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Thursday, 29 August 2013

Our USP? 2D Games!

2D seems to be a bit of a buzzword this week. Obviously, the renaissance of 2D is not a new phenomenon, but two stories in particular have caught my attention and I think are worthy of some discussion. Nintendo's 2DS, with its bold box art statement of "plays all games in 2D!" forming the basis for this post's title, and Unity's intriguing new dedicated 2D tools on the horizon.

Nintendo's 2DS

This was certainly somewhat out of the blue, at least for me. Nintendo have hardly had an easy ride in the last year, and at times appear to have lost the plot a little bit, and at first glance I thought this new piece of hardware was further evidence of marbles being lost. However, looking through the appropriate lens, it does start to make quite smart business sense.

Nintendo's ethos relies rather heavily on winning over parents. This is something that, really, fell over early on with the 3DS as media rushed to focus on the negative aspects of the 3D feature for what was likely a minority of players. A loud minority, but a minority nevertheless. This negative image of a console that might burn poor little Johnny's eyes out did not go down too well with parents, understandably, and potentially shut off a large market segment for Nintendo. This, coupled with the company's unique ability to create truly appalling advertising campaigns that failed to differentiate the 3DS from the rest of the DS family in a meaningful way led to a lack of interest in those looking to upgrade from a DS, DSLite or DSi. 

The 2DS cleverly solves at least one of these issues, and opens up a potential new market sector at the same time. For those wanting to upgrade for the sole purpose of playing 3DS software, but that aren't interested in the 3D feature, this fits the bill nicely. For parents looking to avoid the worries of 3D, this fits them too. Importantly, for parents looking to buy their child their first handheld, the price point of the 2DS is attractive indeed. This opens up the potential for consumers that may not have invested in a handheld device to seriously consider the 2DS. Additionally, the 'slate' form factor does away with the more fragile clam shell design making it much more resilient to trips in backpacks, drops onto hard playgrounds, and the occasional temper tantrum. This is perfectly targeted at the younger gamer.

Yes it looks like a Fisher-Price toy - but considering the likely market for this, that's not a bad thing. It looks solid and potentially more comfortable than a standard 3DS, which I find personally gives me hand cramps after prolonged gaming sessions. 

As is often the case, this new announcement has received the usual round of criticism that seems to accompany just about every hardware announcement in the industry at present. However, as a number of commentators have said of the 2DS, much of the critical feedback is coming from those that are not the intended target for the console. As an entry level handheld for young gamers, with a compatible game library of over 2000 games, this is exceedingly good value. Yes, for the older gamer, the price point places the 2DS close to older models such as the DSLite, but that's fine. The 2DS fills a gap, and with its release alongside Pok√©mon X and Y, I would expect this to sell a fair few units as we approach Christmas. 

Upcoming Dedicated 2D Tools for Unity

I do like Unity3D, its a nice bit of kit and I've used it for a number of different projects both during my time at University and in a number of different Game Jams. However, I have always felt it was missing a trick with the lack of dedicated 2D support. Sure, 2D was entirely possible by using quads with sprites drawn on them, but the set up of the software always felt like it was fighting against you if you wanted to do this. Given the huge resurgence of 2D, this seemed like a real oversight.

Now, along with an announcement of advertising and publishing services (Unity Cloud, and the Unity Games arm respectively), the engine is finally getting full dedicated 2D support. Gone are the days of hacking together your own 2D systems, and installing a plethora of third-party plugins for 2D features. A few of the features coming to the engine include:
  • Dedicated 2D renderer with parallax scrolling support.
  • A 'drag and drop' importer for sprites.
  • Built in sprite animation editor.
  • Built in ability to map multiple sprites into single images to help performance.
Oh, and to top it off, it will have fully integrated Box2D physics.

I'll reserve judgement until the initial beta release of these tools. After all, you can build in as many tools as you want, if they're poorly implemented nobody is going to want to use them. One poor feature could make the entire package taste a little sour (the thoroughly atrocious map editor in Game Maker Studio comes to mind here). However, Unity don't exactly have a history of poor design, so unless they do something quite daft, this could be really, really great news for budding indies looking for a 2D engine with some clout behind it.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Never Played Doom: The Importance of Teaching Games History

This year will be the first intake of fresh-faced undergraduate students, the majority of whom will have not been alive when Doom was released. 

Think about that for a moment. 

Not only Doom, but other key moments in the history of the industry - Dune, Sonic, Mortal Kombat, Zelda, the Game Boy, the NES, hell even the first interation of Solitaire on Windows. 

Now, I admit, I myself was but a twinkle for some of these, and was a spritely six years young when Doom was released, but nevertheless it didn't take me too long to get round to playing it, and a multitude of other key titles, thanks to a wonderfully liberal approach to violent games in my house.

Jump forward to the present day once more and we find students looking to work in the industry that have never played Doom, and have possibly never even heard of the likes of slightly less iconic titles such as Marathon or System Shock. Last year, the percentage of final year undergraduate games research students who were playing such titles for the first time because I was telling them too was frankly, mind-boggling. This is like film students never having watched Citizen Kane, Art students never having seen a Van Gogh, Literature students never having read Shakespeare...

As a recent article on discusses at great length, this generation of gaming has had enormous, widespread impact, bringing games to new audiences, in new formats, through new channels and consisting of a much broader range of game styles and themes. Games are, as much as some may shun such a suggestion, a vital part of modern culture - as valid a media as any other form of creative expression. As such, the history of that medium should not be ignored. This is especially true at a time when the UK ICT curriculum in schools is finally catching up with reality, and realising that teaching programming from an early age is a vital requirement if our future graduates and school-leavers are to have any chance in a rapidly changing job market. These technical skills are one part of the puzzle, but an understanding of the history behind them (this applies not only to gaming of course, but to software development more generally) is also key. One would not attempt to teach any other subject without first providing a solid historical foundation for learning, and games development and research should be no different.

On the Games Technology course at Portsmouth, students are exposed to this history throughout their three years of study, but clearly this is either not enough, or is too little too late. There is only so much history that can be taught on a University course that ultimately needs to provide students the technical skills they need for employment. Games history, as with any other form of cultural history, needs to be interwoven into existing curriculum areas much earlier in a student's education. By this, I don't mean entire dedicated 'Games Studies' lessons in school, but instead, injecting some games-based tasks into other lessons. Writing a self-directed study project? Why not ask students to investigate a particular era of the industry? Incorporate a study of game graphics over time into Art, or Media Studies. Perhaps include a study of some notable game narratives in English or Drama. Even make some of those daft mathematics problems games related - "If Jimmy has 36 save files to back up, and each is 205Kb in size, how many 1Mb memory cards will he require..." - you know the sort of thing...

This might sound like I'm trying to squeeze games into the curriculum from every angle - but these are just a collection of suggestions to make a point - the key thing is exposing students to the history of this cultural phenomenon, preparing those that want to continue to study it and perhaps eventually work in it, as well as educating others that may only have a passing interest (or, indeed as with Shakespeare, no interest whatsoever - sorry Miss...) in order to broaden their knowledge of the world.

Of course, with gaming still a relatively young medium in the grand scheme of things, and still attempting to shake off the 1980s stigma of games and of gamers that is insistent on sticking around like a bad smell, such an approach is not likely to appear any time soon. 

Once again this year I will open the first Games Research seminar with the words "If you haven't played Doom, you are either in the wrong place, or you have some urgent homework to do", and I will see how many sheepish looking individuals I can spot. Ultimately, I do not see how, in the majority of cases, people can work productively in the games industry without a strong understanding of where games have come from. The innovative original idea that you have may very well be innovative and original, but how do you know for certain if you have a gap in your knowledge of games between 1993 and 2002, for example? How will you avoid making identical mistakes that were made by other developers years ago if you don't even know such games or developers exist?

History, in any field, informs current practice. Games development should be no different in this regard. Until this is realised, Further and Higher Education games design and development courses are going to have their work cut out trying to bring students up to speed on the history of the industry they want to work in.