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8:46 AM on 11.14.2008

Astronomy in games: does a realistic sky make a difference?

Wouldn't you like just sitting back and enjoying the night sky in a game, knowing that what you see is a perfect represenation of the actual night sky? It is true, a pretty night sky captures the eye (as most WoW players can testify) and there is no prettier sky than the only one we earthlings have had the chance to see, give or take a few planets, moons and nebulae.

Today I was having a conversation with two friends of mine, one of them also a user of Destructoid. The kick-off for the conversation and the inspiration for this blog post was me complaining that Fallout 3 had a completely messed up night sky. I recalled my first experience with this upon exiting the elementary school close to the beginning of the game. The stars were all tiny grey dots of the same brightness. No constellations of course, nothing. It didn't even have any significantly brighter stars that could form any shapes. Of course, that's totally different than anything anyone can see if they look up at night in the real world. To top it off, at some point I had a look at the moon. It's position in the sky was totally wrong compared to its phase, a relationship which can normally be defined with two basic rules: A new moon is close to the sun so it sets a bit after the sun and rises a bit after the sun as well and the full moon rises when the sun sets and sets when the sun rises anew. This was completey screwed up as far as I observed in Fallout 3. As if that wasn't enough, upon closer inspection the starry sky did not move at all. Instead, the moon was moving against the backdrop of a frozen sky, setting south-east. That is wrong in so many levels I cannot begin to describe. Surely the nukes didn't stop the earth from rotating? Even if they did, there's still night and day!

My friends told me that I had not grasped the feeling of the game, that I was looking at the sky when the game was NOT about looking at the sky (which in turn means that anything not directly related to the main focus of the game is perfectly OK to be made with minimal attention paid to it but whatever) and that since Fallout 3 takes place in an imaginary, alternative universe, the creators do not have to realistically depict the sky as it is today in the real world. But... Even though Washington D.C. features in the game complete with existing roads (correct me if I'm wrong) isn't it safe to assume that the sky is the same as it was hundreds of years ago in-game? We're not talking about a completely different universe, say Oblivion's or WoW's universe, but one pretty close to our own experience and one that derives from it and uses it to make said universe hit us harder emotionally, make us feel that we're actually on Earth as it would be centuries after a nuclear war. Is creative freedom this powerful when talking about the imaginary based on reality? Why be realistic when it comes to sun movement but not care about the movement of the moon or the sky in general? Would a sun rising at 6PM be OK because it's Bethesda making a game about something NOT real? At the end of the day, "who cares?" or "Hang on, I'll call the care police". That's what my friends were saying and no doubt many of you.

Truth is I can see where they're coming from. In this day and age observation of the sky is trivial at best. Erroneous night skies make their apperance everywhere from movies to novels to games... People don't know better so they don't really care (developers in turn don't care either).The sky we see today is fundamentally the same sky people of ancient times wondered at and worshiped and the same sky Copernicus observed and realised that the earth rotates around the sun and it's not the other way around. Till the 20th century, the sky was an excellent guidepost, the stars always pointing towards the right direction. Even the first foundations of time-keeping were based on the movements of the sky and moon (let alone the sun) and when during the night certain constellations appear. See Orion rise right after sunset and it's winter alright, follow the direction of Polaris, the current pole star and you'll be visiting the polar bears. And so forth. Today of course these observations aren't at all useful for everyday life so the sky remains up there enchanting everyone with its beauty but giving little useful incentive for further exploration of tis workings and secrets.

I won't lie, less than 2 years ago I was one of many, thinking that the night sky is pretty but difficult to get to know. The movements of the planets, the moon, why the sun rises and sets when it does and what the equinoxes mean eluded me. At least, though, I knew from a very early age that the earth rotates around itself anti-clockwise and that this is what actually makes the starry sky move, as well as the sun and moon, from east to west. And finding out how the rest of this stuff works wasn't that hard at all. Since then I have been able to spot mistakes almost everywhere.

The final question is: Does it all matter? If both people making the game and playing the game can't tell the difference, does it matter? I'll compare the whole thing with having a game take place during a specific time period, say the Middle Ages in England. The game is superb in every way but the buildings aren't correct or something else isn't right, say the language spoken or a piece of armour. Few people will notice, but those which are fascinated by history and historical accuracy will promptly spot the mistake and instantly lose a bit of interest/immersion for the game. Maybe it's not a great analogy because portraying an accurate sky is much easier than certifying the historical accuracy of a certain piece of armour and historical accuracy is much more important sometimes than having a correct decorative backdrop for a game's universe. Cause it is true. In the end, it's all decoration with few gameplay implications, just like the building or the armour. But can we really justify these "astro-errors that were willingly introduced and indicate a profound lack of attention to easily checkable detail" (sic), using only the argument that nobody cares enough? Well, I care! And I'm certain that especially Fallout 3 must have attracted quite a number of people that will have spotted the same thing. Not to say that other games sport a richer nightly display; I've yet to encounter a game that has it right (with the exception of Wii's Weather Channel -- no, it's not a game, I know).

Even if we break this down to pure aesthetics, which one of these would you prefer?


Or this:

Creating a perfect recreation of the sky isn't all that hard. It may be harder than creating a dark background with lighter dots and leaving it that but I believe the coding required for the former would be easy. The skies would be realistic, pretty and keep all the astronomy buffs like me quiet and agreeable.

Further reading:

Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Norton, 2007
especially Chapter 39: Hollywood Nights

If interested in astronomy and digital observation of the real night sky (and a model game programmers could use), try Celestia or Stellarium, both excellent open-source programs with slightly different focus each.   read

9:07 AM on 06.28.2008

EA deleting negative comments on Spore page?

I saw something that really concerns me:

EA is apparently erasing comments that have to do with the notorious DRM of the game (3 installations) etc. This has never happened before. It's SCANDALOUS! EA is seriously pushing great barriers here, but people are supporting them! Something has to be done.   read

12:08 PM on 06.20.2008

My first Spore creatures and some comments!

This is inspired by the Mulefa from the His Dark Materials books.

Couldn't resist...

Would be a great predator, if he didn't have just one eye!

My game-illiterate girlfriend made this. Nice eh?

Will this thing ever be able to fly?

How cuuuute!

I am very excited about this game. I am. But the creature creator wasn't perfect. There are some things that bother me. For instance:

1. Symmetry is required. You cannot just place a body part at a random place. If you want just one to appear, it has to be at the extreme ends of the creature.

2. There are some graphics collision issues concerning the creatures with the strangest morphology.

3. I have my vicious Barracuda-faced creature whistle and click like a dolphin! While it's clever to have the voice of the creature depending on its head, it should be possible to choose. I mean come on, people will sooner laugh their heads off than crap their pants when they hear my T-Rex's seal roar!

4. As far as I know, spine manipulation is 2-D.

5. Can creatures with wings actually fly?

6. You can't put anything on the ends of arms or legs apart from mouths and hands/feet. Why?

Well that's it for now... Even with these qualms, I think that the creature creator is very fun! Everybody out there get it, or at least the demo!   read

6:33 AM on 05.16.2008

Uncommon Ways: A Subjective Look At Rare's Ventures On The Xbox 360

I got myself an Xbox 360 last Christmas. It was purely coincidential (or was it?) that I found the premium edition along with Perfect Dark Zero and NFS: Carbon for only 120 euros new. If it wasn't for that super bargain I may not had been writing these lines about one of my most liked developers: Rare.

Up till then, I had been chiefly a Nintendo gamer; as such I had played and loved most Rare games after Donkey Kong Country, even the more obscure ones like Jet Force Gemini or Blast Corps. Classics like Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong Country 3 and GoldenEye all enjoy the view from the top of my favourite game list. Obviously, I was full of anticipation when the GameCube was just getting released, sure that Rare's slew of great games would continue on Nintendo's latest console. The announcement of Microsoft buying and Nintendo selling hit me hard. I knew I wouldn't be playing Perfect Dark Zero or Donkey Kong Racing any time soon, if at all.

Things didn't change much during last gen since Rare wasn't all that active during that period. I didn't even try Star Fox Adventures (though I'd like to try it now)... Games Rare designed for the original Xbox seemed heretical to my preteen eyes, as anything they made could only be associated with Nintendo in my book.

When I got that Xbox 360 with Perfect Dark Zero, again I didn't expect much from the game. I remembered hearing a lot of criticism during X360's launch... How the game had little to do with the original and how Rare had dropped the ball for its first major release since the buyout. Sceptical, I tried it for a few hours and indeed, the game was a total disappointment. I couldn't understand how they could mess it up so much. But the worst had still to come.

Let's have a look at Kameo: a new IP in Rare's arsenal, Kameo was first shown along with Donkey Kong Racing as the games they were working on for GameCube's launch window. When within that same window fell the company's trade of hands Kameo was moved to Xbox and Donkey Kong Racing was, of course, cancelled. The former reappeared after a second delay as a launch title for Microsoft's new console hand-in-hand with Perfect Dark Zero, heralding Rare's supposed revival. Supposed... A friend of mine got me the game for Christmas shortly after I got the Xbox so I had the chance to play it only shortly after the mess that was Perfect Dark. What can I say about this game?

It wasn't a TOTAL disaster. For instance, the graphics and sound production were of high quality all around, nicely showing off 360's initial capabilities. The gameplay was fine too: transforming into different creatures and killing stuff with combos? Sounds great! And it did play decently. But as I progressed, more and more did I feel like something was wrong. Every time Kameo uttered so much as a word my face transformed into a mask of disgust, every time I had to play the SAME boss to gain a new Elemental Warrior I slowly shook my head, every time I flip-kicked a boulder using Kameo I'd wonder why it wouldn't budge when just running into it would make it roll around as if it was a giant titanium ball filled with helium. Yes, every time I played the game I'd find more and more cringe-worthy characteristics: the story (ouch!), the characters (yuck!), the presentation (ewww!), how Kameo's horse would be too scared to go anywhere near buildings but it'd run head first into huge crowds of identically modelled and animated trolls (what?? trolls are like orcs now?), how the game tried to be fantastically epic but failed so miserably it hurt. OK, as I said the gameplay was fun and enjoyable but picture this: it took me over 2 months of on and off play to get to the last boss of this weekend-filler game and I still haven't defeated him. Even the respective (high scoring) achievement wasn't enough of an incentive... To sum up, Kameo played kinda like a Rare game, that is unrivaled when it comes to fun and fulfilling gameplay, but it fell flat on its face concerning the other aspect that make Rare games great: the personality, the humour, the flair and vibrance that make them unique. Kameo felt like it was just trying to be all of these, trying to mimic something long lost... As if it was another company that made the game. Thankfully (?), there was something that reminded me who made this piece of perfumed crap: there's a hidden radio somewhere within it that plays the Banjo theme remixed in metal! Oh joy! An island of hope in this sea of mediocrity...

That track proved to be much more than what met my eye at first. I liked it so much I looked all over the net to download (still haven't found it). Meanwhile, I did some research and discovered that it was none other than Grant Kirkhope himself, composer of Banjo-Kazooie music (among many other Rare classics, not least GoldenEye and Perfect Dark) who was behind this remix, a heavy rocker himself. I found his profile on MySpace and asked him about his projects himself, while commenting on his work (add him guys and gals, he's an open and down to earth guy!) Then I found out that he had made the music to Viva Piñata. Something clicked. Add to that I'd heard good words about it, and next thing I knew was that it had come to my posession for a mere 30.

It didn't take me more than an hour to realise just why everybody was so hooked with the game: I was hooked myself! Several tens of hours later, more than a LVL50 of mad gardening skillz, 5 gardens filled with little, colourful and oh so childish piñatas and an intense addiction with the game that has thankfully relaxed recently -- how else was I going to touch Lost Odyssey? -- I can say with certainty that Rare has neither lost their talent nor their soul (although Microsoft may state otherwise). In fact, all the crappy games may have been an unfortunate break for the rest of the great games to come. Viva Piñata was the first game of theirs that I really enjoyed after almost 8 years and that's 8 decades when it comes to the entertainment industry. Brilliant music, just as expected from Mr. Kirkhope, beautiful graphics and wacky artstyle, addictive-as-crack gameplay and more of our beloved Rare flair with just enough Microsoft casual undertones and direction to make it bearable and suitable for the kids but not without the innuendos that only we "adults" would understand. Definitely not without its flaws -- why do I have to whack the entire garden every freaking time, and I'm-fine-thank-you-Miss-Costalot-yes-yes-bright-eyed-bushy-tailed-GET-ON-WITH-IT! AND STOP PUSHING THAT DAMN SLOT MACHINE LIKE A RETARD ALL THE TIME! Eat my melting chocolate coins. -- and annoying moments, thankfully they're not enought to deeply spoil the otherwise satisfying gameplay.

So details for the new Banjo were announced just a few days ago, with Grant Kirkhope perfecting that early metal remix that had appeared in Kameo. Most fans of the old games don't like the direction of Nuts & Bolts and have erupted into riots about how Rare sucks now and how they're ruled my M$, how they're constantly taking wrong decisions and the like. I know that a good chunk of them are still Nintendo devotees like I would have been had I not got my Xbox 360 by the strange twists and turns of luck and may not have had the chance to play some recent Rare games. Viva Piñata is a good indication that the old Twycross chaps haven't lost it all, even with all the staff changes that they have endured recently and before they became part of Microsoft. I have trust in the new Banjo game's ambition and scope, how creativity is such a big part of it. I welcome the fact that they're changing the feel of the series and are taking it to another, more personalised style of platforming. Some things may seem strange at first, like the removal of Kazooie's moves, but that will only make her bitch and complain about it and how the game would have been better off with them, in-game! The guys know what they're doing and the crew that is behind this is mostly the same as it was back in 1998, which wasn't the case with Perfect Dark Zero. I'm now eagerly awaiting what looks like not another great Banjo game, but also another great, groundbreaking Rare game... The kind of groundbreaking and reinventing we had almost forgot they could manage and systematically deliver.

Rare managed within this generation alone to virtually burn its already dying self to ashes with its X360 launch games. Viva Piñata was the little baby phoenix that was born out of the ashes. It's my belief that with Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and to a lesser extent Viva Piñata 2 they will revive themselves into one of gaming's great, brilliant phoenixes. And the gamers will be happy once again.   read

9:03 AM on 02.11.2008

My first steps in gaming. Also, Bubble Bobble.

First notice: This was ripped as is from my main blog cause I thought it would be a pretty neat first post! Here you go:

I was re-reading this MySpace blog post I had written about Bubble Bobble and my gaming roots, and I really liked how it sounded. I thought it would be really nice having it here as well, it's the post which first gave me the idea of having a more permanent blog. This was originally written on December 5th 2007, one of the days I was playing a lot of BB with Mario.

I was writing a huge blog entry, detailing what my November was like, and how I feel about the forthcoming Christmas. Yes, one wrong keypress and all of my time went in vain... And why is all this I wrote POSTDATA? Can Tom answer me this simple question? Eh? AND WHO THE HELL HAD THIS FANTASTIC IDEA OF HAVING BACKSPACE AS A SHORTCUT FOR BACK?!

I can't be bothered to write it again, so I guess you'll read a really huge blog entry from me some other time. Or perhaps I should start a more permanent blog at some site? Hm, why not... It's not like I haven't been feeling the waves of inspiration flowing through me as of late. But then again, why should I share this inspiration with you? Maybe I shouldn't! *trick question*

Anyway, I soon plan on posting a tribute to N64, in a few weeks 10 years will have gone by since I got my little kiddy hands on the thing. And gaming never was the same again for me. Speaking about gaming and matters concerning the whole universe being permanently altered, yesterday and today Mario and me blew through Bubble Bobble, a super classic for me and perhaps the first game I ever played and finished (credit goes to Shaman Alex for the help back then *hi-5*, if he ever reads this. :P)

My first contact with gaming was on an Atari 2006 that I barely remember, and my real first contact with games that I clearly remember was in Australia in 1993, when some kids of a friend of my dad's played Super Mario Bros. I think I played as well, but seeing how it was my first time with a controller, I failed miserably. Yes I know, other people finished the same game at the same age. Shortly thereafter (or what would appear shortly in a child's eyes) ,it was a pseudo-NES my dad bought for me. The games it had: Bubble Bobble and 83 games in one. And I remember the first time my dad showed me how to play the game. After that?

It may have been the bubbly bobbly intro screen, the cutesy dinosaurs that made such a weird face when they died, the huge array of different goodies and their "mysterious powers" (it was awesome when a cross appeared on the screen... Now what the hell's gonna happen, all the bad guys are gonna die!), from tomatoes to diamonds and from cakes to umbrellas, it was all so happy! The baddies were happy, the music was cheerful, loopy and catchy (what every 8-bit tune should be like) and most important of all, the game was fun, even more fun than picking ice from your refrigerator, trying to chase the little scar in your eye fluid or beatboxing with your mouth. It was more fun than doing these combined. How can you not have fun when blowing baddies into bubbles, hopping on your own bubbles or running away from the white "grim reaper whale" who appears in the backdrop of those 5 dreadful notes? It's such a classic, and rightfully so.

My cartridge back then was hacked and cracked, and we had the choice of playing any stage we wanted, even the boss, and unlocking the good ending the easy way. It was a stunning moment for us, we had seen the ending to that game! We hadn't played it to its entirety and we didn't even care, we just saw the dinosaurs saving their girlfriends and the day. But only yesterday, while playing the game with Marios, did I realise that I had never actually and rightfully beaten the game. I had cheated! So, now was the time! We played through every floor, unlocked the happy ending (although I admit we had some trouble figuring HOW to do it) and kicked the crap out of that sorcerer thing. After almost 13 years, I had come back to my first game and beaten it the right way. And that's just how it all felt; right.

Bubble Bobble, ladies and gentlemen, a game we can truly call a retro classic - just as playable as it was back then, it is today. Let's see Crysis reaching that kind of status.   read

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