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"AI is the future", says Sony

I must admit to being a bit puzzled by this Eurogamer article on a presentation by Sony Computer Entertainment UK boss Ray Maguire, at BAFTA headquarters.

"We are no longer interested in graphics per se, because graphics chips can do that for us," he commented, "but the central processors of all the new games machines are about making games more compelling by adding in artificial intelligence."

"The Cell chip is so powerful it can do 256 million calculations per second... That means one thing for us in the videogames industry: artificial intelligence."

Does it? I mean, I'm all for it. But do the people focussing all of their effort on better graphics technologies know this? What's with all the people proclaiming physics are the future? Was there some video games industry communiqué I missed?

And, um, if the Cell is so powerful that it only means artificial intelligence, then what's with the story that the Cell is unsuited for branch-heavy code? I know, to some degree that has to be FUD from the boring PR war between Sony and Microsoft. But yet... I can't shake the impression the Cell really is a so-so PowerPC core with 7 DSPs tacked on. Powerful, when you make it do the right thing, sure. But I wouldn't call it "built for AI". (Warning: I have never programmed a Cell processor nor anything similar, although I've talked with friends who do.)

He showed off a proof of concept video showing a rendered female character auditioning for a movie role, and talking through her relationship with her husband from meeting him, through to her decision to murder him after discovering that he was having an affair.

This is obviously Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain video - I don't know why this wasn't explicitly mentioned. Now, charming as this video is, what does it really show? It shows an entirely predetermined video sequence. Nothing more. It's a very nice video, and I will take Quantic Dream's word for it that it's running in real-time. But still, it's about as interactive as a brick. There are a billion reasons for why this is entirely unimpressive for games, going from surface issues such as the fact that you can massively optimize your rendering (not to mention your modeling) if you know exactly where your camera is pointing at any time, to deep, deep issues such as: what player actions will make an NPC cry, believably? (And this mention of "the first woman crying in real time 3D" - which I strongly doubt - makes me think of this whole obsession with making players cry... this became a cliché real fast.) All that video proves, so far, is that Quantic Dream can make really, really nice images in real-time 3D. Which is hard, and I respect them for it, but the only thing really revolutionary about it that I can see is that they're showing a domestic drama scene, as opposed to heavily-armored babes killing aliens.

And how was all that related to AI again?...

But, well, in the end Mr. Maguire's presentation was all about saying something that is understandable to people outside of the industry (or should I say, non-developers), and that is fitting within the context of BAFTA, which is, after all, a movie-related organization. In the end, even though I doubt the thoughts behind it, I cannot disagree with:

"We're not talking about graphics any more," Maguire concluded. "We're talking about performance and we're talking about art."

User Interfaces by Edward Tse

On Edward Tse's website you can see an interesting video on the use of bimanual gestures, speech and gesture input on a huge touch-screen, as a user interface for Google Earth and Warcraft 3.

It will be a while before this becomes a mass-market thing, but still, it's interesting.

A Force More Powerful

I happened to be looking at the website of Breakaway Games, and among their games I saw Civ III: Conquests, Tropico: Paradise Island, Austerlitz: Napoleon's Greatest Victory, and... A Force More Powerful. From the game's website:

Can a computer game teach how to fight real-world adversaries—dictators, military occupiers and corrupt rulers, using methods that have succeeded in actual conflicts—not with laser rays or AK47s, but with non-military strategies and nonviolent weapons? Such a game, A Force More Powerful (AFMP), is now available. A unique collaboration of experts on nonviolent conflict working with veteran game designers has developed a simulation game that teaches the strategy of nonviolent conflict. A dozen scenarios, inspired by recent history, include conflicts against dictators, occupiers, colonizers and corrupt regimes, as well as struggles to secure the political and human rights of ethnic and racial minorities and women.

How cool - irrespective of how the game plays (I can't try it out), it's cool that games like this are made. Here is an article about the game from Business Week.

The Onion's AV Club interviews Alan Moore

There are a lot of interviews around right now with Alan Moore, because of the release of Lost Girls, the erotic graphic novel he made with Melinda Gebbie. Here is one done with The Onion's AV Club. I enjoy reading interviews with Mr. Moore - he's one of my favorite writers, and a very sane person. A source of inspiration.

No more trackbacks for a while

I am currently getting about 2 to 3 spam trackbacks per hour. I am not approving any of them, but even the notification emails are becoming a nuisance. There doesn't seem to be much I can do about it, and I can't globally stop them (only per post, and I'm not going to change the settings of 600+ posts). So I've decided to ignore them by switching off the notification emails. If you're trying to send a trackback and wondering why it's not appearing, it's because I'm unaware it came in. Sorry about that.

Comments should be fine.

PS3 vs Wii Commercial

I sincerely hope this is not an official Nintendo ad, but it is kind of a funny rip-off of Apple's current Apple vs PC ad campaign.

Make mine a Wii! But I didn't need that ad to convince me of that.

Update: Yup. Still funny. In an ironic way, of course cough. Funny how dorky World War 2 and karaoke sound if you put it that way...

E3 No More?

According to Next Gen, E3 is history:

Senior industry sources have revealed to Next-Gen.Biz that the E3 industry event, in its present form, has been cancelled for next year and the foreseeable future.

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) shindig has been a staple of game industry life since the mid-1990s. However, we understand the larger exhibitors have jointly decided that the costs of the event do not justify the returns, generally measured in media exposure.

Publishers believe the multi-million dollar budgets would be better spent on more company-focused events that bring attention to their own product lines rather than the industry as a whole.

A consequence of industry consolidation? A similar thing happened to the ECTS in London: it went from two shows, to one show, to a confusing mess of competing events that was then replaced in importance by the Games Convention in Leipzig.

I've never been to an E3. Everyone always tells me they're terrible.

Update: Some commentary from Kim Pallister.

The Power of the Marginal by Paul Graham

The Power of the Marginal, found via Jason Kottke's remaindered links, is a hugely interesting essay on being an insider versus being an outsider.
That's the paradox I want to explore: great new things often come from the margins, and yet the people who discover them are looked down on by everyone, including themselves. It's an old idea that new things come from the margins. I want to examine its internal structure. Why do great ideas come from the margins? What kind of ideas? And is there anything we can do to encourage the process?

My personal take on this is that established structures ('inside') represent a concrete expression of a way of looking at things, a paradigm. But paradigms always become outdated, and as soon as you come up with a more appropriate one, you need to express it in a different way. This new way will seem wrong from the old point of view and thus won't be accepted. The essay lists several other reasons why an established structure will resist the new and different.

Consider the famous business example of the US railroad companies, who thought of themselves as being in the railroad business rather than the transportation business, and are now much reduced in power (compared to their heyday in the late 19th century) because there are so many other transportation options. Companies organize around what they do, and when what they do changes, their organization may no longer be appropriate. Look at Dell: new paradigm, new organization. Computing is full of examples. Look at Java: new paradigm (increased computing power makes virtual machines feasible), new language / computing model.

This works in culture as well as in business or technology or science. Compare the original Battlestar Galactica with the new version, or look at the TV series Deadwood. New paradigm (21st century vs the 70s, say), new entertainment that appeals to current audiences.

In game development, being an outsider, being able to take risks, being allowed to fail - this is all obviously related to indie development, to the lack of creativity on an industrial level, to why successful developers become boring. To unfairly pick one example: id Software established a new paradigm, now they're bound by that paradigm, and they've become, well, boring. Will Wright designed The Sims, now The Sims is a major EA business unit (with good people in it, hello Robin), while Will is off in a skunkworks unit building something completely new (and if wants to 'fail' the way he did on 'Raid on Bungeling Bay', he better keep it secret and call it a prototype or something). Note how a genre - often created because of one or two successful games - is essentially a paradigm.

One big question is: how can you encourage the right level of creative destruction inside your organization or industry. How do you select the bits of structure you want to keep, versus the ones you want to keep fresh? The pressure to change is always there, because reality is always more real than any mental construct. The revolution will come, the questions are how soon, and will you be ready. Just as you can choose how much risk you want to take on in investment, you can choose how much churn and uncertainty and creative destruction you want to accept in your company or industry - or career. Consider Google's 70/20/10 rule - essentially, Google's staff (well, most of them) are encouraged to spend 10% of their time working on something completely new (more about this here and here).

(Note that I am not an uncritical fan of approaches such as these: Google seem to release an awful lot of stuff just to see what sticks and seem at risk of becoming too unfocussed, especially when something does stick (see this article for why Google may not be organizationally prepared for running an online payment system). And this article by Malcolm Gladwell shows how one company - Enron - encouraged its employees to take risks, and ran into deep, deep trouble, and how another company - Walmart - remained a huge success by not changing their organization.)

Which paradigms in game development are getting close to obsolescence? The main wavefront of games - AAA titles, mainly console - are leaving behind a huge gap for smaller games that take less time to develop, and there are now various attempts to fill this gap: casual games, downloadable games for consoles (for all next-gen platforms), new companies such as Manifesto Games, Valve Software's Steam network. There is serious discussion about the possible obsolescence of the blockbuster (often in the context of the Long Tail), although I am skeptical about that.

Digital distribution is just a matter of time, although much water must still flow under the bridge before it becomes ubiquitous. Arguably, the Long Tail is here already, but it can still develop a lot further (again, see Manifesto Games). As I recently noted, games are curiously isolated from the bleeding edge of online services and participatory culture - is there a gap there, just waiting for someone to frame it the right way?

Finally, on a personal level: how can being an outsider help you be more creative? I just said no to a good offer to work on a well-funded AAA next-gen game, and one of my reasons was that with great budgets come great constraints. All that for the ego trip of having a AAA title on your resume? It rarely seems worth it.

Anyway. Please read the essay (the one by Paul Graham, not my rambling), and let me know what you think.

Interview with Chulip Director Yoshirou Kimura

1UP has an interview with the Yoshirou Kimura, the director of Chulip, the odd PS2 game I wrote about a while back. It's a short but interesting interview.

1UP: Games like Moon (not to be confused with Harvest Moon) and Chulip have been striking nonviolent titles, something fairly rare in video games. Are you consciously trying to resist this kind of gameplay in your titles?

Yoshirou Kimura: Yes, absolutely!

I'm not criticizing fighting games. I myself love to play fighting games, so. But when I see so many violent games out there, I can't help reveling against them. The world should consist of different kinds of people, don't you think? So do the games.

For me, the most fascinating bit was this:

Previous games he worked on include Moon on PSone, which put you in the role of an invisible boy trapped in a fantasy world, fixing things up in the wake of the "hero"'s wreckage

What an awesome idea.