Category Archives: Design

Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller

Microsoft Story Labs has a great piece by in-house writer Deborah Bach about the development of the Adaptive Controller. It’s great storytelling through and through; chock full of touching stories, business cases, and design implementation all the way down to the packaging.

Here’s the opening story:

Dan Bertholomey awoke in a hospital in June of 2010, four days after a hit-and-run driver almost killed him while he was riding his motorcycle, to the sinking knowledge that he’d lost the use of his right arm and hand.

As he lay in his hospital bed, Bertholomey pondered his future. He thought about his daily life and the things he loved to do. How am I going to game again, he wondered? He’d been an avid gamer since age 10, when an original Pong console from Sears magically transformed his family’s television set into an electronic playground that he could control. Bertholomey was instantly hooked. He loved the competitiveness of gaming, loved the places it took his imagination.

Bertholomey continued gaming into adulthood, playing often with his son and daughter. In 2005, when he was 40, Bertholomey placed sixth on “Madden Nation,” a televised competition of the U.S.’s best “Madden NFL 06” football video game players. For him, gaming wasn’t just a hobby, something he did in his spare time. It was a lifestyle.

“You can’t fathom losing something that you love so much, said Bertholomey, 52, who lives in Mesa, Arizona. It’s incredibly devastating.”

Bertholomey began looking for ways to play with one hand. He found someone to hack him a foot pedal that connected to his Xbox, but it didn’t work well for him. He eventually taught himself to play with his left hand, but it was awkward and he couldn’t play at anywhere near his previous capacity.

The solution Bertholomey needed is now a reality — and it has the potential to make gaming accessible to players with disabilities worldwide. The new Xbox Adaptive Controller, which will be available later this year, can be connected to external buttons, switches, joysticks and mounts, giving gamers with a wide range of physical disabilities the ability to customize their setups. The most flexible adaptive controller made by a major gaming company, the device can be used to play Xbox One and Windows 10 PC games and supports Xbox Wireless Controller features such as button remapping.

Bertholomey, who is among a select group of gamers who have been testing the device, said the controller makes it easy to create different setups for various types of games and seamlessly switch between them. Gamers can set up three different gaming profiles on the controller and don’t need to reset the device every time they change games, as they sometimes do with modified controllers.

This controller is really something else. There should have been steps taken to get to this point a long time ago, but this is wonderful, nonetheless.

I’ve recently wondered how to make games more accessible. The thought (rather shamefully) finally occurred to me while playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for Switch in handheld mode. I have perfect eyesight, but the text was just small enough to be uncomfortable to read. Seeing as the game was originally intended for a TV experience on Wii U, it’s not terribly surprising that the experience wasn’t tailored for the Switch’s 6.2-inch screen. However, with the success of the Switch and Breath of the Wild, it’s surprising Nintendo hasn’t patched the text size while in handheld mode.

More recently, I’ve been playing God of War on a 720p TV. Golly, is the text tough to read.

Software accessibility is difficult, let alone manufacturing a piece of hardware for a niche audience. But it’s a niche audience that must to be considered. Where many companies seemingly glance over serving mental and physical handicaps, it’s wonderful to see Microsoft doing the right thing by enabling play for as many people as possible.

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Adjustable Charging Stand for Nintendo Switch

Nintendo:

The adjustable charging stand allows the Nintendo Switch system to be charging while in Tabletop mode, enabling longer play sessions.

Home console?

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The rise of the ambient video game

Lewis Gordon, writing for The Outline:

Both The Legend of Zelda and these ambient records channeled the natural elements of water, earth, and air — phenomena of increasing rarity in the modern Japanese city. To step into such video game worlds was to stabilise oneself within the frenetic noise and anonymity of the expanding urban spaces. The Famicom allowed players to experience video games from the comfort of their home while Yoshimura, alongside other ambient artists of the era such as Satoshi Ashikawa, designed their records for public spaces whose mood they attempted to subtly augment. Later, in 1993, Haruomi Hosono, member of Yellow Magic Orchestra, released Medicine Compilation From the Quiet Lodge, an ambient album touching on house and techno but infused with Japan’s past and elementalism. Its title articulated the healing potential of music created outside of the metropolis.

A lovely observation and read by Gordon.

In Rainbows

After publishing ‘Building Zero Counts’, I became curious about syntax highlighting — the walls of rainbowed text you see splayed out in front of developers.

In ‘Building Zero Counts’, I used a gradient from sea foam green (#00fa92) to Zero Counts blue (#004992) to denote code. Here’s the Bitbucket Pipeline YAML example I used:

image: php:7.0.27

pipelines:
 default:
 - step:
 script:
 - apt-get update
 - apt-get -qq install git-ftp
 - git ftp push --user $SFTP_username --passwd $SFTP_password --verbose sftp://ftp.[host]/home/[username]/[domain]/wp-content/plugins/jetpack/modules/minileven/theme/pub/minileven
 custom: # Pipelines triggered manually
 full-deploy-after-jetpack-update:
 - step:
 script:
 - apt-get update
 - apt-get -qq install git-ftp
 - git ftp init --user $SFTP_username --passwd $SFTP_password --verbose sftp://ftp.[host]/home/[username]/[domain]/wp-content/plugins/jetpack/modules/minileven/theme/pub/minileven

The color scheme and implementation is completely useless, but it’s meant to abstract how I perceive syntax highlighting. In the tech industry, it’s impossible not to see engineers, developers, and designers living in front of colorful walls of text. And for me, it’s impossible not to want to live and work in this world of rainbows. So, the way I display code on Zero Counts is a window into the beauty I see, the envy I have, and my ignorance of what is actually going on with syntax highlighting.

Poking around, I found some interesting posts about syntax highlighting and some methodologies behind color schemes and implementation. Ethan Schoonover’s Solarized is a simple color scheme that shares the same syntax highlighting between light and dark themes. It’s inspired by reading in the shade vs direct sunlight and incorporates fixed color wheel relationships:

Solarized works as a sixteen color palette for compatibility with common terminal based applications / emulators. In addition, it has been carefully designed to scale down to a variety of five color palettes (four base monotones plus one accent color) for use in design work such as web design. In every case it retains a strong personality but doesn’t overwhelm.

Meanwhile, Evan Brooks notes switching to semantic highlighting from syntax highlighting — an inverted use of highlighting, moving away from colorizing built-in keywords such as let, var, and function to coloring user-defined variables, methods, etc.:

We think syntax highlighting makes the structure of code easier to understand. But as it stands, we highlight the obvious (like the word function) and leave most of the content in black. Rather than highlighting the differences between currentIndex and the keyword function, we could highlight the difference between currentIndex and randomIndex. Here’s what that might look like:

Brooks’ method has been incorporated in a variety of text editors. Beyond that, KDevelop had actually incorporated semantic highlighting in 2009 — five years before Brooks’ post:

Understand code: The real facility that helps you understanding global code-structure is the navigation-tooltip or the code-browser. However those are not very useful to understand local algorithms. The following picture illustrates my favorite part of the semantic highlighting: Local Variable Colorization. That colorization assigns a semi-unique color to each variable in a local context. This allows much easier distinguishing those variables, largely without reading their full name at all. By freeing you of actually having to read all the variable names, this allows grokking local code relations faster, and has already helped me fixing quite a few very stupid bugs right away. 🙂
Great minds!

Syntax highlighting is a silly reason to want to learn to code, but well designed colorization and implementation certainly make it an attractive work environment. Who wouldn’t want to live in rainbows?

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‘But then Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’

Victor Luckerson recapping Nintendo’s year as “The Best Tech Story of 2017″for The Ringer:

It all seemed like enough to burn through the last of gamers’ goodwill for the often maddening company. But then Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and a lifetime’s worth of anti-consumer transgressions were suddenly forgiven. In an era filled with cynical IP cash-ins across entertainment, Nintendo used a formulaic, nostalgic franchise to deliver a fresh reinvention of open-world gaming mechanics. The game is an adept mix of old and new, borrowing elements of Skyrim and Minecraft but augmenting them to recreate the whimsy, mystery, and intrepidness that a lot of gamers felt the first time they booted up the original Legend of Zelda or the seminal Ocarina of Time. The gushing praise for the game, the best-reviewed title of the year, proved that endlessly cynical gamers will always have a soft spot for a Nintendo classic done right.

Zelda immediately transformed the Switch from a curiosity to a must-have gadget. Gamers like Yai Torres, a 30-year-old resident of Arlington, Virginia, who had skipped out on the Wii U, got the system the day it launched. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a Nintendo product but I’ve always been a follower in terms of the latest games,” Torres says. “The fact that they had such a cool console with such a cool game clicked for me.”

I’m still pondering whether The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild may be a bigger achievement than the Switch. Would Nintendo have had such a stellar year if the Switch launched with Super Mario Odyssey?

(Aside: Fun to see Victor end his piece where I was originally going to begin mine: the insanity of 2017.)

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Traditional Games

Walt Williams in his book ‘Significant Zero’:

A traditional game is a challenge in which a player’s skill comes up again a rigid set of rules. Turn-based strategy, multiplayer death match, platformers—these are traditional. The modern, high-end, blockbuster AAA game is not a skill challenge. If it were, the player might fail and be disappointed, and then we wouldn’t sell as many copies. The rules are fluid. We change them to create tension, surprise, or excitement. Saying yes to the player only goes so far, and that distance is the exact length required to make you feel in control.

Last week, a colleague of mine asked how far I was into Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. I told him that I was in the middle of the fourth (and possibly last) stage — Lava Pit. (For what it’s worth, I had recommended the game to him.) I also told him that playing Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was the most fun I’d had with a video game in a long time. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was great, but the aesthetic doesn’t draw me back. Likewise, Splatoon 2 is lots of fun, but only in casual, Mario Kart-style doses. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battlle has me not only progressing through the main campaign, but backtracking to achieve better, cleaner results in previous battles and optional challenges.

Right now, it seems the “traditional” game is where I find fulfillment. When life feels like a maze, solving simple, zero-stakes problems — in a world you adore — is unbelievably gratifying.

If platformers fit into this bucket, then boy, oh boy am I looking forward to Super Mario Odyssey.

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Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle: “Just looking around is a joy”

Patricia Hernandez in her review of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle for Kotaku:

The game’s zones are numbered similarly to Super Mario Bros.’ in that there are worlds sectioned by levels—1-1, 1-2, and so on. Each area has its own Pixar-esque landscape, all themed in the most video-gamey way possible. Fire and ice world! Lava world! Obligatory starting-area-basic-forest world! It all seems crafted from clay. I don’t think I saw a sharp edge throughout my adventures; that cartoon aesthetic, combined with the top-down camera, made me feel like a kid mashing together dolls from different sets.

You can poke and prod some stuff around the overworld—there are some light environmental puzzles, and coins to collect—but just looking around is a joy. The haunted world, for example, is dotted with Boos, pipes stuffed with candles, and turbulent waters squeaking with rubber duckies. You move through these worlds controlling a party of three characters. I would run through everything and watch in awe as Mario stuck his arms out at top speed, Rabbids trailing behind him maniacally. The characters’ animations oozed so much personality that, dozens of hours in, I still stopped to appreciate them.

This echoes similar sentiments I published in my E3 recap:

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is the game I’m most looking forward to. It’s gorgeous and surprisingly deep. I can’t recall ever seeing the Mushroom Kingdom in such detail.

I waited two hours to play 16 minutes of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle at E3. Madness. But as crazy it was, the immaculate detail of the game’s Mushroom Kingdom saved me from feeling it was a complete waste of time. Simply stunning.

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Sell My Old Consoles, I’m Off To Handheld

There is a house. In the house, there is a room. In the room, there is a closet. In the closet, there is a box. In the box, is 2013’s top-of-the-line consumer hardware technology — dusty and dormant.

I haven’t touched my PS4 since my Switch arrived. In fact, I removed it from the living room entertainment center completely, replacing it with the Switch’s dock — unnecessary seeing as the Switch functions without being connected to a TV at all. TV optional! Sure, bouts of Mario Kart 8 aren’t quite as great without a TV, but that doesn’t happen that often in our house. Still, I was inclined to remove a console dependent on a TV for the chance that I might play the Switch in docked mode.

That’s not to say I haven’t tried playing a home console since. I recently hooked up my Xbox One to a smaller TV in our office with the intention of playing Overwatch with some friends. But after a week with Overwatch, I canceled my Xbox Live account and haven’t touched the console on since.

A friend of mine recently picked up a 3DS. The 3DS has a deep catalog, but Pokémon was his draw. Meanwhile, the Switch was released. He eyed mine, but was reluctant to pick one up due to the limited gaming catalog. He’s now put 120+ hours into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, completing the game and conquering all 120 shrines — a herculean feat. This friend and I have been going back and forth about Mario Kart, Zelda, and Splatoon 2. Should we get ARMS? How as Super Mario Odyssey at E3?

A colleague of mine took notice of my interest in video games. We got to talking and he let me in that he’d bought a Switch. A recent father, it was the perfect form-factor for him to use while nurturing his newborn. He completed Breath of the Wild long ago.

I’ve had more communication with friends and Twitter users regarding Switch experiences than I’ve ever had with PS4 or Xbox One. More than the gimmick of being able to play anywhere and with friends and family straight out of the box, people are investing in their experiences with the console and it’s reincarnating the schoolyard conversations of yore.

Nintendo’s design mastery certainly make their games ripe for conversation, but the fact that players can play the Switch on a TV, in bed, on trains, on planes, at work, at the park, in hotels… you name it!… makes conversations fuller and more frequent.

Ben Lindbergh on the Achievement Oriented podcast recently entertained a question I imagine many Switch owners have asked themselves:

… As I was trying to make this journey home and failing for a day or so, I wanted to play Tacoma — because we had gotten our review codes for Xbox One and we knew that we were going to do a podcast about it — and I couldn’t because Xbox One is not a portable console. I never would have thought anything of this in the past, but now that I am a Switch owner this just seems backwards.

It’s like I can’t play Tacoma on the road? Now, of course you could get Tacoma for Steam, but I only had a netbook with me. I had no mouse or anything — I didn’t want to play it that way and it’s not quite the same — but what I’m wondering is, do you think future consoles will feel pressure to incorporate Switch functionality?

If they announce PS5 a year from now and it has all the new specs, the graphics look great and a big hard drive and processor and gigaflops out the wazoo, but it doesn’t have portability — it doesn’t do what the Switch does — would you be disappointed? Do you feel like this has to be a component of every console going forward?

The Switch should have been a no-brainer decision for consumers at announce. Tech shrinks. We’ve gone portable. Smart phones rule consumer tech. It was simply Nintendo’s strike out with the Wii U that made the public more weary of Nintendo’s execution on the promise than the promise itself.

The new PS4 Pro and Xbox One X tout teraflops, but they are still anchors. I’ve considered selling my PS4 and Xbox One not to upgrade, but to declutter. The Switch on the other hand is the perfect fit for my life. While I can’t say I won’t be buying home consoles in the future — hell, I purchased my Xbox One on the promise of Below, a game that has yet to see the light of day — unless new consoles offer the same portability as the Nintendo Switch, I will certainly be taking my time in purchasing one.

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Self-Competing and Time Blocking

Daniel Ahmad, writing on his new ZhugeEX Patreon blog (paywall):

This trend isn’t going anywhere right now but it is important to note that only a set number of service games can be successful each year. There is a danger of over saturation or poorer sales from self-competing games. We’re not quite at the point where this is a real danger but it does mean that games need to have higher production values and enough differentiation within one of the top super genre’s to be successful. This is probably something to watch out for at the end of the generation.

First and foremost, for my dollar, Daniel Ahmad is absolutely crushing video games industry analysis. He’s a great follow on Twitter (@ZhugeEX) and his efforts are well-worth supporting via his Patreon.

Now, I’ve been meaning/trying to write about an idea that self-competing games use game length as a means for competing. That is, the length and release date of a game can block the sale of another similar game with a proximal release date. I’ve struggled to put together a theory that these proposed “time blocking” tactics are meaningful, coincidental, or off-base:

  • Meaningful – Publisher X purposefully schedules release date of Game X against the release date of Game Y. (I find this hard to believe due to the large lead times and estimations required for AAA games.)
  • Coincidental – Publisher X and Publisher Y happen to schedule releases for Game X and Game Y around the same time. (More likely, but rings a bit too innocent.)
  • Off-base – There are so many massive, feature-rich games released that, like TV series and books, there will inevitably be overlap in release dates.

The latest example of this “time blocking” tactic occurred around March 2017. Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild were released three days apart (Feb 28 and Mar 3) and clock in at an average of 45.5 and 72.5 hours respectively. (HowLongToBeat.com) Both games were followed up by Mass Effect: Andromeda (61.5 hours) and Persona 5 (102 hours!) within a month’s time.

One could make the observation that the hours necessary to experience these games as intended puts them on a closer par with a modern television series. (As of this post, there are roughly 55 hours of Game of Thrones episodes, 72 hours of Mad Men, etc.) So, with customers’ appetites for feature-rich gameplay experiences, maybe my concept of “time blocking” is off-base. However, I like to believe that this “appetite” doesn’t actually exist.

I’m currently 50+ hours into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and only 3/5 of the way through the main quest. No doubt that it’s an incredible experience with it’s unparalleled physics-based sandbox, wide-open exploration, and stunning art style. But for me, 50+ hours is an immense amount of a time to spend with a single game. Unlike a TV series, most of the 50+ hours I’ve spent with Breath of the Wild have consisted of wandering a vast landscape, retracing my steps, or banging my head against puzzles. It’s a fantastic escape of exploration, but I can’t help but think 30 or 40 hours to complete would have felt sufficient.

As a developer, I would certainly want my audience to experience my art and efforts for as long as possible. And as a publisher, I would want to players to adopt an affinity for my franchise over another. But as a player, it’s hard not to feel that the release dates of similarly massive titles, or “self-competing” games, are beginning to overlap. And this overlap has reached a point that players must now choose which experience will block another.

Nicalis: Switch development is ‘light years ahead of what we were doing with Wii U’

Tyrone Rodriguez, the president of Nicalis, speaking to Polygon about developing for Nintendo platforms:

“The Switch is, by far the easiest and most programmer friendly so far,” he said. “I know this sounds like lip service to Nintendo, but it’s actually not. If this wasn’t true, we wouldn’t be able to get these games up and running as quickly as we have, and we wouldn’t be able to have a launch title. It’s light years ahead of what we were doing with Wii U.”

Nicalis has developed 18 games, eight of which shipped to Nintendo platforms—all eight to 3DS, two of which hit Wii U.

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