The New Mobile Landscape

The word “convergence” won’t mean quite the same thing to the next generation as it does to us. That’s because kids today will come of age in a time when phones were used to play video games, computers could double as a private movie house, and televisions were flipped on to browse the Web. Unlike us, they’ll be living in a world where “ubiquity” is the word -- surrounded by devices.

Paring Down
The most interesting development of the ubiquity age isn’t that we’re surrounded by screens and able to connect to the Internet in myriad ways, from smartphones to televisions to tablets. Most fascinating is that no one device serves as the ultimate Swiss Army Knife, acting as a substitute for all the rest.

Rather, we collect these devices the way golfers keep clubs. On the go, we check movie times on mobile phones. On the couch, we research that movie on a laptop PC or tablet, or we play a game of “Words With Friends” while our significant other watches the big game. Rather than seek a one-size-fits-all solution for computing, consumer behavior indicates that there’s a time and a place for every kind of screen.

All these screens mean that portability and power are both becoming major considerations. Laptop shipments exceeded that of desktops in 2008, and high-end “desktop replacements” -- notebooks with large screens and enough horsepower to handle any computing task -- became the primary computers for many consumers. And a new designation, the netbook, sought to lower the barrier of entry to mobile computing by offering compact laptop PCs at a fraction of the price.

New Device: Ultrabooks
Now, there’s a new category of portable PC to compete with the upstart tablet PC and other flavors of laptop. The ultrabook format is light, thin, fast and portable -- an antidote to the traditional laptop PC. Ultrabook PCs are less than .08 inch thick, weigh around 3.1 pounds and have a battery life of five to eight hours.

“The ultrabook is much more than just a product segment,” says Jim Wong, president of Acer Inc. “It’s a new trend that will become the mainstream for mobile PCs.”

The model for this new kind of laptop is Apple’s MacBook Air, which was introduced in 2008. Apple sold 1.1 million units of their super-thin laptop, and they managed this feat at premium pricing. The next phase of the ultrabook device is to build major appeal by offering similar benefits to Apple’s machine at a consumer-friendly price.

Toshiba’s Portege Z835, which debuted in November of last year, dipped in price to $699 (after a $200 rebate) at Best Buy. Competing ultrabooks include the Hewlett-Packard Folio 13 and the Acer Aspire S3, which both run for about $900. The entry-level MacBook Air is $999.

Early Buzz

Initial reception to the new ultrabooks is positive. Rob Beschizza of Boing Boing called the new ASUS ZENBOOK “very good,” but he cautions against laptops that try to adopt the ultrabook moniker but stray from the design specs that make the new class of computers so attractive in the first place.

Dilip Bhatia, vice president of Lenovo’s ThinkPad business unit, is excited about his company’s contribution to the field. “The ThinkPad X1 Hybrid and T430u ultrabooks represent the next generation in thin and light computing,” he says. “From small businesses that literally live on the road to corporate professionals working in a managed environment, these new crossover laptops fundamentally change the way people think about mobile computing technology.”

Matt McRae, Vizio’s chief technology officer, recently told Business Week that his company’s entry in the ultrabook game was meant to shake things up: “It’s very similar to TV -- we want to get in there and disrupt it,” says McRae. “We think most PCs have been designed for the small-business users, that others have not done a very good job of making them entertainment devices.

With all the new ultrabook models that appeared at CES last week, it’s now just a matter of discovering just how the ultrabook will find its place in our lives next to the televisions, tablets, smartphones and desktops many consumers already have. Nobody could have predicted this 10 years ago, but it seems pretty clear: There’s still plenty of room for this light, new computing upstart.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/jibilein

Dust 514 Brings MMO EVE Online Into the FPS Market

The upcoming game Dust 514,  an exclusive PlayStation 3 first-person shooter, will dramatically interact with the world of the MMORPG Eve. DIG sat down with producer Tom Farrer  to discuss PlayStation 3 exclusivity and some of the technical challenges of integrating a PS3 game into the PC game experience.

DIG: Why was it decided not to make Dust a PS3 exclusive, instead of bringing it to PC?

T.F.: For us, this was about bringing the universe of EVE to a new market, to a new kind of player. EVE is a fantastic game, but even we’ll admit it is quite complicated and has a very steep learning curve.
We want to be able to offer this incredible universe to people that perhaps don’t have the time to be able to sit down and learn all of these complex mechanics. We often hear a lot of people are very interested in our universe, but they simply don’t have the time to be able to sit down and really get into a hugely complex MMO. We thought the console platform would allow us to expand our audience.

DIG: So will Dust still speak to EVE players? Is there a common narrative thread, or sensibility, that they can pick up on?

T.F.: Absolutely. Both games are running on the same server, in the same universe, in real time. You can be orbiting a planet within the EVE client, and you’ll see the icons and markers that are representing battles that are going on on that surface at that particular moment in time.

As a corporation, you can also provide support. The connection isn’t just a meta-game connection; it’s a literal connection. The players within the EVE clients and the Dust clients on the PlayStation 3 can talk to each other on the local chat, and be in the same corporation. The equivalent in other games would be a guild. If you create one within Dust, it’s the same as creating one within EVE.

DIG: How much more work would you say is left before Dust is completed?

T.F.: Around the end of the year, we’ll be starting with the private, behind-closed-doors trials where we’ll start to test things and build things up, and we’ll continue to add more content. Around summer next year, we’ll release the game. And once we’ve released it, we’ll continue developing it, adding more and more content and features.

In a sense it’ll never be finished -- for a developer, in some ways, it’s fantastic because it means you never really have to cut anything. You just have to wait until ultimately you get to implement it. But then I suppose it’s also, “Ah! We’ll never be finished!”

DIG: Do you have a sense of some of the ways Dust will evolve over time, perhaps after a year or two from the release?

T.F.: I do. There are always so many ideas kicking around the company. When you’ve got that many creative people, you’re always going to have 101 million ideas. It’s always difficult to pick from them.

There are things that we want to do, and things we’re really interested in developing. But it comes down to seeing what the players do with the tools that we’ve given them. When we release the game and we start to see how players play, and how players use the tools we’ve thrown in a sandbox, it’s going to be that that influences where we take the game.

It would be arrogant for us to assume we would just know what the players would do, or what the players would want. We’ve been proved wrong before; we’ve been surprised before. As a company, that’s what we’re about: empowering the players and letting them drive the direction for the game.

DIG: How might the integration of Dust players into the world eventually change the feel of the EVE universe?

T.F.: I don’t know if it’s going to change the feel of the universe so much as just increase the depth and the complexity of the universe. For the longest time now, it’s been flying in space. And now, all of a sudden, there’s this new element.

I would see the games becoming more and more integrated with one another, to the point where we’re literally able to walk up and meet one another, rather than just talk on voice or communicate over text chat. I would hope it’s going to spur on a lot of exciting and dangerous conflict within the universe.

I would like to see interesting and unusual types of gameplay coming to the fore, with sabotage and infiltration of rival corporations. This isn’t something that you typically see within the shooter genre, and I think that bringing this type of gameplay into the universe of EVE is going to produce some really interesting results.

DIG: What kinds of technical challenges had to be solved in order to seamlessly integrate the console and PC experiences?

T.F.: Obviously we’ve got quite a bit of experience with networking, given EVE Online. Getting both games up and running on Tranquility, which is our supercomputer that we’re using to run both games -- some people would say it wasn’t as tricky as we expected it to be. But it was certainly tricky.

Really, we were expecting it to be harder than it was, in terms of linking the PlayStation 3 and the PC together. That was one of the reasons why we wanted to have a partnership with the platform holder, because of the things that we needed to do to be able to link the console network with our PC network. We needed to bend a few rules, break a few rules -- which traditionally you can’t when you’re working with a console platform. That partnership’s been very beneficial for us.

DIG: How exactly have you been playing around with the rules?

T.F.: It’s kind of all over the place. For example, something that’s very important within an MMO like EVE is that your identity is essentially a secret. Typically within a console game, your identity is broadcast to all players. Your console’s identity is your in-game identity. That’s not something that we want within our universe, because -- it may sound silly or even nasty -- but it’s important that you can backstab your friends, if you want to. It’s these kinds of behaviors that will actually create interesting and meaningful social interactions.

Screenshot: http://dust514.org/

A War on Two Fronts: MMO EVE Online Expands Into the FPS Market

EVE Online, perhaps the most notorious -- if not the most popular -- MMORPG, is no stranger to drama. Widely reported conflicts -- such as one group’s hostile infiltration of corporate assets, or a corporate leader’s expensive defection to a rival player group -- have established EVE as a genuine frontier where just about anything goes.

But for this reason, and as a high-end reworking of PC classic Elite, it is also one of the least accessible and most intimidating games being played. That may change with the upcoming expansion Dust 514, which is unorthodox in every sense. It’s a first-person shooter that takes place on the planets, and around the planetary installations, of EVE’s New Eden universe -- and it’s exclusive to the PlayStation 3. EVE and Dust players will be able to collaborate as ship owners and their hired mercenaries, respectively. The idea, according to CCP, is to open the floodgates to an entirely new audience.

DIG spoke to Tom Farrer, producer at CCP, about the goals and promise of the upcoming game, which is due out next summer. In this first part, Farrer discusses the basics of Dust and the goals CCP has in mind during its development.

DIG: What is the new game about? Do you think of it as an expansion, a parallel game, or both as part of a larger work?

Tom Farrer: One of the mantras that we have is, “One universe, one war.” Dust is a persistent shooter for PlayStation 3, and it’s quite literally set within the universe of the PC MMO EVE Online. They’re not just connected -- Dust literally is in that universe of New Eden. That’s the universe that’s already populated with hundreds of thousands of players, and has been alive for seven or eight years now.

If we look at how CCP works as a company, we don’t just fire and forget. It’s about continuous development with continuous support for our player base. If we look at all of the many expansions that we’ve had for EVE Online, we’ll see with the Dominion expansion, we worked with all of the planet shaders and we started to make the planets look more beautiful. You couldn’t do anything with them; they just looked better. After a little while came Tyrannis, and suddenly you could interact with those planets. You could create infrastructure on the surface. That was it -- there was no conflict involved. It’s that conflict over the planets that Dust brings to the universe.

DIG: What does the title, Dust 514, refer to?

T.F.: That’s actually something we don’t talk about. That’s a secret. It’s been a lot of fun watching the various posts and discussions that have been going on online.

DIG: What are the main goals of the game for the player?

T.F.: I suppose the player has myriad goals. This isn’t something you pick up and play for a week and then stop. Ultimately you’ll begin in high-security space, where you’re reasonably safe and you can learn the ropes -- right up until you can develop your character and your skills that you train, your gear, and your role on the battlefield. You’ll meet friends, form a corporation.

It’s at this point that you’re earning enough currency within the game, ISK, to be able to start looking at planetary domination, trying to get a foothold on a planet. Maybe you’ll start fighting other planets and start developing infrastructure on those planets that you’ll need to protect. You’ll start recruiting people to your corporation. Your corporation grows larger, you start to conquer more territory, but now it’s getting too large. It’s harder to manage, so you become part of an alliance of corporations.

And this is where it starts to get bigger and bigger. Because to gain the maximum benefits from controlling a planet, you’ll also need to have control of the orbit of a planet, so you’ll want to start working with pilots in EVE, being part of the same corporations and the same alliances.

Ultimately the work that you’re doing will impact a mechanic called sovereignty, which means that you can start to not only take control of the planets, but also entire systems within the universe.

Our goal was to create a gaming experience that had more meaning. As players ourselves, we really wanted to play a shooter where it was about more than abstract reward mechanics, just bumping up and down a leaderboard and maybe unlocking some gear.

DIG: What about the decision to go with this particular genre -- a first-person shooter?

T.F.: For us, the first-person shooter, when you’re on the surface of planets, provides a very visceral and exciting experience: putting yourself within the body of the mercenary you’re fighting. When you’re not in battle, we actually switch out to third person. When you’re within your mercenary quarters, in your space station or in the war barge orbiting your planet, that’s where you’ll be able to interact with other characters. In the battlefield, we wanted you inside your character’s helmet, really feeling the excitement of the battlefield, and feeling like you were a part of it.

Dust514 Screenshot: http://dust514.org/

Talking Tech Tactics With Football Manager 2011

Second only to the terraces surrounding the hallowed turf of the nation’s football (soccer) grounds, the pub is the next most popular setting for British football fans. So it’s fitting that the offices of Sports Interactive Limited , the creators of the world’s foremost and multi-million-selling football management simulation series, should be right on top of an establishment with big-screen match coverage and a solid draught beer selection. The William Blake Pub in central London has borne witness to many impassioned discussions about football -- and probably just as many again about the game’s virtual progeny, the revered Football Manager series.

In Football Manager 2011, players manage their favorite team from some 50 global leagues, buy and sell players and interact with the press and plan tactics -- all with the ultimate goal of topping the league and filling the boardroom trophy cabinet at the end of the season. The game’s 3D match engine lets players watch every bout in real time, taking the game far beyond its previous 2D top-down presentation toward something ever closer to the real thing.

The Series’ Beginnings
The series has come a long way since its genesis in the imaginations of Paul and Oliver Collyer, two young British football fanatics. The brothers’ only aim was “to make a game that they could enjoy themselves,” says Grant Appleyard, Sports Interactive’s senior producer. Working from their Shropshire bedroom, the pair released the first Championship Manager  -- a simulation game written in BASIC -- in 1992.

From this acorn grew the Championship Manager franchise. At peak, every subsequent release became the fastest-selling PC game ever in the U.K. Following a switch of publisher from Eidos Interactive to SEGA in 2004, as well as a name change to Football Manager, the team has continued its domination with Football Manager 2011, released in November 2010 for the PC, joined by Football Manager Handheld 2011 for the Sony PlayStation Portable, the Apple iPhone and the Apple iPod touch. SEGA also released the MMO management sim Football Manager Live  in 2009.

New Gameplay Features
This is not a series that rests on its laurels. The last 20 years have been one long, iterative process. “If you look at the features that we’ve added this year, it’s something like 450,” says Appleyard.

Most of the new features in the game come from the development team and are proposed, discussed and, if they pass muster, implemented in-game through a highly democratic process. Today, Paul and Oliver Collyer are far from being ivory-tower moguls. Paul is the match engine programmer, and Oliver (or Ov, as he’s known to the team) is the lead programmer on Football Manager Live.

One of the important new features in Football Manager 2011 is the live contract negotiation system. Agents have become a permanent fixture of the footballing world, and game players can enter into complex negotiations with different virtual agents to master the minutiae of contractual clauses and secure their next big signing.

A feature that fans have been clamoring for is Dynamic League Reputation, a system that allows players who build strong teams to positively affect the reputation of the league they’re playing in, ultimately letting them attract star players from elsewhere and bringing a new long-term dimension to the gameplay.

The Power Behind the Game
Football Manager
is a PC game for which multicore processing is a massive advantage. The game’s match simulator recreates vast numbers of football matches, with each game requiring its own independent process, demanding that every pass, foul and goal be calculated for a field of 22 men over 60 minutes.

“We have users that will play the game over a long period of time, and that’s when optimizations that speed up the game generally come into their own because they’re not sitting looking at the progress bar,” explains Appleyard.

Such a heavy drain on the CPU can be substantially alleviated by optimizing parallel processing through multithreading. Sports Interactive has spent many years improving the multicore optimization in successive iterations of the game, the ultimate goal being to deliver the fastest player experience with the least waiting around.

Watching in 3D
The 3D match engine is a relatively new addition to the Football Manager series, making its debut in November 2008. The engine lets the user watch entire matches recreated in full 3D with the objective of immersing players in a live match-like experience. In Football Manager 2011, crowd simulation has improved, as have player models and a TV camera, which brings the experience closer to watching a real match on television.

As with multithreading, ensuring it squeezes the optimum performance for the GPU-hungry processes involved in recreating the 3D experience is something that Sports Interactive has made a priority. Football Manager doesn’t demand the latest hardware to deliver a great user experience. The graphics engine is optimized to run on even older processors.

Football fans would no doubt be the first to say -- to paraphrase the British football pundits -- that the game developers at Sports Interactive got the result they were looking for.

Screenshots: http://www.footballmanager.com

Physics and Your Digital Golf Game

The following is an interview with B.C. (Charlie) Rasco, president of Smarter Than You software and co-author of Game Programming Gems, 8th edition.

Digital Innovation Gazette: Tell us a little bit about your background. I have your title as president of Smarter Than You Software. So, what do you do?

B.C. (Charlie) Rasco: I’m a physicist by training. I got into game development after working at Boeing for a few years. I came out and made a few little games for Macs and PCs, and then I turned to slightly more specialized physics-based simulations -- not necessarily for games -- for some research at Oak Ridge and various universities around the U.S. The way the Game Programming Gems article came about is I made a little game for a company, a golf game, where you try to get the golf ball onto a tee. It’s a simple little game; it’s not meant to be anything special. But I wanted to make some nice, simple little physics games. When I did the first version, it didn’t feel right. I made modifications to it. I figured I should write this up for my own edification. After that, a call came out for this Game Programming Gems book and it seemed like a good place to put it.

DIG: You’ve written about drag physics. What is it and why is it important?

C.R.: It’s something that makes the games feel more realistic. There are two versions of it: One is the simplified version. People solved it hundreds of years ago. I implemented it for the golf-ball game, and it just didn’t feel like the ball was moving like it should.

So basically, I had to dig into this a little more to do the more realistic physics implementation of this drag, which is simply a ball moving through water. Implementing that turned out to be a fun little project. The goal for me is to make realistic physics and implement it in terms of simple little video games. A lot of these are not classic video games where you try to engage people in that manner. I like the simulation. I find it more satisfying when it works out well.

DIG: You talk about the two types of drag models. Is one better than the other?

C.R.: It really depends on what you need. The quadratic one feels right and looks right. But the other one is slightly more computationally expensive. Which one works better in what situation? If you have a single spaceship flying through the atmosphere, then that’s going to be your emphasis -- so you’re willing to throw a little more computation at it. Otherwise, if you’ve got just a background situation with a bunch of little particles, you can go that route if people aren’t going to notice it that much. Once you have 10,000 things flying through the air, it feels like smoke.

I honestly don’t know which way would be better. The quadratic one would feel right, but whether you have enough computation to make that work is a good question. With the iPhone, it’s going to bump into that limit much faster than with a PlayStation 3. It really does depend on what your system is and where you’re going.