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A Closer Look at Nathen Street

Do-It-Yourself is the theme bringing in the New Year at The Edge. It will be headed by two talented residents that will be bringing their own experimental and creative interpretations to our programming.

Nathen Street is an exciting new media installation artist. He will bring his interest of space travel and the cosmos, along with his DIY toolkit to The Edge. Expect from Nathen the chance to play with everything from Open Source software, soldering tools; to tealeaf strainers and aluminium bowls which he says make great chandelier light covers.

We asked Nathen some questions about his life, the universe, and everything he plans to do during his time at The Edge:

Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?
My areas of interest are fairly broad and diverse, I spend a lot of time reading on the internet. I’m particularly interested in space, the cosmos and the universe, stars, planets and space travel and all that black gooey stuff that’s out there. That sort of excites me. I can’t seem to get enough of space porn.

The other sorts of interests I have are physical computing. I really, really like immersive physical environments where you can walk into a space, where it might not be obvious to you straight away, you are having an effect on the room or the room is having an effect on you.

How did you become interested in your field of practice?
I have an inquisitive nature, I used to pull apart electronics when I was a kid. They used to have the big experimentation kits with the little springs that you would put the wire in by holding them back, and it was like 12 kits in 1. They had things like crystal radios and other sort of doorbells and little radios and other types of things, I was really keen on that. I used to have lots of friends that had them and I would go around to their house and go play with them.

Why did you choose to bring your skills to The Edge?
I live a kilometre down the road so it’s very handy to me being here. I subscribe to a lot of blogs and there’s a whole bunch of organisations, conferences and festivals around the world, and it’s really hard not to be inspired by. I guess lonely old Brisbane needed a place like this [The Edge] and I wanted to be a part of it.

What will you be doing during your residency at The Edge?
A couple of workshops: one workshop will be a take on the Graffiti Research Lab who created these little LED ‘throwies’ … a sort of public piece of graffiti that you can throw on metal walls and it will light up as long as the battery lasts.

The other workshop is a DIY chandelier making workshop where I will introduce people to basic electronics, basic soldering and have people get their craft skills out. I’ll provide a whole bunch of stuff that they can use to create these chandeliers that they can then take home.

The third thing I’m doing is a large interactive installation. It’s again working with the lights theme, and the idea is that you’ll be able to walk into a room where the installation is and your voice or sounds in the room will be used to make the lighting change. It’ll be in a room, there will be microphones around, you’ll be able to yell at it, sing at it, stomp your feet on the ground, and it will respond to your actions and hopefully create lighting effects that I haven’t programmed.

How can Edge users get involved?
We are holding the Graffiti Research Lab workshop as part of the 2nd birthday celebrations in February, so I’ll be out here in one the (window) bays doing workshops with whoever wants to walk past and put something together. A couple of weeks later I’ll be doing the chandelier workshop on the 4th and 11th of February.

Do Edge users need any special skills to be a part of your project?
No, just a can-do attitude, a willingness to do stuff.

What will Edge users be able to learn from your during your residency?
I’m hoping that they’ll be able to learn a little bit more about electronics. I’m hopeful that they’ll read my blog because I’ll put stuff up there so that if they miss the workshops they should be able to go home and source the materials themselves and go and do it.

If those playing along at home want to know more about the sort of things that you do, where should they go to learn?
My favourite website right now is Creative Applications. It’s run by a new media academic out of London. The blog is essentially a portfolio of different types of interactive art that’s happening around the world. It might come from festivals, or someone he knows, or someone that has just tweeted about it. I think that website has a lot of information about the types of technology I use and that other people use to create their objects or their programs.

Finally, a few quick questions.

What are the first three tabs you open in a new browser window? Email, the news, Creative Applications.

What was the first mobile phone you ever owned? Nokia 4110.

The one piece of technology you couldn’t live without? My android handset: because I can plug heaps of stuff into it.

Geekiest habit or hobby? I can be obsessively clean; I like to have little boxes where I can put all my transistors together, where I can have all my different wires and button – electronic organisation.

Here are some links that Nathen suggests as good resources to find out more about what he is interested in:

Eye Beam is a non-profit art and technology centre dedicated to exposing broad and diverse audiences to new technologies and media arts.

Creative Applications scouts the web to bring together applications that challenge how people share and engage with information, focussing on creative app development and thinking.

Multitouch Barcelona is an interactive design studio exploring natural communication between people and technology.

Hangar is a centre for arts production and research, providing support facilities for artists and designers.

Technology waits for no one


Local actor, singer and writer Helen Stephens shares how her mind was blown, put back together, and blown once more as she learned Lumasol with Dutch theatre troupe PIPS:lab at the recent technology masterclass they hosted at The Edge.

“Technology waits for no one” they say, and as a young Brisbane theatre maker I have always felt this to be true, I got left behind somewhere between portable CD players and the iPod revolution. The realisation that I now had to reacquaint myself with modern technology was always just a little too much of an inconvenience, especially when I had brothers and boyfriends who were happy to acquiesce my every technological need. “I have to use a computer to do what?? I have to think about that?? Could you just do it for me?…Please?” are all questions and requests I made frequently.

Due to my dismissive and unadventurous attitude towards all things technical and the tight waisted budgets those of us in the arts are used to working with, my approach to theatre making was always to keep things simple, use minimal if any lighting states at all, maybe a few audio tracks if I couldn’t create them live and to not even dream about using projection or other forms of multimedia. This attitude of mine which says that technology is too hard to use was however, strongly challenged when I met up with 2 members of an out of this world performance troupe last week at Brisbane’s, The Edge.

Let’s go back ten years. It is 2001, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, “master of the impossible, image wizard, media genius and natural-born inventor” Keez Duyves who after years of technological creativity, problem solving, programming and conceptual design launches PIPS: lab, a theatre company consisting of a group of musicians, actors, sound engineers, programmers and technicians who share his passion for mind blowing technological experiences and real, visceral, interactive performance.

Now back to 2011, November 29. I who at 25, have gone through QUT’s Creative Industries Drama course, trained in many different forms of performance and am highly aware of the contemporary theatre movement which threatens to leave me behind, decide to head along to a technology in performance workshop to see if I can learn a trick or two. All I know is that it is to be run by a Dutch theatre company and is sure to be a great experience and a steep learning curve. Over the course of the next 4 hours my mind is blown time and time again and I realize that I am in the presence of a man whose mind and ideas are so far ahead of his time that he has no choice but to wait for technology to catch up with him.

Keez and company member Fred Rodrigues, originally from Adelaide, worked to introduce themselves and their company to a group of ten willing creatives ranging from circus performers, actors, musicians and filmmakers to teachers and community workshop facilitators. We were each given a small LED light and asked to draw out our name, letter by letter with the light, on to the large, white wall at the back of the room.  Little did we know that this was the exact method PIPS: lab use with their audiences in their show Diespace and a fitting introduction to a technique they have aptly named Lumasol. Before our eyes each letter of our name, dutifully written in order, was captured, layered and then presented back to us as a floating, revolving 3D image, an example of which you can see online. The effect is nothing if not impressive and eerily surreal. The concept of Diespace (created in 2007) is fittingly matched to this luminescent tool as the show explores the idea of souls living on in a virtual space after their human counterparts have passed away.

Something I would like to stress at this point is that Keez and the rest of the PIPS: lab team, are devout believers in using whatever equipment is readily available, accessible and affordable. They use a mixture of well-worn MAC and PC laptops, switching between them as the need presents and really were inspiring in their demonstrated ingenuity and resourcefulness. They rely on free software such as MAC program Quartz Composer for a lot of their programming needs and fashion musical instruments and lights from broom handles, PVC pipe, coloured plastic bottle tops and anything else they can lay their hands on. They believe that where there is a will, there is a way and foster this attitude with vigour and excitement when attacking new ideas for instruments, sound design applications and motion capture and live animation programs. No matter what they develop each tool has one universal commonality and that is that they are built with a high audience interaction function.

From Lumasol, to Bullet Time animation, I learned that PIPS: lab were successfully creating this effect long before The Matrix made it famous. Not only did they do this, but they achieved it by using a circle of modified disposable cameras in a darkened room with a centred, raised flash. Their work with Graffiti Artists in this clip is an example of this unique yet simple technique.

Discussions moved from Musical Instrument Digital Interfacing, (MIDI) to Motion Capture, however, due to technical difficulties we were unable to really see these in action. Herein lies one of PIPS: lab’s golden rules: never expect that technology will work, in fact, expect that it will fail.

So after a morning of playing and experimenting with lights and cameras, bodies and computers I want to thank The Edge and PIPS: lab for providing the opportunity for such profound learning.  I walked away having seen the impossible made possible and knowing that I could do the same.

“Daring to fail is the best way to learn, create and experiment”. Keez Duyves

Moments: Now You’re Acting With Portals


Illustration by Hannah Groff http://dribbble.com/hannahgroff

[Videogames are about the instances when player, machine, and code meld together in a formless dance and produce something meaningful. Something memorable. An experience. A moment.]

 It was not meant to end like this.

Maybe you played Valve’s previous games. Half-Life. Opposing Force. Half-Life 2. Maybe you know that Valve are no stranger to ending their games on a bitter note, either with the player-character’s death or estrangement in otherwise unfortunate circumstances. Still, immolation to end a puzzle game all seems a bit much.

Things started simply enough. You awoke in a glass cell. You moved through a series of test chambers under the instructions of a friendly, automated female voice. The kind of voice that would probably go to the bar on a Friday afternoon with the Telstra and Centrelink answering machines. The kind of voice that would assure you she is a real person and of course you should say your password over the telephone. That voice taught you how to jump. How to move crates. How to use buttons to open doors. Most importantly, it taught you how to use the portal gun.

It’s a simple device. A gun. You play videogames. You know how to use a gun. But this gun doesn’t shoot bullets. It shoots portals: elliptic wormholes that open up on whichever surface you fire at. Left-click shoots the blue portal; right-click shoots the orange. The two can be traversed with a single step, folding the space between them. Want to go over there? Simply put one portal there, one portal here, and step through.

You had to dramatically change your conception of space, of how space is traversed. But that is okay. That was the point of the whole game. You did what the voice said. You solved puzzles in the “test chambers”. You sensed a story, sure, but one that was there for decoration. Like the castle in the background of Tetris. A story to justify your actions, not a story to engage with. Devices gotta be tested, right? That’s a good enough excuse to play. So you played. You tested.

But then things got weird. You wondered where all the other people were. What was that off-hand comment the voice made about cake? Did she just suggest you might be killed? What are those scribbles on the wall?

And then it is the final test chamber. There is a sign right there on the wall telling you as such. You jump onto the sliding platform on its monorail track. You use some portals to get around a wall blocking your path. You don’t even have to think about it anymore. Folding space to your whim has become second nature.

But then you round the corner. You see the flames. You see the rail descending into them along with the final seconds of your life. The woman’s voice assures you the portal device will be undamaged by the flames.

Portal’s slogan is “Now you’re thinking with portals”. You don’t think. If you think you will die. Instead you act. You shoot the blue portal on the wall, just above the licking tongues of the flames. You shoot the orange one on the far side of a maintenance walkway beyond the flames. You leap. You miss the flames and fall through the portal, landing of the platform, just in time to watch the platform sink into the fire.

Imagine you are playing Tetris and all of a sudden you figured how to walk away from the endlessly falling shapes and go to the castle. That just happened.

The voice tries to hide its alarm. It tells you to stay calm. That someone will come and “collect” you. You aren’t really listening anymore. You did something that simultaneously was the only thing you could do and exactly what you weren’t meant to. This isn’t a puzzle game anymore. Testing ended; play continues.

Above you, way above you, you spy a maintenance shaft and a small hole in the mesh. You see where portals might be placed so to propel yourself into the shaft, into the area between the test chambers. You place the portals and jump through. This isn’t a puzzle game. Oh no. Not anymore. This isn’t how it ends. This is how it begins.


Moments: No Russian

No Russian

Illustration by Hannah Groff http://dribbble.com/HannahGroff

[Videogames are about the instances when player, machine, and code meld together in a formless dance and produce something meaningful. Something memorable. An experience. A moment.]

You not entirely sure what your colonel was alluding to while he debriefed you during the loading screen of Modern Warfare 2’s third level. You do know you are going undercover to infiltrate a terrorist cell of ultranationalist Russians (always the Russians) to get close to their leader, Makarov. Your CO says “You don’t want to know what it has cost already to put you next to him.” But what does he mean when he adds, “It will cost a bit of yourself.”?

“But that is nothing compared to what you will save.”

So the level loads. The mission begins. First there are the sounds: a bag unzipping, the hum of machinery, ammo being clipped into guns.

Then the visuals fade in. You are in an elevator with three men. Each is wearing a Kevlar vest over their suit. Each is holding a rather large machine gun. Maybe you are surprised to see that, in fact, so are you. But probably you aren’t. After all, the point of the game is to shoot people, right? You move your crosshair over the one directly in front of you and his name pops up as is common for your allied companions: Makarov.

Makarov looks at you. “Remember,” he says. “No Russian.”

You wonder what me means by this as the lift doors open and the four of you walk out.

You are in an airport. A Russian airport. You are confused. This isn’t a Middle Eastern battlefield or a Russian castle full of commandos. This is not the kind of place you are used to shooting people in. The crowds queued at the security checkpoint don’t notice your group at first, but then the three men open fire.

Maybe you open fire as well. Maybe you roll your eyes and laugh at the very idea of a Modern Warfare game trying something this serious. But you know what? This isn’t about you. This is about me. I didn’t open fire. I sat there on my couch, with my controller in my hand, trembling. Unable to pull the trigger that would fire the gun at the civilians now running, screaming, and dying. I’ve fought waves of faceless soldiers. I’ve run over pedestrians by the city-full. I have built rollercoasters deliberately to send their passengers hurtling into the side of a mountain. Implicated in a massacre? That is something I have never been.

Bodies litter the ground. I follow the three men through the security gates as they beep and flash futilely. An injured woman is dragging herself away by her arms. A man is on his knees, begging. Makarov’s men mow them down.

We follow Makarov up the escalator and through the duty-free shops. More crowds. More firing. More screaming. The screaming is the worst. It just doesn’t stop. If I try, I can here the exact screams of that level in my mind. The problem is getting them out again.

“Run, you idiots!” I plead at my television screen. Why is that one not running? Why is he staying near that corpse? The men shoot him.

A cop jumps out from behind a wall and I shoot without thinking, dropping him. It gets easier, then. Not easy. Just easier. I have to shoot, surely, or else Makarov will get suspicious. I spray bullets past the fleeing, screaming people, deliberately missing. Occasionally, I shoot the injured. The other men will kill anyway, I justify to myself.

It’s horrifying. Absolutely horrifying. As we progress through the airport, I can’t run. The game forces me to walk, to move slowly past the ocean of corpses I’m implicit in. I keep repeating the CO’s line to me. This is nothing compared to what I will save. This is nothing compared to what I will save.

We move onto the runaway and, finally, face targets that shoot back. Russian SWAT. We fight out way through. The terror has been caused. Now we must escape.

We lose the SWAT through a fire escape into a side room. There is an ambulance waiting for our escape. The first man jumps on and helps Makarov up. He chuckles. “That will send them a message.”

Makarov turns and takes my hand to help me up next. “That was no message,” he says and shoots me in the head.

That is the message.”

The ambulance drives away as my character lies dying on a Russian runway. As the SWAT run up, ambivalent of the fleeing ambulance, I think about what just happened. The entire attack was staged just to leave my corpse amongst it. To have the Americans blamed.

I feel like throwing up.

Over the following stages, full-scale war breaks out between Russia and America. America says it is because they were framed by Russia for the attack. Maybe that is true. But as I fight the Russians through a variety of other playable characters, as I protect Washington DC, suburban streets, and fast food chains from the vengeful invades, there is no denying it: I was a part of that heinous crime. It cost a bit of myself, and I didn’t save a damn thing.

Some post-IGF suggestions, now that you’re hooked

Artwork by Porsha Marais www.porshamarais.com

Last time around, I promised I’d suggest a few cool indie games you might enjoy as you discover the ridiculously huge world of gaming. Amusingly enough, I had no idea The Edge was teaming up with IGF for their own awesome games event, so a few of of my choices are in the program. Fortunately, I can think of many, many others that are more than fine substitutions  as well as additions to your growing games library. Here are three you can grab NOW and two that are very promising works in progress. Continue reading

Risky business: Subtext in gaming

Illustration by Zac Smith-Cameron http://iamzac.deviantart.com/

Before you start, you might like to read Part 1 of Jasmine’s discussion of subtext in gaming.

Despite the ability of subtext to enrich games, its inclusion is often neglected for two main reasons: it is simply forgotten and it is risky.

In the first instance, today’s increased emphasis on a game’s mechanics, rapid prototyping and reiterations, story often becomes a secondary concern. This itself is not a bad thing – but it does mean that it is easy to be well into production before the game’s story is fully fleshed out – and that makes it extremely hard to retroactively create subtext. Afterall, you must have figured out what it is you want to say explicitly, if you want to be able to whisper it implicitly. That is most easily achieved if you have planned the story ahead of time and are able to communicate it to all of your team (so that each member can craft their contribution to implicitly support the narrative ) – but it does require a strong shared vision and perhaps even a sense of authorship among the team.

Secondly, subtext is often neglected as it too much of a risk to implement – both creatively and financially. Subtext asks that players bridge conceptual gaps – what happens when a player doesn’t or can’t do that? It can leave a player confused and unsatisfied.  It can be especially problematic if you wish for players outside your language/culture to understand the subtext you created, as metaphors and symbols can take on entirely new meanings in other cultures, rendering it impossible to understand or worse still, creating unintentional subtext. I have heard anecdotes about how one studio was forced to increase the amount of fingers of its cartoonish game’s character models for a Japan localisation, as less than five fingers is often associated with the yakuza – a case of accidentally creating subtext.

If the player does miss out on the subtext, it can also mean that hundreds of hours embedding narrative elements into the art and design was wasted – and time equals money. This makes relying on subtext an inherently risky prospect. For the risk-averse AAA studios, this makes developing subtext laden games an unappealing prospect, especially since it is impossible to quantitively measure the financial returns subtext makes for a game.

So, how can we easily create subtext in our games? A few ways that I have discovered in my limited experience:

  1. Plan early – Encapsulate a central message or feeling that you wish to convey. Discover this as early as possible, so that all your design/art/code decisions can all be made to further your message. Try to keep your message as simple as possible – it’s easier to convey and players are more likely to tune into your message.
  2. Show don’t tell – Does the player need the world background story to play the game? Is there a way for the player to know a character’s internal grief, besides being directly told? Always ask yourself: is this necessary ? Is there a way I can imply this to the player instead of directly telling them in a pop-up box? Try to limit using text as an exposition crutch. Find other ways to feed the information to the player.
  3. Lie to the player – GLADOS from Portal is a great example of this. It forces the player to really think about what they’re seeing/hearing.
  4. Rely less on traditional visuals – One of the fantastic thing about making games is that our palette includes so many things: 2d/3d graphics, text, sound fx, music, vfx, code, etc etc When designing it is easy to forget about all the tools at our disposal. It’s possible to setup some interesting dissonance for the player by using conflicting elements (ie cheery music during a morbid scene). If you can’t find a way to imply something visually, try a different element to imply it.
  5. Embed meaning into every asset – try to make sure that every asset in some way supports the message/feeling that you want to convey.
  6. Consider your audience – a subtextual reference to Icarus is probably going to go over children’s heads, but one to Red Riding Hood would probably be picked up on.

Creating subtext is hard work, but it creates richer, better games and is the great trick of creating works that have the potential to be true classics.

Beyond the edge of the screen

Illustration by Bec Todd

Illustration by Bec Todd www.bectodd.com

Here in 2011, say the word ‘game’ to people and it’s likely they’ll imagine some sort of digital and screen based experience. Whether it’s someone playing an Xbox or PlayStation game curled up on their couch, or a quick burst of Angry Birds on public transport, games have come into their cultural own through the mix of technology and art that have given us videogames.

This screen-centric view of the world is perhaps not that surprising when you look at the world that videogames were born into; one where film and television were the dominant entertainment industry on the planet  and one in which many contemporary game creators grew up.

With both of those things as constant pressure, is it any wonder that we frequently hear of games trying to be interactive movies or cinematic? Is it any wonder that when some filmmakers turn to critique games, they say that games can’t tell stories therefore are inherently a less worthy?

Telling stories is worthwhile, but if we use that as the benchmark for what is and isn’t worth creating, then we’re missing out on a whole range of human expression that doesn’t tell stories, and doesn’t feel the need to either.

Theatre, dance, music, visual art, and literature, all have a lot to teach us about how to create unique game experiences, as well as connect to our audiences in ways that building on a screen-driven or cinematic way of thinking can’t.  For example, a piece of theatre can construct its own internal grammar through the layout of the space, the sense of the abstract versus the concrete, the way it works to draw attention towards points of interest while never being able to entirely control the audience, and the way it engages with the audience’s imagination to fill in blanks deliberately left in the production. Dance is very much about form, about through the action and reaction to musical stimuli, and using physicality to express emotion and experience. It is about space and movement rather than about narrative or story. Music is about repetition, rhythm, assonance and dissonance, about expectation and harmony. Visual art is about form and composition, about scale and colour, about texture, and line and shape. Then, finally there is Literature which has long upheld the techniques of metaphor and structure.

The wonderful thing about all of the above is that videogames are at a point where they can draw from all of them, creating a whole world beyond cinema that’s just begging to be explored. New technology such as motion control lets us borrow from physical art-forms like dance; touch input lets as draw from tactile art forms like sculpture or painting; a leap back to older adventure games lets us exploit the metaphorical strengths of literature while creating contemporary experiences; pervasive and physical, almost theatrical, game design uncovers fascinating mixes of rules and fictions that draw players into real world interactions with powerful consequences.

It’s an exciting time to be a game developer. There are free middleware and tool solutions, tutorials and assets online, but most importantly a worldwide audience looking for unique and captivating experiences. Looking beyond the edge of the screen is one way of finding out what those experiences might look like.

iStreet Skills xChange rolls into Inala

The iStreet Skills xChange is a pilot project which aims to provide digital, social and literacy skills to disadvantaged Indigenous young people within their communities.

The project centres around the iStreet Lab, an ingenious mobile multimedia tool box built into a 240-litre wheelie bin built by international resident, mervin Jarman. The iStreet Lab, designed as a mobile production hub and training resource, contains a suite of high-end laptop computers, video and stills cameras, music recording equipment, an Xbox, projector, printer and scanner, all run off a battery and invertor.

The Lab supports a crew of young Inala locals, aged between 15 and 25. Some, like brothers MC Murriz and singer songwriter Hayden Maurirere, are emerging artists with a background in the creative arts. Others, like Dre and Terii had never before had the opportunity or inspiration to consider a career in media making.

As Hayden explains, the iStreet Lab represents a new future for many of its crew. “I grew up with nothing; I was bored and did bad things. I want to give kids a chance to have a different life.” Hayden is keen to use the Lab and the equipment that it offers to teach a new set of skills to the local Inala youth. “I never thought a chance like this would come; it’s really opened my eyes to new stuff.”

The Lab is also a point of pride for its young users. “I’ve told everyone in Inala already,” says Terii. “I told my brothers they didn’t believe me. I took a photo and showed him, and still didn’t believe, so I brought him here and that changed his mind.”

When he was younger Terii was a keen photographer. The gear in the iStreet Lab has given him the opportunity to reignite his passion and begin to pursue it with purpose and support. “When I carry that camera around I feel changed, and I want people to know what I can do.”

Join mervin and the crew as they celebrate with the Inala community at the launch of this inspiring project. Bring your mates and head on down to the Inala Civic Centre. Try your hand at being a DJ for a day, have a chat to the crew and see what the iStreet Lab can really do.

When: 3pm, 26 October
Where: Inala Civic Centre, Inala Avenue, Inala
This project is sponsored by Commonwealth Bank Australia, QUT and Juniper Networks Foundation. For more information on the project, see the project page.

Videogames: Levelling the playing field

Illustration by Josh Rufford www.ruffbat.com

Do you own a computer? Do you also own a gaming console? Do you own more than one gaming console?

For most gamers these days the answer is yes, yes and yes. With technology getting cheaper and cheaper video games becoming more and more accessible, people are able to play the exact same game on their work computer, console and even on their mobile phone.

Multi-platform release games are the norm now with developers looking to have as wide a market as possible. Every salesman knows the first rule of selling is to make your product as easy to buy as possible and it works, sales from videogames are much higher from services such as Steam (PC/MAC), Xbox, PlayStation and iTunes App stores then any physical store.

You can buy a game while walking around during lunch, work, school or at home watching TV, but all this accessibility and great technology is starting to give rise to a new frustration in gamers.

How come when I purchase a game for the Playstation 3 I can’t play that exact same game on my computer without having to fork out another $100? Or why do I have to buy a digital copy of a game when I’ve already bought a physical copy for the same system?

Ten years ago the reason for this was obvious, every computer and console game were worlds apart from each other in hardware and often no two consoles would even have the same game. When deciding on a console you were signing up for all the exclusive titles that particular system would release. If you had told me in a few years Mario and Sonic would be hanging out with each other at the Olympics I would have called you a dirty damn liar, but in reality this is the world we live in now.

With these developments in mind, the future of gaming looks hopeful. Very soon every system will be able to play the same games as each other and they will all have some sort of digital platform for selling their games.

This could mean some very significant developments for the gamer.

Firstly, if you buy a game on one system you would be able to play a digital copy of it on all other major consoles (remember the first rule of selling? Make your product as easy to buy as possible). For instance, if I own Console A and have a long list of games for it, I’m less likely to purchase Console B or even newer models of Console A, because in the current system buying a new console makes you feel redundant if you can’t play games on it you’ve technically already paid for.

Secondly, every digital purchase could be connected to a universal account that could be accessed by every console or computer under that name. This would cause sales to rise astronomically. The reason for this is that developers lose millions of dollars a year because of pre-owned games. They can only make money off selling a physical copy of a videogame once, so if somebody sells that game back to a store or online then the developer will never see another dollar from that sale.

If games were all digital copies then there would be no way to sell or trade them, meaning every copy would see a profit to the developer and the consumer who bought it would get to have this digital copy virtually forever.

This isn’t just one gamer’s pipe dream, recently the Playstation 3 version of Portal 2 contained a free digital copy of the game for use on PC and Mac computers. Not only tha,t but the online co-op was compatible with all systems meaning that someone on a Playstation could play with somebody playing on a PC.

This sort of company cooperation is going to be a hard sell to organisations who believe the future security of their brand is through remaining totally self reliant, but they will soon find that once others begin to do it they wont have any other option as consumers will always opt for this consumer friendly system.

The price of free-to-play gaming

Illustration by Josh Rufford

Illustration by Josh Rufford www.ruffoart.com

As far back as 1971 people have been playing video games. Since then there has been an interesting shift in the way we interact with the games of today. No, I’m not talking about motion control, touchscreens or 3D gaming, I’m talking about Free-to-Play gaming.

Back in the 70’s and early 80’s, the only way to access and play a video game was via arcade machines. With an arcade machine you were required to pay money for each life you would use up in a game. This commercial system dictated the sorts of games that were being developed. Developers made games which often never had an ending and would become increasingly difficult very quickly, prompting the consumer to either purchase more lives or simply move along so somebody else could feed money into it.

When home gaming consoles became the norm you no longer paid the developer for each life. You would buy a game outright and, as the commercial system changed from the arcade model, so did the inherent mechanics of video games. Games began to have a clear start, middle and end giving a sense of closure to the game once it had been beaten. Often a game would be more about the experience than the challenge. This has been the general model since the birth of the home console and still is, for the most part, the way games are made.

The interesting shift of Free-to-Play gaming ironically was borne from the polar opposite of the concept – subscription gaming. Games such as World of Warcraft and EVE Online require a monthly fee to be paid AFTER purchasing the game from a store, which means that even though you may have bought a game outright, you must still pay money to the publisher in order to continue playing the game.

This is where it gets interesting. The games began to give rise to a black market which was formed outside of the confines of the developers’ intentions. People started “paying to win” – trading real-world money in exchange for in-game money or items. This allowed them to artificially get ahead in-game instead of earning it as the game intended. This market is basically the premise of the Free-to-Play model.

Now, almost every month a new game is released that is marketed as “Free-to-Play”, the most notable at the moment being Global Agenda, Spiral Knights, and Age of Empires online. These games are actually Free-to-Play, you can download them, jump online to do battle, and play with others. A lot of them are very fun but when it comes down to it, the developers are out to make money.

So, how do they do it?

By taking control of the market they can sell “non-essential items” to players so they can customize their characters if they wish to do so, or even sell rare or impossible to obtain in-game items in order to turn a profit.

This might not sound so bad, but as with the commercial model shift from arcade machine to home console, this new model means drastic changes to the way the games are made.

Free-to-Play games are often made to be very addictive and entertaining – up to a point. You can spend hours on a game and really enjoy yourself, but you will inevitably hit a brick wall where all of a sudden you’re not leveling up as much as you once were, and all the items you find seem pale in comparison to the items offered in the beginning.

They are partial games, a fact which is only revealed once you have already invested a significant amount of your time in the game, and so you are left with two choices: abandon the game, leaving behind all of your hard work, or start paying fees and micro-transactions to try and rekindle your enjoyment.

These series of micro-transactions begin to accumulate and, coupled with the time spent on the game already, will often snowball into spending even more time and money on it. The micro-transactions are similar to the pay-per-life scheme of the arcade machines and, like the arcade machine model, the games don’t have an actual end to them. Potentially, developers have combined the pay-per-life scheme with the convenience of home gaming, sprinkled it with an addictive substance, and removed any possible feeling of closure a player might have playing it.

It’s an almost diabolical system, but it’s still early days in Free-to-Play history, so who knows how it will develop in the future.