“We get to decide” what is next-gen

Games, Interactive Design, Wii
8/20/07

Don Daglow

This is so right on, I couldn’t pass it up. In a speech at the GCDC in Germany this afternoon (covered in this article at GamesIndustry.biz), Stormfront Sudios President and CEO Don Daglow made some excellent points that deserve to be repeated far and wide.

“If it changes the player’s view of what interactive entertainment is; if you think differently about it; if you have a new perspective after playing the game that you didn’t have before, to me that’s next-gen,” Daglow said in a refutation of conventional wisdom that you can’t create a next-gen experience without dramatic increases in processing power. I couldn’t agree more.

The most significant innovations waiting in the wings for interactive art and entertainment are absolutely not about processing power, better algorithms, or any form of rocket science, though they may be enabled by technological innovation (as with the Wii remote). They are simply smart design, inspired thinking, artistry, and most importantly, perspective—an actual point of view on the world that arises from one’s personal experience.

Another Daglow quote: “We’ve spent a quarter of a century saying ‘the machine is holding me back’… The only problem is that now the machines are so powerful, we’ve lost our excuse.” This became really clear to me in the waning years of the last console generation (PS2, Xbox, GameCube), when I started to get bored with gaming in general. Everything was a retread; new versions of old games with upgraded graphics. I was shocked out of my complacency, however, when the Wii controller was first announced (evidenced by the fact that as soon as I heard the announcement I immediately estimated the dimensions of the remote and built a Duplo version the same size to start imagining what was possible...)

Daglow defends the Wii as a next-gen platform from the skeptics who doubt that it’s lesser-powered processor qualifies it as such with a blunt truth that should be remembered and repeated:

“Nobody gets to tell us what we think is next-gen - we get to decide for ourselves.”

Amen to that.

 

Eloquence, evangelism, and the fourth wall

Games, Interactive Design
8/15/07

Eloquence is a wonderful paradox—it’s both impossible to attain and impossible to escape.  Professional communicators spend their lives in pursuit of eloquence in specific domains, never feeling they’ve quite “arrived.” Yet at the same time every event, being the instantaneous product of the current state of reality, can’t help but be eloquent of the moment in which it arises.  Of course, the distinction has to do with context.  Those with a vocation for eloquence often try to reduce the burden of context as much as possible; within their target audience, their aim is to reach as many people as they can (and the way in which they define their target audience—consciously or not—makes all the difference).  “Naive” eloquence has no such aspirations, and as such its recognition depends solely on the eye of the beholder.

There’s things I want to say in this life, and there’s people I want to work for who have their own things to say as well. Since interactive media are my vocation, it’s my goal to become more eloquent in my use of those media, not just for the sake of having marketable skills but because eloquence in the right place at the right time can be transformative.  Equally as important as developing my own eloquence, however, is advancing in my ability to find it in others. Justice is tightly bound to acknowledgments of eloquence from unexpected sources, and since everything is eloquent of something if only you’re prepared to see it, then the act of readying yourself to recognize unfamiliar eloquence is something of an imperative.

There’s no substitute for the uncomfortable process of immersing yourself in something foreign for a long enough period of time that you begin adopt some of its sensibilities—and thus its eloquence—as your own. What interactive media can provide, however, are “bridge experiences” that allow a person to temporarily adopt a shadow of someone else’s eloquence and thereby recognize it as such. Any quality communication can accomplish this, but interactive media does it in a uniquely tactile way in which you can literally feel and play your way through the contours of someone else’s fluency.

It’s easy to forget that this is what it’s all about. As authors of interactive media we can waste a lot of time trying to make sure everybody knows how articulate we are, when in reality the state of our skills can’t help but be revealed in the work, whether we like it or not. On any given project, commercial or otherwise, we’re tasked with representing a particular kind of eloquence; what’s most important is to ask what we’ve done to enable others to make that eloquence their own.

Sometimes, the things we have to do to accomplish that seem antithetical to how we want to feel about our own work; we want to possess the mystique of the artist, we want to keep things hidden, we don’t want to appear too overt or even helpful. All of which would be valid desires if our feelings were important. But in fact, and again paradoxically, the ability of a particular piece to accomplish what it needs to often depends directly upon our own annihilation.

When Shigeru Miyamoto breaks the fourth wall and has a character tell you to “press the A button to jump” it’s like an evangelist asking you if you know Jesus. Our insides twist up: we don’t really have to do it this way, do we? There’s got to be more subtle, more reasoned, more sophisticated ways to discuss these questions, don’t there?

Perhaps. But in the end, that only matters if your feelings matter in comparison to what the work needs to accomplish. And there’s a distinct possibility that they don’t.

 

Wiimote tutorial best practices: “Zack & Wiki”

Exemplary Work, Games, Wii
7/20/07

One of the things that’s apparent in this first generation of Wii titles is that many developers have underestimated how much attention needs to be given to instructing the user in how to hold and move the controller.  Static icons don’t cut it anymore; you’ve got to have animation, and even then it takes some finesse, as simply playing a loop of the controller being waved around can still be confusing if the loop point itself unintentionally conveys some kind of gesture.

The best in-game controller tutorials I’ve seen to date are in the upcoming title Zack & Wiki. They actually show a little 3D animated guy (upper body only) holding the remote, along with text prompts.  Seems like overkill at first, but it’s actually great because you not only pick up on controller movement, you also get posture and timing.  When necessary, they can also switch to a first person view of the figure, or even a “disembodied hand” view to aid with object manipulation.  Check out some videos of the interface in action, the game does look pretty fun.

I wonder, though, you think they’ll let you customize the guy’s skin color? I’m assuming he’s not a character in the game but is supposed to represent some kind of abstracted ideal human, which opens up a whole set of issues… many of which Anne Friedberg and I also ran into when picking silhouettes for The Virtual Window Interactive (and which we tried to skirt by letting users create their own).  Gestural interfaces are increasingly going to require representation of the human form to explain, so whose form do we represent?  Do we need an interactive 3D update to the 1974 AIGA/DOT symbol system?

 

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