The metaverse wants to be free!

The metaverse wants to be free!

We’ve been asked to step into a project that wants to “provide a standardized global framework that enables the interoperability between virtual worlds and the real world”, backed by some huge corporations and universities. Yes, it’s the popular metaverse dream again! With the succcess of web 2.0, the number of players in World of Warcraft and the appeal to the press of Second Life, the old VRML fantasy is raising its ambitious head again.

For some reason, the engineers and marketeers that build this technology, cannot resist the idea of replicating the real world in cyberspace. This particular project, in which we’ve been invited to participate, mentions “sensors, actuators, vision and rendering, social and welfare systems, banking, insurance, travel, real estate and many others” as desirable things to link to this virtual world, examples of which are “Second Life, World of Warcraft, IMVU, Google Earth and many others”.

As a player, I am also excited by the thought of being able to connect virtual worlds. I’d love to play Grand Theft Auto in my Sim City, ride through The Endless Forest on my Chocobo or take my Level 40 Dwarven Warrior into Second Life. As a developer, the thought gives me nightmares. It’s one thing to allow people to mess with our games, it’s another to have to develop for that. Some standard coding practice would seem like a proper solution for this. But I happen to not be a great believer in standards.

The thing that bothers me the most, however, is this unrelenting desire to connect our virtual worlds to the real one. In the nineties, the whole of MIT was jumping up and down at the thought that a fridge would order cheese by itself or you would send your toaster an email before brunch. And now this: VRML 2.0: a virtual world where you steer an avatar around to do mundane real-world things. Apart from the fact that a virtual world seems like an excessively cumbersome method of going about this, I am also saddened by the extreme lack of imagination that this testifies of.

We have this incredibly sophisticated technology in our hands, a new medium, really, capable of expressing things that have never been expressed before, allowing us to have experiences we have never had before, learn things about ourselves and our world through a new form of art. And all “they” want to do is reproduce the real world and even connect both.

I say: the metaverse wants to be free! Let imagination reign in the virtual worlds! Don’t limit this potential to a dumb replica of our planet: create new planets, entire solar systems, galaxies of stories, billions of characters, avatars and autonomous ones. Let’s visit countless destinations where strange things happen, different from anything you could experience in real life.

When I go online, I don’t want to go to a shopping mall, or do my banking or arrange my insurance. I want to get away from all that. And experience what life is really about: emotions, ideas, stories, communication.

There’s nothing wrong with reality. There’s no need to “augment” it with technology. The sun on my skin, the smell of rain, the pages of a book in my fingers. All perfectly fine experiences. And there’s nothing wrong with virtual worlds. It’s quite alright if we can do things in them that we cannot do in real life. Imaginary worlds have always had their place. They help us find a balance, a harmony with existence. Let them be free. Don’t shackle them to this little planet.

Joy of DS

So, I have been exploring the wonderful world of Nintendo DS homebrew software. I recently received an M3Simply card for my DS. Put simply, without going into all the vagueries of making your DS homebrew ready, what this is, is a DS card that looks like all other DS game cards but with a little slot to put a MiniSD card into. Hook the MiniSD card up to a computer with a USB card reader and you can load files on there which are made to play on the DS.

And there is a thriving community of developers out there making games and other fun things. Drunken Coders and Dev-Scene are but two of the indispensable gateways where one can keep up to date with various DS projects in the works and more importantly find all the info and tools you need to make programs for the DS.

a scene from Cave Story DS I do love World of Sand (which was first a popular java based browser game) and I’m pleased to see that Cave Story is getting a DS port too. (The project is at an interesting beta moment right now, you can run through the levels without getting hurt. It’s high quality pixel art, nice to get a chance to enjoy it.) There are some very good original game projects out there too. But I am more interested in the “other fun things to do with a DS” category. The DS is all about coming up with genre defying applications, no surprise then that people have taken advantage of the touch screen to make it a multipurpose device!

So, here is a short list of hand made, home grown, DS apps that I’ve found worthwhile thus far.

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DSOrganize gives your DS PDA functions like an address book, to do lists, notepad, audio recording, mp3 playing, a very low tech web browser, IRC chat, and more. It’s the kind of thing you wish Nintendo had just built in. The functionality is all there so my only gripe is that the GUI could use a bit of polish. Not so much the look of it, because it is skinnable so one can easily change the look of it, it’s more in the choices made in which buttons to push and when to use the stylus. Menus hiding behind “more” buttons make the ergonomics of the applications suffer. Still, I find it to be the most useful application built for the NDS so far.

ColorsDSColors! DS is by far my favorite project in progress. I actually can’t praise it enough. It is a very simple, elegantly designed, paint program made by Jens Andersson. He is a true believer in the principle of less is more, usually I wouldn’t be so into that, but the other paint apps I’ve tried for the DS usually go a bit too far into trying to emulate Photoshop. Colors! lets you just get on with it and paint. Pressure sensitivity controls opacity, the shoulder buttons bring up the color palette and brush size, start button brings up options and calibration. Other than the rather special animated playback of your paint strokes that’s about all there is to it. And since you’re painting on a very small screen, this is a very good thing. You’re not going to paint the Mona Lisa on the DS but it’s very good for hanging out in the park and drawing flowers, or making a quick portrait of someone on the train, or a thumbnail of an idea you want to expand upon later when you get to your computer. At this point it will be nice to have the wifi functionality which he’s promised for a future release.


ConstellationsDS available in an Alpha version right now. It’s a star chart! :) I find that to be a really great thing to make for the DS. I hope development continues.

ComicBookDS serves the purpose of letting you read a sequence of image based files, most commonly one would use it to read comic books i guess, but any image sequence will work. Using the provided conversion utility you take a zip, rar or cbr/cbz archive of images and convert and compress them to be used with ComicBookDS. Actually, 4colorrebellion has done a great write up of this software, it’s where I originally read of it. Ergonomics of reading lots of text on the DS screen aside, it’s got a well functioning if not especially pretty GUI plus a plethora of options which I find more than adequate for reading and showing things on screen. It’s also a very polished and active project.

Last but not least there’s the fascinating DSMidiWifi and NDSVisuals projects. Neither of which I’ve been able to try yet but both of which show ingenious ways to use the DS as a controller for other host applications. NDSVisuals is an initiative to get the DS working in tandem with realtime 3d programming environment vvvv. DSMidiWifi works with a server application that runs on your computer and a client application on your DS card.

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There have been several interfaces made, since it’s midi mostly these are music based. But I found the other day that someone has an initiative (ah, here it is, Chris McCormick’s KnobsNSlidersDS.) to make it work with Max/Msp and Pd. This opens things up to just too many creative uses to name. And just imagine, controlling the lights in your house through your DS! yep, you could do that. (There is also a Wii Remote external for Max/Msp but that’s beyond the scope of this article, though I’m very eager to try it out.)

So, I find this whole homebrew world is worth getting into. I think we will see a ton of great software coming from this scene. Both games and not games. As new peripherals are made for the DS developers are taking advantage. For example, the DSMotion card has enabled yet another form of DS interaction in games like SensitiveDS. And you can bet with the upcoming DS Camera peripheral devs will be inspired to do what larger developers can’t or won’t do. Let’s just wait, and see.

Ten reasons why computer games are not games

Computer game is a misnomer. Sure, historically computer games have been electronic renderings of game concepts. And certainly a lot of developers of interactive entertainment insist on exploring game design as the basis of their work. That’s all very interesting, but in the mean time, computer games have evolved into a medium of their own.

So rather than dwelling on the things that computer games have in common with traditional games, we, at Tale of Tales, prefer to explore what is different about them, what makes computer games unique. We believe that only the exploitation of these unique properties will lead to the maturity of the medium. Here’s a little list of ways in which computer games are different from traditional games. Feel free to add.

1. Intimacy
Most traditional games pit human players against each other. This social aspect is so important that traditional games meant to be played alone are named after that very fact (Solitaire).
Most computer games, including many multiplayer ones, are played by single humans behind a machine. This is one of the most unique and powerful properties of the interactive medium. The intimacy between the game and its user creates a potential depth of mental exploration unseen before in any medium.

2. Stories are more important than rules
Traditional games can be highly abstract. Games like Chess, Go and Bridge are classics. Computer games, on the other hand, thrive on stories. Sure, Space Invaders and Pac Man are historical highlights. But would anyone want to trade in Myst, Tomb Raider, Ico, Half Life, Grand Theft Auto or The Sims for those?
Also, computer games feature characters. Creatures that we can empathize with, in whose behaviour we can recognize our own. Unlike the pawns and dice of traditional games.

3. Immersion
A traditional game can be absorbing. But you always remain an outsider. The game might enclose you in a Magic Circle but you always remain a manipulator of objects and rules that are outside of you. Computer games allow you to step into their worlds, to become part of the events. To some extent you become one of the pieces on the board, one that acts autonomously.

4. Not (just) for children
Games are traditionally considered to be for children. Probably because they are useful tools for learning. They tend to contain simple structures that are easy to understand. As we get older, the things we need to learn become more complex. Games don’t suffice anymore and we often turn to art for exploring ourselves and our surroundings.
The same adults that look down on those simplistic children’s games, are now moving joysticks and pressing buttons on game controllers in front of television sets and computer screens. These are not the same games!…

5. An artistic medium
Some people try to defend games as an age-old art form. But this is not a widespread belief. Games have their function in society but they are generally not considered very high on the cultural ladder. Computer games are different. They have an enormous impact on their users. They can lead to life-changing events. What we experience in computer games, stays with us, becomes engraved in our memory, becomes part of who we are.

6. Players as authors
Traditional games have strict rules. Because of this strictness, you can predict all possible outcomes of any game, based solely on analysis of the rules. Computer games, on the other hand, are much less predictable. While many of them still contain rules (although their strictness is fading with each generation), these rules tend to create options rather than diminish them. So much so that a player can play a game in ways that surprise even its creator. Players can bend the rules to create new games, overcome obstacles by simply combining rules and objects in unexpected ways and they can exploit bugs for fun. Many computer games take advantage of this creative potential and encourage the player to co-author the experience.

7. Aesthetics are more important than systems
You can play a perfectly satisfactory game with a few rocks and some sticks. It’s the activity of manipulating those objects that constitutes the experience. But computer games have such a strong desire for beauty, that they are one of the main driving forces behind the technology of the century. Hardcore gamers may pretend that the looks of a game don’t matter to them, but you won’t find many Halo-owners playing Wolfenstein3D. We want our games to be pretty so much that competition in an entire industry is based almost exclusively on how beautiful the products are.

8. Persistent social context
A traditional game constitues a context within which a social event takes place. Very often, games are used to create such an event. Families playing scrabble together. A son challenging his father to chess. Etcetera.
Computer games, while often played alone, have a much longer-lasting social impact. To some extent, one could say that the social element of games only starts when you stop playing, while in traditional games, the social situation dissolves when the game ends.

9. No losing
Contrary to traditional games, computer games cannot be lost. This is especially true for single player games. When people say they lost a computer game, they actually mean that they failed to accomplish a certain task. This often prevents them from making any further progress. So they give up. Nobody wins, nobody loses.

10. Cheating is allowed
In computer games, cheating is often as much fun as obeying the rules. Traditional games break instantly as soon as you start cheating. But computer games often include cheat codes that allow you to have unlimited money or be invulnerable, etc. Traditional games would dissolve instantly if the rules were broken like that, but computer games become all the more fun.

Games and/or stories

Now that we have some idea of what goes into a great story, the types of game stories out there and the ways in which game stories can be structured, it’s worth asking why developers-and players-should care.

Warren Spector in “Next Gen Storytelling”

No, it’s not. It’s the wrong question.

Games are only one possible way of creating art with interactive media. To assume that you have to make a game is not necessary. The question should not be whether we can add stories to games but whether we can add games to stories. The answer to that question might be yes or no. But should not impact the desire to tell stories with interactive media.

The real question is not why but how.

Games allow us to tell stories. Stories make games more desirable. But the very nature of games limits the kinds of stories that can be told. Games are about overcoming obstacles and challenges. So if you want to tell a story through game interactivity, the story needs to be about that. This why most protagonists in games are heroes who save the world.

To achieve more diversity in interactive stories, we need to abandon the idea that we should be making a game. While interaction as such probably implies a certain playfulness, there is no requirement for this playfulness to take place within a game structure.

If you want to make a game, please go ahead and make one. If you need a story as mental lubricant, don’t let me stop you. I enjoy pretending to be superhuman once in a while as much everybody else. But, please don’t make any claims as to the artistic merit of your story. Your creativity is enslaved by the format you have chosen. You might get lucky and end up making great art, but chances are slim.

If you want to tell a story, please consider the rich interactive medium. It has enormous potential for telling new kinds of stories in entirely new ways, for creating experiences that no one has had before. Tell your story through interaction. Find ways for the interaction to express your theme, your character’s personalities etcetera. Use game concepts where they suit this purpose but reject them where they don’t help the telling of the story.

Note that I use the word “story” in its broadest possible sense. By no means should the concept of story be limited to linearity or the requirement of a plot. We’re not writing books here.

Tomb raiding, now and then.

The original Tomb Raider is a classic game. It is one of my all time favourites. And apparently not just mine. Eidos has released its second attempt at recapturing the greatness of the original. But as my ongoing side-by-side comparison shows, they have failed once again. I’m still trying to discover exactly what it is that makes the original Tomb Raider so great, but it’s fairly easy to find out why the new one is not.

In 1996, games were about having fun. More than that, thanks to technological advances, games could tell stories, present situations and allow us to play as interesting characters. Somewhere between then and now, the designers seem to have forgotten all about this. They discovered the Ancient Roots Of Game Design and decided that it was “all about the gameplay”. So while the publisher was pumping all this money into creating believable worlds and realistic characters, the designers were more or less sabotaging the effort by reducing the interactions in games to very abstract and systematic gameplay. Where in the past, games were about experiencing adventures and having an exciting story to tell afterwards, over time, games became about overcoming challenges and achieving goals. Not narrrative challenges or emotional goals, mind you. No: just simplistic mechanical stupid things like pressing the right combinations of buttons on time. And making that really hard to do.

Where older games gave you an environment and the means to interract with it, the new games feel more like arm wrestling with the game designer, once in a while poking a fork in his hand to force him to tell you what to do next because the virtual situation was too obscure or overwrought. The experience shifted from the wonder about a virtual world filled with magical creatures to a mundane bar brawl with some overweight nerd in a black hard rock T-shirt.

Whatever happened to Ernest Adams’ design philosophy?

“The fundamental goal of a game is to take you away to a wonderful place, and there let you do an amazing thing.”

We seem to have lost the wonder, the amazement. And I blame games! At some point in the 1990s, we were well en route to developing a Great New Medium (Tomb Raider, Myst, Ceremony of Innocence, Doom) and somewhere along the line, we lost it. We could have overtaken cinema and pushed away television. But we didn’t. And from what I can see, we lost it because we started navel-gazing and obsessing over game rules and spreadsheets, over mechanical interactions and completely abstract structures. We disconnected the player from the adventure. Overcoming the obstacles became the goal, rather than a means to an end. The end of letting our audience do an amazing thing in a wonderful place.

I think the industry is rapidly becoming aware of, if not the missed opportunity, then at least the missed potential. Nintendo is paving the way for a return to fun with the DS and the Wii and broadening the audience immensely while doing so. They’re even inspiring core gamer central Microsoft to say things like

If we don’t make that move, make it early and expand our demographic, we will wind up in the same place as with Xbox 1, a solid business with 25 million people. What I need is a solid business with 90 million people.

( Peter Moore in Ernest Adams himself is feeling a “a shift in the wind” at the industry’s mammoth Electronic Arts. Even Cliffy B.’s own brother is getting worried:

If Nintendo has its way, young males will no longer be the dominant segment of the console audience–and this transition appears to be happening faster than I expected.


The massive production costs of contemporary games will require a bigger market. And the core gamer market is completely saturated. Diversification is a necessity. In many different directions. One of those directions, inevitably, will be back towards the ambitious path that was set out in the nineties by games like Tomb Raider: to become the entertainment medium of the new millenium.

I can’t lose!

Discussing games earlier today -as Auriea and I often end up doing, even to the point where we run out of gas on the highway- we became aware of a difference between computer games and other games that we hadn’t noticed before. It’s related to the fact that most non-computer games tend to require multiple players, while computer games allow you to play on your own.

It’s hard to believe that despite of all the potential that interactive technologies offer, the most prevalent structure in games is the binary one: you win or you lose. And much like the computer’s binary system, it is a false duality because the couple simply consists of a single possibility and its negation, a one and a zero. As a result, for all the talk about meaningful choices, most games only lead to a single outcome: winning.

Because you can’t really lose a computer game.
At least not the typical linear sort that is still the bulk of the offer.

There is only one way to end such a game. And it’s by winning. Or only one way of winning and it’s ending it. If you fail to win a level, you cannot progress in the game. If you stop playing after this, you haven’t really lost. You just gave up mid-way.

In games we play without computers, you generally lose when somebody else wins. This concludes the game. You have really lost. The virtual opponents in computer games cannot replace actual players because they tend to be part of the story, and as such not on the same level as the player.

This diffference does not necessarily make computer games inferior, but it’s another illustration of the fact that many game designers are trying hard to deny: that computer games are an entirely new form of entertainment only vaguely (and probably temporarily) related to traditional games.

When the Fox preaches…

Everybody gets carried away with the technology. When the technology gets more usable… Then the story tellers get more to the forefront. My hope is, but I can’t tell you when it will be, that we reach the peak in perfection so that the consumer doesn’t see the difference in technology anymore – then it is a pure race for entertainment.

Chris Crawford Michael Samyn Gerhard Florin (Electronic Arts)
Source: via

Indeed. I can’t wait for the arms race to be over. But Mr. Florin is smart to not put a date on this. The truth is that, despite the glossy pictures from the next gen consoles, the technology is actually still quite crude. In fact, it is still so primitive that it takes entire teams of engineers to make the hardware respond in an acceptable fashion. The technology needs to become excessively powerful so that everyone can experiment with it without the risk of bringing performance to a crawl or crashing the machines. We’re still a long way from that level.

And when we achieve such extreme hardware performance, we can finally start working properly on solving the real problems of interactive entertainment. I agree with Mr. Florin that things will get interesting then. But just making way for “the story tellers” is not enough. They need to learn how to work with this technology, how to tell stories in interactive media, how to make things look and feel and sound the way we want. There’s a lot of work to be done. I can’t wait for the builders to leave the kitchen, so we can finally start cooking!

Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Games So Different, So Appealing?

Richard Hamilton, 1956A discussion about experimental gameplay or games as art, often deteriorates into a discussion of the definition of the word game. Many people insist on using a rather strict definition of the word to avoid having to form an opinion about different forms of play and interaction.

I get so tired of that.

Games have been around for thousands of years. I don’t see why we need to discuss them anymore. They are a known fact, a well-documented craft, a historical art form, etcetera. Everything there is to be known about games, is already known.

Or is it?

It seems to me that there’s actually very little books about games that were written before computers. There’s Huizinga, and there’s Callois. And probably one or two hippies. And that’s it. For an age-old artform that strikes me as very little.
But since computers, we’ve seen an explosion of books, guides and documentation. Is there perhaps something about computer games that is not covered by the age-old game-wisdom? Something that does need to be discussed?

I think so.

There is something about computer games that makes them infinitely more compelling than traditional games. At least for a part of the population. It is not the gameplay. Because gameplay can be found in many non-computer games, in much purer forms. Only a small fragment of the group of computer gamers also plays chess or board games. And very few of them play those with the same dedication as computer games.

So please. Stop nagging about goals and rules and missions and levels. They are clearly completely besides the point!

Let’s start discussing the things that make computer games different from traditional games! There’s a lot of things to be said and researched and discovered and discussed on that terrain. The ancient craft of game-making can take care of itself. Let’s talk about the things that really draw people to computer games.

It’s quite vital. We know next to nothing about those things. We don’t even know what they are.

Next Gen games are NOT beautiful!!

It makes my hair curl to hear some macho-programmer say things like “Next Gen Games are beautiful but brainless“! I think they’re just saying these things to make a point but let it be known that I declare it an objective fact that Next Gen games are NOT beautiful! Their visuals may be “impressive” or “stunning” or “amazing”. But they are not, not by any means, “pretty” or “beautiful”. I’m not going to have Beauty dragged down with the industry’s obsession with photographic realism.

Yes: there is an extreme focus on graphics in games technology. And this does indeed seem to happen at the expense of evolution in A.I. and gameplay. But this is by no means a battle between looks and wits. Because these high-tech games are U-G-L-Y!! Technology does not make things beautiful.

There is a lot of research needed in the realm of realtime 3D aesthetics. This is indeed partly a technological problem but not one that can be solved by hair shaders (though I admit that these could be abused for good). To a large extent because it’s not simply about visual aesthetics but about the mostly unexplored aesthetics of an interactive/generative real-time multi-sensorial experience. But even in terms of pure visual aesthetics, technology can never be the solution. Especially since this technology only seems to be concerned with a recreation of factual reality. In other words: Next Gen technology is a scientific project, not an artistic one.

I agree with Steve Grand that as game characters start looking more and more realistic, the lack of sophistication in their behaviour becomes more and more of a problem. I realized this first when I saw Prince of Persia: Sands of Time in which the realistically rendered character of the prince bounces off the walls like a rubber ball in a pin ball machine. But the game went on to become a success nonetheless and spawned sequels that were so bad they made the “first” one look like an artistic masterpiece.

The truth is that as long as this technology is used for games, not many people will care much about the believability of the characters, with the possible exception of a desire for enemies that can dodge bullets creatively. Raph Koster has pointed this out painfully clearly in his Theory of Fun: once people start playing, all they see is the system. This often leads game designers to think of beauty as unnecessary icing on the cake. For me it totally invalidates games as a worthwhile use of this technology. If we cannot create something beautiful that people will just “play” for the enjoyment of that beauty, the technology does not even deserve to be called a medium.

Will Next Gen kill creativity?

The past years have been good for real-time 3D. The technology has become more accessible and more powerful. This has allowed many people to experiment with the medium, which lead to interesting experiences and stimulated creativity throughout the games industry.

The Next Generation of hardware threatens to put an end to this.

Why? Because rather than making the technology easier to use for normal people in small numbers, Next Gen makes it easier for the machines to crunch larger amounts of numbers, faster. So the humans need to keep up.
I’m not a fan of the current aesthetic per se but the results are impressive so far. It’s not just a matter of more polygons, but also simply of more stuff (large quantities of objects that are all different) and extreme polish. Everything is shiny in Next Gen…


And while all of this may not exactly be beautiful, it does put the bar a lot higher for everybody else. There is absolutely no way that an independent game developer can create anything even remotely next gen. They just don’t have the man power, money or time for this. As result they will be -and are- returning to, or sticking with, old technology. 2D Scrolling games are already making a come-back. Not to mention all the other retro-inclinations and -fads.

Some of these might be interesting in creative terms in and of themselves. But retro is not exactly where you want the avant garde to be!… The level of polish that a big company can achieve with next gen hardware turns the medium of realtime 3D into something that is only accessible for the rich and conservative. And that’s a shame. Not just for a wasted technology but also for the games industry itself which will bleed to death without lively experimentation.