Thursday, July 26, 2007

Groundbreaking design work at Develop 2007

Brighton, England

Develop Conference logoThis year the folks at the Develop Conference asked me to assemble a group of game designers and other folks who were working on the cutting edge of video gaming, or even beyond it, and create a conference session around them. I was hoping to achieve something like the annual Experimental Gameplay Workshop at the Game Developers' Conference, although I didn't get as many people as I would have liked - several that I invited were too busy to participate. However, I ended up with four interesting and inspiring speakers:

Philip BourkePhilip Bourke, an ICT Specialist from Tipperary Institute, showed off Xbox Brainbox, a toolkit that allows teachers to easily develop and share educational content, without having to learn a complex user interface. Students and others can then download the material to a variety of types of machine, including the Xbox and Zune. Xbox Brainbox even includes a facility for subtitling lectures, so as to allow localization of the material to other languages. A pilot version of the project is expected to go into Irish schools in a few months. Bear in mind that the whole thing was done by undergraduates!

Mark EylesMark Eyles, Principal Lecturer in the Advanced Games Research Group at the University of Portsmouth, spoke to us about his concept for Ambient Gaming. Ambient games are games that you can either play or ignore, a concept borrowed from Brian Eno's seminal 1976 album Music for Airports. Just as you can engage with ambient music at any level you choose, from listening closely to ignoring it entirely, so you can engage with the game at any level during your daily activities. In one version of his game, data from a pedometer that the player wears becomes an input that affects play. Mark went through his slides at a very high rate of speed and unfortunately dwelt more on introductory issues than was strictly necessary, so we didn't get the full benefit of his work. However, he has now put his slides online, in PDF (3 MB) and PowerPoint (9MB) formats.

Kate PullingerKate Pullinger, a successful novelist whose work has been reviewed in such places as the Times Literary Supplement and Cosmopolitan, gave us a demonstration of Inanimate Alice, an online interactive novel she's developing with digital artist Chris Joseph. The work has gotten a great deal of attention from the mainstream press, and it features a gradually increasing level of interactivity so it's not off-putting to gaming neophytes. Best of all, it's a serious story, not escapist fantasy stuff. In the first chapter a little girl and her mother are driving through an empty dark landscape in search of her father, becoming more and more worried, and Pullinger builds the tension with a sure hand... a far cry from the usual "your father has been kidnapped by trolls, you must go kill them" scenarios of the game industry. Kate does all kinds of things in both print and digital media, and I look forward to seeing more of her work.

Jolyon WebbJolyon Webb of TruSim, a little-known division of Blitz Games, rounded off the session. He began with a compelling argument for better facial and body animations in games, procedural animations that can correctly display the subtle differences between such states as "unrestrained joy" and "restrained joy." Jolyon also showed us some examples of their own work, using the most complicated facial animation rig I've ever seen. He then gave us a disturbingly realistic demo of their work on simulating the bodily reactions to serious injuries. In the demo we watched a (simulated!) man bleed to death, seeing his breathing and heart rate increase as they try to move blood around that isn't there. The work isn't intended for conventional entertainment but for specialized purposes such as training paramedics to do triage after a major disaster. This was some of the most advanced bodily simulation I've ever seen, but it's not ivory-tower stuff; it's eminently practical. This was a slightly revised version of the talk I saw at BECTA earlier in the year.

I had a good time at Develop, made a few connections and met up with a lot of old friends. As last year, it was a useful, well-run event in a convenient location -- convenient to me, at least, since Brighton is only 90 minutes away by train.