Random Thoughts

Tech, words and musings from an Englishman in Seattle

Magnetic Scrolls: A Interview with Michael Bywater

Here's a little gem I just found on the interwebs: an interview with Michael Bywater. Michael is an astounding wordsmith; writer of my favourite columns in Punch and allegedly slept with my boss. Not my current boss, mind you.

Some gems:

My main memories are of course of Anita. And her bull terrier, Murdoch. And of the chaotic offices in the ancient and haunted part of London called The Borough, a warren of streets and alleys on the south side of London Bridge…

and…

Even things like Myst - which, hell, was just a droopy post-hippie HyperCard stack with a rather good music loop -- were way below the level of Magnetic Scrolls or Infocom in narrative terms. So the era came to an end.

My time at Magnetic Scrolls was a wonderful time of my life and I enjoyed every moment of it. Hopefully this article will give you some sense of what it was like for the non-engineering folks who passed our way.

Read it over here.

Finally Got A Wii

I randomly happened to be in Best Buy this afternoon with Julian and we were wandering past the shelves of Wii games.

“Hey dad! There's a Diego! game here, can we get it?”

“Sorry little dude, that's a Wii game and we don't have one those consoles.”

Cue the little dude doing the “I'm sad, you suck” thing, when I look down and see about ten boxes of what look like consoles. Note that I've never seen a Wii console retail box before - noone ever has them…

I pick it up. I feels heavy.

I look at it. It does indeed appear to actually be one of those fabled console units.

“Little dude! You're in luck! Go grab a second controller, a second nunchuck and a component AV connector while you're at it!”.

“Dad, I lost you at 'controller'.”

“Just grab that Diego game, I'll get the rest.”

And we left the store fully loaded with Nintendo gear…

Diversion: This evening I set everything up and am now determined to get a new A/V receiver for the home. Our TV our has one HDMI input, but tons of component ones. I really want it to switch the video signal, so I'm investigating something that can take 2 HDMI inputs, 3 components inputs, a smattering of optical and regular audio and just switch it all for me.

Any suggestions?

Anyhow, this little game unit rocks! I recognize I'm over a year late, but playing tennis and baseball, etc… with a motion sensitive controller is awesome. I also had a lot of fun creating Miis for all the family..

Little dude is going to have so much fun.

When I let him have a turn, that is.

RIP, Gary Gygax

Rest in peace Gary, the worlds you created and enabled others to create will be remembered.

Nice job Sir. You entertained a generation (or three).

Why Am I Sceptical About Hillary Clinton?

I find nothing appetizing about people that jump on a political bandwagon, especially in an area that I care deeply about.

Clinton, who is reportedly planning to seek the Democratic presidential nomination for the 2008 election, has aligned herself with hardline right-wing Republican senators in order to pressure Congress into researching the impact of electronic media on children.

Games are an art form. Politics does not belong in art.

Flame on.

A Different Take On Dance Dance Revolution

As seen at this year's Burning Man: Dance Dance Immolation. You gotta love a project with the tagline Dance Dance Revolution. With Flamethrowers. Pointed at you.

DDR1]

From the creators' website

Dance Dance Immolation is an adaptation of the popular arcade video game Dance Dance Revolution, but with fire! Basically, you play DDR; when you do well, the computer shoots big propane blasts up into the air. When you do poorly, it shoots you in the face with flamethrowers. Yes, you, as in your actual corporeal body. And yes, flamethrowers, like the kind that are on fire.

Check it out.

[Tip'O'Hat to VentureBeat for the link.]

1 Photo by nck wntrhltr

iTunes 7 and The Steve Jobs Show

A bunch of cool stuff was announced at the Steve Jobs Show this morning, including a couple of things that I found really interesting.

First up is iPod Games - Casual games on your iPod. Very cool and yet another outlet for the rapidly growing casual games industry.

Second was the integration of CoverFlow into iTunes.

Other than that, there's cool new hardware including a direct play for the Media Center space, and a bunch of new iPods.

Oh, and the UI upgrade in iTunes 7 is very sleek.

Need Some Stunning 3D Landscapes?

If you need some great content creation tools, especially for your new Xbox 360 project, Daz is offering free downloads of the excellent Bryce 3D Creator. I always wondered what happened to Bryce…

Anyhow, if you're building a title with static backdrops, ala a side scroller, you can't go wrong by checking this product out. The price is great.

Bryce

Offer ends, September 6th.

[Tip'O'Hat to Steve Kennedy for the link.]

Make Your Own Xbox Game?

I've been holding off on commenting about the XNA Game Studio Express announcement because I didn't want to sound like a wet towel, but enough is enough :-)

Let me preface this with the fact that This Is A Good ThingTM, but lets take it for what it is.

Microsoft have enabled anyone to write code for the Xbox 360, and deploy it locally to your own console. Yes you can share the fruits of your efforts with others who have also subscribed to the service, and only in source form. I'm sure this will change in the future, but AFAIK, you can't share the compiled final product with your mate who isn't a developer.

Ok, so with that out of the way, here's the other thing.

It isn't going to come with Will Wright in the box. That's right folks, pesky things like game design, art creation, and coding mojo are still issues.

There won't be a “Make Triple-A Title” button.

I'm sure that XNA Studio will provide a ton of graphics clip art, sample models, and sample code, but there aren't going to be sample game designs, sample cool new ideas or sample innovative game mechanics.

Oh, and one more thing. Anyone can make a game with their PC right now. Just download Visual Studio Express - it's free, or maybe pick up a copy of Torque Game Builder from Garage Games - it's only $100.

What Microsoft have done is provided a cheap way for hobbyist (or cash strapped indie) game developer to target the Xbox 360. This is a good thing - it was very expensive beforehand. I'm sure that a few of these titles will be picked up by mainstream publishers, or Microsoft itself.

Just don't expect thousands of high-class titles to start rolling out of basements anytime soon. It's just another platform. Albeit a cool one.

Now, where do I sign up? :-)

Flight Simulator X Demo

My former colleagues at Microsoft have released a demo version of FSX. All I can say is wow! You have to believe me when I say that this is no mean feat - actually producing the thing before the product goes final and shipping the demo of a two DVD game within the size of a CD (I have to say, it's mighty close at 634MB :-)

Well done, guys and gals.

Go and download it now!

And while you're at it, check out the very cool new flash site.

RIP E3? Maybe More Of A Metamorphosis

It looks like E3, the videogame industry's largest annual event, is going to be going through some serious changes.

In contradiction to an earlier report from NextGen that the event is going to be cancelled for next year and the foreseeable future, Ars Technica is reporting that the conference is going to refocus and move to a more closed-door format.

That's pretty big news, although interestingly enough I never made it to the event - too much like marketing for my then developer centric viewpoint :-) I wonder if this means that the marketing focus will switch over to GDC. I've been to almost every GDC since 1995 and increasingly it's been an event where more and more deals are being done.

I wonder if that, along with the increasing expense of exhibiting, made it no longer worthwhile?

More to the point, with the exposure that new games get online these days, what, if any, was the point at all?

As a side note, one of the big problems with E3 from a game development standpoint was that E3 had to effectively be a milestone in your schedule. If you were shipping that (or even the next) year, you had to show at E3 and that meant producing a playable stable build that was good enough to put in front of people that might determine the future of your products sales.

And that build had to be produced no matter how disruptive it was to your development schedule. If effect, E3 could lengthen your schedule.

Pub Quiz Heaven

Those that know me will know that I'm a huge fan of Pub Quizzes. They are a big thing in the UK (or at least were when I lived there). For those of you that are not familiar, they a typically run at a bar where you form a team of four to six people with your friends. You make up an amusing name for your team and answer questions read by the quiz master. You write the answers on a provided sheet of paper and there are typically four or five rounds of ten questions. Each round is usually themed as something like “sport” or “general knowledge”.

In between rounds you exchange papers with another team and mark each others papers as the answers are read out.

Lots of fun, but sadly not very common in the US, apart from the Irish or English bars.

Now, an Irish bar recently opened in Kirkland, the Wilde Rover - a decent bar with a great atmosphere and great food. Handily it also started up a pub quiz night on Wednesday evenings.

Tonight I hooked up with Andy (The ZMan) and his running club friends for the quiz. We started out badly with a two out of ten and proceeded to do mediocre things. There was even a round themed on “fashion”, which, surprisingly, we didn't do too bad on.

Anyhow, when round three which was announced as “the classic video game round”, we were a little bit ecstatic to say the least.

We were writing down answers before the quiz master and even finished the question. I believe “Dragon's Lair” was written down before he'd finished saying “Which laserdisc game featured…”.

There was even a four point question if you could name all the ghosts in Pacman. Four points scored. Inky, Pink, Blinky and Clyde.

We only got two question wrong, the first being the number of enemies in the first wave of Space Invaders. We had 56, but the answer was 55.

But it was the second that was really interesting to me: “What was Sega's first game?”

I had a problem with this question as I knew that Sega started out shipping coin-op games to US Military stationed overseas. I thought the answer should be “pinball”, so I asked for the clarification “game or video-game”? The answer was video-game and we were stumped.

It turned out to be Periscope.

Anyhow, that round thrust us into the lead and we held on it.

We won!

The $60 almost paid the bar tab, and when delivering our winnings to us, the quiz master quipped “You smoked that game round - you guys didn't get out much as kids did you?”

To which Andy had the perfect response: “We spent so much time playing video games that we didn't get laid until we were 35!”

A fun evening.

Casuality Day Two - The Asian Business Model

Today started out with a session by the IGDA Causal Games SIG. They've put out an hundred page white paper detailing how the industry works. This is now on my reading list :-)

There was also a presentation called “Don't Roll Over”. This was basically a rant about the fact that portals don't share advertising revenue with developers. This is changing (Microsoft and Real Networks have said that they're moving towards this), but it's currently a lot of revenue being left on the table by the developers.

Next up was an interesting session about the business model for casual games in Korea. This model grew out of the fact that piracy is rampant in Asia - boxed retail products make no sense.

Nexon has been in the industry for a while - they have titles such as KartRider that 25% of the population play! That's right - 25% of the entire population of Korea play KartRider.

Their model is free gameplay and the purchasing of items. These items may be decorative (personalization) or functional (speed boost, inventory bag, etc…) You have to be really careful about functional items as you don't want to skew competitiveness. Any item that changes game balance causes a barrier to entry for new players - they would have to buy the item to be competitive.

Strike Force is another of their games. This is basically a port of an FPS into the casual space, but it pulls in $5M per month in item purchases.

This model is in stark contrast to the US model which primarily revolves around try before buy. Revenue is purely purchase of game, advertising and subscription. The conversion rate of demo to purchase is currently at 2% in the US.

A Word Of Advice To Conference Organisers

So far, Casuality is providing some great nuggets of content that I'll be writing about in due time, but I had to get this one off of my chest. Sorry for the rant…

What's wrong with this picture?

That's right. The last bullet point.

This was the first slide that conference attendees at Casuality saw this morning and it effectively says:

  • “There's a cool party going on this evening.”
  • “You're not invited.”
  • “No one attending the party paid to attend the conference.”
  • “You're paying for the party.”

Of course, every conference has these parties/receptions and they're obviously a required “thank you” to the presenters, but why rub the paying attendees' noses in it?

In addition the schedule in the printed programme is chock full of sessions that are marked as invite only. Why put them in the program and again annoy the attendees with the information that they're not part of the “in crowd”?

Presumably the people invited to these events actually have an invitation and don't need the handy reminder in the printed schedule.

And why was there no lunch provided? With only a one hour break for lunch, there's not a lot of opportunity to leave the venue and find something, plus the incurred cost of the reduction in schmooze time…

Gnomedex, with a similar size and similar price point seems to find a way to provide way more out-of-session value. Not to mention the incredible food…

Casuality: The Casual Game Developers' Conference - Day One Prequel

Today is the first day of Casuality, the Casual Game Developers' Conference being held today through Thursday in Seattle at the Benaroya Hall - home of the Seattle Symphony.

Benaroya Hall

Seattle is a hotbed of casual game development, with publishers and developers such as Microsoft, Real Networks, PopCap, etc… calling the area home.

With revenues from casual games in the millions and development costs an order of magnitude smaller than “traditional” computer games, it's no wonder that interest in the genre is hotting up.

Anyhow, why am I here?

Well, I'm a game developer (even though I'm working on something in a different space right now) and the conference is local. It was about time I learnt a bit more about the casual games space.

So today started just like normal when I'm attending an event in Seattle. I left way too early - 7am - as I never trust the traffic on the way into town, and arrived very shortly thereafter at 7.30am - a full two hours before the start of the conference.

Sigh.

I bet if I'd left at a sensibly late time I would've been stuck in traffic for hours…

So to kill some time I thought I'd find somewhere for breakfast - something I rarely do.

Breakfast

Just down the street I found a place Harried and Hungry, a bit hipper than my normal haunts, but cheap and they served up a great egg and sausage bagel. Shame about the side of avocado - it went untouched, poor thing. That was the “hip” bit. Recommended.

Back to the venue and it is now 8.30am - I register (first in line); pick up the requisite freebie bag and associated crap and boot up the laptop.

Only another hour to kill…

Audio Acceleration on the GPU?

This post, ATI eyes audio acceleration on the GPU, had me remenicing about the early days of Direct3D again.

What most people don't realize is that in the early days on Direct3D many of the 3D accelerators (or sometimes “decelerators”1) where in fact very general purpose DSPs. At that point in time (mid-1995) many of the hardware guys were very surprised at the rapid mindshare growth of consumer 3D hardware. We're talking people like Evans and Sutherland, SGI, etc…

Brief interlude.

Regarding Direct3D and the following OpenGL v. Direct3D wars, one point I feel is worth making is that if it were not for Direct3D, we would not have the gaming platforms that we have today.

In 1995, 3D was stalled, noone was innovating and OpenGL was stagnant. It was only after the release of Direct3D that OpenGL started to make any headway.

In fact, at lunch during the hardware guys' day at Aftermath event, we put a pre-release PS1 on the main video screen running Tekken in demo mode. You could see the palpable fear in most of the hardware guys' faces. “What is that?” “That's not realtime.” These guys, with very few exceptions, were missing the boat.

End of interlude, now where was I?

Many hardware startups in the Valley at that time were putting together DSP based ISA (or even the new PCI) boards to offload modem, audio and other functionality from the overwhelmed CPU.

These guys recognized a good thing when they saw it and decided that they could add 3D graphics too. It's all just vector math isn't it?

The Chromatic Mpact part was a case in point. It was a modem, an audio card and a 3D accelerator all rolled into one! Step right up! Well, until you tried to run a few thousand triangles per second through it. Mind you, they had some very cool booths at the shows.

None of the parts of this generation performed triangle setup (apart from the 3DFX Voodoo 1) and they all sucked to one degree or another.

But a special place in my heart is taken by the Rendition Veritee 1000.

Rendition was a true entrepreneureal company built by engineers. Those guys were great. They were the only guys to have hardware ready for Comdex 1995 where we (or rather Ty Graham, our hardware evangelist) showed hardware-accelerated Direct3D for the first time.

Servan (one of the founders of RenderMorphics) and I had locked ourselves away in an office on campus after the Aftermath event and we had a week until Comdex. We finished the driver model, an API that could drive it and had the famous2 “tunnel” sample running on it.

But for a driver model we needed a driver and some hardware. Here was where Rendition really stepped up. One of the guys from Rendition came up to Redmond and basically lived with us. He was writing driver code while we were writing the driver model. Talk about bleeding edge.

The prototype, hot off the chip foundry, V1000 was mounted on a red prototype board with a fan glued to it. Unfortunately, when plugged into the bus on the machines we had, the board was upside down and every hour or so the glue would melt and the fan would fall off. Much hilarity ensued. Much pizza was eaten.

At four in the morning on the first day of Comdex, Ty walked into the office, already late for his flight to Vegas, and witnessed tunnel running at lightning frame rates. We packed up the dev machine in a flight case and off he went - by all accounts everyone was awed by this cheap piece of consumer 3D hardware.

I still have that board.

But that's not the point of this narrative.

The point is that the V1000 was a DSP based part that stored it's microcode in it's onboard memory in an address space just below VGA memory.

Which meant that any bug in the driver, especially the clipping code, caused Direct3D to render triangle fragments all over the microcode. It didn't just blue screen. Can you say hard lockup, push the big red reset button?

And here's my other point. Man, was that fun.

[Thanks to Ars Technica for the link.]

1 This term was originally applied to one the first parts out of S3 and I think, ahem, that I coined it… 

Live Streaming In Second Life

This afternoon I was mucking around in Second Life when a very interesting thing happened.

I had just bought some land in the “podcasting neighbourhood” - near someone quite well known who has a castle, and was checking out (in a nice way) my new neighbours.

Anyhow, I stumbled upon bluggcast who owns a nice piece of waterfront next to the Curry Castle and we started chatting.

It turns out that the music I was hearing was his live shoutcast stream which he was feeding from a laptop in his hotel room in Boston.

While he was chatting to me.

It was fun to hear him give a shout out to me over his live stream.

I tell ya, visceral experiences of all types are melding…

Tags: .

Apparently Graphics Are Optional

This might sound a bit heretical from someone who spent the last eleven years of his life working on graphics engine (just go and look at the screenshots for Flight Simulator X - mmmmm yummy), but you need more than just a great engine to ship product. It'd be nice if you had a reasonably nice one though.

In fact, you don't need a great graphics engine at all.

Just take a look at Second Life.

The graphics are, to put it mildly, pants.

Circa 1996 pants, and that's being generous.

But of course, that doesn't matter because they're not selling to the hardcore FPS gamer, and they are making a crap load of money (and raising a load of funding too).

They're building a great experience that appeals to a lot of people.

Good for them, but the graphics still offend my sensibilities - I think they get away with it because their customer base just doesn't know any better.

And don't give me any of that “but our customers' machine capabilities are all over the map - writing engines that work on the full range of machines from no 3D hardware to the latest NVidia monster is hard.”

Yes, it's hard. But everyone else in the industry has been solving that problem for years. Just hire a couple of decent engineers1.

Imagine what it would be like with an engine with the quality of FlightSim or Guild Wars

Now that would be something to write home about.

1 Well, maybe they have - their upcoming features for the next build of the client claims “now with hardware lighting!”. Whoop-de-doo. 

The 1995 DirectX Party Doom Video

Somehow the video that I mentioned talked about last July, the video that had Bill Gates playing the protagonist in Doom, has finally seen the light of day.

I thought that video had been destroyed or locked up in the bowels of the PR department.

Before you view this, remember this was late October 1995, DirectX had yet to be released and Doom was the game. The video was shown at a party (Judgement Day) thrown by the DirectX team. The next day was the “Aftermath” event, where we revealed the initial implementation of Direct3D.

Check it out over on YouTube.

[Thanks to Mick Stanic for the link.]

Flight Simulator Team Talks at GDC

Just in case you're going to be at the Game Developers' Conference in San Jose next week and didn't know, two members of the Flight Simulator development team will be giving presentations.

Adam Szofran will be giving a talk on the “Global Terrain Technology for Flight Simulation”:

This talk presents some of the terrain engine technology developed by Microsoft Game Studios. Of particular interest are techniques for handling the large amount of geospatial data required to represent the Earth from the surface up to orbital altitudes. Also discussed are fiber- and thread-based technologies for composing surface textures on the fly at run-time using a variety of geospatial data. The last part of the presentation focuses on how to triangulate a global, multiresolution terrain mesh requiring double-precision coordinates when the rendering hardware only supports single-precision coordinates.

and Adrian Woods will be presenting “The Make Art Button: Batches, Actions, and Scripts”:

Do something once, it's creative. Do something twice, it's repetitive. Do something three times, you can probably automate it.

This session gives artists tools they can use to help minimize repetitive tasks and maximize creativity and iteration. Using the dreaded DOS prompt, Photoshop actions and droplets, and MaxScript, the speaker shows how technical ability can actually unleash creativity. For example, you can use MaxScript to enable in-game visuals never seen before. You can use Photoshop actions to speed up production time. And you can use the DOS prompt. Spend less time getting carpal tunnel syndrome, and more time creating beautiful artwork.

I wish I was going to be there, but my current employer won't let me…

A Disease?

Aren't there quite a few other things more important and relevant than videogames for the CDC to be worrying about?

Oh, and maybe while Lieberman and Clinton are at it, they could find some real issues to pontificate on? Come on. Big issues. There's quite a few around right now - help the party out a little here.

[Tip'o'the'hat to Greg Costik for the link.]

Game Development in the late eighties

YouTube has an interesting video of a BBC TV program that dates back to the late 1980s.

The program follows two UK game developers, Imagine and Ocean, as they get ready to put out titles in time for the holiday period.

One one hand it's amusing to see the silly hairstyles and clothes, but on the other hand it's interesting to see the parallels that still exist in the business of game development.

Watch Commercial Breaks: Imagine & Ocean Games.

[Thanks to Alice for the link.]

Flight Simulator and SLI

There appears to be a general confusion in the forums about what SLI is, how it works, how applications take advantage of it, whether Flight Simulator gains any advantage, etc…

Hopefully this will clear up some of these issues, but first a caveat. I don't have an SLI system and I've never seen Flight Simulator running on an SLI system. This information is based on what I know, so take from that what you will.

SLI itself is a bit of a misnomer. SLI stands for (or used to) [S]can [L]ine [I]nterleaved. Basically, one horizontal scan line goes to one card, the next goes to the other, etc… Now this doesn't mean that you get 2x the performance as there's a bunch of work that has to be done on the hardware no matter what pixels are being filled e.g. clipping triangles, performing vertex shader operations, etc…

This is basically what the original consumer level (i.e. 3DFX circa 1998) was doing, because no consumer 3D hardware performed the geometry transform and full triangle setup on the hardware. It was all done in software and then the final projected triangle with all associated edge derivatives were sent to the hardware. The overhead of the per triangle stuff was only incurred once.

With the hardware doing little else other than filling pixels, the true SLI mode made sense. It also made playing the original Half Life with a 3DFX Voodoo 2 SLI setup a lot of fun…

Fast forward a few years and hardware is doing pretty much all the work, that means that sharing the rendering load between multiple cards very hard. To be quite honest, most apps are geometry and transform bound - the 3D hardware vendors have got very good at pushing pixel fill-rate, while the busses that get the data to the card haven't really kept up. Stick two cards in the mix and you've doubled the data that needs to be sent to each card.

Of course, they could arrange for one card to be a conduit to the other card, or something like that, but I'm just speculating as I don't actually know…

It's very easy to saturate an AGP bus with 3D data, let alone the PCI bus. Just ask any audio developer about the fact that the graphics guys have been eating all the bandwidth.

Now, with PCI Express the bandwidth has gone up again, and we're on our own bus. Also, the graphics card guys need to boost the speed again (and of course they want to sell you more than one of their quite expensive cards), so SLI makes a return.

This is goodness, but as far as I can tell it's not really SLI - i.e. they're not interleaving scan lines, but rather providing a bunch of different ways the cards can be used in tandem. Techniques such as splitting the screen in half and sending one half to each card; rendering one frame on one card and the next on the other card; etc…

Check out NVidia's website for the various options that they provide.

So, at the end of the day, it's a way to split the rendering between multiple cards - though it'll probably never get you a real 2x performance improvement. Of course that doesn't matter though - anything better than 1x is good!

So, what about the application (i.e. Flight Simulator)?

The application knows nothing.

It's all hidden under the hood of the driver - there is nothing the application needs to do to enable it, support it or anything it.

Of course, we may do some interesting things that make it hard for SLI to work effectively, but hey, we shipped first. Hehe.

Anyhow, these guys have done some testing and it looks like it does improve the graphics (in particular fill-rate) performance, as you'd expect.

Does that make sense?

(Short) Movie Review - Transporter 2

This completely rocked. If you're a fan of the first movie, you'll love the sequel.

Well, other than the fact that the lead character appears to have switched from BMW to Audi…

I said it would be short…

Bonus Trivia: Jason Stratham who plays the lead role (and is an incredibly useful actor) also has the lead role in “In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale” a movie based on the Microsoft published RPG “Dungeon Siege”. Read more

More on the “Uncanny Valley”

A great article over on Wired regarding photorealism in games.

The concept of the “[Uncanny Valley”]“ has been one that has interested me for a while. When I first started working in 3D graphics it was a common maxim that ”reality is just 80 million more polygons", but what everyone has been realizing over the past few years is that, as far as characters are concerned, it's the animation and shading…

From the Wikipedia entry on the issue:

The principle states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached at which the response suddenly becomes strongly repulsive; as the appearance and motion are made to be indistinguishable to that of human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-human empathy levels.

[Thanks to Rob for the link]

Xbox 360 advertising

OK, I admit it, it's taken a while for me to latch onto the potential behind Peter Moore's advertising campaign.

I'm now a convert (Shawn, you win). This absolutely, freaking, rocks.

The Jump Rope and Water Balloon adverts left me feeling: “err, OK, but what did you actually tell me about the product?” But that's not the point.

I guess I'm too “type-A gamer”; too “get to the point”; too “anti-Madison Avenue”. But I see the light.

He's taking on Sony at their own game.

And he's winning.

The Movies

Lionhead's new game, “The Movies” hit the shelves last week.

Imagine you could make any movie you wanted to. Imagine you could pluck someone from obscurity and make him or her the hottest star in Tinseltown. Imagine that you had control of an entire movie studio, competing with others to create a string of box office smashes. Imagine being able to use your judgement alone, deciding whether success lies with epic action pictures or lots of low budget, hammy 'B' movies.

As well as being a cool looking god-game, you actually get to generate real movies, and many of these movies generated by players have begun to appear on Lionhead's site.

Some of these are great; some of them are very, very wrong

More spin from Sony

I really try to avoid writing anything that smacks of flaming the competition, but this is just pure spin. Via Gamespot

Appearing at the Tokyo International Digital Conference on Thursday to talk about the technological capabilities of the PlayStation 3 and the Cell processor, Sony Computer Entertainment president Ken Kutaragi said he expects the PS3 to be capable of running games at a stunning 120fps, according to a report in The Nikkei BP.

What game? What resolution? What graphical or CPU intensive features? Are you going to be running the game's world and physics simulation at 120hz?

I'm sorry, but if you can run at 120hz on current hardware (even the Xbox 360 or PS3) you ain't pushing the hardware hard enough.

The origins of Basketball

Via a mailing list on Game Design, I found a reference to a paper written by James Naismith - the inventor of the game of Basketball. Chapter 3 is very interesting, as it details the process he went through designing the game and formulating it's first set of rules.

I concluded that the most interesting game at that time was American Rugby. I asked myself why this game could not be used as an indoor sport. The answer to this was easy. It was because tackling was necessary in Rugby. But why was tackling necessary? Again the answer was easy. It was because the men were allowed to run with the ball, and it was necessary to stop them. With these facts in mind, I sat erect at my desk and said aloud:

“If he can't run with the ball, we don't have to tackle; and if we don't have to tackle, the roughness will be eliminated.”

I can still recall how I snapped my fingers and shouted, “I've got it!''

What is really interesting, as a European, is that the initial rules, especially rule 3, sound a lot more like Netball (popular in the UK, Australia, NZ, etc…, not really popular at all in the USA), than Basketball.

3. A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it; allowance to be made for a man who catches the ball when running at a, good speed.

It seems to me that Netball is very closely linked to the original design of the game, and that Basketball evolved from that.

Anyhow, this just seemed interesting to me. In the industry there is a large amount of published information about ”videogame" design, but this is the first time I've seen anything about the design of an actual sport.

Plus, it's slightly amusing that the inventor of one of the three big US professional sports was a Canadian…

Dropping in random dlls

Note that this is a bit of a rant, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible... Anything I say is not the opinions of my employer, etc..., etc...

In a recent thread over on AVSim, people have picked up on a "fix" to Flight Simulator that helps fight shimmer with objects (such as AutoGen objects, e.g. trees) that heavily rely on alpha test.

Basically, this dll shims DirectX and forces some state settings, in this case both anti-aliasing and alpha-to-coverage.

Putting aside that it is an incredibly risky thing to be doing "Ah, here's a dll that effectively replaces a system component as far as the app in concerned, lets drop it in and see what happens!" - just witness the people that have had problems:

Dropped the two DXOverride files (.dll and .ini) into my FS9 directory and then found FS9 wouldn't start.

Might I need to edit the ini file? If so, does anyone know what changes I would need to make and why??

...

A friend has a MSI 9800 PRO 128MB card, the tweak is not working for him.

He gets an error message when starting FS9:

"FS cannot run because the version of MS DX installed on your computer is incompatible. Please reinstall DX9.0 by running FS setup."

He reinstalled Windows XP, Service Pack 2, Catalyst 5.8 drivers and FS9 and he stills get the error.

Any help will be appreciated.

...

etc...

Yup - risky thing, but if it works for you, err, ok. Just please don't start calling customer support when random things start going wrong.

Oh, and don't start me on that one. I've lost track of the count of email we check saying something like "Blah add-on won't start because it says FSUIPC is a wrong version, can you help?"

But I digress.

Back to this mod.

As far as I understand it (note, I have not installed it), this mod forces on some newish features on 3D hardware called "Alpha To Coverage". What this basically does is gives you a form of sort-independent transparency It requires anti-aliasing to work as basically it samples the coverage of an output pixel in the multi-sample buffer and uses that to calculate a level of alpha. The problem with normal alpha-test is that it generates hard edges that are unrelated to real geometry - this means that standard multisample anti-aliasing can't help soften the edges.

So, how does this affect you? Well, for a start it forces on anti-aliasing. If you weren't already using anti-aliasing then you just took a big fillrate hit as Flight Simulator his now having to render many more pixels, plus the associated memory requirements for the render targets.

More important is that FlightSim did not know that this is going on. I.e. FlightSim thinks that it's not doing anti-aliasing and is doing different things because of that fact. You're doing things behind it's back - not good (and don't get me started on hardware vendor's "value add" control panels that basically do the same thing). Don't blame FlightSim if you start having panel problems...

Now, lets look at how the fix for alpha-test is enabled in the mod. This is a new feature of some hardware, and not exposed in DirectX 9, so I imagine it is turned on via a vendor specific backdoor to the API similar to this one by nVidia. In this example, a feature is turned on by setting a state that controls adaptive tessellation (i.e. a totally unrelated state), with a value that is a private communication between the vendor's driver and the application.

Does that sound portable and hardware independent to you?

At least if the application is doing it, it has some idea about what is going on (it might have checked PCIIDs to confirm the hardware type, etc...) But in the case where a shim between the application and driver/hardware is doing it? Well, caveat lector...

Algorithmic Entertainment

What a cool definition of games:

Like every other games researcher, I've had to come up with some useful definition, or at least a general notion, of what a game is. Unlike many others, I've dispensed with a lot of the obvious stuff to get to what I find to be most essential.

In my definition, gone are victory conditions or even explicit goals. I've discarded conflict and competition and, perhaps most surprising, even interaction.

I've boiled and sifted, reduced and sorted until I came up with a definition that I think works:

Games are algorithmic entertainment.

I think I need new business cards - "Steve Lacey - Algorithmic Entertainer"

Read more over on buzzcut.com.

Autodesk acquires Alias

Big news in the game development space, Autodesk has agreed to purchase Alias.

For those that don't know, Autodesk produces Max and Alias produces Maya which are competing high-end applications in the 3D modeling and animation space many industry types, but especially for game development.  Most studios use one or the other.  Internally on the Flight Simulator team we use Max, but other studios in MGS use Maya.  Max is a very strong product, but Maya has always been thought of as a stronger animation package.

It'll be interesting to see how this one shakes out.  Discussion abounds in our hallways...

Bungie's New Office

I just had the opportunity to visit Bungie's new Kirkland office which they'll be moving into it very soon. All I can say is wow. A wonderful, vast open space with a high arching ceiling coupled with incredible acoustic damping, right in the heart of downtown Kirkland.

Apparently the Starbucks next door has laid on extra staff for when they move in...

Lucky gits. I'm jealous.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

The current fashion in the games industry, especially amongst games designers that don't appear to be making games that sell well, if they are actually building games at all, is to rant that it's "going all corporate", or that "games are too expensive to make", or "there are no distribution venues for great games", blah blah, ad nauseum.

I could go on.

If you want to make art, then make art. I firmly believe that mainstream games can be art. Look at Half Life 2, Halo, Prince of Persia, Ico, to name but a few.

But I think what most of these critics of the industry want to make is "art-house art". And they want to have the critical and monetary reward for it.

Please feel free to try, and I applaud you if you succeed. But don't blame the rest of the industry for your inability to succeed when what you what to produce does not appeal to the buying public. And don't talk to me about needing to "educate the consumer". That's just elitist arrogance, just like the "in" crowd you never quite fit in with.

In this industry, as in many others, the art requires resources and resources are expensive. That, unfortunately, can make the realization of a perfect dream unattainable. How many glorious movie scripts have gone unproduced?

From Charles Boom's (one of the most talented game developer's I've had the pleasure to work with) 7/30/05 rant:

The people making games in the industry are for the most part doing their best to make good games within the realities of the market. You can't rant at them to get more talented. You can't expect them to do things the market & financing won't tolerate. If you want to rant at someone, rant at the consumers who keep buying the derivative crap, but that's not unique to games, consumers keep flocking to the next pop music wonder, the next explosion-fest movie, etc. Part of the problem with this is the continuing cycle of consumers - the young spend the most on new products, and the young have shitty immature taste.

By no stretch of the imagination am I saying that mainstream games are shitty. I'm saying that your art-house title, or perfect ascetic of what a game should be may not sell well, and as a result be the most attractive prospect for a publisher. Maybe a patron model is needed?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

And remember, for every Steven Spielberg or Robert Rodriguez, we have our Will Wright or Jason Jones.

Meltdown Recap and Satellite Radio

My presentation at Meltdown seemed to go over really well. Pretty well attended and lots of questions. I was surprised that most of the questions were to do with Flight Simulator itself rather than DirectX 10...

Another cool thing was that I was given an XM satellite radio (the Delphi one) as a thank you/commemorative gift. So that's now installed in the Jeep and working well. I have to say that I'm very impressed with satellite radio so far, especially as XM carries the BBC World Service.

Channel 9 At Meltdown

Beth Goza from Channel 9 is here and interviewing people from the DirectX team about gaming and the 10th anniversary of DirectX. As I was there at the beginning of it all, Beth asked if I would do an interview too! So, we went off to a meeting room and David Weller interviewed me about the old days of DirectX while Beth ran the camcorder.

Cool! My second Channel 9 interview!

Presenting At Meltdown

Even though I'm on vacation, I'll be at the DirectX team's Meltdown event this Tuesday and Wednesday. On Tuesday I'll be giving a presentation on the work we're doing to prepare for DirectX 10:

Flight Simulator: Preparing for DirectX 10
Speaker: Steve Lacey

Flight Simulator is a graphics intensive application with a vast amount of pre-existing content. We model the world. In this talk, we'll look at the title with respect to features that will be enhanced by DirectX 10 and new features that will be enabled. We will also look at the processes we are currently undertaking to smooth the transition process.

If you're going to be there, please come and say hi!

Synchronicity

A while ago, I posted about my time at Magnetic Scrolls, a UK adventure games company that I worked for in the late 80's.

Well, a few weeks ago I received some email from Ken Gordon, one of the owners of the company, saying that he'd be in Seattle and would I like to meet up! Sure!

So yesterday he came round to my house and we chatted for ages. I hadn't seen him in probably 15 years. It was like it had only been a few weeks. So we caught up, went for a tour of the Microsoft campus and then he was off back to Seattle to meet his wife.

Then today I get some email from Rob Steggles, one of the writers at the company who found me because I name-checked him on my blog a while ago.

Talk about synchronicity.

The Old Days of Microsoft Evangelism

Via Scoble, I came across this post by Rick Segal. Yup, things were sure different ten years ago. I was in the DirectX team at that point. How many people remember the Judgment Day event for the release of the Games SDK (DirectX 1), where we had Bill playing the part of the protagonist in Doom, the haunted house ride where various rooms were put together by different partners - including a room designed by Gwar...

What about the Pax Romana event where we had game developers dress up in togas, served them meat on huge platters and had live lions in attendance, and the party hosted by DirectX evangelism in New Orleans for Siggraph '97? Now that was interesting...

And yes, the brainwash still exists. I remember it tasting awful, but I still have a few bottles kicking around. I wonder how ten years of aging have treated it.

Interestingly, ten years later at this year's Meltdown, I'm going to be giving a presentation. I've not given a public presentation since leaving the DirectX team in 1998, so this should be fun.

Mind you, they're a lot more organized these days. They want the presentations three weeks in advance. Back in the day, we would still be writing them up to the point we hit the stage...

Follow Your Dream

A good friend of mine and Microsoft guy is leaving the collective to follow his dream. That of becoming a game developer. The ZMan currently works as an enterprise software developer but has recently been working on increasing his skill set in the games development space - as evidenced by his Managed DirectX website and by writing articles for MSDN.

Now he's leaving the company to take a year off and develop his skills.

That takes some gonads.

My parents tell a tale of the child who said he would be a millionaire by the time he was 18 if they bought him a computer so he could write video games. Well I got the computer but the million never happened.

...

Now 20 years later its time to try again. My last day of full time employment as an enterprise application developer with a salary, health and retirement benefits will be July 8th. Shortly afterwards my new job as self employed game developer, living off the savings and paying for everything myself will begin and you can read all about it here.

You can follow his story as it unfolds over on his new blog: The ZMan's Diary.

Xbox 360, PS3 And Software Development

Disclaimer: I don't work for the Xbox group, I just write games. We didn't even get to find out the real name before the MTV show...

When Sony came out with it's comparison slides at E3 early this week it seemed that the PS3 had much greater performance, but when you start thinking about the one cell chip on the PS3 versus three PowerPC chips (with two hardware threads, plus all the one dot product per cycle stuff), the numbers really start to look suspect.

I'd planned on sitting down and doing the math myself to come up with some real numbers, but Major Nelson over in Xbox land has already collated some real comparison data in a four part series over on his blog.

Now we have sensible numbers. But there's another angle. Writing multi-threaded code is hard. It's especially hard when the components you're targeting don't look the same. The PS3 reminds me somewhat of the Sega Saturn - ask any game developer who has been around for a while what writing code for that was like...

Simulations (read: games) are going parallel which is hard, but worthwhile. But it's a lot easier if you're running on hardware threads with the same architecture - and you'll effectively have six of them on Xbox 360 (three CPUs with two hardware threads each).

But try doing that when you have one CPU and seven DSPs to offload the math.

Not to mention the memory bandwidth. Memory bandwidth is often missed when consumers or the press try to compare platforms. The fact is that the speed of the game (and therefore the amount of cool visuals and audio you can present to the end user) is gated by the amount of data you can move around on the system. Especially between the CPUs and the GPU and the GPU to the frame buffer, not the mention the Hi Def frame buffer.

From a software development standpoint this generation is going to be an interesting one as the simulations go more parallel. Typically it takes a few generations of titles for a particular platform for developers to figure out how to eek out maximum performance and find all the tricks they can play. In order to accelerate that process, it comes down to tools, education and developer support. For that, the Xbox guys win hands-down. Xbox and now the Xbox 360 proves that Microsoft knows how to put the best tools and developer support in the hands of the developer.

From my software developer centric point of view, the XBox 360 is a more symmetric, balanced and capable platform.

But don't just take my word for it. Go and read the Major's comparison.

XBox 360

If you were at all disappointed by the MTV special, or you just want to see a great video with much more information about the new console, check out this video.

Earlier today, we got a sneak peak of the MTV special and this video was shown also. I really liked the Colony video - very well done.

Classy and geeky.

Voice Overs

One of the fun things I get to do every once in a while is act as voice talent for various titles being developed here at MGS. For example, I was the Mech pilot 'Nuke' in MechCommander 2 and the Concorde co-pilot in some flights in Flight Simulator 2000.

Well, this morning I got to do some more voice work for another project.

It's a fun and interesting diversion from my normal work, and being from the South of England, I get to put that BBC accent to use!

Oddworld Inhabitants Leaves The Games Behind

Wow. According to the any interview with Lorne Lanning, Oddworld is getting out of the game business due to frustration with the industry. Gamespy has another interview - dunno how I missed this.

This is sad. Lorne is a great game designer and art director. I was privileged to spend a few months in 2001 helping get Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee out the door and enjoyed every minute of it. There were some great developers there also, including Charles Bloom - one of the best programmers, and thinkers, I've met. It's a shame to see the franchise end.

A Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game Of…

...Golf?

Oh yes. I think this might be the MMORPG to finally suck me in. Check out Shot Online.

Shot-Online is not just an online sports game either, but it is a highly accurate simulation and a deep role-playing experience. It is the RPG quality that makes Shot-Online the unique game it is, especially with the community interaction and the enhancement and leveling of your character.

Via Wonderland via Boing Boing.

A Bad Day For Sony

Wow. Sony has been ordered to pay $90.7 million in damages and halt sales of consoles in a patent infringement lawsuit.

Read about it at Business Week.

Scratch The Podcast, It's Time For A Movie

I really wanted to get a podcast done today as it's almost been a month since the last one. Maybe tommorow - I've got a new mike setup that I'm dying to try.

Instead, Nabila and I watched "Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow" - a cool film with an incredible visual style.

I'd been wanting to see it since it came out as the trailers felt very like "Crimson Skies", which I worked on for a while.

Wow. And was it ever.

Crimson and Sky Captain must have been seperated at birth! If Crimson was made into a movie, this would be it (and vise versa I should think). If you love Crimson, you'll love this film. It gets two geek thumbs up.

Game Developers Conference Day Three

My first session today was "The Future of Content" with Will Wright. Or at least I attempted it to be.

The room was completely overfull. I have no idea why this session that was obviously going to be well attended was not put in the ballroom (well, other than the fact that it would have cost money. The session spilled out into the corridor (about a hundred or so people including me). It took them about 40 minutes to get the a/v outside working so I missed most of it - take these comments with a pinch of salt.

Will's talk revolved around a project that he's working on - Spore. It was incredible - basically a universe-wide ala simulation/populous/sim city/civ. You can interact from the microbe level to the planet level. It has to be seen to be believed - very whimsical or cartoony in style.

It is very multiplayer and server based - you can go and see other peoples' planets - The player is the creator - he is Lucas rather than Skywalker. The creation tools/editors are the gameplay mechanics - terraforming, alien abduction, first contact, etc...

Story is a side-effect of interesting experiences rather than a pre-requisite; the game starts of with goal-orientied play which is effectively a massive tutorial for how to play in the sandbox.

This looked to be the best session at the conference. It is a shame this was hamstrung by ineffectual organization by the conference staff.


Next up was "Coding and SIMS2: Coding the Psychology of Little People" with Jake Simpson.

All objects in The Sims are self-contained (except for processes to reduce duplication of content such as textures and sound.) The editor, Edith, is completely in-game. Scripts can be changed in game with edit and continue - debugging is in real-time. This is the main reason why Maxis can pump out so many expansion packs because iteration time is so fast. All variables that are to be used for tuning are explicitly marked as such so the tuning tool can drill down to the key variables easily and make the tuning process more effective.

Scripts (in the Simantic language) are exposed in a graphical tree form. The language itself is real-time parsed/interpreted, not compiled. It is stored as binary format to try and avoid reverse engineering (though people have recently done this). All positioning is relative to other objects to avoid heavy math functions. It is heavilly multithreaded - each object has it's own thread. Yielding primitives that wait until their functionality is complete. Each thread has own stack with function calling like any other language. Internal error checking to recover object to last known good state in case of errors.

Because it's scripting, it's easy to limit CPU usage.

Cons: Non-transferable skill-set. Because it's parsed rather than compiled, bugs in code are hard to find.

Having a debugger is critical for rapid development. Using lua/python/etc... you have no direct access to gamedata - lua is seperate, not designed to share data. Has much more overhead than homegrown, but it is transferable and great for mods.


After lunch, we had "Burning Down the House: Game Developers Rant" with a number of pannelists including Warren Spector and Chris Hecker. Very, very lively and really interesting content. I didn't take notes as it was very content rich and the content was being sprayed with a fire-hose. I couldn't keep up with a pen and paper, as my laptop battery was dead. I hope GDC is going to post the audio/video.


I also had a meeting today with Genemation. They are doing some very interesting things with automatically generating heads in a parametric manner. Because it's all synthetic there are no royalty issues. The faces generated are incredibly life-like, even when the software is asked to generate very low polygon count models. It also generates the textures.

The parametric control was also very interesting. With continuous control of ethnicity, sex, age, etc...


I left for the airport at around 3.30pm hoping for an early flight back to Seattle (I was booked on the 8.20pm flight). The flights were all oversold, so I couldn't get on any early flights. Then my flight was delayed until 10.40pm. Sigh. I got home at around 1am. Thankfully some other people were around to chat to and Bob Day gave me a ride home.

Game Developers Conference Day Two - Keynotes and Expo

First up today was the keynote "Heart of a Gamer" by Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo. This keynote was interesting in that he spent a fair amount of time "connecting" with the audience - "on my business card it says president, in my mind I am a developer and in my heart I am a gamer. He talked a lot about his background and then talked about the standard stuff - being innovative and intuitive is key; games are getting bigger and more expensive to make (though he didn't provide any solutions here). Then it was basically a DS demofest with Mario Kart Wireless, Ectoplasm (a music toy sorta thing - pretty cool) and Nintendogs (tamagotchi style simulator with very nice graphics and AI). We also got to see new footage from the upcoming Zelda.

He also announced that Revolution (the next Nintendo console) is on track with chips from ATI and IBM, and that it will be backward compatible with the GameCube. Overall though, a nice keynote.

Apart from another Peter Molyneux session that was part a post-mortem on Fable and part a working with Microsoft talk (I'm a bit of a Molyneux fan in case it's not obvious ;-), I spent most of the rest of the day in the Expo.

The expo felt a little smaller than usual, with all the usual suspects (NVidia, ATI, Dolby, RAD, Alias, Renderware, etc...) and some other unexpected ones (like Sun - pushing server platforms).

Like last year, the mobile focus in the expo has expanded with lots of mobile chips from ATI and NVidia running and looking very impressive.

Lots of game companies where also there on "hiring row" with booths trying to pull in new talent.

In a welcome change from previous years, the booth babe "feature" was pretty much non-existant, the only company with them was, suprisingly, Nintendo. I'm not going to repeat the big slogan above their booth, but it was a tad risque given the aforementioned staff members.

My favourites though are the smaller companies with the little, single desk stands. There's always new and innovative niche stuff going on there. Lots of AI, physics and rendering middleware.

Also, in another first, there were two companies doing UI middleware. One, Anark, had some very impressive 3D UI, all xml based with good looking demos and tools. Another, Sonic Fusion, had a great looking MFC style UI product that is fully skinnable and customizable. Both of these technologies sit ontop of Direct3D, are hosted by your application and have great looking tools. Definitely worth checking out if you're in the "I need new UI" frame of mind.

As far as the conference as a whole is concerned, it seems a bit more crowded than before. And I don't think the new convention center works. There's no focal point outside (like the Westin lobby area in Santa Clara, or the Fairmont in San Jose), and the escalators are a hideous chokepoint. Minor niggles, but they are problems.

Final day tomorrow.

Game Developers Conference Day One

Note: These are my raw scribbled notes. I need somewhere to keep them, so I might as well share...


The day for me started with J Allard's keynote "Vision The Future of Games: Unlocking the Opportunity". I won't go into any detail here has you can catch the whole thing on Major Nelson's site - he podcast the whole thing. Also, the text is now up on xbox.com.

One thing to note, when talking about the "remix generation", J explicitly called out podcasting and blogging. It was also cool to hear him talk about the launch of DirectX back in 1995 as I was there as part of that launch.

At the end of J's keynote, XBox and Samsung gave away 1000 (yes, one thousand) HiDef TV's. Basically each member of the audience was given either a yellow, black or red badge when they entered the ballroom. At the end of the keynote they ran a race in Forza Motorsport and when the yellow car one, all the people with yellow badge's got a shiny new HiDef TV. Cool! Except Microsoft employees weren't given a badge. Damn.


Next up was a panel session: "Game Design Challenge: The Emily Dickinson License". This was very cool with panellists Clint Hocking (Ubisoft: Splinter Cell), Peter Molyneux (Lionhead: just about the best game designer out there) and Will Wright (Maxis: The Sims, etc...) They had ten minutes each to outline a game design based on the life and works of poet Emily Dickinson.

Very impressive stuff, Will Wright won (based on audience cheers) with his design "USB Emily", where Emily would be a Tamagotchi/Clippy/Seaman style product delivered as a loss-leader on USB thumb drives.

Peter Molyneux had built a prototype called "The Room" - a very stunning visual demonstration based on the idea that poems are are compression technique for emotions and that it can then be protrayed visually.

Clint Hocking gave a great design based around constraints (marketing, platform, etc...) and then went into great detail about using the Nintendo DS's features (stylus, wireless) to explore design features.


After lunch I saw Peter Molyneux again with his lecture "Gameply Moves Forward Into the 21st Century". Here are notes, sorry if they're a tad unintelligable:


His premise is that games are maturing, and people can feel straightjacketed by current games and game genres. Quote: "Best way to predict the future is to invent it."

What is needed:

  • Clear concepts The industry slowly becoming mass-market - the player does not want to learn how to play, he just wants to play. A sentence should convey the concept. Fable - "Be a hero", "Movies" - "Run a studio", GTA - "Be a gangster".
  • More accessibility You have ten seconds to grab someone. At E3 Lionhead will get the press to demo the game instead of demoing to them.
  • Simpler to understand
  • Deeper interaction The things I can do must give me more things. Allow player to experiement and define character.
  • Play and experiment
  • Player's agenda
  • Morphable gameplay Games should be made for multiple audiences, not just one.

And do new cool stuff. (censored - was another four letter word). Breaks previous rules ;-)


The Movies Demo - No UI or icons. AI guesses what the user wants to do next. Information is in the world.

Black & White 2 - God of War or God of Peace. A God game and a War game. Much easier to control, Black & White 1 was overly complex to control.


Last up for the day was "The Age Of Empires 3 Graphics Engine." It's fully 3D with shader paths from 3.0 all the way down to fixed function - the strategy is to go balls-out for the high-end and the low-end will sort itself out. For me, the biggest thing was that they're going fully HDR, supporting 64bit floating point render targets with alpha blending with all the cool goodness of bloom, EXR (from ILM) tonemapping. The bloom paths take advantage of FP bilinear to downsample.

All models store a precomputed ambient occlusion term per-vertex and use hemispherical sky/ground lighting.

The water simulation is precomputed to avoid overwhelming the CPU.


And that wraps it up for the day. Now I'm off to the IGDA awards ceremony. Tomorrow I'll post notes from more lectures and some overall thoughts about the event and expo.

Game Developer's Conference

I'm off down to San Francisco tomorrow for the Game Developer's Conference. Should be an interesting one, nontheless for the fact that for the first time it's not in San Jose.

I'm expecting some interesting announcements, the first of which appeared today detailing that XNA Studio will be based on VS2005 Team Studio.

Anyhow, I'll be about (staying at Hotel Milano), so if you wanna hook up for lunch or a beer in the evening at one of the many parties^h^h^h^h^h^h^h, ahem, events - drop me a line. Hmmm, maybe I should pack a USB mike and do a pod/beercast ;-)

Magnetic Scrolls

I just stumbled across a cool interview with Rob Steggles. Rob was at Magnetic Scrolls, a prominent late 1980's adventure game company that I had the good fortune to work at whilst I was at college.

Nice interview.

It's cool to see that the games that Magnetic Scrolls produced are still played and enjoyed today via emulation. I still enjoy playing Fish! (rated 93%...) every now and then. With Wonderland (and Magnetic Windows, ahead of it's time), I was responsible for the Amiga port of Magnetic Windows - working there was a blast.

Doug Rabson and Servan Keondjian were also at Magnetic Scrolls. They later founded RenderMorphics where I joined up with them again shortly before we were "absorbed" by Microsoft. Doug and Servan are now at Qube Software.

The Utah Teapot

If you've ever dabbled in computer graphics, you know about the "Utah Teapot". It's used everywhere.

Utah Teapot (render by Jing Li)

Anyhow, I was working on some subdivision surface stuff today and needed a patch dataset, so I went looking for the teapot and found a great site by Steve Baker that details the history of the Utah Teapot, and includes the original dataset.

Nice.

The dataset not only includes the teapot (missing the bottom, of course) but the spoon and cup. How nicely, graphically, geeky.

Game Tech

What can I say. So far a great conference exceeding my expectations.

Last night was a cool hotel bar discussion with people from Valve, Sony, Microsoft, etc... Then today the intensity just ramped up with a constant flow of information from 9am until past 9pm.

All the slides are going to be up at the Game Tech site, so I won't reiterate them here. Of course, the quality of the speakers so far (Jay Stelly from Valve on Half Life 2, Chris Butcher from Bungie on Halo 2, Charles Bloom from Oddworld on Stranger's Wrath, Andrew Willmott from Maxis on The Sims 2) has been excellent. The crowd is small (about 60ish attendees) and thereby focused and knowledgeable, no daft questions.

A long intense day, with a few 10 minute breaks, lunch and dinner, sponsored by ATI and Intel respectively, and even those times were intense talks. The architects from Intel were talking about new stuff coming down the pipe, getting opinionated feedback, answering back. Very cool. The information and discussion flow didn't let up all day.

A great experience and it didn't stop there. Intense after-session discussions were flowing in the bar until, well, just now when I decided it was time for me to retire.

These small, focused conferences are great.

The postmortem talks today really reaffirmed my feeling that we're doing everything (well most things ;-) right with our development processes on Flight Simulator, with the one caveat that everyone other than us appears to be doing distributed builds. Our builds take way too long - something we need to look into. Most people seem to be using IncrediBuild.

A cool soundbite from Charles Bloom today that I liked particularly: "It's all about managing complexity."

More Pre-GameTech

Road Warrier

After arriving, checking in and getting my room I finally realised that I had left my laptop power supply at home. Big mistake. Eek. No surfing, blogging, note taking, etc... Of course I could still get email on my phone.

With some time in hand, I decided to fix the problem and dug out the yellow pages and called the not-so-local Best Buy. No they didn't have Dell power supplies, but they did have universal power supplies. So I hop in a cab and after an interesting trip all over the place (and a few near misses) with the driver Paul, I arrive and disappear inside leaving the cab waiting for me. I locate the unit, pay, check that it works (apparently you can't open the box to check it, but you can pay, then check it and if it doesn't work return it on the spot - weird), then hop back in the cab back to the hotel. Problem solved.

I must say, I've never been to South San Francisco before - kinda cool. What was interesting in a weird kinda way was the town that Best Buy was in - Colma. The place was one big cemetery.

Pre-GameTech

I'm sat here in the hotel lobby at the Game Tech Conference waiting for my room to become available, but handily the hotel has great wifi. The flight down was uneventful, except for bumping into a friend of ours, the Anglophile Amy. We haven't seen her for ages and she and her husband Shay are relocating to Chicago next week! Got the standard invite for a visit though!

The flight was made bearable by the dulcet voices of Adam Curry with a couple of saved up Daily Source Codes and half a Dawn and Drew show.

The Beast

Back in 2001 when I was Development Manager for the now defunct IronWorks studio in Microsoft Game Studios, we put together an interesting web based game experience as a tie-in for the Spielberg AI film. One of the writers has posted his thoughts over here. The secrecy around this project was kinda amazing.

Found at GrumpyGamer.

It's a shame that this concept of gameplay didn't really catch on. I had a blast playing Majestic - a game with a similar gameplay mechanic.

© 2001 to present, Steve Lacey.