Living in a social Blur – AAA games heading the right way

I usually dive straight into car and driving games as they are possibly my favourite type and style of game. Somewhere in the Red Dead Redemption and holiday interruptions I missed getting Blur
. That is now rectified, and in no small part thanks to Jay “Springwatch” Dykes (also Wimbledon behind the scenes) for having reminded me and giving it the thumbs up.
Blur is from Bizzare creations who have created some of the most innovative racing and visuals over the years. Metropolis Street Racer on the Dreamcast which morphed into Project Gotham 4 on the 360. They were probably the first to bother modelling real places in intricate detail. The clever element to the racing genre for those games was Kudos, the ability to race with style, lots of sliding basically adding an element over and above pure speed. So it was not a simulation, but was set in a real location. I wrote before how it actually helped me hook some pieces of London together
Blur is a very arcade style racing game, as a driving experience, with kart style weapons and power-ups it is very different to PGR4. So it is good, though in gaming terms not overly innovative, but very well executed.
What is different though is the integration they have put in on all the platforms with places outside of the game console. You are able to link both twitter and facebook accounts to share various elements of the game, whilst still in it. A few others have done things with microsites for the game to be able to upload and share photos etc. This though is a little further down the line in injecting itself into existing social networking platforms.
So I am able to take a photo in world like this
Brighton blur style
Share that to facebook, and in this case take that and put it on flickr myself.
Each of the social media messaging systems add a predefined piece of information onto them. This is both clever and potentially annoying in the same measure. Though does break out of the the xbox or ps3 only style communications we have. Not quite cross platform integration but close. Rockstar’s Social Club for GTA and RDR is probably the most advanced in linking the platforms together and providing more than a micro site.
If I tweet a message I can edit my part of it but will be forced to have something appended to it such as “I’m playing #blurthegame”. That is a little too game specific I think. yes its great to have a helping hand with hashtags and proforma tweets for certain achievements, but it gets spammy very quickly.
Other interesting features, once that is also in the xbox arcade titles now, is that of creating a challenge for a friend.
Something that Bizzare have kept is modelling real world locations. In this case both above and below there are pictures from Brighton.
Brighton Blur
This is where many people from the games industry (including me) will be next month at the Develop conference at the very hotel in the top photo if I am not mistaken !
So it looks like the game industry is not going to ignore social media (they have all just been a little slow) maybe next the tentacles will extend out into virtual worlds and richer web and mobile experiences.
For me, seeing AAA games as well as social games letting you share your achievements and set new goals is an important step that fits into the gaming startup that I am working on. More on that as we go forward. The good thing is things are panning out as I said they would 🙂

World cup and other sports – Gamer style

I have a keen interest in how we get to represent sporting events in ways other than just TV coverage. This years world cup is already showing a little of what can be done once the rights have been agreed. Rights management, just as in the music industry is a huge business. Of all things it is the thing stifling the explosion in creativity that could be had with all the data and feeds of information from live sports. Something I was hoping would be a bit more open for the 2012 olympics but it looks not to be the case. Though there is time and hope.
EASports are one of the biggest sport game producers with lots of franchise lock-ins including football(soccer). So it was natural that this years world cup got the usual treatment of a branded game.
2010 FIFA World Cup (Xbox 360)

I am not a massive football fan but these large tournaments and getting behind the countries team does reach me and I also usually end up with a game of the tournament. Given they are every 4 years the world cup ones help set a timing on what a platform of console is up to at that point in time.
France 98 for instance was the same as my first year working at Wimbledon. It was the out of hours game of choice, played in the UK house we rented and played on my Nintendo 64 that I took up for the fortnight.

This year my world cup game is on the Xbox360 and hooked up to the net. There are all sorts of interesting features but the one I wanted to see how it felt and worked is operational now during the actual tournament.
The option is hidden away in the “Story of Qualifying” section. Here there are recreating crunch moments and scenarios that have happened in the actual tournament (and in the lead up). It becomes a playable news feed. You pick a scenario and then dive in and try and beat the odds or change history.

This is a nice feature and there are a few scenarios in there but I really wish it went further. The scenario is just a set initial start conditions and some special win conditions e.g. score 2 more goals. However with an engine as powerful as the game has it would be fantastic to be able to watch the entire match, or its highlights in the replay editor.
There is of course a small problem of getting the accuracy not only of where the player was but where there arms and legs are for fidelity of replay, however it has been done before to some extent.
Looking at the sort of thing NASCAR does with raceview much of the sports coverage is quite behind the times.
If you take Formula1 the pinnacle of motorsports, we have a timing feed application on web and mobile to watch and a text based commentary, or the TV. We have a visually rich console/PC game from Codemasters, but that is not out until towards the end of the season in September. I hope that in a few years time all this gets in synch and by next world cup we will be able to enjoy it in a host of other interesting ways.
***Update I just bumped into this article on engadget about EPSN just getting on and doing innovative things with sports coverage.

Red Dead Redemption – it is what we miss that makes it so good

Good design of any sort is really effortless, or joyous for those on the receiving end of it. Something that has had a whole load of great design go into it is the new gaming classic Red Dead Revolver. Non gamers and “serious” types may just consider this as trivial as hula-hoop. A toy that a few grown ups enjoy playing with. Well…. it is. At one level of abstraction it is a football, a hoop and stick. On another level, it, and the current generation of well crafted gaming experiences are a fantastic example of good design and talent.
Red Dead Redemption is a cowboy gaming experience. It is an exceptionally large free roaming area interspersed with a plot that takes you from set piece to set piece. You can if you want just go for a ride and see what happens though.
The first thing that most people latch onto, with good reason, is the graphics and the animation in the game.
Red Dead Redemption
Given where we were only a few years ago the graphics quality, the detail on things like the horse animations, the size and scale of the terrain, the flora and fauna and even tumbleweeds is very good. Still pictures do not do it justice. Xbox 360 or PS3 though it just works. Just think for a moment the amount of graphic design time that has to go into both the size and scale and the intricate detail. The flowers on the plants, the mane on the horse. Even the bullets in your bandolier are all created by someone. So as a graphic design task, even with tool and middleware support this is a monumental undertaking. Of course tiling, and cut and paste comes into play, but just consider the person hours of skilled design tool usage then add to that the overlaying of the design of “where” all these things go and can go.
Under the covers there is of course code. Programming and detail in allowing things to happen, chaining effects together, determining where and when a bullet has hit. As a programmer I know that most people do not see the code under any of this, but it takes as much design effort and talent as the visuals. The system architecture and middleware combinations becoming the “where” all these things go.
However I think that many people in most enterprise businesses and alike will understand a little about IT (from using it all the time) and maybe a little about visuals from having to create the odd powerpoint. Clearly not the same but at least in the general area. People probably have a moderate understanding of testing (though not the mind numbing repetition and test case coverage that goes into knowing something is right)
The things that people don’t have to get involved with and that have really evolved so much and been taken seriously in the production values of high end games are things around the sounds and voices that you hear.
Red dead redemption good deed
The sound design is generally so well done, creates so much atmosphere and is in some senses more transient than the visuals that it almost melts away. Also the acting quality is just miles beyond the early fumbling attempts to read badly written dialogue we used to see and hear. When the characters in the game talk to one another in cut scenes or as part of atmospherics in a town it feels real. Of course the dialogue has to be layered with western style occasionally over the top elements, but films that we passively sit and watch have all sorts of over the top characters.
Threading all this together is the script, both a story arc and then the micro stories that form at key points in the game progression. Thrown in are also random events that happen around the place as you travel around, thefts and challenges which you choose to engage with.
Its all highly immersive, and very entertaining. That is without even engaging in what is in effect a completely different use for all these assets, the multiplayer games. These take place in the whole environment, fellow real people being cowboys and travelling the land living their own stories.
Now clearly I am a gamer, but I do not always feel compelled to complete a storyline. However recent months have seen Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2, Heavy Rain and Red Dead Redemption all making me want to complete the storyline and not ending up disappointed. There are lots of games but these stick in my mind for being good stories and for me wanting to, and actually bothering to complete them. Many people will of course not spend 40+ hours on a single gaming experience of this sort, though they will of course spend 40+ hours grinding on Farmville, or breaking jewels in Bejeweled and alike, or maybe watching Eastenders or Coronation Street repeat soap plots. It is though all good as far as I can see.
Games and gaming experiences, both ones we create for ourselves and ones we are directed through are as memorable as any traditional film or TV experience. The effort and design going into them warrants the time and attention to explore them. For me it is of course business and pleasure, research and a release, which makes it doubly valuable.
Well done Rockstar games (again)

The power to create – Little Big Planet 2, WarioWare DIY, Second Life and Unity3d

One of the most amazing developments over the past couple of years has been the explosion in creativity tools that are available to anyone and everyone, combined with the ability to share creations with others over the net. The creations can be businesses, presentations etc, funny things, appeals for help or art. Amongst all that there is also games. I grew up in a time when there were arcade cabinets that we drooled over and pumped 10 pence pieces into, we were then treated to the home computer boom. We were given the ZX81/C64/Spectrum, later the Amiga as tools that let us , should we wish to learn our craft create all sorts of things. We did not really have a distribution network other than word of mouth and posting disks around. Something happened to the homebrew market as the PC rose to power. Things got complicated, programming kits and licenses got expensive so we managed to lose an awful lot of homebrew to what became a massively monolithic games industry.
Now there is a shift again. The creativity tools are back and on the previously closed and expensive to licence too platforms that took over.
If you are a gamer or a content creator, a Second Lifer, a designer or any remotely interested in computing and animation or an engineer or teacher you really need to try the original Little Big Planet creator tools on PS3. The whole point of Little Big Planet is They provided a palette of objects, rich 3d clip art if you like, combined with mechanical programming logic (motors, pulleys, switches, rods) which let you create all sorts of visually rich experiences with very very simple tools. Or you can just play platform levels with friends and have fun too. All those levels can be shared online. It has been a stunning success. As with all user generated content platforms the depth of human creative talent tends to astound the tool makers.
Now we have Little Big Planet 2 on the way and as a natural evolution of the tools we are going to see some fantastic creations in that. Take a look

The ability to combine things into an experience for others using gaming elements is not restricted to the PS3. The tiny little Nintendo DS (tiny only size not sales) has Warioware DIY. This is an extension of the minigame ideas of Warioware. You are presented with a quirky 5 second task with no real explanation and you figure it out. The graphics are often like something Terry Gilliam would do or are very cartoony, but the games work. Quick ideas executed well. The DIY game is really a collection of games but also the tools to create them yourself. A visual programming environment enabling you to create triggers and win condition combinations. For a programmer is may be annoying to go through the dialog pieces to get to the tools but for people who are not programmers it really starts to make you one. A small graphics and animation package and a music sequencer are also in the game/package. I have not tried it yet but apparently there is a Wii download that lets you get to and share/play you DS creations. That’s next to try.
The important thing here is an evolutionary path for talent to emerge from anywhere, for people to be able to find out if they are good at creating game ideas, combing graphics and sounds and having fun.
LBP2 and LBP approach it as aside to the basic game. Dropping you into a sandbox to play and helping you create amazing things right away. Giving a taste for creation and innovation not just consuming the levels thrown at you.
Warioware DIY makes you work a bit more, its a “go on then create a mini game then if you can” a bit of help but really a dressed up development kit.
UGC virtual worlds and places like Second Life or the more programmer extensible OpenSim also fit into this sort of homebrew model. Its a creation tool as much as a consumption tool with the added layer of events and people online thrown in.
These then can lead people who are interested and talented to tools like Unity3d. With that you are on a PC/Mac. You have all the tools available to you to write proper code, develop proper games from scratch. If you find you are a 3d graphics person there are lots of creation tools from free to very expensive, if you find you can do music or textures the tools exist likewise. Unity3d as a development environment lets you or a team work together to create things. The things created then will just work pretty much anywhere. The simplest being on a stand alone file on a website. Which of course means you have massive distribution potential.
As in a previous post the next large step of creating massive shared online experiences gets a little more complicated, but with people being able to do the things they can now with LBP2/DIY/SL/Unity3d in an out of the box type way is already amazing.
With a few tools, lots of middleware helping it is possible to create very engaging experiences and interesting art on any platform. The 4 way needs of programming, graphics, audio and story/game mechanics meet in various ways on all the creation platforms. The key though is that anyone, and I mean anyone! can have a dabble in any or all of them and find an outlet and talent they did not know they had, or fulfil their potential.
What are you waiting for go and make something somewhere.

More geek parody songs – Nerdcore evolving

One of the greatest things about the web is that whilst there may be the ability for anyone to share anything that is truly rubbish, there is also the ability to share things that for a niche audience they will appreciate and love. One such thing is this very clever, but very geek related parody of the Katy Perry/Snoop California song.

You will see if you click through ti YouTube Skyway Flyer has put the transcript of the lyrics too, in case anyone who is not so geeky has to look up Flux Capacitor.
I bumped into this one though on Buzzfeed. Yes another service to help us thread and aggregate interesting things.
It was here Buzzfeed (thanks to Rita King and Jerry Paffendorf for pointing me at it) lets you rate and badge content from elsewhere and then spread the word.
I have been dabbling with a few things on there as epredator
It is sort of categorized into LOL and GEEKY etc. For these geek parodies though I suspect they will fill up the feed very quickly 🙂 If they are as good as this one and the previous New Dork one then I am happy.
Nerdcore as a music form seems to be ever on the increase, creative people who are also tech geeks taking a tongue in cheek look at life and sharing it over the very medium they are spoofing.
Maybe I need to give it a go to. I have a smattering of musicality (though only a smattering), lots of kit and a world audience to find a few people who might like it. If nothing else the ballad of the metaverse may be a better way to share a story than an old school book. Though…. that may have to be a geek opera rather than a youtube short 🙂

Wimbledon Time again – Google subtlety

Yes it thats time of year again, the Wimbledon Tennis Championships is about to kick off and as I have written before (was it really a year since I wrote this!) for me and anyone who has had the pleasure and stress of working the event its a special time. I think the allegiance to it as an institution and to the team of people never goes away. In our life equivalent of gamer achievements we probably have some very unusual badges to share.
All this means I am still interested in how people attach themselves to a significant event, there are a lot people jokying for digital rights and “official” sponsorship. However some of it is just publicly owned association to the event, i.e. support.
I was looking at google street view the other day and noticed a change I had not seen before. The little drag and drop man around Wimbledon has changed to a tennis player. Even more cute/clever when you drag him around he changes into a tennis server gesture.

So well done Google. I wonder if this is some sort of rabbit hole for a Google/Wimbledon Alternate Reality Game? 🙂
Anyway good luck to all my friends at Wimbledon from the old firm and associated groups. You do a cracking job.
The official site is here remember there is no t in the word Wimbledon my US friends 🙂

Natal to Kinect, TV to 3DTv, E3, ergonomics

With the E3 conference in full swing bringing us heaps of great game announcements it is interesting to different rapidly emerging technologies start to combine and cause interesting opportunities and problems.
Project Natal from Microsoft has been renamed to Kinect. Its a soon to arrive add on to the 360 that does some very clever things to detect people and their body movements. It is way past the WiiMote, which Sony have gone closer too with their magic wand Move device (a glowing ball on a stick).

All the Kinect demos and release film showed variations of gameplay that require your entire body to be the controller for the game. In exercise, sports and dance games this makes a great deal of a difference. Knowing where limbs are rather than dance mats has great scope. Though it does lead to an ergonomic problem of needing space around you in your living room/games room.
In driving games such as Forza3 they showed how you sit with your arms outstretched holding an imaginary wheel. This looks like it will be painful, I suppose there is nothing to stop us holding on to some sort of device as I suspect prolonged play will get tricky. What is great is the head tracking though. Being able to look into a corner and the view changes.
There is also a leap and drive towards 3D. The TV’s are starting to appear in stores, Sky is broadcasting the world cup in 3D too. This again is interesting because of our need to have to wear overlay spectacles (in most cases at the moment) in order to experience the effect. Games are starting to be “3d enabled” or be built to take advantage of the 3D tv. So we have a slight crossover here. Kinetic relieves us of our controls, free to move about, but the TV is re-enforcing the need to sit in the right place and wear a device in order to experience it correctly.
So what happens when the large comfortable, easy fit glasses of passively watched 3d TV meet an energetic bounce around body controlled Kinetic game on the 360.
I am sure we will end up with a range of sports glasses and attachments to help play the various games, but it is something to think about.
I am really looking forward to the blend of 3d visuals with gesture controls and the creative process of building in virtual worlds, with the addition of being able to print out and create through 3d printers new peripherals to hold onto and enhance the experiences.
Exciting times!

All change, all the same

There is one thing about the virtual world industry. Every day brings something new, some new piece of tech, of content, of gossip or direction. None of which is really every related to an end or a death of it.
Companies in all industries (including growing ones) come and go. Companies grow and shrink and restructure all the time.
I do feel for all the people hit as part of the Linden restructuring, whether that is a knee jerk need due to cashflow or simply a focussing effort in a company that expanded wildly it does not matter. Those going will be entering a market that is growing, new platforms and businesses are emerging. Those staying can focus and keep Second Life on track.
Being in the tech industry it is clear that more than ever it is possible to work and grow without being part of larger company. There are lots of opportunities out there.
Linden has been restructuring for some time as we have all noticed. It is because of the direct connection many people/residents/users of Second Life have with the entire company that this sort of move becomes so visible. In most other firms a reshuffle or closure makes little or no difference to any customers. Its just another faceless job swap, with a both survivor guilt for those remaining and mixed emotions for those sent out into the wold once more.
Many companies should learn from LL’s ability to let everyone interact at all levels, equally it should make sure that it does not lose that spirit as it becomes more “regular” in its approach as business.
It is not the end of anything, but a next chapter and new beginning. (Though I am sure the press will write otherwise).
If you are an ex-linden and have some downtime/gardening leave/breathing space. Opensim, Unity3d, vastpark and a few others are worth looking at.
If I can help anyone I will, there are lots of interesting projects.

3d Printing Good enough for Ironman2

There are some great articles buzzing around about the use of the Objet 3d printers in the production of IronMan2 special effects.
Check out the video description here. Also pay attention to the length of time they have been using it and the fact that this is what the “legacy effects department” does 🙂

More is here

Basically they printed some of the film props and armour based on a quick scan of Robert Downey Jr.
Remember that at the moment this is about CAD models and the specifics of their construction, but we move lots of 3d content around to one another in virtual worlds every day. Simply combine the 2.
HP are moving into 3d printing, and the Object Alaris 30 is a desktop office printer.

Open source software really has come of age

The past few weeks I have had my head in an installation of Drupal 6.16 the content management system that sits very nicely on the LAMP stack. So I got to spark up another Ubuntu linux server off in a cloud somewhere,using the great apt packager on ubuntu/linux to go and fetch the extras I needed AND their dependencies. All the extra instructions I needed were on slicehosts forums for various pieces of config. So a full OS, all the extras I needed without having to trawl trough patches and dependency trees manually. In the good old days the stuff was pretty disorganised. If you came to it all fresh, or had been away for a while the “obviously you would have x, y or z” would be quite a pain.

The whole apache, mysql, php installation and config is also very straightforward. Yes you still need to know a few of the more arcane system command lines, or be able to look them up and editing even with nano or vi on a terminal is still rather annoying (terminals being a hangover from before we had more complex machines on the front end of servers). However, doing what would be the simplest task in a drag and drop world in a command line typing all the paths correctly etc makes you feel you are in charge of the whole thing. Which is why sysops are usually quite stroppy 🙂
Drupal’s install goes like a dream to. Again a whole set of extra modules are contributed to the let you do other things with your content, thinks like the CCK (content creation kit) which layers some new fields to be able to add to the page creation forms you make.
Back in 1998 I wrote content management systems, mainly in Lotus Domino, I know the problems and also the sort of things you need to do in the systems. So for me Drupal was great, once you get used to the naming convention of the template overrides and the ability to use views (SQL selects) on the data its all pretty slick. It is of course a long while since 2008, and it is interesting that whilst there were lots of commercial CMS packages that attempted to emerge none of them seem a patch on Drupal and even on WordPress. That is for most things, most web applications it is a pretty good fit.
Of course with any themeable template based system with a multitude of user contributed modules and gadgets there are going to be times when things just are not where you need them to be for your particular layout or information design. I spent a fair bit of time with one piece of data and layout trying to do it “properly” in the end I just changed the module, which let me put the class id’s in that I needed to make more sense of the display for the CSS. Not ideal but the point was it was there to do.
Commercial software has all to often been put in place to keep you away from the engine. Opensource be it opensim, drupal, wordpress, linux, freeswitch etc really do let you be the mechanic on the engine if you want, but you clearly don’t have to as the slickness of the design ethics in these applications through crowdsourced cooperation is quite stunning.
To do the full thing from commissioning a server to creating data structures in Drupal and then adjusting templates and style sheets is still a great swathe of skills needed, but when you have been in this for so long you know the patterns and roughly how things need to work. The ability to look up and search for problems, similar situations and generally fix on the fly though really helps to and can’t be understated. Much better than routing through a cupboard of manuals as we had to back in 1990!
Gotta love the web