Spectrum: Interactive Media & Online Developer News 7 October 2002
Reported, written and edited by David Duberman
For editorial/subscription inquiries, send firstname.lastname@example.org
Search the Spectrum archives at www.3dlinks.com/spectrum
Today's Headlines (details below)
FEATURE GAME REVIEW
--BMG Launches Interactive Web Music Service
--On2, Xiph Release Open-Source Multimedia Framework --Idelix Releases Pliable Display, 3d SDKs --Intel Releases Light Field Mapping 3D Tech --Radvision Ships Toolkit for 3G Wireless Multimedia --Bias Debuts Sound Soap
--Studio Implements 844/X Editing, Compositing
IN THE INFOGROOVE
--Nielsen//NetRatings Launches Digital Media Measurement
--Side Effects Ships Compositing, Effects Software --Canopus Announces ProCoder Upgrade
THE DIALS & LEVERS OF POWER
--Convergence Call for Papers: Sexuality and Internet/VR
GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
--Sierra Releases No One Lives Forever Sequel --Interplay Releases Run Like Hell, Survival-Horror for PS2 --EA Ships The Sims Deluxe Edition
--Activision Announces Tony Hawk 4
FEATURE GAME REVIEW
By David Duberman
"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," wrote Rudyard Kipling a long time ago. He's been proven wrong in many ways since then, but never more so than in Kingdom Hearts. The new game, for PlayStation2 only, resulted from a collaboration between SquareSoft, the Japanese developer of the megahit Final Fantasy console-RPG series, and Disney, the American corporate behemoth responsible for ... okay, I'll resist the temptation to editorialize here. The two entertainment firms pooled their resources to create a pastime that's part role-playing game, part platform game, part action-adventure, and fully enjoyable. Basically, Kingdom Hearts is an action-filled romp through the worlds of a number of recent Disney animated features.
In the game's prologue, you meet Sora, a typical SquareSoft youthful, spikey-haired hero, who inhabits a tropical island paradise with Riku, Sora's best friend, and Kairi, a cute girl for whose affections the two compete. You also encounter characters from previous Square games, such as Tidus, the Blitzball player from FFX, but they don't really figure in the story proper. Despite their idyllic existence, the kids are, like, bored; they want to cut out and make the scene, dad. After several blessedly brief expositional cut-scenes, a few minor retrieval quests, and an introductory battle, Sora ends up sans amis in Traverse Town, which serves as the hub for his further adventures. At the same time, Disney stalwarts Donald Duck and Goofy, in search of the vanished Mickey Mouse, appear at the same place. Sora goes off in search of his missing friends, and instead finds Donald and Goofy, so the three of them join up to mutually fulfill their respective quests.
At this point, you discover the team-based battle system that serves as the primary action device throughout the game. Here's how it works: Out of nowhere, a number of Heartless, the rank-and-file bad guys, appear and start attacking our heroes. Some of these resemble a cross between the menacing inky shadows in Ico and the Black Mage characters in the Final Fantasy games, some look like flying, spinning tops, and others ... well, suffice to say there's a considerable variety of enemies, each with its own patented fighting method. As Sora, your basic fighting method is to press one button to lock onto an enemy and then run and jump after it while pressing another button repeatedly until you've destroyed it. Repeat as necessary.
Meanwhile, Sora's allies assist him under program control: wizard Donald uses magical strikes, while pacifist Goofy attacks with a shield; don't ask. There's a fair amount of crossover capabilities: For instance, Donald can use physical attacks and Sora eventually ends up with a full complement of magic tricks, such as the classic Final Fantasy range of elemental attacks (Blizzaga, etc.) as well as support spells such as healing and shield. Another role-playing element involves a roster of special attacks that increases with experience. Items come into play as well, mainly in the form of potions to replenish hit points and spell points (a.k.a. magical energy or mana). You can use these on yourself and your teammates, and vice versa. You can adjust the A.I., setting attack, defense, and item-using strategies for each of your allies.
The most important aspect of battles in Kingdom Hearts is that they take place in real time. You can pause the battle, but you can't do anything while paused. You can set up custom button combos for three spells, but using items under pressure can be difficult. The battles never seem impossible, though--actually, most are pretty easy--and during and afterward there are always lots of items to pick up, including "munny" (money), health/magic-restoration items, and special goodies.
Speaking of items, one of the most annoying features is inventory management. Most items go into a common "stock," but characters can use items during battle only from a limited personal inventory. So between battles you must manually transfer items one at a time from the stock to the inventories of Sora and his compadres, each involving multiple button presses; it's a real timesink. And while I'm complaining, the voice acting is fine, but too much of the dialog uses word balloons only; it would've been nice if all of the dialog had been spoken. Given the resources of the two companies involved and the capacity of the DVD format, it's difficult to understand why it wasn't. All told, though, there's a lot more to like about KH than to dislike, including the revolutionary feature Square introduced in FFX (still not found in most games); the ability to pause cut-scenes. A little thing, but much appreciated when you gotta take a break right now. Also impressive is the interactive soundtrack; developers should study the seamless transitions between the different tunes played while adventuring and during battles.
From Traverse Town, the party travels to Disney worlds that become increasingly available throughout the game. At first, you can go only to Wonderland, where Alice is on trial before the Queen of Hearts. Other worlds that become available later include those of Tarzan, Aladdin, Pinocchio and Geppetto (i.e., the belly of the whale that swallowed them), Jack Skellington, and Ariel, the Little Mermaid. In each of these, you have puzzles to solve, which typically involve a lot of jumping; hence, the platform-game aspect. Of course, you also have hordes of Heartless to fight, and towards the end of each level, a requisite Boss battle or two.
In some worlds, the principal character can join you at the temporary cost of a member of your party (take a break, Donald). A cute feature is that the characters change in appearance to suit the current world; for instance, in Atlantica, Sora becomes a merboy. There's also an Olympus Coliseum world where you can participate in tournaments (serial battles) for fabulous prizes. Everything is imaginatively conceived and attractively realized, including lots of dazzling special effects; the game is truly a technical tour de force.
One puzzler, though, is the whole Gummi ship thing. To travel between worlds, you board a ship made of candy blocks (can you say "product placement"?), and zoom through colorful outer-space scenes, shooting enemy ships and other obstacles until you reach your goal. In between, you can customize your ship and design and build others using a 3D editor, but the whole thing seems unnecessary and tacked on; you can easily complete the game with the default ship. I suppose it's fun for those who like to maximize the game experience, though. Speaking of which, Kingdom Hearts, as most Square games, contains vast quantities of secrets, so if you pursue the straightest path through the game, you'll miss half of what the designers created. To get the most out of the game, pick up the 238-page (!) Official Strategy Guide from BradyGames.
The one word that best describes Kingdom Hearts is "compelling." It's so much fun to look at and play that you really want to keep going and see what comes next. Some games seem more like work than fun; after getting killed a couple of times, I just quit, although I usually end up coming back for more. While Kingdom Hearts is challenging, it's not oppressively so. For instance, in most cases, when you get killed and choose to continue, you're automatically returned to an invisible checkpoint just before the battle with all your resources intact. The attempt to meld the disparate worlds of the various Disney films into a cohesive whole isn't entirely successful, but no less so than in other games with widely varying level styles. I spent several long evenings enjoying the game; it invites marathon sessions. If this sounds in any way appealing to you, and you have a PlayStation2, get Kingdom Hearts. It's the quintessential console title, and one of the best games available on any platform.
BMG Launches Interactive Web Music Service
BMG unit Killer Tracks has begun offering much of its 20,000-plus music and effects catalog for use online, through an agreement with enterprise rich-media technology provider Pulse. Killer Sonifier, the result of the partnership with Pulse, will enable marketing and advertising folks to extend their brands online, applying the same music, sound effects and other audio already used in offline campaigns.
The Web-based Killer Sonifier application can reportedly augment a Web page or email with the addition of interactive production audio in minutes.
Users browse the service's online catalog, organized by library, sound type, theme and other criteria, choose the sounds they want to use, and designate the Web page into which the sounds are to be woven. The sounds can then be associated with any element on the page by dragging and dropping the sound file icons onto those page elements. Users are then prompted to specify how the sound is triggered: either immediately upon page-load or when prompted by a user's actions on the page. Upon completion, a one-click "publish" feature enables the user to paste into their Web page a single line of script which references the interactive code and requests the appropriate audio content.
Killer Sonifier is available now at http://www.killersonifier.com, with annual licenses starting at $900. Under the agreement, both Killer Tracks and Pulse are authorized to sell Killer Sonifier licenses; additional details of the agreement were not disclosed.
On2, Xiph Release Open-Source Multimedia Framework
Compression-tech firms On2 Technologies and The Duck Corporation and the non-profit Xiph.org Foundation last week announced the completion and immediate availability of the initial Alpha code release of Theora. Theora is the project name for the combination of VP3, Vorbis Audio, and Ogg media framework of a license- and royalty-free open-source solution for multimedia developers and users. The release and associated documentation are available now for download at http://www.theora.org.
"This preliminary code release represents the first time developers will have access to a completely license- and royalty-free system that includes ... video and audio codecs in an integrated, streaming-friendly format, with all the source code and intellectual property open, customizable, and available for immediate, anonymous download," said Dan Miller, On2 CTO and founder.
"This is an engineering release, so it's for the wireheads, but it is definitely a milestone on the way to Theora 1.0 next June. The code wizards of the known universe are cordially invited to start hacking," said Emmett Plant, CEO of Xiph.org Foundation. Theora 1.0 is scheduled for release in June of 2003.
Xiph.org Foundation is a non-profit company designed to protecti the foundations of Internet multimedia from control by private interests by creating, producing and maintaining open multimedia standards.
Idelix Releases Pliable Display, 3d SDKs
Idelix Software Inc. last week released Version 2.1.0 beta of the Pliable Display Technology (PDT) Software Development Kit and the PDT 3d SDK beta featuring platform support for Mac OS X and "PDT 3d," a new application of PDT that extends "detail-in-context" viewing functionality to three dimensional models.
Pliable Display Technology (PDT) is a visualization technology designed to improve the way people display and interact with high-density digital data sets and 3D models on PCs, the Internet and handheld/wireless applications.
The PDT SDK features an open API for integration by OEMs and systems integrators.
PDT 3d provides a means of viewing an area or object of interest within a 3D data set that is "occluded" or blocked from view by the objects visible in front of it. A PDT 3d lens can be positioned along any plane in the 3D data set. Objects in front or behind the lens plane are optimally displaced to provide a clear line of site to this area of interest that will appear within the focal region of the lens. Once the PDT lens is removed, these objects are returned to their original data coordinates, enabling the structure to return to its original format. PDT 3D provides an alternative to existing occlusion reduction tools such as rotation, cutting planes, transparency, or information filtering.
The PDT software development kit, written in ANSI C++, supports OpenGL, but also includes the PDT Image Warper for hardware-independent rendering of images.
Intel Releases Light Field Mapping 3D Tech
Intel Corporation researchers have released software they say lets developers build interactive 3D graphics that correctly model the way light reflects off of real objects and surfaces. The software is aimed at game developers and researchers who wish to enhance photo-realistic rendering in real-time 3D software.
The software is based on Intel's Light Field Mapping (LFM) technology, designed to model the reflective properties of light interacting with 3D objects and environments -- like a ray of sunlight reflecting off of a bronze statue. It is available at no cost through Intel's Open Source Light Field Mapping tool kit (Open Light Fields), which consists of software for composition of 3D images from digital photos and code for playback of the LFM objects. Developers can use the code as is or modify it for use in their applications.
In addition to working with graphics-hardware suppliers to assure that LFM is compatible with their graphics technology, Intel is working with 3D image-scanning companies to provide an automatic and affordable source for 3D LFM-compatible scanned images. Intel also is collaborating with Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab on future enhancements to LFM, including the capability to visualize objects with complex geometries, such as those that occur in nature. It is working with Stanford University on technology for compressing and streaming of light fields. Open Light Fields can be downloaded at http://www.intel.com/research/mrl/research/lfm/.
Radvision Ships Toolkit for 3G Wireless Multimedia
Radvision, a developer of products and technology for real-time voice and video communication over IP (V(2)oIP), announced the general availability of its 3G-324M Toolkit. The product reportedly enables the development of wireless multimedia applications and services such as videoconferencing and video streaming for 3G mobile phones over existing circuit-switched networks. The new toolkit complements the company's existing support for mobile networks, including its SIP Toolkit for 3G mobile application development and the viaIP 3G-324M Gateway for bridging 3G wireless mobile videophones to IP or ISDN-based videoconferencing systems.
Applications of the 3G-324M toolkit include: * multimedia/video conferencing with other 3G mobile users and/or wire-lined H.323 or SIP terminals
* custom video-on-demand (News, Sport, etc.) * video streaming/cell-phone TV
* multimedia/multiplayer gaming
Bias Debuts Sound Soap
Bias, Inc. last week unveiled Sound Soap, a new digital audio signal processing plug-in for Macintosh and Windows. The noise-reduction software is said to remove unwanted hiss, room noise, rumble, electrical hum, and other background noise from digital media files, including digital video (DV) soundtracks, PowerPoint and other presentation-software soundtracks, Flash and other Web-tool soundtracks, digital audio workstation tracks, cassette and other analog tape recordings that have been transferred to a computer, and other sources.
Sound Soap works by removing "broadband" noise (such as room noise, tape hiss, road noise from a moving vehicle, or noise from air conditioners). It also removes low-frequency rumble, as well as hum: the 50Hz and 60Hz electrical "buzzing" sound common in many audio recordings. The software can reportedly "learn" the difference between the noise and the desired audio. Its display shows the unwanted noise being removed by adjusting two knobs.
Studio Implements 844/X Editing, Compositing
LifeLike Productions, a Sausalito, CA-based producer of marketing tools for interactive entertainment and computer games, has installed Media 100's 844/X, an editing system for compositing of unlimited layers, to create multi-layer content for promotional DVDs.
LifeLike, whose game-publisher clients include Sony Computer Entertainment America, EIDOS Interactive and Konami of America, will use its 844/X system to edit and layer video and graphics elements for promotional mail-out discs, in-store kiosks and magazine inserts that provide customers with first looks at new game titles.
844/X pricing starting at $65,995 for a base system including a dual-processor Compaq W8000, Matrox G550 Graphics card, Wacom 6x8 tablet, and 360 GB of media storage.
IN THE INFOGROOVE
Nielsen//NetRatings Launches Digital Media Measurement
Coming in Q4 2002 from Nielsen//NetRatings is its Digital Media Universe service, providing views of Web and digital-media usage. The company says the new level of reporting is made possible through its patent on personal computer use tracking. It also claims measurement is estimated to increase coverage of the number of people who use Internet applications residing on the desktop, but do not use the Web by seven percent, allowing companies to market to a growing audience using "persistent" applications to conduct online activities.
With the launch of the Digital Media Universe, the Nielsen//NetRatings service will expand to combine Web-based traffic with Internet applications and browser channel audience data, including measurement of AOL proprietary channels.
The rest of the Digital Media Universe comprises the measurement of instant messaging, media players, media sharing applications, ISP applications, wireless content systems, Web phones, news and information toolbars, connected games, weather applications, auction assistants and shopping assistants. Examples of popular applications include RealOne media player, KaZaA media sharing application, WeatherBug weather assistant, CallWave Web phone, and the AvantGo wireless content system.
Side Effects Ships Compositing, Effects Software
Side Effects Software, developer of the Houdini family of 3D software, last week released Houdini Halo, its new stand-alone compositing and image-effects application. The $3,000 program is available for Windows NT, Linux, IRIX and Solaris-based environments.
Built around a nonlinear, node-based, and procedural workflow, Halo offers standard compositing functions, while adding features such as deep-raster support and the ability to incorporate custom-built composite operations and effects without writing code. Additional features include animatable visual handles, optimized 2D and smart-tiling algorithms, a multi-threaded architecture, and optimization for large formats such as IMAX.
Canopus Announces ProCoder Upgrade
Coming later this month from Canopus Corporation is ProCoder 1.2, an update to the company's video transcoding software tool. New features include MPEG support for HD resolutions and enhanced Web streaming-encoding tools, including RealVideo 9 support and multi-stream support for Windows Media and RealVideo.
HD resolution is supported through MPEG-2 Main Profile at High Level (MP@HL) encoding. The new version also includes support for MPEG-1 settings outside of Standard Profile, such as 640x480 MPEG-1, to provide video for Web- and CD-ROM-based content. In addition, the software reportedly delivers higher-quality MPEG-2 output and offers expanded DV import capabilities to transcode video files from editing systems that create raw DV files.
ProCoder 1.2 is a Windows-based, standalone transcoding software tool that supports all popular video formats and features Canopus's DV codec and MPEG technologies. ProCoder is targeted at video, DVD production and Internet content-creation professionals for use in entertainment, business, government and education.
THE DIALS & LEVERS OF POWER
Convergence Call for Papers: Sexuality and Internet/VR
For Volume 10 Number 2 of Convergence (Summer 2004), the editors are seeking submissions on issues concerning Sexuality and the Internet and/or Virtual Reality. This issue will be guest-edited by professor Philip Hayward from the Division of Humanities at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.
Over the last decade the Internet has developed as a major means of communication, service provision and retail for various communities of interest and/or business organizations.
Papers are invited on any aspect of these phenomena, with regard to topics such as pornography, oppression, censorship, fetishes, community building, sexual utopianism, new sexualities, etc.
In the early 1990s there was a burst of interest in the possibilities and limitations of technology aided/mediated physically stimulative sexual activities, often referred to as 'virtual sex' or 'teledildonics'. Papers are invited on this topic, either revisiting discussion of the phenomena or analyzing more recent developments in the field.
Submission deadline for this issue is 30 October, 2003
Proposals for articles or completed papers should be sent to Philip Hayward, Humanities, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia.
GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
Sierra Releases No One Lives Forever Sequel
Sierra Entertainment last week shipped No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way, built on the LithTech Jupiter system. Master spy Cate Archer continues her adventures in the sequel to The Operative: No One Lives Forever. In the game, which takes place in the spy-heavy '60s timeframe, H.A.R.M. is back and the United States has uncovered a top-secret Soviet project that, if successful, could bring about a third World War. Can Cate avert a nuclear holocaust and simultaneously stay out of H.A.R.M.'s way?
While the game is being marketed primarily as a single-player experience with over 40 levels, it also offers stand-alone, cooperative multiplayer missions that allow up to four players to become UNITY agents working together against AI opponents. These levels are tied to the singleplayer campaign, and give players a different view of the overall story. Also, the development team at Monolith plans to create new deathmatch and team-based maps over the next few months. In addition, players can expect the release of a stand-alone server as well as the engine code and tools.
Interplay Releases Run Like Hell, Survival-Horror for PS2
Just out from Interplay Entertainment Corp. is sci-fi video game Run Like Hell, a survival-horror game for PlayStation2. The title is Interplay's first original, internally developed, next-generation console game.
The player assumes the role of Nick Connor, an exiled military hero sent to work on a mining station in deep space. Returning from a mission, he finds his crewmembers wiped out by a vicious and intelligent alien race. Nick must remain alive long enough to thwart the alien's plans for the ship and stay alive in the process. The game features intelligent alien foes that learn from the player's actions to become even more dangerous.
EA Ships The Sims Deluxe Edition
Electronic Arts last week released The Sims Deluxe Edition, which combines the full version of The Sims, the Livin' Large expansion pack, and new content including the new Sim customization tool: The Sims Creator.
The Sims Livin' Large allows players to put their Sim families into zany situations and settings. Its content adds dozens of extreme items like a home chemistry lab, a heart shaped bed and a crystal ball as well a cast of characters like the Grim Reaper, the Genie and the Tragic Clown.
The Sims Creator, a customization tool, lets players create new Sims down to the smallest detail. Users can also select new clothes, design original attire, add logos to their clothing and accessorize their Sims with belts, ties and jewelry. Players can even import their own face into the program and put it directly on a Sim character.
New content includes two designs sets featuring over 25 objects and over 50 additional new clothing choices.
Activision Announces Tony Hawk 4
To commemorate the launch of its upcoming video game Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, Activision is inviting skateboarding and gaming fans to the "Tony Hawk's Ultimate Challenge" Backyard BBQ where they can fuel up on free food, check out cool music and demo the new Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 video game at tour stops across the United States.
Beginning on October 9, Activision will let consumers test their skills with the PlayStation2 version. During a sample run, gamers can try to conquer several different goals as they skate through a college campus doing spine transfers, skitching behind cars and racking up combos.
Activision will donate $5 to the Tony Hawk Foundation for every player who tests out the game at the Backyard BBQ. The funding will be used to assist the foundation's efforts to finance and promote public skateboarding parks in low-income areas nationwide.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 will be available for PlayStation2, Xbox, GameCube, Game Boy Advance and good ol' PlayStation. The sequel to the #1 action-sports video game of 2001, the new title once again lets players skate as Hawk and 13 others as they work their way from amateur to pro choosing goals and building their skills. The game's new free-roaming career mode lets players conquer a skater-specific pro challenge based on each skater's personal history. The PlayStation 2 version also includes new online features, allowing up to eight players to challenge each other in modes like Goal Attack and Capture the Flag.
Spectrum is an independent news service published every Monday for the interactive media professional community by Motion Blur Media. Spectrum covers the tools and technologies used to create interactive multimedia applications and infrastructure for business, education, and entertainment; and the interactive media industry scene. We love to receive interactive media and online development tools and CD-ROMs for review.
Send your interactive multimedia business, product, people, event, or technology news to: email@example.com. We prefer to receive news by email but if you must, telephone breaking news to 510-549-2894. Send review product and press kits by mail to David Duberman, 2233 Jefferson Ave., Berkeley, CA 94703.
If you contact companies or organizations mentioned here, please tell them you saw the news in Spectrum. Thanks.
Please send address changes (with old and new addresses), subscribe and unsubscribe requests etc. to the above address. If you use the Reply function, please do _not_ echo an entire issue of Spectrum with your message.
Publisher's note: We are now accepting limited advertising. If you'd like to offer your company's products or services to Spectrum's elite audience of Internet and multimedia professionals, send an email query to firstname.lastname@example.org, or telephone 510-549-2894 during West Coast business hours.
- David Duberman
(c)Copyright 2002 Motion Blur Media. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any for-profit or revenue-generating venue in any form without written permission from the publisher.