onsdag 14. desember 2011

Käthe Kollwitz

The other day I grabbed a friend of mine and we went to see the german expressionism-exhibition in the New Walk museum. We took a look at the contemporary art and the picasso cheramics as well, but we were there for the expressionist-paintings. I am incredibly excited to have friends who actually want to go look at art exhibitions with me and can do so without going "well I could've done this myself, this is stupid," but I digress. 

The exhibtion was much smaller than I expected, and badly lit. It featured both Jawlensky and Kandinsky, but I was the most excited to see the Käthe Kollwitz-drawings. 

Her drawings depict haunting grotesqueness and fear, but also tenderness and love, a mix I find fascinating and painful. Her strong use of value contrast is something to study as well. 

This one was my favourite at the exhibition:

mandag 5. desember 2011

Personal gaming history

My earliest memories of playing any sort of video game, is playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on my cousin’s Sega Genesis, and Rayman on our home computer. Both were incredibly mesmerising. There was a feeling of adventure and the potential of unexplored worlds that playing in the woods by our house just didn’t provide. 

My parents were (and they still are) sceptical of video games, so my video game experiences from then on were mostly playing games at my friend’s place on days with bad weather (of which there are many where I come from). We took turns playing Spyro the Dragon. Then we would go outside when the weather was nice and pretend we were Spyro the Dragon. 

 After nagging my parents about a GameCube for a long time, my parents, unaware of the difference, bought my brother and me an Xbox for Christmas when I was around 12. It wasn’t the right console, but it didn’t bother me at the time, and in retrospect I am very happy about this. It allowed me to experience others games than just Nintendo-franchises. 

The first game I played on the Xbox was Munch’s Odyssey, and I absolutely loved it. The sometimes quite frightening world and storyline and the occasional very grim settings were balanced nicely with more colourful levels, quirky, somewhat gross characters, slapstick humour and fart jokes. It was just the right amount of serious for me at the time. The game paints a harsh caricature of capitalists that I find very funny now, though the 12 year old me did not understand that back then.

Another memorable game for me is Anachronox, a turn-based science fiction RPG with cyberpunk and film-noir-elements. At points it seemed almost like a parody game. The playable characters include a miniature planet, an impudent robot and a depressed superhero. The story opens with private detective Sylvester ”Sly Boots” venturing into the slums of the planet Anachronox to find work, and the story rapidly evolves from there and takes us to several diverse alien planets as Sylvester uncovers something that threatens the entire universe. The game is quite massive, and was supposed to be split into two parts. Unfortunately the developer (Ion Storm) was shut down a month after Anachronox released, the game ended with a major cliffhanger and we’ll never know how it ends. This game is pretty terrible. It has horrible graphics and the gameplay isn’t particularly good, and at points it is confusing and exasperating to find your way around, but for some reason I absolutely love this piece of junk. 

I can’t talk about my personal gaming history without mentioning Beyond Good and Evil. This game features fun gameplay alternatives to your usual action-adventure. You play as photo journalist Jade, hired to uncover a conspiracy. The game takes an unexpected turn as the bad guys kidnap Jade’s uncle P.J (I doubt they are genetically related as he is an anthropomorphic pig), who before that point has served as a travelling companion and you’re given plenty of time to become fond of the character. Suddenly the conflict becomes personal, which makes the story a whole lot more engaging. Beyond Good and Evil is the first game that moved me emotionally and where I actually cared about what happened to the characters. I almost cried at three different points in the game. 
You also get to drive around in a hovercraft and a space-ship, which is super-awesome. 

Though I am not sure how fashionable I find green lipstick to be.

Bioshock is one of my absolute favourite games on the current gen consoles. Before Bioshock I had never really played any first person shooter games at all, and I am still a bigger fan of third person games with a defined main character than a faceless character for the player to project himself into. I understand the point of this is to make the game more immersive, but I feel that a defined character opens for a more character-driven plot. 
But I digress. 
What I love about Bioshock is the setting. I absolutely adore art deco, and a derelict underwater art deco city might just be the best thing I’ve seen ever, but the storyline is what makes Bioshock so engaging. I found Bioshock very hard to put down because I wanted to know what would happen next. 

Last, but not least, I must mention Pshychonauts because it’s my absolute favourite game ever. This game features a psychic circus-boy, and allows the player to explore the surreal mindscapes of several different characters, helping them with their ”mental problems” by solving puzzles and defeating nightmares. What I love the most about Psychonauts, however, it the extremely stylized art. The game is open-ended and lets you go back and forth between the levels and just enjoy the game and explore, which is great fun because there are lots of secrets to discover. The plot is very character-driven and each NPC is unique, with a well-developed personality.

I feel there are certain similarities between the games I enjoy the most. I enjoy games that feature a good story, I enjoy games with an unique look, I like surreal fantasy themes and a dash of (stupid) humour. In the future I would like to see more games that feature engaging, emotionally moving stories. I have touched on this earlier, but I believe games can be a very good medium for storytelling. 

søndag 4. desember 2011

A history of computer games: 2000s

The game development industry is currently facing a  suffocating problem, as games have become incredibly expensive to make. The cost of games, as well as the time and number of people it takes to develop them have increased exponentially over the years. Furthermore, the consoles have become more powerful and therefore more demanding. Before, one person could make a game in a few months, by using a computer. Now, developing an AAA title takes several years and  a large team consisting of all sorts of artists, designers, animators and programmers, not to mention the support and marketing teams. Because games have become so expensive to make, the truth is that most games lose more money than they make.

Smaller development studios cannot afford this, and the result is that the big publishers who are able to do so, buy the small developers. The big companies also claim a certain amount of control over the production, which causes a conflict between money and creativity. Whereas small companies might develop games with a genuine love for games and original content, the big publishers are first and foremost interested in the financial return of the game. Thus, new, original and atypical concepts are often culled, because they have less potential to make money than sequels and licensed properties. 
Screenshot from beautiful, quirky Psychonauts. This level in particular was inspired by red velvet paintings; an interesting idea for a game environment for sure. 

In order to increase their potential customer base, publishers push developers to release titles on multiple platforms. This is not a new strategy, but, previously, a game would not be transferred to a different console, if it had not been successful on the console it was originally designed for. Now, a developer is expected to release a game on all the important platforms at the same time, as to maximise the revenue from one title. 

Tasks such as art, music and level design have become a larger portion of the cost of developing games, and these elements can be reused between platforms and the cost of porting thus comes down to programming only. But even so, it is expensive and time-consuming and leaves little time to optimise games to one platform in particular. In addition, console developers have not made an effort to make it easier for game developers. Quite the opposite, they have continuously increased the complexity of their hardware. 

‘Moore’s Law’ dictates that computer speed is doubled every eighteen months. However, instead of computers actually becoming more powerful, consoles have been build that consist of several processing elements which can share tasks to speed up computing. This has made programming games more complex, because to utilise this to the max would have been less complex if the console had only one powerful processing element. 

The complexity of the consoles is as much a matter of marketing as it is of technology. Current consoles are built differently to make porting games from one platform to the other difficult. This is a shrewd marketing strategy to make developers stick to the console instead of porting, a move that makes it more difficult for developers to engage in the current multi-platform trend. 

The downfall of the Sega console was caused by complexity. The Sega Saturn that dominated the market at its time was difficult to program for. It had two CPUs, and only one was normally in use, because of the complexity of multiple-CPU programming. When Sony introduced the PlayStation, which had only one CPU and a 3D graphics processor (which made programming 3D games simple), developers wavering between platforms were grabbed by Sony and Sega lost ground. Though Sega reverted to a much simpler model with the Dreamcast, they never managed to get back on top, and big developers signed the death warrant of Sega’s consoles when they announced they would not support the Dreamcast. 

Sony had now obtained the dominant position on the market. They no longer felt the need to attract the developers, but wanted to consolidate that position and keep upstarts from disrupting their hegemony. Although the Playstation 2 was much more complicated to develop for, there were not really any other options on the market – with Sega out of the way. This made it very difficult for developers to move away from that platform. 

At this point, both Nintendo and Microsoft saw an opportunity to disturb Sony’s dominance – like Sony itself had done with Sega. Yet, they could not really compete with the PS2, which was too established as the dominant console at the time. However, Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s Game Cube did well enough to allow both companies a new round in the console war. 

When Sony released their Playstation 3, they thought their position was so dominant that nobody could really challenge it. For that reason, Sony increased the complexity of the console’s architecture, in an attempt to lock developers to that console by making it hard to port to other consoles.

 Although this was not really the case, Microsoft thought they had damaged Sony’s dominant position in the market and were confident enough to launch a more complicated Xbox 360 ahead of the Playstation 3. The Xbox 360 did, however, come with development kits that were meant to make game development for the platform easier. Nintendo, on the other hand, stuck to a simpler, less powerful platform with the Wii. Instead, they focused on innovative technology like motion control to maintain their place and uniqueness in the market. 
The Wii is not really a competitor in the console war, because it is a very different console. It runs its own race, and it is not uncommon for gamers to own a Wii in addition to either a 360 or a Ps3. It caters to a niche in the market that Sony and Microsoft have neglected to a large degree; the young, the casual players and the families. The biggest advantages of the Wii are the flagship series exclusive to Nintendo-consoles; Mario, Zelda, Pokémon, Metroid, Donkey Kong and several others. There are few children in the Western world that do not know these series. Thus, although  Microsoft may have surpassed the Wii’s motion control with their Kinect-technology, they cannot compete with Nintendo’s exclusive series. Furthermore, the Wii is sociable. While games on the 360 or Ps3 are usually developed for a single player, Wii-games often have a multiplayer-focus and are great fun playing with friends and family.  
We will be welcoming new consoles in the near future. It will be exciting to see how this affects the market and the developers, though I am afraid the costs of developing for newer and more complicated consoles might be bad news for the small developers. 
Nevertheless, although the increasing costs of developing games are a big problem, we are entering a very interesting chapter in the history of games now. Developers have always sought to improve the looks of games, and today they can achieve amazing graphics. Perhaps, we will reach a graphical peak soon, as it is now already fairly difficult to tell an in-game screen shot apart from reality. 

Games have achieved such amazing imagery, which makes one wonder how we can improve them even more? Games have the potential to tell a good story, move us emotionally, deliver a message, let us explore worlds and concepts that do not and cannot exist, etc. If I had a game development studio, these are the paths of improvement I would explore. 

Thanks to my friend Dieter for proof-reading and editing my text and making it 110% better. ;_;