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08/05/2007 - 08/11/2007

Virtual Money: Big Fake Bucks?

August 10, 2007

I had cheezeburger, and heartily recommend it. Most online games make some effort to distance themselves from real currency; selling virtual items for real cash in games like World of Warcraft is against the end-user license agreement and can get your account banned. But the real forward-looking online worlds embrace their economy as a true economy -- Second Life, a game that just can't stay out of the news, actually has a working exchange rate (you can trade about 270 Linden Dollars for one real-life U.S. dollar). It's not just permitted -- it's a major part of the game!

For some time now Second Life has been big enough that people can actually make a real income from it. I've got an artist friend for example who supplements her income by selling virtual tee-shirts online -- it turns out that actually making your art look good wrapped around a 3D model is a bit tricky, a skill that people value (and pay for!) online.

But with a "real" economy comes all the trappings, including banking and finance.

Virtual Banking.
Virtual banking is still in its 'Wild West' days. Unregulated!

The Second Life economy is reeling right now, according to this article in the MIT Technology Review. Earlier this year the game was forced to ban gambling thanks to "conflicting gambling regulations around the world," which devalued the currency in some people's eyes and subsequently triggered a run on the many virtual banks online. One of the largest was forced to cease operations as people rushed to withdraw their money. Is that such a big deal? It is when you realize that the bank, Ginko Financial, had over $700,000 worth of virtual money in over 18,000 accounts. Yeah, that's $700,000 U.S. Dollars.

Of course there's no regulation in the online space. There was no regulatory body ensuring that Ginko actually had the funds to back itself up. As Cornell University economist Robert Bloomfield explained in the Technology Review article, "The average person who goes to a [real-world] bank isn't aware that there's a large regulatory body keeping track of the reserves the bank has." That's not the case online, which is why virtual banks like Ginko could promise ludicrous interest rates of over 44% a year.

It's up to the online community at large to figure out how to regulate this new frontier, which makes it one hell of a fun social experiment. Of course, that's easy for me to say -- I didn't have anything invested in the banks. For some more detailed analysis, read some in-depth economic commentary in the Second Thoughts blog.

Posted by at 10:13 AM PDT

Study: In-Game Ads Really Work!

August 09, 2007

I had cheezeburger, and heartily recommend it. According to a study conducted by the Nielsen company, in-game ads are highly influential to gamers. I've blogged about in-game advertising before, and you've emailed me about it, but what I haven't talked about before is whether or not these things actually work. The answer, according to Nielsen?
Hells yes.

Surveying gamers concluded that in-game product placement raises familiarity with the product by 64%, with purchase consideration going up 41%. Automotive ads were particularly effective, increasing purchase consideration by 69%. See more stats in this Next-Gen news post.

Effective product placement.

I'm not totally sold on the methodology of the study -- it's based off of 600 North American gamers playing only one game (Need for Speed: Carbon). I'd like to see if the results hold true across multiple game genres, or if they hold up in the coming years when in-game ads get more and more prevalent.

Why should you care about ads? With games getting more and more expensive to produce, a little bit of ad revenue can help ensure that developers can keep producing quality content. Unfortunately, the savings won't get passed on to us. What do we get instead? Delicious crispy fried chicken or crisp refreshing diet Sodas. Drink up!

Posted by at 10:48 AM PDT
Edited on: August 09, 2007 10:50 AM PDT

Speed Racer: Wasting a Good License

August 08, 2007

I had cheezeburger, and heartily recommend it. Sit down. No, seriously. Are you sitting down? I have good news and bad news. The good news? They're making a Speed Racer videogame! The bad news? They're making Speed Racer into a videogame. I'm worried that this precious license -- let's be honest, the crown jewel of both Eastern and Western cultural output -- may not be given proper videogame justice.

But first, allow me to set the mood.

With that out of the way, let's get down to details. Speed Racer is not about the Wachowski brothers making cars do Kung Fu. If Speed Racer was meant to be cool, it wouldn't be called "Speed Racer." That's like calling a TV show "Punch Fighter" or "Delivery Mailman." Speed Racer is cool because of camp. When I was in gradeschool I'd watch the show religiously every morning, Pop-Tart in hand, shaking my tiny head going "I can't believe this is on TV." Later, in college, the floor of my dormitory would get together to watch the show every afternoon, chanting "Slut! Slut! Slut!" whenever Trixie would walk onto the screen with her flippy little hair. The show is about as serious as clowns punching crotches.

Go Speed Racer! Go Speed Racer! Go go ... GO! Keep going. We'll tell you when to stop.

How to Make a Good Speed Racer Game

Yeah, I'll come out and say it: I've got no faith in Warner Bros. to make this license into a videogame I'd want to play, not from what little we've heard about it so far. C'mon guys! Let's not try to make the most ridiculous part of my childhood cool. Let me feel like a kid again! I would respectfully suggest an Xbox Live online multiplayer game with the following characteristics:

  • Cel-shaded animations.
  • Ridiculous retro-future cars with customizable color-schemes.
  • When you say something into your Xbox Live headset, your audio is recorded, then played back through your character at higher speed with all pauses removed. Your character's mouth should not come even close to synchronizing.
  • A narrator should constantly announce your every action, also neglecting to pause or display any emotion aside from barely constrained excitement.
  • You can change your car's handling and acceleration by selecting different little brothers and animals to stow away in your trunk.
  • Gizmos. Gizmos. Gizmos.
  • At the start of each match, there's a 50% chance one of the other players is secretly your long-lost brother. This will be announced by the announcer in a single rapid-fire burst of barely contained excitement: "LITTLEDOESSPEEDRACERKNOWTHATRACERXIS ACTUALLYHISLONGLOSTBROTHER..."
  • Bonus points if you save your long-lost-brother's life during the race.
  • After every race, your score is read aloud to you by your angry dad in a scolding tone.
  • And this is the most important rule: If your car loses control, you can regain your traction and even get a speed boost if you yell "Oooaaahhh!" into your Xbox Live headset.
  • When this maneuver is properly executed, your Slutty girlfriend will yell "Oh Speed!" from the sidelines.
In fact, Warner Bros... You can have that idea. From me to you. Royalty free. Just make the game!

Posted by at 11:59 AM PDT
Edited on: August 08, 2007 12:02 PM PDT

Game Graphics: Scaling the Uncanny Valley

August 07, 2007

I had cheezeburger, and heartily recommend it. If you're not already familiar with it, here's a term used you'll see a lot of when people talk about computer graphics (or even robots): The Uncanny Valley. Learn the definition and you'll be able to impress your friends at parties. It works like this: if you were to draw a graph of people's emotional responses to things, it would follow a clear pattern. If something doesn't resemble a human at all (say, a picture of a rock), people have no response to it. But as you add more and more human-like characteristics -- eyes, noses, smiles, etc. -- people will develop a warmer emotional response to it. You'll start to feel empathy. The response is even greater if the character is animated and moves in realistic ways. But, the graph isn't a completely smooth curve! At some point, the character looks real but not real enough, and suddenly people will actually have the opposite reaction to it. A negative response. The character will look "creepy" or "weird" or "strange." Instead of seeing the human-like characteristics, you only notice what isn't quite right.

Animators have known about this phenomena for decades, and in the computer games industry it really became a concern more recently as graphics became good enough to make photo-realistic characters. Have you noticed that characters who might look okay in screenshots just seem wrong when you play the game? Creepy, waxy, jerky and robotlike? Yep, those chracters are sliding into the uncanny valley: they're human, but there's something wrong with them, and your instincts react negatively. It's fun to compare the characters of EverQuest II with World of Warcraft: WoW's designers consciously made their characters look like cartoons, exaggerated in dozens of ways, making them less human but high on the curve and easy to empathize with. EverQuest II went for a more realistic look, and plunged into the valley as a result.

Virtual Me
We can depict human beings photorealistically in real-time,
but can we make them move like humans? [Shown: EA's 'Virtual Me' Technology]

Gaming Beyond the Valley

I dwell on this topic as a followup to yesterday's blog about id's Tech5 Software. We now have the ability to render, in real-time, startlingly human faces. Every pore, blemish, freckle, and eyebrow-hair -- it's all on the screen!

But will the characters look right? That's the next step, and it's going to require animation that's as solid as the rendering. I suspect that will be the focus in the next five or ten years of videogame graphics development: progressively better and more realistic animations. It's going to require moving beyond 'canned' animations and into 'procedural' animations, blended and rendered on the fly.

A lot of work is going on in this space. My favorite example is the new Indiana Jones game, which uses NaturalMotion technology to dynamically animate the characters. I saw the demo last year at E3 and was really impressed: individual characters would do their best to keep their balance amidst all kinds of forces, like standing on a moving streetcar while being punched in the face. Or staying on a wriggling rope bridge while boulders landed on it. Admittedly the characters looked a little like marionettes being smacked around, but the technology was a real blast to interact with. And it's still early! We're going to see more and more technology focused just on realistic (and dynamic) animations.

At this year's SIGGRAPH (Computer Graphics) convention, EA's chief visual and technical officer gave a keynote speech that raised some of these same points. You can read a summary of the keynote on GamaSutra, where he talks about what it takes to move beyond the valley.

And of course after that comes improvements in AI... but that's a blog for another day.

Posted by at 11:25 AM PDT
Edited on: August 07, 2007 11:26 AM PDT

id Software's Tech 5 - A New Milestone in Game Development

August 06, 2007

I had cheezeburger, and heartily recommend it. This is not like the videogames you grew up with. The winding desert tracks of id Software's technology demo might resemble the canyons of games like Motorstorm, but as you step out of your desert buggy to take a close look around you, the level of detail is outstanding. Artists place each individual pebble, sculpt out every muddy trench, and no two surfaces look identical. Gone are the days when any significantly large stretch of land would feature a repeating, tiled texture; here, everything is unique. Artists are able to literally paint every surface you see, giving the entire level a more organic, more realistic feel. "The world is the canvas to paint on," id founder and programming genius John Carmack explains, scrolling through a game level that comes alive in the details.

The new technology is called "Tech 5," and it'll power the company's next huge franchise: Rage, a hybrid between a post-apocalyptic first person action/adventure and a wickedly brutal racing game. GameSpy's got a preview along with some exclusive face-time with Carmack. Want video? You can see the engine in action here on FilePlanet, along with Carmack's commentary.

id Software's Rage
Every Pixel can be hand-painted by an artist.

A New Era in Game Development?

What fascinates me about the Tech 5 engine is that there's no downside to the additional detail, no 'give and take' between artists and programmers. According to Carmack, performance remains solid no matter how much detail an artist layers onto the final scene. Think about that for a second: we're passed a threshold where artists no longer have to hold back. Tech 5's megatextures mean that technology isn't really the limiting factor for what we can display real-time anymore -- from here on out, the only showstopper is how good the artists are and how much time they can dedicate to a project.

That's exciting but also a bit scary. Games are going to require artistic talent (and the ability to organize large numbers of artists!) like never before. id Software realizes this and so, if you watch the Tech 5 Videos, you'll see that the company has also built a new generation of tools that allow artist to manipulate the environment in real-time. Adding new level features can be relatively quick. It looks to me like you can see the quality of the tools shine through in the final product...

I guarantee we'll be hearing a lot more about Rage and Tech 5 in the years to come.

Posted by at 11:32 AM PDT
Edited on: August 06, 2007 11:37 AM PDT

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