All geeked out

One reason this blog has been quiet over the past week or so is that I’ve been engrossed in Puzzle Quest, perhaps the geekiest computer game of all time.

It’s an RPG with all the standard trappings thereof: orcs, trolls, giant rats, lots of character statistics, magic weapons, spells and so on. Except that when you meet a troll or a dragon or whatever, instead of hitting it with your sword, you challenge it to a game of Connect 4. Or what Connect 4 would be like if you had seven different kinds of counters dropped randomly into the top of the grid and you had to make lines to gain the magical energy to cast spells.

So it’s really a puzzle game with added orcs. The plotting, characterisation and so on are extremely flimsy, but it doesn’t really matter because the puzzling is really quite absorbing and the game eats up hours at a time quite easily.

I was struck again by how far the internet has come so quickly when I got stuck on a particular bit, googled ‘capture wolfrider’, and was pointed directly to a video someone had uploaded showing how to do it. Truly we are living in a brave new world.


Wii tennis

I decided yesterday to try to work out how the computer-operated characters in Wii tennis get such vicious side spin on the ball. After a lot of experimentation, I have a much better grasp of how it works, but trying to concentrate on how I was moving the remote completely hammered my timing and my score dropped by about 1000 points, enough to make me lose my Pro status.

It’s much more subtle than it initally appears; when you first start playing it seems to be all timing, but actually you have quite a lot of control over your shots. What it’s not is much like playing tennis.

I find the way wii games use the controller quite interesting; it measures tilt and acceleration in multiple directions, so it has a lot of information to play with. But it’s not magic; it measures relative movement but it doesn’t actually know the position of the controller. The ideal tennis game would be able to measure the entire shape of your stroke and the angle of racket at the moment of contact and use that to model the shot. If they could do that, someone who played real-world tennis would actually be able to just pick up the game and play all the shots they wanted. Instead, although it uses all the information available to subtly vary the shots, it doesn’t manage to create the illusion of really playing tennis.

It’s still a fun game, though.


Talking bollocks about technology

Simon Jenkins has an article in the Guardian that is so wrong-headed that it’s a little hard to grapple with. The first couple of paras give a good idea of the flavour:

I rise each morning, shave with soap and razor, don clothes of cotton and wool, read a paper, drink a coffee heated by gas or electricity and go to work with the aid of petrol and an internal combustion engine. At a centrally heated office I type on a Qwerty keyboard; I might later visit a pub or theatre. Most people I know do likewise.

Not one of these activities has altered qualitatively over the past century, while in the previous hundred years they altered beyond recognition. We do not live in the age of technological revolution. We live in the age of technological stasis, but do not realise it. We watch the future and have stopped watching the present.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to pick apart all the ways in which his examples are tendentious, highly selective or downright false and skip quickly on to pick a bit out.

No, the computer is not a stunning technological advance, just an extension of electronic communication as known for over a century. No, the internet has not transformed most people’s lives, just helped them do faster what they did before.

I can’t help feeling that he’s stretching the word ‘just’ beyond its reasonable limits.

As well as using it as a more sophisticated replacement for the mechanical typewriter, I regularly use my computer for design, photo-editing and as a print-shop. It’s a jukebox and photo display unit, and I can watch DVDs on it. I have a tuner plugged into it, so it acts as a TV, radio and video recorder as well. If I was so inclined, I could also use it to write and record music, edit sound and video, create animation, do 3D modelling, and process complicated mathematical functions. I can play games on it: an entirely new pastime and a new creative medium. I suppose you might argue that many of these things are possible without computers — I could have a print shop, darkroom, recording equipment and film editing suite in my house, after all — but I think that having all of them in one box qualifies the computer as a ‘stunning technological advance’.

And if I attach the computer to the internet, there’s a whole load of extra things it can do that I haven’t even mentioned yet. It becomes an alternative to mail, a news service, a library, an encyclopedia and a picture library. I can download music and video. If I had a camera attached to it it would be a videophone. There’s this site, which is read every day from places around the world. The numbers involved are fairly modest — I’m no Boing Boing — but even so, it would hardly be practical to distribute the same content though the post.

As for “the internet has not transformed most people’s lives, just helped them do faster what they did before”; even if that were true, it’s like saying that aeroplanes are no different to ocean liners. They both move you from one place to another, after all. Sometimes, ‘faster’ is the whole point.

I’ve seen versions of this argument in the media a few times and I just find it baffling. Jenkins has thought about this enough to have a bee in his bonnet about it; how did come to the conclusion that this is “the age of technological stasis”? I suspect a lot of it comes down to the Clarkson effect: there seem to be lots of people who are fascinated by machinery and engineering as long as it has gears and pistons but completely turn off when faced with a piece of electronics. There’s a weird cultural disconnect between the nostalgic image of the ‘boffin’ — otherwordly but admirable model of technical ingenuity — and the ‘geek’ — pasty, socially inept, caffeine-fuelled toiler in the code mines. And somewhere along the line, people seem to have lost any sense of how incredibly sophisticated these machines are. The very sophistication of them means that most people use them with very little idea of how they work: you can’t open up a computer and find out how it works by taking it apart and putting it back together.

And that’s only going to get worse. I don’t aspire to übergeek status myself; in fact I’m hardly even an untergeek despite a few geekly leanings. But at least having grown up with the first generation of home computers, I have some sense of what a very simple computer is like and how you get from there to here. If your first computer has Vista on it, and you play your first games on an XBox 360, they might as well just be magic boxes for all the insight you’re going to get about how they work.

Culture Other

the coming of 3D video games

Technological change is extraordinarily rapid, yet somehow it seems to creep up on us. The internet went from being an obscure curiosity for the geeky to part of people’s everyday lives without most of us ever having a eureka moment when the change was brought home to us.

I have had a few such moments, though. I still remember the moment I saw my first proper 3D game, Virtua Fighter — in a Vegas casino, of all places — as incredibly exciting. I would quite seriously compare it to what it must have been like for the audiences when they first saw The Jazz Singer. It was jaw-dropping to see these graphics which were simply unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

It helped that it was completely unexpected. I didn’t read the gaming press, videogames barely made the mainstream media unless there was a moral panic going on, and the internet barely existed – I’d certainly never used it. So I had no prior knowledge; I just stumbled on the cabinet among all the other games and was blown away by it. What struck me most wasn’t the greater realism of the characters, exactly: even in the moment of first seeing it, the blockiness of the characters looked pretty primitive. But the way the characters moved in three dimensions really did make it feel more like you were controlling a ‘person’ rather than just an animation. And more than anything, it was the swooping camera, that moved around the action and zoomed in and out as you played, which brought home this shift from a flat game world to one with depth.

I’ve already compared it the shift from silent movies to talkies; a more exact comparison would be the invention of perspective in Renaissance painting. I don’t want to use hindsight to claim that I saw Virtua Fighter and immediately had a sense of all the ways 3D would have an impact on gaming, but it didn’t take any particular brilliance to see it and know that you were present at the start of something. Perhaps in C15th Italy there were people feeling the same way.

I still like the look of the original Virtua Fighter. I know that the minimalist environment — a bit of texture on the ground and a few clouds — is because of technical limitations rather than aesthetic choice, but I find it appealing. If you see the later versions of the game (they’re currently up to Virtua Fighter 4, with VF5 due out this year), the backgrounds are ever more lushly-detailed graphical marvels, mainly for the sake of eye-candy but also as part of a pointless attempt to build a narrative context. The places they fight are related to the characters’ elaborate back-stories. But really, what’s the point? It’s a beat-em-up; I don’t need to know my character’s motivation. And while I was excited as anyone else by the advances in computer graphics at the time, that lush, hyper-realistic aesthetic gets cloying after a while. It’s about time for a bit of less-is-more.

Comparisons with early cinema and Renaissance painting inevitably bring up the question of games as art. That’s not what I had in mind when I made them, and I certainly wouldn’t pick Virtua Fighter as a case study, since apart from the graphics it was the simplest and most formulaic game imaginable. But even discussing a game this simple, the kinds of things I find myself mentioning — the overall visual styling, the way the 3D characters made it more immersive, the characterisation, set design, lighting, camerawork — make comparisons with various artforms almost inevitable. That’s why it seems certain that descendants of today’s games will be treated as artworks with all the importance of films, novels or paintings. Someone will find a way of bringing it all together and making it into something more.



Well, I’ve pre-ordered my Wii and a copy of the new Zelda from Amazon. Which I think is exciting, even if none of my readers do.

Culture Other

Jonathan Ive and the post-gadget aesthetic

Some more thoughts on design in the tech industries. This time, the slow death of what I think of as the ‘gadget aesthetic’. The gadget aesthetic was a product of the novelty and glamour of electronics; it fetishizes the look of hi-tech gizmos. Lots of buttons, lots of LEDs, curvy moulded plastic, metallic-looking silver plastic:

This is the same approach as the set-designers for Star Trek: if you’re going to have some actor peering at a panel and saying “Captain! The dilithium crystal containment field is coming out of phase!”, then you really need the panel to look important. So you cover it in glowing panels and screens and buttons.

But now I think people have got past that; they want their consumer electronics to look stylish, but not necessarily in the Star Trek manner. One of the reasons Jonathan Ive has won all those awards for Apple is that he completely understands that. I’m writing this on an iMac which has less buttons visible than just about any other electrial product in the room – the clock/radio, the camera, even the fan. It is less visibly complex than the Anglepoise next to it.

Apple only have about 5% of the personal computer market, so perhaps you can’t look at their computers and assume that the design taps into a profound cultural shift. But they do have an overwhelming market share in mp3 players, and the iPod has that same post-gadget aesthetic. It’s not that it’s somehow trying to look anti-technology, but it isn’t trying to look ‘hi-tech’. It’s not trying to look like it fell through a wormhole from 2037. It has no LEDs or glowing buttons; the controls it does have are reduced to a circle of a slightly different colour on the front of the machine.

None of this is exactly rocket-science, and there have been thousands of words written about Apple’s cool minimalism. But on the specific point of a post-gadget aesthetic, Apple’s competitors either don’t get it, don’t know how to do it, or aren’t trying.

Here’s an iPod competitor, the 20GB Creative mp3 player:

I’m sure it does a good job of playing music. Ad someone has put some thought into making it look attractive. But look at the styling. The glowing buttons, the glowing outline, the moulded plastic, and the futuristic typeface on ‘Creative’ —  it looks like a communicator from Star Trek.

And here’s the ‘iriver H320 Lite 20GB MP3 Player’, which is, i anything, even more mired in the same culture of making products look futuristic:

You’ve got shiny glowing buttons, another futuristic typeface, the use of techy jargon (‘multi-codec jukebox’). It’s quite a cool thing and I’m sure a lot of people will look at it and want it, but it’s cool in a gadgety way. Next to the iPod it looks like it’s trying too hard.

One more example. Compare the silvery, swooshy Microsoft Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 to Apple’s plain white wireless Mighty Mouse. They have nearly the same functionality (both have four-way scrolling; the Mighty Mouse has four buttons to the MSLM6000’s five), but the Mighty Mouse doesn’t feel the need to advertise how sophisticated it is.

At the moment all this stuff is so closely associated with Apple that it’s just perceived as Apple branding. In fact, the Nintendo DS Lite, which has a very similar kind of simple, ungadgety style, is often described as looking like it was designed by Apple.

But my feeling is that these companies are just ahead of the curve. There will probably always be a market for techy geek chic, for games consoles, computers and mobile phones decorated with das blinkenlichten. But electronic hardware is not the sole preserve of geeks anymore, and I think tech companies are slowly starting to understand that. Apple has always been the less geeky alternative to Microsoft, and Nintendo have always been more family-oriented and less focussed on hardcore gamers than their competitors. And generally speaking, both of them have been outcompeted, and have had rather poor market share.

But the runaway dominance of the iPod, and the fact that the DS is outselling the more powerful but more traditionally gamer-orientated PSP, raise the possibility that the non-geek dollar is finally starting to have a serious impact. I think we’re in an interesting time when a lot of companies know that they need to make their products more desirable to a broader range of customers, but there’s a lot of groping around to work out how to do it. The mobile phone companies have had to deal with this quicker than anyone, and they haven’t done a bad job; from the time that mobile phone use exploded, it probably only took them about five years to come up with a proper girly phone, for example. And there is a huge range of designs available, even if they often tend to be somewhat similar in overall look. So if the much-rumoured iPhone does ever materialise, it’ll be interesting to see what Ive and Apple can do when competing in an already well-developed market where the importance of design is understood. I’m sure there’s scope for a much better UI, for a start, but what really interests me is whether he can come up with a look for the phone which stands out from the crowd. If he does I’m sure it’ll be the least futuristic looking mobile on the market.