Archive for February, 2009

Under Renovation

Feb 28th, 2009

Please excuse any temporary glitches with the website. It is currently undergoing a period of renovation as I migrate all my content into the blog system. This will be accompanied with a minor redesign to take into account the new organisation. While this takes place there are likely to be a few minor issues with the functioning of the website as I have no access to an alternative web-server for testing.

I apologise for any inconvenience caused.

An Archive of Embarassment

Feb 27th, 2009

One of the problems with having grown up on-line is that you have your history packaged away and archived across the internet. If you know what took look for on Google Groups, you can find comments I made almost twelve years ago back in 1997. I was thirteen at the time, naive, and at times overly keen. There are incidents recorded on there which are still embarrassing for me, mistakes and misunderstandings which resulted in my accidental insulting of others and making myself come across a complete edjit in the process. I still want to apologise about one incident in particular, as technical problems prevented me from doing so properly at the time. At least all that is hidden away though, and isn’t something that will get turfed up with a simple Google. This website however is.

I first set up this website back in 1998, run from an old, long dead, Geocities account. Since then it has moved through several hosts, and has undergone redesigns in which I have committed every known sin of web design. However, while the layout has changed, most of the content has remained.

In 2002 I overhauled the site contents, establishing many of the sections that exist today; only the blog is a more recent addition, appearing first on Blogspot in the summer of 2004. At this point my website was already four years old, and contained a lot of content which no longer interested me, and in some cases frankly embarrassed me. I was however loath to abandon any of it, and it was instead filed away in a section called ‘the Warehouse.’

While the site has been redesigned since then, I haven’t done another overhaul of the contents. Many sections have been abandoned completely, whereas others have undergone hideous surgical procedures as I have attempted to account for vast changes in my life, without making fundamental changes to content. What is worse, is the site completely lacks date stamps, and ten year old pieces of art or writing sit as though part of a showcase, rather than a museum. Anyone stumbling on the bulk of my site now would confuse the ramblings of a fifteen year old me, for my twenty-four year old self; I’d like to think I had changes a bit since then.

Only the blog is current. New years resolutions are still being kept, and I’m keeping it updated, but more importantly timestamps keep old and new separate. Sure, there are still posts dated 2002, and even older archive material pulled together from the depths of my hard drive, but it is clearly labelled as such. I may be opening myself up to scrutiny which may make others uncomfortable, but at least it is obvious what people are looking at.

Which brings me to my main point. I need another overhaul, and I need to make use of the blog in the process. I have already started moving my content across to WordPress, filing it in currently inaccessible pages until such time as I can update the system to come. However even this is likely temporary, as eventually I imagine almost everything will be blog posts. Static pages will act only as anchors and indexes, capturing the redirects from the old structure. Meanwhile redundant content will be shifted elsewhere, photos moved to facebook and flickr, and badly dated playlists to last.fm. Categories will be tweaked to reflect what I’m actually taking about, rather than what I planned to talk about five years ago when I first started this blog, and I’ll look at ensuring that the most interesting content is flagged up, and brought to the forefront.

This restructuring will ensure that nothing gets lost, but that everything is presented in context. Old games will no longer be something I’m trying to push, but a reflection of me in the time I wrote them, but still available for anyone who may fish to play them. Meanwhile other information will be travelling, taking advantage of a web that is far more social than the one which existed back in 1998, 2002, or even 2004. The recently added Lifestream is a reflection of this, a me that is decentralised and spread over countless different websites, and I hope to begin to better reflect this in this website.

Now if only facebook would open up the API to allow the import of comments from my notes. The various plugins which scrub the HTML don’t seem to work.

This Week’s Tweets

Feb 25th, 2009
  • @PC_Gamer Excellent! You always manage to time your podcasts with when I have a long train journey coming up. #
  • About to head home, and tomorrow will head home-home. #
  • Ahhh. Westbro Baptists Church coming to protest in Basingstoke. They really are an obnoxious bunch of farts aren’t they? #
  • @andyvglnt This Friday apparently: http://tinyurl.com/beukp8 #
  • Okay, where have all my socks gone? I seem to have a load of pairless socks, even though they are all fairly new! #
  • Synching my MP3 player, which seems to have decided that ALL the files have changed. Grr! #
  • Bah! No Wifi on the train. I also left music player and headphones at home. #
  • Got home with little trouble. Tried to hop on to the WiFi in Birmingham, but couldn’t get a web connection. Was Ad-hoc though, odd. #
  • Just been to visit Nana. On the way back now, take away this evening #
  • Hmm, a friends wedding the week immediately after I ‘upgrade’ my undergrad degree. Do I have time to spare for both, or just the wedding? #
  • I wonder how many twitters you need to follow for tweets to come in as fast as you can read them. You could spend the entire day on twitter. #
  • @GOGcom I want a Good Old Game for free http://www.gog.com #GOGgiveaway #
  • @slummymummy The Tiger Who Came to Tea was my favourite book as a child. Got a pop-up anniversary edition from brother for last Christmas. #
  • Taste tested the new Walker’s flavours, Ready Salted won out, the rest were pretty grim, although Squirrel was passable. #
  • @thewllis I saw @charltonbrooker ‘s comments on the crisps, although can’t agree on the Onion Bajji, was grim. Not as bad as the breakfast. #
  • Oh, and I brought a mortar and pestle today, for those of you left hanging on Tuesday’s tweet! #
  • Read my first graphic novel, @neilhimself ‘s Sandman (Part 1). Not entirely convinced by the format, need to learn to ‘read’ the art. #
  • @andyvglnt I started with Sandman because I’m a @neilhimself fan. I felt it offered a good bridging point. I’ll look out for blankets though #
  • How silly. Board train to Edinburgh them change for another train to edinburgh. #
  • Bah! Standing. Glad I am not taking this one to Edinburgh. #
  • Help! Gmail is down. I hope the outage doesn’t last long! #
  • RT @bobbylocksville: http://twitpic.com/1nxvr – hahahah A rather quick response to gmail being down! V clever! #
  • @botherer Bah! I still can’t get mine. Lucky person. #
  • Our reliance on the internet is only going to increase with cloud computing. The loss of any major node could cause major problems. #
  • @Mikeystrong I could have been your first follower, but damn Downing Street had to get there first. #
  • @Jennymac22 Clearly 😉 #

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On art and games [Part 3]

Feb 22nd, 2009

With the third part of this series we move away from the more chronological approach, to considering styles, techniques and more overarching concepts.

Games on Tour

While computer and video games have a huge, global market, it is not a homogeneous one. Regions differ in terms of platform popularity and genre preference, as well as far more abstract concepts regarding perception, and the way games are played. The popularity of competitive gaming in South Korea for example is a familiar example, with the proportion of those playing on-line games being over three times that of Europe1 . However these regional differences don’t only influence game popularity and availability, but also in some games game content.

The need to localize games to different markets should be obvious. Language barriers are the most apparent consideration, as games require translation of text in the interface, instructions and within the game environment itself, such as signs. As voiced dialogue becomes more common, this can add the burden of employing regional voice actors, a costly endeavour. There also considerations of differences in standards, such as PAL and NTSC, as well as possible regional legal implications. Given all this, it is understandable that many localisations will also consider issues cultural issues, both with regard to marketing, and general comprehensibility.

One of the most influential effects of regionalised graphics is the consideration of local rules regarding censorship in rating. Some countries have particularly harsh restrictions on game content, with Germany being an oft quoted example, and one which has been previously discussed on this blog. Such rules will often result in the censorship of violence, replacing people with zombies or robots, and turning blood green. In the case of Team Fortress 2, the German edition replaces the gibs (body parts left behinds after a kill) with balloons and other party paraphernalia, a feature included in other versions in the form of ‘party mode.’ In Germany, computer and video games are classed as toys, and are thus forbidden from representing Nazi imagery, such as Swastikas. This has resulted in the modification of a large number of games, thanks to the frequency with which Nazis have been used to present an unambiguously evil, and yet real-world, enemy. In some games, such as the recent Lego Indiana Jones the need for regional differences have been avoided by removing the Nazi references from all versions of the game.

While violence bothers the Germans, sex causes trouble in the US. Unlike violence however, sex is still rare in mainstream titles, and is usually confined to low cut tops and ‘jiggle physics’2. However, Polish developer CD Projekt RED‘s game, The Witcher, featured a number of possible sex scenes, after which the player was ‘rewarded’ with cards showing scantily clad portraits of the women in question.3 However, in US edition, these cards were censored to be more ‘modest.’ Unlike changes in Germany, this change was not a legal requirement, but was likely an attempt to avoid gaining an adults-only (AO) rating, which would drastically restrict the commercial availability of the game.
As well as considerations of censorship and ratings, games also undergo changes due to marketing and other considerations. In many cases these are merely reflected in external factors, such as packaging design, which may reflect regional sensibilities. In other cases though, changes are more fundamental.

The game Megadrive Ristar, by Sonic Team, had several distinct changes between the Western and Japaneese releases. I’ll now discuss some of these changes, as well as identifying some of the other techniques used within the game.

WesternJapanese

Fig1a. Western (Top), Japanese (Bottom)

If you compare the western and Japanese screen-shots (Figure 1) you will notice a number of subtle differences. For example, compare the eyes of Ristar, the main yellow star like character. In the western screen-shot, Ristar’s expression looks more aggressive than the Japanese equivalent; the western version of the game uses sprites previously reserved for boss battles. A side a effect of this change is a reduction in the number of idle animations in the western versions, and a loss of some of the graphical subtlety. Similarly, a comparison of the flying bird-like enemy also shows that the western version uses more aggressive sprites. This difference is due to the greater marketability of cuteness in the Japanese markets, compared to the appeal of violence in western markets.

WesternJapanese

Fig 2. Western (Left) Japanese (Right)

Similar modifications have been made to other enemies (Figure 2), such although the changes are not universal and the majority of enemies have a consistent design between the two versions. Conversely however, some enemies have undergone more major changes.
WesternJapanese

Fig 3. Western (Top), Japanese (Bottom)


The enemy in figure 3 has undergone a distinctive redesign between the two versions. The original flying squirrel design having been replaced by a bat. Bats have less association with ‘cuteness’4 and are more strongly associated with horror. In other cases (Figure 4) the redesign is motivated by other reasons.
Fig 4. Japanese (left), Western (right)

Fig 4. Japanese (left), Western (right)

In this case the Japanese and western boss both function with the same mechanics, but have a distinct appearance. The Japanese boss is in the form of a cat, named Itamor, and acts as a visual pun based on the Japanese term for someone adverse to hot food, nekojita, or cat-tounge. As this visual pun will not work in other languages, in other versions the boss was changed to be an ice monster instead.

The Rest of Ristar

Fig 5. Example Enemy

Fig 5. Example Enemy


It is worth considering the rest of the graphical design in Ristar, a game which had enormous attention to detail. Backgrounds had several levels of parallax scrolling, and environments were richly animated. The game also paid close attention to developing a consistent graphical style. As seen in figure 5, as well as earlier figures, enemies had a simple, rounded style. Furthermore, each enemy was usually restricted to one or two tones, with each colour occupying a large region. With bosses (Figure 6), these colours were used to define progress, as they changes as the enemy was progressively hit. Through this the game achieves a cohesive feeling, and uses graphical feedback to inform the player of their progress. In other games, similar graphical feedback is provided in boss battles, such as through progressively applying damage to the boss sprite or model.

Snake-No hitsSnake - One HitFigure 6. The Boss changes colour as it is hit

Figure 6. The Boss changes colour as it is hit


The backgrounds of Ristar were not solely background illustration. In some parts of the game they provided points of interaction, allowing the player to tear back areas of background to reveal items or enemies. In other sections the player could actually pass into regions of the level which previously appeared to be part of the background.
Fig 7.

Fig 7.


In the screen-shot above (figure 7) you can see a character in the background, just to the right of Ristar. This enemy would regularly throw pieces of fruit into the foreground, which would injure Ristar if they struck him. enemies in the background are inaccessible, and will dominate over a large section of the level, giving a sense of foreboding, over the remainder of the level. This was further exaggerated by dropping the light levels, and forcing the player to hit lamps to increase the available light (Figure 8).
Figure 8

Figure 8

In later sections the background is also used to foreshadow coming enemies, be it on a television monitor, or as a distant overbearing threat.

The control of the background is a popular technique in many games, and has even made the shift into the three dimensional era. In Half-Life 2 and its episodes, Valve used the tall structure of the citadel to provide a point visible over large portions of the game. In the first game this provided an eventual target, and source of oppression, whereas in episode one, the citadel provided a constant reminder of the threat which the player needed to escape from. The background video-screens also performed a similar role, presenting Breen as an overarching figure of oppression, one which exists from the very opening moments of the game. This imagery borrows heavily from Orwell’s 1984, and thus is able to communicate a huge amount of information to any player familiar with the book.

And so…

Part 3 was largely concerned with looking at some of the ways in which game graphics and illustrations vary regionally. In particular, it focused on some of the changes made to the Megadrive Game Ristar. I then used Ristar as a jumping point to consider some of the techniques it employed to create consistency, broadcast information and create atmosphere. It is likely that many of these techniques will be revisited in later entries.

  1. This Gaming Life, Jim Rossingol, 2008, University of Michigan Press, ISBN-10: 0-472-11635-5 []
  2. Jiggle physics is a term used to describe the way in which breasts are made to ‘bounce’ in response to movement. While it could be used to increase realism, it is more commonly exploited for gratification of the straight male (or gay female) gamer. []
  3. Many kilobytes have been spent elsewhere discussing whether these cards are sexist and objectify women, and how this fits in with the larger scope of the game. I shall not be covering this discussion here as I have not yet finished the game itself, and the topic is somewhat irrelevant to this entry. []
  4. Although personally I think they are cute []

Travels with technology

Feb 19th, 2009

Phone, iRiver, DS, Wind; the number of pieces of technology I travel with is a bit silly, or would be if I didn’t forget to pack things. Yesterday I synched my iRiver, downloaded a couple of podcasts, and got it charged up. I then left it on my desk. Even more annoying I also left my headphones, meaning I can’t even use my laptop to listen to music or play any games which require sound; not unless I want to be murdered by my fellow passengers anyway.
I also have the annoyance that Virgin don’t seem to have wised up to the fact that it is 2008, and so my search for wireless networks yields nothing. I’ll be on this particular train for four hours, so would have been willing to pay a small amount as well. Instead I’ve resorted to composing blog entries in word, and tweeting via text. This should probably worry me, as it does somewhat speak of an internet addiction.
Of course, the time could have been useful. I’m writing a short story at the moment for instance. But it exists on my desktop, and stupid me forgot to sync it across. There is also the ‘On art and games’ entry I’m writing, which again exists on my server. This is one of those times where cloud computing would be fantastic, except I can’t access the cloud.
So how am I posting this? Well the answer it, I cheated. When this actually goes up on my blog I’ll be safely home (or will have died horrifically in a train crash, the following entry being published posthumously). I’ll fiddle the time stamps though, because after all, no one reads the bloody thing anyway, so it’s not like it really matters.