Spectrum Reviews: Interactive Media & Online Developer Product/Service Reviews

12 March 1998

Written and edited by David Duberman

for editorial/ subscription inquiries, send mailto:duberman@dnai.com


Today's Reviews (details below)


--HVS ColorGIF 2.0 and JPEG 2.0

--Myth: The Fallen Lords

--Revenge of the Toys


--Game Developer's Marketplace

--Fine Art Lessons in Photoshop

--Creative HTML Design

--Dynamic Web Publishing Second Edition

--HTML 4 Interactive Course

--Dynamic HTML

--Internet Games for Dummies


--About Spectrum Reviews



HVS ColorGIF 2.0 and JPEG 2.0

In his new book, Photoshop Channel Chops, David Biedny says, "HVS ColorGIF 2.0 and JPEG 2.0 are excellent--the HVS (Human Visual Ssytems) color reduction ... results in far more accurate color representation using far fewer colors than anything else produced by any other program we've seen." What he's referring to are a couple of $99 plug-ins from Digital Frontiers that work with Adobe Photoshop and most programs that support Photoshop type plug-ins, such as Fractal Design (MetaCreations) Painter and Paint Shop Pro. According to the company, HVS is "a proprietary signal processing mechanism that provides superior quality even when information is lost via compression or other means." They go on to claim the following benefits for HVS:

o improved signal-to-noise ratio

o significant improvements in compression (30%-200% is typical).

o more accurate rendition of color space even with limited palettes.

o higher perceived image quality.

o greatly improved download times stemming from compression improvements.

More specifically, "The HVS algorithm is designed to reduce the image to flat areas of color without the eye perceiving those areas as visible bands," resulting in better compressibility. I didn't have the time or resources to devote to testing these claims extensively, but I can tell you a little bit about how the programs work (I think you'll be impressed), and to suggest that if Biedny, one of the most knowledgeable folks around when it comes to Photoshop, recommends them, then they're probably worth getting.

Both plug-ins work both as filters and as exporters. In general, you'd use the export versions to perform batch processing in an Action (Photoshop 4.0 and up), letting you avoid bringing up the dialog each time. Speaking of which, ColorGIF comes with a MultiPalette Action that can reduce an arbitrary set of RGB images to a single adaptive palette. This is useful for producing multi-image compositions to be viewed on a 256-color display, as well as preparing 24-bit image sequences for compilation into a GIF animation.

The ColorGIF filter interface is logically arranged and easy enough to figure out, although extensive documentation in HTML format is available if necessary. The Bits/Pixel section has radio buttons for selecting anywhere between 3 and 8 bits per pixel, or Other, which lets the user determine the exact number of colors. This is tied into the Palette section, so that if, for example, you select the Web Safe palette, Bits/Pixel is automatically set to Other/216. Bits/Pixel's Optimize checkbox lets you remove unused colors. Other Palette options, available from a drop-down menu, include Mac System, Win System, HVSMulti and Custom (user defined).

Two Thresholding parameters can be used to set a range of colors (everything darker or lighter than the target color) to a single color.

This leaves more room in the palette for more visible colors, and also markedly improves compression by filtering out subtle color variations that are difficult to encode.

The Shading option, enabled for Adaptive palettes, determines how gradients are handled. You can choose a transparency color from either a palette window or the actual image, plus a numeric transparency range, highlighted in the small, scrolling image sample window in the ColorGIF interface. You can set dither intensity to 0 to 100, save and load palettes to GIF files, store current settings as presets for later retrieval, preview the results and export the converted image, with optional interlacing.

To test ColorGIF, I made two copies of the Fruit photo that comes with Photoshop, and reduced both to 256 colors using both programs' Adaptive palettes. ColorGIF's was clearly superior, resulting in a smoothly shaded image that looked like 24 bits if you squinted, while Photoshop's dithering was obvious. Then I tried producing Web-ready versions of the Fruit picture. One image I reduced to 216 colors with ColorGIF 2.0's Web Safe Palette. The other I used Photoshop 4's Image/Mode/Indexed Color function, setting Palette to Web and Color Depth to Other/216 colors. The conclusion: If you let ColorGIF determine the palette, it does a wonderful job, but if you restrict it to the arbitrary 216-color Web palette, it doesn't improve on Photoshop's color-reduction scheme.

My test in the above paragraph was perhaps overly rigorous, as it's understood in Web design circles that JPEG compression is more desirable for use with photo-like images than is the GIF format, especially with high- and true-color displays. That's where HVS JPEG comes in. The filter and its interface offers substantial advantages over Photoshop's single-setting, non-previewable JPEG saver. Perhaps the most substantial of these is the unique Pre-filter option, which lets you "simplify and smooth the busy areas of your image without disturbing edges." This takes the form of a slider that lets you set the permissible amount of detail, from Sharp to Soft, plus a secondary Strength slider.

Also unique to HVS JPEG are three different preset Q-Tables (used to determine how the encoder processes various aspects of the image), optimized for general images, portraits, or textures. Even better, you can force the encoder to generate an optimized Q-Table, at the cost of a longer delay when changing other settings. Finally, the Q Setting slider lets you set the amount of compression, with a small, partial-image preview recalculated as you change it. Constantly updated statistics estimate the resultant compression ratio, size, and the time to download at 28.8Kbps.

Unfortunately, the latter doesn't distinguish between minutes and seconds.

Checkboxes let you compare the compressed image with the original, and save the image with or without progressive display.

As with Photoshop, to see the full-image results, you must save as JPEG, and then reload. Using HVS JPEG, I was able to get a 695K TIFF image down to about 20K--from a 2 1/2-minute download to about six seconds--while retaining almost all of the original image quality. The only additional feature one could wish for is the ability to save settings as a preset. If you use JPEG images on your Web site, you shouldn't be without this remarkable tool.

Contact Digital Frontiers in Evanston, Ill. at 847-328-0880 or visit http://www.digfrontiers.com.




Myth: The Fallen Lords

One of the most popular and lauded games of 1997, Myth, from Bungie, falls into the real-time strategy category, but distinguishes itself on many levels. First, forget about construction, resource management etc.--it's strictly about tactical combat. Second, it's a true 3D game, taking advantage of Rendition- and 3Dfx-based hardware 3D accelerators on Win95 (I didn't look at the Mac version, which comes on the same CD). You view the scene from an overhead angle; the mouse lets you move forward, backward and sideways, parallel to the ground, and keys let you zoom in and out, and rotate the view so you can get at characters hidden behind trees. Run on a sufficiently powerful machine (i.e., high CPU rate and lots of RAM), the graphics are fast, smooth and colorful.

As you might guess from its title, Myth takes place in a medieval fantasy world. You can play by yourself or with others. In the former mode, you have but a single campaign to play through; no randomly generated scenarios, and no campaign editor. In each scenario, you're given a complement of fighters and support personnel. Your forces include sword-wielding warriors; archers; bomb-tossing dwarves; forest giants; vicious but hard-to-control berserks; sorcerers, who know some tricks and can swing a mean sword when need be; and bulky journeymen, armed with a shovel (!), but who carry mandrake roots with which to heal allies. Enemies are mean and powerful, including Ghols, which run swiftly and drag their knuckles, and Soulless, which float and throw poison javelins.

Myth offers various means of controlling your men. The most intuitive entails clicking on a soldier to select him, or dragging to select a group (a damage bar appears next to selected men), and then clicking on a destination or target. Soldiers are smart, following retreating enemies, while archers and dwarves archers run away from nearby threats. You can select all friendly units within view by pressing Enter (alas, the numeric keypad Enter doesn't work), and select all nearby units of a single type by clicking on one of them. The number keys offer 10 different preset battle formations, including wedge and encirclements, several varieties of line, encirclements and circle, plus a couple of rank & file formations. Other keys offer such commands as Guard, Scatter, Retreat and Stop. If you're sending your forces on a tricky route, you can set waypoints so they don't get stuck.

Other neato features: Each skirmish is "filmed," so you can play it back to analyze your strategy. You can use function keys to change the game speed and volume, and optionally display a miniature area map, which shows friendly and enemy units as colored pixels. A trapezoidal outline on the map indicates which direction you're looking in. And, of course, you can wage war against human opponents over a LAN, modem-to-modem, on Total Entertainment Network (TEN) or via bungie.net, the publisher's free Internet gaming service. Multiplayer variants include King of the Hill, Steal the Bacon (keep-away), Scavenger Hunt and Capture the Flags. These take place on maps said to be optimized for multiplayer games, and take advantage of a special whiteboard feature that let teammates draw up strategies before a game.

Myth is a class act in every way, from the well-designed interactive tutorial and single-player scenarios to the physics-based animation effects, such as bombs bouncing before they explode. For some reason, though, I didn't hear any battle sound effects, making battles eerily silent affairs. Gameplay can best be described as visceral, as the realism gives you a real emotional stake in the outcome. For a good example of excellence in a combat-only strategy game, pick up a copy.

Find out more at http://www.bungie.com.



Revenge of the Toys

Every so often, a new program comes along that's so pointless, so silly, so utterly absurd that I just ... can't resist it. Revenge of the Toys (SRP $29.95), from developer Cyclops Software and published by Piranha Interactive, is one such product. Available for Windows 3.1/95, it's a collection of noisy desktop games that'll have your officemates first peering over the cubicle walls in annoyance, and then shoving you away from the keyboard so they can have fun too.

Revenge of the Toys takes place against the background of whatever application is active at the time you run it (actually a screen grab); if you press Tab while playing, it disappears temporarily so the boss doesn't know you're goofing off. Of the nine games, my favorite was Basketball; a hoop glides back and forth across the screen, while the mouse controls a pair of animated hands shooting a ball. If you make a successively greater number of consecutive baskets, a new, smaller hoop appears. Simple, yet not too easy to keep it from being addictive, and good sound effects.

I also liked Ricochet, sort of a one-person Pong with four paddles: horizontal and vertical mouse movement controls the top/bottom and side paddles respectively. The longer you keep the ball in play, the more of the background "world" (one of nine) you can see. If the ball goes out of bounds, which it often does, pieces of the background drop out. Also, when the ball speeds up and turns blue, you can shoot it with the mouse cursor--two games in one! Fun and challenging.

The simplest game is Nail 'Em, where you smash bugs with a hammer--not exactly a barrel of monkeys, but good for when you're really brain-dead, and just need to whack something. Similar in spirit is Kung Fu Coffee, where a bald, bespectacled office drone stands in the middle of the screen as such objects as filing cabinets and monitors sail by. Clicking the mouse causes the dude to lash out with a high-pitched cry; you get a point for each hit, and lose one for each miss. And Shooting Gallery pitches goodies like a teddy bear and a Chinese take-out container at you--one, two or three at a time--while you try to blast them with your high-powered rifle, leaving cool-looking splatters and large bullet holes all over the monitor screen.

Other games include Venus Flytrap, where you attempt feed one to five hungry plant critters with fast-moving flies; and Monster Factory, a two-player game which lets you build weird-looking little mutants who duke it out on top of your word processor. Fishing, where you toss your bait and move the line around the screen in hopes of catching colorful waterborne prey, was a bit too random. Perhaps the most frustrating game was DeBugger, where you run a robotic lizard around the screen, trying to catch creepy-crawlies with its long tongue. An invincible evil bug that pursues and then blows up your lizard is too fast and persistent.

Extras include online help, an instant replay feature, plus screen savers featuring any of the games. This title's good overall gameplay is an instructive example of combining simple 2D animation with responsive controls to create a compelling gaming experience. If you think you couldn't possibly waste more time at your computer than you do already, get Revenge of the Toys, and discover the true meaning of "killing time."

Get the scoop at http://www.piranhainteractive.com.





Game Developer's Marketplace

$49.99; ISBN 1-57610-177-0

Let's face it: The electronic games market is among the most competitive in the software industry, and that's not about to change. But neither is the constant need for innovative gameplay, clever design, creative use of sound and image, and the other elements crucial to making great games. If you think you've got what it takes to create the next id Software, here's a good starting point. In 728 pages, authors Alex Dunne and Tor Berg of Game Developer magazine, along with perennial Coriolis booksmith Ben Sawyer, tell the budding game developer how to find startup capital, how to hire the right employees, and how to get your game on store shelves (and move it off the shelves into customers' hands). Other issues covered in the book include getting a job in the games industry, deciding whether to program for consoles or computers, and legal issues, and there's also an extensive resources directory, with lists of useful books, conferences, and tools and other products. The CD-ROM includes the source code to a published game (Abuse from Crack.Com Software), demos from Animatek, demo versions of developer tools and lots more.

Read the Amazon.com Reviews


Fine Art Lessons in Photoshop

$39.99; ISBN 1-56205-829-0

Photoshop is generally considered to be more adept at manipulating existing imagery than at creating new artwork from scratch, but this book from Hayden Books demonstrates that, in some ways, it can serve very well as a substitute for traditional-media painting. In four parts, authors Michael J. Nolan and Renee LeWinter et al lead the reader through four separate step-by-step drawing/painting projects representing major disciplines: a boat (landscape), a self-portrait, three lemons (still life) and a door (architectural). As you work, you progress through four stages: drawing and sketching; the digital palette; enhancing your technique and style; and special effects. Additional sections cover the Photoshop paintbox and printing.

The introduction to the first boat lesson provides a good clue to the authors' approach: "Although it's certainly possible to scan a photograph ... and reduce it to an outline for your drawing or painting, doing so leaves out an essential art element: the artist's point of view. Any time you relinquish creative control to the software, your art becomes more programmed and less personal. Start from scratch, and the result will be unique." The only problem is that the book is tightly perfect bound, and doesn't stay open as you follow along with the lessons. And follow along you must, because there's no CD.

Read the Amazon.com Reviews


Creative HTML Design

$39.99; ISBN 1-56205-704-9

Brother-and-sister team Lynda Weinman and William Weinman pack a one-two punch in defense of original site design in this book from New Riders Publishing. Intended for beginners, the book starts out with an introduction to HTML, and then dives right into a basic exercise on building your first page and uploading it to your site. Later chapters deal with creating compact graphics for fast downloading, using tables and forms esthetically, typographic principles, adding animation and sound, and organizing your site. The CD-ROM includes all tutorial files plus JavaScript rollover code and other customizable scripts. If you're just starting out in the wacky world of Web publishing, you could do worse than to get this book.

Read the Amazon.com Reviews


Dynamic Web Publishing Second Edition

$39.99; ISBN 1-57521-363-X

It's all here in this 840-page paperback from Sams.net: DHTML, JavaScript, Java, CGI and style sheets. There's also material on push technologies, JavaBeans, client-side scripting for dynamic effects and much more. What's particularly useful is that authors Shelley Powers et al provide comparisons of the various technologies. For example, CGI provides basic user feedback capability, but JavaScript adds dynamic capabilities, such as letting you change a form's appearance based on whether checkboxes are activated. There's a good variety of source code, and lots of useful advice. No CD, but the source code and examples are available on the Web.

If you can justify getting only one book on HTML 4, this is one to consider.

Read the Amazon.com Reviews


HTML 4 Interactive Course

$49.99; ISBN 1-57169-130-8

This somewhat offbeat book by Kent Cearly begins, even before the table of contents, with an introduction to publisher Waite Group Press' eZone, a value-added online feature where the reader can get one-on-one help from mentors, exchange ideas with mailing list subscribers, and find resources such as related Web sites. Following this is the actual book content, with eight chapters on topics such as Multimedia, Power HTML, Interactive Forms and Scripts, Presentation and Special Effects, and more. Each chapter consists of a number of "lessons," which aren't, as you might expect, step-by-step tutorials, but simply explanations of the various principles involved, much as you'd find in any of the other dozens of books on this extremely popular topic. Each lesson ends with a short multiple-choice quiz, and in some cases an exercise as well. Quiz answers are in the back of the book, but you're on your own for the exercises (except for eZone, of course). Except for a few embarrassing goofs (e.g., "RealAudio was one of the first companies to start deploying a technique ... called streaming"), the content is informative and complete, and is competently written and presented. The CD-ROM contains the book's source code plus third-party utilities.

Read the Amazon.com Reviews


Dynamic HTML

$39.99; ISBN 1-57521-353-2

Because there's so much territory to cover, books on Web publishing are becoming more and more compilations of articles by different authors, rather than the work of a single individual. This book is no exception, with 13 different writers listed on the title page. The seven sections cover Getting Started with Dynamic HTML, Cascading Style Sheets, Scripting, The Document Object Model, Data Awareness, Other Dynamic Techniques and Managing Dynamic HTML. In Other Dynamic Techniques, chapters cover using layers, transition effects, IE4 multimedia effects and using Netscape Navigator's canvas mode. In one of the final section's more intriguing chapters, author Jeff Rouyer discusses "Degrading DHTML Gracefully," stating that the "path to building a backward-compatible Dynamic HTML site is strewn with singing nettles, broken glass, pitfalls, and dead bodies." More usefully, he provides a template (at http://www.htmlguru.com) that provides "graceful backward compatibility across three generations of Web browser technologies."

Read the Amazon.com Reviews


Internet Games for Dummies

$19.99; ISBN 0-7645-0164-X

There's a whole heap o' gaming out there in cyberspace, and this book does a good job of telling you what it is and where it's at (dude). The book is up to date, briefly covering all the latest commercial Internet gaming services, such as Microsoft's Internet Gaming Zone, Sega's Heat.net, DWANGO, TEN and the rest, as well as the vendor-specific services such as Blizzard's battle.net, although it doesn't mention bungie.net (see Myth review in this issue). Author John Kaufeld spends a bit more time on such semi-commercial ventures as Kali and its upstart rival Kahn, which he says has speed advantages over the former because it's Win95 native. He also writes about many online-playable commercial games such as Pax Imperia, CART Precision Racing, You Don't Know Jack and Subspace. He even covers venerable email games like VGA Planets. The rest of the book is fairly gratuitous information about where to find tips and cheats, setting up controllers and other hardware, gaming areas on commercial online services such as CompuServe and so on. But at a mere coupla sawbucks, if you're itching to get in on the online gaming action, this book should answer most of your questions.

Read the Amazon.com Reviews



About Spectrum Reviews

Spectrum Reviews, a sister publication to Spectrum, is published approximately every other week for the interactive media professional community by Motion Blur Media. It offers original reviews of software, hardware, books, Web sites, events and more. Software categories covered in Spectrum Reviews include Web authoring tools, content creation tools (e.g., 2D/3D graphics apps, audio/video production/editing tools), Internet email and Usenet news clients, multimedia clients such as RealSystem, consumer multimedia titles, and, of course, games, both local and online. In the hardware realm, we cover 2D and 3D graphics accelerators, game controllers, mass storage products and more. If you would like to submit a product for coverage in Spectrum Reviews, please send an email inquiry to mailto:duberman@dnai.com

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