Archive for the 'GM Free' Category

The Uncanny Valley

Looking back at screenshots of some of the original video arcade games, and comparing them to the increasingly realistic imagery of games on the latest generation consoles, it is difficult not to be amazed at how much the visual appearance of the games has evolved. The advances in both computer hardware design and software development mean that today’s games hold the promise of photorealistic views in the not too distant future. But is this desirable? (see for example: Videogame Aesthetics: The Future).

Even animated movements themselves are becoming more realistic, through the use of motion capture techniques (as described in Realistic Movement with Motion Capture). However, when the motion capture to animation technique is not quite right, then the resulting animation can feel very off-putting.

For example, in the CGI movie Polar Express, audiences were left feeling uncomfrtable by much of the animation, as this post by animator Ward Jenkins describes: The Polar Express: A Virtual Train Wreck (conclusion).

This effect has come to be known as the uncanny valley.

Taken from:

The still unproven “uncanny valley” effect was coined by Japanase roboticist Mashahiro Mori, based on his observations about peoples’ emotional response to robotic or animated representations of living things. The claim goes that we are likely to have an increasingly positive emotional response to a representation as it becomes increasingly lifelike until something ‘not quite right’ (i.e. unnatural, or ‘uncanny’) comes to our attention, at which point we become negatively disposed to, or even repulsed by, the object in question.

Read this article on The Uncanny Valley by Masahiro Mori (1970) Energy, 7(4), pp. 33-35 [Translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato].

Have you ever experienced the uncanny valley effect, for example, when watching a photoreaslistic computer generated animation?

(See more “motion portrtait” animations here: Motion Portrait; or a full screen version of the above animation that follows your mouse cursor…)

As gamemakers pursue photorealism, there is the danger that their game characters will put off potential players if they stray into the uncanny valley, as Clive Thompson warns in his 2005 Wired magazine commentary “Monsters of Photorealism”.

For example, in Looking at Movies: The Uncanny Valley, an essay critiquing Polar Express, as well as other CGI movies, from the perspective of the uncanny valley, we get the following observation:

When applied to special effects in movies, the implications of the uncanny valley are clear: if a filmmaker strives for a very high level of verisimilitude in computer-generated characters, they may risk taking the humanlike resemblance too far, causing viewers to notice every detail of the characters’ appearance or movement that doesn’t conform to the way real human beings actually look or move. Our emotional response to these “almost human” characters will therefore be unease and discomfort, not pleasure or empathy.

If the filmmaker decides instead to render characters in a more stylized manner, clearly signaling that they are not supposed to appear “almost human,” we will notice, paradoxically enough, all the aspects of their appearance and behavior that resemble human beings, and we will be more likely to perceive these characters as more complex and more “human” characters than the characters that are designed to look nearly human.

We can extend the concept even further to acknowledge that, when an animated object or a creature that is clearly not human is shown onscreen exhibiting certain human traits or emotions, we may actually feel more sympathetic to that creature than we do to overly detailed “human” animated characters.

James Portnow takes a similar viewpoint with respect to games in this article: GAME DESIGN: The Uncanny Valley.

As computer animations – and robots – get ever more realistic, we naturally get more opportunities to test out the validity of the Uncanny Valley Hypothesis…

To what extent do you think that the uncanny valley is a plausible theory? In what ways do you think that computer games may be susceptible to the uncanny valley effect? If computer game characters can wander into the uncanny valley, so what?

See also: In Search of the Uncanny Valley, F.E.Pollick, published in USER CENTRIC MEDIA, Lecture Notes of the Institute for Computer Sciences, Social Informatics and Telecommunications Engineering, 2010, Volume 40, Part 4, 69-78, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-12630-7_8

Friday Fun #12 Video Storytelling

Earlier this week, I posted about machinima, the creation of short movies using 3D game engines as a stage. Creating an effective piece of machinima requires skills in video storytelling, as well as directing (insofar as you can) and filming the action in the game environment.

So in this week’s Friday Fun, why not have a go at some video storytelling?

One of the easiest ways to get started is to use something like the Dr Who Trailermaker, which allows you to cut together various scenes from Doctor Who, as well as adding music and sound effects.

You can also share your creations, so if you do make a trailer, why not post a link back here? ;-)

If you’re not into Dr Who, then why not have a go at a Star Wars movie mashup instead?

If filmmaking is not your thing, and you’d rather just play a game, then how about trying out one of the ‘adventure game’-like interactive stories on the Penguin “We Tell Stories” interactive fiction site?

- Fairy Tales
- The (Former) General In His Labyrinth

Have a good weekend :-)

ARGs, Serious Games and the Magic Circle

In “Alternate Reality Games: What Makes or Breaks Them?“, a blog post reviewing the rise of alternate reality games (ARGs) (see ARGs Uncovered for an into), Muhammad Saleem suggests several characteristics that a successful ARG should embrace:

- Storytelling or narrative
- Discovery/deciphering and documentation elements
- Cross-medium interactivity
- Blurring the lines between reality and fiction

To what extent do you agree with this view? If you are familiar with an ARG, write down how the game conforms to Saleem’s list. If you aren’t particularly familiar with an ARG, see if you can identify features of the ARG Perplex City that correspond to the categories listed above. To what extent do you think these “essential characterstics” apply to any digital game, ARG or otherwise?

The post also describes some ‘features’ that the ARG should avoid if it is to be successful:

- Lack of interactivity, too linear
- Lack of a reward
- No instant gratification
- Too difficult
- Same old game, different name
- Too scripted, too commercial

To what extent are these ‘negative features’ likely to detract from the success of any digital game, ARG or otherwise?

One popular refrain of the actors/characters in an ARG is that “this is not a game”. This reflects the fact that the game is being played out like a piece of invisibe theatre in the real world. At the same time, the actors act out the game narrative in a way that encourages audience participation, providing interaction with the game as far as the audience member is concerned, even if the actual direction of the game is largely scripted and tightly plotted ‘on-the-inside’.

How do you think the ‘this is not a game’ view relates to the idea of the Magic Circle, described by Salen and Zimmerman as “the boundary that defines the game in time and space” (see Getting Philosophical About Games)?

In the section “Community Formation and the Magic Circle” from the Game Studies article The Playful and the Serious: An approximation to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, Hector Rodriguez comments thus:

Game designers aiming to highlight trust and suspicion sometimes take the radical step of rendering the boundaries of the magic circle deliberately ambiguous. Phone calls or text messages received in the middle of the night may be real calls for help from a friend or part of the game’s conspiracy. Well-known examples include the Electronic Arts game Majestic and the plot of David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game. This uncertainty can generate experiences that resemble philosophical scepticism about reality. The designer becomes the equivalent of a Cartesian evil genius capable of controlling, and potentially deceiving, our sense of the distinction between reality and make-believe. From the designer’s standpoint, the players become toys to be played with; the game designer is the only player who for sure knows where the boundaries of the magic circle are.

A footnote in the same article elaborates further:

[6] The fuzziness of the magic circle is not restricted to children’s play. Recent scholarship on “expanded” or “pervasive” games has highlighted three techniques that subvert the magic circle (Montola, 2005). First of all, the location of the game can be ambiguous, uncertain or unlimited, so that participants may not be sure about the place where the game is played. Secondly, the temporal boundaries of play need not always be sharply demarcated from the rest of daily life. A game may, for instance, lack a clear-cut beginning or end; or its duration may extend until it coincides with a player’s entire life, even span several generations, so that its temporal boundaries become effectively irrelevant. Thirdly, games can blur the boundary between players and non-players by bringing “outsiders” into its sphere.

Serious Games and the Magic Circle

Just as ARGs make use of the ‘real world’ to roll out the game, we have also seen how real world situations can be ‘folded back’ into digital space, opening up the possibility of playing ‘real world’ games in virtual worlds (for example, The World of Serious Games).
To what extent do serious games require the player to adopt the view that whilst they are playing a game (and so insulating themselves from the real world by entering the magic circle) they are also not playing a game, in the sense that their performance in the game world could actually be replayed ‘for real’ in the real world, maybe as part of their job?

The Virtual Worlds Universe

In Have You Got a Second Life?, I introduced the 3D social network Second Life, and hinted that this was just one of many such virtual worlds.

To see just how big the universe of virtual worlds is becoming, the Association of Virtual Worlds recently published a directory describing over 250 virtual worlds: The Blue Book: A Consumer Guide to Virtual Worlds.

Download a copy of The Blue Book: A Consumer Guide to Virtual Worlds. What categories does The Blue Book use to classify each world? For a consumer guide, what other information would you find useful to know? Identify three or four combinations of category that interest you, and see if a virtual world is listed that matches those categories.

Several other sites also offer comparison charts for the increasing number of virtual worlds that are now in existence. For example, provides a comparison matrix of fifteen or so of the larger virtual worlds.

Identify two or three different scenarios in which it might be appropriate to visit a virtual world (for example, a business meeting, a school ‘geography field trip’, or a ‘night on the virtual town’). To give you an example of how such worlds might be used in business, for example, read this article from Business Week: The (Virtual) Global Office.

Now identify a virtual world that looks like it might provide an appropriate setting for each activity. Now visit each virtual world (or at least its website). In what ways do the worlds meet – or fail to meet – your expectations? Feel free to write a post about the scenarios you chose, the criteria you used to select an appropriate world, the worlds you selected (and why), what you expected to find in those virtual worlds, and how those worlds met your expectations. If you can find a demo video, or video review, of the virtual worlds in question, embed it in your post.

How should I behave in a Virtual World?

As with all social situations mediated by communication technologies, there is often a right way and a wrong way to behave when entering a virtual world.

Many organisations have a code of conduct that regulates their employees’ behaviour. Suppose that you work for an organisation that makes use of 3D virtual worlds. Write down five areas of personal behaviour, presentation or activity that might be addressed by a code of conduct for working in virtual worlds.

Now read the IBM Research IBM Virtual World Guidelines. Did you identify similar issues in your own list?

Game Reviews from a Game Design and Development Point of View

Read any typical game review, and it’s quite likely that it will provide you with a quick summary of the plotline or storyline of the game, a comment on its playability and the actual gameplay (as well as how easy or difficult it may be), mention of any improvements over previous versions of the game, a quick take on the graphics and fluidity of the animation, and maybe a recommendation (or not) about whether you should go our and buy this game, NOW! And it will probably have a rating as well (5 stars, or 3 out of 10, for example).

These reviews serve a useful purpose, of course – they help provide consumers with a ‘third party’ recommendation about whether or not to purchase a particular game – but in the short form of 200 words or so, (which isn’t a lot of words!), there’s not a lot of space to provide a detailed critique of the game…

So it’s quite rewarding to find an ‘unreview’ that takes the time to “examine[s] the game design of [a] title and consider[s] some of the implications that these design choices had on the game’s audience”, as the post Super Mario Galaxy (from the Only a game blog) does.

The post assumes some knowledge of the game, so if you haven’t seen or played it, watch the following video review:

Read through the “review” (“Super Mario Galaxy“), paying attention to the following questions as you do so; feel free to search the Only a Game blog, or use the Digital Worlds custom search engine, to explore the questions a little more deeply.

  • What genre of game is Super Mario Galaxy? “Rushgames” and “virtual tourism” are also mentioned in the post in this context; what are the defining characteristics of “rushgames” and “virtual tourism”?
  • What is “kinaesthetic control” and how does it affect the gameplay?
  • What camera viewpoint is used in the game? What is a camera viewpoint anyway?
  • To what extent is two-player gaming supported in Super Mario Galaxy?
  • How is the notion of “lives” used in the game, and how does this compare to a normal use of character lives? What is the “normal” use of character lives in a game, anyway?

Another take on the “Super Mario Galaxy” development story can be found on the website, where there are a series of interviews with the Super Mario Galaxy development team.

  • According to the director of the game, what new move was created for Mario, and how is it initiated with the wiimote controller?
  • How was the music for the game recorded?
  • How does Shigeru Miyamoto, who was in charge of the design of Super Mario Galaxy, describe the gameplay of the Co-Star mode?

If you have a Nintendo Wii console and fancy trying out the game, you can find “Super Mario Galaxy” on (game guide); there are also several walkthroughs available – for example, check out this

Have You Got a Second Life?

Of all the 3D virtual worlds that can now be found on the internet, Second Life is arguably the one that has received the most popular press attention.

If you have ever been in to Second Life, then you will be familiar with the sort of things it can offer. If you have not visited Second Life – or indeed, never been into a 3D, avatar populated immersive world – here are a couple of quick tastes of what life is like “in-world”.

The first is a presentation about Second Life that has been uploaded to the social presentation sharing SlideShare – “An Introduction to Virtual Worlds: Second Life and Beyond. Even if you have been into Second Life, quickly flicking through the presentation may point out some features about it that you didn’t notice at the time.

The second is a user-generated movie about Second Life that I discovered YouTube…

How does Second Life differ from 3D worlds like Google Earth or Virtual Earth? How does it differ from 3D game worlds? In your opinion, is Second Life a game?

Now watch the following clip about the game “The Sims” (IGN Review) – what similarities and differences are there between Second Life and The Sims?

The most obvious difference to me is that in The Sims the player takes on a third person, God-like role, controlling the actions (to some extent) of their player characters, whereas in Second Life, the “player” becomes (or actually is) the avatar.

In the Sims, the game world is a self-contained fiction: the aim of the game, such as it is, is to help the player characters live out their lives in the Sims world. To a certain extent, there is an element of ‘progression’: players must look after characters within the game world that are dependent on them and help them keep up with Joneses – get a job, and education, a house and so on (every time I have tried to play the Sims the session has ended with my characters’ house burning down!)

In contrast, Second Life just provides a canvas for creativity and social interaction – Second Life is an online world (in contrast to the desktop or console bound Sims) within which you can chat and socialise with other people from all over the world.

Want to know more about Second Life?

We’ll look at worlds like Second Life again in later posts, in the contexts of community and making money in virtual worlds…

In the meantime, the following video replays a Google tech talk, recorded in March 2006, featuring a presentation from Glimpse Inside a Metaverse: The Virtual World of Second Life. Even though Second Life has moved on since the presentation was recorded, if you’re interested in hearing about Second Life from the insdie (including some insights about the techie stuff!) it’s well worth listening to:

If you want to try Second Life out for yourself, you can find it at Second Life – If you would rather read about Second Life second-hand, then there’s always the book Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds, by Tim Guest!

However, as we’ll see in further posts, there are plenty of virtual worlds other than Second Life, many of them popular with different age groups (Second Life is largely for the over-30s!). So don’t feel as if you have to join Second Life to experience a 3D virtual world – as you’ll see in the next post on this topic…

3D Worlds Fitness Test/Checklist

Going through some old notes I’d collected about potential ideas for exercises in 3D worlds, I came across the following checklist I’d scribbled down at some point that seemed like good things to know about when exploring a 3D digital world.

If you can think any other ‘need to know’ skills, please add them as a comment.

Can you:

  • zoom in and out;
  • tilt the view to a desired perspective;
  • rotate a view;
  • navigate to a particular location;
  • search for a particular location;
  • bookmark a particular location;
  • add an information layer in a “mirror world”, such as one of the following:
    • Google Earth;
    • NASA WorldWind;
    • Virtual Earth 3D.

When it comes to controlling 3D avatars in a digital world, can you move around as easily as you can in the real world?

Give yourself 5 points if you get the joke ;-)

Our Heavens in 3D…

For the sake of completeness, as much as anything, I thought I’d just complement the Our World in 3D… post with a brief reference list of interactive online media and desktop applications that you can use to explore the night sky, and the objects contained within it.

There are several applications around that let you observe the night sky as if you were on earth, as well as letting you explore it in a 3D navigational way…

Visit one or two of the online applications, or download one of the desktop applications. To what extent do you think that the power of interactivity brings the idea of the scale of the universe home, compared to descriptions one might find in a book, for example?

[The videos referred to in this post are available in the compilation Splashcast video show "Our Heavens in 3D" on the Digital Worlds Splashcast video channel.]

Our World in 3D…

In the series of posts on alternate reality games (ARGs), we saw how ARGs could make use of ‘real world’ technologies to help engage the player in a game , by creating “real”, fake company websites, for example, or contacting the player, in context, via SMS.

In this post, I’d like to briefly explore the extent to which the real world is using user interfaces that are reminiscent of 3D games to recreate a version of the real world in virtual space. To set the scene, if you aren’t familiar with 3D services like Google Earth to Virtual Earth, might I suggest you have a quick read of Friday Fun #9 Gaming in Google Earth and Virtual Earth 3D and follow a couple of the links from that post, before reading this post any further…

You might also care to listen to Building a 3D Model of the Globe, a presentation from 2006 by John Hanke & Brad Schel, the Google Product Directors at the time.

Or watch this demo of 3DVia 3D models in Virtual Earth…

Recreating the world…

Although only a few years old, the origins of Google Earth are already confused by the mists of time. In Notes on the origin of Google Earth, Avi Bar-Zeev of research and development consultancy Reality Prime, and one of the people involved in the development of the software application now known as Google Earth, writes: “So we seem to have a few diverging memories on the origin and motivation behind Google Earth. One co-founder says it was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. One co-founder says it was the famous Powers of Ten flip-book and movie.”

Whatever the origins of Google Earth, the pace with which it – and other tools of its kind – have been developing means that it may not be too long before it may take on the role of a virtual world. Avi Bar-Zeev again (Google’s Virtual World, Redux): “GE already is a virtual world. It’s a virtual earth. It has all of the features of a virtual world (spatiality, point of view, presence, information modeling), minus a few we’ve come to expect from a game or socially-oriented space (seeing yourself, seeing other people, and directly interacting tog[e]ther). … The thing about GE is that it’s a so-called ‘mirror world.’ The whole point was always for GE to accurately and compellingly reflect information about the real world.”

In that article, what does Avi Bar-Zeev claim are some potential applications of using Google Earth as a virtual world? Five points to the first person to post a list of them back here as a comment ;-) What other applications can you think of that may be missing from that list? If you think of any, post them back here as a comment, or maybe write a blog post summarising the original list and then adding your ideas for further applications too.

It has been possible for some time to import ‘artefacts’ (or objects) into Google Earth and Virtual Earth. But whilst objects in Sketchup Warehouse may have been intended for use in Google Earth, ‘real’(?!) virtual worlds, they can also be used in real unreal virtual worlds(?!), as this example from Scenecaster shows:

Support for Google Sketchup Warehouse models has also been announced for use with the Multiverse virtual world platform, as this CNET article describes: Google tools to power virtual worlds.

What is the Multiverse “Architectural Wonders” project described in the CNET article? The article itself was recent some time ago (can you find out when) and attracted quite a lot of attention when it was announced. See if you can find out what the current state of the project is, whether it was dropped, or whether it appears to have transformed into something else, and comment back here with the latest news you can find…

From 2D to 3D

Creating 3D models ‘by hand’ is not the only way of generating them. Traditional 2D photos can now be processed so that “3D views” of them are possible, hinting at a future where you’ll be able to import a model of your house into a mirror world simply by photographing it…

Unfortunately, the Fotowoosh website is no longer available – it will be interesting to whether it reappears as a fully fledged service over the coming months…

When People Roam the Virtual Earth…

Google Earth and Virtual Earth already provide the opportunity for anyone to explore a virtual 3D version of many real world cities. To what extent do you think the experience would be different if instead of the current ‘any point you like’ birds eye view camera positioning, the camera view was over the shoulder of your own personal avatar? How and why do you think the experience might feel different?

If you are interested in knowing some of the technical details behind an early implementation of Google Earth, How Google Earth [Really] Works tells the tale from the horse’s mouth…

If you did listen to the Building a 3D Model of the Globe presentation, see if you can find out how much has Google Earth moved compared to the description of Google Earth given in the presentation. What predictions were made in the presentation about the future of Google Earth (as stated in 2006) and to what extent has the current version of Google Earth met, fallen short of, or exceeded those predictions?

[The videos from this post can be seen in the "Our World in 3D" show on the Digital Worlds Splashcast video channel.]

Perplex City Exposed

Moving on from ARGs Uncovered, which reviewed the IGDA white paper on Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), this post provides you with an opportunity to find out for yourself a little more about the design of the first Perplex City ARG.

First up is a presentation by Adrian Hon (who you may remember we’ve come across before…), of the game development company Mind Candy, which created the original Perplex City ARG as well as its successor….

To set the scene, you may like to read a little bit of background about the game by reading this review of Perplex City… The Wikipedia entry for Perplex City also provides a brief summary of the game.

So now you sort of know what it is, let’s here about the game from the inside: “Alternate Reality Games and Perplex City Season 2″, by Adrian Hon (Google Tech Talks)

Whilst you are listening to the presentation – or maybe afterwards? ;-) – you may like to visit the Perplex City Season 1 retrospective website.

One of the great features of this site is an archive of some of the design notes used when creating the game (Perplex City Season One Story Planning).

You may notice that the game was storyboarded using a series of flowcharts to describe the order of events that were planned for the game. Flowcharts can be used to provide a very concise summary of the key actions and decision points that must be negotiated in a game in order for the story to progress. They can also reveal the complexity of a game’s design at a glance!

The site also contains a brief history of the evolution of the Perplex City map that provided a solid foundation for the game.

You can still explore an interactive version of the Perplex City map at



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