Euromix 2

With the recent and long-awaited release of Dancing Stage Euromix 2 in the UK, I decided to have a look around the UK discussion forums for Dance Dance Revolution. A lot of people criticised Euromix 1 for having a dated interface and small song selection, but at the time of release it used the most recent Japanese game engine. Of course, a couple of years later it was dated – but now we have Euromix 2, which once again uses the latest Japanese engine and has an impressive selection of songs that will no doubt propel it to the top of the arcade charts, fuelled by the pocket money of scallies across the country.

It’s always amusing, reading the accounts of DDR players in the UK. Arcades over here are different from those in the US, and now that many arcades have DDR, they’ve attracted gaggles of young teenage, usually female ‘scallies’ who play the same (easy) songs every time and generally get in the way of the more serious players. A few quotes from UK DDR players:

“While half way through Max 300 [a difficult song] some slappers got on the other side taking the piss and swearing at me, then they tried to hit the arrows while I was stepping on them, man, playing any of these dancegames above standard level creates tension with scallies.”

“Damn, I need to find me somewhere I can play properly and not get abused and tormented by a buncha townies.”

“I call them DDR hookers, they’re scavengers, if you start failing you hear,”Can I do it for you?” and then you get “Can I have your last stage?”. Like I paid £1 for some other cheap slapper to play it for me.”

I don’t play DDR that much in the arcades, simply because the nearest one is about 20 minutes drive away. When I do get a chance to play I don’t usually encounter any problems from scallies who are thankfully thin on the ground at the places I go to. Contrast this with my experience in America, where arcades are uniformly three times cheaper than in the UK and the DDR players have skills years in advance of us…

Ipod

I recently bought an iPod when I was in America, and have been very happy with it since – it’s proved its worth on many an occasion, including long car journeys. However, when I upgraded to the latest version of the firmware, which offered various significant new features, there was a drastic drop in battery life. Before upgrading, I could expect to get around eleven hours of play. Now, I’d be lucky to get a few hours.

Unsurprisingly, no-one was happy with this on the Apple iPod discussion boards. With Apple staying characteristically tight-lipped about the unacknowledged problem (they generally don’t comment on such things until they have a solution) the users set to work trying to figure out the cause of the problem.

Through a bit of experimentation and a few dozen user reports, the current theory is that the introduction of a clock and alarm feature in the new firmware is responsible for the bad battery performance; I found that after performing a hard reset of the iPod and then turning the alarm off, my battery life was back to normal.

I don’t think it has anything to do with the clock, myself; the iPod has always had a clock, only it’s never been visible before. The alarms however are new, and if having alarms switched on requires the iPod to regularly check the current time against any alarms set (even if you have no alarms set) then it’s very possible that this is the cause of the problem. As for the hard reset, I have no idea whether this is useful or not – I only mention it because some people have turned the alarms off and they still have bad battery performance – perhaps resetting the iPod is necessary to get battery life back up again.

Rez

Some good news in the lab, amidst all the unending software issues: one of the students may be bringing in Rez tomorrow (the famous self-styled ‘synaesthesia’ computer game) for the interests of ‘research’. Yeah, right. Naturally, I’ll have to demonstrate to the other lab members exactly how much research I’ve done into this important phenomenon…

The Media Lab

In one of the slower periods at the lab, I browsed through the mini library we have here and began flipping through The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT by Stewart Brand. It was absolutely fascinating reading – not because the Media Lab is an interesting place, but because the book is fifteen years old.

The book was written a little after the opening of the Media Lab, which is essentially a technology laboratory looking at the cutting edge of ‘neat computer things’ (my term). It’s amusing to consider that if you stripped the book of dates and numbers, then you’d have both a good description of the current state of technology, and also a good overview of the research the Media Lab is still conducting.

For example, there is talk of electronic books – and we’re now at the stage where they could conceivably be on the mass market within half a decade. There’s talk of interactive TV (which we have) and artificial intelligence natural language processors and parsers (which, yes, we still don’t have). Holography is featured quite heavily, and there are the usual predictions of 3D TV – which I really fail to see the point of.

Between them, Brand and the Media Lab get a lot of things right (e.g. Brand: “I’m inclined to believe that the ideal content for CD ROMs are those multivolume reference works and subscription services…” and MIT: “CD ROM is by definition an interactive medium.”) There’s a nice prediction for personal video recorders which almost exactly mirrors what we have with Tivo, and a discussion about the problems of bandwidth.

Of course, what I found most enjoyable were the predictions that were completely wrong, including the fear that not only might DATs (Digital Audio Tape) overtake CDs, but they could result in mass piracy. About email: “[In the US] if it happens by a provider, it’s going to happen when the banks develop a standard and decide it’s in their interest to pay the costs of getting the terminals out there.” And my favorite, half a gigabit is “effectively, infinite bandwidth.” If only it were so…

It seems to me that many of the problems that the Media Lab was looking at back then have been solved and exceeded, in the form of the Internet and innumerable consumer electronics devices. The problems that haven’t been solved reflect a misunderstanding on the Media Lab’s part of the complexities involved in, say, cheap and effective holography, or that old chestnut, AI.

SemiShake

Whenever I go on holiday, I always think it’d be a good idea to do something spontaneous and unusual. Most of the time though I don’t really bother since there isn’t anyone I know who’s around to watch, and in any case the ideas I have invariably involve a fair amount of risk or money. So on Saturday, after a long visit to San Diego Zoo and the nearby science center, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Semi Spontaneous Shakespeare Society performing in the park and looking for actors.

The Semi Spontaneous Shakespeare Society puts on performances of Shakespeare’s plays every Saturday in Balboa Park, and practically all of their actors simply walk in off the street (as it were). After watching a couple of scenes of All’s Well That Ends Well, I thought it’d be fun taking part and within a few minutes I was being coached through Act IV Scene III as the Second Lord.

The scene was fairly long and the guy I was talking with mainly was pretty good. As for my own performance, I don’t know how that went – the audience didn’t throw anything at me, at least, and there was even a good bit of applause at the end. Having an English accent obviously helped.

A real problem with doing this sort of thing in the UK is that the weather is completely unreliable, and since the point of the society is to get members of the public to participate in a classical production with the minimum of effort, it really does have to be done in a public place like a park with decent weather. Of course, this is no problem for San Diego, which I have long since concluded has the best weather in the world.

DX2

I recently wrote a post in ARGN about the question of interactivity in mmoe-type games. Basically, I say that interactivity with respect to altering the story is overrated.

Warren Spector, the designer of Thief and Deus Ex, both groundbreaking games when it comes to player interactivity, said in Edge that he wanted Deus Ex 2 to exhibit emergent behaviour with its non-player character AI. No more scripted events, he said, we want the game environment set up so that interesting and varied things just happen. And this makes perfect sense to me, to have increased player freedom within levels.

But once the level is over, the interactivity stops. The game doesn’t ask the player, ‘So, where should our hero go now?’ and I think this is so for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s extremely difficult to design in this sort of interactivity beyond the level stage. Secondly, I don’t think it makes for a good story. It makes for a choose-your-own-adventure, and not withstanding the fact that I don’t think many people like that sort of thing (people still go to the non-interactive movies, after all), I stand firm on my belief that pre-written stories tend to be best. Yes, of course you can have a certain amount of flexibility within the story if you’re doing it in real time and trying to respond to players (e.g. RPGs, mmoes) but the overall story should be planned out right from the start.

I was re-reading Microserfs by Douglas Coupland the other day, and it was set during 1993/4. In one section, the group of programmers go to a conference about the different types of games that are being developed. They mention interactive stories, and say something interesting – people want to be entertained, they don’t want to have to choose what happens next in the story. Every time some new genre gets developed, the whole argument about story interactivity is rehashed.

Habitat MUD

Rich emailed in to tell me about a Japanese MUD called Habitat that has over one million users. This MUD was started in 1990 by Fujitsu and upon a cursory inspection appears to have one of the most complex game communities around; Habitat even had its own Yakuza-run casinos! (note that Habitat was originally developed in the US by Lucasfilm in 1987. Also, many of the pages online about Habitat are no longer available, so use the Internet Archive to follow up missing pages).

An MMORPG called Lineage apparently has around four million active players, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the social or political complexity of other much smaller games, so clearly numbers don’t count for everything.

I don’t think that Habitat can be easily compared to recent AI-like mmoes, though. It seems that Habitat is, like most MUDs, driven primarily through interplayer interactions, and that there is no centrally dictated narrative. This is not a criticism; different styles of mmoe serve different needs. However, AI-like mmoes concentrate more on a strong central narrative which players work around, and this provides an altogether different experience to a traditional social MUD. In fact, as several people here have pointed out, they’re quite similar to role-playing games writ large on the Internet.

What was the point to this post, beyond the fact that there’s a cool Japanese MUD called Habitat? It serves to show that AI-like mmoes have a long way to go before they can match the popularity of traditional (and comparatively old) MUDs, and that they are qualitatively different types of mmoes. I have this image in my mind of MUD developers being intricate watchmakers, carefully constructing and tweaking their creations so as to make sure they work as smoothly as possible with the least amount of intervention. Developers of AI-like games would be frantic administrators, attempting to lead artists, authors, designers and actors around the clock in response to players demands – a much more hands-on approach. But this is of course a facile analogy; there’s a broad spectrum of MUDs and AI-like games. Hmm… I can sense a possible article here…

Puzzle Bobble

Six player Puzzle Bobble Online! And it’s completely free! While it’s a bit difficult to decipher the Japanese webpage, it’s easy to find a download link. Given that I’m leaving for San Diego on Thursday and it’s a 7MB download, I might pass until I get back home.