5 minutes reading time (956 words)

Where You Play Affects Your Games (or, Where You Play Them, Games Will Come)

Oculus Rift, VR Headset

            Where we game has changed a lot in recent years, not only with the success of the Nintendo Switch as a system where games are played in a space, not just on a screen.  Also as mobile devices led to a huge wave of casual games and as increasingly powerful and affordable laptops and cloud servers let PC gamers take AAA games around the house or even out of it. With such variety, gamers are more aware of where they are playing – and the relative perks and drawbacks of those spaces – than ever before.

            So are game developers. In April, Microsoft unveiled a prototype technology called IllumiRoom, which involved a projector sitting on a coffee table projecting images around your TV to supplement the game on the screen, so the game seems to expand and Oculus RIft VRtake over your room, immersing your field of vision in the experience. Last month, Microsoft announced that IllumiRoom would not be coming to the Xbox One because they can’t yet bring the technology to consumers for less than thousands of dollars. Nevertheless, IllumiRoom is a clear indication that Microsoft wants to offer gamers new ways to experience the relationship between games and playing spaces.

            As games seep ever further into the public consciousness as something not just played by adolescent boys in basements, more games are even taking to public spaces, such as the Google alternate reality game (ARG) Ingress, in which players join one of two teams fighting for control of power nodes visible on (Android) mobile devices in real spaces around the world. “Aim for Love” by Martin Hollis, the creator of Goldeneye 007 for the N64, will take place on two giant screens in a public square in Nottingham, UK, later this month as part of the GameCity 8 festival. The matchmaking game has players use the screens, attached to cameras pointed at the square, to choose two people walking through the square and connect them to publically suggest that they might be “good together” in some way. Then, that pair (if they’re game) takes the controls and decides who to focus on next, while the crowd reacts and perhaps contributes ideas. The creators of indie game favorites Fez and Thomas Was Alone are also developing games for GameCity 8’s public screens.

            “Aim for Love” is an extreme example of how more games are being designed with spaces in mind than ever before. Ten Microsoft's IllumiRoom augmented realityyears  ago, all you needed was a screen and a controller or keyboard and mouse – the physical space was irrelevant. Then Wii designers created a physically active gaming system that could function well even in the tiniest of Tokyo apartments, but Microsoft’s Kinect, developed in the more spacious American Pacific Northwest, required more distance between camera and player, which made it hard to use in small urban living spaces as well as markets where homes are typically smaller, such as Japan and the UK. Careful not to make the same mistake twice, Microsoft’s Xbox One Kinect will have a 60-percent-wider field of view for easier use in small homes.

            With game developers getting used to asking themselves “Where do I expect this game to be played?,” good developers will tailor games to the advantages and drawbacks of different game spaces. Games meant to be playable on public transit won’t force you to yank your motion-sensing phone around like a Wii game, because people flailing around on the bus are unsettling. Some games may design soundtracks to be inessential so the games will be accessible to those wanting to play in public without headphones. Good Wii games involved motion controls that made gamers aware of their bodies in space in fun ways – whatever the game’s other drawbacks, the Wii version of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed will always have a place in my heart, because making the force push gesture and watching stormtroopers go flying in front of me is exceedingly awesome.

            As some story-based games become more cinematic experiences in terms of theatrical quality and narrative complexity, gamers will need game spaces that shut out visual and audio distractions so we can hear the quiet parts and see the nuances of acting performances, aspects of narrative games that have improved enormously in recent years (the ending of Telltale Games’s first season of The Walking Dead was more emotionally gripping than most movies I saw last year).

            Game spaces matter more as gaming becomes a more diverse industry and form of art and entertainment. Now that I play Portable Gaminggames on consoles, a computer, a tablet, and a phone, I’ve started mentally organizing games according to when and where I play them and how much time I need to have before I’ll start a game session. Games I’ll play on the go work in short sessions or are savable between quick turns; if I’m sitting down to a computer or console, I generally want at least a half hour or I won’t bother getting started. If space-based habits like these become market trends, developers take notice and design new games accordingly, in a cycle in which games affect the spaces gamers choose, which in turn affect the next round of games developed.

            What different game spaces do you use, and how do your game spaces affect the games you choose to play? Would you like to see more public gaming experiences or mobile games that take advantage of being played on the go? What do you want from the next generation of console games (Nintendo Switch, Xbox One Kinect, Ps4 Move) that use the living room as play space? Are there ways you’d like new games to take advantage of different game space capabilities?

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