Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Spore for Soldiers, or The "YouTubing of Games"

David Kushner over at the IEEE Spectrum blog "The Sandbox" has a smart analysis of a gaming trend he calls "the YouTubing of games." It recently set me to thinking about how the evolution of immersive online experiences is running on many parallel tracks.

One of them is user authoring. Kushner has been writing for a year off and on about the expansion of user authorability--players' ability to create content--in video games. As he noted last year, Unreal Tournament III from Sony and Electronics Arts Halo 3 both let users in, enabling them to create mods in the former and film gameplay in the latter. Now, he writes that a couple of "YouGames," as he calls them, have won Game Critics Awards, potentially opening the floodgates to games that make players into gods.

Perhaps the most potent example is Spore from Electronic Arts. I haven't played it yet, but I have watched others doing so on YouTube (of course!). What I've seen is amazing. This is a game created by Will Wright, who made the most successful PC game ever, Sims. In its second iteration, the game allowed players to see the genetic evolution of the "people" who populate the game. Players create them, house them, watch them interact and, yes, mate.

Spore goes Sims one further, allowing players to create new life forms and then evolve them. In other words, to play God, as the not so subtle trailer from EA above implies.

Here's how the company puts it:
With Spore you can nurture your creature through five stages of evolution: Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization, and Space. Or if you prefer, spend as much time as you like making creatures, vehicles, buildings and spaceships with Spore’s unique Creator tools.

CREATE Your Universe from Microscopic to Macrocosmic - From tide pool amoebas to thriving civilizations to intergalactic starships, everything is in your hands.

EVOLVE Your Creature through Five Stages - It’s survival of the funnest as your choices reverberate through generations and ultimately decide the fate of your civilization.

EXPLORE your world and beyond - Will you rule, or will your beloved planet be blasted to smithereens by a superior alien race?

SHARE with the World - Everything you make is shared with other players and vice versa, providing tons of cool creatures to meet and new places to visit.

While Spore is a single player game, your creations and other players’ creations are automatically shared between your galaxy and theirs, providing a limitless number of worlds to explore and play within.

Yes, yes, you say, but what has this to do with soldiers?

What so struck me about Spore is that I've been doing a great deal of interviewing and investigating about another game development, this one growing under the benevolent sun of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Ironically, it's called Real World. I've already written about it, and I will be producing a video adding great detail. But right now, I am struck by similarities in the way DARPA's project and the gaming industry are moving.

In brief, the idea behind Real World is to cut the time it takes to create a gaming software-based mission rehearsal tool, or simulation, down to nearly nothing.

Real World will be a game creation platform designed to allow soldiers in the field to use satellite imagery, UAV images, photographs, blueprints or even a hand-scrawled picture or a map scraped in the sand with a stick to create an immersive location in which to practice an upcoming mission, plan a strategy, test tactics or envision enemy or civilian behavior. The hallmark of the platform is that it is designed to be almost completely user authorable.

Now, it's clearly unrealistic to expect deployed troops to create for an immersive environment the equipment, weaponry and other items they use from scratch on the fly. That stuff will get into the game via its creators, the folks at Total Immersion Software in Alameda, Calif. and/or other companies. And the physics of the game--how various different calibers of ammunition will behave when they hit concrete, versus wood, versus a human being, for example, also will be built in. But the details of an ambush just hours after it happened? Those the unit that suffered the casualties can put in and use to avoid the next one, or send them back to units-in-waiting as training tools.

In both Spore and Real World, "players" become godlike. In the former they create life-forms and "evolve" them to enhance their survivability. In the latter, they create scenarios and environments in which human life-forms can practice in order to survive.

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