Sunday, November 27, 2005


There is no leash

So, there's Mario, Sonic, Lara Croft and [insert your own videogame icon here], but the games industry - unlike the film world - seldom throws up names from the production side of the operation; the names of the visionaries behind our much-loved games have a lot of catching up to do before they are on par with their filmic counterparts. For the mainstream at least, a big fat EA logo slapped on the box should suffice. There are however some names that do create an air of anticipation and excitement when they emerge from their secret laboratories to give us a (usually rather cryptic) glimpse into their future projects. One such man is Warren Spector, former Looking Glass and Ion Storm employee who has now gone underground, so to speak. The man perhaps best known for the seminal FPS/RPG hybrid Deus EX is now, like many others, is attempting to push the concept of play and interaction beyond what it exists as now. His new company - Junction Point Studios - is:

"...an independent developer of innovative console and PC games that focus on player-driven, improvisational gameplay in the context of strong, traditional narratives. The company's goal is to tell stories with players, not to them, allowing them to craft their own, unique experiences through in-game choices..."

With a distribution deal already set with Valve through their content delivery system Steam, Spector doesn't have to worry about his ideas being compromised by publishers keeping him on a short leash.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


World Usability Day

That's right, this Thursday (3rd Nov) sees the world rejoice as we celebrate all that is wonderfully designed in a huge orgasm of appreciation for the award-winning designers who make it all possible (or something). But are we ready for such a day? Tom Stewart, usability expert and managing director at System Concepts doesn't seem to think so (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4392644.stm). His reasoning is understandable; yes, progress has - and is continuing to be - made in good design, citing the iPod as a classic example. But are we getting ahead of ourselves? Surely we have to achieve more than simply having an intuitive way to select our mp3s on the move? I would agree. The amount of potentially avoidable hastle we as consumers have to bear each day is reason enough to think twice about progress. Maybe World Usability Day is less of a celebration and more of a catalyst; a unifying protest against bad design, somehow awakening the sleepy sub-conscious to rebel against inconvenience. I say yes. Even if only a handful of companies and organisations take note, that is a major plus for consumers as competition will only drive progress in usability further, hopefully creating some kind of usable utopia (again, or something). Maybe then we will be ready for World Usabiltiy Day.

Read more about it here:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4393468.stm

Sunday, October 16, 2005


"...a one-act interactive drama..."

Reading the GuardianUnlimited's GamesBlog, I came accross this article; http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/games/archives/2005/10/13/new_blood_for_the_next_generation.html.
It talks about Facade, a so-called 'one-act interactive drama' whereby the player engages with a virtual married couple while they argue in their apartment. A simple premise, but one that really engages you in a unique experience. The intro from the website gives a clear overview of the ideas behind it:

"Façade is an artificial intelligence-based art/research experiment in electronic narrative – an attempt to move beyond traditional branching or hyper-linked narrative to create a fully-realized, one-act interactive drama. Integrating an interdisciplinary set of artistic practices and artificial intelligence technologies, we have completed a five year collaboration to engineer a novel architecture for supporting emotional, interactive character behavior and drama-managed plot. Within this architecture we have built a dramatically interesting, real-time 3D virtual world inhabited by computer-controlled characters, in which the player experiences a story from a first-person perspective."

Playing through it a few times, I was impressed to see the variations in the dialogue, emotions, body language and narrative that the player can have influence over. Interacting with the world is done through typing what you wish to say and also through a cursor which acts as your virtual hand. Knowing what to say to a virtual couple that are suppossed to be friends of yours is a little tricky on the first play through but once you've seen it through once you'll definately go back to see how even slight changes in your behaviour can affect the action. The situation you are placed in is teetering on the edge of disaster from the start; approaching Trip and Grace's (the said couple) apartment door, you overhear the the usual bickerings of a couple who aren't ready for their guests yet, immediately giving you that familiar feeling of arkwardness. They also try to hide their emotions for your sake, although much of what you say and do affects how long they can keep that up. The game is very clever at making you feel like a real part of a situation, mostly due to the great characterisation of the couple. They are prone to the pitfalls of human emotion to the degree that you will want to be careful about what you say to them as they often twist your words, take great offence or become upset. They are a touchy couple with big problems and making them happy is a genuine challenge, one that I have not succeeded in (yet). Saying something that you don't think will get a response will often suprise you; provided you are not completely irreverrant the game seems to have a very wide semantic field within the context of the couple's life - I became agitated with their arguing and flippantly remarked that perhaps therapy would be a good idea for them and was suprised at the conversational thread that followed. After a couple of run throughs I decided to see what would happen if I played through as a different persona other than myself; I became Mel, their very suggestive female friend, who had obviously come round for more than a drink and a chat. A bit rude and extreme I know, but I wanted to really test the range of reactions and emotions that the couple were capable of. I am pleased to say that that time the couple were very unified in their embarrassment and asked me nicely to leave. Very entertaining!

For anyone who wants to try this out, visit their website at http://www.interactivestory.net/. I suggest downloading it from the Legal Torrents link - the game is 800MB - and the http:// links I tried to get it from timed out before the download was finished. It's well worth it!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Cough, splutter etc

I don't know whether it was my flu-like symptoms making me delerious, but I got to thinking, is there any way that technology might be able to help me out? Pondering this over a strepsil and a cup of hot water, I remembered; NHS Direct. I've just finished diagnosing myself and it turns out that I should "...stop whining and blow my nose." Ok, so I'm not ill enough to warrant use of this service, but it could make the difference between somebody not acting upon symptoms they were unsure about.

The service itself is pretty basic: choose where on your body the problem is from a diagram and answer a series of questions to help you better understand what is wrong. If your questions result in an answer that is deemed 'serious' enough, it will advise you to call the NHS Direct phone service for more comprehensive advice. The only problems I can see with regard to this being an interactive service is that it is too embeded within the website; it feels cluttered and slightly distracting. You are able to click on many links that would take you away from the diagnosis proceedure, which some how seems to lessen the experience. Perhaps if it were a standalone page or Flash file, a more involving and clean looking experience could be created.

http://www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk/

Click 'Self Help Guide' to get to the diagnosis bit

Thursday, September 29, 2005


Flash8 is, erm, great

If you're into film and video, then the new version of Flash should be whetting your appetite too. The ability to make use of alpha channels in video will change the way Flash looks forever, creating a seamless and more attractive user experience at no cost to the interaction elements. With us being interactive designers and all, use of ActionScript in Flash is pretty much unavoidable. Hats off to Macromedia then for the addition of ScriptAssist, a tool that makes the use of ActionScript less of a headache for those of us who consider it some kind of dark art. Also included in the new package is FlashLite, opening up the world of mobile content to regular Flash users.

Donald Norman

Donald Norman; Professor, author, former head of Apple Research Labs and (seemingly) all round nice bloke. His book, 'The Design of Everyday Things' deals with the psychology behind the usage of everyday objects. How do we use something? Is it clear how something should be used? Is it easy to make mistakes? Are these mistakes reversible, and if not, how come it is so easy to make them? One of my favourite sections in the book - To Err Is Human - is concerned with issues around people making errors. Norman reasons that if you use an object or interface in an incorrect manner, then it is not your fault but the failing of the designer. A tough call for us as designers, but a message that we should heed with great enthusiasm. He makes a number of logical observations that should really be post-it noted to any designer's monitor. Don't forget that as a designer, you already know how your product works, hence when you tested it, all was well. Give it to somebody else and... uh oh.

The book is well worth a read, it will open your mind up to concepts and ideas that may not have occured to you before and hopefully make you a better designer. It's an easy read too; informal style, quirky and often amusing... I'll be picking up some of his later titles in the future.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


Picking bones with phones

My Nokia 6250 poses an 'interesting' design concerning it's main navigation control. The control works in a north/south/east/west fashion, with the 'select' function being slightly sunken into the center. Making a selection with this phone can be a nightmare - countless times have I wished to select one option only to move the cursor by mistake and end up with a completely different result; sending a text to the wrong person, deleting a message I just recieved or some similar mishap. It seems like a strange design choice; an over-sensitive navigation control coupled with a very indistinct selection button... perhaps I just have a poorly designed thumb, eh?


Another Nokia example now, this time the 3260. This phones whole styling was very different to other models before and since, but the main interaction element - the keypad - has (what I consider) to be an unnecessarily confusing layout, with six buttons instead of nine. I appreciate the idea but there are more conventional ways of breaking conventions.

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