Saturday, February 20, 2010

The future of games

At the D.I.C.E. Summit, which closed yesterday, Jesse Schell held an interesting talk on the future of gaming. Schell is CEO of Schell Games and tutor at the faculty of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. He also used to work for Disney and still acts as a consultant for them.

His presentation entitled ´Design Outside The Box´ examines recent phenomena in gaming and their impact, as well as the future, where mundane tasks may come in the form of videogames.

I would like to introduce his presentation as follows. Consider a single game that is currently played by more than 70 million active users. Sounds impossible? No, there really is a game like that. But they must have collected this user base over many, many years, right? No, they only started out in June, so that is barely more than half a year.

That game in question, arguably the most successful game in the world at this point, is FarmVille on Facebook. Developer Zynga Game Network has attracted some big talent from traditional game companies. Its Vice President of Game Development should sound familiar: Mike Verdu recently left Electronic Arts, where he was General Manager at EALA and responsible for the ´Command & Conquer´ series.

What's more, Richard Garriott, better known as Lord British (´Ultima´, ´Tabula Rasa´), has just announced he is moving into social gaming and will be using Facebook as a platform with his new company Portalarium.

I myself have argued many times on this blog that the epicentre of gaming has already shifted with Wii. A core player is no longer one fond of gory horror and action shooters, but of ´Wii Fit´ and ´Brain Training´. Those games now constitute the core of gaming - which is a simple question of numbers. And now, Facebook is fast becoming the core of gaming. How will that change gaming? Where will gaming head in the future? Let Jesse Schell tell you.

Source: G4TV
Thanks to: Bitmob

Friday, February 19, 2010

How good is ´Alan Wake´?

How good is ´Alan Wake´? The game by Finnish studio Remedy (´Max Payne´) has been tipped as one of the big hopefuls for the Xbox360. I just attended a presentation of the exclusive title in Hamburg and had a good hour hands-on time – enough to give you some first impressions.

Alan and I go way back

´Alan Wake´ has been in development for at least five years. I remember a presentation at Microsoft’s showcase event X06, where the basics all seemed in place and at least one level was playable (though journalists did not get any hands-on time). It is an open secret that the game was reworked significantly a number of times. The developers noted that the game was finished last summer and they have allocated almost a year for quality assurance and fine tuning. Obviously, after pouring this many resources into it, Remedy and Microsoft have a lot riding on this ticket. To be fair, the developer is only about fifty people strong, which is rather small for a project of this magnitude. They did use sub-contractors for a number of tasks, though.

So, was it worth it? Can ´Alan Wake´ measure up to upcoming exclusives on the competing consoles like ´Heavy Rain´ on PS3 or ´Metroid: Other M´ on Wii? Luckily, at the event, Microsoft lifted the original embargo agreement, which all attendees had to sign beforehand, which would have prevented me from writing in detail about the game until mid-March.

Photorealism meets ethereal effects

The brief presentation by the developers was impressive and the visuals lived up to the hype. While the character models do not measure up to those in ´Heavy Rain´ and the lip-syncing is off far too often, the environments appear more detailed and meticulously crafted. This type of photorealistic depiction is offset by many ethereal effects like mist or fog. The contrast between light and dark plays a central role in the gameplay mechanics and glow and burn effects give the game a unique visual touch. Also, the zombie-like attackers, which Alan encounters in the night, called ´The Taken´, are surrounded by a smouldering aura and they often become semi-transparent or vanish completely. When attacking them, Alan needs to blind them with a light source and shoot them with either a gun or, more effectively, a flare. When dead, ´The Taken´ dissolve in a burst of glowing light. Flares are fired in slow motion with the camera following the projectile.

A leaf or two out of Stephen King novels

The central element of ´Alan Wake´ is the story. The main protagonist is a famous writer who has come to the little town of Bright Falls for inspiration. As his wife disappears, Alan finds himself entangled in a thriller he has written but has no memory of writing. He finds pages of a script by him which anticipate what will happen next, which makes for an eerie and uncomforting sense of foreboding.

Obviously, Remedy took a leaf or two out of Stephen King novels like ´Misery´, television series like ´Twin Peaks´ or movies like ´The Shining´ (the latter is even mentioned by Alan Wake when an axe-wielding foe is about to break down the door separating them).

Inspired from seminal horror films and television series

Rather than putting Alan up against ´The Taken´ only, the game presents them only as one humanoid manifestation of what is referred to as ´The Dark Presence´. In other manifestations, oil barrels start to roll around and hover or cars are tossed up into the air and rammed into the ground. This way, the game continuously reminds you that you are up against something much larger and much more powerful than the regular foes you are facing – a very effective and fairly unique aspect. Games like ´Resident Evil´ usually put you up against larger enemies in boss battles only. ´Alan Wake´ often confronts you with those forces without you being able to fight back. With these supernatural phenomena suggesting an evil omnipresence, you may be reminded of movies like ´Poltergeist´.

The game also draws on many other elements from seminal horror films. As in the original ´Nightmare on Elm Street´, no enemy is clearly visible. ´The Taken´ are dark, as if they are covered in soot, and further shrouded in the ethereal, smouldering aura I described earlier. As in ´Evil Dead´, evil voices constantly turn from shrieking high-pitch to an unnatural low and back, while also sounding metallic or robotized. I found this feature as effective as it seemed familiar and almost obvious, which made me wonder why no other game has utilized this before, to my knowledge. Many other journalists at the event noted the outstanding audio design in general.

Finally, the presentation of the story is also unusual for videogames and invokes jargon known from television series. Players a given a recap of the story so far, introduced by the narrator announcing “previously on Alan Wake” and finishing the segment with “Alan Wake continues.”


The hour or so of hands-on time was too short to comment on gameplay mechanics at great length. The level we were able to play took place mostly during the night. We were simply told that the night and day cycle were key gameplay elements, as well as the dynamic weather. As far as health goes, I should mention that your health recharges with time or while standing under a street light or such, where you are also safe from attacks.

The hour was sufficient, though, to be able to say that ´Alan Wake´ looks like a very solid effort and is genuinely scary. It is clearly inspired by media other than videogames, which is refreshing. Its gameplay mechanics, though, draw mainly on tried and tested elements with a few original ideas thrown in for good measure. In stark contrast to a title like ´Heavy Rain´, ´Alan Wake´ feels more like a traditional game. It throws you into the action straight away and gives you the story basics later, while ´Heavy Rain´ takes a long time before you get to do anything exciting in the traditional sense of action videogames. Whether this will help or hinder sales remains to be seen. But, perhaps unfortunately, I believe that the majority of gamers will stick with what they know. So I expect ´Alan Wake´ to sell more copies than ´Heavy Rain´.

Coming up

Finally, I will be attending the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco next month. So stick with me while I can bring you more exclusive impressions of upcoming titles. Later this year, I will be able to make a big announcement regarding my work. And if only my various contacts get back in touch, I should also be able to publish the article on Polish Wii developer Nibris within a few weeks.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

´Heavy Rain´ to turn the tide for PS3

The PlayStation3 exclusive ´Heavy Rain´ is likely to turn the tide for the console, which has been trailing its competitors up until now. The installed hardware base is now within close range of the Xbox360 and – if buyers perceive a better line-up of games – could be set to overtake it this year. The current tally is as follows:

Wii: 67.45 million
Xbox360: 39 million
PlayStation3: 33.71 million

I believe that, given the recent surge in sales, Sony CEO Howard Stringer is confident that the PlayStation branch can soon turn a profit. I no longer believe that Sony is considering leaving the home console business, although that possibility was certainly discussed by Sony executives over the last years. For a final judgement, of course, we will have to wait for the introduction of ´Project Natal´ and ´Sphere´. How the public perceives these new motion control technologies will determine the fate of both the PS3 and Xbox360.

´Heavy Rain´ – a videogaming milestone

As far as ´Heavy Rain´ is concerned, I can assure you that it is a milestone of videogaming and, if marketed effectively, can certainly help to turn the tide for the PlayStation3. It is a thriller with an extremely dense and dark atmosphere, developed by Quantic Dream (´Fahrenheit´, aka ´Indigo Prophecy´). It draws from movies like ´Blade Runner´, but also ´Saw´. As a game, it is highly reminiscent of ´Shenmue´, since it involves players in cut-scenes via quick time events and does not follow the usual pacing of action titles. Instead, the player is invited to take his time and has to engage in mundane tasks, such as cooking lunch, taking a shower or minding kids and infants. As in ´Shenmue´, the game offers an unusually slow but rewarding pacing. The mundane tasks serve to identify with the characters and to only heighten the action which invariably follows.

What greatly sets it apart from ´Shenmue´ is that the game always continues, even if you miss all the quick time events. Your current character (out of a total of four playable ones) may die or another character may die as a result of your failure. But the game will continue, missing out chapters that would have contained those characters, and bringing the story to a conclusion, albeit a grim one. The story, it is claimed, will always make sense, no matter how it plays out individually. And, of course, the choices are sometimes drastic and not easy. Would you go as far as to harm yourself in order to save your child’s life?

As such, ´Heavy Rain´ is taking a number of big risks. If you only play through it once, you will only see a fraction of the entire game. Also, the player is bound to feel frustration and regret, since you cannot easily restart the game when you failed in a specific task. Ideally, the game should be played through without any cheating. For some, frustration may simply put them off. But the majority, I believe, will simply itch to play the game again, right after finishing it for the first time. ´Heavy Rain´ certainly has the highest replay value of any such game I have ever seen.

Emotionally engaging, astounding graphics

And, I can assure you, it is a very emotional game. The plight of a father who wants to save his remaining son from a serial killer is extremely well communicated and the mundane tasks aid this greatly. Playing with a withdrawn and depressed child and eventually making him laugh is utterly rewarding and emotionally engaging. This effectively raises the stakes for you performing well. Failure will result in some feelings of guilt.

The graphics are nothing short of astounding. I attended the game’s premiere in Paris and meeting the actors was an eerie experience, because some of them looked exactly like their digital counterparts. In fact, I would argue, the game is so much closer to photorealism than any other game that you inevitably realize just how far we still have to go to achieve full photorealism. Real facial expressions are extremely subtle, based on dozens and dozens of intricate muscles. In ´Heavy Rain´, the range of emotional expressions is still limited and so the acting comes across as a little woody. But this is by far the best effort in this regard ever. It is leaps and bounds ahead of any other game and probably will remain so for some years to come.

Forgivable flaws

The game is not without its flaws, of course. Since the camera will change automatically, to give you that cinematic experience, the controls are compromised. You start off in one direction, but if the game cuts to an opposing camera angle, you will end up pointing the analogue stick straight back while continuing to walk forward. There is a small latency built in, so you don’t mess up when correcting your path. But it is a little awkward nonetheless.

Also, the frame rate ranges from excellent to abysmal, especially when surrounded by around one hundred people. But these slight technical issues appear irrelevant, given the most rewarding experience that ´Heavy Rain´ offers. An admissible criticism is the fact that the player’s freedom is an illusion, to some extent. Not all quick time events have wide-ranging consequences. You cannot, for example, save the main character’s first son from being killed in a car accident in the very beginning, no matter how well you keep up with him. So ´Heavy Rain´ also shows the limits of a non-linear videogame. But with more than two dozen different endings, this is as good as it gets.

There are some minor features worth noting. Innovatively, it allows the player to show the current character’s thoughts via what looks like a tag cloud. The same system is used for conversations. If the character is irate, the tag cloud will shake and make your choice more difficult.

Launch Event

At the Paris launch event, legendary director Terry Gilliam headed a group of movie professionals which discussed the game. Speaking to Gilliam, he found much praise for ´Heavy Rain´ and, after a screening of the first hour, noted many scenes that played out differently when he had played it. I wondered whether the rich artistic visions he brought to the silver screen, such as ´Brazil´, could ever be realized in a videogame and acknowledged the intrinsic contradiction between a linear story and an interactive medium. But Gilliam was genuinely convinced that videogames had great potential as a storytelling tool and that ´Heavy Rain´ illustrated that potential well. Speaking to David Cage, he was flattered by me calling the game a milestone. He downplayed the comparison with ´Shenmue´, though, telling me that he never played it, which is striking, given the parallels. The event on the whole was impressive, if only for the presence of such a talented movie director as Terry Gilliam.

Experience it yourself

Finally, I urge every one of you to play this game and experience it for yourself. It could easily become a system-seller for the console. Needless to say, it will be bundled with the hardware. Let us see whether ´Heavy Rain´ can truly turn the tide for the PlayStation3. On Friday, I get a close look at ´Alan Wake´. Stay tuned to find out how these games compare and measure up.

EDIT I have to slightly reevaluate the game after playing it a second time. My assertion that "if you only play through it once, you will only see a fraction of the entire game" was wrong. It turns out that only very few key scenes can have potential consequences at all. Very often, missing QTEs causes the game to wait for you until you get it right, like ´Shenmue´.

Here are some examples (from earlier chapters to minimize the spoiler effect). When the detective needs to reach for his inhaler, you have no time limit at all. You can safely leave the game for an hour and come back and he will still be waiting for you. Him collapsing without the medicine and the story taking a different turn has not been implemented.

In Ethan's dream-like sequence in the station, you have an unlimited number of attempts to focus on the task of getting through the crowd. Again, you cannot fail. Worse still, later in the game you need to steer the detective's car while an upset passenger is trying to steer it in the opposite direction. Getting everything right yields the same result as missing every single one. You will be able to see this in my review when it goes on air and online at the same time, next Sunday.

In another instance, there appears to be no consequence of the first fight scene, regardless of whether you lose or win. Only walking away from it altogether slightly changes an upcoming scene. Finally, even the dialogue choices lead to the same answers, regardless of whether you act compassionate or cold. This was the case in all dialogue scenes I tested.

Of course, many of the above instances may contribute to an aggregate which will determine which end scene you will get. However, a great many moments where you feel you have to perform well ´or else´ have no immediate effect. This, of course, mitigates the game's ambitious goals, as well as its replay value.

In the few key scenes I mentioned, two out of the four playable characters can die, in which case subsequent chapters featuring them will be dropped. And not knowing which scenes are key will give the players the illusion of a story constantly branching off. It is, however, an illusion to a large extent. And I would estimate that playing through the game once will get you to experience around seventy percent of content or more. It is still a remarkable game and a welcome break from the norm, as well as the new standard in interactive storytelling. ´Heavy Rain´ simply leaves it up to successors in the genre to offer a broad range of choices and consequences.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Iwata comments on new hardware

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata made various comments regarding new hardware the company was working on, likely to succeed both the current Wii and DS consoles. Iwata noted firstly in an investors note (Japanese), translated by Andriasang:

If asked if making the Wii compatible with high definition - just making it compatible with high resolution - will get players throughout the world to buy it, I would of course say, 'Do you think it would sell with just that? It needs something new.' (...)

If there were no rival makers in the world, I could give examples of the things that we are considering. However, for competitive reasons, I cannot give specifics today on the what or when of the things we're considering.

Speaking to The Associated Press (via Yahoo News), Iwata was keen to quell rumours about a new DS equipped with motion-sensors, as well as about a hardware revision for the Wii, capable of high-definition video output.

"I question whether those features would be enough to get people to buy new machines," he said of the DS. Nintendo engineers are developing new machines, he said, without giving details.

Iwata also doesn't expect 3D video-gaming to catch on, although he welcomed 3D movies at theaters like James Cameron's hit "Avatar."

"I have doubts whether people will be wearing glasses to play games at home. How is that going to look to other people?" he said at a Tokyo hotel.

Sony Corp. and other technology companies are making big investments in 3-D TVs, expecting it will boost sales growth in the next few years.

Kyoto-based Nintendo, the maker of Pokemon and Super Mario games, would also have to look into the possible health effects of longtime 3-D game playing, which is likely to last longer than a two-hour film, Iwata said.

Iwata made it clear that successors to both DS and Wii will have to go beyond high-definition and motion sensors. His comments on 3D technology seem highly sceptical. However, he specifically mentions traditional stereoscopic displays with either polarised or shutter glasses. Long-time readers will know that autostereoscopic displays (not requiring any kind of headgear) are in the pipeline and could already be offered at a mass-market price.

I personally see 3D technology as the only possible option for Nintendo, as far as a Wii successor is concerned. And Nintendo has earned enough money over the Wii's lifespan so far to make the investments necessary for such a revolution in gaming. With the advent of streaming content threatening all current consoles and with both Sony and Microsoft adopting motion controls for their high-definition hardware, this would be the only technology to give them an edge against both of those threats.

Sources: Nintendo (Japanese), Andriasang, Associated Press (via Yahoo News)
Thanks to: Joystiq

PlayStation3 to become fully compatible with PSP games

The PlayStation3 will become fully compatible with PlayStation Portable software, the latest system update to so-called debug consoles has revealed. The PS3 Debug Firmware 3.15 has revealed a PSP Emulator. This find has been discussed on the PS3News forums, but has not been reported by media outlets.

This could mean, in practice, that you could buy portable games via a PSP Go and then transfer then to and play them on your PS3 and vice versa. Will this give the ailing platform the boost it so desperately needs? The PSP Go currently sells less than 2.000 units in Japan in one week.

Thanks to: PS3News forums