May 222009
 

heavyrainAs is my curse I gave another overview introduction presentation last week on films made with games engines aka machinima. I then ran a workshop on the production process and techniques particularly looking at dedicated machinima tools through to games engines – now my YouTube machinimas have gone past 300 000 must be doing something right for some!  But one of my key points in my intro talk was the exponential evolution of the form. It has moved away from dodgy, quick gag,  non-lip synch first person shooter ‘head-shots’ through to quality tales – emotional drama, visually entrancing alongside real character led comedy. Add to this the fact that many machys are at a quality now to rival tradtional animation (see examples below).

So all speakers referred to story, quality writing but also the importance of being true to the culture of the existing game world (more at the bottom). Here are my opening slides showing key examples, classified into my categories as to what machinima is created for:

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Jan 112009
 
Life III Box

Life III Box

So been having a nice break here in Bondi, doing all sorts of cool commercial and/or creative non-LAMP projects plus playing some great new games (Fallout 3, Mirror’s Edge, Elder Scrolls/Oblivion etc:) mostly on the PS3 and PC/Mac. Hunting around the non-mall games stores in Bondi Junction I came across a dusty old cross-platform game called Life III: Escape from Reality in the $10 bargain bin. The system specs said it runs on all platforms, consoles & even has some locative real world elements, but is ideally meant to be played as a 24/7 casual game – which struck me as a bit of an oxymoron 🙂

OK so I got stuck into this old game and it became apparent that it had a very intricate and sophisticated engine and was in fact the most detailed MMRWRPG (tm!) (massively multiplayer real world role playing game) I have ever seen. So for those who haven’t played this cool game, what follows is a run down of the game play, various quests/levels and the rewards at various stages.

TRAINING & TUTORIALS 1-7

Gary Hazlitt Level 1-8

Gary Hazlitt Level 1-7

After you log in and give yourself a name and password (that you will of course forget at the next login) you appear in an upper bedroom of a typical suburban house. You have the choice of gender but whatever I choose it still gave me ‘male’ – the first major bug I spotted. At the start of the game you are supposed to receive clear game instructions, but much of what was said was pretty indecipherable across these early level orientation/control levels. A good point, I was surprised from the outset at the quality of the graphics for such an old game – but don’t want to focus too much on that!

Basically what happens at the start is two mentor characters (a man and woman) follow you around and tell you the way the game works. They chastise you if you make mistakes (or what ‘they’ think a mistake is) and encourage you if you do what they consider beneficial to your progression through levels 1-8. There are some funny moments too here as the controls don’t seem to really do what they are supposed too and you end up crashing into walls, speaking at inappropriate moments or dropping items that you need for good health and karma.

Most disconcerting is that you often find yourself randomly projectile poo or vomit which causes you to drop 1 or 2 levels – pretty bad game design here as there doesn’t seem to be a real reason for this. A final point about this level is that there is no obvious button to quit that game, so you have to grind on.

GAME CHEATING Levels 8-13

Gary Hazlit Levels 8-13

Gary Hazlitt Levels 8-13

The game box had no manual (beyond the simple how to start leaflet) so as you progress into more complex areas of the game you are really in a fail forward mode (although I did find a few hints using Google ‘game cheat sites’ and Self-Help section in Borders).

There is a little too much emphasis on giving out information (across levels 8-18) with the Non Player Character ( NPC) ‘info’ bots endlessly delivering in chat (or text items for inventory) historical background, do’s and dont’s and communication and number skills. This was particularly boring especially as the two mentors from earlier levels appear every now and then and keep pushing you into these information areas. Only very occasionally the NPC info hubs inspire you with poetry or music – but most mentors said that wasn’t much use in the game, so you can ignore those bots.

I actually found through these levels I was constantly trying to cheat, choosing the break things options, putting them back together or fiddling with my avatar to make it more attractive. This was useful because as soon as you hit level 14 the online MMRWRPG features kick in and you become aware of other players in the 2-3 environments you are hanging around.

ONLINE CREATING YOUR OWN RULES Levels 13-18

Gary Hazlitt Levels 13-18

Gary Hazlitt Levels 13-18

After a few years playing these levels you realise that the mentors have mostly been mis-leading you and you start to only trust other players who are around the same level as you – and so you join guilds and clubs with your new found friends. There becomes a kind of comaraderie as you try to level up together and this leads you off on some cool adventures, exploring nearby buildings, parks, towns and even self-guided trips to the city or guild trips to countries. The game HUD (Heads up display) here is useful as you monitor your various status’s as you play:

  1. The levels of attractiveness to opposite sex
  2. Coolness quotient from your peers/friends
  3. Amount of risk taken
  4. Body Odor (best to keep this low)
  5. Stimulant balance (you have to take as much as possible without going into the red)

One thing I noticed about some of the other players who had been through their tutorial in small country towns and outback areas and as their connection (& transport system) was quite laggy, they were unable to do any of the more sophisticated quests other players were doing. I was surprised this bug made it through q&a as it really needed to be fixed.

Also at this point in the game I found most players had already teamed up in guilds but the players that didn’t were mostly trapped with the information bots who had convinced them to do more text based quests, and they were almost playing a different game at this point (should have really been an expansion pack).

MAKING FRIENDS, LEAVING THE NEST Levels 18-20

Gary Hazlitt Levels 18-20

Gary Hazlitt Levels 18-20

Although the game had its interesting moments, I was still not clear of the goals and at these levels many players found that taking some of the pills and potions lying around on sleeping fellow guild members made everything a little more fantastical and fun – but after a while that didn’t really help with the game goals either. As you level up to 20 things really started to change. Suddenly you are teleported to a unknown city location, wandering streets and without mentors or friends you really start to create the micro game rules yourself (within certain limits set by the community now).

I expect the game designers were not quite sure on the transition here and thought it best to consider anything up to level 20 as training – but I found the earlier levels come across as pretty heavy game play – especially the dating scenarios where you have to constantly deal with other psychotic players of the opposite sex who just don’t want to help you achieve the ‘getting-it-on’ challenge.

But being dropped into what is essentially a different game altogether with new rules and without the ability to save should have been thought through a little more.

BUILDING AND WORKING WITH OTHERS Levels 21-35

Gary Hazlitt Levels 21-35

Gary Hazlitt Levels 21-35

Now this middle part of the game is kind of grindy. Long boring sections where all you seem to be doing is accruing ‘credits’. The game has an economy, and unless you’re one of the players that managed somehow to hack in credits from previous older family players, you really had to struggle to build up enough ‘credits’ to level up particularly quickly or just buy cool things for your inventory. The addition of an online leaderboard certainly helped motivate you as did the many NPC quest givers that you met at parties, subways, taxis, buses etc:

The most powerful quest giver and one that often gave you red herring challenges to accrue credits quickly was the inworld ‘media boards’. These were large TV-style screens placed at seemingly endless locations that showed you how well other players were doing and suggested how you could try some of their quests – which seemed to be focused on how skinny the avatar can be, the best personal transport units or how many players were ‘following’ you (called the ‘fame status’).

The only route that seemed to pay off in this game though was the ‘work’ quest. This involved rather tiresome, mundane activities (reading messages from people, sending messages back, walking around office floors and generally trying to be nice to everyone you met). As soon as you tried to do something adventurous or break the now, quite rigid game rules here your credits fell and you found yourself dropping back between 5 and 10 levels to begin it all over again. The key skill here it seemed was to be friendly and helpful to other players and regardless of any other skills you may have, your credit balance would slowly but surely accrue. One player (who had played this game a few times) told me that having a variety of skills really helps at the higher levels so I spent my non-grind time, building up skill levels in other areas. Some players though were just spending their credits on fast cars, bling and fancy clothes for their inventory and a game place to put all this stuff.

CREATING FACTIONS Levels 35-40

Gary Hazlitt Levels 35-40

Gary Hazlitt Levels 35-40

At level 35 there is a global quest given to all players, and this comes as a bit of a shock – “make a version/clone of you for future challenges”. This had to be taken on, all players at whatever credit or skill level you were at. It seemed you had to find a player of the opposite sex and form a small guild with the sole intention of creating a faction. The small creatures that you make together have similar skill and health traits to you and you have to train them for a particular role – to help you in later quests.

It suddenly becomes obvious that you are now one of the mentors from an earlier level and this is pretty good games design, getting you a lot more deeply involved in the game play. Several players for whatever reason do not complete this challenge, even though they attempt the ‘making’ bit a few times.

But unless you have enough credits, a place to grow the small creatures and a strong ‘credit’ flow in, you cannot complete this. Even so it didn’t seem to affect my game status much as I was a member of several in-game guilds with a variety of interesting quests. But the game writers could have been much clearer in how important or not this particular game quest was.

SAVING AND THE GAME LOOP Levels 40-50

Gary Hazlitt Levels 40-50

Gary Hazlitt Levels 40-50

OK the game had been pretty stable and bug free up to this point. But as soon as I levelled to 40 some strange things started to happen. Firstly my avatar became pretty distorted (it grew fatter). Regardless of what activities I was doing or how much energy I absorbed, my character just got larger and larger, and slower. Another thing which must have been a serious bug with the questing engine, as many of the new quests were ones I had missed at earlier levels (they seemed pretty boring at the time). Most of these news ones were about teleporting to some distant land and not really doing any game play at all? What’s the point of playing a game if there is no goal? Others involved hanging around chatting with friends and creating new guilds. These had to be comprised of players at the same level as you but even more challenging, with similar status’s – and often those who completed the ‘cloning’ challenge would not be able to team up with those that didn’t.

Other challenges involved tweaking your avatar to convince others around you that you were a level 20-30. This proved harder than it seemed as fiddling with the shape of your nose or the size of your breasts cost a lot of credits with little reward – as after repeating this quest a number of times the avatar would start to fall apart. The game programmers must have had a ball creating this quest.

A key problem through these levels though was the fact that as at the start of the game the controls occasionally didn’t do what you told them and in some social situations rather embarrasing body noises were emitted, or on one occasion I completely lost it in a driving quest at the local shopping mall car park, crashing into several other players. Although these were kind of fun in retrospect, they seemed a quite frustrating at the time.

GAME FINALE AND EXPANSION PACKS Levels 50-70 (+15)

Gary Hazlitt Levels 50-85

Gary Hazlitt Levels 50-85

Getting through levels 40-50 was very frustrating and lots of earlier game elements started to come into play. The final higher levels involved less adventure and more about tidying your inventory, looking back at machinima re-runs of some of your earlier quests and contacting old guild members to sit and chat in team-speak about those earlier quests. Around level 55 things start to get a bit weird again. The control mechanism all but breaks down and you almost become a noob again as your character starts to emit body waste missiles at various players from several orifices. It is kind of funny at times and others just downright messy. This all changes as you approach level 70 and the game world becomes more and more fantastical.

What you thought was a pretty static city or home environment suddenly becomes ‘elastic’. By that I mean the graphics become almost translucent and everything you see is earlier game elements and lots of glowing light. This makes the rather simple challenges at these higher levels much harder – trying to walk to the shops in a glowing pink hurricane of childhood memories is pretty hard, but you get used to it. As you level up to 70 the final quest is a simple task of ‘letting go’. It wasn’t clear in the game cheats on the web what this was, but it kind of meant, you did nothing for a while and you levelled automatically. A nice touch I thought. So the final element of the game was the game graphics/world dissolving into white and rainbow coloured lights…great music here too btw!

EXPANSION PACK

I forgot to mention that when I was at the store they gave me another box for free the Life III expansion pack called “AfterLife III”. – no one had apparently bought this extension to the game as it got bad reviews from religious groups. I told the store I probably wouldn’t get that far, but here I was anyhow. I installed it and low and behold it gave me an extra 15 levels. Now much of this was the same as 50-70, kind of spiritual quests, asking questions about what kind of character you were, analysing the way you did things, how it could be improved and all that stuff. But the interesting thing was at level 84, as you travelled around this ‘celestial’ environment (with wonderful particle effects) you kept getting flashes of another bedroom in suburbia. Yes, incredibly as you hit level 85 you became a noob again, you began the game again, with two different mentors hovering over you. I didn’t really have time to play the whole thing again, and I managed to find the quit option at this point. I did save it for another time though.

I am not sure what happened to the company that created this game, I suspect they fell out of favour with most Life I and II players who found the whole thing rather grindy, difficult and certainly were unable to commit more than 70 or 80 years to it – given there are plenty other games to play which are far more exciting and have much more interesting rewards.

Postscript: SilkCharm just read this and in-between fits of violent giggles pointed me to a cool book (that I haven’t read) called God Game byAndrew M. Greeley Some similarities?

Also if there are any parts of the game I may have missed or have cheats for please comment below! If you have played this game and you want to write a review I will add it to the bottom of the post – please include your player character name so we can hook up in game 🙂 !

Finally, finally – an obvious prototype for the immersive version above discovered on YouTube 🙂 – I can see why they left out the ‘revenge’ bit !

Dec 142008
 

I haven’t been able to log into Sony’s PS3 home yet but have been fascinated in the trickle of videos onto YouTube showing first usage in the past two days. There are many posts over the last 2 years about PS3Home on this blog and it is great to finally see it come out of alpha (it still feels like a mature beta) as promised ahead of the XMas fest this year. Previous posts followed by some nice ‘early captures’:

But for now here are a selection (will be doing my own indepth look at Football Superstars too soon – which has many parallels).

1 A good clear and enthusiastic 12 minute introduction overview from David at TheCreativeOne showing how graphically this far exceeds most other social virtual worlds as well as a first look at the mall, your apartment and some community sports.

2 – With limited activity this is how a community of 30 people decided to entertain themselves. “The 30 People Playstation Home Train!”

3 – Someone delighted to be able to log in finally and shows off a little of the interface and demonstrates the vSide-like music backtracks

4 – A nice little bit of marketing at the right sort of demographic with RedBull being one of the first to do PS3Home as a sponsored ‘social’ game.

5 – Someone who is delighted with certain integrated dance moves 🙂 The Monkey Dance

6 – Probably a middle aged man testing out the ‘Stripper Stage’ – minus the stripping, audience and dance pole!

7 – Finally a long 17 minute continuous wander around home giving a good insight into what it is about

Sep 282008
 

Have we reached a tipping point – with many more user hours spent with games than films are they now more culturally relevant (as in our cultures are saturated with them)? With most films having ‘game-like’ story arcs and, at the last count, nearly 80 films with stories based on game titles in production I am starting to think so.

Game culture and their inherent stories are now absolutely mass media. In a low risk, and dwindling film business, creating stories around experiences that people have already spent 20-40 hours immersed in the story world, is a no brainer, so what we are seeing is a threshold now of game-like films but more importantly films based on games. Anyway more after the ten minute video – stick with it.

“Playing With Stories” THE CINEMATIC GAME. A Film by GARY HAYES

I am designing curriculum for cinematic games and virtual worlds at AFTRS but also doing another report on the market potential of this cross-media, gilm (game/film) landscape. In the process again I threw together a compilation video of notable examples (I know there are at least ten times this btw!) interspersed with tasty quotations. “The Cinematic Game” was initially designed to be a look at the cross-promotion and story development potential of this most powerful mixed-media marketing machine. But, during the process though I was staggered to see the number of major feature films in production based on new and existing game universes (listed in this post below and scrolling at the end of the video) – suggesting to me a tipping point.

Game story starts to lead film development?

TV and Cinema has already become much more of a background or escapist medium for larger numbers of media consumers. In homes around the world we are spending more time in online pursuits than glued to the content breaks, in-between the advertising slots of traditional TV. We are also immersing ourselves in the social and story ‘exploration’ of the current generation of PC and console games. So how will TV and Film survive in a world where social gaming and associated peer appraisal online is far more compelling? Also given the choice will we continue to passively watch the protagonist or ‘be/live’ the hero? It is interesting to see 8000 employee EA Games now developing major strategies whereby games are made to be easily adapted to comics, books, TV and Film. In the business week article “Morphing Video Games into Movies” they note how EA are trying to emulate small non-game companies have built mini empires on their ‘story IP”

The idea is to repeat the success of companies such as Marvel Entertainment (MVL) and Hasbro (HAS), which used their base of fans to transform from marginal companies into Hollywood players. After licensing Spider-Man to Sony Pictures for a string of hit movies, Marvel has created its own studio, with Iron Man and other films set for release this summer. The Hasbro-backed Transformers movie grossed more than $400 million in 2007 global box-office sales, which in turn boosted company sales of movie-related toys and games.

It is interesting to note that the music industry is also starting to ride the coat tails of the games world. Kotaku reported on a ‘run-in’ between Warner Bros. and Activision about Guitar Hero. Suggesting the music publishers should get more royalties from games that use music, Activision’s boss Bobby Kotick hit back at Warner’s and said the following (which implied as the Kotaku item said ‘Perhaps the record companies should pay us‘)

We’re going to favour those publishers that recognise and appreciate how much we can add value to their artists… in the case of those kinds of products, you should be paying any money at all and whether it should be the reverse.

Back to the main thread of the post, it does make you wonder how many screenplay writers are sitting in front of their XBoxPS3Wii’s looking for inspiration nowadays? Variety suggests that in fact ‘all’ games could be made into movies but I will be really interested in what kind of film comes from The Sims and already know the likely story arc of MassEffect having run through it a couple of times but many others on the list below will be of interest, especially World of Warcraft which has around 4000 story threads/quests – so which story will we be ‘offered’?Films of games have had a shaky past with only a few critical successes such as Tomb Raider, Silent Hill, Resident Evil (there are several on slide 75 of my game/story presentation below, that I did several months ago) but given the serious money and credible directors such as Landau, Lucas, Speilberg, Cameron, Jackson etc: plus a deep desire to properly reflect the integrity of the ‘interactive’ experience, the tide is turning. Being an avid machinima maker I know at first hand what it means to capture the ‘essence’ of game playing, adapt it, reflect it and, if you understand the culture of the game, interpret it – the good thing is A list filmmakers (as you can hear Peter Jackson say at the end of my video) understand it too.

I must again finish with a plug for a couple of unique courses at AFTRS and related to this post an article in one of its blogs RedSet called “What’a film, TV & Radio school doing offering courses in game design and virtual worlds?” makes the relevant point:

“AFTRS new game design and virtual world graduate diplomas will push students to go beyond the generation of clichéd actions and stereotypical characters, students of these new courses will be encouraged to step up and learn how to create meaningful interactive experiences for a variety of platforms informed by the expertise offered in all of the other creative disciplines taught at AFTRS such as directing, screen composition, screenwriting, sound design, production design and more. The field of game design and interactive experiences is equally as collaborative as the world of filmmaking, drawing together diverse specialists who together create the whole – writers, screen composers, programmers, animators, art directors – at AFTRS all of these disciplines are already housed under one roof – with a track record of cross disciplinary interaction and a staggering successful graduates.”

More about my video

A non-exhaustive compilation of story rich games or gamic films including in order of appearance: Contact, Indiana Jones, Heavy Rain, The Game, Burning Crusade, Max Payne, The Matrix, Heavenly Sword, Final Fantasy, Lord of the Rings, Ironman, Call of Duty 4, Simone, Rage, Tron, Bicentennial Man, SpiderMan 3, War of the Worlds, Tomb Raider, I am Alive, WoW Lich King, Indigo Prophesy, Jumanji, Desperate Housewives, Da Vinci Code, The Beach, Assassins Creed, Thomas Crown Affair, CSI, Halo, Resident Evil, James Bond, Sleuth, Afrika, The Godfather, The Cube, Narnia, Time Bandits, The Golden Compass, Half Life, Never Winter Nights, Silent Hill, Hellgate, Beowulf and interviews with George Lucas and Peter Jackson plus quotes from many film directors and games designers

My film contains some of the better hybrids, either films inspired by games, games inspired by films or just very rich cinematic, story or character rich games. I make no excuses that I have used a mixture of cut scenes as well as ‘real’ game play in the video – that is really to show where we are heading as game graphics continues to hurtle towards the real time equivalent of the likes of Beowulf and other ‘trickle’ rendered CG features. After the quotes and textual references from the compilation below, are more elements on this very exiting hybrid cross-story, cross-IP, cross-reality world.

I want gamers to be surprised by their own creativity. I want players to feel not like Luke Skywalker, but George Lucas Will Wright (Sims, Spore)

We’re way beyond the notion of game-as-brand-extending afterthought. Let the virtual world–the vibrant, living world that people inhabit–let that influence the movie. Let it feed back into the process and provide unparalleled riches and depth to what we’re doing
John Landau (Titanic)

Games are already good at creating fear, suspense, excitement, shocked surprise, and laughter. Much rarer are games that create genuine sadness … I have never cried during a videogame
Marc Laidlaw (Half-Life)

I think the real indicator will be when somebody confesses that they cried at level 17
Steven Spielberg

When I found out one of my guildmates had died, someone with whom I had fought monsters, explored exotic lands, shared moments of jubilation and defeat, I wept. In spite of having never met him, the knowledge that we would not continue the story together, brought me great grief.
Laurel Papworth

We had a notion to take the stars of the movies and have them play supportive roles in the video game and tell a story that is a companion story to the movies
Joel Silver (Matrix)

If done well, I don’t believe a videogame itself can detract from a film experience. Ideally, it would be a complement to the film and a way for fans to further involve themselves in a world once they leave the cinema
Peter Jackson, (King Kong, Lord of the Rings)

There are scenes that start in the video game and will complete the movie – ¦and fell like it’s a part and experience of the movie
Joel Silver (Matrix)

Games and MMOs in particular are providing such a sustaining experience that challenges us to make the theatrical experience better
John Landau (Titanic)

The next big emotional breakthrough in gaming is being able to tell a story that is consistent throughout the narrative. If the game is 15 levels, it’s just like 15 chapters in a story
Steven Spielberg

We’re trying to understand the language of the film, but diverge in ways that are right for the game medium.
Neil Young’ EA VP (Lord of the Rings)

Games sometimes can reveal things. To watch someone in movement, unconscious movement, can be very stimulating and revealing, whether they win or not.
John Turturro (actor)

People wonder why games don’t have the same emotional palette as movies. But that’s the wrong way to look at it. It’s like saying, ‘Why isn’t radio like reading a book?’ Games, inherently, have a different emotional palette, which is their strength
Will Wright (Sims, Spore)

Scroll at the end of the compilation:

FILMS BASED ON GAMES IN Development or Production 2008/9 (Wikipedia and IGN source)

Alone in the Dark 2
American McGee’s Alice
Area 51
Battle Royale
Biohazard: Degeneration
BioShock
BloodRayne III: Warhammer
Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars
Castlevania
Citizen Siege
City of Heroes
Clock Tower
Cold Fear
Crazy Taxi
Darkwatch
Deus Ex
Devil May Cry
Doom 2
Dragon’s Lair
Driver
Duke Nukem
Earthworm Jim
Eternal Darkness
Eternity’s Child
EverQuest
Far Cry
Fatal Frame
Fear Effect
Gears of War
God of War
Half-Life
Halo
Hunter: The Reckoning
Jagged Alliance
Joust
Kameo
Kane & Lynch
Legend: Hand of God
Lost Planet
Mass Effect
MechWarrior
Metal Gear Solid
Metroid
Mortal Kombat: Devastation
The Neverhood
Nightmare Creatures
Ninja Gold
Onimusha
Pac-Man
Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Psi-Ops
Rainbow Six
Resident Evil IV
Return to Castle Wolfenstein
Sabotage 1943
Silent Hill 2
The Sims
Siren
Soul Calibur
Sonic the Hedgehog
Spore
Spyro
Spy Hunter
Street Fighter:
The Legend of Spyro
The Sims
The Suffering
The Unforgettable
Tekken
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell
Tomb Raider III
Warcraft (based on World of Warcraft)
Zombie Massacre

Mixed Reality Futures

As a lead into a post about to be published I have been talking for a couple of years now (The Mixed Reality Perfect Storm ) about the fantastic potential of the live and by implication shared TV experience to be enhanced by extending the world into online games. It is exciting to think where we will be in a few years once the ‘broadcasters & studios’ realise that keeping an audience involved in the ‘IP’/programme in-between airings or sequels is a good thing. Good for the story creators, the latent creative audience and of course advertisers who need eyeballs/hands/ears/minds and hearts.

A further afterthought there are several companies around the world developing Cross-Reality forms, one that I am heavily involved with‚ The Format Factory, are pioneering formats that bridge the space between compelling participatory TV/Film and online game worlds. They have a promotional video that metaphorically demonstrates some of the ’embedded’ world-within-worlds. A trailer video teaser for the mixed reality, inhabited TV formats being pioneered and piloted by The Format Factory.

Other posts on this topic: