Let the video games begin

June 2017

Arcade game controlsIan Hughes MBCS, Chair of the BCS Animation and Games Specialist Group, reports on what’s on the game technology and trends high score table right now.

If you remember the golden age of arcade games, back in 1977, you will be familiar with the transient leader board. Pay your 10p, play your heart out, and get on the high score chart with just three letters to make your mark. Once the power went off for the evening, your prowess faded away until tomorrow when you had to do it all again.

As we head into 2017 we are 40 years on from those heady days and gaming technology has evolved. Before the singularity hits us and our score table is wiped, let’s take a look at five game-related technology trends, with their three-character player names.

Gaming High Score Table

1. ESP  …………………………..19020

2. AR_ ………………………….. 18000

3. DIY  ………………………….. 17096

4. T2L ………………………….. 13352

5. VR_ ………………………….. 12200

5. VR - Virtual reality

2016 was touted as the year virtual reality (VR) hit the consumer market, though it may not have had the massive impact that many predicted. This year was about the hardware, different ways to attach two solid screens close to your eyes.

What it lacked were the killer apps that people could not do without. VR is incredibly absorbing, that is the point after all! It is also hugely antisocial, harking back to the teenage basement days of PC gaming, before the consoles hit the living room. We have had waves of VR, including back in the late 80s, with heavy cathode ray tube screens that needed winch support to avoid breaking your neck.

Now we have light(-ish) headsets and ergonomic designs, hand controllers and variants of room VR and seated VR. Mobile providers give us untethered headsets and PC and PS4 owners can plug in headsets to get more rendering power. It is still a market waiting for its breakthrough ‘must have’ game, though I am sure it will find it.

4. T2L - Toys to Life

One branch of ‘Toys to Life’ is where physical objects, e.g. figures, are blended with on-screen game mechanics. This fledgling side of gaming had its ups and downs this year. Disney decided to shut its Infinity game servers, probably in the face of the very successful competition from Lego Dimensions.

Lego were late to the party but their cross brand packs such as The Simpsons, Dr Who and Scooby Doo and universal toy appeal, saw them dominate. Meanwhile the originators of this wave, Skylanders, continued to iterate and improve, but it was not all on-screen.

Anki Overdrive autonomous vehicles arrived. Small electric race cars and trucks running on a flat track containing machine-readable lanes and directions. The vehicles are able to autonomously drive on any track made for them, mapping the environment. Players control a car with a smartphone and race against computer controlled drivers. Cars have virtual weapons and defence mechanisms, turning it into a live robot version of Mario Kart.

3. DIY - Maker culture and DIY coding

Getting the next generation to be builders and makers has had a lot of focus. Hands on physical computing kits such as the open source Arduino, then the higher function and very cheap Raspberry Pi, have helped those of us in the industry get devices into the classroom and at events.

The Raspberry PI even featured as a giveaway on the front of a magazine, something of a first for maker culture. Growing up on computer magazines full of type-in code listings back in the 80s meant seeing a whole computer stuck on a magazine was something special.

The BBC Micro:Bit also made its way into education. A neatly designed device with on-board sensors, lights and I/O that can be programmed in a similar way to the Arduino. The aim is that every year 7/8 student gets their own device to explore the potential with.

The reality is that many schools were not ready, had no idea what the thing was and certainly were not going to be giving them to students to take home. I don’t blame the teachers or schools, this is complex issue, and teaching kids to code, to invent and to try new things with technology, in a practical setting, does not fit with the current education policy of exam only testing.

In software, tools, like Unity, make developing games much easier and many games are designed to be modded, allowing third party hobbyists and fans to make their own content, levels and challenges.

2. AR - Augmented reality

Whilst VR is down at the bottom of this chart augmented reality (AR) is one of the most exciting developments heading up it. Devices such as Microsoft’s Hololens became available to developers. This evolution of AR does not seek to lock the user away from the physical world, but instead creates the illusion of digital objects placed into the real world. Devices map and understand the environment around them.

In the case of the Hololens, it knows a table is a solid flat surface, you can pick up a digital object, such as an animated model of a cat, and place it on the table. If you move around the table, the cat appears to remain where you put it with no kitten jitter.

Fragments, a sample game, is described as a mixed reality crime drama where your own home becomes the crime scene. This creates challenges for games developers: if you consider that everyone’s home is set out differently. It requires the game’s characters to understand which real sofa to sit on and which corner to hide a clue in.

The Hololens has also been used to demo Minecraft, set on a table top, which generated a lot of attention and excitement due to the ubiquity of that brand. Currently the device is not aimed at consumers, but both for gamers and as an interface to IoT in industry, you have to keep an eye on AR.

1. ESP - E-Sports

E-Sports consists of professional game players and an ever-increasing audience for competitive gaming content. Video games started in arcades, as social events, gathered around cabinets, waiting your turn. The home market rapidly turned it into a solitary experience. With the growth of consoles, the sofa-based multiplayer put human interaction back. LAN parties became more popular, bringing custom PC rigs to events to compete on a larger scale in first person shooters.

The internet and the web connected all gamers in multiplayer games, through worldwide persistent score charts and via social media discussion and content. Gamers sought to show their prowess with videos of speed runs, difficult to achieve challenges and exploiting game glitches.

Then along came broadcasting with Twitch, a spin off from life streaming from Justin.Tv. It allowed gamers to live stream their view of a game, with side comments and chat from spectators. In 2014 Amazon bought it for US$970 million.

The service was already integrated into the Xbox One, with players able to just go live at any point in a game straight to Twitch. Players form into teams with a combination of streams directed by a producer. Commentators, called Shoutcasters, specialise in understanding gameplay, and join in and broadcast during tournaments, providing insight, action replays and punditry.

Games themselves have improved their spectator and replay toolset, targeted at e-sports. Professional sports franchises are buying up e-sports teams, and there is an increasingly large prize fund and sponsorship globally for players over many different genres.

Game over

So, as you get ready to insert another 10p in the coin slot for a few more lives, take a moment to think how exciting the developments have been over the years and how fantastic the gaming future is going to be for gamers and as a business. Human endeavour and experience, mediated via technology, may be the future in an increasingly automated world.

Ian Hughes MBCS CITP is chair of the BCS Animation and Games Specialist Group. He is an internet of things analyst at 451 Research and author of the Reconfigure series of sci-fi novels. He is better known as epredator online.
 

Image: iStock.com/diegoepstein

Comments (6)

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  • 1
    Dean wrote on 28th Jun 2017

    I think we lost something over the years - the ability to programme in machine code. Back in the 80's, it was essential to be able to do this in order to get the speeds required in order to do any meaningful games. (I do remember a couple of games which gave just about satisfactory performance written in Applesoft BASIC).

    Years later, in 2002 when I was programming microcontrollers in telecomms in C, those low level skills were essential. With only 128 bytes of RAM and 16KB of ROM, efficiency was key.

    I wonder how many people, how many computer science grads, really understand what is going on under the hood.

    People say, today you don't need those low level skills, machine code programming isn't used, isn't needed, and I think combined with firstly what appears to be a dumbing down of Computer Science teaching in schools since the start of the 1990's, and the fact that we moved away from the era of the plethora of different home computers towards the IBM PC, we have reduced the calibre of people with computing skills.

    I still believe, if you want to be truly great at computing, do some assembly language programming, get to grips with the architecture of the processor.

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  • 2
    Dean wrote on 28th Jun 2017

    Anyone for Williams Defender?
    State your high score...

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  • 3
    Steven Rhodes wrote on 28th Jun 2017

    I used to travel through Aberdeen Airport weekly in the early 80s.
    They had rows of 10p video games. I was always waiting for a machine before my flight as they were usually all in use, whatever time I was flying.

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  • 4
    Don Grose wrote on 29th Jun 2017

    @ Dean - Williams Defender. I could 'clock' this game, ie score over 999975 and send the score back to zero. I bought an actual cabinet instance of Defender from Hastings pier in the early 90s but sold it about 5 years ago. Great game.

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  • 5
    Stuat Jones wrote on 29th Jun 2017

    Dean, We have lost something over the years!

    I left school in 1988 and was one of the first to take the "new" GCSE that replaced O-Levels and CSEs. One of the changes was the dropping of coding; our course work was demonstrating the use of COTS (word processor, spread sheet, desktop publisher) to run a business. The attitude was why code when there are plenty off-the-shelf products to use instead. This then fed through to A-levels as too many were dropping out as the basics of coding that should be taught at GCSE was now removed resulting in students entering A-Level Computer Studies with a too big a step to climb!

    I agree we do need a steady stream of people that need to know low-level programming as it may be all-well-and-good for people like me to be able to code C#, Java etc. But who's going to develop the next generation of OS, programming languages and developer kits (Unity, Unreal gaming ennvironment, the next eclipse? perhaps even the next Windows!!)

    And that can only start from the beginning, get kids interested in coding. I've started with introducing my daughter (who's 9) to stuff like Scratch and App Inventor some of this thanks to my local BCS Branch!

    I had a mis-spent youth as my late Grandmother used to work at a local (now closed) amusement arcade as a cashier, my Defender high score was only around 20,000. It took me ages to perfect the ship-flip where your joystick hand also had to hit the button to turn the ship around which meant your right hand could continue to fire without interruption!

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  • 6
    Rikki wrote on 4th Jul 2017

    @Stuart: coding has been brought back into the national curriculum, so we now have students learning to code all way through from Scratch at primary schools.

    @Dean: Could you quantify exactly why assembly programming it is important in today's education? I completely agree that an understanding of the link between what you do in a high-level language and what is happening at machine code is important, and Computer Science degrees have computer architecture modules and compiler engineering modules that help make this connections for our young computer scientists.

    But for how many graduates is a functioning knowledge of assembly programming relevant? Unless they are working on embedded systems, most graduates aren't going to go near machine code their entire career.

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