Exciting Times, These Are

So first things first, a while ago I updated my iphone game Oblivio to make it much simpler and hopefully more fun for actual humans. This seems to be irrelevant however, seeing as how I only get about 3 downloads of the FREE version each day. I did sell 1 full version on Christmas eve. So there’s that. I’m considering removing the free version from the app store and seeing if that will result in more impulse buys of the full version.

New Project : Ultra

More importantly, I’ve added a new project tab to this here portfolio site. It’s a very long term project, which I’ve decided to codename “Ultra.” This name is reminiscent of the original name for the N64, which to me was a peak of my video gaming childhood. It’s also the name of one of the most adrenaline pumping songs KMFDM has ever produced and that’s a sense of rapid action that I intend for this control scheme to be capable of. Also it’s a short word. So hopefully I won’t get tired of saying it for a long time.

So this is a very exciting project and hopefully, I’ll have it under control enough once the semester starts, when I’ll be turning this into my senior project and having a few very talented classmates working with me.

So hopefully, this will result in me actually creating a finished product that demonstrates some of my more complex ideas, and hopefully leads to me getting an actual job with a company congruent with those ideas.

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The Shape of Things to Come

Things have been rather hectic lately. I’ve barely been able to put any time into my next iPhone game, Shrapman.

But fortunately, I’m on the brink of something new!

I have successfully, connected Wii controls to Unity3D and will be using this to create a thorough prototype for a 3rd person shooter/action game that has been on my mind for a long time now. I will then develop this prototype even further once the semester starts and I turn it into my senior project.

More on this later! I’m in the middle of something right now!

The Philosophy of Game Travel pt. 5

The separation of Turning and Aiming

In the beginning there was Wolfenstein 3D. No. That wasn’t really the beginning, but let’s start there anyways. You could move forwards or backwards. You could turn left or right. You could shoot. The only way to aim was to physically turn your whole body until the gun sticking out of your chest was pointed at your enemy. This is how things were for a while.

            Later, there was Goldeneye 64. You still turned your whole body to aim, but now you could also tilt your whole body forwards or backwards. What’s more, you could hold down the R button to make your character stop moving and dedicate the thumbstick instead to moving your crosshairs around on the screen, away from their normal place in the center.

            Thus, the concepts of turning and aiming were separated in the world of first-person shooters, but only barely so. For you see, they still greatly hinder each other. The two are separate, but they are not truly parallel. For the longest time, their conflicting nature has been an understood product of hardware limitations. Sadly however, these hardware limitations have faded away, yet the gaming community proves hesitant to evolve beyond their established conventions.

            The arrival of the Wii was heralded as a new age for first-person shooters, yet when compared to shooters on traditional consoles and the PC, Wii shooters have the worst controls. The reasons for this are partially discussed in a previous article. Everyone knew that the IR pointer would be used for aiming but then they went ahead and dedicated it to turning as well.

            I can tell you right now that the Nintendo Wii’s “nunchuk” attachment alone can do all the basic movement that a modern shooter requires, those being walking forwards, walking backwards, turning left, turning right, strafing left, and strafing right (The origins of the word strafing are interesting. Look it up.). The nunchuk can take care of all of this by using the thumbstick for walking and turning and by using the accelerometer for strafing left and right. I excluded tilting up and tilting down because those concepts are part of aiming, not moving.

            With all of that taken care of, the Wii’s pointer becomes freed up entirely to focus solely on aiming. In first person shooters, this could simply amount to moving the crosshairs around on the screen without hindering your movement. Other possibilities include also using it to tilt the camera up and down, not by a relation of position to angular velocity, but by keeping the camera level when the pointer is in the middle of the screen, looking straight up when the pointer is near the top edge of the screen, and variations thereupon. You could even shoot off screen to reload, if you were so inclined.

            To me, however, the prospects are much more exciting when discussing third-person games. You see, now that you can see the way your character stands and orients himself, you can allow the lateral position of the pointer to twist his upper body so that pointing to the center would have his shoulder squared with his hips, pointing to the right edge of the screen would have his shoulders twisting to the right so that he would be aiming completely behind himself, and variations thereupon.

            Of course this would also apply to aiming up and down also. Point at any point along the top edge of the screen would result in aiming straight up, while aiming along the bottom edge of the screen would create a circle around your character’s feet. I’m sure you can figure out everything in between.

            The reason, I’m hesitant to apply the lateral twisting to first-person games is mainly because it affects the direction you’re looking without affecting the direction you’re running. So without being able to see your character’s feet this might result in a certain degree of confusion, due to the “numbness” I discussed in another article.

            And that is how you separate two conjoined control elements. It’s understandable that turning and aiming spent so much time together at a young age, but it’s time they both grew up and moved on. They’re not the same thing… but they can still hang out and play together.

The Philosophy of Game Travel pt. 4

The Natural Center

            Before we can understand the true nature and proper use of motion controls, we must take our first step beyond the world of simple buttons. Enter the world of d-pads, joysticks, thumb-sticks, and sliding pads. I group these all together because they have the same natural center. Each one applies resistance so that the moment you cease to apply force to them, they revert to their neutral state in their center.

The notion of a directional control element’s natural center is very important when it comes to how it can be applied to certain games. For example, when dealing with a character’s rotation, the aforementioned devices will always relate their physical position to the character’s angular velocity. If you hold a thumbstick all the way to the left, your character will rotate to the left as quickly as possible. If you hold it only slightly to the left, he will only rotate very slowly. There are of course alternatives to this, which we won’t get into here, but needless to say they have been largely written off as horrible and useless.

For the longest time the main alternative to joystick-like mechanisms has been the computer mouse. The biggest difference is of course that the mouse has no natural center whatsoever; or rather its natural center is wherever you leave it (granted that momentum is negligible). Therefore, to relate the mouse’s position to the player’s angular velocity would be absurd. You could move the mouse to start rotating, but in order to stop rotating you’d have to move your mouse the exact opposite direction and distance.

So instead the mouse’s position is related to the character’s angle of rotation. Any change in the mouse’s position is passed on as a change to the character’s angle of rotation. Another large reason this works is because the mouse can move infinitely far in any direction on its 2D plane. Even if you’ve reached the end of its table you can pick it up and move it back over without providing any erroneous input.

Now we get to the fun part. Enter the IR pointer, as used by the Nintendo Wii. I’ll say right now that the industry’s utilization of this mechanic has been absolutely atrocious. At first glance, you think it’s similar to a mouse, seeing as how it relates a point on the screen’s 2D plain similar to how a mouse does, but in fact there are a few considerable differences, the first being that the pointer doesn’t have infinite range. Instead of detecting change in position, the pointer is constantly just looking at where it is relative to sensor bar. Then there’s also the matter of being able to twist the pointer, which is something a mouse could (or would) never really do.

Most importantly however, there’s the matter of the natural center. Unlike the mouse, and unlike the joystick, the pointer’s natural center is straight down off the bottom of the screen. That is, if you were pointing at the screen and were to relax your hand without letting go of the pointer, it would point down like a wet noodle.

Where does it go, when you let go?

So everyone said that the Wii would be the savior of first-person shooters on consoles, and perhaps they said so without putting too much thought into how exactly, because every single shooter for the Wii has done its best to use the pointer as if it were a joystick. This is understandable for the launch titles, but honestly, the fact that this has become the only means by which anyone can really play a shooter on the Wii is a crime.

Obviously I’m frustrated when discussing the mishandling of the IR pointer. The idea of telling the player to aim with the pointer, moving their character’s on-screen gun around seems obvious. But then telling them that the only way to turn is to point near away from the center of the screen, much like one would lean a joystick (which naturally wants to return to the center) seems horrible. This basically leads to a bunch of guns flying around like bad dogs on short leashes, pulling at the player’s character and dragging him around by his arm. The first time I ever played Red Steel, in the midst of the first level, dumbfounded and frustrated by my character’s proclivity for twisting his arm around his body and spinning in circles, I found myself shouting, “We need to work together!” not at the controller, not at the character, but at the character’s seemingly possessed gun and hand.

In this picture: the playable character in Red Steel

This can be fixed. The pointer is still, in fact, ripe with potential for both first-person and third person games. In order for this potential to be realized however, they must first understand The Separation of Turning and Aiming

The Philosophy of Game Travel pt. 3

Empathy toward the 3rd person

The modern day parable goes that scientists we studying a monkey’s brain while he was cracking open a nut. By coincidence, the monkey saw another scientist try to crack open a nut of his own. And so the monkey’s brain responded identically to when he himself was opening a nut. The moral of this greatly abbreviated story is that we are naturally empathetic. When we see someone hurt, we naturally imagine getting hurt. When we see someone doing something, on some level, we imagine doing that same thing.

Sure. Why not.

Now I want you to keep that in mind at take a look at my favorite painting, Wanderer Over a Sea of Fog by Casper David Friedrich. Said painting is not merely of a landscape but of a faceless traveler that exists separate from it and pauses for a moment to observe the vastness before him. This painting, as far as I’m concerned, is the embodiment of Romanticism, which revolted against the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment while embracing powerful emotions of awe, terror, and untamed nature – in other words, punk rock!

That’s Sid Vicious Right there

Now I want you to keep THAT in mind, when you see a game that features an over-the-shoulder or behind-the-back 3rd person perspective. Beyond that, it’s very difficult for me to elaborate exactly what makes this camera angle so special. I suppose it might be easiest if I compare it to first-person games.

When you play a game and your character takes damage you won’t actually feel that damage. Aside from a limited rumble feature, games really just have two senses to play with: vision and hearing. First person games in particular have a problem with “numbness.” If someone shot or even tapped your character on the shoulder in an FPS the only way you’d ever know is if some sort of radial indicator flashed on your face pointing to where it came from with an absurd arrow. (Keep in mind I’ve never had a great sound system to play with.) In contrast, if a 3rd person character has a spider crawling on the back of his neck, we won’t need to see a spider shaped icon on some sort of face-radar. You’ll see that damned spider and if you have a thing against spiders, you’ll probably freak out.

Then there’s the matter of peripheral vision. There’s a reason why every first-person game has complete tunnel vision and that’s because the screen is not in your peripheral vision. Therefore, to cram peripheral vision information onto the screen would look utterly bizarre. The human eye’s fovea can only clearly discern details at visual angle of about 10º. I suppose what I’m getting at here is that you never notice that your character has crippling tunnel vision is that you yourself have tunnel vision when you are immersed in his control.

So really the TV is the only thing you see.

Now that I’ve explained that I guess I can get back on topic and say that 3rd person perspective in contrast has some semblance of peripheral vision, not necessarily because the lens angle is wider, but because in your out of body experience you can see what’s going on to your left and right. While this certainly isn’t the same thing as the wide ranges of visual acuity our eyes are actually capable of, it certainly avoids the claustrophobic lack of visual information that first person games deal with.

Beyond that, the psychological and emotional differences between a 3rd person and 1st person experience are perhaps outside the scope of my expertise. Like all things in video games, I imagine it would be a cross between the differences of perspective in literature and cinema. Ask a shrink. Better yet, ask a writer.

The Philosophy of Game Travel pt.2

Contextualizing Controls

Perhaps this is a discussion that is so obvious that it goes without saying. Perhaps it’s not. The common explanation for video game controls is that “Push A to jump.” When most people say this or hear this they’re thinking of a connection between a command (push A) and an action (jump). Instead, what’s really happening is that video games connect commands to ideas, then apply context to those ideas, forming action.

It’s true that when your character is standing on solid ground, pushing A will result in him jumping. It’s also true that if he’s running, it will result in him jumping forward and that if you push it while he’s already in the air it will result in some sort of double-jump if anything at all. The logical conclusion of this can be followed to Mario 64, where the A button can result in any number of specialized jumps, while the illogical conclusion can be followed to fighting games that reward arbitrary button combinations with irrelevant special-moves.

It's a t-shirt but its point is valid.

When people realized that characters in first-person shooters needed to be able to do more actions than they were willing to assign buttons to, they created the Everything button. That is, they set aside one button (usually ‘e’ on a keyboard), which would open doors, flip switches, poke things and basically initiate a predetermined action with whatever doofer happened to be in your character’s face. The logical conclusion of this can be followed to Resident Evil 4, a third person game where the A button shoots, but only when you’re aiming. When you’re not aiming it swings a knife, makes you jump out of windows, jump over ledges, suplex enemies, run from boulders, dodge lasers, open doors, kick open doors, and sit on a throne like a total badass.

There's a button for that.

And so we have games where every button has some subtle level of contextuality and we have games where one designated button is made to serve all imaginable contextual needs. I can only hope that an inevitable convergence of these two designs results in games where each command represents an abstract idea, which when presented with a context that the player understands, will result in an action that the player expected (or at least understands).

A good example of this bright future (for the most part) is Super Smash bros., which I shouldn’t really have to explain how to play, especially since you’ve read this far and found this article in the first place. The basic control elements of the game are basic attack and special attack, which are contextual to what direction you’re holding on the thumbstick as well as whether or not you’re running or in the air. Then there’s the jump button, which only has mid-air contextuality and the shield button, when combined with the thumbstick can result in rolls (and in later iterations dodges). So there. With merely 5 elements to the game’s controls, each character has more potential in-game actions than I would like to count. (I also forgot to mention that the basic attack command can also pick up items and that once holding items, uses them. But you already knew that.)

Basically that’s the sort of control scheme which interests me and I believe will lead us into a brighter tomorrow of gaming experiences. Of course, it goes without saying that such an method requires exponentially more work on the part of the developers and designers, especially when it comes to properly combining elements in ways that the player will understand and expect, especially when you’re dealing with motion controls. Nobody ever said greatness was easy.

The Philosophy of Game Travel pt. 1

Immersion

            In all video games, immersion is the ultimate goal of the control schemes. That’s not true… but let’s talk about immersion anyways. If you’ve ever had a dream or a nightmare, you’d probably agree that those are the most immersive experiences you can have, short of reality (whatever that is). With that in mind, look at a person sleeping, and presumably dreaming. Then look people reading books, watching TV, sitting in movie theatres, playing Super Nintendo, and playing a game that uses motion controls. Then ask a complete stranger which of these people looks the furthest from being in a dreamlike state. Regardless of what they say, the answer is the person playing with motion controls. Let’s continue.

How can they be immersed? None of them are even looking at the same screen!

When you’re dreaming, your senses to the actual world around you are greatly subdued if not completely. Any and all twitches you make are just that, minute movements, which in your dream translate into much more ranged motions. In the rare occasion that these twitches escalate to full range motions themselves then chances are you’re going to wake yourself up disoriented and possibly run into a wall.

When someone playing a videogame is truly immersed, the most glaring symptom is what’s referred to as “gamer’s face.” Although each individual may make their own particular facial expression, the basic idea is that they no longer are putting any thought into their actual face, yet are still focused on whatever endeavor the game has tasked them with. The result can usually best be described as a “blank expression” or “zoned out,” but like in dreams some manifest as a series of twitches or expressions.

Am I dreaming this?

Am I dreaming this?

Enter the Nintendo Wii. After decades of minimal hand-movement being used to convey the player’s thoughts into the dream world, people got the idea in their heads that motion controls could be used to create even more immersion. While this may be true, it is not true for how motion controls have largely been used thus far. Waving a control as if it were a sword, in order to control a sword in-game using 1:1 motion is not immersive. The exertion and the sensation of exertion remind you about your actual arm in this actual room actually wavy around. This, multiplied by the strength of your own grip on reality, pulls attention away from the virtual sword virtually swinging around and virtually hitting things (something your actual controller will never convey and should never do actually).

Strange... it didn't feeeel like he blocked me.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, for social experiences and party games; it can be fun for the focus to remain on the actual world where you’re interacting with actual people. Nor does this mean that motion control is inherently bad for immersion. We simply need to learn how to properly utilize them.

When filmmakers were first able to zoom in and out while recording, it was vastly overused and to an extent limited the audience’s immersion. This is because the human eye has no active means of zooming in and out and therefore seeing such images on a screen reminds us that they are just that. That being said, there is certainly a place for zoom shots in today’s film industry. It just took us a while for the technique to learn its place.

I personally look forward to the day when the full potential of the pointer/nunchuk combo used by the Nintendo Wii and Sony Move is fully realized. I believe that there is still much they can do to make games that are immersive, competitive, and robust in the variety of its applications. The details of such motion control theories are too vast to be merely a footnote of this article and as such, deserve their own.