VR primed for the next stage

The development of VR has been an up-and-down story over the last few decades, but it took an important step forward recently with the creation of the Oculus Rift headset. According to the reports, when a person wears the Oculus Rift headset, they can comfortably 'look around' with the headset without their virtual view becoming a spinning mess of nausea. A lot of commentators are suggesting that this new product heralds the long-awaited era of mainstream use of VR headsets by much of the population for entertainment, education and other related activities.

The New Scientist magazine ran an article last week on this subject entitled 'Virtual reality film revolution puts you in the scene'. The article reports on how several major companies involved in technology and film, such as Sony, are exploring how to use VR to make a new generation of movies and documentaries. The article discusses the benefits, but also the obstacles for VR film-making. I wrote a letter to the New Scientist magazine, suggesting a different use for this new technology, which they've published: Read More...

Am I eating the tablet game or is it eating me?

A lot of us play computer games. There's a huge array of games out there to cater for nearly every taste, from blood-spattered sadistic violence (huge market) to organising parties. Recently, I've noticed, after quite a few hours, that the games I've played seem to fall into two categories.

The first type are the tablet games that eat me, in the sense that the game entirely consumes my mind and time. When I play certain games, particularly the simpler games where you match up tiles to complete a row, or combine two sliding tiles together to make the next level up of tile, I fall into a weird mental state where all I'm doing is combining tiles and nothing else in the universe exists any more. It feels good combining those tiles. I work out where to slide the tiles and which tiles to focus on so that they combine well and I can create the next level up of tiles which I will then combine to make the next level up of tiles after that and every time I do that I get a little kick of happiness and success until finally, after I can't change any more tiles and the game ends, I look up and an hour's gone by. An hour?!! How did that happen? What's worse is that even though I've just gone through a self-created, pointless time-warp that's just erased an hour of my life, I actually have a itchy, nagging desire to play the game again!

Earlier this year, the New Scientist magazine published a very interesting article entitled 'Obsession engineers: Mind control the Candy Crush way' that discussed this very phenomenon. The article focussed on two popular games, 'Flappy Bird' and 'Candy Crush saga'. Either by accident or design, both games ate people. 'Flappy Bird' was an accidental success but its popularity was a mixed blessing to its developer, Dong Nguyen. He made a lot of money but he received so much angry correspondence from frustrated players that he withdrew the game from public circulation.

By comparison, Candy Crush Saga is still most definitely available and it really eats people. To quote from the New Scientist article:

Candy Crush has become an instant, unstoppable juggernaut and a pop culture phenomenon. Since its introduction two years ago, the game has become the focus of obsessive analysis and sordid confessions. Journalists have openly declared themselves addicts, with more than a few admitting they have paid extravagant sums to play. They played on the train, at work, at weddings, while driving and during bathroom breaks (according to one anonymous web confessor, when she finally got off the toilet after 4 hours of play, her legs collapsed beneath her).

Psychologists have studied the astonishing addictiveness of such games. They refer to the pattern of play in these games as a ludic loop. In a ludic loop, the player performs short cycles of repeated actions that are easily achievable. When the player achieves these actions, they are rewarded, usually by a pleasing tone and visual flash of colour. These repeated events give the player a dopamine hit to their brain, similar to a drug-rush. Combined with the knowledge of a large achievement in the future, this ludic loop compels us to repeat the activity ad infinitum. When I read this explanation, I immediately thought of Super Mario Bros and fruit machines. They both flash and make a jingle when you pick up a star or a coin. Of the two, I'd recommend Super Mario Bros; it's a brilliant game, contains hours and hours of fun and you only have to pay once.

The ability of certain games to eat people has reached disturbing levels around the world. A recent BBC Storyville programme entitled 'Web Junkies - China's addicted teens' documented teenage Chinese men who have been placed into a detoxing camp by their parents to try to end their compulsive gaming addictions. These young men were playing immersive on-line action games in cyber-cafes for hours every day, in some cases all through the night. Watching the programme is both a fascinating and saddening experience.

Fortunately, I think there are a second group of tablet games that work in a very different way. These are the games that we eat. What I mean by that is that there are games that are skilfully made, beautiful to look at and most importantly, only last for a limited amount of time. Here are three great examples of such games:

1) 80 Days is an iPad game in which the player travels around the world as fast as they can in order to try and get back to London in 80 days or less, just as Phileas Fogg tried to do in 'Around the world in 80 days'. '80 days' has a wonderful visual style, mixing late victorian empire and steampunk and is cleverly balanced. It gives the player many different possible routes to take around the world. Players need to plan ahead, buying and selling items on the way that can either help them on their journeys or increase their wealth so that they can take more expensive but quicker forms of transport. Eventually, you learn enough about the routes to travel around the world within the time limit and often with a lot more money than you started, but that's okay because reaching that goal was lots of fun. As you can see from the image below, the artwork is excellent too.

2) Rymdkapsel means 'space capsule'. In this game, your job in this game is to develop a space station by moving resources around using your little rectangle people. Periodically, arrow things visit the space station and fire at your rectangle people. You need to protect your rectangle people against these attacks, but balance that protection with developing the station. I really enjoyed the sparse beauty of the station and the challenge of putting the place together while fending off the arrow threats. Again, like '80 days', the game comes to a natural end in that there is a main goal and once you achieve it, you're done.

3) Monument Valley is a puzzle game where you move a princess around perspective-defying buildings inspired by the works of M.C.Escher. The game has been flawlessly executed with an enjoyable score, elegantly simply controls and the visual fun of manoeuvering around impossible architecture. The game only has ten levels and you'll probably complete the whole game in a few hours, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

All three of these games, for me, are like a wonderful meal. You sit down with them and you look at them and you know that they've been lovingly made by people who are highly skilled and dedicated to producing something with mouthwatering contents, visual appeal and happy satisfaction. You tuck into them and enjoy the sensations, the feelings but you know that the experience won't last. After a few hours, it'll be finished and you'll have to get up, step away from the table and get on with your life but that's okay because you spent those few hours in happy enjoyment.

In that way, I think these games, the games that we eat, enrich our lives. They're short games that end, which means there are gaps between them, but this leaves room for anticipation, which can be more exciting than actually playing the game or eating the meal. Speaking of which, Wired magazine says that new levels of Monument Valley will be out soon. Yum yum! :-)

Bound: An outdoor game


Many years ago, I was on holiday at the seaside and, being an eleven-year-old boy, I was desperate to play some sort of outdoor game. I only had a tennis ball, and so I needed a game that two people could play with only a ball, a flat surface and some marked lines on the ground (ideal for the hard sand of a beach). After some intense cogitation, I thought up the game Bound. I persuaded my family to play it and it worked very well, with lots of fun being had by all.

Rather than let the game disappear into the nebulous mists of time, I thought it would be good to post a full description of the game so that other people can play it and hopefully enjoy it too.