Author Archives: David Mullich

Games To Challenge Your Dreams, Perceptions, and Sanity at the USC GamePipe Lab Fall 18 Showcase

Twice a year I attend demo days at the University of Southern California’s GamePipe Showcase to see what game engineering students in the world-renowned USC Games program have accomplished. This semi-annual event features the work of multidisciplinary, collaborative teams of programmers, artists and game designers, who demonstrate to event attendees the games they conceived, designed and built for various platforms, including mobile and virtual reality.

Last week I attended the Fall Showcase event hosted by USC Viterbi School of Engineering Professor Mike Zyda at the USC GamePipe Laboratory EGG-Building, where the first few month’s results of the student teams’ collaboration, creativity and engineering is unveiled. I made sure to arrive early this time, and so I had a full three hours to play the video games on display.

Here are some of the projects that captured my attention.

Awakened Dreams

This third-person,fantasy action-adventure game began with me navigating a meteor to a Los Angeles street, where the meteor transformed into a young boy named Ray. My control transfers to Ray, and as I explored the surrounding area, I encountered Ray’s one and only friend, Sammy, and watched as he accidentally stepped into another dimension and is kidnapped by the creatures that inhabit the other side. Devastated by the loss of his friend, Ray vows to do all he can to get his friend back. As I moved Ray to a bus stop, he came face to face with Mirror Baba, an eccentric hermit who covers his clothes in mirror shards. Ray convinces Mirror Baba to help him get his friend back but the Mirror Man warns him that there will be a price to pay to get Sammy back. And it might cost Ray everything that he is, or ever will be, to do it.

The game’s designer, Miray Hepguler, explained to me that the game is about Ray’s transcendental journey to discover who he truly is. Adapted from the Sufi book Awakened Dreams, written by Ahmet Hilmi in 1910. Like the book, the game explores philosophical concepts about the self, perception, and the nature of reality through its story-driven gameplay.

These are lofty and commendable goals, but at this early stage, it’s the gameplay that needs focus going onward: filling out the environments, amping up the action, and providing more choices in the dialog so that the player is participating in the story rather than reading it.  Still, the skeleton is there, and I’ll look forward to seeing what progress Miray and her team makes in fulfilling their vision over the next five months of development.

OrthoIso

This platformer puzzle game is about the little frog Iso’s journey to find his explorer father in a world of optical illusion. Each puzzle is involves platforms constructed with cubic blocks and controllable widgets, and to reach each platform in the level, I had to jump and activate elevators and other widgets to reach the next higher platform. However, I soon found that many locations to which I needed to travel were just too high for me to reach.

But wait! The game’s name, OrthoIso, comes from Orthographic projection and Isometric views. Each level can be seen in three different views, and two surfaces which appeared to be far apart in one view were adjacent to another in another view — a consequence of seeing a 3D world from a 2D perspective. And so, I solved the various traverse puzzles by constantly changing the view to create the path that would lead me to the block or widget I needed to reach.

This was the most polished game at the Showcase. It was challenging, attractive, and clever. Project leader Yansen Sheng and his development team have created a game that looks to be a winner, and I wouldn’t be surprised the team lands a publishing deal when the game is completed!  While waiting for that day, you can learn more about the game at OrthoIso.

Virtual Model Home

This virtual reality application isn’t a game but a tool for buying a house and customizing wall/floor textures and colors to users’ liking so that they can create their dream home.  I found it easy to move about the virtual model home, move furniture, and change wall colors and textures.  Going forward, I’d like to see the team provide a broader range of decorating options for users to explore. You can learn more about this application here: Virtual Model Home

WordPlay VR

I love Words With Friends, I love virtual reality, and I love serious games, so I was eager to play this VR puzzle game that offers the player with Parkinson’s disorder an opportunity to attend a rehabilitation session without actually giving him/her the notion of being in one.

When I donned the headset, I found myself immersed in an environment that was a cross between a mountain forest and a game show set. A list of topics appeared before me, and I chose “animals.” The game then tasked me with using the hand controllers to collect the appropriate letters from among those scattered around me to fill in the empty letter boxes and complete the name of the animal. Sounds easy, right? The trick is that there are lots of letters scattered about, and the word needs to be filled in with the correct letters before a timer counts down.

Although I fit the target demographic of 55 years or older, I thought this VR version of hangman needed timer audio to ramp up the tension of time running out, more polish and vibrancy for the graphics. Still, as team member Arpit Sharma cautioned me, Wordplay VR wasn’t designed for gamers — its serves a much more specific audience. Every year, 50-68% of people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) experience one or more falls related to walking. As a result, many clinical interventions have emphasized walking training such as obstacle negotiation. However, multiple clinics encounter limitations where dynamic walking environments are difficult to simulate in a clinical setting.

WIth its immersive virtual reality setting, WordPlay VR offers the player an opportunity to attend a rehabilitation session without actually giving him/her the notion of being in one. The main idea behind the game is to provide the player with an opportunity to perform several types of exercise in the game in a manner that trains his/her afflicted muscles. These exercises will help develop his motor-system to function better and eventually lead him to a path of recovery from the dreaded disease.

Now that grabs me. You can find out more at WordPlay VR.

Despite spending a full three hours at the Showcase, I didn’t have time to play any of the mobile games the USC GamePipe Lab students were developing, as well as some of the other AR/VR experiences.  Fortunately, there is a website where you can learn about every game on display this semester: USC GamePipe Fall Showcase 2018.

Commemorating SpaceWar! And Its Pioneering Developers

My manager at a game publishing company I worked at years ago came out of the film industry, and as I was discussing some of the early videogames that had influenced me, he interrupted me to say that he had no idea that gamers had such a sense of history.  Just as film buffs love classic movies, many of us gamers love so-called retrogames.  We are drawn to them not just out of nostalgia for different eras, but also out of appreciation for their originality, inventiveness, and elegant simplicity.  Also, those of us who know our game history realize that game developers reach the heights that they do only because they are, to use a well-worn but appropriate phrase, standing on the shoulders of giants.

And so last week I was thrilled to be invited to attend Innovative Lives: The Pioneers of Spacewar!, an event honoring the developers of a 1962 video game that helped launch our industry, hosted by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington. DC.  The event brought together, for the very first time in sixty years, seven of the game’s remaining developers — Dan Edwards, Martin (“Shag”) Graetz, Steven Piner, Steve (“Slug”) Russell, Peter Samson, Robert Saunders and Wayne Wiitanen — to discuss the development of their influential video game.

During a cocktail reception before the panel discussion, Lemelson Center director Arthur Daemmrich explained to me how fortunate it was that many of the pioneers of the video game industry were still alive to be interviewed and have their memories and insights recorded for posterity, and that was part of the impetus for hosting this event.  Such first-hand recollections allow us to understand the personalities, technologies and social forces that came together to make interactive entertainment one of the most successful industries of all time.

When it was time for the honorees take the stage, I was pleasantly surprised how energetic and enthusiastic these seven octogenarians were.  During the panel, moderated by Bethesda founder Christopher Weaver, they recalled how, in 1961, they were all either students or employees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) had donated PDP-1 minicomputer for educational purposes to complement the older TX-0 in MIT Electrical Engineering Department. Even before it arrived, they began brainstorming ideas for programs that would demonstrate the new computer’s capabilities in a compelling way.

It was Russell, Graetz, and Wiitanen who came up with the idea for Spacewar!  They wanted to show off the PDP-1’s display capabilities and thought that making a two-dimensional maneuvering program would be a good approach, and being science fiction enthusiasts, decided that the obvious thing to do was spaceships.  Professor Jack Dennis, who was responsible for the PDP-1, thought this was a great educational opportunity for the students.  In exchange for giving them time to make their game, he asked them to port the TX-O’s operating system to the PDP-1 over a 3-day weekend. His only other requirement was that they not break the computer.

Fortunately, they found the PDP-1 easy to program. Also, two of the students were members of the Tech Model Railroad Club and their knowledge of track relays and circuits helped them to devise the game’s logic. They decided to have the gameplay involve two monochrome spaceships< called "the needle" and "the wedge", attempting to shoot torpedoes at one another while maneuvering on a two-dimensional plane in the gravity well of a star, The ships followed Newtonian physics, remaining in motion even when the player is not accelerating, though the ships can rotate at a constant rate without inertia. The sun in the center of the screen was created as an element the player couldn't control; it helped make SpaceWar! a game of skill.

To make Spacewar! easier for beginning players who founded themselves surrounded by torpedoes, the team added a hyperspace jump feature that players could use to vanish from tough situations, but to keep the feature from being abused, they had the ship reappear at a random position — possibly even a more dangerous one. They also balanced the skill of skilled players by limiting the amount of fuel and torpedoes available to them.

Because of the PDP-1’s limited processing power, the team found that the computer could not have every game element obey real-world physics and update the screen at an acceptable rate. So they decided that the torpedoes fired by the ships would not be affected by the gravitational pull of the star (they were “photon torpedoes”, one of the panelists jokingly explained). However, the team did allow for the game’s starfield to be based on a real star chart, with the star positions modified based on the seasons.

Spacewar! did not work immediately because Russell was “lazy” and didn’t want to write a sine and cosine function for the game. The team eventually got functions from someone else, and Russell emulated these for the game to make it work correctly. The final game worked so well that DEC used it to test its other computers to ensure they were operating at proper performance rates.

Spacewar! was extremely popular in the university programming community in the 1960s. The MIT team made the game public, and other students recreated it on the minicomputer and mainframe computers of the time. Computer scientist Alan Kay noted that “the game of Spacewar! blossoms spontaneously wherever there is a graphics display connected to a computer.” By 1972 the game was well-known enough in the programming community that Rolling Stone sponsored the “Intergalactic Spacewar! Olympics.”

In the early 1970s, Spacewar! migrated from large computer systems to a commercial setting as it formed the basis for the first two coin-operated video games. Some of the games that were influenced by Spacewar! include Computer Space, developed by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, which would become the first commercially sold arcade video game and the first widely available video game of any kind, as well as Orbitwar (1974), Space Wars (1977), Space War (1978) and Asteroids (1979).

It should come as no surprise that at the conclusion of the panel, Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences president Meggan Scavio presented these developers with the organization’s Pioneer Award, honoring individuals whose career-spanning work has helped shape and define the interactive entertainment industry through the creation of a technological approach or the introduction of a new genre. As the Spacewar! creators became the AIAS’ ninth through fifteenth Pioneer Award recipients, we in the audience — which included such other video game pioneers as Ultima creator Richard Garriott, Deus Ex creator Warren Spector, Zork creator Dave Lebling, and Defender creator Eugene Jarvis — gave them a rousing standing ovation, for the game industry would probably not be what it is today without their contributions.