Sunday, 12 April 2015

The amazing world of video games

Video games are amongst the non-essential things that compete for a share of our free time. Regardless of whether they are a good thing or a bad one, two things are quite certain:
'Day 220-the tetris' by ne!l chen
under a CC license
  • some of them - somehow - do manage to get hold of our attention and, thus, of a fair portion of the free time of a wide range of individuals, and 
  • they are the products of a very diverse market, often operating at the world-wide level, with noteworthy and increasing turnover share. 
Regardless of one 's feelings towards video games, their world - and impact - is practically hard to ignore.

[Note: If you happen to be amongst the people that consider video games a waste of time, a stimulus for pointless procrastination or, simply, a counter-productive activity that keeps one away from real life, please, bear me for a while.]

In the not-so-distant past I 've written on how playing games could bring some benefits to real-life situations. I still believe that this is a path that could use some further exploration. With increasingly capable technological means, including faster affordable processors, cheaper and denser memory modules, etc., video games are now available to a very wide variety of devices and platforms. In the '70s video games were restricted to consoles and - maybe - the personal computers of the time. Today, even the relatively humble smartphones can support video games that, in terms of technological or aesthetic qualities, would put almost all the games of the '70s, '80s and - perhaps - the '90s to shame.

However, when it comes to video games, both the concept of the game as well as its implementation are very important factors for the quality of the user experience and, thus, its success within the games ecosystem. If you have been a video game player, even for a little, I 'm sure that you can bring in mind examples, where, for instance, despite the simplicity of the graphics the game was surprisingly addictive or, vice-versa, games where despite their sophisticated graphics and sound they didn't seem to engage the player much.

So what makes a game engaging?

I 'm neither a pro of the corresponding industry, nor a scholar of the topic. But given the diversity amongst the "successful" games, I believe that the key for developers is to settle with the facts that (i) universally acceptable games are rare and (ii) a simple idea well implemented is better than a more complex idea implemented with lots of compromises.

Of course even simple ideas may need complex game mechanics to be properly implemented. However, gamers don't tend to take the challenges of game mechanics into consideration when expressing their criticism :)

Having said that, physics games have made their presence strong over the last few years. These include (corporate and indie) titles such as the Portal franchise, And Yet it Moves, World of Goo, Nightsky, Crayon Physics, the Angry Birds franchise, VVVVVV, etc. Clearly, such games need processing power, which now seems to sufficient for the genre to grow.

At the same time, innovative puzzle games always seem to be appreciated: Braid, where the user can manipulate time amongst other things, FEZ where the user moves in a 3D world of which only one 2D plane is visible at any time, Super Meat Boy, Limbo, Thomas was alone, etc. Really simple concept games such as Threes, 2048, etc. or more elaborate but still simple in concept, such as Candy Crush Saga can be highly addictive, too.

All those count on top of the already established genres (shooters, platformers, adventures, role playing games, etc.), each of which includes numerous successful titles. Once in a while, we even get to see unique-concept games. Minecraft could possibly fall into that category and, being such a unique game, it has found uses and applications that I would find unlikely its developers could have easily imagined when they were putting the game together.

With the increasing popularity of sensor-loaded smartphones the user interface within the game can, itself, be the source of innovation. For instance, in Grabatron the player navigates a flying saucer by tilting the smartphone/ tablet. Some developers have raised the level even higher. For instance, Bounden uses a smartphone to "guide" a couple of players to dance. Although I haven't played that last one, I find the idea amazing, basically because it bridges the digital and the real world and encourages human-to-human contact rather than the opposite that typically video games do. Actually Game Oven, the company behind Bounden, seems to have a legacy on such human-to-human contact-promoting games.

To be fair, a connection between the real world and a game world is not exactly a new idea. Game consoles such as Nintento Wii, Microsoft Xbox with Kinect, etc. have been doing it for quite some time and other, perhaps a bit cruder, solutions existed before them, too. Also game interfaces have been moving towards virtually reality hardware for some time now. Oculus Rift and Visus VR are two of the currently available solutions, promising real game immersion (but could also have other, non-game applications).

The bottom line seems fairly straight forward.

Video games have found a way into our lives. Perhaps following the same path that conventional toys and games are introduced in our lives since its very beginning. And, most likely, they will stay as part of our lives. Small or big, it 's for us as individuals to decide. As the years pass, I do expect some fair amount of idea recycling in the video game world (after all, pac-man was a really successful game!). However, I also believe we 'll be seeing a constant evolution, with the occasional experimentation on innovative concepts and implementations, taking advantage of whatever possibility new technology will brings into reach.

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