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!
The computer vision wizards of Microsoft (including the Internet sensation Jonny Lee, the guy who hacked a Wiimote into a virtual whiteboard) have been busy working on a controller-less technology that, apparently, can sense shapes and forms and track their motions.
Imagine the uses for puppetry or mime! In the video above, the boy gets to perform the rampages of a giant Japanese monster. The girl drives a car by miming the hands on a steering wheel. I can see this being used for virtual Muppets, where a simple two-handed rod puppet could drive a virtual puppet decorated to look like whatever you want.
Some questions to ponder. Can Project Natal track depth accurately? What's the latency? How many things can it track? If a tracked object gets occluded and then reappears, is there a delay before it gets picked up again?
Low-cost motion capture / digital puppetry inches closer and closer. I hope Microsoft opens this up to XNA so that indie developers can play with it.
Kellee Santiago is the co-founder of thatgamecompany and former Interactive Media graduate student at USC. Her excellent talk centered on the old debate of whether videogames are Art, or at least, can be Art. She showcased a few examples, including a game where the player gets to be the cult leader Dave Coresh, as well as her company's new downloadable PS3 game, Flower, where the player is the wind blowing flower petals over grassy hills. (Nice!)
I'm not sure she entirely made her point though I agree with it. Yes, videogames CAN be Art. Yes, we could be at the early stages of the Art form like we were with cave paintings or early live action shots of film. But I believe Truely artful games are a rarity still not because the medium is primitive. It's because most Game Designers are not truly great. In fact, most get their jobs by starting out as game testers who play the particular games being produced over and over again. This would be like Chefs becoming chefs by eating a particular food over and over. Granted, well acclaimed animation directors at Pixar DO watch old classics over and over, but a large breadth of them, not just the ones they worked on previously. And granted, there are IMHO some truly great Game Designers out there or now part of History. Will Wright, Peter Molyneaux, Shigeru Miyamoto, Keita Takahashi, Richard Garriott, Dani Bunten Berry, Sid Meier many more I don't know about, and perhaps the folks at thatgamecompany will be among them too.
One thought I had while watching: Is an edited screen capture of a game still a game? Or is it a form of cinema? (Indeed, there exists a spin-off artform based on videogame engines called Machinima, with its props, sets and actors based on game art but its grammar based on film conventions.)
Despite all the attention the Apple iPhone is getting for making downloadable applications available in their store, there are still other interesting portable devices to consider, like the Nintendo DS. Though it's mostly a game system, this little pen-based dual screen computer is starting to get a few non-game programs, such as this really cool patchable analog synthesizer from a real music company, Korg.
Paramount is developing a movie about the life of Nolan Bushnell, founder of the grand-daddy of all videogame companies, Atari, and creator of Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theater. Leonardo DiCaprio is on board as star.
I'm guessing the movie focuses on Nolan Bushnell, who sold Atari before it rose to even bigger success under Warner Brothers for a time. The story of Atari the company is perhaps even more tumultuous, and probably deserves its own documentary.
Atari was not just a videogame manufacturer to me -- it was the ultimate brand of everything I liked until their demise in the early 90s. Through their arcade games, console units, and computers, Atari exemplified to me what an innovative company ought to be like. It's Atari that made me become interested in computers and writing software, ever since the teacher in charge of my elementary school's computer club brought in an Atari 800 for us to look at. It's the court case of Atari vs. Activision that legitimized the business model of 3rd party games. My understanding of a "rock star programmer" first came from reading about arcade developers from Atari, like Ed Logg (Asteroids, Centipede, Gauntlet) and Dave Theurer (Tempest, Missile Command).
Over the years I've owned a 2600 VCS, a 600XL Home Computer, an Atari Mega 4 ST Computer (with Atari laser printer!), and an Atari Lynx (which I still have).
And yes, I did go to a birthday party or two at Chuck E. Cheese's way back when. "Where a kid can be a kid!" ... and adults go insane.
There's a whole burgeoning world of augmented reality technology and new ways to interface with computers these days. As you've read about here so far, there's Johnny Lee's Wii white board, the Reactable collaborative musical instrument, and the amazing 3-D rotating textured stage in the Cirque du Soleil show, KA in Vegas. What do all of these have in common? Tracking.
This morning I found this video of levelhead, an installation game where the player's only interface is one or more plastic cubes on a pedestal. The game itself and the player are shown on a projected screen, and the sides of the cubes are replaced by tiny virtual rooms with a little avatar.
Yesterday I went to a Dorkbot event where we learned about RoboRealm, a free Windows toolkit for adding Computer Vision to your projects. It takes care of a lot of the complicated linear algebra and programming for you, essentially turning your webcam into an eye for your robot, a tracker for your interactive art piece, or whatever you can come up with. There are modules to send data out to your own electronics or robotics kit or your own software.
Besides this kit, there is the software library used in levelhead called OSGArt. Lots of other tools out there too.
Once again, it often takes two exposures to some new things before it sinks into my brain to the point where I notice. This was the case for Jonathan Coulton, whom I had seen perform along side John Hodgman without knowing who he was, then later finding out that HE was the one doing the great folk-songy version of "Baby Got Back" and a bunch of other great songs. Today's rediscovery is The Go! Team.
Sometimes last year I bought Lumines II for my PSP, the sequel to the horrifically addicting block game that features bizarre music (mostly Japanese electronica) and swirly visuals. This new version features actual music videos (!) of a few familiar artists (Beck, Gwen Stefani). I had started on the Basic mode, so none of these appeared. Hadn't played my PSP in a while, so yesterday I put in Lumines II and tried the Intermediate & Advanced modes to discover whatever tunes might be hidden in the game. Sure enough, there's one really, really strange video that sounds a bit like a high school marching band mixed with a previously unknown happy-sounding Janet Jackson or Nina Cherry rap song playing on a cassette player in the basement mixed with a harmonica riff, and a drummer playing an early 70s-style backbeat. Meanwhile, the visuals have a Super-8 film look, cut into a bizarro early 70s Sesame Street-like New York montage (with a few shots of Hollywood?) with no polish whatsoever. Unfortunately, one can't really focus on the visuals because the game itself is underway and blocks cover them up. Doh! How to figure out who made this craziness?
Luckily, the game tells you the name of the song ("Bottle Rocket") as you complete a level, but who was this artist? Was it a guy with lots of samples? Maybe two? A real marching band went home and recorded itself on Garage Band and went nuts, mashing it with 80s rap and adding tons of reverb?
In the back of my mind, I thought "Could this be The Go! Team?" Being an Angel member of the fantastic public radio station KCRW, I get new CDs sent to me every six weeks or so. In this manner I've discovered KT Tunstall, Zero 7, Imogen Heap, LCD Soundsystem, Band of Bees, and so many other great artists that in general, don't get played on mainstream, tightly-controlled corporate radio. Back in the Fall, they sent me an album called "Proof of Youth" by The Go! Team, which sounded like a high school cheerleading section paired with an acoustic drumset. It was a cool concept, but to my ears a little too muddled. I couldn't really make out the lyrics, and some parts were mixed too loudly for my taste. But maybe the creator(s) of this CD were responsible for this bizarre game video.
A quick search on YouTube for "Bottle Rocket" revealed this (albeit in poor quality):
A-ha! Caught red-handed. And this other video reveals that no, this is not the result of only a guy with some brass and rap samples (or a cheerleading squad / marching band for that matter):
Nope. This is a band from the UK, apparently quite multicultural and jubilant:
And how you can you not like a band with TWO drummers and an invisible horn section?
Serato LIVE is the Atari 2600 of Digital Turntable Systems
As I start up my DJ class again (this time focusing on scratch techniques), I am pondering which of the numerous software/hardware systems -- designed to allow old-school DJ turntablists to work with digital music files on a laptop instead of crates full of vinyl -- to get.
It occurs to me that Serato LIVE is the Atari 2600, Native Instruments Traktor Scratch is the Mattel Intellivision, and M-Audio Torq is the ColecoVision of digital turntable systems. Why? The Atari 2600 was not especially pretty but it worked well, had all the great games, and EVERYBODY had one. Intellivision was technologically much more advanced but it had a quirky interface and never got as popular, while the Colecovision was even more advanced but ... well that's where my analogy may not be perfect. I don't know enough about the Torq :P
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.
It has been a long time since I picked up my Sony PlayStation Portable™, probably due to World of Warcraft and other activities. However, today while searching in vain for a decently-priced Nintendo Wii™, I picked up a game with an interesting premise: What if you're playing a 3-D platform game and suddenly wanted to play it in 2-D? What if the entire gameplay revolved around switching back and forth to solve puzzles?
The premise is you're Danny, a total insomniac who is being treated via this strange mind device called the Crush, which has him roam about his subconscious collecting important articles. Sometimes, in order to reach these items, he must squash perspective down to a flat world, either sideview or top-view. Very nice moody saxophone chill-out music plays in the background as you roam about mostly dark, abstract rainy cityscapes. It reminds me a bit of a cross between the Atari Lynx game Chip's Challenge, the classic Sega Genesis game Flashback, and any of the numerous true 3-D platform games out there (originating with Mario 64).
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.
Interesting essay asking the question, "Why are there no high-brow videogames?" The problem with it though, by its own admission, is that there are some high-brow videogames and so-called "Merchant Ivories" of the game world. I think the issue then is "Why can't we get anybody outside of Gaming to recognize them?"
Comics and Puppetry and even Animation claim to have no respect. Now poor Videogames. Seriously though, if you want an Art form with the lowest self-esteem, go with Puppetry. It has the smallest revenue stream. Fewer and fewer practitioners competing for that shrinking stream. More people use its name for its derogatory meaning (i.e. as a metaphor for something helpless or manipulated) or as simply a children's medium, or as something boring to do ("shadow puppets") than as something positive. Ironically though, it's one of the most powerful and immediate art forms for those lucky enough to experience it performed by masters.
Videogames is definitely the young kid on the block. It's the biggest too (money-wise), though does not have the same demographics as Film, and does not cater to an elder crowd yet who in yester-years would have liked Classical Music and Ballet and Theatre.
Maybe the concept of High-brow is a dated term. Nowadays, we have niches.
You know how I've been wanting a cheap but accurate controller for manipulating virtual puppets on either a PC or a videogame console. Ever since the Nintendo N64 offered 3-D graphics on par with a circa-1994 Silicon Graphics machine, this seemed inevitable, though that was 10 years ago.
But soon, with the Nintendo Revolution Wii™ and it's 6-degree of freedom, wireless remote, capable of tracking rotation AND position, Internet connectivity, and fairly good (though not the most impressive) 3-D graphics engine, the time has come! This thing could make a great virtual rod control. Imagine four of these per box, which would be connected to other performers on the Net, performing in the same scene, or watching and providing virtual applause!
Come on! Who's with me? The development kit is only $2000 (compared to the $20,000 Sony Playstation2 kit).
Super Mario Brothers, as a Black Light puppet show
This video impressed many at the special FX company I work for. Most of us recognized the entire level of the classic Nintendo game, Super Mario Bros., performed live using bright objects held by people wearing black. This sort of theatre can be seen in Prague and other places, and as Andrew pointed out below, the objects are often painted with UV paint and the light is a black light, enhancing the illusion of inanimate objects moving or disappearing.
Nice to see blacklight Black Light Theatre finally reach the masses!
Last night I went to the second annual I am 8-bit art exhibit. Last year, the event took place in two galleries, one with the art and a bar, the other with a retro-lounge with plasma screens hooked up to X-boxes playing Mattel Intellivision™ games. Live musical performances from 8-bit Weapon and Toy Boat rocked the lounge, with a comfortable-sized audience. Creators of original Intellivision™ games welcomed attendees. It was quite fun. My first impression - "What, no bar??"
My, what a difference this year! Only one gallery this time. Twenty minute wait to get in. No lounge. Wall-to-wall people. As you can see below, 8-Bit Weapon (down to 1 member) played its Commodore 64 dance numbers antisocially up in the rafters, barely noticeable.
The primary improvement this year though -- the Art itself.
Mario was probably the most prevalent videogame character, just like last year. Though there were quite a few others this time around, from games like Dig Dug, Dragon's Lair, Pac-man, Ms. Pac-man, Defender, Burger Time, and various Atari. A curious take on the Sega/Konami™ classic, Frogger. MTV was there, covering the event. Max Headroom, and poor 8-Bit Weapon, banished to the rafters this year. Could barely hear them above the din of people.
Outside, around back was the bar, serving free glowing green, red, and blue drinks of vodka and energy soda. Hence the horde of people, many who probably work in the game industry. There were some ladies showing off Capcom games on PSPs, and the MTV hostess trying to interview unsuspecting, intoxicated gamers and art fans. Amanda and Michelle from thegirlsproductions.com were there, and I think I spotted Tim Biskup. Managed to get a Vodka Cranberry just in time for them to run out of cranberry from the push-button sprayer-thingy. So it was mostly vodka. Oh well. What ya gonna do?
Will Wright, creator of SimCity and The Sims, is creating a PC game called Spore that lets you create virtual lifeforms, from protozoa all the way to intergalactic conquerors. This video is jaw-dropping.
A then 17 year-old Marc Cerny joined Atari back in the mid-80's, and soon created a masterpiece videogame called Marble Madness. You played a marble rolling through abstract ductways, avoiding obstacles. Why was this game so cool? Well, it had awesome music, with a definitive soundtrack throughout the game. It had game physics. Stereo sound effects. An illuminated trakball.
I miss the early days of videogames when each new game you'd see in the arcade was a new genre. I remember going to the half-dozen arcades along the Ocean City, New Jersey boardwalk every summer, and discovering brand new game ideas. Now going to arcades is dull. There's your riding simulation, your use-a-gun game, your fighting game, and that's about it.
What's different today? Obviously now we have home gaming systems that surpass the arcades, but the games are not necessarily revolutionary. Is it Marketing? The size of the industry (which can't take as much risk?)
The Sims Online (or a Community of Cooperative Pizza-Makers)
I'm exploring yet another online virtual community called The Sims Online (or TSO). My There gf is actually a TSO refugee, but since neither of us have been going to There much lately (you run out of things to do without spending too much money), she encouraged me to try TSO (she's an addict!)
It's a bit different than There -- your vantage point is limited to a 3/4 view of the interiors of houses in the world, which are like disconnected islands you can hop to. So it's not one contiguous space. Also, this limits how far you can zoom in. Your closest angle would be a Long Shot in cinematography terms.
Whereas There has beautiful breathing and posture nuances to its 3-D Avatars yet lacks many actions, Sims has a bazillion action sequences you can invoke. TSO, like its non-online cousin The Sims, is all about daily maintenance like cleaning up, going to the bathroom, sleeping, bathing, eating, with some bizarre activities like making preserves and baking pizza. There, in contrast, is all about riding around in vehicles across a varied 3-D landscape, and fashion. Both places are geared toward socializing rather than one specific game.
One thing I preferred in There -- when I was chatting with people, it really felt like I was... well, There. You can zoom in, out, and around with a disembodied camera, or look out through your Avatar's eyes. For someone who can be a bit shy in groups, this made me very anxious at first, but I found myself getting used to it and oddly enough, it helped me deal with real groups of strangers a bit better. Sims lets you do way more with your avatar, but you are never in close enough to where it feels like more than a nicely-designed, somewhat old-school videogame.
One thing I preferred in TSO -- they do not shy away from adult, or even semi-lewd behaviors. One can download a nude patch (although this is not "official") and truly experience what it is like to use a community bathroom. (Not too surprisingly, it becomes "no big deal" after a while, something that overly conservative people could learn a thing or two about.) There are plenty of kissing, dancing, and bed behaviors (although they are "under the covers"). There seems a bit hesitant to add intimacy options. You can't even kiss without sitting! My There gf and I had to improvise by dragging a portable hot tub around with us just so that we could smooch.
The Sims 2 is coming out -- and it's supposedly all 3-D, so I'm curious to see whether TSO will become 3-D like There. They will encounter some of the same very tricky challenges, like how do you animate hugging, kissing, dancing and other contact activities when Avatars are of different shapes and sizes? (TSO gets around this by having one size).
I have to say though, as expected, I don't find either as addictive as the old online text worlds like MOOs and MUDs, because, like language they are capable of infinite, instantaneous possibility. 3-D worlds are starting to let you create the objects (and sometimes behaviors of those objects), but each have to be elaborately constructed before use. I'm constantly finding limitations as to what you cand DO in these worlds with people.
If I want restrictions, there's always Real Life, full of Laws, social norms, expectations, taboos.
The best thing about Virtual Worlds is when people stop doing what the creators and employees want or expect you to do, and start playing around. In There, people push the boundaries of what and where they can build, or where they are allowed to be, or where they can ride vehicles. In TSO, people have discovered that if a bunch of people go away from keyboard (which is represented by levitation), in the same spot, they can create a "Love Balloon". Others have figured out if they leave their Avatars in a pool long enough to where they are too sleepy to stay awake, their Avatars drown and become ghosts. Once ghosts, they found out that if another ghost friend scares them, they pee instantly.