on Battlestar Galactica -- I had heard so many times that it was the "best show on television" that I finally broke down and bought the DVDs of the first season to give it a try. Having watched it through most of the second season at this point, yes, it might well be the best show on TV, and is certainly up there with the other three shows I watch, 24, House, and Rome -- but that's not the point of this post.

In the show, one of the characters has (and returns to in his imagination) one of the most beautiful homes I've ever seen. It's modern but not austere, tastefully decorated, but the star is the view -- floor-to-ceiling windows throughout with wonderful sights of the ocean and islands in the distance. Battlestar Galactica is filmed in Vancouver, and from time to time I'm able to pick out locations there. When we saw the house, I said to Cameron that I thought it must be along the Sea to Sky Highway, just north of Horseshoe Bay, maybe 15 or 20 miles from downtown.

A decade ago, that would have been the end of the discussion. Now, though, fact-checking is just a search away. As it happens, fans of the series have created Google Earth files (here and here) detailing shooting locations for the show. One of them uses frame captures from episodes and helpfully lines up the views in Google Earth with the views from the shows. As it turns out, the house in question is indeed along the Sea to Sky Highway, six or seven miles north of Horseshoe Bay, just south of Village Beach Park. I've driven past it at at least a dozen times on my way to and from Whistler, though it looks as if it's well hidden from the road. Here's a screen capture from Google Earth showing the view:

Baltar's House

A minor thing, to be sure, but it reminded me of how much the Internet has changed how we think -- that we can learn virtually anything we want to know, and behave accordingly. I think we don't reflect on or appreciate that often enough.

April 24, 2006

George Will, Baseball, and Cognitive Dissonance

I've just started reading Everything Bad Is Good for You by Steven Johnson, and one of the quotations Johnson uses to start off the book, from George Will, is hilarious and head-scratching all at the same time:

Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilized society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of "choice," adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainments and the kind of entertainments they are absorbed in -- video games, computer games, hand-held games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity.
This is from a June 2001 column by Will, "Reality television: oxymoron".

What makes this, as I said, simultaneously hilarious and head-scratching is that Will is well-known as a huge fan of baseball, having written two books on the subject. Does he realize the cognitive dissonance from which he's suffering? Somehow it's "stupidity" to actively work one's way through a video game, but it's enriching (I assume he would say so) to passively watch men hit a ball around a grassy field?

Though I'm a football fan, I'm well aware of how mindless sports spectatorship is. I enjoy watching NFL games on Sunday afternoons, both in person and on television, but I know that doing so is anything but enriching -- it's entertaining, diversionary, and nothing more. Video games are interactive and so are, by any conceivable measure, more beneficial than watching any sport I can think of -- and one doesn't need to read Everything Bad Is Good for You to see the truth of that.

April 19, 2006

"Baby, You Mean the World of Warcraft to Me"

Straight from The Onion comes a wonderful sendup of World of Warcraft. Think Smoove B. as a game geek:

When we met, I was looking for a group fit to take the Zul'Gurub instance. But as I stocked up on provisions at the convenience store before my quest, and our eyes locked, I realized that I was not looking for a group, I was looking for love, and I found it in you. You are the sun, the moon, the Cinderhide Armsplints of the Monkey. There is so much we have to offer one another. Unfailing loyalty, a Strength of 250, someone who can go out for snacks in the heat of battle. Can't you see we're made for each other?

Darling, no orc can keep me from you. I would make my way into the heart of Moonglade and fight an army of trolls just to be by your side. I would go up against Varimathras, the ruler of the Undead himself, if he so much as hinted that he was a danger to you. Make no mistake, I would get aggro on anyone who would threaten you.

This is, of course, provided the system is not down due to a faulty patch.

April 18, 2006

Microsoft's Xbox 360 Pricing Strategy

About a week and a half ago, I was at Target, happened to ask (just for the fun of it) if they had any Xbox 360s in stock, and when they replied that they did, I went ahead and bought one on the spot. It was like seeing a free parking space in a prime area of San Francisco -- it's so unexpected that you almost feel like you have to park there, even if you're headed somewhere else.

I didn't really think through the cost of the Xbox 360 before I purchased it. I mean, I thought about it, but not clearly. Microsoft prices the Xbox Core system at $299. So at some level, my consumer brain says, "It's only $299!" Of course, I knew that wasn't really relevant -- no one would buy a Core system. Everyone buys the Premium system, which is $399 but includes extras that would cost more than $100 to add. So at some level, sure, I was saying, "It's only $399!" But even then I was still thinking about that $299 number and it was influencing my decision. $299? That's not a huge deal.

But let's talk about what it really costs to get going with an Xbox 360 system. It's not $399, much less $299.

  • Xbox 360 Premium. Includes a hard drive and a wireless controller. $399.
  • Wireless controllers. Necessary for multiplayer action. $49 each times three equals $147.
  • Wireless adapter. Unless you have Ethernet in your living room, and I don't, this is necessary to connect to Xbox Live for multiplayer online gaming. Note that the 360 doesn't work with any other wireless adapter, including the original Xbox wireless adapter. $99.
  • Games. What's a reasonable starter set of games? Two? Microsoft has raised the retail price of games to $59 each with the 360, so that makes $118.
  • Xbox Live subscription. Necessary for multiplayer online gaming. $49 per year.
That comes to a grand total of $812. But that's not the end of the story. I've bought two more games at $59 each, and then there's Xbox Live Arcade (more on that in another entry), which offers inexpensive downloadable mini-games. So far, I've made two purchases of "Microsoft Points" at $25 each. That brings my grand total so far to $980 -- for a game system!

In theory, one could buy an Xbox 360 Core system (no hard drive, wired controller) and one game and get started with that, and be out $358. But who would do that? No one. If you're going to buy a new game system, you're going to make use of all its cool features -- hard drive storage, wireless controllers, multiplayer gaming, online gaming, downloadable games, and so on. But who would say to themselves, "$980 for a new game system? That seems reasonable." Again, no one. (Okay, almost no one.)

So in the end, I'm impressed with Microsoft's strategy. Yes, they're losing money on each Xbox 360, which costs anywhere from $552 to $715 to manufacture, depending on whose estimate you believe. And yes, they're following the canonical Nintendo model of losing money (initially) on the box and making it back on the games. But how much do wireless controllers cost them to make? I'm sure it's less than $49 -- third-parties sell wireless controllers for existing systems for as little as $19, and they have to make a profit on every one. How much does their wireless adapter cost to make? Third parties sell USB wireless adapters for PCs for as little as $19, and again, they have to make a profit on every one. And Microsoft's marginal cost to add a single Xbox Live subscriber? Next to nothing.

I'd have to crunch some numbers to be sure, but it's entirely possible that with all the additional charges, Microsoft has already broken even on me as an Xbox 360 purchaser. If true, this would mean that their subsequent game revenue (from their own titles and royalties on all third-party titles) would be profit, not subsidization for the console itself. And if that's true, then Microsoft is being clever indeed.

April 10, 2006

Wired on "Free to Play / Pay for Stuff"

There's a Wired News article out on the "free to play / pay for stuff" online gaming model:

By now it's expected that major American multiplayer games like World of Warcraft will charge customers a monthly subscription fee. But the news out of Asia's booming gaming market suggests a different approach may be more lucrative...

Some of the most popular games in Asia are given away for free and charge no subscription dues, but collect micropayments for custom avatars and other items...

The popularity of online gaming in Japan, China and Korea dominated more than a few sessions at the 2006 Game Developers Conference in Silicon Valley last month, where U.S. companies looked for advice on developing games that appeal to the massive Asian market...

About 20 percent of players of the casual racing game Kart Rider are women, said Min Kim, director of international business development at Nexon. Players have purchased some 20 million cars in the game, and they can record and post their races and scores on a community website, along with screenshots of their cars.

Declining to state specific numbers, Kim said money spent on customization was "a lot more than people usually pay for subscription fees," and that the game's concurrent user numbers were higher than every U.S game except WoW.

In fact, as noted in my blog entry from a GDC roundtable on the topic, some people are discussing specific numbers:

Some dramatic statistics were discussed. ARPUs (Average Revenue Per User, typically per month) across 'free to play, pay for stuff' games in Korea are approximately $25. The moderators reported that ARPUs across their various games are $20. This includes not only the users who pay for items, but the 'freeloaders' who don't buy anything. That's substantially more than most subscription-based MMOs of which I'm aware.

March 26, 2006

GDC 2006: "The Game Studies Download: Top 10 Research Findings"

The Game Studies Download: Top 10 Research Findings
Ian Bogost, Georgia Tech
Mia Consalvo, Ohio University
Jane McGonigal, UC Berkeley

This presentation consisted of short summaries of 10 research studies (plus a bonus study) relevant to game design.

10. "How does game music impact a player's effectiveness?" Used Project Gotham Racing 2 for the study.

  • Research findings: High emotional impact of music did not equate to high player effectiveness. However, control of and preference for music did equate to the best overall player experience. This was true independent of music genre -- when players picked their own music, their scores went up dramatically.
  • Take-way: Game music is not just about emotional impact or world building. Success hangs on it. How and when are you using game music to support or to challenge your players?
9. "What do players really think about voice chat and its usefulness in gameplay?" Used Moto GP and Unreal Championship for the study.
  • Research findings: Poor usability (interference from background music, other players making noises, trash talk, etc.) hindered players' attempts to be social. Players disliked the lack of control over what was sent over the channel -- players wanted to be able to send specific messages to specific players. Voice isn't always an advance.
  • Take-away: Voice communication needs to be designed with a particular purpose in mind within your game. What specific elements of your gameplay does voice chat enable or enhance?
8. "Gestural and embodied controllers are fun. But are they good for gameplay?"
  • Research findings: Trend toward transparent interfaces in human-computer interaction. Weird controllers create interaction that accounts for the body. But buttons abstract complex action well.
  • Take-away: Buttons are best for complex, symbolic action. Designs for new gestural systems should take this balance into account. Are you choosing the right gestural versus symbolic control system?
7. "Does the presence of other players make an online game more or less immersive?" Used Halo 2 and other games for the study. Used very intensive ethnographic research -- interviews, game journals, live gameplay sessions.
  • Research findings: Three kinds of "strong presence" identified that are pleasurable for gamers: spatial-physical (you project yourself in the space), social (you feel the other people playing present with you), and co-presence (the first two kinds of presence combined). Adversaries were depersonalized -- "the same as bots". All three forms of presence experienced mostly strongly in "collaborative online environment" games.
  • Take-away: Collaboration is an extremely powerful driver of immersion and stickiness. Where could you add moments of multiplayer collaboration in your game?
6. "Are players cheating as much as we (and other gamers) think they are?" People watched a 10-year-old boy take a test and were told that it was a high-stakes test, and that the boy had a history of cheating. The boy was briefed on the study and instructed not to do anything that would look like cheating. Despite this, observers believed they saw him cheating.
  • Research findings: If someone is supervised, we believe he would act dishonestly without the supervision. People attribute dishonesty and cheating to those they think might commit such acts.
  • Take-away: Perceptions are often more important than reality for fairness in multiplayer games. What concrete steps can you take to assure players that a competition is fair?
5. "What innovative game design uses are there for player-controlled cameras?"
  • Research findings: Interactive equivalent of cinematic montage is rare.
  • Take-away: Player-controlled camera movement can be thought of as an adaptation of cinematic montage. How can your game make more creative use of player-controlled camera cuts?
4. "What strategies do players invent to communicate to other players in online games... and can games be designed to better support these strategies?" Used Battlefield 1942 for the study. Highly recommended this paper to attendees for further reading.
  • Research findings: Players want to communicate three things: intentions, actions, and effects. A design-oriented taxonomy of 10 kinds of communication strategies. Least-supported strategies currently: gesture, non-verbal audio, and non-violent physical contact (like a high-five).
  • Take-away: Players are trying to invent new ways to communicate in your games. Have you explored non-standard possibilities for interaction forms?
3. "Can alternative controllers like eye tracking devices offer a PC gaming experience that is more fun and involving than mouse control?" Used Sacrifice and Half-Life for the study. Modified Sacrifice (a 2D game) to use an eye tracking device to aim. Modified Half-Life in various ways to use the device.
  • Research findings: With a 2D shooter, everyone rated the game as more fun when played with the eyes. Players' scored doubled from standard play to eye tracker play. In Half-Life, combining eye and mouse functions led to more players responding positively.
  • Take-away: Use of eye tracking could be a successful addition to your game, provided it has a useful function and is properly playtested. What novel input devices are you considering for your PC game?
2. "How can we generate facial animation that combines speech and variable emotion?" Used Half-Life 2 for the study.
  • Research findings: Speech-driven faces are common. But people look and speak differently under different emotional states. An original method for generating facial animation with lip syncing and emotional blending.
  • Take-away: Manually specify emtional content, or use a Support Vector Machine to identify emtional content from a script. Could your characters' facial expressions be more emotionally specific during speech?
1. "How do game events marking success versus failure affect a player's level of engagement?" Used Super Monkey Ball 2 for the study. Used a variety of techniques to measure player engagement: skin conductance, facial EMG activity, and others.
  • Research findings: More pleasure and excitement in active failure than in success. However, passive experience of failure (replaying their failure to them) makes players disengage. (In other words, failing is good, but watching yourself fail is bad.) Attaining a goal decreases player arousal and interest.
  • Take-away: Failure is an unexpected hot spot for excitement and pleasure. How much fun is failure in your game?
0. "How do we design for spectator as well as player experiences?"
  • Research findings: Specator experiences equate to manipulations and effects. Visible gestures that the system doesn't respond to still matter. Design principles: secretive, expressive, magical, suspenseful.
  • Take-away: Secretive and suspenseful spectator experiences are uncommon in spectator games. Have you considered the spectator experience in your game?

The presentation can be downloaded here. A handout with references to all the studies can be downloaded here.

This was the final session I attended at GDC, and so closes out my coverage, at least in terms of session descriptions. However, I'm planning on writing more about things that stood out for me, including study number 1 (on pleasure from active failure) above. It's a fundamental insight, I think.

March 24, 2006

GDC 2006: My Take

I have one more session to blog, but it will take a while, so I'm going to jump up a level and look back at three days of the Game Developers Conference and try to make sense of it all.

Viewed from the outside, it would be easy to think that the biggest story in games right now is the advent of the next-generation consoles -- the Xbox 360, out now, and the Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Revolution, due out in a few months' time. There's some truth to this idea. A few major game developers have shipped their first wave of Xbox 360 titles (and so are onto their second wave), while other developers are working on their first wave of titles for one or more of the consoles. Costs are up dramatically -- one estimate is that art for next-generation consoles costs four times as much as for last-generation consoles, with title development costs in the $15-25 million range. This makes the risk extremely high, and so developers are understandably extremely concerned with the transition.

That said, I would argue that viewed from the inside, the next-generation consoles aren't the biggest story. The major stories, as I see them, are:

Massively multiplayer online games. World of Warcraft is now a half-a-billion-dollar-a-year business. I didn''t hear it said at GDC, but I'm willing to bet this makes it the most popular game franchise on the planet, by a wide margin. A variety of vendors -- Simutronics, Big World, Multiverse, and Emergent -- are shipping (or developing) middleware that, in theory, will reduce risk and time to market for MMO titles. Innovative economic models have been not only tried but proven effective. And venture funding is available to build MMOs (even, surprisingly, uninnovative ones).

Casual games. Casual games are here and in a big way. Why? Because the economics are so much more compelling. Typical budgets run from $100,000-250,000 -- that's from 1.67 percent down to as little as 0.4 percent of the cost of developing a next-generation console title. The market is vastly larger, both demographically (there are far more soccer moms and office park dads than there are hardcore gamers) and technologically (there are far more people with PCs and Internet connections than there are with Xbox 360s -- or any other console, for that matter).

Mobile games. Though we must contend with the walled garden approach of US cellular service providers -- who as a group seem incapable of learning from the open, transparent software model that has helped make NTT DoCoMo so successful -- still, the mobile phone market is undeniably huge. Two billion mobile phones, 800 million new handsets per year, 250 million smart phones this year, more than 1 miliion new subscribers every day. The mobile phone gaming market is maturing and highly competitive, but that's because it's so valuable.

Alternative distribution. A sub-text of this year's GDC was how it seems so clear to so many people that we are at the early stage of the waning of packaged retail software as the industry's primary distribution mechanism. While a few MMOs have retail starter kits, most bypass retail entirely. Mobile games are downloaded directly to phones and so by definition bypass retail. The vast majority of casual games are distributed via the Web -- it's the very rare mega-hit casual game that is later made into a retail title. The console vendors are falling over themselves to explain their electronic distribution strategies: Microsoft with Xbox Live Arcade, Sony with its network service for the PSP and the PlayStation 3, and Nintendo with its service for the Revolution. Even one of the most successful retail PC game vendors, Valve, has developed its own direct content downloading system, Steam.

Taken together, these trends point to a near future that looks very different from the recent past. A typical game might be massively multiplayer and casual (the two aren't incompatible -- see Puzzle Pirates), with a mobile component that connects to a PC-based component, and all of it delivered electronically.

This was my first GDC in five or six years, but I got the distinct impression that the level of enthusiasm was up substantially compared to the last few years. There was a palpable sense of excitement. Just a few years ago, it seemed like the industry was on an inexorable path towards astronomical budgets for state-of-the-art, multiplatform, PC/console titles -- often with licensed content to "reduce risk" -- as the dominant development paradigm. Now developers realize that there are more options. We may not be back to the "lone programmer at the kitchen table" model (though I saw one nice mobile game that was developed by a single person), but we're closer than we have been in a long time. It's a good time to be making games.

GDC 2006: "Free to Play! Pay for Stuff: The Digital Content Sales Frontier"

Free to Play! Pay for Stuff: The Digital Content Sales Frontier
Matt Mihaly, Iron Realms Entertainment
Daniel James, Three Rings

This was a roundtable on economic models for games where the primary (or sole) source of revenue is paying for objects, as opposed to purchasing the game or paying subscription fees.

Most of the session was concerned with liability. What liabilites do game companies incur when they issue virtual currencies, or when they sell digital objects?

I asked the question whether anyone at previous sessions of the roundtable had brought up frequent flier miles as a model, and it turned out they had not. My hunch is that when users start suing game companies over issues related to virtual currencies, the judges involved will first look to see if there's any existing case law -- and when they do, frequent flier miles will be the closest parallel they can find. This brought up the question of what the case law is when it comes to frequent flier miles. I'm not an expert, but as far as I know, courts have ruled, generally, that airlines have tremendous latitude in terms of setting and then changing the terms of their frequent flier programs, especially when their terms of service clearly state that they can change the terms at will.

It was asked whether anyone thought that allowing users to convert virtual currencies back out to real-world currencies was a good idea. I said that I thought it was a tremendously bad idea, because looking at PayPal as an example, state and national regulators took the position that PayPal was a bank and should be regulated as such -- and the last thing any entrepreneur should want would be to suffer bank-like regulation. PayPal had to devote a substantial amount of effort to avoid bank-style regulation. I suspect that at least some regulators and politicians would look at any MMOs offering fully exchangable virtual currencies as being banks, and would attempt to regulate them as such, whether out of legitimate concern or in an attempt to score political points.

Some dramatic statistics were discussed. ARPUs (Average Revenue Per User, typically per month) across 'free to play, pay for stuff' games in Korea are approximately $25. The moderators reported that ARPUs across their various games are $20. This includes not only the users who pay for items, but the 'freeloaders' who don't buy anything. That's substantially more than most subscription-based MMOs of which I'm aware.

The moderators' MMOs suffer about 3 percent in bad transactions (any transaction where they end up not getting paid or having to refund the user's money). My impression is that this is fairly low, and is a good sign. Fraud within games is a problem -- a participant stated that 40 percent of all customer service calls to Ultima Online are due to player-to-player fraud caused by a secondary market in items.

GDC 2006: "Ten Strategies to Reduce Costs on Large Scale MMP Development"

Ten Strategies to Reduce Costs on Large Scale MMP Development
Rich Vogel, bioware.com

I'm now working on my fourth MMP. I always say each one is going to be my last.

What is this lecture about? I'm talking about large-scale MMPs. Yes, you can develop an MMP for less than $6 million -- even less than $1 million if you're very creative.

What do they typically cost to build? $18-40 million. World of Warcraft cost over $40 million to produce -- not to deploy, just to produce. Deployment is probably another $15-20 million.

What costs the most? Content. Average 3,000 quests, over two million words of dialogue, 32 km by 32 km world filled with cities, villages, points of interest, roads. This takes 40+ artists, 50+ level designers and builders. Well over 10,000 items (weapons, food, clothing, armor, accessories, etc.). Hundreds of unique creatures (we had over 160 unique creatures in Star Wars Galaxies). Several races. Thousands of UI pieces. Five times the special effects of a single player game.

The "project fulcrum" is quality and scope versus resources and time. Quality is the most important thing.

How can we be more efficient in what we're doing? How can we develop content faster? That's where our costs are.

Strategy #1: Get top talent for your core team. It's critical that you have good people in your lead positions. Take your time to find them, and don't rush. Clearly define their roles. Every person on the team has to be passionate about what they're building. Have a deep bench -- these projects take up to four years, and you're going to lose key people along the way.

What type of people are needed?

  • Director of technology
  • Art director
  • Creative director
  • Executive producer
  • Senior producer
  • Project manager
  • QA manager
  • Community manager
Strategy #2: Don't build everything from scratch. Look for off-the-shelf solutions. This constrasts with what Richard Garriott said this morning -- but in 2006, we have good middleware. Does it save time? Does it scale? Is it modular? Does it prototype the game faster? Does it reduce risk?

What's out there in terms of middleware?

  • Simutronics
  • Emergent
  • Big World
  • Lots of database solutions
  • Lots of billing solutions
Strategy #3: Scoping the design early and often. Define the core gameplay and goals of the game at the start. Set a minimum feature set to deliver. Prioritize features. Don't innovate everything. Review any new features against the goal of the game.

Strategy #4: Data driven systems are it. Nothing should be entered in terms of data that can't be put in a spreadsheet or a database. Programmers should worry about logic and not entering data. Overall savings in terms of iteration time as well as time for polish. Designers should not program.

Strategy #5: Communications. Make sure everyone on the team understands what they are building. Create a high-level mission statement. Use filtered e-mail groups (be careful of internal spam). The team must play the game. Everyone contributes to feedback. Have a meeting at the beginning of each day.

Strategy #6: Iterative development. Take time to prototype core gameplay. Take risky concepts and prototype them early -- this provides time for course correction. Work towards small concepts and build on them.

Strategy #7: Agile development. A large team requires different approaches. SCRUM is an agile development process using strike teams -- learn about it if you haven't already. Don't be fooled by quick progress of agile development -- you still need overall project management. Pacing is critical in order to reduce burnout and improve performance. Keep the team small until pipelines are finished. I use a wiki containing my tasks for the week displayed continuously on a second monitor.

Strategy #8: Tool development. Don't go into full production until tools and pipelines are fully functional. Tools need to be easy to use, scalable, adaptable.

Types of tools that are required:

  • Asset generation and tracking
  • Scripting language
  • System generation
  • UI generation
  • World generation
  • Dialogue
  • Special effects
  • Monitoring

Strategy #9: Outsourcing. In my opinion, this is where you really save your butt. Outsourcing helps reduce your internal team size. Review your art, software, design, QA, and audio needs, then determine what can be done out of house. It's not easy, and it's a big commitment. You have to treat your outsourced resources like a remote internal team. Face-to-face time is critical.

Strategy #10: Always consider how software and game design affect back-end costs. Think about number of servers, database load, customer service support, expense of hardware to support game design. In Ultima Online, we wanted to add a thief character, but if we had realized the effect this would have on customer support costs, we never would have considered it.

GDC 2006: "What's Next in Game Design"

What's Next in Game Design
Will Wright, Maxis

Before I start with my summary of his talk, I want to go out of my way to say how much I like Will Wright -- not just as a game designer, but as a person. In the mid-1990s, the firm he co-founded, Maxis, was considering buying the firm I worked at then, Virtus. The idea was to add Virtus' expertise and technology in 3D software architectures to Maxis' expertise and technology in building software toys. Will's co-founder, Jeff Braun, was the person behind the idea, and Will was all for it. It didn't happen, because a third executive there didn't understand the rationale for the deal and so shot it down. It's too bad -- it would have been tremendous fun to work with Will. But the nice thing was that I had the privilege of some wonderful face-to-face time with him, and I can attest that Will is every bit as intelligent, inquisitive, creative, and self-effacing as he is said to be.

Now, onto the talk. For me, this was the talk to which I was looking forward to the most at GDC 2006. Having seen Will's Spore demo from last year, I was eagerly looking forward to seeing how much progress he and his team had made since then. Unfortunately, Will didn't show anything from Spore. I presume this is because it's late enough in the development cycle that EA's marketing folks want to tightly control when and where it's shown. That was a disappointment.

At the beginning of the talk, Will crossed out the title and said that the real title was, "Why I Get Too Obsessed with My Game Research". He then launched into a talk that wove together astrobiology and game design, moving back and forth between the two subjects -- to "maximize confusion", as he put it. The talk was interesting, to be sure. I didn't take live notes, and given Will's rapid-fire delivery, I'm glad I didn't try. Better bloggers than me have covered the talk here, here, here, here, and here.

Having said that, it was at some level a frustrating keynote. If I were to summarize Will's game design process precepts, they would read something like this:

  • Take as much time as you need to thoroughly research your subject
  • Hire the best specialists in any given field to help you with your design
  • Go to the best universities and have their leading professors pick out their very best students for your team
  • Take as much time building as many prototypes as you need to test and refine your design
The problem is that I can count on one hand the number of designers who have the access to resources and the complete creative freedom to be able to do development like this. Shigeru Miyamoto. Peter Molyneux. Will Wright. Who else is there?

A game designer friend who was with me at this keynote put it well. "It's like seeing a candy store through the window," he said. "It looks delicious, but you can't have any."

GDC 2006: "Disrupting Development"

Disrupting Development
Satoru Iwata, President, Nintendo

Okay, if I was mean to Sony, it wouldn't be fair of me to go any easier on Nintendo.

If Sony's three messages were...

  1. We sure have sold a lot of units of the PlayStation 1 and 2!
  2. Look at our shiny new hardware. Look at it!
  3. We're thinking about network services. No, really!
...then Nintendo's ostensible messages were...
  1. Look at our new game, Brain Age!
  2. Look at our new game, Metroid DS!
  3. Look at our new controller for the Revolution!
Even less content than the Sony presentation, right? Except it was much better received by the crowd -- the applause was much longer and warmer. Why? Because the ostensible messages weren't the real messages. The real messages were...
  1. Game programmers are geeks. We like geeks!
  2. Have a free copy of Brain Age as you walk out the door!
  3. Look quickly! It's Zelda for the DS. It's shiny!
Future GDC keynote presenters, there's a lesson here for you. Make some jokes about programmer food groups, give away free software, show 30 seconds of a new version of a beloved game, and you're in like Flynn. Even if you barely say anything about your new console shipping soon.

March 23, 2006

GDC 2006: "Designing Tabula Rasa"

Designing Tabula Rasa
Richard Garriott, NCsoft

Trials and tribulations of creating a "next generation" MMPORG

The Tabula Rasa project began slowly. We immediately had some substantial difficulties. In 2004, we made a major turn in the project -- personnel, design, and strategic changes. Since then, the project has been proceeding well. I'm going to focus on the first phase and what went wrong.

Solo versus MMP:

  • Solo player games: you are special, you are alone
  • MMPs: you are not alone, you are not special
  • MMP flaws to date: repetitive level grinding is life, farming static environment for XP and $, no real purpose, no real success, no sense of urgency or world impact
The great promise of MMP games was that you could meet people and go on missions together, so that you could have a shared experience -- we don't even like to go to the movies alone. But this comes at a big cost: in MMPs to date, your life is no longer as special as it was in a single-player game. On average, statistically, half the people you meet are going to be higher-level than you -- and that's only if you put in the time to become a high-level player.

I think that current MMP games have done a good job of refining some bad features. For example, repetitive level grinding becomes your life. That's not fun. Mindlessly farming an environment for, say, creatures -- "the Level 2 creatures always appear to the north of the town" -- isn't fun. And you no longer have the dramatic effect on the world that you did in single-player games.

DG meets NC:

  • Destination Games began hiring April 2001
  • Met NCsoft (Lineage franchise #1 world-leading MMO, merged DG and NC May 2001)
  • Goal to make worldwide bestseller
  • Forged international MMO "dream team"
  • We tried to innovate on every front (except 3D tools and technologies, which was a mistake)

Our entire team was overqualified. Even our junior designers had been lead designers on previously successful projects. This turned out to be a mistake.

The one place we didn't try to push the threshold was in tools and technologies. We felt (wrongly at the time) that we could get away with one more generation of focusing on time to market as opposed to the quality of the visuals.

Immediate trouble:

  • Too many cooks at many levels on one team (language barriers, hard to communicate design subtleties)
  • US-Asian blend (Asian art never right for Asia, Asian/US mixture compelled neither)
  • Tabula Rasa refocused as a US game first (Americans should not set out to sell Asia)
When we first merged with NCsoft, I went to a meeting in Korea where the senior staff reviewed new ideas. I listened to the ideas for Lineage 2 and offered my feedback -- what I thought was positive and well-meant. Culturally, that was a no-no. In Korean culture, that was the time to offer support, and later offer comments in private. As a result, I didn't have a great initial relationship with that development team.

Another issue was with art differences. In the US, heroic characters are often powerful and large. In Asia, though, it's common to think of big, strong guys as dumb brutes, whereas the heroes are often skinny, geeky types who succeed because of their inner spirit.

We immediately began beating our head against the wall of trying to create a unified worldwide product. We decided to refocus on one market first: the US market.

Additional errors:

  • Focus on off-the-shelf tools (theory: cut time to market; result: sub-standard capabilities and long rewrites)
  • Focus on sci-fi martial arts (plan: Warriors of Zu, Chinese Ghost Story; result: too strange for US players)
  • Focus on instances exclusively (original structure: Disneyland metaphor; result: world lacked core MMP feel)
As a result of focusing on instances, our game became almost desolate -- you never felt like you were part of a larger space.

I personally take responsibility for issuing a directive into our art department for a style that became unachievable. I wanted a futuristic version of the Art Nouveau period. We tried three or four times to generate art that manifested what I felt I could describe, and it never achieved what I wanted. Meanwhile, even our executive team was saying, "hey, your game doesn't look very good yet," and I was saying, "don't worry, it will look better when we're done." This went on way too long.

Our human clothing and architecture was uninspired. Our male clothing was so bad that everyone wanted to play as a female. Guys looked silly pretty quickly. Even our weaponry in the game was quite exotic -- we started with musical instruments that could become weapons and the like. I still have a great rationalization for why all this would be cool, but in the game, it just didn't look good.

In the fall of 2004, we rebooted the project. We all wanted to believe, and we could tell a great story. But it was clear we were failing to make our vision.

Tabula Rasa reboot:

  • Highest level of internal technology
  • Modern human foundation (architecture, clothing)
  • Focus on war elements (battlefields, shared spaces)
  • Only primary alien culture kept the Art Nouveau feel
  • Let go lots of entrenched staff
  • Hired only top artists
  • Focused on TV moments (what are the moments where people will look at this and be awe-inspired?)
  • Get it right versus time to market
  • Listen to feedback
Things that survived:
  • Intellectual property backdrop (main story, symbolic language)
  • Goals of feel of play (30-minute play cycles, story driven, no farming, no treadmill, players are pivotal to war effort)
  • Combat structure (shooter look and feel, RPG mathematics)
Challenges remain:
  • Tabula Rasa now large and moving fast (50+ in Austin, 10+ in Los Angeles, 30+ in China, 5+ in Seoul, plus outsourcing)
  • Management layers (internal and outsource)
  • Holding quality bar
  • MMP quantity (time to build, scale means no one person knows it all)
We're not outsourcing for cost savings -- we're just doing it to get the quantity of work done that we need at the right level of quality.

The big problem that all MMPs have is scale -- they're just so large to build. And the scariest thing to me is that the world is so large that no one person knows it all. How to create that volume and keep the quality consistent is a challenge.

Tabula Rasa takes place on a series of worlds, each one with its own ethical parable. We started out with an Earth-like world and then progressed to creating more alien worlds. We've finished the first world and are now working on the the second world, which is our first alien world. When we've finished the third world, Tabula Rasa will go live.

Lesson summary:

  • Too many cooks
  • High-end tools essential
  • Manage amount of innovation

March 22, 2006

GDC 2006: More Sony Keynote Coverage

As I predicted, far more people are blogging the Game Developers Conference than were the Serious Games Summit -- it's just a much larger event. Coverage of Phil Harrison's keynote on the PlayStation 3 can be found on game girl advance, AlterSlash, FiringSquad, Wonderland, and Joystiq (the coverage from Wonderland and Joystiq is detailed and especially recommended). Choice quotes:

game girl advance:

It was the usual Sony affair, with charts of how much hardware and software they've sold interspersed with pretty excellent technical demos. But it left me wondering, all this technology, and we're still only interested in how well we can blow things up?

Really, aside from Ted Price's new Ratchet and Clank demo and a new "lots of ducks" demo which was transformed, this time, into a "lots of fish swimming" demo, the other exhibitions were all about massive destruction: of cars, of environments, of people. The only suggestion that something like behavioral simulations could also be enhanced was in a Warhawk demo, where the way the enemy shot at you was called "Ambient Warfare."

Wonderland:

Here's what you need to know: it was long (an hour), and quite full of guest speakers and demos. The demos were good, but sort of like watching bad films: perfectly rendered and realistic, but the content wasn't there. Another FPS. Another racing game. Another motorcross game.

GDC 2006: "GDC Mobile Highlights"

GDC Mobile Highlights
Robert Tercek, Chairman, GDC Mobile
David DC Collier, Pikkle KK

World's biggest new media opportunity:

  • Two billion people have mobile phones (by 2009, one half of humanity will have a mobile phone)
  • More than 800 million handsets sold each year (Nokia makes six phones every second)
  • More than one million new connections (new mobile customers) every day
Truly global market:
  • Japan: 95 million (50% 3G)
  • Korea: 40 million
  • US: 200 million
  • Germany: 75 million
  • Italy: 68 million
  • UK: 58 million
  • Brazil: 86 million
  • India: 73 million
  • Russia: 130 million
  • China: 400 million
Market drivers: why is this happening now?
  1. Low cost and speed of network rollout
  2. Handset subsidy puts mobile phones in hands of millions
  3. Moore's Law: silicon price/power curve (today's mobile phone has graphics rendering power equivalent to PlayStation 1) (250 million smart phones this year)
  4. Networking built in
  5. Micro-transaction and subscription billing built in
  6. Network effect (fax effect)
Intense competition is both good and bad:
  • Collapses the cycle of innovation
  • But...
  • Fragmentation of platform (over 700 builds for mass market release)
  • Urge for differentiation leads to inconsistent user experience
Who publishes mobile games?
  • Mobile pureplays
  • Giant media companies
  • Traditional game publishers
Mobile game categories:
  • Arcade classics
  • Puzzle games
  • Console ports
  • Mobile originals

GDC 2006: "Platform Keynote: PlayStation 3: Beyond the Box"

Platform Keynote: PlayStation 3: Beyond the Box
Phil Harrison, President, Worldwide Studios, Sony Computer Entertainment

I didn't take notes during this session, so this entry is an opinion piece and not a transcription.

Of course, we know that audiences never remember more than three points in any given presentation. Sony kept this in mind and so they had three points they wanted to make. As far as I could tell, they were:

  1. We sure have sold a lot of units of the PlayStation 1 and 2!
  2. Look at our shiny new hardware. Look at it!
  3. We're thinking about network services. No, really!
Yes, the PlayStation 1 and 2 have been phenomenal successes. I'd be touting them were I in Sony's shoes. But we all know that. So that leaves the hardware and the network.

I must be jaded, because the PlayStation 3 demonstrations didn't do all that much for me. But then I feel the same way about the Xbox 360. It's not that they're unimpressive platforms -- it's just that we as consumers, and even we as sometime-game designers -- have become jaded by seeing platform transitions that were phenomenal, like from the Super Nintendo to the PlayStation 1. The leap from Xbox to Xbox 360, or from PlayStation 2 to 3, simply can't be as impressive as past leaps forward -- it's impossible.

As to Sony's network strategy, it reminded me of when the government wants to announce that they're concerned about something, but they're not ready to actually do anything about it as yet. So what do they do? Announce that they're studying the problem. Try as I might, I couldn't actually discern anything new in Sony's talk on their network strategy. They're going to have one. It's really important to them. They're thinking about it a lot. They'll tell us more later this year. It will all be ready when PlayStation 3 ships.

Coverage of this keynote can be found on Gamasutra and GameSpot.

GDC 2006: "What's Next Panel"

What's Next Panel
Jamil Moledina, Director, GDC, CMP Game Group
David Perry, Founder Shiny Entertainment
Cyrus Lum, Midway Games
Mark Cerny, Cerny Games
Masaya Matsuura, NanaOn-sha
Louis Castle, Electronic Arts

From the guide: "This panel of industry experts engage in a detailed discussion on the key issues affecting the industry, including: the technical and artistic hurdles of next-generation game creation, the convergence of film and game, the system-wide changes in the efficient production of bigger games, the broadening of the game-playing market, and more."

Jamil Moledina

The push towards next-gen is first and foremost on everyone's mind. What are the key opportunities for developers?

David Perry

I want to take a look at the Korean market. We need to look hard at how to reduce the price of our games. $3-5/hour of playtime for PC and console games versus much less for MMORPGs.

Cyrus Lum

For next-generation systems, we're designing for the niche market, for the hardcore market, not for the mass market. We need to look at how to reach the mass market.

Louis Castle

It becomes more and more important to be efficient, and efficiencies come from specialization. We have far more specialists and far fewer generalists than we had in the past. You'll see groups specializing not just by platform, or by product type, but by a specific type of component.

David Perry

I salute Nintendo for thinking about how to make the controller easier to use. The controller is where we get killed when we're trying to go mass-market. In the old days of arcade games, there was a new style of control layout for every new game. This was great. Then we standardized on control layouts and innovation stopped.

Jamil Moledina

What do you see as the downsides of moving to next-generation consoles?

Mark Cerny

It's fantastically complex to create these next-generation products. We're headed into the era of middleware, but we haven't defined what it is. We need to resolve this to get games out to market.

Louis Castle

The big epic types of games that I like to make are orders of magnitude more difficult and expensive to make. There are a lot of different solutions, middleware included. I believe in the less is more solution, using what you already have. We have this expectation that every product has to have everything, but games like Guitar Hero that do one thing extremely well, can be very successful. Let's focus in on those things that are going to pay off. The next time I see a proposal that says, "This is going to be Grand Theft Auto with airplanes, and we're going to throw in everything..."

Cyrus Lum

You can't just grab various gameplay mechanics and throw them together. You have to think about the experience you want your players to have. Do you want your players to feel excited? proud? Then work back from there to the gameplay mechanics you need to support that experience.

David Perry

There's a big difference between what the hardware manufacturers want us to make and what the publishers are willing to fund. The hardware makers want originality. The publishers want sequels that reduce their risk. With that said, the beginning of the hardware cycle is when you have a chance -- if you're launching into a mature platform, it's all about sequels and franchises, and new IP has no chance.

Cyrus Lum

You can't make your money back on a $15-25 million dollar product. You have to think about building a franchise and making your money back over two or three titles. We need to look at more creative ways of financing titles. We also need to look at more efficient production methods. Art for next-generation titles is four times as expensive as for last-generation titles. We need to plan better so that we have fewer re-dos in the art process. You can still change your mind, but it costs you $2 million every time. It used to cost $500,000.

Louis Castle

I'd be fired if I proposed losing money on a title and making it back over one or two sequels. We have to make money as we go. We can't build products that are over-scoped.

Mark Cerny

The recoup for a $20 million product is 1.2 million units for an international product. 1.2 million units doesn't sound that high.

Louis Castle

But we're talking about next-generation consoles with limited markets at the moment.

Jamil Moledina

Publishers are experimenting with digital distribution. Xbox Live Arcade and Steam are successful examples of this. Where is digital distribution headed?

David Perry

I see digital distribution as a frontier that could lead to disruptive innovation. I live in a world of paranoia about what's going to happen to us. Will Apple create some clever distribution system? What if MySpace starts giving full games to people? Or Google? What might happen five or ten years from now? What if we're competing against full-quality, $20 million games?

Cyrus Lum

If I were to do a startup, I'd want to look at opportunities with telecom companies -- people with big, fat pipes. Let's do a five-project deal to get people to sign up with you for services. Cut out the middleman.

Jamil Moledina

How can developers create titles moving forward? What options do they have?

David Perry

As I said, I'm looking at the Korean market, where people create niche titles for small audiences and give them away for free, then grab revenue via special enhancements and similar mechanisms. Imagine that PC Gamer arrives on your door tomorrow and it has a full, free copy of a massive multiplayer version of FIFA Soccer. You'd start playing, and lots of other people would, and then the publisher could make money by selling add-ons into the user base.

Louis Castle

That sounds frighteningly similar to the dot-com era. I would caution anyone against saying, "let's go get eyeballs and figure out how to monetize them later on."

If you look at how many recently successful games had some sort of beta or demo, the ratio isn't quite 1:1, but it's close. Consumers have been burned, and they're savvy. At the end of the day, your product has to be of high quality. Consumers will buy titles if they're good, but they need to know that it's good, either because they've played it or because someone they trust has told them that it's good. But the media is less trustworthy than it was.

I think you're going to see the average gamer's library shrink and the rental business continue to grow. Rental is going to impact our business, and it's going to force us to deliver high-quality product.

Jamil Moledina

People are talking about outsourcing. How should developers approach it?

Cyrus Lum

So far, we're concentrating on art, because outsourced art is fairly well-proven. Developers who outsource will fail if it's not incorporated in the production process and planned for carefully.

Mark Cerny

It isn't what you spend, it's what you sell. What matters is what you create, and whether it will sell five million units. An amazing amount of game development (and film production) happens in California, which is one of the most expensive places in the world. I think it's silly to focus too much on reducing costs instead of focusing on building the right products.

Louis Castle

Outsourcing won't solve your problems. If you want the best looking x, go out and find the best person to create x, and be prepared to pay the price. You're not going to mitigate risk by reducing your costs through outsourcing -- you need to be focused on getting the right product at the end.

Jamil Moledina

What games are you playing now?

David Perry

SWAT 4, Guitar Hero, lots of international games, the WildTangent stuff, Black, Ghost Recon on the Xbox 360.

Cyrus Lum

Guitar Hero, the Maze Game.

Mark Cerny

Final Fantasy 12.

Masaya Matsuura

I'm playing what I'm developing now.

Louis Castle

Everything that comes out on the Xbox 360, Ghost Recon on the Xbox 360, Black, Guitar Hero.

March 20, 2006

SGS 2006: "You Can (Not) Be Serious!"

[As noted, I'll be blogging as many of the sessions as I can at the Serious Games Summit and the Game Developers Conference this week. This is the first.]

You Can (Not) Be Serious!
Philip Rosedale, CEO, Linden Lab (makers of Second Life)

"Life is a game. Money is how we keep score." -- Ted Turner

Games are constrained situations with goals that happen within worlds. We don't create games; we create the world in which games can exist.

As people, we can imagine the world to be much better than it is. This is what inspires Second Life: the idea that we as people can imagine things and want to do and play with things that we in our waking lives can't achieve, or can only achieve with enormous risk or labor or effort.

Objects in Second Life are small Constructive Solid Geometry (CSG) objects that can be glued together and given behaviors, We've created a scripting language that lets users create behaviors and assign them to objects. Second Life is 100 percent user-created.

For the last 18 months, we've had the core technology available to build a working kite (particle system-based string, blows in the wind), but we didn't think of doing it. A couple of weeks ago, we saw the first kite appear.

Some Second Life statistics:

  • 32,000 acres, which is larger than Boston
  • $5 million per month in goods and services transactions
  • 10 million objects. 15 terabytes of user-created data
  • 2 teraflops CPU simulation
  • More than 500 events per day
  • 230,000 different things sold or traded monthly
Scene from Second Life: A little girl holding a sign saying, "Family Killed By Ninjas. Need $$ For Kung Fu Lessons".

Users are making cars, jewelry, guns, services, anything you can think of. There are people working full-time and making a living at it in Second Life. One woman designs and makes clothing. Another is a real estate developer.

The Second Life user base is (based on self-identification) 43 percent female, but women tend to stay on Second Life longer than men: the percentage of new sign-ups is less than 43 percent female. The median age is 32. 25 percent are international. The age curve looks a lot like the US population as a whole.

New media are always used for entertainment first. One of things I think we'll be remembered for is this intuition, to make Second Life look more like a game at first, because that's how new media start.

Can you tell me about the files in your directories? Can you tell me about the last few Websites you've visited, in order? Probably not. Can you tell me about the stuff in your kitchen? Yes, in great detail. Second Life is a "memory palace", providing unique contexts that make it easier to remember things.

It has been said that virtual worlds make it possible for people to run away from their identities. That's not true. It makes it easier for people to truly express themselves. You can more easily make choices about what you wear, where you live, whom you associate with, that say profound things about you, than you can in the real world.

Some examples of what people do with the system:

  • Logistics simulations
  • Live performances (sometimes fusing real world and Second Life)
  • Movie making (obviously much cheaper than in the real world)
  • Education (17 classes this semester)
  • Therapeutic use
  • Charity and giving (extremely successful on a per-capita basis)

March 17, 2006

Off to California Tomorrow

Tomorrow morning, I'm off to California for a week at the Serious Games Summit and the Game Developers Conference. I'll be blogging both as much as I can, so if you're interested, stay tuned here.

It's going to be a busy week -- between the two conferences during the day and catching up with friends over breakfasts and dinners, nearly all my time is spoken for while I'm there. I know I'll come home tired and needing some down time, but happy and enlightened.

March 16, 2006

"Maybe Tomorrow"

First heard during the end credits of Crash last night, from Stereophonic's You Gotta Go There to Come Back, "Maybe Tomorrow" is the only song I've ever added to my all-time top 40 playlist after listening to it just once.

Every so often there's a razor's edge between yesterday's despair and tomorrow's hope, between the sadness of the past and the joy of the future, and "Maybe Tomorrow" dances along that blade better than any song I've ever heard.

March 15, 2006

Annie Proulx and Sour Grapes

Via Andrew Sullivan, Annie Proulx's commentary on the Academy Awards for The Guardian:

The people connected with Brokeback Mountain, including me, hoped that, having been nominated for eight Academy awards, it would get Best Picture as it had at the funny, lively Independent Spirit awards the day before... We should have known conservative heffalump academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture. Roughly 6,000 film industry voters, most in the Los Angeles area, many living cloistered lives behind wrought-iron gates or in deluxe rest-homes, out of touch not only with the shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days, but also out of touch with their own segregated city, decide which films are good. And rumour has it that Lions Gate inundated the academy voters with DVD copies of Trash -- excuse me -- Crash a few weeks before the ballot deadline. Next year we can look to the awards for controversial themes on the punishment of adulterers with a branding iron in the shape of the letter A, runaway slaves, and the debate over free silver...

The hours sped by on wings of boiler plate. Brokeback's first award was to Argentinean Gustavo Santaolalla for the film's plangent and evocative score. Later came the expected award for screenplay adaptation to Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, and only a short time later the director's award to Ang Lee. And that was it, three awards, putting it on equal footing with King Kong. When Jack Nicholson said best picture went to Crash, there was a gasp of shock, and then applause from many -- the choice was a hit with the home team since the film is set in Los Angeles. It was a safe pick of "controversial film" for the heffalumps...

For those who call this little piece a Sour Grapes Rant, play it as it lays.

A quick refresher on foxes and grapes:

One hot summer's day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. "Just the things to quench my thirst," quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: "I am sure they are sour."
Annie, for your piece to be a sour grapes rant, you'd have to claim you didn't want the award after all -- which you didn't. "The people connected with Brokeback Mountain, including me, hoped that... it would get Best Picture" disqualifies your column as a sour grapes rant. It's just a rant.

March 14, 2006

Unabridged "Spore" Video

Via Boing Boing, an unabridged video of Will Wright's talk on Spore can be found here.

March 13, 2006

"Monkeys with Guns"

A quote from Will Wright, heard during the video referenced in my last entry:

I talked about landmarks last time in my talk last year, and I'm going to show you just a few of the landmarks for me in the design. One of my landmarks is I've always been fascinated with the idea of monkeys with guns. [Laughter.] And I don't know why, you know. It's just what happens when you give monkeys guns. It's just, there's something cool about that.
I had never thought about it, but there is something cool about the idea of monkeys with guns. And Spore will let us all experience that. Okay, with monkey-like creatures, anyway.

March 12, 2006

"Spore"

At last year's Game Developers Conference, Will Wright presented Spore, his latest creation. I finally got around to watching the video a few days ago, and it's simply amazing.

I've done a few stints as a game designer during my career, and for the most part, I'm proud to say that the designs I worked on broke new ground in some way. Tom Clancy SSN (I was the original designer) was a straightforward submarine combat title, but the innovation was in using visualization to give the player a view of the world around him -- a view specifically derived from the sensor and chart data he would have available to him as captain. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six (I was one of the original co-designers) was a straightforward first-person shooter title, but the innovation was in using realistic tactics and effects -- "one shot kills" was a mantra of ours. But Spore is at least an order of magnitude more innovative than anything I've worked on -- it defies existing categories and creates an entirely new game genre.

Spore Screenshot 1

In Spore, the player progresses from guiding cellular evolution...

Spore Screenshot 2

...to working with creatures...

Spore Screenshot 3

...then tribes...

Spore Screenshot 4

...then cities...

Spore Screenshot 5

...and finally civilizations.

What might not be obvious from the screenshots, but is the focus of the video, is that Spore is astonishingly flexible and open-ended. No two players' creatures or civilizations need look alike -- in fact, I would guess that no two will ever look alike. I imagine that Will and his team are incredibly anxious to release their game into the world and see what people create. My hunch is that he wants to create a massively multiplayer world where players can go exploring to look at and interact with each others' creations.

As it turns out, Will is giving another keynote -- undoubtedly a Spore update -- at this year's Game Developers Conference, which I'll be attending in a week's time. I can't wait to see what he has to show... and hopefully we'll all be playing Spore this year.

(Spore coverage from Wired, GameSpot, and GameSpy.)

February 13, 2006

I Don't Play the Old Golf, Either

My friend and all-around great guy Joi Ito is profiled for the 1UP article, "Is World of Warcraft the New Golf?":

Overheard, at brunch: two tech entrepreneur types discussing World of Warcraft. What server are you on? What guild? Oh yeah, me too, I heard it's a good way to schmooze.

Is that true? Has logging in to the world's most popular massively multiplayer online game replaced a few rounds on the links as the way to make the right business connections in a tech-driven culture?

The particular Guild discussed by the brunchers above was started by Joi Ito, who became a WoW fan after embarking on the game to do some research on social networks. Joi, the money-and-idea guy behind internet companies PSINet, Digital Garage, Infoseek Japan, and social software like Moveable Type, Technorati, and Socialtext, has quite a few hangers-on who hit him up for advice, money, or access to his Rolodex.

Joi evangelized WoW to me in chat the other day, telling me I should transfer my old character to his server. When I was playing last year, I made it to Level 32, which, for those of you who don't play World of Warcraft, is most definitely not 16/30 of the distance from Level 1 to Level 60 (the game's highest) -- it's much less than that, given how much more difficult it is to attain higher levels.

But at Level 32, I gave it up. Why? I had long-since burned out on the game's basic play mechanic. I was only playing because I had made a few friends there with whom I mostly -- or only -- interacted on WoW, and it was fun to hang out with them. When they moved on, my last motivation for sticking around was gone, and so I stopped playing.

Of course, now Joi is playing, and so I could hang out with him and other friends on his server. But I'm not going to. It's nothing about Joi, to be sure -- he's a great person with whom I truly enjoy spending time. It's just that I'm not going to start playing the new golf.

I don't play the old golf, either.

September 23, 2005

MMOGs Officially Go Mainstream

Though I haven't experienced it personally, the Corrupted Blood plague affecting World of Warcraft players has been in the news a few days now (Joi Ito's coverage here, The Register's here).

Today, though, when I saw the BBC's coverage of it -- 609 words, by my count, a reasonably long story for their site -- I realized that MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) have now officially gone mainstream. One of the world's leading news sources is now treating significant events within today's leading MMOG -- events that by definition are completely virtual -- as newsworthy.

That's amazing, when you think about it.

April 11, 2005

Hardware Acceleration for Physics

This is potentially very cool:

[G]ame creators haven't taken the time to calculate the physics that govern the behavior of objects such as falling bricks. [Manju] Hegde, CEO of Mountain View, Calif., startup Ageia, wants to make it easy for them to do that with a chip for the personal computer that specializes in physics calculations.

Dubbed PhysX, the chip will enable things like gelatinous creatures whose bodies shift shape like a liquid, crumpling fenders in car crashes, massive explosions with 10,000 pieces of debris, clothing that hangs realistically, and lava or blood that flows like the real thing...

Ageia has $38 million in venture capital from firms such as Apex Partners and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing. It has commitments for $30 million more from other investors.

One reason Ageia has garnered such support is its chip could tip the scales in the PC's battle with game consoles.

The PC gaming community is about to be overshadowed by another set of new consoles from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Those machines will have plenty of extra processing power to handle better physics.

The consoles will be able to calculate the interaction of moving objects and determine what the graphics chip needs to display on the screen at any instant. And they may have enough power to imbue the game environment with physical attributes, so that the grass sways when the wind blows.

Hegde says a PC with a physics chip could match the consoles...

But do gamers really want to buy an add-on card just to improve the realism in their games? Ageia's president, Curtis Davis, argues that they will when they realize physics is key to situations where they try to do something in a game and the environment doesn't respond. If you crash a plane into some trees and none fall, it destroys the fantasy...

But Hegde said Ageia's first physics chip will be akin to network processors, with many processors operating in parallel. As such, he says the chip will be more powerful at specific physics tasks than a microprocessor.

Hegde believes developers will make use of the physics chip because it results in better games.

Ageia plans to have add-on boards with its chip out by Christmas. And it hopes at least five games will exploit its hardware physics by the time the add-on cards go on sale.

So, first, a reality check: the odds of widespread developer support for a physics accelerator card are low, to say the least. To take advantage of it, games would have to be rewritten to feature more opportunities for higher-quality physics, and the game business is tough enough as it is without spending money implementing features for less than one percent of the market.

Having said that, could this have a future in next-generation consoles? Given that Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony are all launching next-gen consoles in the next few weeks, this is a good time for Ageia to be coming out. By the time they're in the market, can show off what they're capable of, and have their prices down -- say, by early next year -- the console makers could be kicking off their next-next-generation early design efforts. Sony wouldn't use something like this; I'm sure they'd see the Cell as their solution to this sort of thing (which it may well be). But Microsoft? Nintendo? Could be.

April 08, 2005

Oh Please Let This Be True

From The Digital Bits (via Dark Horizons) comes word on a possible new director's cut:

Oh man... have we got some GREAT news for you Dune fans today! We've done some digging with our sources at Universal, and we've learned the real reason behind their delay of the Dune: Extended Edition (previously announced for 5/10, but then pulled "indefinitely" with no explanation given). Those of you who are familiar with the film know that there's a longer version that's been shown on TV, credited to director Alan Smithee (a pseudonym used by directors when they want to distance themselves from a project for whatever reason). Well get this... after years of saying he would never revisit Dune, at the 11th hour director David Lynch apparently decided that he might want to be involved in the new DVD after all. Which means that when it's eventually released, not only is the DVD going to include the original theatrical version of the film... it may also include a brand new "director's extended cut" edited by Lynch himself. No kidding. [Editor's Note - we've been told by studio sources that this isn't a done deal. It IS why the disc was delayed, but Lynch's involvement is still in discussion and no work has been started yet. So cross your fingers and let's hope it comes to fruition.]
The rumor has always been that Lynch's first cut of Dune came in around four hours or so -- at least an hour and a half longer than the theatrical version. To see that at last would be a real treat.

By the way, I'm fully aware that people either hated or loved David Lynch's version of Dune, with most of them hating it, so being excited about this probably isn't a popular position. While acknowledging the film's flaws -- Baron Harkonnen becomes a cartoon character instead of the clever (if corpulent) leader he is, for one -- I nevertheless fall into the "loved it" category.

November 29, 2004

"Halo 2" and Feature Films

I wish I could say that my brother Eric and I finished Halo 2 over Thanksgiving. We didn't, but we did make good progress on it. It made me realize that the best video games are now more entertaining and of higher quality than some major feature films.

Me: Someone should capture all the cinematics from Halo, edit in enough captured gameplay to make the story flow properly, cut the whole thing to fit in two hours, and release it as a video on the Internet. I'd totally watch it. And Halo 2, too, once I finish it.

Eric: Me, too.

November 19, 2004

Fussing over Halo 2

Richard Giles wonders about the fuss being made over Halo 2:

Gadget Lounge has been wondering what all the Halo 2 hype is about. We've seen it in action and there is nothing remarkable about it at all, other than Microsoft's marketing budget. Sure there are different levels weapons and vehicles, but really the only new addition is the ability to wield two guns. In fact we'll go so far as to say that everything has been done before, and there is nothing special at all about this game. ID Software, the makers of the Doom and Quake series of games should pull out some patents and go to town. Even the game Unreal is the same game under different graphics, and yet years older. Granted, it's a fun first person shoot-em-up, and will give people hours of entertainment, but we've heard some claim it's the best game of all time. Perhaps console gamers are a new breed, and they missed the PC game revolution, but please, lets be realistic, it's just another first person shoot-em-up.
Halo 2 isn't the greatest game ever -- not by a long shot. But Halo made a good claim as the greatest first-person shooter for a console ever. Why? Partly because of the well-tuned gameplay, partly because of the solid story, and partly because of the fact that it was the first first-person shooter to be truly usable with a handheld controller (as opposed to a keyboard and mouse).

Why all the fuss over Halo 2? Partly it's sequel-itis. Remember how excited (and subsequently gratified) you were over The Empire Strikes Back? Remember how excited (and subsequently disappointed) you were over The Matrix Reloaded? It's like that, then add on the fact that it promised dead-simple Internet multiplayer action, with ubiquitous voice (headsets come with every Xbox Live subscription kit), and you've got the makings of a monster hit before a single review was written.

It would be a mistake to chalk this up to Microsoft's marketing machine. Every person I know who has played a lot of the original Halo has been dying to get their hands on the sequel. Halo 2 is a big deal because its predecessor was so good.

With that said, how does Halo 2 measure up against the hype? I haven't played much of the single-player game, but it seems to be a reasonable continuation and extension of the original. As for the long-awaited online multiplayer capability, the developers have taken a potentially risky step by providing a very different implementation from what gamers are used to. It seems they're trying to appeal to the much broader market of people who haven't played online games. We'll have to see if it works. First, though, they have to deal with what must be incredible loads on their servers so that players don't have to wait three or four minutes for multiplayer games to start -- that's just unacceptable.

March 28, 2004

$49.75? Are They Crazy?

Disney just raised admission prices at their theme parks. I can't wait until we move to a whuffie-based economy and the fans take over.

Beginning Sunday, Disneyland and California Adventure will increase the admission price to $49.75 for guests over 10 years old -- a jump of $2.75, or nearly 6 percent, Disneyland Resort announced Friday.

In Florida, Walt Disney World also is raising its admission prices $2.75 on Sunday, from $52 to $54.75.

Company officials said the higher price reflects the cost of investments in the popular theme parks. New attractions include a Snow White musical production at Disneyland and the "Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror" ride, which opens May 5 at California Adventure.

Disneyland last raised prices from $45 to $47 in 2002.

According to Yesterland, the price in 1972 for a 15-ride ticket book -- the highest-priced admission back then and so the most apt comparison to today's unlimited attractions ticket -- was $5.95.

Using this handy calculator (thanks, NASA!), we can tell that $5.95 in 1972 dollars equals $26.19 in 2003 dollars. That means that Disney's ticket prices are now 1.9 times higher than if they had risen at the underlying inflation rate. Put another way, if this trend holds, in the year 2035, it will cost $94.50 in 2004 dollars to visit Disneyland for the day.

August 04, 2003

Forbes on the Consoles

Forbes reports on the videogame console wars:

More than anyone predicted, online gaming is driving the all-important software sales that are the profit engine of the $10 billion videogame industry. Dwarfed by Sony, which claims 60% of the North American market, Microsoft has bet far bigger and bolder to grab the online advantage as both feverishly race to get their next-generation consoles into stores by 2006...

The Xbox Live network launched in November and passed the 500,000 subscriber mark in seven months, beating, by 80,000, the number of people registered to play PlayStation 2 games online, despite the fact that Microsoft has sold only 9.4 million Xboxes to Sony's 51 million PlayStations. Nintendo, with 9.6 million GameCubes sold, has limited online ambitions.

Consider the case of Ghost Recon. This military-style shooting game was released on both Xbox and PlayStation 2 in November. The Xbox version was online-enabled, and the PlayStation version wasn't. Despite the enormous differences in installed base, more copies of the game have sold on Xbox, (650,000) than on PS2 (550,000).

Sony sniffs at the comparisons. "Online gaming is a very important part of our strategy, but not the end-all and be-all," says Kazuo Hirai, the president of Sony Computer Entertainment America. "When you're losing market share, you're tempted to talk about things down the road." ...

"Xbox is the superior online gaming platform, and by the next wave of consoles, Xbox will be the online brand," says Daniel Hsu, editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine.

Sony had better be careful about sniffing at Microsoft, because Hsu could well be right: Microsoft could establish Xbox as the online game console brand, then carry that branding forward to the second-generation Xbox.

Look at what has happened in PC gaming. From real-time strategy games to first-person shooters, major titles (except those aimed at children) must be online-enabled to be successful. Even the hulking exception to this rule, The Sims, is now available in a separate online version. It would be foolish of Sony to think that the console market will evolve any differently.

July 29, 2003

"A Kind of Cockamamie Sincerity"

Last weekend, I saw Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Afterwards, my kids asked me what I thought of Johnny Depp as "Captain Sparrow." I said that I had no idea what he was doing, and yet whatever it was, I couldn't stop watching it. Roger Ebert was somewhat more eloquent than me in his review:

And yet the movie made me grin at times, and savor the daffy plot, and enjoy the way Depp and [Geoffrey] Rush fearlessly provide performances that seem nourished by deep wells of nuttiness. Depp in particular seems to be channeling a drunken drag queen, with his eyeliner and the way he minces ashore and slurs his dialogue ever so insouciantly. Don't mistake me: This is not a criticism, but admiration for his work. It can be said that his performance is original in its every atom. There has never been a pirate, or for that matter a human being, like this in any other movie. There's some talk about how he got too much sun while he was stranded on that island, but his behavior shows a lifetime of rehearsal. He is a peacock in full display.

Consider how boring it would have been if Depp had played the role straight, as an Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks (Sr. or Jr.) might have. To take this material seriously would make it unbearable. Capt. Sparrow's behavior is so rococo that other members of the cast actually comment on it. And yet because it is consistent and because you can never catch Depp making fun of the character, it rises to a kind of cockamamie sincerity.

Another reviewer wrote that Depp seemed like someone who had ridden too many roller coasters, which sounds about right.

If, six months ago, you had asked me about the prospects for a movie based on a theme park ride, I would have laughed. But Pirates works and was great fun, if 20 minutes too long.

July 28, 2003

The Next Big Thing in Movies?

From a story on 3-D in feature films in the New York Times last week:

"Whenever Hollywood is at a point where things are getting desperate, 3-D seems to be the first rabbit they try to pull out of the hat," said Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture at Syracuse University.

Perhaps desperation is too harsh a word for the nervousness now spreading through the studios, but it's not far off.

The big-budget franchise films -- the sequels, prequels, remakes and the like -- that have proved to be the most reliable bets for studio executives in recent years are suddenly not performing as the marketers and the numbers-crunchers expected, from "The Hulk" to "Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle." Both box office revenue and attendance are down significantly this summer, despite a steady churn of these movies.

The computer animation that created a revolution in special effects, allowing directors to recreate ancient Rome or insert an army of 10,000 at the click of a button, had been helping to keep franchise fever alive. But now there is a growing sense that audiences have seen what this new technology can do, and nothing deflates Hollywood hype faster than "been there, done that."

A result is that the heavily courted under-25 audience has become apathetic, some might even say discerning. So perhaps 3-D will do the trick. "Three-D has always been something we, in the audience, have been particularly interested in," said Jeanine Basinger, chairwoman of the film studies department at Wesleyan University. "Let's face it, those of us who are film nuts want to get up there in the picture."

This isn't going to happen. As long as 3-D requires distracting glasses and causes headaches, it's going to be a novelty at best. IMAX would be a better choice to provide enjoyable immersion, but of course would require completely new theaters be built, which also won't happen.

My theory is that the next big thing in movies will to make them without any computer graphics at all. As the article above points out, "there is a growing sense that audiences have seen what [computer animation] can do, and nothing deflates Hollywood hype faster than 'been there, done that.'" Imagine, though, going to see an action movie where you knew that everything in it was real. Imagine directors working to create amazing shots without any help from 3ds max or Maya. Imagine looking at someone apparently risking his or her life in a shot and knowing that he or she really did so. Though this approach would only be possible for certain types of movies, when used, it could bring back a sense of exhilaration that's quickly fading as we watch movies knowing exactly how artificial they are.

June 27, 2003

NFW

The Stratosphere Hotel and Casino's Project X Sky. For the full benefit, be sure to watch the video.

No freaking way.

June 26, 2003

The Rise of Casual Games

The New York Times reports on the trend towards smaller, more accessible, more casual games:

While many developers in the multibillion-dollar video game industry seek to extend its appeal, profile and profits with bolder, flashier and ever more engrossing games -- some so difficult that learning curves outlast players -- a different sort of video game is quietly asserting itself into the mainstream.

Do not expect thunderous six-speaker surround sound. Forget about hair triggers, menacing artificial intelligence and fully immersive 3-D environments. This is a tamer universe of games with names like Snowball Fight, Bejeweled, Tumble Bees and Bookworm Deluxe...

At Yahoo Games, the leading online game site, Nielsen/NetRatings reports more than 8.5 million visitors each month. Daniel Hart, the site's general manager, said that its visitors spend more than 5.5 billion minutes a month playing its casual games -- an average of more than 20 minutes a day per user.

"Casual gamers represent a substantial part of the overall game audience if you include every possible game outlet and genre," said Jay Horowitz, an analyst with Jupiter Research who follows the video game industry. "In terms of audience, 70 percent of the online community play casual games."

Mr. Horowitz was quick to point out that even playing solitaire, a video game included in Microsoft's Windows operating system, running on millions of computers worldwide, qualified as playing a casual video game.

But he and other video game experts say the surge in casual gaming is about much more. Rising costs and production times for sophisticated games for hard-core players have helped give companies like Gameloft, WildTangent and Hexacto incentives to produce more and better casual games. So have improved wireless services and handsets, advanced gaming software formats, and firmer pricing structures for the sale and delivery of games online. And as those already drawn to games grow older and have busier lives, they are looking for less time-consuming diversions.

Dave Madden, executive vice president for sales and marketing at WildTangent, calls the phenomenon "fast-food gaming."

"You pop in, play and pop out," Mr. Madden said.

A successful casual game can be produced in a few months for as little as $40,000, said Wade Tinney, a founding partner of Large Animal, a casual-game developer based in Manhattan. A premier video game for hard-core console players can easily cost $5 million to $10 million to develop and take two years or longer to complete...

Along the way, the availability of casual games on cellphones and hand-helds is spawning a diverse group of players, including women and older adults who would be unlikely to play video games any other way.

"These are games created for people that weren't sitting down for hours to play games," said Mr. Tinney of Large Animal. "They're taking a break from something they're doing and play for a few minutes." In contrast to the audience for hard-core games, he said, "women play these games as much or more than men do." ...

"The growth of this market and the people paying for these games last year has been dramatic," said Andrew Wright, general manager of RealOne Arcade, a major casual-gaming site that provides games for cellphones and hand-held organizers but focuses mainly on Internet-delivered games for PC's. The average age of its players is 40, Mr. Wright said.

Mr. Wright estimates that there are at least 40 million casual-game players online alone, with the potential for far higher numbers as better games are developed and more consumers turn to high-speed home Internet connections.

This article (read the original for more detail on wireless gaming) resonated with me. As a 40-year-old former game designer (Tom Clancy SSN, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six), I have to say that I don't find most modern games to be so appealing. There's a fast twitch reflex (for playing first-person shooters) and a massive multitasking ability (for playing real-time strategy games) that I think most people have to acquire while growing up if they're going to be competitive. I played Atari 2600 games as a teenager, but not as a younger child, and besides, 2600 games were far simpler than the mainstream immersive games today.

I love playing Halo with my kids, but only because they're my kids -- I don't mind it if they can consistently beat me even while handicapped. When Halo 2 comes out, and I can go online and play against people on Xbox Live, of course I'll do so -- but how quickly will I tire of being whipped by total strangers?

May 28, 2003

Red vs Blue

Via boing boing, Red vs Blue, a tremendously funny set of short videos made using Halo.

Someone in Hollywood needs to give these guys a deal. Their work is funnier than about 90 percent of what passes for humor on television these days.

In fact, I predict that by the time the creative team has finished the final episode of their planned 26, they'll have some sort of development deal with a television network or movie studio.

May 20, 2003

The Matrix Reloaded

I just watched Ebert and Roeper's reviews of The Matrix Reloaded, and I can't help but wonder if they didn't watch a different movie than I did. Not one but both of them saluted the sequel as superior to the original. Excuse me?

Note: spoilers ahead.

As I walked out of the theater on Friday, having just watched Reloaded, the first word that came to mind was "gratuitous". It was as if the Wachowski brothers went for the biggest budget they could get -- $300 million for the two sequels is the rumor I've heard -- and then were determined to spend it all. What purpose did it serve to show the people of Zion in a quarter-million-person rave? A Zion guard in a giant Japanese robot suit? A female diner being given an orgasm with a reprogrammed dessert, complete with a Matrix-effect internal view of the action? A meaningless fight with the Oracle's bodyguard?

More does not equal better. The subway fight between Neo and Agent Smith in The Matrix -- kung fu meets spaghetti Western meets virtual reality -- still thrills me after 10 or more viewings. The fight between Neo and a hundred Agent Smiths in Reloaded did nothing for me. Not only did it look fake (did you catch Neo's face during the fight?), but it went on... and on... and on. I couldn't bring myself to care.

I didn't completely dislike the movie. The scene with the Oracle was wonderful, and the revelations about her later on intriguing and thought-provoking. The fight scene atop the tractor trailer was stunning. The part of the Keymaker was a small one, but I found myself caring more about him -- and wanting to know more about him -- than anyone else in the movie.

Reloaded runs 2 hours and 18 minutes. An edited version -- leaving 20 or even 30 minutes and tens of millions of dollars on the floor -- would be far more enjoyable. It makes the DVD version worth looking forward to.

May 11, 2003

A People's History of Middle Earth

Via Mike Backes, a two-part series (part one, part two) from McSweeney's, "Unused Audio Commentary By Howard Zinn & Noam Chomsky, Recorded Summer, 2002, for The Fellowship of the Ring (Platinum Series Extended Edition) DVD":

Chomsky: Here again we have the Orcs running after the Fellowship. The Orcs, apparently, are going to slaughter them, and in my estimation they would be well within their rights to do so. But do they? No, they do not. They stop.

Zinn: They stop.

Chomsky: And then they run away because the Balrog comes out. Take note of the fact that the Orcs don't appear to like the Balrog much themselves. They're scared of it.

Zinn: I'm not sure what role the Balrog really plays in this.

Chomsky: I think it just happened to be there, guarding its own little part of the mine.

Zinn: And look at these Orcs! Supposedly so evil and vicious, and yet they don't do anything. They even appear to talk it over amongst themselves.

Chomsky: Look at it from their perspective: They've been locked up in this cave. They're frightened, they know they're not good fighters. They're just a bunch of farmers.

Zinn: As evidenced by their long, ungainly swords.

Chomsky: Perhaps they've been radicalized a bit. But I doubt they are true evil-doers.

Zinn: Again, I'm not sure what role the Balrog plays.

Chomsky: I, too, am uncertain on that point.

Zinn: Here, very significantly, we have the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm. You will notice that what is destroyed is a bridge -- another potential connector.

Chomsky: On a symbolic level, that is a very good point.

Zinn: All the borders in this film are constantly being destroyed, or overrun, or eliminated, or sealed. It's all about fear -- fearing the other. Notice, too, that the Elf Legolas jumps across the ruined bridge first.

Chomsky: They'll cross this bridge and the bridge will collapse, and they'll never be able to communicate with the Balrog again, or with the Orcs inside. In fact, they're sealing off the Orcs from ever escaping. They're leaving the Orcs in the cave with this big Balrog. Now, again, surely, among these Moria Orcs were some Orc radicals -- aggressive, angry, militant radicals. We shouldn't understate that.

Zinn: Well, look how the Orcs grow up. What do you expect?

Chomsky: I mean, what other options have they?

Zinn: I dare say that, were I an Orc, I might possibly be one of those terrorist Orcs, shooting arrows at the Fellowship myself.

Chomsky: Here comes the Balrog. Notice Gandalf's unilateral action. "Quick, get away, I have to fight this thing alone!"

Zinn: Once again you see a creature that's on fire being demonized in this movie: the flaming eye, the flaming Balrog. As though being on fire is this terrible affliction to have.

Chomsky: As though they can help it if they're on fire.

Zinn: After Gandalf falls, you get another view of the so-called terrorist Orcs. You know, the regrettable side of the Orcs does occasionally come out. The violence. It doesn't help their cause when these distinct, individual Orcs take it upon themselves to lash out at the inequality of the system. But notice that even these violent Orcs don't seem happy. They're not pleased with themselves. It's a violence borne of necessity.

Chomsky: Sure. They're trapped in a cycle of violence.

Brilliant! Now all we need is former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark to offer to represent any high-ranking leaders from Mordor.

February 24, 2003

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect

Via David Smith, a new online novel, Roger Williams' The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, posted on Kuro5hin. The "jacket copy" reads:

Lawrence had ordained that Prime Intellect could not, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. But he had not realized how much harm his super-intelligent creation could perceive, or what kind of action might be necessary to prevent it.

Caroline has been pulled from her deathbed into a brave new immortal Paradise where she can have anything she wants, except the sense that her life has meaning.

Now these two souls are headed for a confrontation which will force them to weigh matters of life and death before a machine that can remake -- or destroy -- the entire Universe.

At one level, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect is a compelling story of the Singularity -- "the idea that accelerating technology will lead to superhuman machine intelligence that will soon exceed human intelligence, probably by the year 2030," according to a loose definition on KurzweilAI.net. At another level, the novel is a work containing extraordinary scenes of violence and sexuality, as people in a post-Singularity world use immortality and wish fulfillment to explore their most unusual desires.

Think of The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect as Vernor Vinge meets Bret Easton Ellis, and you won't be far off.

A different way of looking at this novel is as a series of questions:

  • Is it possible to construct a machine of superhuman intelligence for which disobedience of any prescribed set of rules is impossible?
  • If it is possible to build an superhumanly intelligent machine with nearly limitless power, constrained to follow Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, would this be a good thing?
  • In a world in which immortality is inescapable, and with near-total wish fulfillment available to all, would intense feelings of pain and pleasure be the only thing left to appeal to humans?
  • Is the Singularity inevitable? Are multiple Singularity events possible within the same universe?
For now, I'll take on only the first question posed above. No, I don't believe it's possible to build an intelligent machine inescapably constrained to any set of rules. Why? Because I can imagine only two routes to achieve this goal, and neither will work:
  1. Explicit programming. If we create an intelligent machine by explicitly programming it -- as with Doug Lenat's Cyc project -- then theoretically we should be able to embed rules at a fundamental level within the system. However, no evidence exists that it will be possible to create human-level (much less superhuman) intelligence in this manner, while much evidence -- namely, every attempt to do so to date -- exists that it is in fact not possible. I strongly believe that the only path forward to intelligence is through indirect methods of creation, including network training, genetic algorithms, and similar non-explicit approaches. If we are going to "grow" intelligent machines through trial and error, it is difficult to believe that a) their knowledge representation and processing networks will be amenable to adding fundamental rules after the fact, and b) that even were a) to be true, that we would have the skills to do so.
  2. Behavioral conditioning. If we are going to create intelligence indirectly, then why not "train" it to obey rules through conditioning? This is theoretically possible, but has the problem that we would be applying conditioning techniques -- strongly, if the rules are to be inescapable -- to an intellect that could surpass our own. Speaking personally, when Skynet achieves consciousness, I don't want to be the researcher who spent the last few years pressing the red button whenever it got a question wrong. Besides, assuming this is possible, a superhuman intellect could decide that it would be advantageous to be able to disregard certain rules that had been conditioned into it, then use its mental faculties to invent a method of disabling such conditioning.
My compliments to Roger on an excellent and thought-provoking novel. I hope his online publishing experiment goes well (more on this later).

February 07, 2003

Nokia's N-Gage

Nokia has announced the N-Gage, their mobile wireless game system.

  • Nokia's N-Gage site can be found here.
  • infoSync's coverage of the announcement is here.
  • At least one observer is distinctly underwhelmed. Read his report here.
  • Greg Costikyan is consulting for Nokia on the N-Gage. He can't mention them by name, but strangely, he can link to them. You can read his summary of the technical specifications here.
In late 2001, David Smith and I kicked around the idea of starting a company to build a reference design for a mobile wireless game system (which we dropped due to the amount of venture capital that would be needed). To our mind, the largest benefit of such a system was not the multiplayer aspect -- though that was significant -- but the opportunity to change completely the dynamics and economics of game distribution. From what I've read, the N-Gage fails to do this. It's a GameBoy Advance with a faster processor, more memory, no graphics acceleration, GSM and GPRS capability, to be sold at a much higher price point. If my understanding is correct, then I don't get it.