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Game On at the Science Museum

2006, elite, game

I had the opportunity to visit the Game On exhibition at the London Science Museum, along with a talk by David Braben, one of the inventors of Elite. The talk was on the past, present and future of gaming which was remarkably interesting in itself.

Of course, games have changed a lot over time. [I bought my first computer game "Action Biker" (sponsored by KP Skips, if I recall) on cassette co-incidentally from a The Entertainer in Milton Keynes, where I now live.] The presentation took a bit of a walk down memory lane, but also explained some fun things about Elite; for example, in order to have all of the universes and various names stored in the 32k of memory, the names of the planets were all generated from pseudo-random number sequences (e.g. something like CRC from an initial seed) and then combined with a set of plausible syllables to generate foreign sounding names. So instead of a universe having to have a look-up table of all planetary names, there were just a handful of bytes representing each. (The universes had to be vetted in case any planetary names were considered obscene!) Reminds me of some of the pack200 compression techniques :-) though the concept of procedural synthesis is becoming more wide-spread in computer games.

The future was more interesting; although games stations are getting more powerful, the bottleneck is still (proportionately) the memory. So compression techniques and dynamically generated scenes are probably going to still pay dividends, even now -- although most of the scenes are more detailed than games in the past. The other point he made is that most computer games are now very closed; that is, there's no choice what you do other than having to get to a different level. He observes that the state of the games industry is very similar to the state of the film industry in the early 1920s, when films were nothing much more than short scenes linked together with often implausible storylines that only existed to transition to the next short scene. The tell-it-yourself computer game may only be a few years away; that's the point made (also available in an interview on BBC News if you're interested). Of course, cynics might say that it's all a selling plot for The Outsider, but certainly most games have been increasing in graphics and decreasing in gameplay since then.

In any case, the Game On exhibition is in London until the end of February 2007, and has a multitude of old computer games systems (hand-helds, Amiga/Spectrum/Commodore, PlayStation/SNES systems etc.). There were a few games I recognised -- way of the exploding fist-style games, the odd Tomb Raider -- as well as a bunch from other cultures that I hadn't seen. The majority of these are 'hands-on', so if there's not much in the way of queues, you can play with a number of games. Quite a few are two-player, so you have to grab a nearby person if you want to get the most out of it, or go with someone similarly into the games themselves. The exhibition isn't particularly big; but you can spend a bunch of time down memory lane there. And of course, the rest of the museum is now free entry (the Game On exhibition costs £8.50) so you can see that too if you get the chance.