A modeler with a difference.

Houdini.A few months back I had a friend demo me a 3D software package called Houdini from Side Effects software. Houdini is used extensively in film and movie circles and not so much in game industry, (which is dominated by 3D Max, Maya and to some extent XSI;) but mostly all big blockbuster films that have those great special effects that make you go “whoo”, “wow”, “cool” are pretty much made using this software. I am not exactly sure what my friend was working on, but it seems he was working an extension for the package and wanted some opinions on a custom file format. The thing that got me interested with Houdini was the way you work with the whole thing. It’s a little bit different from your conventional modelers (Max, Maya and XSI); in Houdini you basically do everything by combining operators. To tell you the truth I am not a great 3D artist. I have done most of the art-work in the game, yet my skills leave a lot to be desired. The only modeler I have ever worked with is Blender and you probably know Blender has a notorious and sometimes flawed reputation of being very difficult to use.

Houdini take a very different approach to 3D modeling. The reason I liked it is because it’s entire flow seems to be highly logic driven or as they say it “procedural”. This is an amazing concept and you have to actually see it to understand it fully. It has an interface that looks like a hierarchy of node graphs using which you pretty much model everything. The node-graphs create a kind of construction history which allows you go back and modify previous steps in a snap. This kind of flexibility means the overall productivity given by the software is unbelievable. It allows the artist to be as creative as he wants and at the same time also allows the entire design process to be non monotonous or in other words non-linear.

I would love to have a Houdini like software for designing a game, and I mean the entire game, with composition and everything. Having seen the software at work (, and being a 3D game engine developer,) made my mind race in 1000 different directions and I could see so many possibilities with the type of “procedural” flow. The creative potential could be enormous when applied to game creation. Now that I have looked at it, my guts tell me a procedural work-flow for any game design/creation/composition software will be a step in the right direction. Another very interesting aspect of this package is reuse. Besides the obvious benefits of a procedural type of work-flow the software encourages the use, or rather, the reuse of existing solutions and designs. This might sound like something out of a computer programming book, but it’s rather more subtle. Create a work-flow once, and then reuse it for several different solutions with minimum effort. That would be a game designer’s and an artist’s dream come true.

For those interested, there is a free learning edition called Houdini Apprentice provided by Side Effects.

A vest that lets you FEEL the Game!

A US surgeon has devised a vest that when worn and plugged to your computer allows you to feel the blows from virtual game characters (read here). Now that is really interesting! It will allow the player to experience another dimension of gameplay never before possible, a consequence of his action in the virtual game world occurring on himself in the physical world. The vest allows you to feel the shocks, stabs and hits occurring inside the game. Players wearing the vest will now have to deal with implications for their actions. Ah! Responsibility! No mad shooting in an FPS game from now on. That’s refreshing for a change. It’s no secret, I am a fan of games where the player has to deal with consequences for his actions. FPS games today just lack any variety, and this vest, it seems, may just provide the right impetus to what has become a rather monotonous game genre.

The challenge of an open-ended gameplay.

Ever since I delved into the misty world of Oblivion (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), I could not help but admire the game and its design as a whole. Now I feel my initial comments and observations (except on the technical aspects) were somewhat misplaced. I had seriously miscalculated the depth of the gameplay for a game like Oblivion. Though Oblivion looks like a first person hand-to-had combat game, something like the Riddick game in a medieval backdrop, it is nothing of that sort. It is very much an open ended game. Let me come clean, this is my first true experience with a game that has an open-ended or sandbox gameplay. I am a FPS-RTS fan and my initial experiences with Oblivion were frustrating. I was like, “Why the hell do I have to talk to some many people, give me something to slash and hack”. But that is where an open ended game differs from a normal run-of-the mill game. An open ended game often makes you build a true unique identity for yourself as you play the game. Meaning, in the world of Oblivion you could end up being a hero, a thief, a vampire, a magician or a complete nobody if you so choose.

I really started to enjoy the game when I began to forgo preconceived notions on how a game should be played. While most FPS-RTS game allow the player to make micro level decisions, ie. where to hide, how to attack, which weapon to use, an open-ended game will demand the player to make decisions that will affect the progress of the entire game. Based on your decisions, the game will play differently. The game is modeled on a decision-consequence behavior, which is perhaps why I initially found it difficult to adapt to. It is very difficult to explain exactly what I am trying to convey, maybe you can’t make head or tail out of what I am trying to say. It’s basically the experience and you have to play the game to understand it. The game is radically different from a pure goal scripted type game. It is not something totally like a MMO, say for example like Second Life, or for that matter nothing like Sims, Oblivion is very different. The only game that I have played and could say was somewhat close, is Heretic II. For one, you could play Oblivion for almost like “forever”. I have heard people compare it to WoW and Everquest, but I have never played WoW or Everquest so I don’t know.

The game has had a profound impact on me. That’s rare. As I said before it is not the very best of the games I have played, but it’s not the game as such but the whole concept that has made me look back and wonder. It is very different from the regular “Hey! Here is a monster we have seem so many times before, pump his guts full of lead! Oh OK, we know there is nothing new to that, we have like done that 10000000 times before, but look look, he has shining eyes, and see the bump mapping and the parallax mapping and did you notice the shadows and look at the his tail and the x y zee graphics that we have put in,,, and then there is next monster behind the next bend,, and and the next,,, woooh!…” bah! boring! Done that, been there, not once, but again and again. I am tired of games that follow a stereotypical gamplay. Give me something more. Give me more experience. Let me explore regions where I have never been before. Let me experience something new. OK the FPS game genre was great 10 years ago, but move on guys! Putting new graphics on top of old gameplay is just like having remixes of old songs with dancing half nude women; phooey, maybe even worse. I find Oblivion interesting because it allows me to experience something like I have never experienced before. Not some mundane redundant crap dished out on a graphically attractive platter.

I find open-ended gameplay both fascinating and challenging from a designer’s point of view. To give a open ended experience, the game design needs to have far more scalability. The designer needs to plan out far greater sets of unknowns than are possible in a scripted style game. In a scripted game you generally have a single unfaltering goal. You have to complete the goal before you proceed to a new one. Conversely in an open ended gameplay you are allowed to approach your goal in infinite possible ways. You can have smaller goals or smaller sub-goals which too can be as non-monotonous as your ultimate goal. While this may be easier said than done, it really got me thinking as to how one could approach designing such as game from a game designer’s point of view. Interesting, since every unknown you place in a game will increase design complexity substantially. In Oblivion the entire game is divided into Quests, where the quests can be thought of as goals. While there is a main quest, there are an almost infinite series of sub quests that branch off the main quest. You have a choice of doing the quests at your discretion. But the game does play very very differently depending on the choices you make and the quests (goals) you complete. The game doesn’t force you to do anything particular, it’s just one giant simulation, which plays on you just as much as you play on it!

Having played Oblivion (, there are still 100s of quests left), I can tell you I have become a fan of the open ended style of gameplay. Don’t be surprised if you find more ramblings on similar topics on this blog. I can now see why people hijack their lives to play something like WoW incessantly. These games are truly a new experience and if you have played them before you will understand what I mean. If you haven’t, you should!