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The iPhone is "Doomed"

After all the E3 hoopla, a notable little announcement trickled out last week - a new version (of an old version) of

Doom

, the classic first person shooter, is coming for the iPhone this month.



Once again, John Carmack - id Software co-founder and technical director - is pushing the limits of hardware just as he has so many times before (as I chronicle my book Masters of Doom).  Real compelling 3D games have yet to find a home on the iPhone, and Doom will be a good test. Carmack is collaborating with a Dallas-based developer called Escalation on the project.  Escalation includes some familiar names from Doom lore, including Shawn Green, an early id Software employee, and Tom Mustaine, a formidable Quake compettior back in the day who went on to become a developer.  



Carmack says that the team was able to repurporse assets from Doom 3 for Resurrection.  Early gameplay footage suggests a nice hybrid of stripped down Doom action with a modern sheen - and, IMHO, thankfully jettisons some of D3's ploddingly moody dark corners and shadows.  It'll be interesting to see how Doom Classic, a more faithful porting of the original title, looks in comparision when it hits, supposedly this month too.  And id fans take note - an iPhone spin on Wolfenstein called

Wolfenstein

RPG is also on the way.



Digital Downloads and D&D

Reuters is running an interesting story on the present - and future - of digital distribution in the game industry.  Among the facts:    "17 percent of games sold in 2008 by PC gamers were digitally downloaded...digitally downloaded games will account for roughly 2 percent of industry sales this year, or around $400 million."  DD games are expected to "double annually for a few years, to $800 million in 2010 and $1.6 billion by 2011."

This comes a day after Turbine announced that their game, Dungeons and Dragons Online, would now be available for free.  The business model will be built on microtransactions - selling gamers content the enhance the game play experience.  This model isn't new.  Microtranscations have fueled a virtual economy -  and underground - in massively multiplayer online games for year.  A Korean game called Crazyracing Kartrider has been a pioneer of this. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before this craze finally and fully takes hold here. 

E3 Goes Natal

I'm finally decompressing from last week's E3 convention.  Yes, The Beatles:  Rock Band stole much of the show.  But there was another innovation that caught my eye too:  Microsoft's Project Natal.

Leading up to the convention, I blogged a few times about the rumors on Microsoft's motion-sensing controller. But the reality was a true blow-away.  I went into a small back room where I got a hands-on try.  Or, rather, hands-free.  We've seen earlier attempts at motion sensing cams - most notably, Sony's ill-fated EyeToy camera.  This is an entirely new bag, though.  I got to play a racing game.  To control the action, I just stuck out my hands, made a loose steering-wheel gesture, and was off.   This was no Dactyl Nightmare mess.  The controls were supple, precise.  I made a slight counterclockwise hand-twist, and the car moved accordingly.  To accelerate, I merely had to step forward into space.  To brake, step back.  Goosebumps not included.  At the end, I talked with another jaded writer about it and all we could say was, "wow."  

The wow comes in the potential applications.  Yes, this will make for some compelling new gameplay - but what else?  How about just moving around my files and data?  It's that scene in Minority Report made true - point, gesture, wave - no mouse, no remote to clutch.  There will be a lot of lame attempts to realize the potential of Natal, and maybe we're years away from the payoff.  But it's the first time I've experienced a new interface that really brings the Holodeck to mind. 

E3 News and Rumors

Next week, I'll be heading to Los Angeles for the annual E3 videogame convention. Wondering what's in store? A Kotaku writer, via Boston Herald, has a comprehensive piece on what gamers might expect. As for me, I'm particularly interested in seeing what Microsoft might have in the way of motion-sensing controllers.

An "Elite" Blast from the Past

Edge has a neat feature online about the making of Elite - the 1984 computer game which, allegedly, triggered the first game community online. I'm not sure about that claim, but it's still a fun, informative read.

It's interesting to consider how game developers today are sort of returning to their roots - coding smaller, cheaper, faster titles for platforms such as the iPhone and Xbox Live Arcade.

Games vs. Movies

We know that Americans spend more money on videogames than film tickets, but now strike another score in the gamers column.

A new study by the NPD Group, a tech research firm, finds that more Americans are playing games than going to the movies. Maybe that's not entirely surprising, given the ubiquity of games across home and mobile platforms. To me the more interesting question is how movies will draw back the crowds. Last night, I saw Star Trek on IMAX, and that's sure one way to get gamers back in seats - a big flashy sci-fi flick on a giant screen with amazing sound. I'm there!

Virtual Reality Will Kill the VIdGame Stars - Says Spielberg

Will a reboot in virtual reality gaming be the death of consoles?

Steven Spielberg think so.

He tells the Guardian in this podcast that the 3-D revolution will soon do for gaming what it's doing for film - transform an industry. "I really think virtual reality, which experimentally came and went in the eighties, is going to be redeveloped, just like 3D is being redeveloped today," he says, "and that's going to be the new platform for our gaming future."

Of course, many of us remember how bad the VR games from the 80s and 90s turned out (Dactyl Nightmare, anyone?). And there were plenty of people back then who thought VR would be the next big thing. It wasn't. Why? Because the games sucked. The risk here is the breathless embrace of a new technology. VR is meaningless without a compelling game to drive it. It's still so far away from adoption that we'd be better off focused on improving, say, iPhone games in the meantime.

More About Microsoft's Motion-Sensing Plans

Last week, I blogged about Microsoft's rumored plans for a motion-capture Xbox camera.

Now there's more fuel for the hands-free fire. TechFlash, a Seattle-based tech news site, has dug up a 2007 patent for a "magic wand," a motion-sensing controller that seems an obvious response to the Wii. All in all, more reason to spider-sense that Microsoft will be unveiling some kind of mocap peripheral at the E3 game convention in a couple weeks.

You want animation? OK.

Dana Massey at mmorpg.com asks why animation in MMOs hasn't evolved to the extent he has been hoping. Massively-multiplayer games have improved graphically, he admits, but the animation remains as generic as ever. Why? I mean, the inherent laziness and lack of imagination of developers is obviously a large part of the problem, but are there any secondary causes?

Sure. Sure there are.

Let's think about things. In an MMO, anything can happen, anywhere. Well, not *anything*: with a boss-in-a-box encounter, the boss might be able to do something that is designed to only work in the box, so you can do something special, but generally, anything a player avatar does, they can do anywhere. And it's avatars we're concerned about, really.

So, as Dana remarks, when an avatar gets hit, he clutches his chest and falls over. When a vat of acid falls on him, he clutches his chest and falls over. A piano falls on his head, he clutches his chest and falls over. Why? Well, for starters, avatars die gruesomely in a myriad of ways. They fall, they get hit with hammers, stabbed with swords, poisoned, burnt, electrocuted, crushed. So there's ten ways to die right there.

But wait, there's actually more. You can be hit by the hammer from the front, or stabbed in the back. You can be hit with an uppercut, or bonk! bonk! onna head! You can be hit on the head and speared in the side at the same time. While you're fighting with a sword and board, or with a two-handed sword, or a staff, or waving a wand. You can be bit on the ankles by tiny pixies, or swatted by a thirty-foot-tall squidopotomous.

But I'm being picky: we're improving on what we already have, but we can't do everything. Let's say there's a death for slashing attacks and for blunt attacks, from four different directions (I'd say eight, but I want to give this idea the benefit of the doubt and be conservative), per weapon type wielded by the victim. If your game has 15 different weapons requiring unique animation stances, we're at 120 different death animations per avatar.

But that's only one avatar. Let's call him Human Male. What about the Human Females, the Dwarves, the Minotaurs, the Xenothipps, the Homonculoids? Yeah, you have ten races in your game, with two genders apiece, all of whom have their own custom animation rigs (the skeletons that power the animations). Twenty rigs, now we're at 2400 animations. Just for deaths. Just from melee combat.

There's ranged combat: thrown rocks and axes and spears, arrows, spells. And all the other misadventure that befalls a player's character, that I alluded to earlier. I'm not surprised if we hit 5000 animations to cover everybody having a way to die. OK, 5000 animations, no problem...

Except that's just death. Sometimes they merely get hit, but the parameters would be the same: add 5000 animations, using the same criteria as before, to get 10,000 animations covering "bad things that happen to a character".

Your basic avatar will have between 80 and 120 animations just to move around on their feet. They also have a suite of combat animations, to cause all of these death responses in other monsters and players, multiplied of course by all those weapon types we mentioned earlier. And emotes, to do things like sit, point, smoke a pipe, eat some food, search the ground for clues, whatever. Twenty different sets of these animations, for all those avatars, remember?

And did I mention that you need close to all of these animations loaded in memory for your avatar at once? Yeah, you can be attacked at any time. You can switch your weapon out at any time. Some animations can be fetched from the disc, but to be properly responsive, you need fast access to the animations that can be required at any second. And you need to be able to load all the animations for all the other avatars in memory at once, too: you're on a raid with 31 other players, and it's not hard to get one of every avatar type.

And all of the monster animations. While avatars are busy inspiring eulogies befitting a Danish prince, your basic orc can't just always clutch his chest and fall over. So your monsters need a bunch of these animations, too. Not as many, because they can't do everything a player can do, but they can do a bunch, because everything that can happen to a player can happen to an orc.

We're into hundreds of thousands, potentially millions of animations. These things don't just happen: there's no procedural process that results in clean, usable animations that have character and flair. Sure, you can often animate one character, and use their animations for another similar character, but now we're limiting animations again, in precisely that way in which Dana Massey declares that we shouldn't have to anymore. And even though exporting an animation from one character to another helps with authoring, it may not help with the memory and performance considerations.

So, looking out on this vista of endless animations, which can't be reasonably authored, can't be maintained moving forward as you add more different creatures to the game, and can't be fit into memory on a client computer anyway, the prudent developer starts scoping things down. You don't need directional death animations, players can run the same animation no matter where they were hit from, so you're down 75% right there. Slashing versus bashing damage... yeah, they should look different, but why don't we just do something generalized that works for both? We halve the number of remaining death and hit animations again. You can't do anything about what weapon type the character is wielding, so you're still on the hook for doing a death animation per weapon type being wielded.

And, before you know it, you're making the game possible, by having your avatars clutch at their chest and fall over, when necessary.

The Handheld Planet

Between the iPhone, the Nintendo DS (and DSi), and the Sony PSP, handhelds are increasingly the gaming platform of choice. And the growth shows no signs of abating. According to a new report by iSuppli, a tech research firm, "shipments of handheld game consoles are set to grow to 63.5 million units by 2013, up from 49.4 million units in 2008."

But here's the thing: few, if any, of these games really take advantage of the mobility of these platforms. Take text messaging. How about incorporating this more organically into the gaming experience? Some companies are toying around with Twitter and Facebook integration, but it's more of a social experience than an aspect of game play. Years ago, there was a doomed game called Majestic that sent gamers faxes and made phone calls for a kind of alternate reality gaming experience. It'd be nice to see that kind of experimentation come to handhelds now.

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IEEE Spectrum’s gaming blog was retired in 2010, but it is preserved here for archival reference.

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