Thursday, September 12, 2013

Analysis - Touch Screens as a gaming medium

Sweet touch. You've almost convinced me I'm real. I need something more... I need something more.

I recently bought the new Nexus 7. I can say without a doubt that I love it. It’s perfect for extended online messaging, web browsing without having to sit into front of the desktop, and light gaming. Yes, light gaming. This is my first tablet and was somewhat of an experiment over whether it could satisfy my gaming needs. The truth is of course that tablets, as with any touch screen device is a poor substitute for gaming.

However beautiful the graphics get, playing a First Person Shooter is akin to playing tennis with the racket strapped to your leg. Admittedly I haven't tried this, but I expect the experience would be similar.
It’s almost surprising how important buttons, triggers and keys are. We've grown accustomed to the notion that new technology equals improvements. Let’s face it, touch screens are now huge. They exploded after Apple unleashed the first iPhone to the world. Ironically Steve Jobs reportedly thought little of games, which subsequently became the largest market on the Apple Store. Many games are perfect for the touch screen though. A couple of my favourites are Super Stickman 1 & 2, Stick Tennis and the ultimately frustrating Super Hexagon. If you are familiar with such games you will know that they employ very simple controls (pitch left, right, and potentially requiring 1-2 taps). To my delights I downloaded Sonic for a bargain price. However enjoyable it is inevitably I tap, miss the ‘buttons’ and rings fly everywhere. This isn't an issue with physical buttons.

It is almost bemusing that touch screen should have a relatively short lifespan. If it wasn't obvious already the next stage is motion technology. Once developed we will see the rapid disappearance of touch screens. Kinect on Xbox is great to swipe around on the menu. Then there’s the much spoken about Leap Motion. The small device (at only $80) can track all your fingers which allows incredible dexterity. Despite this, Edge Magazine have struggled to find games which make use of this device (#258). Anyone who has an Xbox equally reaches for their gaming pad when loading up a game rather than comfortably relying to Kinect.

At the end of the day, physical controls are too useful when gaming. In a typical console or PC game we make use of at least 60% of our fingers (thumb, index finger and middle finger), and those accustomed to the keyboard naturally have their pinky on the shift key and ring finger on ‘A’. As exciting devices such as Kinect are, they are only good for large swiping gestures which is no different to touch screen games. Even once you track all fingers such as Leap Motion achieves, the camera needs clear sight of each finger, which means you can’t rest your hands comfortably on the table.

Despite the last paragraph, I do believe motion technology will eventually usurp physical controls. However given how deeply routed mouse & keyboards and pads are in gaming culture, plus the very slow development of motion technology, we won’t be seeing anything truly successful for the next 10 years. All said and done, it won’t be long until motion takes over touch screen laptops and tablets. Swiping the air and flicking your finger towards the app you want to open is simple stuff really. It is less effort that having to press the screen, and ultimately anything which requires less effort which achieves the same result is the victor.

For our ‘hard core’ games which require twitch reflexes however, motion tracking just can’t handle both the pressure of finger presses and the comfort of extended gameplay which is required. Even Microsoft who have tried so hard to push Kinect have put a lot of development and resources into the Xbox One control pad. Ten years from now however… time will tell. For now, let’s stay old school and stick with what allows us to stay in control.

Before I wrap it up, I'll leave you with this classic picture found in every Psychology textbook. It's a fairly accurate picture of how the body is represented when mapped out in the brain. This goes to show how important our cognitive processes rely on sensory inputs from our hands and fingers. You also know why kissing feels so good... ahem.

You da man

Friday, May 24, 2013

Anti-analysis - A story which slowly erodes into a rant (cough Xbox One)

Here is a story:

"I love Game of Thrones. Not to be a hipster, but I read the books before it was cool - and a TV series" Michael gloated. Louise just laughed.

"What would you say is better, the series or the books?" she asked?

"You know the reason the series is so good is because they follow the books so closely. But the books are better. So good. You know how usually chapters go one, two, three, and so on?" Louise nodded.

"Well instead each Chapter is a character. So for example (Michael lifted his two index fingers) "Jon Snow, Tyrion". So you could if you wanted just follow a single character's journey throughout a book if you wanted and skip the other characters. Some people actually do that after they have read the books through once or twice". Michael paused, then grinned. "I can see you think I have, but no I haven't. Tempted to through".

Louise smiled. "Ok fine, you've convinced me" she said.

"Woohoo!" Michael replied, grinning back. "Be right back". After a couple of minutes he returned holding a copy of the first of the series, Game of Thrones, and handed it to Louise.

"How did you discover it anyway?" she asked. 
"Oh, I was at a couple who are friends with my parents, and they have a huge sci-fi collection. At this point only 3 of the books has been released. I devoured the first book when I was there, then have been buying them ever since. Still waiting for the last book... can't can't wait". 

"Aha so even you don't know the end!" she smirked. "Wait... why won't this book open?"
"Oh... yeah... I forgot. This really sucks. Apparently now lending a book counts as piracy. You have to send a check to the publishers and they then grant you permission to read the book. Even then you have to give me back to me once you've read it or it'll lock down"
Louise stared at Michael.
"You're kidding, right?"

Warning, rant imminent. Code 54351. Level red. 

Good news guys, Microsoft have announced that in order to play a video game on the Xbox One which a friend has lent you, a fee is required. Indeed to play a second-hand game will apparently cost £35, almost at retail price. Let us not even consider why people buy second-hand games - actually wait, perhaps it is because they are kids with pocket money, or are adults struggling on the minimum wage. Of course it is fine to show a middle finger to concepts such as ownership. Why would I want to own my old copy of Theme Hospital? The publishers should choose what I do with it, is that not right Microsoft? No I cannot lend it to a friend! That would be piracy! Anyway, we can't complain, the Xbox One will show TV, and sports, and will play the new COD, which is apparently a big risk for the company because they called it Ghosts instead of 4. I whimper at their divine creative direction, and I shall achieve catharsis when the dog companion dies and I cry my heart out. "Xbox flick Sports" I shall say through my tears in an attempt to consolidate myself through point scoring. A message will appear:


(takes a breath)

There is so much I love about Microsoft, from having bought the first ever Xbox on night of release to eagerly following the development of the Surface and even Windows 8. Today however, I needed a rant. Apologies for typos, proof reading doesn't seem appropriate right now. And yes, the Xbox One does look like VHS player.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Opinion - Nintendo live in their own bubble world

I am more and more convinced that Nintendo live in their own little bubble world, oblivious to what is going on outside in the minds of their targeted customers and the video-games industry. In a recent interview with CNN, Nintendo video-game designer legend Shigeru Miyamoto raised some points which only reinforces my conclusion that Nintendo are oblivious to the outside gaming world. 
Miyamoto and his hands

Point 1: "Make it possible for people to essentially play games even if something else was on the TV"

Repeatedly mentioned by Nintendo, but not a huge selling point. When I was a kid, I simply arranged my video-game time around that of my parents watching TV. Is it really that much of a problem that people can never play on their consoles because someone is always watching the TV? That also assumes households only have one TV. What makes this feature even more irrelevant is that Nintendo have their own handheld device, so anyone who has invested in Nintendo would still be able to play games when the TV is occupied. I am not saying this feature is useless, but over-rated? Definitely.

Point 2: "There is going to come a point where they feel like 'I can't do everything I want to do if I don't have a second screen'"

Miyamoto has a point here, and may be right. However again, this second screen is not completely unique. Microsoft are developing their SmartGlass product, which gives you a second screen on devices you already own, be that Smartphone, tablet or Windows 8 PC. Granted SmartGlass is currently next to nothing against the Wii U’s controller, but I would be surprised if SmartGlass won’t be much more fully integrated into the next generation Xbox; the upcoming announcement in May might shed some light on this however. Likewise there are expectations that the Vita will be more integrated with the Playstation 4. Now the Wii U’s second screen on the controller has some brilliant features which are far better than what the other consoles have. But as Miyamoto says, people are still warming up to the idea of using a second screen. The longer this takes, the longer competitors have to introduce their own second-screen features.

Point 3: "Something that offers a lot of practical use and practical purpose in the living room"

A practical use in the living room? Honestly I do not quite know what Miyamoto means by this. The Wii U doubles up as a footrest? The PlayStation 3 has Blueray, the Xbox 360 has Netflix. Consoles which go beyond gaming have existed for some time.

Point 4: "It's going to be very fun when Toad appears"

This ultimately is the reason Nintendo still exist. Not so much that Toad is making an appearance (sorry Toad), but their immensely strong portfolio of games and game characters which they continually re-release. Mario. Donkey Kong. Zelda. Pokemon. The list goes on.

Nintendo are entirely dependent on these games and characters. If the Wii U was released without their support, the Wii U would have been a completely flop. Miyamoto acknowledges that the above points (ability to watch TV and play games, a second screen, and a practical use in the living room) are features which for the meantime are not drawing in new customers needed for the Wii U to be a success. I largely suspect that the majority of people who bought the Wii U are people who are brand loyal and love the old game characters. It isn't a problem that Nintendo are bringing back and reinventing these games because they were so good in the first place. The problem is what makes Nintendo great is also what is keeping them in their bubble. 

Nintendo released the Wii U (which has similar specs to the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3) out at a time where most gamers knew it wasn't long until the next generation consoles for Microsoft and Sony would be released. This decision seems so strange to me, because many people who cannot afford to buy all the consoles will want choice, and choosing means waiting until all options have presented themselves. This is why it feels like Nintendo are in their own bubble world. The only logical reason I can think of is that they wanted to create an incredibly strong and innovative product, so that when the new consoles are released it would seem obvious that Nintendo’s features are far superior. That however uses the huge assumption that the next Xbox and Playstation will have no new novel features, and simply be faster with better graphics. That seems... unlikely. Putting all their eggs into one basket with the controller with a second screen just does not cut it for me. It worked for the Wii, but the Wii was a affordable family console. The Wii U in contrast gives the impressions of wanting to take on Xbox and Playstation. For that, they need to wake up and put their innovation hat back on.

As always, keen to hear your opinion on Nintendo and the direction they are taking.

Monday, April 1, 2013

April 1 - Technology's trololol day

April 1 has to be one of my favourite days. I successfully fooled many friends by announcing I was getting married to despite not having been in a serious relationship for over a year now. People started to get suspicious when it was revealed my sun and moon (having only met her a couple of weeks ago) was a successful French model and also had a kid. Nevertheless I heard reports that my Dad looked mortified when he heard the news, so for me this year has been a complete success.

Unless you have been hiding under a rock you will know that it is common for the gaming and tech world for companies to come up with some brilliant April fools. I have dug up just a few here, but if you have some favourites then do not hesitate to share them!

The iPlay Game Console

Not the most believable April Fools to be sure, but wonderful nonetheless given the recent stir caused by one of the Xbox founders Nat Brown for suggesting Apple could dominate the games industry by opening the Apple TV to gaming developers.

You can enjoy IGN's Apple spoof here (it will open in another page).

Sony Tech for Pets

Worryingly if I had a pet then I would more than likely buy something like this for the little bugger. I bet my hamster Nibbles would have loved those mini speakers. If anyone wants to start a petition to make this real, let me know!

Star Wars: Galactic Empire
If you missed it, George Takei annouced this morning on his facebook page that he would be starring in a Star Wars reboot directed by JJ Abrams. This is one of those posts which makes you sad it isn't true! Just look at how awesome he looks!

Top Facebook comment says it all: "This is the MEANEST April Fools joke EVER"
I would share more but...

Blogging using q French keyboard is slightly infuriating (I am not even going to correct the 'a' to make my point) and I have a train to catch. What are your favourite April Fool's jokes? Share them here, Google+ or on the Facebook page! Happy day of fools one and all!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Food for Thought - the design of micro-communities

I recently watched a livestream of Colin Johanson, lead designer for Guild Wars 2 on the topic of creating communities within games. Understandably he mainly cited the design process of Guild Wars 2, so this weekend I sat down and put together my thoughts on one topic which has been playing around in my head - micro communities.

Before we get there, let us briefly cover the basis on Colin’s talk. Four pillars were central to the design of Guild Wars 2. Pillars is a great word as it conceptualises their meaning: the foundations of what was being built so that every aspect of the game reflects those things. 
I would like a micro-transaction with this lady.

These foundations were:
  1. A community driven game.
  2. Action oriented combat.
  3. Your character has a story.
  4. Living world; the world you play in feels alive.
The closest parallel I can draw this to is the ‘core values’ businesses create when designing or restructuring their business. Every decision the game designers or business make should reflect these pillars or values, notwithstanding marketing and PR strategy (Colin's words not mine). This ensures continuity throughout, while reflecting genuine reliability which consequently creates trust in the game or business. “Change your pillars at your own risk” Colin warned, as this may undermine every decision taken up until then.

The Pillar of A Community Driven Game

Having played Guild Wars 2 I can certainly say that this pillar shines through, and the second M from MMO (massively multiplayer online) is truly present. Through a subtle reward structure you cannot help but rush to aid a stranger if he looks like he is in a tough spot, and gone is fighting over resources but rather fighting together for common goals.

The only thing I find missing is what I call ‘micro-communities’. This is a term I coined a while back when trying to describe some differences I found within some organisations. A normal community would be a group of people who are bound together due to an existing structure, may this be geographical or organisational. In an MMO for example the most common of communities would be those who group together into Guilds. In the workplace your community may well be your department. The problem which such communities is that they are bound by the very structure which creates them. By being in a guild, you might find that you do not chat with any of the other players outside of this structure. Likewise at work you may never talk to anyone outside your department.

So what are micro-communities? These are relationships between a small number of individuals which develop and exist outside the normal communities. For example I recently starting chatting to a stranger in Guild Wars 2 (an unfortunately rare occurrence) after we helped each other out, which led to playing together for sometime after. If I met a colleague from another department during a coffee break, that colleague might then later be someone I can contact if I need information otherwise unavailable to me. In different types of ‘power’, one of the most important types is that of social networking. Having shared a few jump puzzles with this stranger in Guild Wars 2, I might later be able to invite him into a dungeon when my friends when we are missing a player.

The problem with Guild Wars 2 and many organisations is that there is little consideration for how these micro-communities are created. The game design of Guild Wars 2 focuses so much on openness and ease-of-use, this creates an unintended consequence that players rarely need to talk to each other in PvE (Player vs Environment) resulting in a lack of micro-community development. Indeed in the first Guild Wars players would barter over items in buying-and-selling; now you just list your items on a large database and you never interact with the buyer. Equally, for organisations if the workplace has no shared facilities, then employees from different departments will never meet and so you will find your company with a lot of separate communities with little communicate in between.

How do you create micro-communities?

The very nature of micro-communities means that they are dependent on the individuals involved. However it is the responsibility of the game/workplace design to allow those individuals to meet and interact in the first place. One company I worked in had one beautiful solution: a games room which had a table tennis table, a PlayStation and table-football. By using this room in your break, you could meet anyone from the company and thus micro-communities are born. As micro-communities slowly grow, new communities may even rise up: a monthly table-tennis tournament for example. Back to Guild Wars 2 a design to give players reasons to communicate would also be sorely welcome. To keep to the same example, allowing players to trade face-to-face as well as using the database would be one step in the right direction.

So what?

What is so important about micro-communities anyway? Two of these I have touched upon. Firstly that of social networking - this is a powerful tool which empowers people. Secondly, this can rise in new stable communities as micro-communities gradually merge together. Thirdly and ultimately - engagement. By engaging people within the workplace and within a game, this engages the individuals to the greater whole. Regardless of whether it is at work or playing a video-game, having bonds with others will inevitably improve retention rates, happiness and fun!

That’s it from me. As always I would be interested in your thoughts, so please drop your comments below or share. Have a good week!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Forward thinking - 9 points the Vita II needs to win

My blog is back! Since my last blog entries back in the sands of time I have been thrown into the world of post-university real-life work, and so other interests took a back seat. But here we are on that same old road again and I hope you enjoy my scriptures on the video-game industry. Let's start today with a large issue at the moment - handhelds and the Vita.

When Sony released the Vita I practically drooled looking at it. For any self-confessed geek there is no denying it looks beautiful. I mean, look at it.

I've looked at envy at all 3 guys I've seen using it

I raged against websites such as CNet who slammed it. I won't go into detail but in a nut shell they stated that the iPod Touch was better for gaming. Supposedly they thought that Angry Birds and swiping represents the peak of games. Rather than go into a hulk-esk rant, the nice little blog here (come back after!) will give you a run down as to why smartphones are unable to replace handhelds.

This close.
You should know, I was that close to buying one. And by close I mean the picture to the right. Given the lack of game developers I am now sadly glad I didn't buy one. This is a huge shame because I know I would enjoy holding this on the many train journeys I seem to take.

In my infinite wisdom Sony made some serious design omissions. Try working for a huge multinational company and the reasons quickly become apparent. Big companies are HARD to change. We live in a time when change is happening increasingly quickly. If you try and break a freight train at 30 miles per hour, and change is 30 yards ahead of you, you're going to have a bad time. And probably get fired.

So without further ado, here is what Sony need if they are ever going to make a Vita II. I say need because, given the rate of change, these are now requirements and not options.

NO 1. Akin to Apple's store on the iPhone, open up the indie platform to make it easy for anyone to develop a game for the Vita. Why? Such games are the sort that are ideal when waiting 5 minutes at the train station and can be resumed at a moment's notice without lengthy loading times. Avoid the trash by make it superior to Apple's platform by having stricter checks, thereby maintaining the image of a quality gaming device. This platform would also speed up the number of games available at or soon after launch.

Note: this is to complement the high-spec games of the Vita, not to replace them. The more people who buy and use the Vita for whatever reason will attract the major game developers.

NO 2. Create a very intuitive online marketplace so that you can easily discover and download content. This cannot be stressed enough. We live in an age where for the majority of people User Experience is prime. Don't simply copy Apple though, we want a trailered gaming experience from the moment we turn on the device. 

NO 3. A very good battery. This goes without saying really. A key advantage over smartphones.

NO 4. Fit it within the next-gen PS4 ecosystem. Sony's recent PS4 announcement has hinted at this, and good for them. The possibilities are limitless but I personally love the idea of watching a friend play a game on your Vita screen and then joining in through the power of streaming. Needless to say using the Vita as an extra controller would be a middle finger to Nintendo's efforts to the Wii U.

NO 5. Also play media and include streaming from your computer or Playstation. I would happily also use the Vita for on-the-go music and film; although I use my smartphone for these the battery is always an issue. This links nicely to my next point...

NO 6. Create a platform to allow third-party media developers. Microsoft's Xbox hit the nail on the head with this and everyone I know who regularly plays games on their 360 also uses the likes of Netflix, Lovefilm or Sky. I can almost hear 'pure' gamers angrily arguing that this in turning the Vita into a glorified smartphone, but if I could use Spotify on my Vita while playing games then I would be a very happy bunny. By limiting yourself to your own closed platform then in consequence you are limiting how your customers use your product. It stands to reason that the more customers use your product, the more developers you attract.

NO 7. A great 'friends' platform. This is closely linked to No 4's eco-system but it deserves a point of its own. Gaming has and always been social and we live in a time where you expect the same experience online with your friends as actually going over to their house for a gaming session. I am convinced that Xbox Live's excellent social features is what ultimately drove the Xbox to success.

NO 8. Make a financial loss on the Vita when you release it. Why? If you want something to sell well then it must be affordable. Everyone reads reviews before they buy, but if said review states a product is great yet overpriced then this will no doubt sway potential buyers away. Successful gaming devices will make their money through games (and let's not forget third party media apps where Sony would get a nice cut). 

NO 9. Understand your market when advertising. I am almost cringing writing this. The Vita's advertisements were awful. In summary they represented their target audience as anti-social and sexually repressed teenagers. Comparing the Vita to a woman with four breasts is just one example of many. I risk coming off as a Microsoft fanboy, but here is one of the greatest gaming adverts I have ever seen. Smart, funny and underlines Live's social features.

Having 10 points would be nice, but this concludes my weekend musings. Are there any other points you think this blog has missed?

Until next week!