Category Archives: Development

Beyond Inventory Systems

Going on an adventure means, at some point, having to look through your pockets for those all important bits of kit. Whether it’s a map, compass or gauntlet of power, you need to make sure your preparations weren’t in vain and that you’ll last long enough to reach the next safe spot. Inventory systems are a core component of many genres and aren’t exclusive to roleplaying games. Choosing your loadout in a first person shooter, making sure you have your long and short range options carefully considered also qualifies.

Rather than focusing on the different ways of handling a grid of images (as most discussion on this topic seems to get stuck), I wanted to reflect on some great examples of how item storage can be tied more closely to narrative elements used to enhance the emotional conveyance of an experience.

Survival Horror – Safe Rooms

In gaming, the survival horror genre came of age when titles like Resident Evil and Silent Hill were released. What makes them special, in my eyes, is how they paced the action gameplay. Much of the experience involved exploring environments and solving puzzles. Inevitably, through the sheer volume of of discoverable items, the player was required to decide what to take for another trip outside the confines of the safe room.

The safe room is, as implied, an area of sanctuary wherein an opportunity to save game progress and shuffle through an item bank exists. As a standalone mechanic, it doesn’t sound remarkable but, when considered in the context of an incredibly tense gameplay environment, it provides an indescribable sense of relief. There is a genuine feeling of progression when entering into one of these rooms, even with all the backtracking the gameplay demands.

An item box in a save room – Resident Evil

Roguelikes – Permanent death

Roguelike games are defined by a number of characteristics, the most prevalent of which are permanent death (one life only) and procedurally generated content. If you visit any online community wherein this genre is being actively discussed, you’ll often find heated debate surrounding what constitutes a true roguelike experience versus a more diluted one, usually referred to as a ‘rogue-lite’. That aside, these sorts of games have a lot to offer by way of variety and much of the experimentation seen in the indie gaming scene, these days at least, occurs in this genre.

Item storage in roguelikes is tricky business to say the least. Upon death, any evidence that the player once walked the world is usually erased from existence. There are a few exceptions however and they remain, to this day, unique in their implementation.

Nethack is an older game which, much like those before it, is rendered via ASCII characters. Though never designed to be visually compelling, it delivers an incredibly challenging dungeon crawl in which all learning is implicit. That is to say, you learn through trial and error and, true to form in this pit of despair, most experiences end in utter failure. Upon death however, there is a chance that the game will retain the state of the level in order to be loaded again in a future play session. After encountering the ghost of the previous player, there is an opportunity to recover their inventory but with the caveat that much of it may be ‘cursed’.

As implied, anything which is cursed shouldn’t be used unless the player is able to mitigate against the risks. Whether those are unpredictable behaviours, reduced efficiency or something directly harmful to the user.

Open Worlds – Morrowind

Despite their current prevalence, open world games weren’t always so popular. The big change in recent times has been the focus placed on the user/player experience with titles like World of Warcraft raising what was, admittedly, a rather low baseline. Much has been learned about how players interact with large environments and how we, as humans attribute meaning to our actions. To keep this commentary on track though, I’m going to use The Elderscrolls: Morrowind as my primary example.

Dr Who and his TARDIS in the lands of Morrowind

In Morrowind, you are homeless for the majority of the game. Disembarking the imperial prison ship, with not even a penny to your name, you find yourself scorned by all those who inhabit the realm. Shortly after finding your way however, it’s not long before you realise that you can’t carry everything you ‘find’ / steal.

Unlike most modern games which seek to optimise system resources like memory, in Morrowind, if you drop something on the floor it stays there. There are no magical cleaning fairies employed by some centrally-funded government program and that means you can find a ditch someplace and make it your home. As the player ekes out their miserable existence, they may find themselves living anonymously in someone’s attic or, as I preferred, the balcony of the thieves guild in Balmora. Granted, the game does provide you with a small house which you inherit after the passing of a friend though, for many, the joy of the game lies in claiming a nest of their choosing and filling it with all manner of shiny objects.

That’s all for now, there are many more examples of excellence though the takeaway message for me is that even something as simple as an item bank can be a powerful tool in a gaming narrative when used creatively. There are things I want to experiment with such as allowing a player to bury items and mark the location on a map, I see it as a more acceptable way of keeping an environment clutter free whilst providing an opportunity to personalise an isolated area.

I’ll be posting more on my thoughts in the near future.

Cartography in Gaming

To this day, I continue to get excited whenever I see a game map. I feel the urge to explore and my imagination goes into overdrive, creating stories for the areas depicted and quickly convincing myself that the world is more expansive and fantastic than it usually ends up being. This ‘runaway imagination train’ effect is something I always look to experience when I pickup a new game and hope to be able to replicate in future projects.

In games, maps tend to provide context. They show us where we sit in the scheme of things and sometimes allow us to gauge our progress en route to a terminal destination, be it a snowy mountain or the lair of a fire breathing dragon. It’s also the role of a map to further enhance the narrative elements, often through some sort of visual abstraction. To sustain the emotional bandwidth which keeps a player immersed is no simple feat, and the map is another tool the developer has at his his/her disposal.

map1

A stylized map from Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light

Cartography is a complex idea and goes beyond being a substitute word for ‘maps’. There are many different ways of portraying an environment ranging from photo-realism to more thematic approaches.

While a map is designed to convey information, it’s normally of one type. Whether it’s a depiction of political boundaries or the location of valuable resources, it’s rarely a good use of space to provide as much visual ‘noise’ as possible. The idea of complexity being synonymous with depth isn’t always right and often leads to confusion.

xolotl_map

An example of ancient man getting things wrong again #easytarget

Maps in games are often romantic and, in the spirit of nostalgia, I created an homage to one of my favourite MMO games of all time ‘Ultima Online’, hereafter referred to as ‘UO’. Much of the content in UO was player generated and the real tragedy was that it was incredibly hard to find from inside the game. People would often spend hours on forums attempting to locate points of interest and the player experience usually suffered from this disconnect. The video below is based on some of the locations found on an unofficial player-run server from some years ago. I attempted to mimic the functionality of Google Maps with a view to further expanding on some of the features though, as time passed, this distraction lost its appeal (shortly after realising what I had gotten myself into)!

Accompanied by the OST

Games like UO and Everquest initially shipped with cloth maps depicting the game world. This, in addition to being a lovely collectors item, served to bewitch people by manipulating their escapist tendencies, drawing them away from their loved ones back into the imaginary world whilst drawing their life energies away as they suckled on the poisonous, proverbial, teat of the fearsomely addictive early generation MMOs. There are even games which allow the player to create his/her own maps and this remains a hallmark feature of titles like Etrian Odyssey on the Nintendo 3DS.

That’s all I have to say on this subject at the moment. I’ve avoided talking about minimaps in games as that’s not what I’m exploring currently, though I acknowledge their importance. My curiosity lies in seeing how emotional conveyance can be enhanced by the use of visual aids and will no doubt be revisiting these ideas in the future.

Demonstrating Virtual Reality at the University of Hertfordshire

It’s not often that we get the chance to demonstrate what we’re working on as, in education, it’s more about the finished product and conclusions. Nevertheless, during the HEaTED East of England network event , we were given the opportunity to allow people to wonder around a bespoke 3D environment while using our HTC Vive headset and touch controllers. We used the controllers themselves emulate the functional behaviours of a smartphone. The reactions were all positive and I managed to have chats with some senior managers about where it is we’re hoping to take our vision for VR at the University.

You can find a brief video depicting the space below:



The idea was to illustrate how intuitive behaviours can be replicated inside a 3D space to allow for simple interactions. A lot of people tend to be confused by their initial transition into a virtual world but by including recognisable elements, it makes the experience much less daunting. It’s for that reason the 3D environment in question is a lecture theatre, based on a real-world equivalent, only a few metres away from the stand. This made the experience all the more compelling as, after having spent a few minutes in the 3D version, the attendees would then enter the same room shortly afterwards.

We’re going to be demonstrating again in the near future in a bid to capture the imaginations a few academics. VR promises a lot of interesting things, everything from multi-user role-playing exercises between people in two different locations (partner institutions overseas) to single user familiarisation exercises. We’re hoping to establish some more usage case scenarios.

Mixed Reality with the Oculus DK2

The irony of virtual reality is that, despite being a visual medium, it remains incredibly difficult to convey in a faithful manner. It’s not just about the visual impact of an experience but also the immersion factor.

I made a post a few months ago in which I filmed myself using the Oculus Rift at a desk. In that video, I cross-faded the perspectives of a bystander and user in an attempt to communicate how people can interact with a 3D environment using a headset.

Virtual Reality represents something of a growth industry right now but it will take time to convince people of its promise as a means for channelling emotional bandwidth. In the right hands, it could become a powerful educational tool. As always, the issues around how to establish best practice will take time to address and, because of this, it’s a great time for both experimentation and innovation.

In the video below, I’m using a green screen to chroma key the output of Oculus, thereby creating the effect of allowing people to see as I do during the session. This is far less complicated (and looks very 1980s) than the method used by Valve, which you can see here.

It does mean having to restrict movement in some ways, no facing the camera, not looking straight down etc… These tend to create confusing visual effects.

I’ll be posting more in the future as I continue to experiment with things. We’re at the beginning of something which promises to revolutionise the human computer interface and contribute to the human condition in ways we’ve yet to envisage.

The Weston Auditorium at the University of Hertfordshire in Virtual Reality

Much has changed these last few years in the gaming industry. Until recently, real-time/interactive 3D has had something of a stigma associated with it when it came to education. Happily, in the spirit of inquiry, research has continued to verify its potency for creating memorable and engaging experiences.

Click here to view the search trend data on Google

We’ve been in possession of an Oculus Rift (development kit 2) for a while now and it’s provided us with some exciting opportunities to do with Learning & Teaching Innovation. We’re currently working with Psychology staff to create virtual environments for use in research and have been awarded funding to pursue some other ideas with measurable outcomes. We’re trying to establish best practice in this new medium and need to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Trying to force the use of VR in a non-complimentary medium would be a massive waste of time and could end up as redundant work.

It’s not so easy to identify the areas of use however as some of the most text-heavy subjects (Land Law as an example) stand to benefit greatly from the offerings of VR. Imagine being able to walk around a virtual village and identify disputes over property boundaries or the potential VR has to create dynamic data visualizations. If you thought 2D infographics were informative, imagine where it could go with something more immersive and with a real sense of scale.

The obvious choices for VR would be things like paramedic science, subjects involving roleplay scenarios. Potentially we could have partner institutions interacting with one another overseas in ways which were previously impossible. Multi-user VR environments hold a lot of promise in this regard and I’m hoping to be able to explore those ideas further.

More recently, I’ve completed some work with the Oculus Rift, it’s a virtual representation of our largest presentation space (sometimes used as a lecture theatre), the Weston Auditorium at the University of Hertfordshire. See the video below for a demonstration!

 

 

This is based on work I did some time ago, I’ve just made it work with the Oculus Rift. It’s taken a long time but I’ve optimised my workflow substantially since the old days.

Click here to read about the creation of this environment

Experiments with Photogrammetry

Photogrammetry is the means by which a 3D model can be constructed using photos as the sole input. It’s used extensively in archaeology to document artifacts in such a way that it allows specimens and sites to be explored in great detail without fear of having the original crumble into dust upon touch. I recently made a post about the visual fidelity of a game called the Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the game is beautiful and the studio responsible for it made extensive use of photogrammetry in their workflow.

The problem with using it in gaming is that a lot of editing is needed to make the art assets fit for purpose. The geometry needs to be optimised in order to ensure it remains playable on lower-end hardware and holes in the model, which are symptomatic of missing data, need filling in. It’s not quite as easy as just taking a bunch of photos and slapping it into a gaming engine.

I’ve decided to try my hand at it, using a souvenir I bought on holiday. See below for the subject matter and end results.

Photogrammetry Testing
by Andrew Marunchak
on Sketchfab

Everything depends on the quality of the source materials, if the photos are blurry or the lighting is inconsistent, then problems will begin to emerge. I’ve used the free version of Photoscan for this and I haven’t done much touching up of the above model but you can see that it’s somewhat faithful to the original subject. Areas that the camera couldn’t see due to occlusion remain missing in the 3D mesh data. See the images below for photos and screenshots of both the physical and authoring environment.

statue_photogrammtetry_settimio

This is a rather small object so the camera really came through for me. The lighting conditions were ideal as well, there were no spotlights or inconsistent sunlight to worry about. The image below is of the authoring environment in Photoscan.

statue_photogrammtetry_settimio_photoscan

It’s an order of magnitude cheaper than 3D laser scanning but the circumstances in which it’s useful are fewer. Having said that, I think it’s going to be a welcome feature to add to our list of services. I’m also thinking of recreating the majority of my environmental assets in my mobile games photogrammetrically though it’s far easier said than done!

3D Land Law

It’s often difficult to visualise something in a medium as text heavy as law, though an opportunity for creativity made itself available recently. A colleague approached me with a view to enhancing a sketch he had made with a 3D representation. It’s now being used to assist in conveying the principles of land law. Due to some time constraints, there were limits to what we wanted to achieve with this though I decided the best use of our time would be to work with Google Sketchup. The end result is what you see in the video below.

The idea is that students are able to navigate the scene by downloading the Sketchup viewer and pressing the scene buttons to allow the camera to focus in on various points of interest. It has more use as an in-class tool however as it’s a nice way to initiate discussions around boundaries and trespassing. The goal is to, over the course of the semester, develop it with a view to making the implementation browser-based, so students can navigate the 3D model from inside the browser. Given the subject, it’s not safe to rely on a user’s prior exposure to 3D, be it through gaming or otherwise, so the interface needs to be intuitive and simple to pick up. A simple set of scene buttons seems to serve us well in that respect.

Welcome to the new site!

It seems to be the case that every three years I completely redevelop my website with a view to improving the content navigation and aesthetic qualities. I originally used a piece of blogging software called b2Evolution and, sometime later, moved to using Drupal. I’m now using a privately hosted version of WordPress which seems to take a lot of the headache out of things.

I’ve wanted different things from my site over the last few years. I think I’ve learned to appreciate the user experience along with accessibility and navigability more through my work with disabled students. The University has a commitment to ‘reasonable adjustment’ which is the term used by law when referring to making alterations to content so that it remains accessible to people dealing with everything from blindness to being completely deaf or otherwise.

In any case, I hope the new site makes it easier to find existing content. I’ve recreated a lot of the existing posts and articles and back-dated them so they remain in keeping with when they were published. Links to the old articles should now be updated to take you to the equivalent article in this site.

Thanks for your patience and your attention.

Oculus Rift – Development Kit 2

I’ve recently been loaned an Oculus Rift with a view to creating a few technical demonstrations of what the head mounted display is capable of. This will go some way to allowing me to obtain closure on my workflow as I’ve been at odds for some time with regards to which devices I ought to spend my time developing for. The primary annoyance is that though my authoring environment of choice, Unity, exports to multiple platforms, compatibility problems still exist. The libraries I use for windows executables might not work as well on Android and with the death of the unity browser-based plugin, I am now limited to HTML5/WebGL in that particular medium.

dk2-product

Windows 10 offers some hope in that it is attempting to converge devices ranging from mobile to desktop, something which initially made me paranoid due to the stability of having something of a standard in place (iOS and Android for mobile). I didn’t see a compelling reason to have that ecosystem disturbed until the devices started getting more powerful and, rather than being used as portable devices, they started to branch into desktop usage scenarios.

That suits me fine, it is always easier to stick to one platform provided that it remains flexible, and that’s something Windows 10 promises. The university is investing in technology and, with it, some Surface Pro tablets. The affordance this provides is a standardised set of hardware to develop ‘normal windows compatible software’ for in a mobile/tablet-based form factor. That is quite powerful and frees us up to innovate new ideas for classroom-based learning at higher education.

Inclusivity and engagement remain key factors, it remains to be seen how this pans out but I’ll be posting my experiments with the Oculus Rift in due course.

Unity 3D realistic terrain data

In my quest to model a believable glacial environment, I’ve resorted to using real-world terrain data. It used to be that I would sculpt terrain by hand and rely on perlin noise generators to produce something from which I could use as a base. The video below shows some of the things I’ve been working on and offers a bit more of an explanation.

The difficulty comes with having to make the scene explorable form a first person perspective. By and large, terrain data doesn’t allow for high enough detail to make this achievable. There is still a lot of work to be done by way of manually adding erosion and creating some textures for close-up viewing of the scene. With a high detail scene like this, you can rely on tesselation to ensure it’s fully optimized but another way is to generate the distant scenery (anything which won’t be explored on foot) as a low detail height map. It’s still quite early on in the development process and this is a continuation of a previous project which has recently regained interest.