Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The HD Era: Not Entirely Bogus?

When J Allard gave the Microsoft keynote at GDC this year, he spoke about the HD Era, which is basically Microsoft's strategy for the next generation consoles. Though he defined "HD" as covering more than just the "better" visuals of HDTV, the hi-def future certainly seemed to start with more resolution, greater color range, and the ever-popular widescreen. Microsoft put its money where its mouth is and gave away 1,000 Samsung HDTVs at the end of the talk, which, in my mind, was probably a worthwhile endeavor.

You see, I happened to win one of those TVs. I wouldn't bring it up except that, as a PR move, it seems to have worked. I've finally got my TV set up with PS2 and Xbox running through component cables, and all my audio is piped by fiber optic to my 5.1 surround system. I'm not an A/V nut by any stretch of the imagination, so experiencing this sort of rig is pretty cool for me.

The thing is, I probably would have been one of the last people to get an HDTV. I'm one of the naysayers who always figured that the difference couldn't be that big a deal. How much better could HD look over a regular TV? And given the durability of old school TVs, I wouldn't have had to replace mine for a good long time. In essense, I'm exactly the kind of person that Microsoft is trying to convince.

And, to be honest, I'm pretty impressed. Playing God of War in progressive scan widescreen on a big, bright LCD tv is pretty cool.

However, there are problems with the HD Era strategy. The main one being that in some ways HDTV is a fairly important evolutionary step for the medium of video. It's all still video, but as Clive Thompson points out, hi-def gives us a lot more detail, so much so that some live action stars actually look worse as a result. "Watching a show in high definition is thus rather like being Gulliver in the land of Brobdingnag -- where every pore on the giants' faces looms like a shell-blasted crater."

What does that mean for videogames? Well, as many have pointed out, art assets are going to have to be much more hi-fidelity. I tried playing Halo 2 on the new HDTV, and although it was much crisper, it also looked a lot chunkier. All the imperfections that were hidden on a low-def TV became much more evident. More detailed art not only means more work (and more money) but also pushes game visuals farther into Uncanny Valley territory. The animation will need to be much more naturalistic, and behavior will have to have a certain level of plausibility to match.

Playing Breakdown last night, I was struck by the inability of my NPC partner to maintain eye contact. She would deliver a line, stop, turn to face me, and then deliver another line. Often she looked like she was looking over my shoulder or away to one side. Sometimes this was ok; she looked like she was gazing off in thought. Other times it was irritatingly distracting, as it was obvious she was supposed to be looking me in the eye. These sorts of situations will be even more evident in next-gen games, as the characters look more and more real.

Jurie over at Intelligent Artifice thinks that this "will be the first generation shift where the diminishing returns [of better graphics] should become pretty obvious to everyone." The shift to 3D was a huge jump, but the shift to hi-def won't have the same impact, especially in terms of gameplay. I'm hoping that the better visual quality will force developers to confront issues of behavior. Work in animation and AI could certainly have a huge effect on gameplay. So perhaps HDTV could have an indirect impact on game design.

So what about the HD Era? I don't think it's all it's cracked up to be, but I also don't think it's completely without merit. The pressures that HD will put on developers will be enormous, but at the same time, develops who rise to the challenge may innovate in unexpected ways. HD may turn out to be a revolution, but if it does, it will probably be a different kind of revolution that most people expected. We'll just have to see.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Photojournalism: The Game

I just started playing Beyond Good & Evil, Ubisoft's cult favorite from 2003. So far, I have to say I'm impressed. It's a great example of how games can start to focus on mechanics that don't center around combat. Sure, BG&E has fighting (simple stick-beating-type fighting), but most missions seem to revolve around taking pictures. In a lot of ways, the photography interface is like a first person shooter; you point and shoot. On the other hand, the power of the mental shift from firing a gun to snapping a photo is such that it feels like a totally new and fresh mechanic.

One ongoing way of earning money in the game is to take pictures of local flora and fauna for a scientific archive. I've found that even as I approach a battle, I try to take pictures of the creatures I'm about to fight, some small part of me hoping that I can preserve them even as I destroy them. That's a pretty impressive achievement in terms of complex emotional reaction to the game. I find it extremely hopeful for games in general that such a simple re-imagnining of a standard game mechanic can make such a huge difference in the emotional impact of the game.

BG&E doesn't just stop there, either. With a (sometimes heavy-handed) story centered around government corruption, issues like freedom of the press and the importance of free information are tackled as the main themes of the game. This is a game that is about revolution through photojournalism, and even though it's set in a science fiction world, this theme seems far more culturally relevant to today's world than most shooters, even those set in historical periods. In a world where a government tries to keep photos of dead soldiers or snapshots of prison abuses under wraps, a game about exposing the truth through pictures hits close to home.

And in addition, we get a new kind of action hero, the journalist.