THE FUTURE OF COMPUTER GAMING
BY MICHAEL A. BANKS
ANALOG Computing columnist Michael A. Banks is the author of several science fiction novels (among them The Odysseus Solution, from Baen Books) as well as numerous short stories. He's also written nonfiction books on telecommunications, rocketry and other topics. Banks' latest book, The Modem Reference (Brady Books, 1988), is a comprehensive guide to using modems and online services, now and in the future.
Remember when you thought Pong was the ultimate in computer gaming? Or, maybe the first time you played Adventure you figured nothing could beat that. Now the stale of the art is exemplified by Flight Simulator and Ultima IV and similar games. It's all pretty amazing when you think about it: from Pong to Lode Runner and King's Quest III in less than a decade. But what's next? Where is computer gaming going?
As always, better displays and faster hardware loom on the horizon, along with programming tricks to smooth out animation of and better simulate human reactions and real-world situations through increasingly complex approaches to artificial intelligence. But this is nothing more than evolution and refinement of existing hardware and programming tools and techniques.
To put it another way, gaming in 1989 involves the same activities as those in 1979: manipulating dots on a screen with a joystick and "talking" through a keyboard. We do these things faster and slicker and with increasingly complex images and scenarios, but the basic ideas are the same.
The truth is, gaming development has reached a plateau in terms of what can be done with the types of equipment we have. We can only do the same things better and faster, (lame designers have been able to improve their tools only marginally over the past few years, and spend more time concentrating on using their imaginations to feed the gamer's imagination with increasingly realistic scenarios. (The latter is not all bad by the way; in fact, it's something I may address in another article.)
Not convinced? Consider this: In one respect, Flight Simulator differs from Pong only in that there are better-looking dots—and more of them—directed by more complex data files. And King's Quest III differes from the original Adventure by virtue of increased complexity and the addition of moving dots.
Has computer gaming, then, reached maturity? Will games, like movies, be limited to minor technological flourishes and rely solely on the imagination of their creators for new elements?
I think not.
Gaming has always been the hottest element of the personal computer marketplace, and that's not going to change. Because of this, game publishers will continue to support the development of more original games based on existing technology. But games have always moved to take advantage of new technology, too—better monitors and the like. And it is from new technology that the really startling changes in computer gaming are going to come over the next few years.
When I say "new technology", I mean new directions and application (although totally new technology will have some effects too). Specifically, the computer games of the future are going to depend more on the evolution of input and output devices—and I'm not talking better color monitors and joysticks. What is needed—and what will be developed— are totally new approaches to exchanging information with a computer. Some will be possible only with faster processing and greater amounts of memory (both system memory and storage).
And what might those be? Here are some thoughts.
Footpads. (already on the market) These use pressure sensors to convey information about the player's foot and body movements and position to a program. (These have been used with skiing games; move your feet as if you were wearing skis to control the movements of the character on the screen.)
"Wands." These are similar to the "electronic drumsticks" now on the market. But instead of being wired for sound, as it were, these devices provide motion feedback to game software. They could simulate swords, ski poles or any of a number of other objects. (I'm sure you're thinking of several I haven't named as you read this.)
Devices to detect skin conductivily and temperature, respiration and heart rate. This data could be used by the software to infer your emotional state. In an action/arcade game or simulation, the software might switch to a different track of action calculated to deliver greater challenges when you reach a certain state of excitement— or when you relax overly much.
Motion sensors. Imagine wearing a light-weight helmet that tracks the motion and angle of your head, or, equip that helmet with sensors that detect eye-muscle movements. Now, zap that information to the computer, so it has even more information about how you're reacting to what it's displaying—or even which section of the computer screen you're looking at!
Or, slip on expanded versions of the cuffs used with blood-pressure testing devices, and let the computer "feel" and respond to your arm, leg or torso movements. Where hand and finger motions are required, use "waldos" (gloves with micro-sensors, invented by Robert A. Heinlein in 1941 for use by a victim of myasthenia gravis in his novelette, Waldo). Add to this a footpad and a wand to serve as a sword—or two to serve as ski poles— and the implications are obvious.
Voice input. Voice-response technology is still in the infancy of its development, and its problems are many (variations in speech patterns from one individual to another, as well as variations in an individual's speech patterns from day to day). Still, progress is being made, and some experimental systems are turning in impressive results. But even primitive systems can detect whistles, the difference between high- and low-pitched voice tones, or the difference between single-or multiple-syllable words—any of which could deliver simple commands without worry about word recognition or sentence parsing.
At this point, personal-computer game output is limited to what can be displayed on a computer monitor and piped to a speaker. Those aren't insignificant, but imagine a computer game that could give you these:
Motion. This seems a fairly tall order—after all, how do you simulate, say, the sensation of rapid forward acceleration, or the sideways force of a race car rounding a turn? Easy, and it's already been done, using what are called physical cues, or slight motions which, when accompanied by proper visual and/or audio cues, are amplified by a receptive mind to fool the body into thinking greater motion than is really being experienced is taking place.
If you've ever "flown" a sophisticated flight simulator, you know how this works. Given the proper visual display and a cooperative imagination, and someone who is tilted back in a chair a mere five degrees and pushed slightly forward will feel that he is undergoing some heavy vertical acceleration. Physical cues have even been used in amusement park rides and educational displays. (Try the Space Shuttle "Flight" at the Alabama Space & Rocket Center if you get the chance.)
Tactile sense. The same devices used to sense motions could supply tactile cues by applying pressure to certain parts of your body. For instance such a device might pinch your arm slightly when your RPG character is injured during a battle. Small, though the real sensation is, this kind of cue could easily be translated into a sharper pain by a receptive mind.
Smell. Okay, this gets complicated, as smells tend to linger in the air. Still, small jets of air could carry appropriate scents past your nose at appropriate times, followed by neutralizing jets of clear air (or by a special neutralizing scent).
Taste. This is even trickier than smell, but there are possibilities. A gadget might be devised that could squirt or spray a flavored liquid into your mouth, but the problem is almost too difficult to consider (and taste lingers more than smell). If this aspect of sensory input ever gets off the ground, it might be in the form of something along the lines of "scratch and taste" cards, perhaps supplemented by scent cues.
Sight and sound can be enhanced as well. High-resolution, large-screen projection displays are in sight, and 3-D television and projection holograms offer some promise in the long run.
For sound, a true stereo system utilizing speakers or headphones to deliver the next generation of music and speech synthesis would be ideal. (The current state of the art in speech synthesis is truly amazing, by the way. One major communications company is currently using a system that reproduces accents; look for some astounding developments in this area for personal computers in the near future.)
It's all possible... but where Is it?
Interestingly enough, most of the foregoing is possible using existing technology. Indeed, much of it is in use or being experimented with by defense and aerospace interests. (For a glimpse of what's not yet possible, but definitely probable, see the accompanying sidebar.) However, there are several reasons why we aren't seeing much in the way of such innovations in the computer marketplace as yet. The most important of these has to do with the way computer game publishers market their wares. As long as the sales of products using existing technology are good, most publishers are not going to actively support new technology. And with no support for technological innovations, those innovations are slow to come to the marketplace.
However, a few publishers are beginning to utilize new wrinkles in technology. Epyx's venture into VCR gaming is a good example of what I feel is the leading edge of a trend toward new technology in gaming. (Of course, we will see a lot of VCR and other technology brought to gaming, but I won't go beyond what will happen with computer gaming here.) As game software publishers realize there's money to be made by supporting or even introducing new technology (and they are realizing it), new technology will hit the marketplace.
Too, there is precedent for the better-known computer manufacturers to introduce new input/output technology of such import that software publishers immediately move to support it, if for no other reason than fear of losing something to the competition. Apple's introduction of the mouse with the Lisa and Macintosh is a good example of this—and look what happened. And why do computer manufacturers introduce hardware innovations? To remain competitive.
The bottom line is this: As software publishers see new technology in use by their competitors, and as computer manufacturers with clout introduce new input/output devices, gadgetry such as I've described here will show up in the marketplace.
Another reason we don't yet have access to, say, body motion sensors, is the fact that developing such equipment is expensive. However, any product becomes less expensive when either or both of two things happen: demand makes large-scale, lower-cost production possible, and/or technology decreases the cost.
A final logjam in the development of these new input/output devices is "ease of use," which has no little bearing on market acceptance. Obviously, putting compressed air-powered cuffs or pasting electrodes on your body is rather inconvenient when all you want to do is play a game. As the technology for less obtrusive devices develops, they become easier to use, and market resistance diminishes.
Now we come to the part that I know many of you have been waiting for: my ideas as to what kinds of games the future has in store for us. That is the easiest part of all this, because the trend that leads to the game category of the near future is right in front of you, in every major game" software publisher's catalog.
I'll pause now for you to consider the nature of this revelation.
Okay, if you thought I was going to say "simulation," you're right. It's a clear trend; mindless alien-blasting is on the way out. Simulation of real-world adventure, exploration and encounters are here to stay. We'll continue to see air-, space-, land- and sea-vehicle simulations (battle and otherwise), but the field will expand to include activities as diverse as mountain climbing and rappelling, caving and more—all with ever-increasing realism. We'll travel to other countries, a la Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, either on adventurous quests or to learn—or both. History enthusiasts will relive famous battles, or carry on dialogues with noted thinkers of the past. College students will "try out" careers.
And that's just the tip of the cliched iceberg.
How do I know this is the way things are going? As I said, it's a clear trend. Aside from that, it has to happen. Anyone who has been a computer gamer for more than a few months is beyond target shooting or talking with programs that have all the personality of answering machines. Games that replicate what's already available are going to die in the incredibly competitive marketplace, the demographics of which are dominated by novelty seekers who want realism.
This is not to say that fantasy adventures or simulations are out. Everyone wants to escape—that's why science fiction remains popular in all medias. But just as other entertainment media have matured in content (from Chaplin to Eddie Murphy in film, from Chuck Berry to Phil Collins in popular music, and from Hawthorne to Heinlein in speculative literature), so must games mature and reflect the times.
Thus, simulations are the future of gaming. Whether the venue is a Tolkien-esque fantasy or a chillingly realistic encounter with death, tomorrow's computer games will simulate reality or pseudo-reality, as the case may be.
To wrap this up, I'm going to hazard a few predictions, anyway. And "hazard" is the appropriate word, indeed. Prediction is a risky business at best because reality is always skewed when compared with expectations. It's safe enough to talk about trends, but assigning definite time lines to definite events is usually a mistake. Still....
Where will you put it all? Access and storage
In case you haven't realized it by now, a game that uses the kinds of input and output just described will require relatively massive amounts of computing power and storage. The computing power is on the way—it already exists, in large part— but storage is another matter entirely. Obviously, the program and data files for such a game will be large. Fast access will be necessary too.
The memory system that can provide both massive storage and fast access is CD-ROM. As yet unimagined innovations may be just around the corner, but I think it's a safe bet that CD-ROM will be with us for several decades at least; too many "mover-and-shaker" corporations have too much invested for it to be otherwise. And we're all going to buy CD-ROM units eventually, which means a massive installed user base to perpetuate CD-ROM technology.
So, count on games moving gradually to CD-ROM as a media of necessity—and convenience
The near future (1989-1995)
Despite the appeal of multipurpose machines, I think computers are going to be discreet entities for a long time, and that means we can expect to see the developments I've discussed become realities for computers as well as for arcade and dedicated gaming machines. Computers may be combined with other electronic devices, but they will retain their identity.
Okay, on with the program. We'll see a lot of hardware experiments over the next few years, some of which will turn out to be silly failures and some of which will be accepted and, thus, open for later evolution. VCR/computer links will be pushed as a new frontier in graphics, but the access time of such systems will never rival those of CD-ROM systems, and VCRs will fall by the wayside as computer peripherals. Among the major computer-gaming peripherals will be footpads, which will be used in flight simulation programs (rudder pedals) and other simulations such as skiing.
Look for simple motion sensors in the early 1990s. These will probably take the form of devices that transmit the movement of a player's hands to a computer via FM or infrared to provide a wireless analog to the joystick. These could be wands, or strap-on gadgets, and will transmit to a base unit that will plug into a computer's joystick port.
At least one game will come equipped with skin-conductivity and temperature sensors. I can't predict what the game will be, but the hardware will be developed first to accompany programs that purport to be lie detectors and others that help you generate alpha brain waves.
The motion-sensing and feedback cuffs I mentioned earlier will also debut as computer peripherals, but I don't see them as gaming devices right away. They'll find more serious (and expensive) acceptance in military training and medical applications.
An interesting wrinkle on some existing technologies will make possible true multiplayer games. Networking among individual computers—whether via modem or plug-in keyboards sharing one computer—will become popular. Games such as a multiterminal RPG proposed by science fiction writer John M. Ford are not more than five years away.
The intermediate future (1995-2010)
Give it a decade or so, and we'll have multipurpose, modular machines. (Yes, I know—Coleco tried it with the game machine that could be expanded into a computer and vice-versa. But that was a special case that failed because it was marketed as a computer to the dedicated game market, and it wasn't much of a computer anyway.) The modular machines will be thrown out in a variety of forms, but each will be clearly identifiable as a computer.
The range and sophistication of input devices will be staggering. Keyboards and joysticks and mice will still be with us, but the market will be exploding with new input devices, ranging from extremely sophisticated motion and eye-movement sensors (spin-offs from military, medical and space research) to workable voice-recognition systems. Waldos will be common, and overall, esoteric input devices will enjoy a renaissance of development.
Motion-cuing systems will be common, though still somewhat cumbersome Many will take the form of chairs costing as much as computers themselves. Tactile feedback will still be in the market-and-fail stage, with the hardware required bulky and obtrusive—not to mention expensive—so don't look for it to be common until after the turn of the century.
All of these devices will first appear in arcades and amusement parks, but the cost will drop as the demand rises and technology enables lower cost production, which of course will make them practical as computer peripherals.
The long range (2010 and beyond)
It starts getting fuzzy at this point. There is always the potential for something like the microchip to come along. And there's always the problem of science fiction author Vernor Vinge's "singularity," which wonders how we can imagine what we cannot imagine. And nanotechnology presents a real wild card. As we move more than two decades into the future, the problem is not unlike that of Beaker trader trying to imagine television and telecommunications.
Besides which, as Arthur C. Clarke puts it, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And if we could glimpse post-2010 computer technology, we might well see it as magic.
But, assuming we aren't confronted with totally incomprehensible developments, figure on being able to go out and buy a multisensory system that will take you anywhere (anywhere the marketing types figure a significant number of game buyers want to go, that is). The system will probably be sold for specialized machines as well as for the growing number of computer-based do-everything machines.
This system may well use crude brain wave input/output devices to monitor your responses and build your environment (see the accompanying sidebar). Whether or not direct mind links are possible, a typical gaming system in, say, the year 2020 will consist of a system that uses incredibly sophisticated versions of the input/output devices like I've already discussed. But you'll be no more aware of their presence while playing a game than you are of the disk in your computer's drive.
The exact nature of such games I won't even take a shot at; like fiction, gaming reflects society, and I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine the makeup of society in 2020.
Postscript: games and society
It's worth spending a few words here to consider the effects of all this on society to be. The major effect is this: Gaming will be taken seriously by society at large. Look for computer games to become as common a form of entertainment as watching television. And the value of the simulation element of gaming will be recognized and assimilated by both the education and business community. (Just as it has already been accepted by the aerospace and military communities.)
In this respect, gaming will achieve its maturity.