Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Make a video game! Part Two

In my previous entry, I quoted one of the inventors of the PC as saying that the reign of the PC is over.  Well, Forbes has been saying "The PC is dead" for years now, and the PC still refuses to die.  I think what will eventually happen is that the PC will lose its cachet with household users, and go back into the office and the laboratory whence it came. But it will not die.  After all, you have to develop all those Android and iPod apps on something.

(When I say "PC," I'm including "Mac" in the mix.  Don't get your senstivities all in a twist, okay?  I'm also going to throw laptop and notebook PCs in with the desktop ones - basically, any computing device that uses a keyboard and mouse for input, and a pixellated display for output.)

The latest wrinkle in video and computer gaming is 3D gameplay.  You're all familiar with 3D movies, some recent notable ones being Tangled, Harry Potter and the Installment of Doom, and Captain America.  I only saw Tangled in 2D, although I can imagine that it was spectacular in 3D.  I saw Harry Potter in 3D, and to be honest, it didn't need it.  Don't get me wrong:  the movie was great, the 3D effects were great, but the 3D effects did not enhance the story.  The story is very well told, and it can stand on its own, without the aid of 3D.

Nevertheless, 3D cinema is here to stay.  The moviemakers are doing it right this time, and though I think it's just a recycled fad, I also think it's permanent.  As my Harry Potter experience showed, not everything needs to be 3D, but for some movies, it really makes a difference.

Now 3D is moving out of the movies and into games.  Kenneth Wong writes a thoughtful piece about it in the June/July 2011 issue of Computer Graphics World, called "Seeing Double:  Stereo 3D Moves from Cinema to Game Cinematic and Gameplay."  Okay, that's a long title, but Wong makes a good case for 3D.  He says that it's kind of clunky right now, like the original Atari 2600's sprites were kind of clunky back then, but that it can only get better with time.  The entry point for 3D gaming is "Nvidia's $149 stereo 3D kit, called 3D Vision."  Think of that!  For only a hundred and fifty bucks, you can get a glimpse into the future of gaming.  That sounds  pretty good.  (But you'll need a PC or Mac to do it.)

He quotes Mike Roush, from Gaijin Games (developers of the Bit.Trip game series) as saying '"3D is such a young medium right now. It's just going to get bigger.  Being in the first round of game deveopers to work on stereo 3D is an honor."'

Then he quotes Vernon Wilbert of Digital Domain.  Wilbert notes that every breakthrough or incremental improvement in interactive entertainment (by which Wong means "games") is, as Wilbert puts it, "a push toward the holodeck."  Star Trek fans will understand that reference.  Says Wong, quoting Wilbert:  '"It's getting you one step closer to the holodeck.  Stereo is the gateway to something else."'

Want to make a million bucks? Make a video game!

Two interesting articles appeared this month in two different publications. One was about the eventual decline of the PC, and the other was about the glowing future of 3D video games. These two articles are related, although the authors did not intend it that way.

The first was actually an entry in the "A Smarter Planet Blog" on August 10, 2011, entitled IBM Leads the Way in the Post-PC Era. This article was written by Mark Dean, Chief Technology officer of IBM Middle East and Africa, who was one of the 12 original PC designers 30 years ago (released to the public on August 12, 1981) and a driving force in IBM's PC division until it was sold to Lenovo in 2005.

Dean says:
It may be odd for me to say this, but I’m also proud IBM decided to leave the personal computer business in 2005, selling our PC division to Lenovo. While many in the tech industry questioned IBM’s decision to exit the business at the time, it’s now clear that our company was in the vanguard of the post-PC era. 
I, personally, have moved beyond the PC as well. My primary computer now is a tablet. When I helped design the PC, I didn’t think I’d live long enough to witness its decline. But, while PCs will continue to be much-used devices, they’re no longer at the leading edge of computing. They’re going the way of the vacuum tube, typewriter, vinyl records, CRT and incandescent light bulbs. 
PCs are being replaced at the center of computing not by another type of device—though there’s plenty of excitement about smart phones and tablets—but by new ideas about the role that computing can play in progress. These days, it’s becoming clear that innovation flourishes best not on devices but in the social spaces between them, where people and ideas meet and interact. It is there that computing can have the most powerful impact on economy, society and people’s lives.
It's an interesting concept, and a concept that gains currency when one looks around and sees the profusion of smartphones and tablets.  So many of the tasks that used to require PCs (including laptops and netbooks) have abandoned that dependency.  For example, it's now the custom, when one reaches the summit of one of Colorado's fourteeners (mountains higher than 14,000 feet), to pull out one's smartphone, take a self-portrait on the summit, and post it instantly on Facebook.  That used to require a digital camera, a mini-USB cable, and a PC, and it couldn't be done until the climber came down the mountain and went home.

For another example (and a good segue into the second article), I was part of the start-up of two computer game companies in the 2003-2004 era.  All of our development work was PC-based.  All of the tools were PC-based.  This made sense, because the target platforms for our games were overwhelmingly PCs. (Mac and Linux were Johnny-come-latelys in the gaming world.)  If we were still developing games today, the world would be a lot different.  Our development work could be done as easily on a Mac or Linux box as on a PC, and the target platforms would not be overwhelmingly PCs.  In the intervening years, consoles have made an incredible resurgence, with the Microsoft XBox family, the Nintendo Wii, and the Sony PlayStation family.  In a dramatic shift, more high-end games are played on consoles today than on PCs.

But the market is in rapid flux, and the consoles are now seeing their lunch money stolen by smartphones, iPods, tablets, and the completely ethereal and device-independent Internet.  Okay, so the Internet existed more than 8 years ago - even Web browsers existed more than 8 years ago - but most users did not have a high-speed connection to the Internet.  Now that has all changed.  Even the aforementioned iPods have high-speed processors and high-bandwidth connections to the Internet, which make playing online games a cinch.

How big is the game industry?  Well, it's grown immensely since I first stuck my toe in it.  In the June/July issue of Computer Graphics World (see p. 26 of the print edition), Kenneth Wong cited the following figures:

... The total console, portable, and PC game software industry generated $10.5 billion in 2009.  Of that, PC game software accounted only for $538 million. ...  Total revenues spent on games in the US reached $24 billion in 2010.  PC/Mac game downloads and retail box sales accounted for approximately 19 percent of that ($4.6 billion).  By contrast, console games accounted for close to 43 percent ($10.6 billion).  The rest was distributed among casual game portals, massively multiplayer games, social networks, and mobile devices.

Look at those numbers again.  They contain two hidden statistics, which Wong bypassed because they were irrelevant to the thrust of his article.  But they're worth noting.  First, the $10.6 billion spent on console games alone in 2010 was more than the total spent on all console, portable and PC games ($10.5 billion) a year before.  Second, that third piece of the pie which Wong lumped together as "the rest," was a not-insignificant 38 percent of game sales revenues, or $9.1 billion.

It's easy to look at the video and computer game industry and say that the pond is full, that there's no more room for the little fishies, what with big names like EA Games and Vivendi Universal swimming around.  The truth is that there's still a lot of room for the little fishies, the indie developers.  While much of the innovation goes on in the big companies, and up the road at Pixar and Lucasfilm, the indies are holding their own.  Once in a while, one of them strikes gold (Angry Birds, anyone?).  The gaming industry is still a good place to make a start.

Two companies are worth mentioning here, and I know that my readers can suggest others.

First: Nvidia.  According to Wong, Nvidia has a $149 product called 3D Vision which, when installed on your PC (hey! I guess they're not dead!), allows you to play many of your favorite 2D titles in 3D.  A list of the 2D games that work with 3D Vision is available at http://www.nvidia.com/object/3d-vision-games.html .  There's a lot more to 3D Vision than just a 2D-to-3D retrofit:  Nvidia is serious about their 3D offerings .

Second:  GarageGames.  This is the ultimate indie gamer resource, and the last refuge of the indie gamer.  GarageGames, through their Torque family of game engines (game-creation software, basically) and their user community, has done more to promote indie gamers, on more platforms, than any other company out there.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Dear Congressman: you can still be fired, you know

To all of the members of the Congress of the United States:

Remember when I told you, on behalf of millions of fed-up Americans, that if you did not resolve this debt-limit crisis by the deadline, we would fire you? Well, you're not out of the woods yet.

The President and key Congressional leaders have hammered out a compromise solution to the crisis. Nobody is happy with it, but everybody can live with it. Our recommendation, the recommendation of WE THE PEOPLE, is that ALL OF YOU ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES approve the solution. Vote for it. Pass it.

It's a real shame that you had to wait until you heard the rumblings of the granite pillars on Wall Street, as the still-fragile US economy threatened to come crashing down again, before you finally got serious about this. You know, you can give all the speeches and press conferences and interviews that you want; you can talk and talk and talk because that seems to be THE ONLY THING YOU ARE ANY GOOD AT, but all that talk doesn't solve the nation's problems - and frankly, we're tired of hearing you talk.

I listened to an interview with a member of Congress on NPR this morning, and all this politician wanted to do was talk. He didn't want to answer the interviewer's questions, and he didn't want to report on how he was participating in resolving this crisis. He just wanted to talk. He wanted to make sure we all heard his side of the story. I just wanted him to SHUT UP AND GET TO WORK.

And that's why we elected you all in the first place. Shut up, roll up your sleeves, get to work, and fix things. That's what WE THE PEOPLE are doing, and you shouldn't be any different.

Oh, one more thing, in case you missed it: we, the people of the United States, are serious about this. And we're seriously pissed. At you.

Monday, August 1, 2011

"There's no Undo button on a shredder"

There's no Undo button on a shredder.
Words said, cannot be unsaid.
Deeds done, cannot be undone.
It takes time and effort to clean up spilled milk.  Or broken glass.
Time is the ultimate independent variable.  You can't speed it up, slow it down, or make it go backwards.
The rich man and the poor man, the saint and the sinner, all get 24 hours in a day.
Some of us get more days than others, some get less.
What matters the most is what you do with the days and hours allotted to you.
And that you can live those days without needing (or wishing for) an Undo button.

1. Undo button on a shredder?  I'm certain the CIA and former KGB can do it, but let's not complicate the poetry, okay?
2. Repentance and forgiveness, applied together, allow us to undo deeds and unsay words to a certain degree, but how many of us are smart enough to truly make use of these divine gifts?