Archive for June, 2006

On Becoming a Gaming Pro – Where Jake explores avenues of employment for his children

Friday, June 9th, 2006

(This article first appeared in the May 22, 2006 issue of Jon Peddie’s TechWatch)

As the father of two avid game-playing children (a 9-year-boy and a nearly 11-year-old girl), I have long wanted to explore the career options that might be available to them as professional gamers, and E3 offered the perfect opportunity to do a little research. After all, if there is one place where the world’s best professional gamers could be found at the same time, it would be E3.

I hooked up with two members of the esteemed F-Players at the Fatal1ty booth. As you may know, Fatal1ty is the gamer handle for Johnathan Wendel, perhaps the world’s best-known pro gamer, and the best there is when it comes to merchandising and marketing himself. While John was busy on stage blasting the shorts off some gaming wannabe, I spent a bit of time with Magnus “fojji” Olsson and Alessandro “Stermy” Avallone.

Italian bred and raised, Alessandro (Stermy), now age 19, was of particular interest to me, as he was the youngest competitor to have ever competed in the World Cyber Games – at the tender age of 15. Stermy is now ranked as one of the top three competitive gamers in the world and earns around $120,000 a year. And Swede Magnus (fojii), age 22, is even better than Stermy. Magnus starting competing professionally when he was 17 years old.


The F-Players are the world’s top professional gamers. From left to right, Magnus “fojji” Olsson, Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel, Alessandro “Stermy” Avallone.

The Athletics of Gaming

Both Stermy and fojii stressed that professional gaming is an athletic sport – one requiring long hours of prac-tice, good physical health, dedication, and focus. That focus is now on the PC version of “Quake 4”, a game in which they spend many hours a day refining their strategy and improving their hand/eye coordination and knowledge of the game. The time investment is so great that Stermy still has a year of the Italian version of high school to finish should he want to pursue a university education.

Magnus stressed that a key ability of professional gamers, just as with other athletes, is that they must be able to perform under pressure – and certainly with the whole gaming world watching, and with countless upstarts wanting to test their mettle, the pressure is enormous.

But, as Stermy pointed out, all the practice and training in the world will not help someone if they don’t have natural talent for gaming. And that generally holds true for any other sport, too.

Magnus and Stermy have both been playing video games all their lives, but got into competitive gaming via LAN parties and playing against friends. From there they went to regional events, and ultimately to international events. Stermy has found one of the side benefits of professional gaming is that it real-ly is a very social activity, and as such he has made friends all over the world.

I asked the guys how their families have dealt with their unusual career choice. Magnus indicated that he was lucky in that his parents were supportive from the start. Stermy had to work a bit to make his parents understand that gaming could be a real job, and any concern and reluctance his parents had when he started has now been overcome with the results (and money) he’s bringing home.

So, what would their advice be to a young gamer wanting to go pro? Practice a lot, enter competitions whenever possible, but don’t bet your whole future on your possible success either – keep your options open.

girlz Of destruction

Later that evening, I happened to be having dinner with three of the girlz Of destruction, a professional all-female gaming team assembled with the support of hardware maker VIA and its S3 subsidiary, and discussed many of the same topics with them. While the athletic aspects and analogies Stermy and Magnus raised were stressed by Alana “Ms. X” Reid, Therese “trito” Andersson, and Livia “Liefje” Sophia as well, their take on professional gaming was from the female perspective.

The girlz all universally had encountered some sort of sex bias in their gaming careers, with the most typical being, “But you’re a girl! You can’t play video games,” which would generally be followed with the chauvinist being handed his butt on a platter by the female gamer he had just put down.

They all agreed, however, that parental support was vital in their careers, and that in some cases they had to prove to their parents that they had chosen a worthwhile career path. Several of the girlz (there are seven members of the team) also have other work they do in addition to being a gamer, including going to high school (Barbie – a 16-year-old from Russia) or college (Missy – a 19-year-old American).

And, while the F-Players focus on Quake IV on a PC to the exclusion of all other games, because that’s where the big prize money is, the girlz have pursued a variety of games and platforms because the competition options for women are not as focused, nor nearly as prize-rich. The girlz lacked the intensity that I saw in Magnus and Stermy, but at the same time had a lively spark and general appreciation of life, which I missed in the F-Players. I can’t honestly say whether that was just a male/female difference or one produced by the environments in which we spoke: couches on the noisy E3 show floor vs. a nice dinner at Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Restaurant. Talking with the girlz was less intimidating by far.

So, what did I learn to pass on to my kids about gaming as a career? Focus on a game with lots of prizes and competitions, play it a lot, kick a lot of butt, but, please, most of all, finish school first.

E3 ESA Keynote – Doug Lowenstein and ESA Rally the Troops

Friday, June 9th, 2006

(This article first appeared in the May 22, 2006 issue of Jon Peddie’s TechWatch)

The twelfth annual E3 show officially opened, as has become tradition, with a State of the Industry keynote by Entertainment Software Association (ESA) president and chief cheerleader, Doug Lowenstein. Lowenstein reminisced briefly about the roots of the video game industry before launching into the central theme of this year’s keynote – namely that he believes the video game industry is becoming a transformational industry akin to the automobile, television, computer, and telecommunications industries of the twentieth century.


Doug Lowenstein, ESA president, says that video games will change the world.

The basis for his belief stems from research the ESA commissioned from Robert W. Crandall, a Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution, and J. Gregory Sidak, a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. Crandall and Sidak produced a white paper. The white paper based on the results of their research, released at the same time as Lowenstein’s keynote, is available at http://www.theesa.com.

The Crandall and Sidak white paper suggests that, while video games generate $10.3 billion in direct sales (software and hardware) in the U.S., they also generate $7.8 billion in sales of complementary products for a total impact of over $18 billion on the U.S. economy. The complementary products Crandall and Sidak cite include televisions (e.g. HDTVs for Xbox 360), gaming computers (e.g., Voodoo, Alienware), broadband services, CPUs and GPUs, mobile usage, movies based on video game IP, and advertising. A review of Crandall’s and Sidek’s research reveals that many of their conclusions are inferential or based on comments from industry players, such as IBM (one of the three CELL-chip partners, as well as owner of the Power-PC core used in the Xbox 360).

Nevertheless, Lowenstein took much of the research as fact. And while some of the assertions about how video game technologies are being presently being used elsewhere for training and research are sound, they either ignore or are ignorant of the reality that much of that same technology did not in fact originate in video games, but was developed earlier for military, cinematic, and CAD applications.

For example, Crandall and Sidak point to modern-day real-estate and travel websites as evolving from technology transfers from entertainment software, and in particular 3D video game technology, such as first-person shooters. However, that technology originated in CAD programs in the 1980s – the only difference is that due to a lack of computing power, such walkthroughs were typically pre-rendered, fixed-path (or variable path where each branch was pre-rendered) scenes. And virtual reality research, which, while having aspects of entertainment, originated more as an information sharing and communications technology, offered interactive 3D space walkthroughs before video games integrated that technology.

Likewise, they point to modern-day military training where combat simulations are used as a form of virtual training, and suggest that this is directly linked to video game technology. While in a micro view that is certainly true, in a macro view, much of the core technology, such as texture mapping and 3D world navigation, originated with military-funded simulators such as flight simulators developed by Singer and GE in the early 1980s.

What Crandall and Sidak miss is that 3D video gaming technology is evolutionary in the grand scheme of things, and not revolutionary. Without

a doubt, current gaming technology improves things like real-estate walkthroughs, military training simulations, and medical research and simulations in terms of increased real-time interactivity and realism, but the underlying principles have been there all along.

While the $7.8 billion in sales of complementary products attributed to video games may not be really accurate, and is likely inflated, one cannot also deny that video games and the technology that goes into them definitely do have both a technological impact and a sociological one on the lives of most of the people in the Western world.

Lowenstein used that premise to support his perspective that the video game industry will be a transformational industry. He pointed to the fact that by the year 2010, there will be 75 million Americans between the ages of 10 and 30 – something he calls the “millennium generation.” That’s as many as there are in the now aging baby boomer generation. And video game content and interaction are certain to provide a potentially broader perspective on a variety of subjects, ultimately making the millennium generation a political force to be reckoned with.

“Even today, ESA data shows that as many as 35% of American parents play video games, and 80% of those play with their kids. Video games are the rock and roll music for the digital generation, and Halo and The Sims and Zelda are their Grateful Deads and their Rolling Stones,” said Lowenstein, to underscore his point.

Lowenstein closed his keynote by reminding all in attendance that transformational industries have both good and bad components. For example, the automobile industry brought pollution and reliance on fossil fuels, television brought concerns about the sedentary life style of a new breed of man known as a couch potato, and telecommunications introduced issues related to the depersonalization of social interaction. On the bright side, Lowenstein said he believed that everyone would agree that the positives of past transformational industries overwhelmed the negatives, and that the coming years would hopefully see the transition of video games from pure entertainment into video games as a central feature in the economy, business, and education of America.

That certainly is a laudable goal, both on a U.S. level as well as an international one, but the roadblocks ahead, such as high console and title prices, the efforts to criminalize the sale of certain games to youngsters, and the stigma that game playing produces violent and aberrant behavior are serious, and may be difficult to overcome.

Alternative Input Devices at E3

Friday, June 9th, 2006

(This article first appeared in the May 22, 2006 issue of Jon Peddie’s TechWatch)

While the big hit of E3 was undoubtedly the Nintendo Wii and its unique and innovative game controllers, never let it be said that there isn’t someone else out there willing to build and offer a better mouse or other input device. And, as is usual at E3, the most interesting of these new devices were to be found in the exhibit “dungeon” of E3, also known as Kentia Hall.

Novint Falcon

Perhaps the most novel new input device (other than that of the Nintendo Wii) I found was the Novint Falcon (see image below), a 3D haptic input device a bit reminiscent of some sort of alien beast from a futuristic first-person shooter. To use the Falcon, you grab the round handle on the front and move it around. Each of the three arms of the Falcon is connected to electrical motors, which can each, individually, create a force on the handle. In combination, the force can be generated in any direction and at any magnitude (up to a certain maximum).


The Novint Falcon is a haptic input device that provides both force feedback and tactual sensation.

In demonstrations that Novint provided, the haptic response of the Falcon was quite realistic as I moved a ball cursor around a bumpy sphere and in and out of a gelatin surface. For gaming, the device can be used to simulate gun recoil (the handle has several buttons on it for use as mouse button substitutes) or feel walls and surfaces in the “dark” (think “Doom 3” or “F.E.A.R.”).

Novint’s goal is to be able to have the Falcon in gamers’ hands by 2007 for a retail price of under $99 for the USB version. That’s ambitious for a device of this complexity, when one considers standard retail channel multipliers. The Falcon is certainly innovative, but unless haptic support APIs become a standard feature that games utilize, there’s not much hope the device will be a gamer’s mainstay. But it sure is a cool device (www.novint.com).

XKPad’s Bodypad

Not being one for strenuous exercise, nor for fighting games, I did not spend much time with the Bodypad from XKPad (see image below), but it certainly promises to offer a very intense workout. In addition to strap-on wireless sensors for one’s limbs, there are button controls one holds in one’s fists that can be used to simulate pressing buttons on a typical game controller. By moving one’s limbs (or flailing them, in my case), signals are sent to the receiver, which parses them into controller signals and sends them to an attached PS2 or Xbox console. Cost is around €50, and it is available now from XKPad in France as well as certain on-line outlets (www.bodypad.com).


For those looking for a serious workout playing fighting games, the Body Pad might do the trick.

Sandio Game O’

And yes, there may be a better mouse, or at least that’s what the principals of Sandio Technology are hoping. The Sandio Game O’ (yes – that single

quote is part of the name) is a 3D gaming mouse. Built around an optical mouse core, the Game O’ adds a couple of additional buttons, as well as three joysticks/thumbsticks to the mouse – one on the left, one on the right, and one in front (see image below). Using the driver software for the Game O’, the user configures a joystick-to-keyboard translation. For example, the left joystick (which is a thumbstick for those of us who are righthanded) can be mapped to the traditional W-A-S-D keys used to move one’s FPS character forward, backward, left, and right.

Sandio is promoting the Game O’ as a 6DOF mouse, and I suppose if games supported real 6DOF input, the Game O’ could certainly be used for that purpose. But, the reality is that most games only require basic movement in one plane (forward/backward and strafe left/right), plus rotation in two planes (turn left/right and look up/down). Roll (which would be rotation about the view axis) is not a commonly used or required movement in games I am familiar with.


The Sandio 6DOF mouse features three thumbsticks in addition to normal mouse functionality.

In playing a bit of “Unreal 2004 Tournament” with the Game O’ I can certainly see how the device could be useful. In fact, with the Game O’, it’s possible to completely stop using the keyboard for game input, but it requires your dominant hand to be very agile.

The Game O’ should be shipping later this year for a price comparable to a high-end 2D mouse (www.sandiotech.com).

Splitfish dualFX

I first saw and played with the Splitfish dualFX PS2 controller (see photo below) at CES in January. It features a two-piece design that seems somewhat similar to Nintendo’s Wii controllers, even to the point where the righthand controller has a laser you point at the screen for character movement and targeting. However, there is no tilt sensing.

While the tooling is smoother than in January’s prototype, I still had issues using the laser pointer as my guidance device – perhaps because the controller’s thumbstick was too convenient to continue using, since that is what I am used to.


The Splitfish dualFX PS2 controller.

The gun trigger design for firing (replacing the PS2’s R1 button) was comfortable, and I found if I used the dualFX as a replacement PS2 controller and ignored the laser pointing, it felt pretty natural, and in some ways even better than a regular PS2 controller because my hands no longer needed to be wedged together.

The dualFX should ship in June. Retail pricing was not available (www.splitfish.com).

GestureTek

My kids enjoy the EyeToy on the Sony PS2, and were overjoyed when I told them that there would be a similar piece of hardware coming from Microsoft at the end of the year. That’s the Xbox Live Vision Camera. While no doubt there will be EyeToy-like games for the new Xbox camera, one thing that Microsoft has done differently is to license APIs and software from Canadian company GestureTek.


GestureTek’s technology will enable the Xbox 360’s forthcoming Xbox Live Vision camera to perform a wide range of functions including face tracking, as demonstrated here by Francis MacDougall, co-founder of GestureTek.

Those APIs allow a camera embedded or attached to a device to be used as an alternate input device, detecting motion and location of objects as a form of input. In addition to the well-known hand-waving form of camera input, however, the GestureTek technology includes both face tracking (see photo above), as well as delta motion detection. For the latter, I was given a demonstration in which the camera in a camera phone could be used as the basis for a joystick for a mobile game. Simply tilting the phone in any direction would cause appropriate input and motion in the game, and it was all done detecting direction of tilt optically via the camera.

More interesting was the suggestion that Microsoft was considering using the face-tracking technology as an input in games like “Halo 3”, but in subtle ways, such as tracking a player’s face to see if the player was trying to peek around a corner to see what might be there (and if you ever play FPS games, you will know that they require a certain amount of body English) and then simulating that action in the game. I am certainly looking forward to this and other innovative uses of visual input technology (www.gesturetek.com).

Microsoft

And speaking of Microsoft, while they were not in Kentia Hall, the company did introduce a new input device for the Xbox 360, in addition to the aforementioned Xbox camera. To complement the forthcoming racing game, “Forza Motorsport 2”, Microsoft will offer the Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel, which features a steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, and a table mount (see photo below). While the wheel apparently

does provide some sort of force feedback, I was told that to use that you would want to plug it into a power source, otherwise the battery would drain very quickly. No price was announced, but it will be available in the fourth quarter of 2006 (www.xbox.com).


Microsoft’s forthcoming Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel with pedal on left, and table mount (not a stick shift) on right.

Also of Note:


Sony’s EyeToy for PS3 offers an alternate input device. Here, a new card game, “The Eye of Judgment”, is demonstrated. Note you can see the demonstrator’s hand in the image on the monitor, overlaid by the system’s interpretation of the cards on the board.