GFG 2010: The Intertwined Nature of Game Hardware and Game Design, RJ Mical

by Darius Kazemi on January 28, 2010

in conferences,transcript

Here are my raw session notes for RJ Mical’s Game Forum Germany 2010 talk, “The Intertwined Nature of Game Hardware and Game Design.” This is my best attempt at a transcription of what he said. Any mistakes or misinterpretations are mine and mine alone. My comments are in square brackets.

RJ Mical

Today I’m going to talk about the history of the gaming systems that have been out there. In the course of writing this I’ve learned a lot of things I didn’t know about the history of our industry. Then I’m going to relate various genres that are out there to the hardware that spawned them. Then I’m going to show how the demands of devs ended up driving the development of hardware. Last I’m going to attempt to look into the future of hardware and design.

But first, a story. I had an odd experience recently. I was playing Motorstorm on the PS3, a high action driving game. Then shortly after I got into my car and drove down the highway and got the same feeling, like I could run over and smash things! It was funny for a second, until I thought, “I wonder if I crash will I have an extra life?” It helped me remember my passion for how real and engaging games can be and why I do this.

So where did we start? The first games were on oscilloscopes. The first patent for a computer game goes back to 1948 for a missile combat simulation game made by some engineers. But the first real playable game was Tennis for Two in 1958, ran on an o-scope and entertained people visiting the lab. [Willy Higgenbotham, see here for bio and The IBM computers supported something called Plato which ran a bunch of interesting games, and started the process for me of looking into myself to figure out why I found games so compelling.

Soon after we had early arcade systems, Pong etc, which then led to the development of game consoles and full and proper arcade systems (platforms, not dedicated hardware).

The idea of game systems caught on with the public so well that there was a demand for people to have consoles in their own homes. There’s been a history of rising and falling success of home console systems, where the market gets filled with junk and crashes. 1977 and 1984, I got pinched in both of those crashes! The 84 crash was almost devastating for the Amiga computer that we were developing at the time. When the bottom felt out we changed course and turned the Amiga from a game platform to a full computer.

While there were the C64, the Apple II, the Atari ST — the IBM PC was out there but it was not very good for games at first (text only, then modest graphics, and very expensive). Turns out that the PC helped usher in home game consoles more than any other machine — a lot of businessmen would say “I need a PC for the home for work” and then just play games on the IBM PC instead!

In the 1980s we started seeing the early handheld games. Nintendo and Tiger LCD games [man I LOVED Tiger games]. In the middle of the 80s, Mattel brought out Microvision, which was remarkable because it was a simple cartridge-based handheld system, which became the norm for portable systems. At the time this was radical and we were puzzled thinking about what it meant.

But in 84 the industry crashed, and out of the ashes, the first real serious game consoles arose. The NES was the most popular one of all — [speaker interrupts himself for anecdote :) ]

The first time I saw an Intellivision I played it at my friend’s house. The pixels were about the size of my head, but they managed to create the most amazing games. I went home after playing Intellivision games and got out graph paper and started drawing how I would make an airplane or whatever else. As a student today, it’s hard to imagine when you look at a console that it has the kind of capabilities that they do these days. But it was just as engaging in the 70s. It is true that hardware is so superior today that its performance is magnificent, but none of that stuff finally matters because what really matters is gameplay. All the fancy graphics and audio in the world isn’t going to make a core game better. I recommend that everyon get out a piece of graph paper and draw a tank in 64 pixels!

I believe the NES won based on the price tag: low cost and simplicity made it attractive to people.

In the 90s there was a big roar of handhelds that came in. I did an informal survey of my game industry friends, and 100% of them had played Tetris on the Nintendo Game Boy! It was such an important moment seeing such a simple system and such a simple game like Tetris be the greatest thing ever. I still hang on to these simple examples that bigger does not necessarily make better. Mid 90s started seeing simple games on mobile phones. Finally the 3D consoles came, the PlayStation, the N64. This gave us a taste of the amazing performance we would see in the future. I think it was the PS and the N64 that drove developers to start engaging with hardware companies to give us what we wanted to see! I’m leaving out a lot of systems here and I am going to hurt your feelings when I don’t mention your favorite system, sorry. But the real PS vs N64 battle of cartridge vs CD-ROM; kind of like DVD vs Blu-Ray today. Blu Ray has 27 GB of storage and you know that devs will expand to fill 27GB! We used to laugh that games would cost $1M to develop eventually. Nowadays that’s just the animation cost of a single game! $100M to develop a game is no longer outrageous. Sigh. I’m glad I’m not an accountant.

If I were a gambling man I would have put my money on the N64 in the beginning because I would say it would have kept development costs down. In doing my research and talking to friends in the industry, what helped the playstation be successful was that it could support richer content even though it was tough to develop for. I LOVE the N64. I gave so many hours to GoldenEye.

Then in the late 90s, the PC struck back! Where it had been behind the consoles, it started to catch up with advances in hardware to be a contender. Consumers wanted our PCs to be able to have better capabilities so the PC manufacturers encouraged graphics card companies to step it up. That turned around to getting the game companies to develop games to use that hardware, of course we had to upgrade our new pcs, and that was a snowball effect that turned the PC into a major player in the modern game industry. PCs always had the ability for players to customize their content, mod the games, and host your own games with levels you created yourself, sharing with others. It created a sense of community that consoles did not have in the 90s.

This eventually drove consoles to have these capabilities.

In the 2000s, we see more hand helds: GBA, DS, N-Gage (which was never meant to being a gaming system!). And finally the big consoles started using the internet: PS2, Xbox. And don’t forget the PC: it’s still a major contender these years.

In the present, we have more handhelds: DS, PSP, Apple iPhone/iPod. Big horsepower machines make it very difficult to tell the difference between console and PC. I don’t think there’s going to be much of a difference anymore.

When we worked on the 3DO, one of the guiding principles that Trip Hawkins had was that when he was at EA, when you had to develop for the PC you had to develop for so many PC configurations. Very expensive and difficult. What he envisioned was that everyone would buy a 3DO and that would be it. Sony had a different idea and brought out the PS, of course. But at least now with Xbox 360 and PS3, there aren’t a lot of variations anymore. Of course don’t forget Nintendo. I found out to my surprise that the in the beginning when the Wii came out the analysts thought it was dead in the water! Of course the Wii has sales numbers that the 360 and PS3 combined don’t reach. But Nintendo keeps bringing out these little one-cylinder cars that chug down the road and their pockets bulge with money! THe reason it’s successful is because that’s what consumers want: is it because Wii is good enough for most consumers, or is it because of the price point?

Now I get into the real meat of my presentation. I spent a lot of time thinking about the question of why we play games. Perhaps we have an innate desire to organize and groom — Tetris, Populous, SimCity. But I don’t think that’s it. Maybe nurturing? Nah, that’s baloney. We don’t play games to nurture, we play games to make war! Hunting, gathering, fighting. I found out something interesting. Cubs or puppies play fight with each other, which for me is an example of what playing is really about. I was going to use that example and found out that the only animals that have baby animals that play fight are the predators. There’s something there — it’s part of our instinct to play, to learn, to hone those skills. But I think there’s also an element of story-telling. I do love telling stories. And there’s a socializing element as well. We want to eat and we want to be loved. Games taking advantage of the net to allow for communities has become a really important part of it. EverQuest was remarkable for the large number of female players. I think it might have been due to the socializing content, just being able to hang out with your friends. [Hmmm, not really buying much of this. I wonder if he's read some of the theory about this stuff. Talking to him afterward he did say that he maybe pushed the war aspect a little too much!]

I think our need to socialize is going to really influence the direction of hardware in the future. [Now THAT I agree with!]

I was a big board game player when I was young. SSI, air combat games, big boards and tiny pieces of cardboard, I played those for hours. My kids play board games once a year: on FATHER’S DAY! That being my one wish. But why is that? Why are video games more attractive to kids today? It’s interactive, but there’s also no setup, no need to learn the rules ahead of time. You don’t think, you just do, don’t get bogged down in details. The other side of it is, when we played board games we had to use our imagination. We’ve lost the element of pretend play. Is that a bad thing? I’m worried that it is. We’re taking that away from kids, much in the same way kids would rather watch a movie than read the book. I don’t want to sound like an old worried guy — but in fact I am!

The first games that came into existence were war, sports, then war. Missile War (1948), Tennis for Two (1958), Space War (1961). No surprise there. Interesting thing about Space War is that Nolan Bushnell took Space War and turned it into a collossal flop of an arcade game, nobody bought it, they’d already formed the company so they made Pong as a simple alternative. Space War sold 1500 units.

Early computer games. Airflight on Plato (1974). Played on an IBM mainframe. It was originally just a flight sim, but soon converted into a shooter. “This is great, but give us some guns!” I was there and I was one of the guys begging for guns!

Text adventures, D&D-like games, text-based Star Trek games on teletype, etc.

All these early games were just for hobbyists and nerds. The fact that it was clumsy and crude didn’t matter to us, we were having so much fun it was okay. In the beginning it was a rare talent to create these games and get the time on the mainframe! Playing games was technically against the rules of mainframe usage at University.

Once PC came out, anyone could be a programmer to make games. You could get games printed in hex in magazines and transcribe them into your own computer! Distributing games by putting discs in plastic bags, walking into stores, and asking them to sell your game.

But although anyone could program, pretty much nobody was a good designer! So many early games were just bad. There was such a glut of bad games that everyone lost interest and the market died out pretty badly for PC games in the late 70s.

Finally the consoles started roling out in the 70s. Still war and sports and board game reproductions. But they started giving us the opportunity for unusual, different games. I think of it as a golden age as we went into the 80s, when it felt like anyone could think about it hard enough and come up with a brand new genre that nobody had done before! We saw more than a dozen unique genres of game come into existence. Now the storytelling part could kick in. Simple storytelling, even Donkey Kong counts. At one extreme there’s Dragon’s Lair. But what had started out as text adventures and maze-solving puzzles turned into a genre like Pac Man, where you’re trying to figure your way through a maze of obstacles or puzzles in real-time. The platform jumper arrived in the 80s as well!

Sigh, I look at these titles and it makes me so happy. Mario and Zelda: kill bad guys, get around barriers, solve puzzles, collect treasure. Simple and massively enjoyable. Racing games became popular in the 80s. Earlier arcade racing was not very satisfying. Now we get into Road Rash, etc. The racing game took off as a genre.

Also 80s: action puzzle games. Dig Dug, Lode Runner, Jack Attack (Atari 400). Rhythm games began: Dance Aerobics for NES, had to buy peripheral. The start of realizing that you could make additional peripherals to make games more engaging. On the Amiga we had a device called a joyboard, which is a joystick you stand on and tilt! [ie Wii Balance Board] Rhythm today is not only DDR but also Guitar Hero and Rock Band, etc.

What 80s games were not: they were not 3D. Some modest attempts: Battlezone, F-18 Interceptor on the Amiga. Simple flat-shaded triangles. 18 triangles for the jet, 20 triangles for the aircraft carrier.

80s games were not online yet. Not social. Early attempts were mostly text-based (MUDs). Didn’t really occur to the industry until consumers requested it.

The 90s became the consumers’ “give us what we want” decade. We want more realism, better graphics, online multiplayer, portable, etc.

3D hardware was the biggest advance in the 90s. Manufacturers made better hardware for both console and PC. The advanced hardware did spawn a few new genres, but there wasn’t the same explosion as in the 80s. By the 90s it’s died down, and in the 00s it’s been even more sparse for new types of games. 90s brought us the first person shooter. Castle Wolfenstein with textured surfaces. Real-time strategy games, C&C-like games. Finally enough horsepower to take the load off the CPU for graphics so you could use the CPU for real-time game logic.

90s: more detail. We demanded more realism so we switched to CD-ROM for richer media. But there’s a problem with more realism. There’s a real hard limit to adding realism to games. It’s like trying to reach the speed of light: the closer you get the harder it will be to reach that last inch. More interestingly, the closer we get to real, the worse experience consumers are gonna have. [Uncanny valley] The CD-ROM + more memory gave us stuff like Myst. Design-wise it was just a text adventure type thing but with extremely lush graphics.

90s: give us the internet! Give us love, friendship, community! Unreal/Quake created online gaming in a very real way, created whole communities.

90s: portable HW. Surprised that it took off as early as it did, also surprise that it kind of slowed down as soon as it did.

2000s. Now consoles are almost as powerful as PCs. What new genres have come out in the last 10 years? [Is genre innovation really a sign of health? Do we have new genres in film every decade?] Well, we have sing-along games like SingStar, play-along games like Guitar Hero. The Sims took off in the ’00s too.

What about the future?

Alternate controllers will be big. Been around forever: light guns, foot pads for dancing, instrument controllers, motion controllers, microphones, even newfangled things like keyboards and mice you can add to a console :). Possible future tech: augmented vision, haptics. There will be an abundance of controllers now that they’ve proven successful.

In terms of realism, 3D displays are coming at 400Hz or better. They’re pretty astonishing even today with their crude tech: cutting a 60 Hz game into two stereoscopic 30 Hz signals. We’ve pretty much reached CPU speed saturation so there will be lots of multicore processing going on which will affect the way we program games. Students take note: learn good multicore programming, you will have an edge in getting a job. I believe we’ll have better graphics, higher density color. Experts say we can’t perceive better than 24-bit color, but I disagree. We’re going to see more cinematic experiences as part of our entertainment. There will always be room for Tetris, but stuff like Uncharted 2 sets a new standard of excellence. I had the pleasure a week ago of seeing Heavy Rain in its current state, and it is a game that doesn’t give you a fixed storyline, and I really felt like I was living inside a movie. I got badly beaten up at the beginning of the game, and was told that if I kept playing through, those bruises and the scar I got would last with me through the game.

[Okay, I'm stopping here, the rest of the future predictions are pretty much bigger/better/faster with some interesting anecdotes that I'm a little too tired to transcribe. Bigger environments, more nonlinear stories. A lot of the stuff he's talking about like it hasn't been done but a lot of it was pretty much already there in Deus Ex (2000), GTA 3 (2001) just with more power behind them. More merging of technology. Movies/TV/music on game consoles, VOIP, online stores, ad integration. It's sort of interesting to hear these predictions from someone fairly entrenched in the traditional games biz, where the near-future recommendations remind me of things that we were already innovating on 10 years ago.]

Will portables replace consoles? I hope not. I do want big complex games.

Will consoles replace PC? We’re almost there. I don’t think they will but I woudln’t mind.

Someday will I have a jack wired into my nervous system allowing my body to wither away from inactivity while entertainment is projected directly into my brain? MAN I HOPE SO! [Laughter] Seriously I do think we’ll eventually get there, and it will be creepy, creepy day.

Q&A Session

Q: What do you think of services like OnLive and Gaikai that are trying to make consoles obsolete?

A: Oh, I forgot about the cloud computing systems! Instead of buying a console you buy a box that plugs into a remote server farm that delivers the experience to you. In theory they keep their hardware updated so you don’t have to. I think it’s brilliant, but I’m not convinced that it’s actually going to work. In both cases the demos I’ve seen were in a pretty controlled environment where the servers were a few short miles away from the console. And it was over a dedicated ethernet line. There wasn’t any latency, and it felt great, but I can’t imagine it working in a real internet environment. I do wish them all well!

Q: You also didn’t mention new motion controllers from Sony/MS. What about new genres for these controllers? Will there be a revival of the RTS due to this, or new genres?

A: [RJ works for SCE Worldwide Studios so it's touchy for him to discuss this stuff right now, so he's kind of dodging the question.] Wii has proved motion controllers work. I’ve seen at least one very good PS3 sixaxis bowling game. There’s another game under development where you can use two controllers to do a bow and arrow effect [Wii Sports Resort, Twilight Princess did this, yeah?]. But I don’t remember what Sony has said so I don’t know what I can say or not. Some of the tech I’ve developed for Sony at Worldwide Studios gets put into the SDK for the PS3. We’re a separate org under the Sony label so I get to see 3rd party games in development. Seen some interesting sports combat games, some interactive motion controller 3D puzzle games, so there are some new genres. Some existing genres are being reworked to use motion controller. FPS can work really well.

Q: [This guy seems to be asking a question founded on wrong data. Although he's pointing out that major consoles are basically graphically inferior PCs with horrible copy protection, which is kind of an amusing viewpoint!]

A: I think you’re right that the line between PC and console is going to shrink, and I personally don’t care about who “owns” the living room. You’re right that you simply can’t make hardware for less expense than they’re making it now. We’re going to see multicore GPUs in addition to multicore CPUs, but the price will keep going up while PC prices will keep going down. I think it would be a good idea if I didn’t have to make a disctinction between my PC and my console. The other part that you didn’t mention in your question which is significant is that we’re running up against the heat limits of advanced computing components. I saw a display in the lobby of the sony building in japan, and they have a display where they break apart the PS3 and show you the parts. The most astonishing thing you learn is that fully half the inside of a PS3 is for heat dissipation. Heat sinks, fans, etc. That is going to be a huge limiting factor for the next generation, especially from a price perspective.

Q: Do game designers or consumers have more influence over the direction of the industry?

A: It used to be just the game designer, but from my little experiences at Williams Electronics where I was involved in game design, it was not a question of “what are people looking for” but “what can we dream up that people will like.” Now game designers are highly conscious of what consumers want. I know at least two teams that playtest their game concepts before they even start developing a game as part of the approval process. We’re just going to see more of that. But I don’t want to ever take away the small shops and their innovation. You get Fl0w and Fl0wer from ThatGameCompany which are amazing and are built more with the old philosophy of what players might find fun, not what players are asking for. And they are great games!

Q: [This isn't really a question. I hate this shit. Please do not espouse your philosophies in fake-question form.]

A: Guitar Hero is a fresh take on the rhythm genre, Max Payne was a fresh take on the FPS, so even though you might be working in an existing genre there are still places to innovate.

Q: You’ve talked about the difficulties of dealing with cooling more powerful hardware, and it’s hard to make money on selling the hardware. What does that say for the PS4 and its release? Is it going to be a later release so you can get more money out of the PS3 for the next 5 years? [The emcee is asking this question. This is a question that RJ cannot answer. What the hell.]

A: I don’t know exactly what the engineers are working on, but I do know they’re always inventing new stuff. I do know that I personally am hoping that whatever decision Sony makes is a decision that is way out in the future in terms of schedule because it’s just now that devs are getting comfortable with the current generation of hardware!

{ 1 comment }

Mike Caprio January 29, 2010 at 12:49 pm

There is a strong correlation between games and war and aggression in general. I’ve been reading The Selfish Gene, and one of the things highlighted in an early chapter is aggressive behavior, and how contests evolved where strategic behaviors routed killing competitors into merely staging staring / bluffing contests or matches of strength (as killing a competitor isn’t necessarily the best path to success, because that competitor could eliminate other competitors for you).

Games and sports seem to me to be the ultimate abstraction of this innate competitive behavior. Winning feels great because evolution rewards us when we win. There are cooperative gaming scenarios as well, but ultimately even local cooperation is still ultimately tied to some larger scope competition with something (nature, a bigger enemy, time, etc.) or figuring out how to marshal resources or what have you.

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