The next level

The economic slowdown is putting the brakes on platform innovation in the games industry, with the focus now shifting to mobile phone apps distribution and enhancements of the user experience. Iain Simons looks at recent developments

In the hyper-accelerated world of the videogame industry, the process of supersession is more wastefully brutal than in any other media form. Even as vinyl fell to compact discs, and CD fell to MP3, we could mostly agree that it was all with the aim of making listening to music easier. The function of technological innovation in the games world is rather more cannibalistic. The Playstation 3 you buy today will not play any of those games you bought for your Playstation 2. In videogames, that counts as progress. Perhaps the recession is beginning to hurt an industry that has, until recently, proved surprisingly resilient, but the blind craving for platform innovation appears to have been sated. Most recently, the trends have been about accessibility and user-experience.

First then, accessibility – and independent designers are beginning to realise the promised possibilities of digital distribution. Of course, platforms such as Steam, Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, Sony’s Playstation Network and Nintendo’s WiiWare channel have all been championing indie work in recent years, but it has taken an altogether more desirable device to capture the public’s imagination. Enter, the Apple iPhone.

The iPhone App Store has proved a particularly rich site for game design, being populated not just by versions of existing console titles, but also by an encouraging number of new ones. In this gold rush of development, however, lies the challenge. Digital distribution is finally here, it’s technically viable, but it’s some way from being the sure-fire path to independent income which many hold it to be.

These portals have become dysfunctionally crowded market places, with thousands of applications vying for attention in the smallest of shop windows. Consequently, while digital distribution has removed the technical barriers to market, it can never be a substitute for marketing. With more than 65 000 apps available, beyond the few titles featured on the front page the App Store remains an overwhelming trough of products.

In Los Angeles, the old-style excess of the Electronic Entertainment Expo was reinstated into the industry calendar last spring, having been pulled after publishers decided it was too expensive. For the uninitiated, E3 is the annual expo at which deals are made, major products are announced and expense accounts are horribly abused. This year, it was Microsoft which produced something wholly unexpected, with the Steven Spielberg-led announcement of Project Natal.

Following the lead of the Nintendo Wii in attempting to simplify videogame controllers and open up gaming to new audiences, Natal has taken controller reduction to its logical conclusion. Using a combination of a depth-sensing RGB camera and a multi-array microphone, the system is able to read full-body gestures in three dimensions and recognise individual voices and faces – all within a small add-on to a standard Xbox 360 console. With the need for a controller effectively removed, players are liberated to control software just with their bodies.

Of course, motion capture has been domesticated before with the joyous (if not wholly robust) Sony Playstation Eye-Toy, and indeed Sony was also announcing its own motion control device for launch in 2010, but it was impossible for anyone to steal the headlines away from the showboating Natal.

While E3 visitors were shown videos of Gap-clad teenagers fighting virtual ninjas by flailing their arms and legs around in front of a TV, the real design potential is less in Natal’s ability to recognise movement for input, more in its ability to differentiate and read faces and objects.

The virtual-boy Milo’s unnerving interactions with the livedemonstrator were undoubtedly impressive, and while there was more than a hint of smoke and mirrors, there was just enough fact to make it a potentially revolutionary device.

3D FOR THE MASSES

Driven by a Hollywood attempting to reinvigorate cinema sales, high-profile releases such as Toy Story 3 (pictured) and James Cameron’s Avatar will ensure that 3D entertainment is high on the media agenda for the next few years. The domestic 3D experience has been largely characterised by migraine-inducing red-and-green glasses, but that is apparently about to change.

Blitz Games Studios is one of the UK’s oldest independent developers. What it lacks in Californian glamour it makes up for with British productive reliability. For the past few years, Blitz has been developing software to enable developers to enrich their products with 3D content, ready for when consumers begin to purchase 3DTVs – a time Blitz acknowledges might be some years away. ‘We think it will cost the average developer up to 15 per cent on top of their budget to make a game 3D, and for us it’s important to be there right at the beginning of a new entertainment revolution,’ says Blitz chief technical officer Andrew Oliver. Quite how much depth of field gamers really want we’ll discover over the next few years.

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