Portability is Back

December 22, 2010 § 4 Comments

The first consumer oriented laptops were created to combine the multiple hardware components needed for a standard desktop computer into a single portable unit. The PC industry has been dominated by desktops since the very beginning, and laptops were long accepted as compact but decidedly less functional machines to be used in conjunction with the desktop. It was standard practice to use a desktop as a primary computer and a laptop as a secondary computer while traveling. Unsurprisingly, consumers found the laptop’s inability to perform as competently as the desktop quite irritating, and for what seemed like eternities, hardware companies pushed to close the gap between the desktop and the laptop in terms of overall performance. For the most part, they succeeded, as many laptops that can be purchased today perform just as well as their desktop counterparts. However, in the push to equalize desktops and laptops, the most important differentiator between the two types of computers, portability, was all but lost.

Take for example Toshiba’s attractively named Qosmio X505-Q894 laptop. It’s undoubtedly a capable machine, with 4GB of DDR3 memory, a 500 GB hard drive, a NVIDIA GeForce graphics card, a BluRay player, and a whopping 18.4” screen. If you couldn’t care less about the majority of these features, don’t be alarmed, as Toshiba’s target audience for this machine is probably smaller than the laptop itself. Here’s what you do care about: the machine weighs over ten pounds and has less than four hours of battery life. Portability was obviously not one of Toshiba’s main concerns.

What do you think weighs more, the kid or the laptop?

None of the features in the Qosmio X5-whatever would seem out of place in a desktop computer or even in a video game console, but they have no business being in a portable computer. The internet has become the primary source of our daily computing activities, and quick access to the internet does not require a 18.4” screen. If I had to guess, most consumers probably only use their computer’s word processor and internet browser on a daily basis. A company called Asus came to the same conclusion when they launched their extraordinarily successful line of Eee PC netbooks, which generally have around 10 inch screens, over ten hours of battery life, and will cost you less than $400. They won’t run StarCraft II on the highest settings, but for many consumers they are satisfactory.

Even though my MacBook Pro is only two years old, the developments over the past two years have made it seem like somewhat of a relic. I will not criticize the laptop’s performance, it still is unbelievably fast and responsive, but with its 15-inch screen and nearly six-pound weight, it’s a pain to lug around. Compare this to Apple’s recent MacBook Air that has an 11-inch screen, weighs just over two pounds, and is less than 0.7 inches thick. The Air is not a netbook like the Eee PC, it is a fully functioning Mac that can run the vast majority of current software, but its arguably most remarkable feat is the omission of needless features. The Air does not have a CD drive, given that physical CDs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. The Air does not have a hard drive, given that a hard drive’s many moving parts are impractical for a portable computer. It uses the faster flash memory instead, and even though the Air stores far less data than the Toshiba monster, in all honesty it no longer matters. Data is moving away from our hard drives and into the cloud thanks to products like MobileMe and Dropbox, which are each worthy of blog posts of their own.

The MacBook Air and Apple iPad

After all this talk on how laptops evolved into Godzilla-sized entertainment centers and then into something that can actually fit into a backpack, it is time to have a look at what might be the most monumental change to portable computing, well, ever. Apple introduced the world to tablets with the iPad just last year, and while it was not the first tablet ever released, it was the first practical one. Much like the iPhone, Apple’s competitors first denounced the device then further legitimized it by introducing tablets of their own. The iPad provides the two basic needs of computing, the word processor and access to the internet, while giving users an entirely new and exciting way to access their content.

The large touch screen display eliminates the barrier between the user and the content by requiring the much more direct user interaction. Flipping through a PDF on the iPad mimics the feel of flipping through a physical document, which is much more natural and intuitive than massaging the down arrow key. Another one of the iPad’s distinct advantages can be found in the plethora of apps. Like the Eee PC, the iPad also cannot run StarCraft II at the highest settings, but it can be used to play original and compelling games tailor made for the device. Blizzard may not know whether StarCraft is being played on a desktop or a laptop, but App Store developers know that their games are being played on a portable device and thus design them to be easily accessible on the go. Aside from playing games, the iPad can be used to stream movies, to tune a guitar, to manage financial statements, to read a newspaper, and so much more. All in all, it’s a more natural way to interact with content, and a more portable and cheaper way as well.

It took years, but finally we have realized that laptops are not desktops and should not attempt to be so. We added useless features, then removed them, then got rid of the remaining features we thought we needed (see: the keyboard). Desktops are becoming increasingly rare in this day and age, a sure sign that we need our content to be with us everywhere we go. The only question is: how will we take it with us? The laptop has long been the sole solution, but the rise of the tablet has paved the way for a whole new form of device to take its place. I cannot predict which device, if either, will win out down the road or if another will come to take the world by storm, but never has their been a more exciting time for portable computing. For the first time, our portable computers are truly meant to be portable.



December 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Hey everyone,

A few weeks ago I made a prototype for my 482 class, and I can’t believe that I have yet to post it on my blog. The prototype is called See, and it is an exploration of violence in interactive entertainment. My inspiration for the prototype came from Brenda Brathwaithe’s IndieCade keynote. One line of her talk stood out to me in particular: “Where there is human-on-human tragedy, there is also a system.” It is almost sickening to break down a tragic event into formal procedures and elements, but it can always be done. Video games have proven to be particular adept at creating entertaining interactive systems around the backdrop of war and tragedy, but the tragedy of the event is usually hidden behind mountains of positive feedback. Did you really think about the implications of modern warfare when you were on your last kill streak in Call of Duty?

I could write pages on why I chose to make this prototype and why I will most definitely continue to work on it in the future, but I will leave that for now and encourage you to play it for yourself. It is not perfect, in fact, 99% of the time it fails to properly communicate its message. However, the 1% of the time it worked was rewarding enough to warrant further revision. I will post my next revision of See as soon as it gets done.

Please leave your feedback in the comments section of this page. Here’s the feedback that my instructor, Peter Brinson, gave me. Like most of the feedback I received, it was tremendously helpful.

“You have a nice visual mood and I like the contrast of text and voice. Rather than giving us a thorough ‘about’ page I would brainstorm a really good title for the game that essentially achieves the same goal. And the MLK quote may be too much…you could be more concise with these opposing ‘voices’. The use of light is a great take on the assignment.
The sound design is both great and bad. The parts where people say “enough”, “i have a daughter” is a good try but people are going to laugh. Again, you can be more minimal.
I know Brathwaithe called her work a prototype or experiment or whatever, but she shouldn’t qualify it and you should just let yours be a project.
One of the strongest parts is the connection you’re making between games and war. It’s in the foreground of games today (and the American experience) so that comes out easily, with just the gun and voice commands to the soldier. I like the music and the MLK speech, but not the quote at the beginning. I like where the sound design went when I waited and didn’t kill many guys.
And keep making projects. Finding the right balance with serious subjects in terms of the subtle and the overt is hard. Just because it is serious doesn’t mean there can’t be some levity with the overall tone.”

You can download See here.


December 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

One of the projects in my Game Design Workshop class required students to create a pitch for add on content to an existing game.  My team pitched a Facebook application that would integrate the Pokémon DS games with the social network.  Many industry professionals served as panelists during the pitch presentations, including thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen and THQ’s Scott Rogers.

You can view the slides from the presentation here.

The video isn’t of the best quality, but it should do. I’m the second guy from the left!

Blasting Into the Magic Circle

December 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

“Play begins, and at a certain moment, it is “over.”  It plays itself to an end.  While it is in progress all is movement, change, alteration, succession, association, separation.”

In describing the nature of play, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga used the term “magic circle” to describe the space in which play takes place.  During play, the magic circle contains the actual setting (i.e. the tennis court in a game of tennis), in addition to the associated actions and vocabulary (i.e. a double fault).  The magic circle is the boundary between the real and the imaginary, and is a defining element of games as a whole.

I believe that our traditional methods of playing video games do a poor job of allowing entry into the magic circle.  When playing a game on a console, the player must set aside the time and space for play.  After the initial decision to play a video game, the player must turn on their television, turn on their console, turn on their controller, switch to the proper input, grab the game from their shelf, place the disc in the console, navigate the main menus, wait for the game to load, wait for the splash screens to fade away, navigate the game’s menus, and finally begin to play.  To an experienced player, the entire process usually takes less than a few minutes, yet it is always unavoidable.

Every time I decide against sitting down and playing a game, this process is the single greatest contributor.  I always tell my friends and my classmates that I try to set aside time to play games, and this process only reinforces the notion that I am sacrificing my time and my ability to be productive elsewhere.  There is simply no way to make the decision and just play…on consoles.

Recently I have been enamored with the iPhone as a video game platform, and the amount of time I spend playing games on my iPhone has come quite close to the amount of time I spend playing games on my consoles.  The main reason I have been drawn to iPhone games is because they allow instant entry into the magic circle.  My iPhone is always with me, and with one tap I can begin any of my games right where I left off.  I never think to myself, “I should really play an iPhone game now,” rather, I am usually just messing around on my iPhone and I naturally end up playing a game.

I am not alone.  Over 12 million people, many of whom never considered themselves “gamers,” have become addicted to Angry Birds, the best selling iPhone game.  Facebook has become a more popular game platform than all of the dedicated game platforms combined seemingly overnight.  There are many reasons for this occurrence, but one of the most overlooked is the simple fact that these platforms make it easy for their users to quickly engage in games.  Neither platform has seen the maturity in content that the traditional platforms have gained over the years, but in due time that will come.

By far the most common excuse given for not playing games is a lack of time, but by removing the annoyances of beginning a game, we can better integrate games into our everyday lives.  As a kid, whenever my sister and I came home from school she would immediately go into the living room and turn on the television.  I never watched much TV, so when I pressed her on this habit she simply replied, “it’s the quickest way to be entertained.”  Looking back, she was absolutely right.  With the push of a single button, the TV provided entertainment.  My sister did not believe she was putting aside time for entertainment.  Rather, her intrinsic human need for entertainment made watching television habitual.

Games do not need to consume every hour of our daily lives, but there is no reason that they should not be as accessible as your average television station.  Facebook, iPhone, and iPad have all placed games at our fingertips.  Recent developments such as OnLive have attempted to bring instantaneous play to more traditional games, but the traditional console market has yet to show any sign of change.  Over the past few decades we have accessed our games through a box connected to a television set, but the developments over the past few years have forever changed the means necessary to blast into the magic circle.  Everyone that owns some kind of screen more than likely plays video games on a daily basis.  Rather than denounce the majority as inferior types of players, let’s make the games that we love just a click, a tap, or a button press away.

The Flying Man!

December 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

About three weeks ago, I worked with a small team on an equally small game for the 48-Hour Game.

You can play it here: The Flying Man

Cop Block

December 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

I wanted to share one of my favorite projects that I worked on in Game Design Workshop this semester. This one’s a board game called Cop Block that’s played entirely with Legos.  If you have the right Lego pieces laying around (as game designers, you probably do), try it out!

Cop Block Rules


December 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Hey everyone,

Welcome to my new website, Defiantly Digital.  This website will function as my own personal blog and as a place to display all of my current projects.  I am not planning on abandoning my USC Interactive Media Division blog, but I think it’s time to have a website of my own.  I plan on posting here quite frequently, so check back soon and enjoy!

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