27 Sep 2010

IGI 2010 - Part III

Part I and Part II can be found by clicking the relevant links.

After our wonderful lunch (did I mention that it included whale meat? Yummy!) The next session was announced and we returned to our seats. The first session of the afternoon was entitled Game Design for the Future and kicked off with Torfi Frans √ďlafsson, a Senior producer from CCP. His talk was called Virtual Reality beyond goggles and gloves.

Reaching abck into the mid nineties he reminded us what used to be meant by virtual reality:

It wasn't pretty or graceful and the graphics were a bit rubbish. The ideas were there but the technology was not up to realising them. Torfi also cited books such as Neuromancer and Snow Crash as giving a view of Virtual reality which was completely singular. Virtual reality has changed, it is no longer about wearing a bulky headset and walking around bumping into things. Virtual reality is now more about a shared online experience, using multiple means of access and doing many things at the same time.

It was imagined in these books, and by the creators of VR hardware that exploring a virtual world would be an experience that you would participate in whilst doing nothing else.The early VR visionaries had no conception of how modern computer users make use of their time online. For example, whilst writing this blog post, I have 11 other tabs open in my browser, and MSN messenger running in the background. If I were on my usual machine I'd probably be listening to the radio or watching a movie as well (2 monitors don't you know). Torfi's point was that experiencing a virtual environment is not a singular experience. We don't shop online by walking down a virtual 3d street looking in each virtual window as we pass, we open all of the websites we want to shop at simultaneously and compare the prices next to each other, whilst tweeting about it and filling in our Facebook status and chatting with our friends on MSN and watching a movie or the latest episode of Desperate Housewives (oh no, my dirty secret is out o.O). We are multitasking beings when we're online, I ofetn play EVE with 2 clients at once as do many others. Our virtual experiences are not what our forefathers imagined them to be.

Another difference between the idea of VR from decades ago and now is that the means by which such worlds are accessed are no longer singular either. In WoW you can play the auction house from your phone or a website without having to log into the main client. Guild Wars 2 is also building on multi-modal functionality with iPhone apps that let you track what your friends are doing in game when you are away from your computer. EVE has been multi-modal for a while through third party applications such as Aura and Capsuleer, and the launch of EVE Gate is only serving to extend that multi-modality more. CCP is also exploring other ways of actually affecting what happens in the game world directly with Dust 514, a console shooter set in the same universe as EVE and affecting the planets of that immense universe in an entirely different way. We can access Facebook and Twitter from our phones, having conversations with people who are using totally different equipment to access their accounts.

Virtual reality has become a shared experience rather than a representation of a physical place. Rather than reality being defined by the pixels you look at it has become something that you experience, whatever form that experience takes. Whatever reality is is pretty much all in our heads anyway, even in everyday life. Torfi summed up his thinking with the following diagram:

The next talk was from Jonathan Osborne from Gogogic, and covered some of the history of gaming from tennis for two all the way up to games like Mass Effect, Halo: Reach, and of course Vikings of Thule. His main point was that at the forefront of gaming, there are no guidebooks or maps fro where its going to lead next. Social and casual gaming will gain depth as more people become participation literate and games move down the Maslow Pyramid. Location based gaming may be the next big thing but there's no real way of knowing. One thing he was certain about is that games will interact more and more with reality as the technology to play them on becomes more and more ubiquitous.

One thing he higlighted, using the examples of the original Quake and Halo was the level of technical knowhow required to become a gamer has decreased considerably. When Quake was released it was only the technically savvy that could run it. Those with the best machines and the know-how required to get the most out of them played Quake, those without had a PS1. Now everyone with an Xbox or PS3 can play Quake-like games which are even more power hungry but less knowledge dependent. You don't need to know how to adjust your autoexec.bat so that the game runs, you just shove the disc in and away it goes. This lowering of the technical barriers to gaming has widened the market and consequently widened the tastes that the games industry has to cater to, leading to a highly diverse market where there is a niche for just about everything.

He also hinted at a new project from Gogogic which will be landing sometime next year and is currently named Rupture. No other details but I'll be keeping my eyes peeled.

The final talk of this session was from Deepa Lyengar of Mindgames, and was about making real brain training games which used the latest technology to teach people how to relax and/or concentrate. Starting with the perpetual problem of how to make educational games without them being overtly educational and divorcing them completely from the dreaded 'edutainment' moniker. Her argument is that games are already teaching us things, its just that the things they're teaching are not directly applicable outside of the game. Indeed, many are simply improving our hand-eye co-ordination and increasing our skill at that particular game. Mindgames' goal is to develop games which teach us how to do something that will have wider applications than simply being better at the game. They want to make games that teach us how to meditate.

Using the latest brainwave interfaces and an iPhone, Tug of Mind aims to teach people how to relax by letting them turn a photo of someone into an angry face and then, utilising the NeuroSky MindSet, change their brainwaves to make the face happy. Using the same positive feedback systems that many games use to teach you how to blow stuff up more accurately, Tug of Mind teaches you the skills necessary to relax in stressful situations. Describing their products as 'Games with benefits', Mingames are trying to avoid being lumped in with edutainment and serious games which are often made with education and training as the priority rather than being actually fun to play.

Deepa admitted that there are challenges to designing games for the new brainwave interfaces in that when you have a physical button you know almost instinctively what you have to do and it all boils down to how and when you hit the button. With their games the challenge is that there is no button (insert 'there is no spoon' reference here) and its quite hard to bridge the gap between the player's introspective experience and the external stimulus. But surely thats the point of the game, to teach the player to know their own mind and learn where their internal button is so they can press it whenever they want.

After a quick break for more coffee it was time for the final session, which was by far the driest and least upbeat of the day, dealing as it did with the current economic situation in Iceland and whether the country has what it takes to sustain such a vibrant and innovative gaming industry, the speakers were generally in agreement with regards to what was needed for Iceland to become a world leader in the gaming sector; political and economic stability. greater support for R&D, ease of immigration so that talent is not put off by the hassle of coming to live here, a top class educational system (which it by and large already has) and a less punitive tax regime. Two things that all the speakers agreed on in the Q&A afterwards was that for the Icelandic gaming industry to survive there cannot be another crash similar to the one that occurred at the end of 2008 and the restrictions on capital investment from abroad should be lessened somewhat if not lifted altogether.

And so on that fairly downbeat note, but with a hopeful closing address from Sigurlina Ingvarsdóttir of CCP we retired to the blue lagoon for a soak in the milky, mineral enriched, warm water. A relaxing end to a very stimulating and informative day, complete with blue cocktails.

All in all there are many reasons to be optimistic about gaming's future in Iceland. There are companies here which are poised to take advantage of the new technological landscape being laid before them and as one of the most connected countries in the world there are few places better placed to experimant and play with what that connectivity means. Iceland has seen some hard times in recent years, and is still seeing them now, but if they can weather this storm and come out the other side stronger and more determined to lead the field going into the 21st century, Iceland's games industry has an awful lot going for it.

My thanks are extended to CCP for providing me with the opportunity to attend and the IGI for putting on a great day for all concerned.

M out

More information about the IGI and further details about the organisation, speakers and their presentations can be found at http://icelandicgamingindustry.ning.com/

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