Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Towards Immersion and Accessibility: De-evolution of the Videogame Industry

“Our focus is interactive game play, a whole new way to play, that puts fun back into this business. It allows everybody to pick up and play and isn’t focused on the core gamer.” So said Reginald Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America’s president and CEO, in a 2006 interview with USA Today focused on the upcoming release of the Nintendo Wii.

“Our visuals for Wii will look fantastic, but in the end, prettier pictures will not bring new gamers and casual gamers into this industry. It has to be about the ability to pick up a controller, not be intimidated, and have fun immediately.”

In other words, Nintendo was focusing on accessibility. The company was breaking from the predominant videogame trend of increasingly complicated controllers, increasingly complicated development, and increasingly complicated gameplay.

“We’re going to make it so that everyone who tries the Wii experience talks to their friends and neighbors. It’s going to be a really provocative sight to be seeing teens and 20-years-olds and 40-year-olds and 50-year-olds talking about how different this experience is.”

Of course, with that accessibility came a new level of immersion. Punching a boxing opponent or swinging a tennis racket was no longer performed by the push of a button. Such tasks could now be performed by mimicking the necessary real-life movements.

Nintendo’s strategy of increased accessibility and immersion not only worked, it completely changed the landscape of the videogame industry. As reported by Kotaku, almost 3 million Nintendo Wiis were sold in Japan in 2008, compared to approximately 1 million PlayStation 3s and 300,000 Xbox 360s. Shacknews’ report of 2008 United States hardware sales showed over 10 million Wiis sold, compared to approximately 3.7 million PlayStation 3s and 4.7 million Xbox 360s. Essentially, over the two traditionally dominant gaming markets, Nintendo’s Wii outsold both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 by 4 million units in 2008.

An increase in the number of female gamers has even been attributed to Nintendo’s console. As reported by Forbes, 2 million more girls and women started playing videogames between 2008 and 2009. This marked an increase in the percentage of female gamers from 23% to 28%, largely attributed to the Wii’s ease-of-use and its wide appeal.

In June of 2009 alone, female gamers used the Wii twice as much as the Xbox 360, according to the Nielsen Company.


Follow the Leader

With an increase in accessibility and immersion comes an increase in demographic and market size, and ultimately an increase in profits. Therefore, it is no surprise that Nintendo’s competitors have also shifted gears somewhat in an attempt to improve accessibility and immersion.

Introduced at E3 2009, Microsoft’s Project Natal aims to completely remove the controller from videogaming, in favor of human motion and voice recognition via an RGB camera, depth sensor, and multi-array microphone.

“The controller is a barrier separating video game players from everyone else,” stated Don Mattrick, Xbox senior vice president, at Microsoft’s E3 press conference.

Sharing similar sentiments, renowned film director Steven Spielberg continued, “The vast majority of people are just too intimidated to pick up a game controller… Despite the size of the industry, still 60 percent of households do not own a video game console… The only way to [make] interactive entertainment available to everybody is to make the technology invisible.”

Determined not to lag behind, Sony also introduced its work in motion recognition and control at E3 2009. Emphasizing precision, Sony’s unnamed technology combines the PlayStation Eye, LEDs, gyroscopes, and a multi-directional microphone.

When asked by Edge Online about whether or not the new technology will be more precise than Natal, SCEE vice president of research and development Paul Holman responded, “I think we can just say that it’s very, very precise. People are going to be able to take games in this space forward because of the precision aspects.”

Kish Hirani, SCEE’s head of developer services, continued, “The classic example I give to people is that the most precise thing you can do is write your name using a [piece of] chalk on a blackboard. Try doing that with a mouse and it’s bloody difficult.”

A Brave New World

The trend towards immersion and accessibility is of course, not new in the videogame industry, nor in the entertainment industry as a whole. In an online discussion Warren Spector, developer of renowned videogames such as Thief: The Dark Project and Deus Ex, stated, “The history of media (mass and otherwise) seems pretty clearly a march toward ever more faithful approximations of reality – from the development of the illusion of perspective in paintings to photography to moving pictures to color moving pictures with sound to color moving pictures with sound beamed directly into your home via television to today’s immersive reality games like Quake and System Shock. Is this progression inevitable and will it continue or have we reached the end of the line, realism-wise?”

Given Spector’s dated references to Quake and System Shock, it seems safe to say that the progression towards reality, immersion, and accessibility has and will continue.

In fact, technologies are already being developed to create an experience equal to the Star Trek Holodeck. In conjunction with the entertainment industry, the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies is developing FlatWorld, “an immersive virtual reality environment in which users can walk and run freely among simulated rooms, buildings, and streets.”

Using tactile floor speakers, life-size projectile displays, physical props, and strobe lighting, FlatWorld provides for a completely immersive experience in which the flashes and vibrations of a simulated explosion or lightning storm are actually felt by the user.

Interaction with virtual humans or non-playable characters, a large component of accessibility and sensory immersion, is being improved further via the Human Embodiment project at the ICT. Following three fundamental requirements – believability, responsiveness, and interpretability – the project’s research is aimed at understanding particular human behaviors and the various components that are encoded in those behaviors, such as communicative functions, emotions, and personality.

Granted, much of the work at the ICT is being performed in order to improve the mental and emotional condition of U.S. Army soldiers. However, the crossover of such technology into the entertainment sector is not without precedent. The ICT originally developed Full Spectrum Warrior, a real-time tactics videogame released in 2004 for the Xbox and PC, in conjunction with the U.S. Army.

Sensory Overload

The overall trend in the videogame industry towards immersion and accessibility is fairly evident. However, all this technology begs the question, is immersion and accessibility good for the industry?

Hardware developers and software publishers would surely answer that question in the affirmative. As stated, increased accessibility brings an increase in market size, which in turn allows for greater profits.

Conversely, game developers and consumers might not be so enthusiastic about the future. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, authors Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman present the immersive fallacy. As stated, “The immersive fallacy is the idea that the pleasure of a media experience lies in its ability to sensually transport the participant into an illusory, simulated reality.”

In refuting the immersive fallacy, Salen and Zimmerman assert that engagement and engrossment in videogames are not a result of sensory transport, but instead are a result of play itself. “When we play a game, we feel engaged and engrossed, and play seems to take on its own ‘reality’… But the way that a game achieves these effects does not happen in the manner the immersive fallacy implies. A game player does become engrossed in the game, yes. But it is an engagement that occurs through play itself. As we know, play is a process of metacommunication, a double-consciousness in which the player is well aware of the artificiality of the play situation.”

Salen and Zimmerman continue by warning of the danger the immersive fallacy represents. “The immersive fallacy would assert that… to play the character is to become the character. In the immersive fallacy’s ideal game, the player would identify completely with the character, the game’s frame would drop away, and the player would lose him or herself totally within the game character.”

“A player’s relationship to a game character he or she directly controls is not a simple matter of direct identification. Instead a player relates to a game character through the double-consciousness of play. A protagonist character is a… tool, a puppet, an object for the player to manipulate according to the rules of the game. In this sense, the player is fully aware of the character as an artificial construct.”

“This double-consciousness is what makes character-based game play such a rich and multi-layered experience. In playing the role of Cloud in Final Fantasy VII, the player has a portal into the complex narrative world of the game.”

The Replacements

A large part of the appeal of videogames is to escape reality, to play as a superhuman character. Will advances in motion control and other accessibility-increasing technologies be able to continue that appeal?

Can jumping up and down in real-life successfully translate to superhuman jumps in a game? Can pulling a non-existent trigger in real-life successfully translate to firing an overly large and powerful weapon in-game?

Epic’s Cliff Bleszinski does not seem to think so. Asked by Major Nelson what he thinks of Natal, Bleszinski responded, “Dude, y’know, if there’s any future Gears products [coughs elaborately], it’s not the kind of thing you tag onto a game like that, right?”

“So what you have is the 360 which has captured a lot of the video viewing audience – movies, Netflix – it’s captured a lot of the online gaming, it’s captured a lot of the hardcore games. And you know segue that in. Now you have your yoga program, now you have your dodgeball thing, you have the creepy kid Milo who wants to drown you in the pond – you can do all of it.”

“Will it replace traditional gaming? No, but it’s another amazing way that we can expand the gaming experience to a wider audience and enhance what’s already there.”

While Bleszinski seems confident that newer technologies aimed at increasing sensory immersion and accessibility can co-exist with the more traditional videogame experience, game publishers might view the landscape differently. As motion-control becomes increasingly popular, both inside and outside the videogame demographic, profit-driven videogame companies will naturally move resources away from creating and improving traditional experiences to establishing footholds in the burgeoning markets. In 2008, software giant Ubisoft released 8 titles for the PlayStation 3, 9 titles for the Xbox 360, and amazingly 18 titles for the Nintendo Wii. Are more accessible technologies introducing people to the videogame industry or replacing the traditional experience?

Just a Fad

The question however, might be a moot one. Despite overwhelming hardware and software sales for the Wii, its sustainability remains in question. Over the first six months of 2009, Nintendo’s preeminent console had the lowest percentage of active users among its competitors, according to Nielsen Games. The Wii even trailed behind its predecessor, the GameCube. This has of course been attributed to the influx of casual gamers on the Wii, who by definition do not engage in videogaming as much as their hardcore brethren.

While the trend seemingly brings into question Microsoft’s and Sony’s respective investments into motion recognition hardware, it may have no bearing on the companies’ decision making process. After all, how often a consumer plays a videogame is irrelevant, as long as said consumer is purchasing the software.

Without a doubt, the videogame industry is moving towards hardware and software intended to increase accessibility and sensory immersion. Salen and Zimmerman, in commenting on Warren Spector’s query about realism, assert that sensory immersion has existed as a more cyclical trend culturally. “Spector’s selective history of entertainment technologies offers one reading of the development of media. But there are others. History rarely provides such a linear progression, and in regard to immersion, cultural developments tend to be cyclical… Immersion as a representational goal has gone through a number of stylistic cycles over the centuries. In the last several decades… immersion has in fact become less prominent in fields like art and literature.”

Whether or not this will hold true for interactive entertainment remains to be seen. Can complex real-time strategy titles such as Starcraft exist with the limited control schemes presented by motion recognition technology? Can the mood and atmosphere created in games like Bioshock exist with real-life hand gestures? Can intense combat and firefights like those in F.E.A.R. be accurately conveyed utilizing motion control? One can only hope that quality in gameplay and design remain at the forefront of the videogame industry, instead of accessibility and immersion.

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