Posts tagged: Games

3D Vision Impressions

After waiting for months for my new 3D Vision-ready monitor, it finally arrived the other week. The monitor is an Alienware OptX AW2310 23″ wide screen with a resolution of 1920×1080 (Full HD). The colors are absolutely beautiful on it.

So what about the 3D? Well, to sum it up, my impression is that it is as immature as many new technologies tend to be, but an extremely cool technology nonetheless.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the nVidia 3D Vision system uses a fast display (120 Hz) and active shutter glasses that alternate what eye sees the image in sync with the display updates. This means that the 3D mode is only available in full-screen mode.

The Installation

I had a fair bit of trouble getting the whole kit to work. The driver on the CD simply complained that my graphics card driver was too new, and left me hanging. nVidia’s product page wasn’t all that friendly either, and it took a while to figure out how to download the new drivers (while there’s a direct download link to the movie player, you’ll have to select 3d Vision as the product type for drivers).

Once in the installation and setup procedure for the driver, there was a very friendly and helpful guide that told you most things you needed to know, which was a big plus.

Getting some movies running in the movie player required installation of a codec pack, which is was completely unhelpful in not suggesting, causing a fair bit of time wasted scouring the Internet for a solution. K-Lite Codec Pack eventually came to the rescue.

Setting up 3D for games was reasonably simple for most games — simply set the refresh rate for half of the maximum (60 Hz rather than 120 Hz). Borderlands was an exception as it started completely blacked out, forcing me to find the config file and manually edit the resolution in there. I imagine this isn’t a problem if you haven’t played the game before, on a different display.

All in all, the installation process could be made a lot smoother.

The Glitches

My first experience with 3D came just after the installation had ended. The last screen in the setup guide had a check box titled “Show 3D image slide show after setup”. I checked it, and then proceeded to be shown a few images side-by-side in a complete failure to do anything even remotely 3D-related. In fact, the glasses never even activated.

This was, mildly said, a bit of a let-down.

The movie viewer worked a lot better, providing a very smooth experience. Sadly, you have to specify what format videos are in quite often, which would be incredibly much easier if the viewer could have shown the first frame. This leads to a guessing game, which is a fairly minor problem in the end though.

Another problem with the movie player is that it becomes unhappy if I run certain applications. In general, anything running on my second monitor or in specific anything attaching itself to the edge of the screen like an application toolbar will cause it to simply flicker and refuse to work. This problem is even worse for the 3D Photo Viewer, which simply refuses to work at all if I have the second monitor active.

Considering that most games start without a problem, writing a working photo viewer really shouldn’t be that much of a problem.

So games then…? Almost any game can be run in 3D vision mode, but nVidia has classified games into different categories depending on how well they work. Some games have a problem where certain items aren’t rendered correctly for both eyes, which can be a bit of a strain on the eyes.

The worst problem tends to be “ghosting”. Ghosting is, simply described, a shadow of the image for one eye that “leaks” into the second eye. This is said to be due to an imperfect shutter synchronization between the glasses and the monitor and due to the monitor pixels not switching colors quickly enough. I don’t believe that explanation fully — ghosting seems to be restricted to only games (movies don’t have much ghosting problems).

In addition, some games are much better than others (more on that later). My impression is that much of the ghosting effects come from a mismatch between the rendering world size and the real world, making depth effects extaggered. This means that for many games, left-eye and right-eye images differ much more than they will for a properly tweaked game or for a movie. I also wonder if V-sync has anything to do with it.

The Content

So I’ve got this amazing 3D vision rig… what do I do with it? You can watch some example photos or download a few more from nVidia’s site. The same goes for movie clips. There are a few trailers out there, but far fewer than there should be. Youtube supports 3D content, but there is no easy way to view the youtube 3D videos using a stereoscopic viewer like 3D vision.

The best 3D movie clips I’ve seen this far are trailers, like the trailer for How to train a dragon, which is absolutely spot-on. I look forwards to watching 3D movies on this setup. The problem right now is that it’s virtually impossible to get your hands on some true stereoscopic 3D  movie content. The folks behind Avatar have said it will not be released in 3D “before November”… which could mean just about anything.

Which means that if you buy a 3D vision kit right now, it really has to be for the games. When it comes to games, the support really differs between games. There is some ghosting in some games, and it really depends on the game if it bothers me or not. In Dragon Age: Origins, it really did, so I will be playing through the rest of that game in 2D. I guess that style of game really means you spend a fair bit of time watching the environment, and that’s where you’ll see the most ghosting.

In Trackmania United, one of my favorite racing games, there was a fair amount of ghosting of distant things, but it really didn’t matter a single bit. The experience of mad racing in 3D totally made up for the ghosting, and when you’re driving at high speed you don’t even notice it.

Other games hardly manifest any ghosting at all. Borderlands was absolutely awesome in 3D, as the combination of the comic-book art style and 3D creates a really cool effect. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 has been certified with nVidia and received their top grade for 3D vision ready games and works just as well as that implies.

One more game to mention is Left 4 Dead 2. There is hardly any ghosting going on there either, and 3D in that game added a layer of immersion to an already immersive game. The full list of game support is available on nVidia’s site. I personally look forwards to playing Metro 2033 with it.

The Experience

There are some things to note with active shutter glasses. One thing is that when they activate, things go a slight bit darker than usual, since basically your eyes will be staring at a blackened glass half of the time. You also effectively half the refresh rate of your monitor. The result is something hard to describe, almost a flicker, but not quite. This takes a bit of getting used to, but is not really any worse than watching a 3D Movie at the cinema.

The shutter glasses themselves are fairly bulky but fit nicely over normal glasses which is a plus. I’ve wore them for fairly extensive periods of time without feeling tired of wearing them. The insides of the glass reflects some light though, so if possible I recommend using them with the lights off.

Summary

It is very clear that this technology is in its infancy. I’m sure we’ll see a great development of this going forwards as it picks up momentum. The most crippling hindrance right now is the lack of movie content and the glitches in some games.

That said, playing games in 3D adds a lot of immersion for me, especially for fast-paced games like racing games or shooters. If you are looking at buying a new monitor, I definitely think you should consider buying a 3D vision capable one. The Alienware model I got was fairly expensive, but has an absolutely incredible picture when used normally as well.

If you want more info on 3D vision specifics, I suggest checking out the 3D Vision blog and their new forum.

Game Developers are Better Than Everyone Else?

In a post over on gamasutra, Brandon Sheffield argues that the Dead Space campaign “design a kill” is a very regressive thing for our industry:

I don’t believe we should shy away from violence in games – violence is a part of life, and can make for very interesting scenarios in games. And it’s no secret that a large majority of fun video games are based on conflict, much of which is combative. But I also believe that asking fans to think as hard as they can about an innovative way to kill someone is a very regressive thing for our industry.

Just think for a second about what EA is actually asking people to do. Yes, this is what many of us do every day – there are those of us who design combat and combat scenarios for a living. But asking fans to do it is just too much.

I’m not sure what he’s trying to get at here. There is pretty much two options: either game devs are much better than everyone else, or game devs are horrible people. Neither option seems very reasonable to me.

So why can’t our fans do what we do all day? Is it because as game developers, we are much better than everyone else, and can thus stand the moral strain of thinking about how to dismember humanoid monstrosities all day, without being irreparably damaged by the ordeal?

Or is it the opposite? Are we damaged people, horribly affected by the thoughts on monstrosity dismemberment, so bad that we should take care to shield others from the horrible things we go through daily to bring the public these sinful products?

Neither option really makes sense. Sheffield argues out of the old moral high ground that game violence would somehow damage people, and should be censored. We are talking about a rated game, for adults, not a kids game — so this is not about damaging the fragile world view of children.

Honestly, do you really think that asking someone “think of ways a fictional character could attack, dismember and kill a monstrous humanoid” will have any kind of affect of them that playing the game in question wouldn’t? That is somehow an idea that using the human imagination could be bad for you.

To me, nothing could be further from the truth. The human imagination is a beautiful thing — it creates all culture and all our progress.

Get off the “games are bad for you” horse. No one on this side of the 1980s would argue that the violence in a movie causes people to go on murderous rampages. Would asking someone to design a kill for a movie be as bad? I somehow doubt it.

What about an even more imaginative media, like books? Books are highly based in the communication of imagination between author and reader. We are asked “imagine this”, when we read descriptions of events in a book. But somehow I don’t think the “write a gruesome description of a brutal murder” competition would come under any flack.

There are many things that are wrong with our society, which lead people to do nasty things to others. Taking out your aggressions on characters in a computer game instead of reality is not one of them. Imagining new ways to kill computer game monsters is certainly not one either.

I’m not much for dismemberment and blood splatter in games myself — I just don’t think it adds much. But I’ll happily let other grown up individuals make their decisions for themselves on what they’d like to play — or imagine.

And if you’re going to argue that games are bad, please do so outright, don’t try to hide it behind saying that playing games is fine, but thinking about them isn’t.

Selling Copies in a World of Hyperdistribution

Comments to my post recently about Project $10 made something clear to me — a revelation of sorts. I’ve previously commented on the issue of hyperdistribution in connection to DRM, in You cannot take that away from me: from the business side, companies are so used to selling copies of games that they will keep doing that regardless of whether or not it still makes sense. In a world with hyperdistribution, all it takes is one guy or girl who breaks the protection scheme for all the world to benefit.

So while I’ve spent the last few years trying to find a way to get some sense into circles of business leaders and politicians, I’ve never thought much about the consumer side of the same coin. It makes perfect sense in hindsight, but I didn’t see it at the time: many consumers are just as clueless about the changes we are going through. I don’t mean that as a slight to anyone — we’re living in a social and political revolution brought on by a technological leap forwards. It’s hard to understand this new world.

So let’s take a look at that statement from the consumer side then: It no longer makes sense to sell copies of digital culture. The music and movie industry is extremely reluctant to realize this, but pioneers in those segments still have, which is why we see things like streaming music services and donation-funded movie productions, generally from newer artists not already settled in old business models.

It has excited me then to see a some of the big game publishers move towards newer business models. EA is notable with things like Battlefield Heroes and other new models. Others are hellbent on locking in their old “sell-copies” mentality by introducing DRM that requires you to be online all the time, for instance.

I mentioned in the post on Project $10 that game resales are causing much of the same problems as piracy for publishers. This is tightly related to the fact that the industry is used to selling copies of things and that consumers are used to buying copies of things.

Fundamentally, though, a game is not a tool or a utility which you are bound to keep, or a consumable that you use  up — a game is an experience. It makes sense then for the consumer to trade in the disc, since he or she has already “used up” the experience on it, but it still has value for someone else.

When a publisher fights for the right to sell copies or when a consumer is fighting for the right to resell a game, they are both doing the same fundamental mistake: they’re mistaking the game as being a plastic disc rather than as an experience. Back when copying was hard and game resales not much of a deal, the game basically became the disc (or cartridge), just like the music tightly associated with the CD it came on.

As soon as this connection is broken, old business models fail, and people inevitably complain. Publishers complain that people copy or resell their discs, consumers complain that publishers are greedy and think they have some sort of “right” to be paid more than once for each game.

What is happening now is a rough period of trying to invent new ways of making game development business work. It does not involve companies thinking they “have the right” to be paid, but the simple fact that the companies need to be paid or they will go out of business, which would be bad for everyone involved.

The problem now is that we’re in the middle of the transition. We’re in a world where we cannot expect everyone to be able to download a game from the net, which means we need to sell copies. At the same time, hyperdistribution is a fact and game resale is abundant.

From my point of view, seeing EA try to find a way forwards with a middle ground of things like project $10 to earn money off resales and more “free downloadable content” included with the boxed products to start an ever so slight move towards providing services.

To see retailers complain about the move is expected — after all, they must know just like we know that we’re moving fast towards a world where music and games are not distributed on pieces of plastic anymore, which means that there wont be a need for a store to buy the pieces of plastic in.

Still, I said this in one of the posts I started off referring to, The future of PC Gaming:

Then he fails to grasp the core points of what makes Steam popular: It gives something back to the customer. It’s that simple — the other DRM schemes are all for the benefit of the producer, while Steam has loads of nifty features for me as a consumer that have “Future” stamped all over them.

This also goes back to the other post and human nature. People have come to expect being able to trade games back in for a part of the value towards a new game.

There is a disconnect here really, since the problem for publishers is that the same disc is used twice (which means disc != experience), but the problem for the consumer is that not letting the disc be used twice would stop his or her ability to hand in the game disc, essentially making games more expensive.

I’ve suggested that a solution to this would be to include a game disable function in a Steam-like digital distribution system to fill this need. Once you’re done with a game, you could disable it for a piece virtual currency. You could then use the virtual currency to buy new games if you have enough, or fill in with regular money.

Even more likely though, I think we’ll see more transitions towards games being cheaper content platforms and that part of what you get is tied to an account. Transitioning from a producer of boxed game products to service providers needs to happen for game publishers to survive, but I’m sure we can find ways to do this with both sides benefiting.

Of course the middle men are unhappy, but as soon as they’re out of the way we can live in a happy world where the price of games isn’t so outrageous.

Game Resales and Project $10

I’m slowly bouncing back from a period of incredibly hard work, followed by a complete disconnect and resting period. I should hopefully be back to posting regularly again now that the game has gone gold and we’re moving on to the next project. I still have some emails in my backlog of things to reply to — if you’ve been waiting for an answer, I’m sorry about the delay.

Anyway, retailers have spoken out against the so called “Project $10″, saying it will cause consumer rage:

“The person you’re pissing off the most is the consumer,” McCabe told GamesIndustry.biz. “This affects [them] directly – they pay the same amount of money and yet the resale value is much reduced. From a retailer’s point of view, they’ll just readjust [the price] bearing in mind you have to buy the voucher.”

This is an interesting development. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, the $10 project essentially puts a code in the box to unlock additional content online for the game. The code can only be used once, which means that buying the game new has additional value over buying the game used.

Consumers who buy a used copy can still choose to buy the online content, but for a fee (one would imagine $10, considering the name of the “project”, but I think it’s actually $15 for the current titles). It’s been done with a few recent games including Mass Effect 2 this far (awesome game by the way, I’ve been having a blast with it), and will be done for future titles, including Battlefield: Bad Company 2.

“EA’s project $10 move is aiming to stifle pre owned games sales, but what they don’t factor in is the damage this could have for them in relation to new sales,” said Day.

Wow, what a complete misunderstanding. This has nothing to do with publishers wanting to stop resales — it’s simply a business model where publishers can earn some money off of resales.

There are interesting parallels to be drawn for me, between the console and PC markets. Pre-owned games pose much of the same problem on the console market as piracy does on the PC market. The end result of both is the same: people play our games without a single bit of money ending up with the people who made the game. In the worst case, we end up paying a lot of money to keep servers online, while getting no money at all from the sale.

There has been a lot of whining from publishers and developers about both issues. Those of you who know my stance on piracy should not be very surprised that my stance on pre-owned games is very similar. Whining about it or blaming people for it is not going to help — yet you cannot deny that the fenomenon in itself is causing major problems for publishers and developers (just as piracy is) — there is no getting around that.

However, trying to “clamp down” on used games sales or piracy is pointless. Piracy is illegal, but unenforcably so which means that it doesn’t really matter. Resale is simply a business choice. While you might think that it is a bad business choice and that retailers would be better off long-term by staying clear of business practices that will kill their providers, they are making a ton of money short-term. There is no way they wouldn’t fall for that temptation, and in the end, any business choice that works for them is a valid one. Whining or arguing about it isn’t going to help.

This causes an interesting problem for publishers. One way would be to move to direct online sales only, but this excludes large chunks of consumers who can’t download large games or who aren’t connected at all. Another version would be to require online activation and to bind the game to a certain console or live/psn account, which simply wouldn’t be fair to the consumer and would cause a never-ending stream of problems and well-earned gamer hatred.

The middle ground, then, is to sell a full game to people through retail, but to provide extra value with unlockable content to people who buy the product new. It should come as no surprise that retailers dislike this — it will certainly cut a chunk of profitability out of the resale market. It will lower the value of a game for resale, which means it’ll be worth less to trade in. Will this annoy some customers? I’m sure it will.

Many people seem to be taking this as the publisher wanting to be paid twice, which I think comes back as the default gamer response to anything developers or publishers do to earn money being horrible and bad. It sometimes gets to me to see this kind of attitude with gamers. We can’t make games as a charity, and making these games on bleeding edge tech is extremely hard work, and the people in the industry are incredibly dedicated to their art.

The other side of things is that buying the game used will be cheaper, creating a much better “try before you buy” environment, where you can potentially buy the game used and try it. If you like it, you can buy the DLC that you would’ve got from the new version. This is sort of a win-win situation for the publisher and the consumer, but of course not that great for retailers.

To publishers, this is the option that provides the best value to consumers while moving to a new business model that allows us to actually start making proper money from games again, which could halt the current trend of studios closing and developers being fired.

I’m sorry if that takes money out of retailers pockets, but I really do think that the talented people who sweat blood making these games deserve the money more than people who only know how to push people to buy used instead of new. It may have been a good dream for you, but it was still a dream and now it’s time to wake up.

And yeah, retailers claiming to stand up for the consumer is nothing new. But just as with music labels claiming to speak for artists, they are simply middle men that are slowly losing their value.

The Gaming Police

Howard County Sheriff’s Department have been on the hunt for a drug dealer for a while, but lost track. The dealer skipped the country to hide in Canada. He made a mistake though — he chose to play World of Warcraft. Someone told the police about his online gaming habit, and they sent a Subpoena to Blizzard, requesting any information they had about the dealer in question.

Something interesting happens here. Maryland police has no legal juridistiction to subpoena things from Blizzard (situated elsewhere). The subpoena is more to be seen as a kind request for information. Months passed, and eventually Blizzard provides a chunk of information. Among others, the police gets an IP address that can be located and used to coordinate an apprehension together with Canadian police.

There have been plenty of reactions to the story, with comments like “if you don’t fancy prison life, you shouldn’t be selling drugs”. This is some form of the “if you’ve got nothing to hide” argument and thus misses the central problem of it all. You get caught on a quite common, but still quite false, line of reasoning that equates the possibility with the action. The problem here isn’t the action itself, it’s the possibility; not the result in itself, but the span of potential results that are made possible by the action as it is.

Let me explain that further. When the police nicely asks for information this way, Blizzard ends up in a problematic position of power. The company now has to take a moral position and in principle act as an authority of law. Maybe this had been a clear-cut case if we had been dealing with something that was illegal everywhere, and which everyone agreed constitutes an illegal and immoral action, like violent crimes.

Now it’s about the war on drugs. Regardless of how you feel about narcotics, you have to realize that laws about them are different in different parts of the world. So, now it’s suddenly up to Blizzard to decide if these sorts of laws also apply in the virtual Azeroth, regardless of where the people playing are in the world, or relative to where the police who’s asking the question is. Has Azeroth signed an extradition treaty with the United States of America?

In and of itself, it’s not a major problem, but the fact that Blizzard doesn’t answer “no” to any such requests as a policy is somewhat dubious. It opens the door for enforcement of any law in any country around the world — in the online world.

This is what I mean with that the possibility is the problem, not the specific action in the case at hand — what happens when Chinese authorities want some information? There are a whole lot of Chinese World of Warcraft players out there. Is that request equally much ok? The matter could concern different crimes there, and most of us agree that it would be less than pleasant if all the laws from all countries could potentially be applicable online, internationally. Is the next person who hides in Canada a Chinese dissident? What will Blizzard’s decision be in that case?

Of course I realize that Canadian police may not be very helpful when it comes to the Chinese government wanting to hunt dissidents, and that it’s very likely that Blizzard would take a different decision in that case, but there are issues in the decision to hand out information that are decidedly unpleasant, regardless of if you find the effect in this specific case upsetting. It’s a path that doesn’t look brushy, but leads deep into the djungle undergrowth.

Image credits: jluster.

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