Under pressure – games and simulations XCOM

This week I have been looking into how we get one of the virtual worlds projects to put some pressure on the people taking part in a simulation, but not make things so over the top that they give up. There are lots of gaming examples for entertainment that place layers of pressure on people, so there is lots of inspiration to draw upon. In particular though, the latest incarnation of XCOM, Enemy Unknown provides a lot of pointers.
XCOM is a turn based strategy game. For non gamers who may thing it is all fast moving running around and trigger reactions they my be surprised to find out that sometimes games offer a bit of time and thought. XCOM gets you onto a battlefield with a small squad of soldiers against an enemy alien force of invaders. Different units have different abilities on both sides and how you use these and how you take your turns is the key. In many ways this is like a game of chess. You can take as long as you like to asses the situation and make each of your turn based allocations of movement.
(Image from xcom.com)
Just these battles alone provide a degree of stress induction. When you are stressed you make worse decisions, so you start to work out when to act carefully or rashly to deal with an ever changing situation. Probability and chance throw curve balls as you decide to take a percentage shot at an alien only to be let down by the hidden dice rolling against you. You also have to consider when is a time for a tactical withdrawal. Soldiers that survive missions get promoted and gain extra abilities. Lose a high ranking squad and you are on the back foot with a group of rookies.
This on the ground tactical part of the game is the major part of the experience but there is a higher level strategy as you have to finance this ongoing war and research new weapons and engineering facilities. There are so many facets to this and resources are very tight that you do have to make some big decisions that impact the flow of the game. Do you focus on putting up satellites and fighters to deal with incoming ships, direct scientist to research defensive capabilities or powered up weapons for the soldiers. How much do you expand your base, considering the power consumption of new facilities.
(Image from xcom.com)
The multi faceted nature of what has to be considered is what makes this game work particularly well. You may be in the thick of it in a combat situation, considering the intricate detail of which move or weapon to use but you have in the back of your mind what needs to be done before the next mission and what to focus on there.
As with many games though the odds are against you, interestingly the game does have an impossible setting. Indicating that the alien invasion will be successful, but how long can you survive the inevitable loss. Interestingly this harks back to the original arcade game space invaders, where you are pretty much never going to win, you run out of money or time, but you always lose.
So the key here is that you need to feel that you can make a difference, but you have to know that there are other forces at work, other decisions that need to be made in and around the specific detail of any event. Any simulation needs to layer the pressures on the participants. That may be actual decisions or levels of detail of information that inform the narrative but aim to overload and confuse just to the point of stress. Too much and there is almost no point proceeding.
Balance in games and simulations is the key. Atmosphere and a story let humans fill in some of their own levels of details as that engage with it. Whilst there may be an algorithm as work obscuring it, or making it less obvious and throwing in random elements help a greta deal.
XCOM is a great game (as was its 1995 original). Turn based strategy games still work too which is great to see.

A real educational game that rocks

I am typing this with some very sore finger tips on my left hand as yesterday Rocksmith arrived in the post from Amazon. I known this has been out stateside for a year but it has finally hit these shores. If you have not seen Rocksmith or been dubious about it, it is a music game where you play along with tunes with a guitar. Hey that sounds like Rockband/Guitar Hero! Well this time you get to use your real guitar and play the full notes (hence the sore fingers).

I have dabbled with guitar since I bought a Fender Squire and an amp with my first pay check. I never played anything much though I know a few chords and the blues scale is always nice to wibble around.
Loving music and not being quite able to match my guitar playing to the music I sort of lapsed. Music games were a great way to get back into playing something in some way. I wrote about the early, pre Rockband, experiences back in 2007 on eightbar whcih then got picked up by
the Boston Globe in 2008 !
I had noticed that my ability to play rhythm had improved using the basic Rockband instruments. It is why I upgraded to the 102 button guitar to get closer to real guitar with a game and even got to play a bit on the TV on the Cool Stuff Collective
I recently finished the tour mode of Rockband 3 (I had been playing for ages but not bothered with the tour too much it was always a party game)
Feeding Edge is also embedded in Rockband both as tattoos and our bands name and Logo as a bit of fun
Feeding edge rockband 3 style
Having finished Rockband 3 it seemed time to upgrade to the all new Rocksmith. My Fender was still sitting in the corner and Predlet 1.0 has also started guitar lessons at school.
I plugged the guitar in with the lead that is jack to usb into the xbox, loaded it up and I was instantly amazed and how well it worked. You are straight into a tuning section and the guitar was spot on in seconds. Clearly it was picking up the right signals!
Like Rockband/Guitar here the notes drive down towards you. They are coloured based on the string, a picture of the guitar fret board shows whats about to be played. When the notes arrive you pluck them.
The really clever part is the auto adjusting skill level. If you start to get the basic single notes and rythm it will start to add more. In the career mode it gently eases you through songs, but you start instantly with the Rolling Stones Satisfaction with the iconic sounds of that tune. Predlet 1.0 dived straight in and was really happy to play the song. She already had the guitar basics from her lessons so knowing strings and frets made it easier as it did with me.
I carried on the career line for a while then just dived into playing house of the rising sun. This is where I saw it adjust to my level very quickly. It gave a few notes and before I knew it it was showing the proper chord progression. Chords that were stored away in the back of my brain, C, A, E etc. So there I was playing rhythm guitar on my old electric with a responsive backing track that if things went slightly wrong it would turn down the level let me get my act together and back into it again. That makes this the best of all music games.
Now is it orange peel I rub on my finger tips to harden them? ouch!

Virtual Athletes – A journey with some tech

It was really cool today to see the brilliant next edition of Flush Magazine hitting the virtual shelves (with my 3rd article). This time on some of the virtual sports technology and a little bit of historical evolution from my personal experience. There are lots of other things to read in the mag, also available on the ipad, but my contribution is pages 92 to 97.

There are lots of ways to check this out including a great PDF download
So thats virtual sports, merged with real activity and my newly found and exciting Choi Kwang Do martial art and the Coaches Center in this issue. The previous issues have been 3d printing and virtual worlds πŸ™‚
Huge thanks go out to @tweetthefashion for publishing these articles and the monumental effort it is for them to get the whole edition done, making them look so good and with everyones great stories and features πŸ™‚

Sleeping Dogs drive on the left

I got the game Sleeping Dogs (xbox version of course) back last month as a birthday present. I did not get much time to play it as we headed off on holiday, but once I got absorbed into it again. It is a free roaming, story driven virtual Honk Kong. It is of course in the style of Grand Theft Auto IV, as that really defined the genre. You take your character from place to place in various vehicles that you buy or steal. You choose to follow main mission quests to advance the storyline and/or take on side missions, races, favours and challenges.
Sleeping Dogs differs in several ways and advances the genre very nicely. The main advance is the quality of the hand to hand combat. Being set in Hong Kong it has a martial arts flavour to it. When you engage in combat it is more like a virtua fighter/tekken style to the combat with lots of techniques and counters to play with. You don’t know all your moves at the start, you have to learn and earn them. This keeps the fighting fresh as you level up and get new moves to try. The fighting is almost always you versus multiple opponents too which keeps you on your toes. Having practiced a martial art (Choi Kwang Do) for the past 8 months I now look at game fighting with a different eye. Choi is defensive and not used aggressively but this is game space and it is good to see some of the differing styles. The fights do go on a bit though as its all about health bars. Later on there are guns and shooting too to add to the variety. As this has RPG elements you do of course end up not winning every fight, you have to level up through other activities.
Tough day in honk kong
A filtered instagram shot of the screen πŸ™‚ it shows the style and the sort of mess you get into.
The levelling up also comes in various strands. The story is split into police work and triad work. You are an undercover cop with split loyalties. Each of the major story arc points provides extra skills in a level tree. Each only has 2 branches but provides enough thought and variety that you get to contemplate how to spend that 1 level point you have just earned, without being swamped. in the end though you should end up with them all.
Another levelling up, which occurs across all the missions is your reputation or Face. This gradually builds up the more you work the more you get. Each level then provides a perk.
In case the missions, driving around, fighting and collecting special locked boxes is not enough you also get to alter your clothing. It may seem odd in a hard nosed martial arts cop-crook-athon bloodfest that clothes become relevant but it does provide a little extra side challenge. Certain clothing combinations and items add 5-15% to the levelling up scores depending on what you wear.
The game is rated 18 and I would hope that most parents realise that this really is 18. The storyline is quite hard hitting at times, the language is always full of swearing. The fighting is pretty gory, you are usually left covered in blood which remains until you change your clothes. That is more cartoony. However, having completed the main story now it got pretty serious at the end. There are a lot of game engine driven cut scenes, some great acting and voice, but the last ones made me wince. This is great as it had not just become a collect -’em up grind. It fitted with the plot (which I am not going to spoil) but it definitely was not one for the kids.
The other really nice thing, as per the title of this post is that it is set in Hong Kong, where, just as in the UK they drive on the left. So many games are US based and in NY or SF and there we are on the wrong side of the road πŸ™‚
There is some DLC planned with new missions. This will be great though having played through the story I wonder how they are going to make this integrated and not just some missions you missed that you go back and play.
A cracking game though.

Sensing movement – BitGym

I thought I should try the Unity modules for a new motion sensing library called BitGym. A Unity/webcam based motion sensing toolkit that works with depth as well as lateral movements.

It, like many Unity3d packages, is just so straight forward to get working. You simply import the package then add a script to an object and there you have it.
An interesting twist though is that you are not locked into the laptop. Unity being able to target different platforms as a runtime (with the right licences) you can build iOS and Android sensing apps.
I have yet to explore how or if this includes skeleton tracking. It was pure Unity3d. The way it should be done πŸ™‚
Determining size and shape and motion on a camera with a single plane it is of course going to be tricky to look at detail of physical form as with the kinect which is really a 3d scanner. However for some sports applications and rep counters it may well be all that is needed. Some further investigation is on the list of things to do.
The toolkit is available to anyone to download and experiment with but that is on a non commercial licence. Obviously full licences need to be bought to do any more with the kit, but it certainly is worth looking at if you are interested in such things.

3d printing record breaker

It was great to find this latest shared post in my feeds. It is software and instructions to be able to create and print Fisher Price toy records. The Fisher price record player is a traditional roll playing (not role playing) music box, with the changeable tune in a round record form factor. It is plastic with bumps on. The initial set of instructions were for a removal process using a CNC lathe but have now been updated to an additive 3d printing one. You can find more out here
The video is actually the CNC lathe one but it is brilliant.

I think it is a great example of extending a product, in this case resurrecting one. It also made me cry with laughter at its brilliant eccentricity.

Veteran – Yes I do read books sometimes!

I have just go back from a great 2 weeks mostly off the net in Spain (well nearly!). Whilst I had the Mac with my it managed to stay pretty much closed and I focused on doing a few less techie things. The first of those was my regular Choi Kwang Do patterns which I spent quite a lot of time practicing in the hot sun by the pool at the villa. It was interestingly meditative as well as being physically beneficial despite it being a little out of context for a summer holiday.
The holiday though was not devoid of tech. With the ipad, kindle, 2 DSi XL and 1 3DS, plus a TV showing satellite channels including lots of re-runs of Star Trek original series and Voyager we were not totally unwired, just a local net. I finished Splinter Cell on the 3DS despite its initially annoying control mechanism.
This post is about something else though.
I only really get to read books, fictional based ones, on holiday. I should read more, but I don’t. Before we headed out I bought myself Veteran by Gavin Smith (in paperback as I don’t own the Kindle it is my wife’s)

I knew nothing about this except what I spotted on the sleeve, but it looked a good cyberpunk action book.
I have to say it was better than good, I even finished it before the end of the holiday.
For me it had everything I needed in a book of that nature. Armoured augmented human soldiers, social decay, post apocalyptic gangs, dangerous corporations. It also featured the hackers who access the net directly via a socket in their heads and then represented themselves in all sorts of interesting ways as they dealt with the odd experience of being jacked into the net.
There was a lot of shooting and fighting, a lot of rebuilding. So it had the action box ticked. However it actually wrestled with very interesting central issue. I am trying not to give any spoilers here BTW.
In a good versus bad with a confused 3rd party in the middle the notion of openness to information was being played out. one digital based information system, or weapon was being developed by the libertarian hackers. Throughout they spoke in open source terms, in a self determination that was working against the corporate, government and warring controllers. It didn’t preach though, it showed the though patterns the characters were taking, their various ideals and motivations clashing at times. However it also showed that they were not totally sure what the outcome of such openness would be, but that it had to be done.
I was not expecting such depth of though and reasoning to surface in the book as I was reading the comforting, almost stereotypical augmented soldiers fights. Replaced eyes for lenses (a la William Gibson), the net representation (a la Stephenson). However these were not so much stereotypes as clear genre requirements that were then used to take a further journey into the politics of freedom of information, over command and control structures. It was very thought provoking.
So much so I just went and bought the follow up book War in Heaven.

It also got me thinking about my own plot lines in this sort cyberpunk environment, in the days I did not have the book to read. Who knows they may express themselves somewhere too πŸ™‚
Of course, if I had of been reading this on the Kindle on holiday I would have been able to just download and get on with it. Hmmm, maybe I do need one after all. Of course I would have to double that up with another holiday away from it all to make sure πŸ™‚
Anyway, back to normal, whatever that is. Lots to do this month, several articles to write, some virtual world work to code and the (ever) ongoing search for the right funding for the ground breaking meta game project.

The power of the mind, flow – Martial Arts

With my increasing, though long term interest in technology related to sport I was very interested to see this article by the Wellcome Trust about brain scans revealing the clues to black belt punching power.
There is of course a lot to be discovered about how we work as humans. Self belief we already know is very powerful and can drive people to achieve things other may consider impossible. That self belief in Martial arts could be down to fine tuning and practice of techniques. This article points to a change in brain structure as certain skills are perfected. To my non neuroscience trained eye that makes a lot of sense.
However the excellent video (inserted below) goes further to make the links between mind and body. It describes the self development aspects of martial arts. “A martial art is not a sport, if practiced properly its a way of life”

As is said in the video you can know thousands of techniques, be big and strong and be defeated in an instant by your mind.
My Choi Kwang Do journey is still in its very early stages but I have already felt surprise at what can be achieved, both watching the predlets and also myself.
Something that is very important is experiencing flow, being in the moment and operating without having to do any conscious mental processing. For some people that is one of the hardest parts of the journey, to let go. I am by no means an expert in flow, but I have experienced it a lot, coding, presenting and particularly in gaming. Tackling a tricky section of a game where you get more and more wound up, the more tense you are the harder it is to perform. Sometimes brute force aggression gets you through as that bring adrenalin but inevitably a more calm, flow based approach will bring more success. It is something I am trying to teach the predlets through gaming as the results and the pay off are very obvious.
Being able to induce flow is the best mental state for interesting ideas and inventions to surface. Many people get flashes of inspiration when they are doing something other than trying to get a flash of inspiration.
It may be that out there in the workplace and in schools and colleges that the solution to helping people both stay fit and healthy and have a keen brain that comes up with good ideas and is not afraid to go with them may be enhanced by many of the martial arts. In particular those that are arts not sports like Choi Kwang Do (other martial arts are available).

Olympic legacy, what next? Daley Thomson’s Decathalon 2?

So the first part of the Olympic experience is complete. Next up the paralympics. we were lucky enough to get some tickets in the fiasco that was the Visa only powered ticketing ballot/raffle and we went and saw the Gymnasts do their thing at the North Greenwich Arena (a.k.a. O2, a.k.a Millenium Dome).
It was really interesting to see the event as a whole.
We all hope of course that more people will get into sporting activity and generally keep the sociable atmosphere that we have all enjoyed at the friendly games as they have come to be known.
I have no doubt many kids will at least try and take up sport, and the government will apply the right funding and not let all schools sell off all their fields.
The predlets have been amazed by it all, Predlet 1.0 wants to continue her gymnastics, but it also now joining predlet 2.0 and I in Choi Kwang Do. So I suspect that will be mirrored across the country providing the clubs can cope with the demand.
It has also led ( in hour house) to some competitive gaming with the “official 2012 game” on the Xbox. Whilst it does have some flaws it is quite a collection of button bashing angle selecting frustration inducing game play, but it does make everyone have to accept whether they are faster, or better at that instant in time and it does reward practice.
We have of course been there before with sports games. The original arcade Track and Field was a masterpiece of gaming cabinet action.

This then managed to be sort of cloned πŸ˜‰ and placed in our homes with the then new machines of the C64 and Spectrum with Daley Thompson’s Decathalon Using our GB hero as the lead character and something that is talked about much more fondly than the arcade game.
So will there be a new rash of TeamGB star games? Will that be part of the legacy? Being able to emulate one of the stars of the games will continue to inspire kids, some of whom will take up the sport because they also get to play it and understand a bit about it and get a thirst for winning not just levelling up for ever as many games seem to rely on now.
A more important legacy, and this is wishful thinking, is that the next games understands and embraces the way we choose to communicate online, not trying to stifle it or blame it for branding transgressions.
(I have to say for all the official branding fuss the actual event we went to seemed almost completely free of in your face advertising).
I also hope the next Olympics will take the sort of wonderful digital coverage the BBC provided, and still provides with archives and extends it to give us things we can interact with, 3d spatial data we can learn from and maybe even use in the games experiences I already mentioned. I noticed at the gynastics they had a matrix style camera on the vaulting horse. It was only used a few times in replays but it generated an image from the front and panned 90 degrees to the side filling in the gaps and looked brilliant. Imagine being able to choose to view that sort of replay in any event from any angle just as we can right now with multiplayer online game replays.
Yes I am still talking about the sort of thing we built in ’06 for Wimbledon in Second Life, years ahead of its time it would appear! but lets hope Rio brings a new look at the technology. Even if it is the simplest of e-commerce ticketing applications being done correctly !
So, I loved the Olympics, the team delivering the actual event, and the athletes efforts were brilliant. Well done to them. It was also astoundingly good for TeamGB πŸ™‚ well done all.

A poem to the greedy on sharing on the Internet

Occasionally I resort to rhyme as I did here with inspiration from predlet 2.0 and here about a game. I am by no means an expert in the art, but occasionally a line will hit me and I think, I wonder where this can go. It was really about whether the tree of knowledge is under threat from overt attempts to curb sharing of ideas.
I think you have to let your ideas flow, not park them, or they cause a mental traffic jam that might mean the really good ideas never get out.
So here it is.

A poem to the greedy.
by epredator

So what you’re saying is the Internet is wrong?
Sharing our ideas really shouldn’t be done?
We should just keep things,
Lock them away,
Only selling to the highest bidder,
The ones that can pay.

The only problem being,
The money has all gone!
So all our work here is effectively done?

There is another way,
That liberates our crafts,
Share those ponderings opinionsΒ and drafts,
Make it all open, accessible and free.
Take the moral high ground,
and on it plant a tree.

A tree of knowledge,
A tree that can grow,
A tree that means everybody can know.

So go be open, go be honest, go be free,
Whilst you consider that,
I am off to climb that tree.