07 June 2009

Impact of E3 2009

In an unusual turn of events, I was detached from E3 coverage this year. With the exception of last year's minimalist E3 trade show, I've historically sat at the computer waiting for floor footage to hit the web with tongue lolling from mouth. Back in the day when bandwidth wasn't cheap for content providers, I used to sign up for a month of FilePlanet just to get immediate access to hi-res videos and trailers.

E3 started this year the day after my return from Vegas, which was also the day before I had to travel to Atlanta for work. I only got to see the Microsoft and Nintendo press conferences live and I was only able to read textual coverage of the Sony PR show. Other than that, I've seen about two or three videos for other games not featured in the conferences. For me, that's almost like missing it completely! Especially after I actually went to see E3 in 2006 =)

Here's my take on what I saw. Microsoft had the strongest press conference in my opinion. They showed some solid games and took another step into PS3's exclusive territory by bringing the Metal Gear Solid series back to the Xbox. (MGS2 saw a version on the original Xbox.) That was the first half. Then, out of nowhere, Microsoft introduces Project Natal, a controller-less camera system which uses your body as input. At first, I was extremely skeptical. Then, they brought it on stage for some tech demos. This I did not foresee.

The demos were decent, for such raw tech. I was impressed most by the 1-to-1 link of avatar to user. The Breakout-style game and painting demos were interesting, to say the least. It starts spinning the brain about new possibilities. Then they showed Peter Molyneux, and I groaned. Peter had made a short video of his latest creation, a boy named Milo. This boy interacted with a human based solely on voice recognition and simple hand gestures. I was floored, but yelling "LIAR!" at my monitor the whole time.

I was in disbelief about this last video and I've been thinking about it all week. I came to the conclusion that it's not wholly unbelievable, given the progress in each component that made up Milo. Facial recognition, speech recognition, gesture recognition; in my time at Georgia Tech, I saw some incredible student projects in each of these fields. Student projects. When I thought about that, it really puts into perspective what programmers can do when they work with some smart people.

I really feel like Milo shows an upcoming paradigm shift in the context and content of video games. Perhaps the traditional hardcore video game and the recent flood of casual games which have expanded the population of our community will merge in interesting ways. What do I mean? Here's my first game idea based on Natal.

The main character is the young prince of a kingdom. You are not him. You are his childhood friend, another boy or girl of a family in the court. The two of you play games around the castle, such as hide and seek, play sword fighting, and so on. The way you play with the prince determines how he develops as a person. Do you always beat him when playing with wooden swords? Maybe he develops a short temper at his short comings. If he always wins? Perhaps he becomes arrogant and petulant. One of the significant events of the game is a traumatic kidnapping of you and the prince as children by thieves seeking ransom. Based on your skills, you find a way to escape your captors and free the prince. Depending on how well you and he played hide and seek plays a role in how well you elude the alerted thieves. Eventually, perhaps after six weeks or six months, you "complete" the game and the prince grows up to be king. As the person in his life who had the most influence on him, you get to see how he rules his kingdom. Did he become a peaceful monarch, or a warmongering tyrant? What could be more gutwrenching than a friendship which ends in your own exile from your home by your childhood friend? Or more rewarding than the feeling that you played an indirect role in preserving a benevolent domain?

To me, such a game is fascinating. Most of the game is played by simply talking to the prince. The "mini-games" (and I hate using that term in this case) used to play with the prince wouldn't need complex input like today's hardcore games and could be played with natural human interaction as they demonstrated in the Milo video. The thrill of the game lies in the psychological influence you may or may not be aware of as you play. Depending on the various life events and outcomes, the game could also have amazing replayability. What do you think of such a concept?

That's all my time for this evening, I hope to write on E3 impressions more later.

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