Streaming games research

Around 8 years ago we worked on a streaming games project at Ulster, which was too far ahead of the technology infrastructure for the results to be persuasive, and this year we have offered a new PhD project in the same area.

As a backdrop to this research I recently completed a 3 month trial with Onlive as a BT Infinity user. With this service I have been able to play games on my TV through a small Onlive console, and on my PC. I have found the quality very dependent on bandwidth (obviously) but the service on the whole has been stable. Unfortunately, I still think that new games are too expensive (e.g. compared to Steam and boxed media), which will slow take up, and the consistency in quality of service needs to improve before the steaming approach will replace disk and downloaded media – but it is coming (witness the recent difficulties of Game). To be fair, I’ve also been sampling Gaikai streamed games off, which takes a different approach. Gaikai is also surprisingly stable, however – from a completely subjective view – the image quality doesn’t seem to be as good yet.

iSpiral v0.3 game: Moodle powered Gamemaker:HTML5 game enhanced learning

The previous iSpiral gameplay video got a bit of interest so I thought I would put up some footage of the latest version of the game. As a reminder, this is a game that is launched from within Moodle and uses the Moodle student ID to associate the student with the game session and equip the space ship based on their class stats. Its an HTML5/Javascript game that has been built in GameMaker and exported to run within a browser. It works best in Chrome and we have not worked on making in fully compatible with other browsers yet. Its only a proof of concept for a larger project but we are learning a lot as we go. The game has not had the hand of an artist yet – only programmers so far – but we are planning to improve the HUD and have an artist rework some of the sprites and backgrounds. We may also get someone to provide new sound and music.

Journey (PS3) Complete

I completed my journey in Journey! I have looked forward to this game for months and I’m (mostly) not disappointed. My view is that its a wonderful and unique experience. I believe it is also clearly a game (as opposed to not a game!) since there are many elements of gameplay embedded within it; for example interaction, exploration, challenge, outcome, and collections. There is also a mystery; a story with a puzzle to solve. Like Dear Esther you move a character towards and obvious goal and gain clues to your own existence as you progress. Unlike Dear Esther, I believe that Journey demonstrates that a story can be told effectively within interactive gameplay. Dear Esther simply told a story within the context of an interactive virtual world; it wasn’t a game but it did tell a story in a profound manner. Journey demonstrates clearly that games can be a medium for the expression of art and a part of that is a unique narrative; a narrative that can be expertly woven into the interactive game design. Journey is short, about £2/$2 per hour for one play through. Its too short considering how long its been in production, but its an important game. Its a game that can inspire other game designers, and it is nice to be able to complete a game in the same month that you started it!

I have been interested in Jenova Chen’s work since his work on Flow in games, as we had a research interest in this area for a while, and played with his Cloud game. As adaptive/emergent AI is a research interest of mine I was really interested in his game FlOw, which was released on PS3 shortly after launch. I played this game on a first date with @bionic_rez who now is my wife. Shortly after we got married we played Flower, and now a little later in our relationship Journey. It seems that Chen’s game release names are subtlety and strangely correlated to the state of our marriage – let’s hope the next release isn’t “battle” or worse!

Super Mario 3D Land (3DS) v Dear Esther

I’ve finished two games recently, “Super Mario 3D Land” (3DS) and “Dear Esther” (PC) and I felt it would worth indulging myself in a blog about them.

Some say that Mario World 64 is the greatest platform game ever, some say Super Mario Bros 3. I’ve played or sampled most of the “proper” games from the Mario platform/puzzler franchise. Super Mario 3D Land is an excellent implementation of this particular design pattern and possibly one of the best; it is a game, from any viewpoint, with challenge at its core and it even has an almost quantifiable end (if you ignore the extra levels that you gain after you rescue the Princess!). Mario is truly a game; a ludologist’s wet dream. Challenge is in your face from the beginning where you need to learn the core game skills and strategies in order to be successful. Well … that is apart from the patronising help shoved your way if you are a persistent failure. I resisted the power up costumes (rather strange dressing up a plumber that way!) and also the short-cuts to the end of the levels! I resisted for a while, but my time is limited and my skills slow to increase. So I did relent and frequently put on the suit of noobie shame, and once even, right at the end, I clutched the feather of “I’ve had enough of this” and thus completed the game. This made me happy because I hate having loose ends when it comes to my game playing, and I have many, many unfinished gameplay masterpieces. However, it still feels wrong. It feels like receiving a degree without having to pass all the course modules or by having a tutor sit with you during some of your exams, pushing you awkwardly over the toughest hurdles. Don’t get me wrong, the game is fun in the key ways games should be fun. There are some issues though. For example, it really just polishes and nudges forward a game that already exists, “Mario Galaxy”, and the addition of 3D does less for it than it has done for “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D”. Also, let’s face it, a fat, red, plumber is really just a design accident of history, a victim of its own success that we would put right if we could go back in a time machine. We would go back to the beginning and tell him to get a job worthy of an action/puzzler/adventurer. We would tell him that he really would need to look after his girl better, get better security, go to the gym, make him aware of the possibility that he could go to the police and report his girlfriend’s stalker. Princess Peach, well …. she would have to get a new wardrobe of clothes, go to self-defence classes, and put it on the line with Mario that he needs to pay attention to her a lot more. And, she needs to change her name, it really just invites abduction. Seriously though, game in Mario is evident but the narrative is so weary. Truth is, I like a story and I enjoy a context that is woven around a challenge oriented game. I understand that platform games are typically more challenge oriented than story led. Thus, characters are crucial and so I prefer the gameplay in the recent “Rayman Origins” and agree with Poole in his recent Edge magazine article that Crash Bandicoot games are more fun than Mario.

“Dear Esther” is a story based game. I read that it was a worthwhile experience an so I played it without reading any spoilers [spoiler alert!] before hand. I love stories, whether they be in books, movies, or games. I believe that games can tell stories effectively, even though this notion conflicts considerably with most definitions of what a game is. “Dear Esther” tested my belief, and truth be told, it undermines my arguments as someone who identifies most with the game narratology camp. I “played” the game for 2 hours, moving an unknown character around a beautiful landscape. As I traversed the island I found out more about the character that I inhabited, and a story unfolded as I chose each new path. The landscape played its part as a means of communication in this ghost story. I hurried towards the end because I could not interact with the environment; I could not jump, I had no inventory. I pushed on, enjoying the story, but thinking that at some point I would have to make a choice, a real and significant choice. Something might chase me. No. Will this box open. No. Can I read this book. No. Can I collect the books and gain achievements. No. Can I save my character. No. I rush to the end of the game, searching for the point, and find myself plunging from the island’s light house, down the cliffs and over the script filled cliffs. For a moment I feel like “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” as I  feel hope that I may have evolved rather than died as my bird-like shadow soars out to sea and then everything goes black. The farce that destroys the mood, my immersion is broken as I think my graphics have failed or there is a bug in the game. The black screen remains so I bring up the menu, then I start the level again, then I resort to youtube in search of an answer. I am dead, the darkness was death, and I was meant to know this? I think “Dear Esther” was an experience, a worthwhile experience, if too short. It is not a game though, it has not challenge and it has no discernible outcome (as far as success and failure is concerned). “Dear Esther” does demonstrate that narrative can be embedded effectively and uniquely within a virtual world. I have no problem with this, and it is wonderful. However, it is not a game and a want to see narrative structures of this quality embedded in gameplay.

Some believe it is impossible to marry the game design pattern of Mario styled games with the narratively rich structure of experiences like Dear Esther. However, modern games like “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” demonstrate how that by putting the player in control of whether they explore, learn, take on a challenge, or have an opportunity to be surprised, that story can be integral to an experience in a game. I play and enjoy all types of games, and I prefer games that have a meaningful and relevant story. My favourite game would be somewhere between Mario and Dear Esther where challenge and story are bed-partners in the conception of the ultimate interactive digital gameplay  experience. This game does not exist yet but I think we are getting closer.