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Friday, 23 September 2011

IMHO: OnLive and Cloud Gaming

I am not a fan of this apparent need to make the world digital. I like having, well... stuff. I like having something physical, be that a book, a DVD, a game... and indeed I like having all of the extra things that come with them, like the manuals, pull-outs, posters, heck even the warranty booklets. It makes the product feel like something I have received in return for money.

This is the first reason I cannot get behind the concept of Cloud Gaming. If my entire collection of software exists somewhere off in the aether, what am I going to take such great pride in displaying on my gaming shelves? What am I going to take pleasure from keeping organised, keeping track of which games I have and haven't finished to 100%? I quite enjoy my filing system; I can't get that somewhat OCD-like joy from a list of titles on my TV screen.

What about special editions, collector's editions? My copy of Gears of War came in a metal case, with an additional 'Making Of' DVD. I can't stream a metal box from the Cloud.

The OnLive 'console' and Controller
The second reason is that I do not want my gaming to be essentially held to ransom every time my ISP decides it's going to have a bit of unscheduled downtime. My gaming time is somewhat sacred, and importantly, something I know I can always fall back on if other technology fails me. No internet? No problem, I'll just get a bit of Xbox time in until it decides to fix itself. Additionally, whilst I understand that the actual processing of the game is carried out off in the Cloud and then the resultant output streamed to your TV, if you play for considerable lengths of time each day or each week, at what rate will you eat through your data limit imposed by most ISPs? Those households that currently pay a cheap internet tariff for, say, a 10GB data cap could find themselves hitting that rather rapidly. Not a problem for that family when using their traditional consoles.

The other issue attached to the fact that the processing is being carried out remotely is that, as is being noted by some early users of the system, there is a noticeable lag between controller input and on-screen response to that input. I'm sorry, but that is totally unacceptable in this generation of gaming. The most fundamental requirement for a good gameplay experience is that your commands are translated seamlessly to the game. How can Cloud Gaming ever expect to be adopted by core players (specifically, those players that indulge in a lot of online, fast-paced multiplayer gaming, such as any FPS I could mention, or titles like Forza) if they will be at an immediate disadvantage over players using a standard console? Also, in order to stream at a useable speed, the images being pumped back to the user will be compressed to a lower resolution, making your game which you just paid retail price for look worse than if you'd gone and paid the exact same price for a physical copy. That smells just a little of a rip-off?

However, whilst this technology seems flawed, I can see how it could, in future (assuming all of the various technical issues are dealt with - the lag, most importantly) be a successful, additional gaming service.

PC gaming is expensive, the upgrade costs can spiral if you want to maintain your machine at the bleeding edge of graphical and processing power. Buying games for your machine however can be very affordable, especially through services such as Steam.

Now, I for one am not going to pay OnLive £39.99 for a digital copy of, for example, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I can pay that in a bricks and mortar shop and get actual physical media in that price too. I would on the other hand, be very willing to pay the prices offered by Steam for a large number of their hosted titles for the ability to play those games (especially PC-exclusives) on my TV without the need to worry about hardware. I think this is the market for Cloud Gaming; smaller, mid-priced titles, or at most, full retail games at a notably reduced price to account for the lack of physical product. All the time there is physical media at the same price, I'm sure most people would choose that option; especially as they know they will have consistent access to their purchase and that it will be free of any nasty technical issues.

So given that, if Cloud Gaming could bring me PC-exclusives to my living room at a significantly more attractive price, then I may consider it. Even then though, it would be an addition to, not a replacement for, my other 3 current-gen machines.

All comments welcomed - is this a gaming revolution, or simply some interesting but ultimately disposable technology?

Monday, 12 September 2011

DiGRA Conference, Hilversum, Netherlands

I'll be off to the DiGRA conference in Hilversum in a little under 36 hours. This is going to be my first attempt at giving an interesting presentation to a relatively large (hopefully) audience, so fingers crossed it all goes to plan!

There looks to be a decent number of other potentially very interesting sessions from other speakers too, and I will give a brief a rundown of the highlights that I catch when I return (or possibly whilst sat in the hotel, if I'm bored...) to point people in the direction of papers in the proceedings.

Hosted at the Utrecht School of the Arts
UPDATE, 19th September 2011

Back in the office; and I don't think I have ever had such a nerve-wracking experience in my life! However, similarly I don't think I have had such an enlightening or useful one either.

As scary as it was attempting to be intellectual in front of a room of seasoned researchers, designers and developers, the feedback from the audience was extremely useful (and suitably harsh, just as it should be). Likewise, spending two days surrounded by such a huge number of like-minded, passionate people is an experience without equal so far as inspiring me to work even harder is concerned.

So highlights; well apart from my obviously wonderful talk, I particularly enjoyed the keynotes from Mary Flanagan, Eric Zimmerman and the wonderfully entertaining and thought-provoking Antanas Mockus Šivickas. The panels on 'Research, Practice & Social Context', and on 'Building a GameLab 2.0' were also full of really interesting discussion.

I unfortunately couldn't find the time to see half of what I would have liked, but I would recommend to those interested browsing through the proceedings once they are made available at http://www.digra.org/dl . For anyone that wants to have a read of the paper I presented (and let's be honest who wouldn't, it is after all a cracking read) it is available at my website, or through this direct link .

Lastly, I have learned that lecturers and researchers could drink most students under the table. Go figure.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Real-World Consistency in Virtual Worlds

I've recently been playing through the first part of the Penumbra series, Penumbra: Overture. After approximately an hour of play I am faced with the task of removing a cave-in so that I may continue onwards; not a particularly challenging prospect - I am a seasoned gamer, I've blown apart many an inconvenient rock formation.

Checking a nearby map, I see an area marked "Explosives"; dutifully I carry a big ol' barrel of TNT over and wedge it into the rocks. The game informs me it is missing a fuse; not a problem, I've already walked past a container that the game informed me contained "assorted pieces of string". This is where my frustration starts.

Returning to the container, the game refuses to let me pick up the string. Hmm, that's strange, maybe I was mistaken. Further searching turns up a stick of dynamite. Aha! Surely I need to light this, then throw it in with the TNT barrel and take cover... Nope, I merely get a disappointingly small explosion, with the oddly resilient TNT remaining unscathed. It is another 45 minutes until I realise that I need to go and find a specific book in a certain box that tells me how to make a fuse. Now I can pick up the string, and Bob's your uncle!

This TNT barrel is completely invulnerable to dynamite explosions...
This is an example of something that has bugged me many times over my years of gaming - I knew immediately that the string was the solution. The character in the game however, apparently not being quite so au fait with the concept of flammable materials, required a book to tell him how to construct a basic fuse. 

Now I can understand that, particularly using Penumbra as an example, some games expect you to do things in a certain order. However, when the game is asking the player to solve a puzzle based firmly in real-world logic, using real-world laws, is it really too much to ask for the game to cater for the player being a bit smarter than the player-character? Similarly, if a game that uses real-world logic offers other possible solutions that would be successful using that same logic (such as detonating the TNT barrel with dynamite) then these should be equally viable in the game. 

If a game is attempting to engage and immerse the player in a believable and consistent world, but then stops halfway to say to the player "actually, you're not solving that puzzle the way that I intended you to", any impression of reality is broken. 

This could just be me being particularly fussy - and of course it would be impossible for every possible solution to a puzzle to be programmed; but I wonder what other people's views on this are?

All comments welcomed - have you ever been annoyed by a similar situation in a game?