Category Archives: Games

What happened to the middle class of gaming?

As time was short this week just a small post but one thing in the last days really intrigued me: Just recently at GDC, Epic‘s own (in)famous Cliff Bleszinski stated: “The Middle class game is dead!“. Now, “Cliffy B.” is known for some polemic statements but if you have a look at the current games in the Top10, being released or being covered in magazines and online portals unfortunately he has a good point. But as I do not agree with Mr. Bleszinski I thought I have to do a little rant on it.

State of the “Art”

To quote what was said:

It needs to either be either an event movie – day one, company field trip, [Battle: Los Angles], we’re there. Avatar – we’re there. The Other Guys starring Will Ferrell and Marky Mark? Nah, I’ll f****** rent that, I don’t really care, right?
Or it has to be an indie firm. Black Swan – I’ll go and see that. I’ll go to The Rialto or I’ll go to the triple-A Imax movie. The middle one is just gone, and I think the same thing has happened to games.

What he does is making a very logical comparison to the movie industry and the people watching movies. And I think we all had that kind of thinking when going to the cinema, at least once.
In general, the movie and the gaming industry underwent a big change over the last years through the advent of fast internet connections, a wider offer of “different” games delivering the same and of course piracy. The movie industry had many problems related to the “new media audience” and was trying to force a new way of thinking onto an old structure… and in most cases failed (not counting things like the iTunes Movie Store, Netflix, … as these are 3rd parties)!

Gaming did so, too! With building restrictive copy protections, enforcing keys for online playing etc. the industry of course tries to protect their property and investment but has also to deal with a not so new audience but its only audience, the media-audience that knows the possibilities and knows how to spread or deal with what they do not intend to deal with (again some “kind of” 3rd parties succeeded such as Steam, providing other games more successful).
But from there, two new branches (re-)opened for gaming: 1) Widen the audience with titles like Just Dance and the NDS or Wii and 2) work with the “independent idea”, doing something special, even odd (being “Sundance“). These also broadened the art of games and the art of developers. But if only Triple-A and Indie developments are really the only thing succeeding the whole Wii line-up probably has to be canned.

If we just take a look at sales, Top10s and media coverage right now everything pretty much underlines what Bleszinski stated:

  • The Top10 is ruled by Killzones, Call of Duties, Fight Night Champions, Bulletstorms, …
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops sold over 20mio units (vgchartz.com)
  • Arkham City, Bioshock: Infinite, Guild Wars 2, Prey 2, … on gaming news sites

Not much variance in what is the main source for information and “opinion” making for 90% of all gamers. I may be a developer but foremost a Gamer! And growing up in a time where every game was Indie or middle class and could get the attention it wanted, this somehow makes me sad. So why is it that there is no middle class in gaming any more?

Today’s Ratings…

You could think that gaming and game reviews follow the rules of the Highlander: There can be only one! Games seem to need a 90+ rating to be sold and they have to be the “definite” thing. Every game has to duel against the genre highlight and nothing is accepted besides. Every MMO has to compete against World of Warcraft, every Action-RPG against Mass Effect.
Now, with this attitude in reviewing games, always coming back to: This was a good game, but Call of Duty has more players online!, how can middle class games even get the attention they deserve? How can a middle class FPS compete against billions of dollars in revenue? Only “Indie Games” seem to have that little bonus given so that even e.g. a game as Magicka (great game) often just got a 7 out of 10 but is a success (a death sentence to other games). But wait? Magicka was known and well sold already before reviews with great ratings!?

…and the perception?

Reviewers and PR often argument that they have to force the 90+ and advertise the hell out of it just to provide a “deceiving perception” that it is the next great game and needs to be bought. Now, if you just read the comments below reviews and the comments to In-Game Videos that may show a little lag you could think those arguments are correct. And if sales such as Call of Duty: Black Ops pop up everything is signed that “their way” is right.
Now, everyone wants to do that “one bullet”, wants to be the next Call of Duty or WoW (not even Blizzard can do another WoW!). But really besides those what sells are a Pokemon, a Mario, a Just Dance, are Kinect and their Adventures, and the many other (not only Wii) titles that everyone watches but somehow nobody really sees. These are not necessarily games that are labelled triple-A or are covered throughout the gaming sites all day long (up to the release I didn’t even know about a new Pokemon, but I like Black&White ^^), but nevertheless they are sold, are in Top10 charts and are even fun to play. I will skip that in some purely economically driven stock corporations these numbers seem to not count.

Media Coverage

How games are covered in magazines and on online sites is very important nowadays. 100 Action-Adventures against 100 First-Person-Shooters against 100 whatever games compete for the money of the gamer. It is not enough any more to release some footage near release. You have to be in the gamers mind for months before the release. You need to be watched to be recognized, you need to waited for to be a “seller”. But did people really waited for the Top10 game Just Dance 2?

The recognition long before the release is produced with “unreal” information. Costly Render trailers provide a visual media entertainment over the real gaming. Produced parallel to games, sometimes from external studios they try to establish a name in the gamers mind. Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution were noted for nearly a whole year just because of an impressive render trailer. It is just now that some people start to report from real playing sessions. If these would be anywhere near mediocre the game would be criticized prior release because of faked expectations. In this particular case even two expectations: Because of its predecessor and really incredible trailer. If I think about the Video Game Awards last year and the trailers I could start thinking that gaming is not important any more as I haven’t seen much gameplay… the important part in the end!
A different game and according media coverage is Limbo. Videos, Previews, Screenshots etc. always showed gameplay and people got intrigued by the game, by the art, by the style and not a “produced emotion” but what they felt themselves watching the real game. Now, I am always thinking: If they only show a render trailer the game probably isn’t that intriguing being watched… or is it?

…and the perception?

Basically you could say: WYSIWYG! We can only go out and buy what we know of, what we see. Therefore, PR and Marketing, the coverage in the media and the outcome as a rating is so important to be recognized and a possible subtract for the buyers money. That is limited and more and more players try to get a share out of it. Once the music industry complained that piracy is destroying the revenues. No question, piracy is bad but an important point is missing: The every growing entertainment battles for the same share! New technologies, more games, more movies, … broaden what has to be consumed and therefore fight for the right to be noticed.
I remember a time where I would pick up a gaming magazine at my local store (yes, a printed one!) and would have an overview about every single game to be released in that particular month and nearly everything in development. The market was growing but manageable and you would be able to keep an overview of everything interesting. Nevertheless, we still remember the time and those “glory days” of gaming. Games such as Outcast or Might and Magic VII keep me on my machine still today (just bought them at GOG).
Nowadays, such games would hardly been noticed if not covered exclusively or they would not stand comparisons against “that one” genre defining game.

The hidden Middle Class

A problem as always is the definition of “middle class” and especially “indie”. Middle class is not necessarily A- or AA-Games and Indie does not mean: One guy sitting in its room developing the next extraordinary gaming evolution.
Of course, games such as Braid or World of Goo with it’s extremely small teams are top-notch productions and extremely great games. These are also often used as a definition of Indie games. Besides providing an interesting game design and gaming twist both games are extremely polished, with sometimes incredible graphics and beautiful music. So, besides an interesting game design these games also provided incredible art and music, often only related to so-called Triple-A games.
But besides these two examples what about others? For example the developer of the fantastic ‘Splosion Man Twisted Pixel is no “Two and a half Men” team but a team of about ten doing a high production value, extraordinary game with good design and a special twist. The new developer Adhesive Games just showed of their premier title Hawken which was so impressive that Kotaku labelled it as the most beautiful indie game. But a giant city, mech action game with an impressive graphics style and city view, an indie game? Introversion coming from Indie “heritage” being middle class nowadays. This is also a good example of what indie development becomes after that “one hit”: Middle class! You cannot stay “indie” if you are noticed and people follow what you are doing and especially starting building up expectations.

All these and even more such as contract developers (e.g. Shin’en) are the middle class no one notices. This “hidden” middle class is what provides the foundation for our gaming, for our everyday entertainment. As well as a movie such as Avatar gaming cannot and will not consist of only triple-A high budget productions. Many try to achieve just that: A triple-A 90+ international seller every year! But from a real economic viewpoint this is nonsense. You neither plan with just one horse nor do you found on one pillar. Sometimes productions have to level each other because success cannot be planned, especially in entertainment. If you have bad luck and your extremely awesome military shooter comes out right the week after a catastrophe, your game is doomed. The movie industry knows this for years and paid for it. These errors should not be repeated.
And from my own experience, another player, the browser games are not developed by some “PHP script kids” any more but productions with larger teams trying to increase the production value to a level with standalone games. Right now probably the widest middle class games everyone plays, but nobody knows.

No question, I love the so-called AAA-Titles such as Uncharted, Gears of War or Killzone. But to me the middle class definitely is not dead. It again depends on how we look at it, how we rate it (without prejudices) and how we classify “The Other Guys” in gaming such as downloadable games, “indies” and online games (as well as my infamous Casual Games). Because we have to remember even a company such as Epic started of as a middle class developer with Indie developers. “Cliffy B.” may be right for the games he intends to create, but The middle class game is not dead in general! Or would you label EVE Online as middle class? Just based on money or CUO you would have to if you think like Cliff!

PS: A polemic assumption by me: If the general gamer has 100$ each month, he would buy more games if the costs are lower and therefore a wider production would be more effective and risk-less!

Written for #AltDevBlogADay

There are no Casual Games…

…but Casual Gaming (and Casual Gamers)! Wait, wait… Before you stop reading and ask yourself why I would make such an offensive proposition, please hear me out.

My Origin
I have a very tense relation to the terms Casual and Core Games that found on three things: 1) I am getting older and my best “Gamer” times are over ^^’, 2) I develop Browser Games and 3) I develop in Java! A very bad combination to go into a Game Developer discussion… trust me!
I am a Gamer for over two decades now, started with Pong and played a high percentage of every mentionable game ever made. Studying Computer Science and developing Games was a reasonable step and I like what I am doing now, I am good in what I do (yes, I am ^^), developing Games and I am proud of what I achieved until today. But nowadays if I mention that I develop Games, I get asked:

  • “Oh, very cool. What Games?”
  • “Browser MMOs”
  • “Ahhh…*pause*… Casual Games!”

Even with swallowing the bitter taste of that sentence I somehow feel unvalued for being part of one of the largest Browser Games around, over four years old, still growing and established way before Facebook. A massive simultaneous multiplayer game, relying heavy on PvP, time intensive and based on a very technical Story. All features that are normally related to so called “Core Games”. But if a Browser Game features such elements why is it that the term “Browser Game” is instantly related to “Casual Game”? And why in general is “Casual Game” leading to the idea of “not a real game”?
In my specific case Browser and Casual is not the only evil term. The dialog above often continues as follows:

  • “Why do you think I develop a Casual Game?”
  • “It’s in the Browser… probably Flash.”
  • “I am Java Developer.”
  • “I think you said you develop Games. How can you develop Games in Java?”

But that is another story I will cover in another post ^^’.

My Problem
Another thing that leads me to my “new” thinking was the evolution of my own gaming habits. As mentioned, I am a Gamer, a Core Gamer you would say, played Games from Wolfenstein 3D to Call of Duty: Black Ops, from Half-Life over CS to TS2, from Zork to The Whispered World. I owned and own Handhelds, Consoles and PCs. I spent ages playing through games each day after school, alone or with friends. But over time my gaming habits changed through studies and now a whole lot of work. I am still a Gamer, just tested the newest Crysis 2 and Bulletstorm Demos… but the actual gaming sessions changed!

I am part of the working community now. Most of the day I am sitting at my work desk and if I get home I have some commitments to do or just want to get some peace. Nevertheless, my Civilization is teasing me to conquer the world, while Snake is asking me to finally complete the Mission, besides Kane & Lynch still arguing. Everything becomes a Quest that Puzzles me and I get Angry like the Birds outside my Windows (couldn’t find a transition to my iPad here ^^).
So, every evening I really have to decide what I do and IF I play. And even if I play, the time a playing session takes reduced a lot nowadays. For example, I played Plants vs. Zombies as well as Dead Space. I played Mirror’s Edge as well as Angry Birds. All four games would be categorized into Casual and Core Games, but the way I played them somehow did not fit the definition. I played Plants vs. Zombies for hours straight but Dead Space actually in 15-20 minutes chunks until the end (not only because it was scary). Mirror’s Edge I played through in one session but Angry Birds just 15 minutes some evenings.
Now, with the advent of all this classification that somehow does not fit my overall love for games of every type that “entertains” me, I questioned myself: Am I doing something wrong? Or is the classification not practicable?

The Definition
With that many inconsistencies in my general understanding of Browser and further more Casual Games I tried to find a conclusive definition. During the search of a definition I had to notice that I never read so many different ways of defining something, especially as most definitions come down to attitudes of the writer. Because of that, let’s start with a “not so ideal” example from the Urban Dictionary:

Casual games are any kind of game that is over hyped and over rated or just the exactly same thing as a previous version that was over hyped and over rated, these games are known by gamers as “crap” because even with all the perfect scores the games still have mediocre graphics and shitty plots that casual gamers think are good. Usually the only thing that makes a casual game not-total shit is the multiplayer; otherwise these games would get ratings lower than dirt.
With shitty graphics and a generally horrible campaign mode, the halo series is the indisputable king of casual games.

But all jokes aside, for a more serious definition from the IGDA Casual Games SIG from 2005/2006:

The term “casual games” is used to describe games that are easy to learn, utilize simple controls and aspire to forgiving gameplay. Without a doubt, the term “casual games” is sometimes an awkward and ill-fitting term ““ perhaps best described as games for everyone. Additionally, the term “casual” doesn’t accurately depict that these games can be quite addictive, often delivering hours of entertainment similar to that provided by more traditional console games. To be sure, there is nothing “casual” about the level of loyalty, commitment and enjoyment displayed by many avid casual game players ““ just as there is nothing “casual” about the market opportunity and market demand for these games.

That is an interesting definition. Let’s have a look at some more. Wikipedia describes:

Most casual games have similar basic features:

  • Extremely simple gameplay, like a puzzle game that can be played entirely using a one-button mouse or cellphone keypad
  • Allowing gameplay in short bursts, during work breaks or, in the case of portable and cell phone games, on public transportation
  • The ability to quickly reach a final stage, or continuous play with no need to save the game
  • Some variant on a “try before you buy” business model or an advertising-based model

The CasualGameWiki as well as About.com extend the definition with specifics about the price point and the platforms:

  • Style Of Play: Casual Games are now considered “games for everyone” – with a special emphasis on whether your mom can play it.
  • Distribution: Casual Games are frequently distributed with a “Try Before You Buy” model. Where a person can play for an hour for free and then decide whether to purchase or not. This model of play grew out of the Shareware distribution model.
  • Casual Games are usually sold for $19.95.
  • Platforms: Casual Games can now be found on Cell Phones and Consoles such as XBox 360 via the Xbox Live system.

and

Casual games are most often played via a Flash or Java based platform on a PC, but are now appearing in larger quantities on video game consoles and mobile phones.

The definitions often come with a timeframe of around the millennium or 2001.

An Interlude
Let’s move away a little from the term “Casual Games” and the definitions given and have a look at the last sentence: The Year! If we take a look on what happened and was released around that time that is somehow “defined” as the origin of the term we will find things like the Playstation 2 (2000) and the Xbox (2001). While the Playstation 1 was still a child of the “old” console generation especially the Playstation 2 as well as the Xbox introduced the “new” generation of consoles, away from old Entertainment Systems we adored. More important is that with the new generation the games from the “old world”, the Personal Computer, and the consoles were starting to congregate. Complexity from the PC moved to consoles and simplicity of the Consoles moved to the PC.
On the PC Flash was released in version 4.0 in 99 and one year later in version 5.0. These introduced and extended Flash’s own programming language ActionScript. From here on Flash was not only a way of playing frames off a timeline but introducing conditional actions onto these. More and more Flash Games started popping up. Around the same time Java 1.3 was released introducing the HotSpot VM and building the foundation for JavaME (J2ME at that time) that brought gaming very heavily to normal phones.
This interlude is important to understand how Games opened up to a larger community (yes, long before the Wii) away from the nerdy PC hardware geeks that “pimped” their autoexec.bat to play games as of today these build a large majority of the people defining and mostly complaining about “Casual Games” (no offense).

The Ambiguity
If we sum up the definitions the following list could be seen as a general understanding of Casual Games:

  • Easy to learn/simple gameplay
  • Simple controls
  • Forgiving Gameplay/quickly reach a final stage
  • Gameplay in Short Bursts
  • Games for Everyone
  • Up to 20$
  • Try before you Buy
  • Flash and Java Games on the PC side/DLGames on XBoxLive, PSN, etc.
  • Since 2000/2001

This list looks pretty decent doesn’t it? As you can guess from the headline the list is not as decent as I hoped it to be. I often refer to these hand full of games that somehow should fit these rules, are named casual but do not really allow a distinct identification of what a casual game should be.

Let’s start off with Plants vs. Zombies (one of my favourites over the last years). This modified Tower Defense game is a success on every platform. First released in 2009 it sold and sold and people rated it effusively. It’s a great game that just brings a ton of fun. If we look at our list we can see that it looks pretty good: It costs under 20$, the controls are simple and it is downloadable on PC, iOS and XBoxLive. Regarding the gameplay, it is simple and easy to learn… because of the many tutorials, and can be hard to master. This makes this game attractive to be played for just some minutes or for hours fiddling on the new strategies and therefore attracting Casual Gamers and Core Games as well as hybrids like me. It provides Casual Gaming and more, for Casual and Core Gamers. So, is this a Casual Game?
My second example would be Super Meat Boy (and N/N+ in parallel). This 2010 hit platform game has gone through different stages of the list. It was a Flash Game first, ported, tuned and extended for the PC and Consoles. Over 300 mostly short levels (short bursts) with a very gory portion of simple gameplay. It is also cheaper then 20$ and has some very simple controls. But it is extremely hard to master forbidding the slightest error ending in a pure gore fest. And actually (as PETA already noticed ^^’) this is no “game for everyone” anymore because of its scenario and its quickly increasing difficulty level. Hardly a Casual Game, isn’t it?
My third example is Prince of Persia (the one before the crappy Movie Game). Not a typical Casual Game and was more expensive then 20$. But if we look at some definitions it fits as much as the previous two examples: It has forgiving gameplay (yes, I mean you Elika), had a Demo, was easy to learn but had not the easiest controls. The save points were pretty frequent and it had a scenario that even my casual sister was able to relate to. Still Core or did it become Casual?
My fourth example is Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. A franchise that may have brought many women to gaming, featuring intense 3D platform gaming and 3rd Person Shooting Gameplay. With GoL it became a DLG with a strict isometric perspective. It’s on PC and Consoles, downloadable, costs under 20$ and has (in my opinion) simple controls to master the fine placed action and puzzles. Now, are Tomb Raider and Lara Croft becoming casual? Is it just that game? Or does Lara Croft not count?
My fifth example (to use the full hand) would be every Wii Game. Nearly every gaming site and every “Core Gamer” defines a Wii Game as a Casual Game. Why? Because your Family got into “your hemisphere”?

In general if we just take some of the bullet points, some of the definitions describe things that nearly every game, no matter if Casual or Core, wants to achieve nowadays or is a general gaming tradition:

  • Try before you Buy

Demos, Shareware, … Nothing new to the experienced Gamer and Games in general.

  • Gameplay in Short Bursts

Actually, this is something popping up more and more since the advent of consoles. PC users are used to saving games, being able to use up space on their hard disc. For console gamers this was no natural thing to use so developers very often used stages with manual and automatic save points that were not separated too far away from each other to not enrage the player if he dies. I mentioned Dead Space and my very tight gaming sessions playing through it. This was only possible because of the very “controlled” stages and their save points that I could reach in the given time frame.

  • Forgiving Gameplay/quickly reach a final stage

This as well is something that especially First-Person-Shooters nowadays provide to the user. “Old” Gamers remember a time when it was a necessity to know where the next HealthPack is. Today, we rely on a regenerative system, often presented with the argument to be more accessible to more gamers (“games for everyone”). Becoming casual? And regarding the second part, I could get heretical now but games such as Modern Warfare do not really provide that much gaming time to the user anymore. 5-6 hours are some times normal.
The problem is that gaming following the definitions given is way older. This is why gameplay elements can hardly be used to define the games themselves. What is left are technical definitions, prices as well as hardware to describe the so called “Casual Games” and these obliterate more and more.
So, with all this ambiguity coming from the point of defining the Game, wouldn’t it be better to define the interaction?

Classic Classification
We tend to define things based on their surroundings and the “object” using the “subject” (“People Playing a Game” in our case) because that is what we visually perceive. And as it is easy for us to define unknown things from what we know, we derive the Browser into our experience of Casual Games as the Browser was never a dedicated environment for games but so many things that so many people do, not only gamer. Therefore, it is very easy for “Core Gamers” to define games such as Plants vs. Zombies as Casual Games as their Moms or Dads are playing them.
The problem with the classification and the according definitions of Casual Games is that they try to really define constraints where these games may fit in. In a time where it becomes harder and harder to “just” define the Genre of a game (e.g. Puzzle-Survival-Horror Adventure-Games) it is even harder to define an umbrella term of games in general. But my personal strongest point regarding the definition of “Casual Games” is that most of the people that play “Casual Games” do not even know that these are “Casual Games” (or did your Mother or Sister ever talked about Casual Games when playing Wii or DS?).
The classification normally is given by “Core Gamers”, Developers or Game Editors that want to separate themselves from these “unappreciated” games (in many cases). But what we were able to see from the definitions normally used to describe Casual Games is that these do not fit the real world anymore. Especially as they evolved over the last years, away from most simplistic Flash Games to the best gaming experiences of the last decade (e.g. Darwinia, Braid, Limbo and more)
What is required is to divide not only Games but the interaction, the gaming. For gameplay we have genres. Now, we need a new graduation for Facebook, Flash, Indie and everything else that evolved our gaming experience (and will in the future). To what this New Classification could be, I can give you no answer. This needs a long discussion and a broad overview of everything gaming has to offer nowadays.
But what all Gamers need to do is to be open minded to new possibilities and not argue with the term “Casual Game” anymore, especially those that call themselves Core Gamer. I think we all do not want to hear another: “Epic Mickey is a Casual Game. It’s on the Wii!“

My Conclusion
My intention was to make a polemic assertion, presented with my experience, many questions and concluded with my own ways of thinking. If you were looking for THE definition of Casual Gaming, this post does not deliver. It just brings up some things that do not work out in our current scheme of games classification and with the ever growing amount of releases that qualify to our current definition of Casual Games we should quickly start thinking about a new way of filtering, fitting all modern characteristics such as Facebook, iOS and Android, Unity/Shiva/…, Steam and all the other new ways of developing, presenting and distributing games, challenging the “old way” of games development.
I started off with arguing that there are no “Casual Games” but “Casual Gaming” and I tend to support this even if I give away no new definition because such a broad definition of games cannot be made, if the gamers that count are so broad and different themselves. I agree that I only presented arguments for my theory but as long as it is possible to oppugn the current definition that easily it is in our hands to discuss and define better definitions for our most beloved games… that are changing pretty quickly right now!

Written for #AltDevBlogADay

Android and the (OpenGL) issues

As most people know I pretty much dig Android. I also have been a friend of OpenGL. As I come from the Java side (we have cookies ^^’) and there are two good wrapper implementations with JOGL and LWJGL, I found the perfect combination in OpenGL on Android, hence the tutorial ports.

Over the time I did some tests on Android. Not only with OpenGL but mainly overall to see what could work and how. Unfortunately Android is far from perfect (what ever is?) and has some issues also affecting OpenGL development on Android.

3D Games on Android…
Ravensword - Town BlacksmithGames are probably the main market working with 3D on Mobile Phones nowadays. On the iPhone we have some great examples of cool and nice looking 3D games such as Ravensword and many others. They look good and also run very smoothly (especially on a 3GS, loading times are most of the times much better).
Now, for Android we also have some good Game examples with the just announced winner of the Android Developer Challenge 2 in the category of games: Speed Forge 3D. The really beautiful WipeOut clone gives you a nice 3D game example on Android. Another example is Mystique by Bendroid. The 3D Ego-Survival-Horror in the style of Silent Hill and The Ring is sure to give you some creeps if you play it in a dark room, at night, feeling lonely.

…and the issues!
Now if you compare Speed Forge 3D or Mystique with Ravensword or Gameloft’s upcoming N.O.V.A you probably will get jealous and drool all over the videos. No question: SF3D and Mystique are great, Kudos to the developers, but compared to the iPhone they are far behind.
The big question should be: Why? And the answer is neither simple nor a single one in my opinion.

1. Heterogeneous Phone Market
One big thing coming up with the release of new Android handhelds is the inconsistency throughout the phones. Android itself is a specification and a referential implementation. Now, most phone manufacturer alter some things or add their own implementations of something such as OpenGL. Therefore, it is already the case that with every new release of a mobile phone based on Android you see updates of many Apps popping up because of problems or even crashes on the new device.
Let’s have a look at Speed Forge 3D: I have a HTC Magic and it runs… OK. Not absolutely fluently but playable. Now, a friend of mine has a Samsung Galaxy (or i7500) and he can barely play it until it crashes. Now the Droid from Motorola entered the market with another graphics chip and a larger screen. Many new “properties” to test against and to deal with. The iPhone on the other side may have been updated over the time but the environment stayed nearly the same. And something that runs on the 3GS will also run on the 3G, just load a little longer. So, as time goes by more and more Android devices will come out and will further diverse the market.

2. The Dalvik VM
As always when it comes to Java you will hear people say:

It’s slow because it’s Java!
Java will always be slow!
Forget Java, use the NDK!

(just saw the same posts pop up on the newsgroups and forums again)
They will argue that a Virtual Machine can never give the speed you need (some also tend to forget that .net is a VM interpreted environment). They will argue that the Garbage Collector slows everything down. And if we look back about 10 years they really had a point, but nowadays that may not be total crap but is just not that easy to say.

Poisonville by BigpointFirst of all let’s have a look around at Java-based 3D games, based on the very popular, updated and fast libraries JOGL and/or LWJGL. There would be the experiment Jake2: A Quake2 clone made in Java based on JOGL and LWJGL to have a comparison. If you have a look at the benchmarks you will see it is hard to argue that Java is that slower over the native implementation. And engines such as jMonkeyEngine support the Java faction. The demos over there such as Spirits and other games like Trible Trouble and Poisonville on the other side show that there are very good possibilities to use this object-oriented programming language as your development base.
The thing is that not Java per sé is the problem but as with every programming language the code optimization and the execution environment, in this case the Virtual Machine. Even Tim Sweeney from Epic Games suggests that functional programming and Garbage Collection is the future. The newest Sun Java VM and other VM implementations show what is possible to do with optimization within a managed environment. A good Garbage Collector (GC) and a very good Just-in-Time (JIT) Compiler such as in Suns current Java implementation speed up not only the application but also development itself because of less time spending for the memory management.
But why still the speed problems? As already said, even if Java is interpreted and helps with the memory management you still have to think about what is happening beneath. Most applications tend to just create one instance after the other and do not really care about memory management. This may work on a desktop system but will bring problems to you on Mobile Phones. Things like weak references, caches, volatile and transient are forgotten but highly important terms in Java development. Especially Mobile Applications still have to really care about memory even with all this technically highly fledged phones. Care about the memory more than about computation on modern smartphones.

Nevertheless, even with these more or less “simple” tricks Android still has some problems that you need to remember during development. Most of these result from the Dalvik VM. The current Dalvik implementation on Android phones does not support JIT nor is the Garbage Collector any good.
As no JIT is available all code is interpreted on time and not pre-compiled or anything. On a limited device such as a mobile phone this results in slowdowns. Therefore, it is important to pre-load everything you need and cache as much as you can to have a fluent gaming experience during e.g. a level.
Another thing is the current GC in Dalvik: Avoid it ^^’ Sure, you cannot really avoid the GC directly but try to not release too many objects during gameplay (or fire it by yourself) as the GC will slow your phone so down that even the OS will need time to react. This is also something that can be managed with caching and a good manual memory management. Currently, up to Android 1.6 an application may use up to 12MB of memory. With Android 2.0 this has been upped above 20MB, but as a game should support many platform versions (the issue why I am posting this), 12MB will probably be the limit for a while.

3. The Android OpenGL ES implementations
Another thing that bothers the development of OpenGL ES applications on Android is the again heterogeneous availability of specifications. Android itself by SDK supports OpenGL ES 1.0 and 1.1. The official current OpenGL ES version is already at 2.0. While 1.1 is backwards compatible to 1.0, 2.0 has no backwards compatibility. OK, its to note that 2.0 is somehow pretty fresh and you cannot ask for the newest technology in Mobile Phones. But most Android phones at the moment only support 1.0, for example the HTC Magic whereas the Motorola Droid should be able (hardware-based) to support 2.0.

As 2.0 introduced programmable shaders to the hardware the step is a large one. That is probably also the reason why OpenGL ES 2.0 is the foundation for WebGL, the upcoming and already beta-available 3D JavaScript interpreter for Browsers such as Firefox and the WebKit Engine. So, even if you argue that the newest technology may not be always available in Mobile Phones, as 2.0 is progressing so fast at the moment the diversity between 1.0 on current phones and 2.0 on more and more platforms can result in “support” or portability problems of applications.
The support/portability problem is one of the issues. But more relevant is the functionality available in 1.0 and 1.1. The iPhone is based on OpenGL ES 1.1 and by that it has a big advantage over most Android phones: Vertex Buffer Objects (VBO)! As posted before my tutorial ports, OpenGL ES does not support primitive rendering (glBegin/glEnd). This is good as it will nevertheless be dropped out of the OpenGL standard. In OpenGL ES you have to use Vertex Arrays and/or Vertex Buffer Objects, which are faster anyway. BUT 1.0 only supports Vertex Arrays and no VBOs. This is one big disadvantage not only in speed but in development. You can argue that it is possible to program an application that supports both with tagging the sections but as it comes to mobile development you always try to comprehend everything as much as possible without acting on too many specifics.
Two other important things when it comes to game development are that 1.0 does not support multi-texturing on its own (there are ways, but those are tricks) and it does not support the automatic mipmap generation. Both are necessities if you want to do such nice things like Ravensword or N.O.V.A.
Another thing are the phone specific OpenGL ES implementations. Not only versions but also manufacturers provide different implementations with their phones. For example the Samsung Galaxy has a known very weak OpenGL implementation. There are already several published articles on how to add the HTC implementation to a rooted Galaxy. And as more and more manufactures will enter the Android market in the coming month this will probably get worse.

So, what can be concluded from this? Actually not much but 1.0 <= 1.1 < 2.0! There are some tricks here and there to deal with some things under 1.0 but overall you just have to accept the fact and optimize around what is missing. Or you limit your development to 1.1 (at least for now). But by that you will loose many phones such as the Magic or G1, which probably are the most widespread Android phones at the moment.

4. General and Specific OpenGL (ES) Paradigms and Tactics
As with every programming language or library there are several Best Practices that should be remembered during development. The same thing applies to OpenGL. There are many posts in the net on how to optimize your OpenGL code and you should definitely use Google to keep you up-to-date. I just want to point out two important things (in my opinion) for mobile development.
The first thing is to reduce your draw calls! This is not limited to mobile devices but OpenGL in general. But because of the limited hardware versus a Desktop system, this is even more important. Each draw call is not necessarily bad but in sum are slow. Now, most people do enormous, cool architectures with self-drawing objects that are instanced over and over again. This is nice from an object-oriented point of view but is bad on a mobile device. If you want to do something good and fast for Android work with overall handlers. This relates to what I said about caching. To have super classes, handlers or factories that collect all changed elements or all objects that need to be drawn and only that Object fires the draw call is the way to go. This may look like a limitation but this is not only good for the speed of your application but also reduces the possibility of asynchronous errors when instances of deep objects are computed while the rest already handles another request.
The second thing correlates with what I said about memory handling and caching: Reduce your texture binding calls! To rebind your textures again and again and switch them back and forth is also bad for the overall performance. I know that it is tempting and Android with its nice resource loader somehow invites you to have hundreds of single texture files and load them again and again. But this will get you into trouble really fast. First of all, reduce the calls by utilizing again a super class, a texture handler with some kind of caching mechanism. Another possibility is to merge several textures into one large texture and offset the texture mapping coordinates accordingly. This is easy to do and just requires a small asset pipeline but the advantage is huge.

Both things suggest some very important points that have to be taken into account in the architecture and early development. Therefore, always tend to fulfil the mentioned points already while you are planing.

5. General Mobile Development Paradigms
As well as for OpenGL there are some rules regarding Mobile Development in general. There are also several posts on the net about this topic but just to sum up what I already coped in the above text: A Mobile Device is no Desktop!
Many people come from the Desktop development and are real geniuses there. They make the best applications, fast, functionality perfect and have wonderful graphical user interfaces. BUT what works on a Desktop does not necessarily work like that on a mobile device.
JavaME made it necessary to go back to Java 1.3.1 programming style; To forget about Generics; To forget about Enumerations and just use the “old ways”. Now, with something like the Android SDK, which allows to use nearly the full Java5 specification people just copy their desktop applications into the Android projects and this will make problems. All the things I pointed out above result from that premise as the desktop is the more forgiving (because more powerful) platform.
Things like creating hundreds of instances, using hundreds of different files, not working with in-memory data but reloading everything over and over again are bad… bad… and even worse, really bad! Do not get fooled by all the technical specifications of the mobile devices. You cannot compare the CPU and the RAM with the desktop pendent. I recommend to have a look “back” at the JME development and the experience people made there. Do not copy it one-to-one but use it as a guideline and convert it into a comprehensible Android project. Most problems, most errors, most failures that are posted and reported result from the unused experience made in that mobile development area. Reuse that knowledge, reuse their principles, their ideas and you will avoid many problems. And as there are enough “new” problems do not trip into the old ones.

In conclusion
Please do not get me wrong: My opinion about Android is high, I have one on my own and I love it. Love developing on it, love the SDK updates. The only thing I want to point out is that development on Android phones and Android itself has to start to keep these five things in mind. The next three to six month mark an important state with Android where to go and with at least the noted points you should be good to go.
So, go out there and really work on it to do the best f***in’ 3D Android game of them all (and comment about it here ^^’)!

The Chronicles of Spellborn – Free to play begins now!

TCOS is coming F2PTwo days ago, the USA version of The Chronicles of Spellborn, published by Acclaim went F2P. Today they made this step official. You can go to their website, register a free account and download the about 3GB, install and start playing. I recommend it, as TCOS features a new, active and live fighting system (which I like very much). It also has a very believable world, which does not follow any large license but cooks its own soup. Something I like, as it also encourages you to explore. Now, you can make up your mind yourself as it is free! For those that already played TCOS at the beginning, please note: It has changed nearly completely in my opinion! It is far more user friendly, the interface got better, the guidance, the environment more lively…
It was announced some weeks ago that the European Servers shutdown and The Chronicles of Spellborn will nevertheless continue as a F2P, beginning from next year. This is fantastic, as so many good but not great MMOs (like Tabula Rasa) just get lost in the Windows Trashcan because of shutdowns. The European servers have been shutdown already, but now Acclaim announced that the US Version is F2P from today on but will not feature any updates or patches until the official relaunch. In my opinion it is worth it. And as it is free now it has enough content to keep you playing for a while. And let’s see… maybe you like it!

The Chronicles of Spellborn
TCOS

TCOSThe Chronicles of Spellborn was a bold try to do something completely out of line from UO, Everquest or World of Warcraft. The studio from Netherlands licensed the Unreal 2.5 engine and created their own story, their own environment, their own world! Main focus was put on the fighting system, which features a complex looking but very special and good kind of active and live fighting, with skill-based tiers. Moving, jumping, attacking from behind gets more interactive and it encourages to test your skill-tiers, similar to Guild Wars, because of the alignment and limitations in the slots.
Unfortunately TCOS could not fully keep up to the (and my) expectations. It was polished but too little content was available. Some people also argued that the quest descriptions were missing concrete directions. I liked that, as it was no following arrows and points but really reading the quests, the logs, the text. As the quest and discussion system also features some kind of answer selection, sometimes you can change your stand and the mood of NPCs to you. Something I also like.

So, just head over to the official website and download the game. It is worth at least a quick look and maybe the community will bring Spellborn back to live, somehow like Ryzom.

The Chronicles of Spellborn – Trailer

Pictures taken from the official Website: http://spellborn.acclaim.com/

3DRealms shuts down!

http://www.shacknews.com/onearticle.x/58519

How? This cannot be possible. This must be a joke. Please be joking. In reality they finished Duke Nukem 4 Ever and will release it. Broussard told everyone that they hit a milestone. This must be marketing.

Update 5

Somehow the Duke still lives (of course)! Scott Miller posted at his Facebook site that the current state is more of a pause than the death of the Duke (who can never die as we all know ^^’). Also some new images emerged with the post. I think they are great and have to still believe that I will see the Duke again.

Update 4

Now, some new footage popped up. Actually it is no new footage but the full segment not shown on the Jace Hall show, when he visited 3DRealms and had the chance to play it. I think it looks actually good and somehow finished. The idea with the controlling tentacles look good and the weapons are awesome as always. I really hope we will see this game in some time…

Duke Nukem Forever played by Jace Hall

Update 3

After more and more news about how 3DRealms possibly refused 30 Millions and Take 2’s action of suing 3DRealms for 12 Millions and Source Code as well as Assets the first, more or less official statement has been made by the remaining executives at 3DRealms. It seems that 3DRealms still exists as a company but had to let go of all their developers in the beginning of May. Everything stated can be interpreted in many ways but I still have hope. It was also reported that Miller, Broussard and other Executives will give a full official statement some time later. So let’s hope everything gets at least clarified.

Update 2

Voodoo Extreme got their hands on 28 Hi-Res Screenshots of the “probable” game. The screens also contain a set of Story Tables/World Chart offering what Duke Nukem Forever could have been. The video below already showed our favourite “Stadium” level (but I liked “L.A. Rumble” more ^^’) and it seems that this would have been the entry into the game, as Duke plays his “historical documents” as a game, in the game. I am sorry, but again I need a moment…*morphingtoweepingwillow*

Update

One of the 3DRealms Animators Bryan Brewer, who worked on Duke Nukem Forever, released a Reel of his work done for the game. If this is the real deal, and this is actual gameplay footage with some story hints and everything, this would have been exactly everything a Duke3D BNC-Net gamer could have wished for. I am sorry, but I need a moment…*cryingoutloud*

Duke Nukem Forever (2007)