Tuesday, January 26, 2010

David Crane: Videogame Pioneer

David Crane, creator of the first so-called "platform" videogame Pitfall! is to be honored with a Pioneer Award soon.   He worked at Atari back in the days when its Atari 2600 ruled the world.  Atari's games were each designed and programmed -- game, graphics, sound and all -- by one person.  But that person had no bonus, no recognition.  Not even in the game itself*, out of fear that he might get stolen away by a competitor.

Also at that time, videogame console manufacturers produced games for their own systems.  David and other Atari programmers left and formed the world's first third party game company, Activision.  They changed the rules -- programmers could now get recognition, and a percentage of royalties.  Activision spawned all other Third Party game companies and, I would argue, invented Rock Star programmers.

Somewhere there is a photo of my really high score on Pitfall!

* Although there are programmers who hid "Easter Eggs" signatures, like Will Robinette in his game Adventure.

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posted by Brian at 3:52 PM 0 comments links to this post

Monday, December 15, 2008

Archon Returns!

Archon was an 8-bit computer game published by Electronic Arts in the mid-1980s, loosely based on the Star Wars holographic creature chess game that Chewbacca and R2D2 play each other on the Millenium Falcon.

Looks like it is coming back!

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posted by Brian at 4:54 PM 0 comments links to this post

Friday, September 12, 2008

SPORE (or Great, Like I Need Another Universe To Suck All My Time Away)

SPORE is out, and I have it. This is the Massively Single-Player Universe-in-a-box game I wrote about earlier, in particular for its amazing Creature Creator. The idea is that you start out as a cellular creature, eat and reproduce until you're advanced enough to go on land, survive predators, add more and more features to your body, making friends and enemies with other creatures, building civilizations, then finally heading out into space. There are now 13 million+ creatures in the system, most of which are created by folks like you and me. It's nice to know that my two species (so far) are either playing nice with, or beating the crap out of those from players in Toledo and Shanghai, Brownsville, Morocco and New York.

Suffice it to say, I'm no game player -- while coworkers (Level 70 WoW masters) have already gotten to space level, I'm still figuring out how to play in Tribal mode. However, I see it as my duty to experience the result of Will Wright and his team's ridiculously ambitious project. So far, it's very impressive and addicting.

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posted by Brian at 7:09 AM 2 comments links to this post

Friday, June 20, 2008

SPORE Creature Creator: The Future of Digital Puppet-Building?

Will Wright is the mastermind behind Sim City and The Sims series (the best-selling PC game of all time). His upcoming SPORE game takes the player through stages of living things, starting with the microbial, then land-based fauna, then into social groups (tribal), then into civilization mode, then finally into space mode! But what's really exciting to me is the Creature Creator mode and the technology behind it.

Most modeling and animation package interfaces start with an interface left over from Computer Aided Design (CAD). That is, you model geometry first. When it's how you like it, you add skeletal rigging (bones) and mesh the two. Then you build in all sorts of constraints so that when you move parts of the puppet, it behaves realistically. Finally, after the digital puppet is ready, you can animate it or apply clip-art animation to it. Life takes a while to emerge.

SPORE's interface starts with the premise that you are tweaking a living being. You, the designer*, get to add in functioning hands, legs, and eyes (not just shapes of them) and this being will react to them, try them out, shake them around, and perhaps disapprove of your modifications. It's very much like the classic Chuck Jones Daffy Duck cartoon Duck Amuck where the unseen artist keeps redrawing Daffy's background and his body.

I do hope Autodesk and Softimage are watching. Wouldn't it be great to be able to construct creatures in this organic way? Wouldn't it be lovely to not have to worry about building IK handles and binding deformers and just start building an instantly animatable character? Granted, there are only 250 shapes available and with all this built-in procedural structure, there are limits to what you can build. But sometimes limitation is exactly what you want. (Who needs the thousands of combination that DON'T work as an animated being?)

* It's perhaps unfortunate that SPORE creatures don't seem to "evolve" when they mate, emphasizing the unnecessary (but fun) step of design.

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posted by Brian at 7:58 AM 0 comments links to this post

Friday, January 11, 2008

Puppet Torture Game on the PS3

Do you remember the boy named Sid in the movie Toy Story who tortured and mangled toys? Do you have a Sony PS3? (No? Very easy to get, unlike the Nintendo Wii™). Well now's your chance to have Sid-like fun as you wreak havoc on your own virtual character doll.

In Sony's new PS3 game Pain, the goal is to fling your puppet (via sling-shot, cannon, what-have-you) into brick walls, bowling pins, glass and other shatterable material. Seems like not so much a game as a toy to let out your aggressions that you've culminated from real life or perhaps your deep-rooted hatred of representational inanimate objects.

Or looking at it another way, this game is the interactive, digital puppet equivalent of those Jackass movies.

Wouldn't it be cool if you could load in puppet characters / avatars from other games? (Take that, Mario!) Or build your own? Seems like there's a lot of cross-licensing opportunities.

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posted by Brian at 3:03 PM 0 comments links to this post

Monday, December 03, 2007

KÀ in Las Vegas: Videogame as Theatre?

I just got back from Vegas this weekend, my first time there. Naturally I'd heard all about some amazing Cirque du Soleil shows there, like "O", "Mystere", and "Zumanity," but when I got there, my native Las Vegan friends told me they loved a newer show called "KĄ".

Well, they couldn't have picked a better show for me to see.

Imagine if you will a multi-story tall auditorium stage that appears to have no bottom, out of which a myriad of theatrical environments emerge. A ship atop a stormy sea. A sandy beach. A monstrously high cliff. A wall for shadow puppets. Battlefields. A forest. Or, during the pre-show, intermittent bursts of flame. To the left and right are illuminated copper cage towers. Think H.G. Wells meets Ewok tree condos on Endor.

Of course there are the Cirque trademarks -- dancers, acrobats, twirlers, and people flying through the air. (If you have not seen a Cirque show, go rent Mystere, Quidam, or Dralion and come back. Or better yet, go see Varekai or whatever tour is out there now live) There is the fantastic music. Though in KÀ, the music is blended with extravagant sound effects, playing through speakers in everyone's seats. But this is the first of their Vegas shows to have a plot*, albeit a relatively simple one. Two twins are kidnapped and must be rescued across varied landscapes full of strange creatures and peoples.

Hmm. Sound videogame-esque? We'll touch on that shortly.

Unbeknownst to me while I was watching it, the Cirque du Soleil troupe brought in two of my theatrical heroes, Robert Le Page and Michael Curry to work on it, as director and puppet fabricator respectively. I wrote a review of Robert's amazing earlier work "The Far Side of the Moon" back in 2001 and got to talk with him a little about how he was experimenting with moving set technology and puppets. Of course, Michael Curry is the genius behind the Lion King Musical puppets, masks, and its morphing cliff stage.

The fusion of all these talents adds up to an unbelievable, jaw-dropping, almost indescribable experience. However, I think I've stumbled upon the right analogy here, although please don't assume I mean to undermine its theatricality in any way: KÀ is part live-action, ultra-high production value videogame sequence, part Cirque du soleil show, part martial arts.

To make my point, here is the state-of-the-art in camera-oriented videogames Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii™:

Now picture something along these lines, right in front of you, live with human beings, scaled to the size of a good-sized hotel. (Ok, not a giant orb spinning but I wouldn't put it past these guys to do something like that next time.) A giant spinning rectangular plane. Two, actually, both acting as stages so capable of transforming they might as well be virtual.

In a sense, KÀ really is part videogame with its use of real-time, tracked projected animations. The larger of the two stages in KÀ is not limited to physical texture, thanks to a clever use of computer vision and projection techniques. It becomes a cliff, or the dark sea with bubbles following a diving actor. Through the combination of this and flying rigs, the stage becomes more like the eye of the camera, with moves previously reserved for Film and now videogames.

Will this make good theatre? Or just another technological exercise like the motion captured, virtual camera move-fests of recent Zemeckis films like The Polar Express and Beowulf? We will see.

Coming soon, I'll try to go into more detail about how this technology works and how it will change live theatre.

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posted by Brian at 5:41 PM 0 comments links to this post

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sid Meier's Pirates! is Crack, I Tell You

A month ago I found a used copy of Sid Meier's Pirates! for my PSP. Since then, I've accomplished the following:
  • Married the "beautiful" French governor's daughter
  • Become the #1 pirate on the Spanish Main
  • Had Spanish and British bounties placed on me for almost $90,000
  • Found 3 Lost Cities
  • Rescued my lost sister, uncle, and grandpa
  • Been thrown in Spanish jail for a year
  • Retired rich and famous (though in Poor health) as a Fencing Instructor
  • Undermined history by conquering Havana and Santiago and Barbados in the name of France
Now I'm trying to wipe out a colony, either the Dutch or British.

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posted by Brian at 5:47 PM 0 comments links to this post

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


First there was Tetris, the falling block game that sold millions of Nintendo GameBoys. Now on the Sony PSP, there's Lumines, which for me is probably ten times more addictive. Why? Well, it has asian-y techno music that responds to how you play. It has motion graphics going on in the background and different "skins", which like the music you can unlock as you play more. But mostly it just taps into your brain, reprograms it to want to create squares of color, and derive waves of pleasure whenever it does.

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posted by Brian at 12:20 PM 0 comments links to this post