Saturday, September 10, 2005

Simple Tools, Powerful Results

I second my wife's comments. I loved my old StarTac. Simple and elegant, it did the things I needed it to do, and did them well.

Many companies fail to appreciate the "less is more" rule when it comes to product design. I work in the software industry, which is perhaps more guilty of loading additional, marginal features into its products than any other. In fact it's such a common sin, Google is able to generate an amazing amount of press coverage by the mere fact it features less than 50 words on its homepage.

What the designers of Google and of the iPod understand is that their products are tools.

When we think of a tool, we think of a device that help us gain a mechanical or mental advantage in solving a problem. Use of a tool is a deliberate act; we select a tool appropriate for a given situation and apply it. The best tools are therefore ones that are obviously suited to a particular task and whoose performance can be predicted.

Most software and many electronic gadgets fail this test miserably.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Just a Phone, Please

Convergence is so over-rated.

I've been reading the buzz on Apple's most recent "BIG" announcement - the Motorola Rokr phone that plays iTunes.

Horrible idea. The whole reason I listen to music is to disconnect from my information-overloaded world. My fellow commuters wearing familiar white earbuds are probably thinking the same thing. For a brief 20-30 minutes while the train takes them to work, they get a little repose from electronic bombardment; not to mention enough distraction to make you forget you are being squished into a metal subway car like a sardine.

Why must my mobile phone play music, take pictures, play games, send email, or browse the web? What is so wrong with Just a phone!

While there certainly is a market for people who want the everything device - not me. I want my phone to be a good phone. I want good reception, a nice address book, a simple interface with buttons I don't have to sharpen my nails into a fine point to push.

I like my iPod because it is a music player and no more. I can change songs, change the volume, pause so easily I don't even need to look at it. It is an ergonomic pleasure.

My phone by contrast, is a convergence nightmare. It does not have a camera (I hunted high and low for this "feature" - in my professional environment, people do not take to kindly to handheld cameras; so if your phone has a camera you are asking to check it at the door of every building you walk into.) It does however have infinite possibilities to play games, ring tones, change the wallpaper, browse the internet, and who knows what else. I spent endless hours trying to configure this thing to hide all that and make it easy to do the only three things I want my phone to do - answer calls, look-up addresses, and check voicemail. These days, you can hardly find a phone that doesn't also do these other functions (this is why they are now "Mobile Devices").

But in honesty, all I want is my old Motorola StarTac back. It doesn't play Bananrama's greatest hits; it doesn't have to. It was just a really good mobile phone.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Graphics and the Adventure Game

One of the genres that gets very little attention as a result of the hit-clustering mentality of the gaming industry today is the adventure. The adventure game has a very long pedigree and is closely aligned with an interesting offshoot of literature called interactive fiction. It also has a small group of fans that will buy virtually anything that's published in the field. I know; I'm one of them.

When I got my start in computer gaming, adventures were everywhere. There were text-based paser adventures, such as Zork and King's Quest. There were point-and-click adventures with verb-noun interfaces, such as Maniac Mansion and the Secret of Monkey Island. For a time, adventure games were the bread and butter for big publishers like Sierra and Lucasarts. What happened? Was Infocom eaten by a grue?

No, it was eaten by Activision, which later happened to secure the rights to make a sequel to a hot little property called Wolfenstein 3-D. Maybe you've heard of it.

You see, what happened to the computer game industry was a revolution. The first-person shooter phenomenon shook the industry to its roots. For a long time, playing a game on a computer was a secondary consideration. The primary purpose of a computer was to get work done, strange as that may seem now....

What happened was that first-person shooters were tremendously exciting. They put the player at the middle of the action, which was conducted in real-time. Not the turn-based scenarios of earlier games. It combined the immediacy of the console with the superior graphics of the personal computer.

Adventures suffered from a few drawbacks that made them very, very uncool. From an industry perspective, they were uncool because they didn't push the technology. The primary determinant of the quality of an adventure game was its story, characters, and puzzles. The primary determinant of the FPS was its immediacy and the player's immersion. That meant a whole series of new technologies were needed: graphics accelerator cards, sound cards, monitors, mice, etc. FPS was a killer app for a range of technologies.

FPSs also had an advantage in that for a long time it was easier to make a better game simply by making a better looking or better sounding game. This is quite different from adventures, where to this day, you can stir up trouble in message forums with a "which Monkey Island do you like best?" question. Adventure games rely on their storytelling, which puts a premium on the expensive, difficult to manage creative types. Developing an FPS requires a team of down to earth engineering types to focus on details like getting a virtual wooden crate to appear to fall toward the earth due to gravity.

Most of all, the adventure genre faded because they attempted to play the game on FPS turf. Though Grim Fandango was critically acclaimed, and used 3-D, from a gameplay point of view it was a step backwards. Rather than spending time on the puzzles or dialog, gamers spent most of their time driving their characters around, WASD style -- something that had nothing to do with the point of the game. It led to platform-itis, a dumbing down of the genre to be a mere hunt for collectible items in the game world. And how much fun is that, after the age of ten?

Well, quite a bit, given the success of the MMORPG. But while the experience is fun, it just doesn't have the depth us old-schoolers remember. So sure, I'll finish this post and grind out a few more levels in World of Warcraft, but secretly, I'll wish I could type "open mailbox" again into a stark, black screen.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Gaming History

My wife played a few of Sierra's Quest series games back in the day, as did I. Actually, we both still remember the heyday of the text adventure. (We didn't need no stinkin' graphics back then.) That's why I was surprised to learn that despite our shared love for adventure games, she'd never played any adventures by Lucasarts.

I know, I know, it's shocking.

So I determined that she needed to experience all these fantastic games, if only so she could understand some of the odd things I said at the oddest moments. Digging through my archives, I maanaged to find copies of Curse of Monkey Island and Escape from Monkey Island, both of which still run under Windows XP. We're midway through Escape now. But what of all the older Lucasarts gems? For that, I had to turn to ScummVM. I found out about it at Ron Gilbert's blog Grumpy Gamer. (Ron Gilbert was the mastermind behind the original SCUMM engine, which, in various incarnations, drove classics like Maniac Mansion, the Moneky Island series, several Indiana Jones games, and others.) Suddenly, this vast treasure trove of gaming goodness opened up for us.

This made me realize, that in addition to helping me relive my childhood, the ScummVM team, and the emulator crowd in general, are doing us a great favor when they port older games to new platforms. This is gaming history. These earlier games, crude though they may seem at times, helped to define the genres we know today. Ten, twenty, or one hundred years from now, people will think, "How did all this get started?" We've lost in the mists of antiquity the firsts of other great media revolutions. It's good to know that our computer, arcade, and console gaming history will not be lost as well.