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05/13/2007 - 05/19/2007

Videogame Characters Who Come to Life

May 18, 2007

I has a flavor. Before we kick things off, I have some homework for you. Don't worry, you'll enjoy it:

Check out the TeamFortress Heavy Weapons Guy Trailer!

Yeah, and go ahead and download it at full resolution, so you can watch it big and beautiful on your widescreen monitor. Don't stream a grungy pixelly low-res picture from YouTube, no, get it at full resolution and look at it in all its glory because we're going to be looking at the details. Watch that sucker. (I've watched it a dozen times and it still makes me laugh). Then watch it again! And again. Now that you're over it, do me a favor and watch it again -- this time, look at the many faces of the Heavy Weapons Guy. Watch how you can read his thoughts and emotions. You can almost see him thinking. See what I'm saying?

Who touched Sascha!?

I would go so far as to say that Valve's character and facial expression technology is as advanced as any Hollywood movie studio -- yep, as good as Pixar or Dreamworks. It's even more of a technical marvel, because it's designed to render in realtime. I think this video backs me up. Stylistically, it's pretty compelling: not really photorealistic, but rather like reality caricatured. His hands are enormous and his neck is a wedge. The Heavy Weapons Guy speaks with every movement and every thought exaggerated and telegraphed, but he looks good.

The Many faces of the Heavy Weapons Guy

Last week I wrote at length about storytelling in games, commenting on the various techniques for getting a story across in the midst of gameplay. I didn't go into detail about the specific nuts and bolts of, say, creating good characters, but what you're seeing here is a great tool for the job. It's not like this guy is written to be all that deep or emotionally conflicted, but we gamers nonetheless form an attachment to him because his personality is so strongly defined with his animations and human expressions. "Some people think they can outsmart me," he says, his eyes peering off into the distance. Then he gets all philosophical. Deep in thought. The gears are turning, but we can't hear what he's working through in his head. "Maybe," he admits -- this is a guy who knows his limitations. "Maybe."

It's ironic for Valve to showcase this technology with TeamFortress 2, a game that basically has no story whatsoever. Some red guys and some blue guys are apparently deeply involved in a war that for some reason involves flags. I can only speculate. Yep, the action in TeamFortress isn't ever going to stop for soliloquies! But I have to think Valve realized that the TeamFortress characters, with their ridiculous proportions, made for a perfect technology demo.

Some of the best character rendering tech on the planet? I'm sold. And, you know, as a side benefit, I'm even more excited about TeamFortress 2 -- if that's even possible.


Today's Geek Stuff:
Mod News:
Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 4:48 PM PDT

Attack of the Mass Media!

May 17, 2007

I has a flavor. Earlier this week I blogged about Disney's goals with Pirates Online -- and of course, you can Play the Pirates of the Caribbean Online Beta Test here on FilePlanet.

But let's back up a second. Why is Disney going back to the gaming well? What's the big picture here? I'll tell you what's happening: big media is getting wise! This is the online generation. We spend more time on the 'net, playing games or chatting with friends, then we do watching movies or TV. So what do big media companies do to keep up with the curve? Fold up? Go away? Hellz no.

Even the slowest of media companies are catching on and is experimenting with new ways to reach you. Yeah, you, sitting there surfing the web right now. But what's scary is that some of the smarter companies might actually be ahead of the curve, smarter than the big game developers and publishers within the industry. Check out this Interview with Raph Koster on Gamasutra. A longtime game industry veteran, he lays out some serious mental voodoo and points out how quickly non-gaming companies are innovating in the online space, especially with virtual worlds:

"When MTV went to make Virtual Laguna Beach, they didn't hire people from the games industry, and yet they had a lot of success. They had a better launch then Dungeons and Dragons Online, and on top of that, they're doing stuff we [game industry developers] only wish we could do. They stream the TV episodes in the worlds before they come out on TV. I think big media will screw it up a lot, but they have effectively infinitely deep pockets. It's because they know that their territory is going away, so they're going to crowd into ours. They think that they can take it away from us, and they may be right. -Raph Koster
As a hardcore gamer, you might not get a kick out of Pirates Online, but if even a million people start playing it regularly (that's a fraction of the number of people who play Disney's Toontown), then it's already more popular than every North American MMO ever made -- excepting World of Warcraft. Not too shabby!


Today's Geek Stuff:
Mod News:
Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 4:48 PM PDT

Yaarr! Disney Gets Casual Gamers Playing MMOs the Pirate Way

May 15, 2007

I has a flavor. Last week's Online Game Developer's Conference was an illuminating look into the minds of the people creating the next generation of online games (see yesterday's piece about the major trends). The crowd was an interesting mix: developers working on complex triple-A titles with cutting-edge graphics and features rubbed elbows with smaller boutique developers working on casual or indie online games.

And somewhere in the middle stands Disney, who's quietly been carving out a corner of the online space with a series of very successful online worlds aimed mostly at kids (and their parents.) Toontown Online enjoys a sizeable audience and continues to clip along, years after its release. The Virtual Magic Kingdom site, developed in part by the team who created Habbo Hotel, creates a kind of extension of the theme parks into a virtual world.

But Disney's most ambitious online effort is launching this month: Pirates of the Caribbean Online aims to combine the corny adventures of the theme park ride with the wild stunts and combat of the movies. We've just launched the beta on FilePlanet:

Join the Pirates of the Caribbean Online Beta Test!

Yar yaaarrrrr! Yar yar yar. Yar? Yar -- yar yar yar, yar yar. IMHO.

What's it Take to Make a Casual MMO?

At last week's conference, Mike Goslin -- Vice President of Virtual Reality Studios for Disney Online -- gave attendees a brain dump about how to view the massively multiplayer space through a casual gamer's eyes. It was pretty illuminating: There's a lot of complexity, even in hit games like World of Warcraft, that hardcore gamers take for granted. But how do you make a game that a young teenager on a hand-me-down computer will want to play? How do you get mom and dad and all his brothers and sisters to jump in? In short, how do you make sure that a massively multiplayer game can go BIG?

The first step is to reach as many people as possible by lowering the barriers of play. Most families don't have cutting-edge hardware, and in households that do, the kids are still stuck using a hand-me-down system. "Think about that min-spec really hard," Goslin advises. Make sure the game will run on as many machines as possible. More importantly, make the game free to try: lifelong gamers don't have an issue with dropping a few bucks to try out a new title, but your mainstream audience would rather try before they have to invest any cash.

Next you need to reach out to the mainstream audience. And right now, Goslin says its still all about television -- the majority of traffic to Toontown came flodding onto the servers after a series of television spots aimed at kids.

Now that you've got your audience checking out the title, first impressions are huge. Goslin recommends streaming the game in so that people are playing as soon as possible, instead of staring at a loading screen. Disney Online also likes to give players gifts right away, as a kind of welcoming gesture. The game world should look familiar and inviting. Humor is important: Toontown has lots of little in-jokes aimed at adult players so that they feel just as welcomed as their kids. But familiarity is key! Pirates of the Caribbean starts players off in a jail cell with Captain Jack Sparrow, giving them something instantly recognizable and putting players in the mood to adventure right away.

Yar yaaarrrrr! Yar yar yar. Yar? Yar -- yar yar yar, yar yar. IMHO.
Simple graphics help the game run on nearly any PC, while the stylized art gives the game a friendly cartoony feel. Even when battling the living dead.

Keeping Players Involved in the Long Term

So you've built an MMO and you've gotten tons of casual players to give it a go. You won them over with first impressions... but how do you keep them coming back next week? Next month?

Goslin advises game developers to focus on the immediate entertainment. Players won't invest a lot of time in the world, so you need to hit them over the head with fun things to do that don't take a lot of time to get started. In Pirates of the Caribbean, players can instantly teleport to a poker game or a pirate ship fighting a battle. Players of any level can man the guns of a pirate ship -- you're never turned away from the action.

Humor is also important. Goslin says that players are less likely to judge a game harshly when it doesn't take itself so seriously. Neither Toontown nor Pirates of the Caribbean feel like a heavy "virtual society." In either case, the games are frameworks for quick-playing adventures stuffed with gags.

Casual players have this is common with hardcore players: they want to be able to express themselves creatively. Goslin says the game development community in general doesn't do enough to serve this. Disney Online aims to have really diverse character creation, for instance, so that playing around with your virtual pirate's looks is almost a mini-game in and of itself. Of course, one of the main concerns with a casual game is juggling the desire to let players express themselves with the need parents have to keep their kids in a safe place -- Goslin talked at length about balancing this conflict.

Finally, a great casual game will build loyalty among its players, both inside and outside the game. Contests, events, and mailings (both live and digital) keep the game sticky and keep reminding players (especially kids with short attention spans) to come back and keep playing. Plus, regular installments of new content give people a reason to stay involved.

Put it all together and you've got a game capable of reaching as many people as possible and keeping 'em there for the long haul. That's Disney's strategy: the company is happy to let other products carve out the hardcore market while quietly building a huge audience for simplier, punchier games. But here's the thing about building a mass-market game: a lot of the time, hardcore players decide to come along for the ride.

Will Goslin's strategy work for Disney's latest title? Check it out and decide for yourself in this exclusive sneak-peek beta event:

Join the Beta for Pirates of the Caribbean Online!


Today's Geek Stuff:
Mod News:
Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 4:47 PM PDT

Three Trends Observed at the Online Game Developer's Conference

May 14, 2007

I has a flavor. Last week I attended the Online Game Developers Conference in Seattle, Washington. It was a fantastic show, with a dozen languages spoken in the hallway and panels where Microsoft and Sony sniped away at each other. Fun stuff! While I may spend the next few days summing up the collective wisdom from the show, I'd like to start the week off with a summary of the three biggest trends I spotted across all of the presentations:

Trend 1: Companies are Dropping some Serious Science

For one thing, the distinct roles of different individuals within the development process are more defined than ever before. Positions that were ambiguous a few years ago are now well-established and segmented into different disciplines. A whole panel was held specifically to talk about the roles of writers in games -- whole departments are dedicated to a job once haphazardly performed by level designers.

But even more interesting, there's literal science going on. I met my first videogame anthropologist last week. She would literally log into an online game and observe players the way that you might embed yourself with a stone-age native tribe, noting behavioral trends or social dynamics. This information, along with more heavy quantitative looks at play dynamics and stats tracking, would be used to make better games. Microsoft Games has a whole research division dedicated to this.

Trend 2: Massively Multiplayer is Now Mass Market

This is no secret, but it's funny to look back and see how far the industry has come in just a few years. And no, I'm not talking about World of Warcraft, which is still pretty much targeted at gamers. I'm talking about products like Disney's Toontown Online or Virtual Magic Kingdom, both of which attract kids and parents alike into dynamic online worlds. Then you've got MTV, who's making its programming more relevant by launching MMOs for every major property. Virtual Laguna Beach is bringing people into online gaming that you'd never suspect. Luring (and keeping) the mass market online is a whole art in and of itself, and -- yeah, you got it -- companies are getting scientific about that, too!

The next big mass-market MMO will be Pirates of the Caribbean Online, the beta of which is coming soon to FilePlanet here.

Trend 3: New Business Models Are the Future

In North America the predominant model is that you buy a game and then pay around $10 to $15 a month in order to continue to play it online. This works for hardcore gamers that have one or two favorite games, but it doesn't scale up or leave a lot of room for a lot of competing products.

Most of the Asian markets have already figured this out. There, the majority of games are 'Free to Play,' usually allowing you to upgrade your game experience through small transactions. Micropayments are harder to do over here in North America, but that's not going to stop a whole horde of companies from experimenting with this model. Expect to see more and more games released as free downloads with other ways of getting you to pay if you like what you see.

All told, it was a great conference -- not too shabby being that this is the first year for it. Stick around the FileBlog for more wisdom throughout the week!


Today's Geek Stuff:
Mod News:
Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 4:44 PM PDT

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