Mar 27 2009

Wolfenphone 3D

It’s officially all downhill for me from now on, seeing that Wolfenstein 3D has officially arrived on the iPhone. If you are a friend/loved one, I am especially sorry.

John Carmack has written a detailed overview of this port project on id Software’s website. Here’s a bit of the timeline:

Late last year, the mobile team had finished up all the planned versions of Wolfenstein RPG, but EA had suggested that in addition to the hundreds of customized versions they normally produce for all the various mobile phones, they were interested in having another team do a significant media quality improvement on it for the iPhone. While Wolf RPG is a very finely crafted product for traditional cell phones, it wasn’t designed for the iPhone’s interface or capabilities, so it wouldn’t be an ideal project, but it should still be worth doing. When we got the first build to test, I was pleased with how the high res artwork looked, but I was appalled at how slow it ran. It felt like one of the mid range java versions, not better than the high end BREW as I expected. I started to get a sinking feeling. I searched around in the level for a view that would confirm my suspicion, and when I found a clear enough view of some angled geometry I saw the tell-tale mid-polygon affine swim in the texture as I rotated. They were using the software rasterizer on the iPhone. I patted myself on the back a bit for the fact that the combination of my updated mobile renderer, the intelligent level design / restricted movement, and the hi-res artwork made the software renderer almost visually indistinguishable from a hardware renderer, but I was very unhappy about the implementation.

I told EA that we were NOT going to ship that as the first Id Software product on the iPhone. Using the iPhone’s hardware 3D acceleration was a requirement, and it should be easy — when I did the second generation mobile renderer (written originally in java) it was layered on top of a class I named TinyGL that did the transform / clip / rasterize operations fairly close to OpenGL semantics, but in fixed point and with both horizontal and vertical rasterization options for perspective correction. The developers came back and said it would take two months and exceed their budget.

Rather than having a big confrontation over the issue, I told them to just send the project to me and I would do it myself. Cass Everitt had been doing some personal work on the iPhone, so he helped me get everything set up for local iPhone development here, which is a lot more tortuous than you would expect from an Apple product. As usual, my off the cuff estimate of “Two days!” was optimistic, but I did get it done in four, and the game is definitely more pleasant at 8x the frame rate.

And I had fun doing it.

That’s right: Carmack personally oversaw this project, and took less than a week to complete it. I’ve already spent a good chunk of my afternoon replaying this classic game on the iPhone and I’m blown away at how fluid and immersive it is.

But the best news of all? Carmack expects that “Classic Doom” will come out “fairly soon”. If Wolf 3D takes all but 4 days, I’m thinking we should be seeing this next weekend, right? ;)

Mar 25 2009

Giddyap! The Oregon Trail

Just a quick post here to say I am love-love-loving Gameloft’s adaptation of The Oregon Trail for iPhone and iPod Touch.  Oregon Trail was probably my first computer gaming experience when I was but a wee one growing up in the nightmare of Reagan’s America, and like a lot of us from that era, I still have fond memories of my classroom’s Apple IIe and its always-sticking left arrow key.


A quarter century later, I still find this a very fulfilling and enjoyable game, and probably moreso given the fact I teach full-time at a college in Oregon City, OR (where I teach a games studies course every spring, no less…) that—yes—is literally located on the Trail’s End Highway. Call me a goober, but last week I purposely waited to download the game to my iPhone until I would be physically there on campus, at the end of the trail, index finger poised and at the ready to rustle up some grub.

Feb 14 2009

FWR Episode 015: Ruben & Lullaby

In Episode 015 we talk about Erik Loyer’s excellent new iPhone game, Ruben & Lullaby. R&L makes us think about hardware potentials and limitations, methods for emotional investment, and player roles in interactive art.

We are preparing for a new Book Club episode on Gamer Theory, so take a look at it and send us your input. We have invited the author, McKenzie Wark, onto the program, so your thoughts will hopefully be conveyed to him. We look forward to hearing from you, and thanks for listening.

Jan 30 2009

Opertoon-ity Knocks?

Ruben & Lullaby is one of the more interesting iPhone/iPod Touch games to appear recently, and has inspired a whole new discussion thread in the ongoing conversation regarding The Jesus Phone’s narrative possibilities. Probably the best piece I’ve read so far about Ruben & Lullaby is Emily Short’s new GameSetWatch column, in which she compares this “opertoon” (defined by Ruben & Lullaby’s designer Erik Loyer as “a story you play like a musical instrument”) to Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas’s Facade:

As I played, I couldn’t help comparing “Ruben & Lullaby” with “Facade”. (There are after all only so many game/interactive experiences that thrust the player into the middle of someone else’s romantic discord.) The two complement each other in odd ways, one getting right what the other didn’t. In Facade, the characters were specifically drawn, abounding in motives and neuroses, often to such a degree that I wondered why my character was friends with them in the first place.

On the other hand, it was often hard to tell how my actions were controlling the outcome of the game, and interaction — typing full sentences of dialogue — was clumsy. Things I wanted to say were often woven into the wrong place by the time I hit RETURN. (And I’m a pretty fast typist.) In fact, the comparison is more or less a case study in the value — and danger — of using verbal content in games. Dialogue characterizes, clarifies, makes specific. At the same time it’s hard to interact with and potentially confusing.

These are important issues to consider as games continue narrowing the gap between the real and the virtual, and especially so when game designers ask players to converse with their games as they might an actual, breathing human being. In Ruben & Lullaby, we interact with the game’s characters and influence their world by shaking or stroking our iPhones (and, really, who doesn’t love that for its own accordant pleasure), but we are nonetheless locked outside the environment; if we shake the screen, the characters don’t get angry with us, but rather take it out on one another.

I definitely see the connection Short is making here, but I can’t help make an entirely different one between Ruben & Lullaby and The Sims. While an exponentially larger “God game” in almost every sense, for me The Sims still affords us players the luxury of not living in the lives we have created for those poor bastards trapped behind our computer monitors. Ruben & Lullaby is a beautiful, elegant expression of this same notion, only infinitely more portable.

That we can so quickly and easily wreck (or–*sigh*—save, I suppose…) an intimate relationship and have that interrupted by a text message or phone call from a telemarketer seems both sinister and by the same token incredibly appropriate; it seems we’ve atomized our humanity on nearly every level, and the most pressing decision in the fray could very well be how many rollover minutes we’ll have left at the end of the game session.