Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Visual Evolution of Games

And now, for something a bit different. I'd like to tell a few little tales about computer games - specifically Fantasy-RPG games, how they have changed over the years that I have been playing them, and how they may evolve into the future.

When I was little, my Dad sometimes used to bring a terminal home from work so that he could "dial in" to work and... do whatever it was that he did at work (I was only about 10, I had no idea what coding was at that stage). This was late 80s, early 90s, and the terminal consisted of a largish CRT green-text screen, and a keyboard. Sometimes he'd let my brother and I type on it while it was disconnected.  We didn't know it wasn't connected though, and we used to try to work out what to type to make it do stuff. Sadly all it did was come up with errors, but we still enjoyed it for some reason.

One time when Dad brought it home, he said that the guys at work had been playing a game on it, called "Dungeon". He showed me how it worked - you typed in n, s, e or w and you would move in that direction, then there would be a description of the place you ended up. It was basically Dungeons & Dragons on a computer, and I loved it. Later Dad showed me all the maps that his workmates had made of the dungeon. I didn't get to play it much since Dad only had the terminal at home sometimes, but I remember it quite well.

Much later, when I was late-high-school-uni age, a friend introduced me to Discworld MUD. I'd been a fan of Terry Pratchett's series for ages, and the MUD was a chance to explore that world, albeit in a text-based environment. We played Discworld MUD for many years (including too much time during uni), and I later became a "Creator" and did a bit of coding that I don't think ever actually made it into the game, but I made a lot of friends there (including my husband!) and had a lot of fun. The MUD's still running, by the way, and looks like it still has a healthy playerbase, which is nice to know.

Previously I had also played a bit of the Discworld game that came out in 1995. That was the real chance to explore the Discworld, but I found myself thinking as I later played the MUD, how awesome it would be if we could play with other people in that graphical world rather than having to rely on text all the time. I wasn't aware at the time, but the first MMORPG, Ultima Online, was soon to be released.

I must admit that WoW is my first and only MMO.  I never played Ultima or Everquest, and originally had an aversion to paying monthly subscriptions when there were so many other games that I could play for free.  Once I did, however... I was hooked. It was like a cross between the social aspect of the MUD, and the beautiful graphical worlds in games such as Oblivion that I had played previously, plus the cuteness that I had loved about Warcraft II.

Of course we all know how beautiful MMOs are in general - I can't really comment on others since I haven't played them but I believe the artwork in each is amazing.

The Future: Part 1
Go and watch the video in this post on Geeks Are Sexy (and then come back!). It's a short film made entirely using software such as AfterEffects and Premiere. The result is incredible - as I watched it I couldn't believe that I wasn't looking at real places and objects.

CGI is used so much these days on TV and in movies that often we are unaware that what we are watching isn't real. Animation has improved so much since it was first used. Scenery has always been beautiful but early attempts at virtual characters were quiet jerky or robotic and didn't look real. As time has gone on we started seeing characters like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, and the characters in Avatar which, while obviously fantasy-based characters, looked and moved realistically.

The games coming out now are beautiful and cut scenes are becoming much more realistic, but the MMO genre has lagged behind other types of games a bit. Two games coming out soon that I'm looking forward to seeing in action are TERA, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. SWTOR will be a familiar universe to many but still promises to be a visual feast, and TERA is set in a new fantastic world and if the screenshots are anything to go by, will be spectacular.

Of course, Cataclysm will bring a fresh and updated look to the World of Warcraft. With new-look water and altered landscapes, the developers have really had an almost blank canvas to work with.  I'm sure our friends in the Beta could tell us about how things are looking, but I'm really looking forward to seeing the new (old) world with a new twist.

The Future:  Part 2
Otherland - Tad Williams
If you haven't read this series of four books I recommend them. It's set in a world where people have full immersion in virtual worlds - not just games, but worlds of every type. Think Azeroth, but while your body rests in some kind of facility, in your mind you're actually there, walking around and interacting with the world in an avatar. I suppose it's a bit like the Matrix in that you're plugging your brain into the network.

In the Otherland series, a selection of people around the world are trapped inside the virtual world, unable to "log off", then things start to go wrong with their worlds in horrible ways.  I couldn't put them down - go read :)

Could something like that ever be a reality? Perhaps - it's nice to imagine what it might be like. One of the problems faced in virtual worlds now that things can be made to look so realistic is that, in the real world, things are imperfect. To make things look imperfect is one thing, but making an object or virtual entity behave in an imperfect way seems a lot more complicated.

Think about how, in Wow, your character performs the same one or two animations each time you jump. But what if you were injured and couldn't jump so high or you were on uneven ground?  What if you stumbled and fell over, or you jumped into something and it affected the way you landed? While the result might be much more realistic, the mechanics that went into something being able to behave in many different ways is currently way beyond the time and budget of most software companies, but as processing power increases and people and software get more creative, who knows what could be possible?

Isn't it great to dream about what things could be like though?  To actually visit a real city like Dalaran?  To actually fly on a dragon? To eat wolf kebobs? To experience death from standing in a fire (hopefully with the pain turned down)? To cuddle a baby murloc?

Imagination is our only limit :)
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