Our New Game: I Am Dolphin

After an incredibly long time of quiet development, our new game, I Am Dolphin, will be available this Thursday, October 9th, on the Apple/iOS App Store. This post will be discussing the background and the game itself; I’m planning to post more technical information about the game and development in the future. This depends somewhat on people reading and commenting – tell me what you want to know about the work and I’m happy to answer as much as I can.

For those of you who may not have followed my career path over time: A close friend and I have spent quite a few years doing R&D with purely physically driven animation. There’s plenty of work out there on the subject; ours is not based on any of it and takes a completely different approach. About three years ago, we met a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital who helped us set up a small research group at Hopkins to study biological motion and create a completely new simulation system from the ground up, based around neurological principles and hands-on study of dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Unlike many other physical animation systems, including our own previous work, the new work allows the physical simulation to be controlled as a player character. We also developed a new custom in-house framework, called the Kata Engine, to make the simulation work possible.

One of the goals in developing this controllable simulation was to learn more about human motor control, and specifically to investigate how to apply this technology to recovery from motor impairments such as stroke. National Geographic was kind enough to write some great articles on our motivations and approach:

Virtual Dolphin On A Mission

John Krakauer’s Stroke of Genius

Although the primary application of our work is medical and scientific, we’ve also spent our spare time to create a game company, Max And Haley LLC, and a purely entertainment focused version of the game. This is the version that will be publicly available in a scant few days.

Here is a review of the game by AppUnwrapper.

I got my hands on the beta version of the game, and it’s incredibly impressive and addictive. I spent two hours playing right off the bat without even realizing it, and have put in quite a few more hours since. I just keep wanting to come back to it. iPhones and iPads are the perfect platform for the game, because they allow for close and personal, tactile controls via simple swipes across the screen.

I now have three shipped titles to my name; I’d say this is the first one I’m really personally proud of. It’s my firm belief that we’ve created something that is completely unique in the gaming world, without being a gimmick. Every creature is a complete physical simulation. The dolphins you control respond to your swipes, not by playing pre-computed animation sequences but by actually incorporating your inputs into the drive parameters of the underlying simulation. The end result is a game that represents actual motion control, not gesture-recognition based selection of pre-existing motions.

As I said at the beginning of the post, this is mostly a promotional announcement. However, this is meant to be a technical blog, not my promotional mouthpiece. I want to dig in a lot to the actual development and technical aspects of this game. There’s a lot to talk about in the course of developing a game with a three person (2x coder, 1x artist) team, building a complete cross-platform engine from nothing, all in the backdrop of an academic research hospital environment. Then there’s the actual development of the simulation, which included a lot of interaction with the dolphins, the trainers, and the Aquarium staff. We did a lot of filming (but no motion capture!) in the course of the development as well; I’m hoping to share some of that footage moving forward.

Here’s a slightly older trailer – excuse the wrong launch date on this version. We decided to slip the release by two months after this was created – that’s worth a story in itself. It is not fully representative of the final product, but our final media isn’t quite ready.

The Scandalous Yetizen Costume

There’s been a lot of chatter on the various blogs and news sites about the IGDA and Yetizen party incident. I’m not going to rehash that. See these articles if you’re not up to date on the whole controversy:
I will comment that I thought that the controversy was a wholly pointless manufactured thing and Brenda Romero’s resignation did not help anybody. That said, I was a little surprised to discover that the scandalous, allegedly inappropriate outfits that created all this trouble aren’t actually shown anywhere, in any of the news about the incident. At all. Not on Joystiq, not on the Gawker owned Kotaku, nowhere. I thought that was strange. Luckily I have photos of the Yetizen models from the previous year, so… here it is. This is the outfit that forced two IGDA members to resign.
Yetizen Outfits
Now you know.

Revolution, Part 2: BioReplicant Animation

I promised this a long time ago, and here it is. I prefer to let the video speak for itself. This is a demo from January, so it’s actually a much older iteration of what we’ve got now.
P.S. Of course I delete negative comments. It’s my damn blog!

UPDATE: The video has been pulled for a while until we get a new one that better reflects the state of the technology.

Our iPhone/iPod Touch game is out!


I’ll concede it doesn’t look like much, but honestly, the game is really addictive and fun. And it’s a dollar.

One of the technologies in this is the binaural audio system that I discussed earlier. On the above page, there’s a linked video — put on headphones and watch it. You’ll get the point very quickly. It’s even better in-game than in the video, was my experience.

There’s also the animation system, which is not really shown off that well here, but it’s procedurally constructed, like NaturalMotion (but better, we believe). At no point were any animations build in a modeler. It’s all done dynamically using relatively simple rules. The future games will leverage this tech more heavily, but at least as developers I think you can appreciate how awesome that is. The flying, the hits — it’s all physics based.

Did I mention it’s a dollar? Try it out. And if you do try it out, please take the time to write an honest (and hopefully positive!) review. It’ll go a long way for us if you do.

Binaural Audio Follow-up

When I last posted, the demo video was the Barbershop recording. Although it’s an excellent video, it’s not ours and the only media I had to show that was actually by us was an eight second clip that was not terribly impressive. That is no longer the case!

Grab headphones and listen!

The game is previewed, with the real in game sound, near the end. But listen to the whole thing, and remember that it works in real time on pretty much any current platform. With any luck, we’ll have an SDK ready for Q1 2010, maybe even earlier.

Oh, and that’s still part 1. If you’re interested in animation and if you think that what NaturalMotion did was pretty cool, you’ll be in for a big treat later on.

P.S. I answer all comments, generally speaking, although it might be a bit delayed at times. So don’t think I’m not noticing.

Revolution, Part 1: Audio

A friend of mine has been working very hard on a project which involves two revolutionary technical innovations. I am not usually the kind to care for revolutions, but I honestly believe that both of these are really, really significant. I’m actually hoping to join up and help make these things into a proper product, in fact. These are things you have not seen in games, and he has it working in prototype form on a mobile platform. That’s unusual in this industry.

Here, listen to this Youtube video while reading. You need headphones for this, which is why the tech is launching on the iPhone first. The video is not ours, but it is a very good demonstration. Just listen and read. Remember, it doesn’t work without headphones — if you don’t have any, it might actually be worth reading this only after you’ve found some.

The underlying principal is binaural recording. (This is not the revolutionary bit, and has been around for quite a long time.) Games have had 3D audio for ages, so that is in itself nothing to get excited about. Current 3D audio basically works by modifying channel volumes for playback of a mono sound in order to simulate a 3D space. It works alright if you have a 5.1 setup, but it’s not terribly effective in stereo and in general the effect is a bit weak. Binaural recording, however, is a method of recording sounds with a pair of microphones and an actual head model that attempts to produce a stereo sound that simulates what our ears hear. You need headphones because of the recording methodology, and if you’re listening to the video I linked, you’re probably spazzing out right now.

There is a catch to all this, which is that nobody can synthesize it. The sound is recorded by physically placing it relative to the head, so you can’t go back later and place it at an arbitrary location. (Some people have pointed out that there are processors and algorithms that try, but they are expensive and don’t really work well.) That’s essentially why it’s never showed up in games –although headphones-only isn’t a thrilling restriction, either. Still enjoying the barber?

Here is his binaural recording. (It’s 8 seconds, just pause the barber.) There’s one key difference, though. That’s not a binaural recording of a sound being moved in front of a recording head. It is done in real-time. (This is the revolutionary bit.) This friend of mine has figured out how to do it. The original implementation worked very well but required a lot of memory and processing power. But the current system is efficient enough to fit on the iPhone. I’ve seen and heard the demo, working in real time off an iPod Touch. It works well enough to make your skin crawl, like those scissors are probably doing right now if you’re still listening to the barber.

I can’t really say too much about how he’s pulled it off, because we think it’s kind of a big deal. You’ll see iPhone game releases with the technology later this year, and hopefully by early to mid next year we’ll be licensing an actual SDK for whatever platform you might care to use. We’re fairly confident this is technology people will want, and hey, it wouldn’t hurt to forward this post around the office.

Highlight: AI War

Arcen Games recently released their first game, AI War. It’s available directly from them, along with a demo version You can also download it via Impulse, which is Stardock’s equivalent to Steam. (“Steam Powered”, “Impulse Driven”. I see what they did there!)

I am highlighting (not reviewing) this game mainly because it’s the first selling game, indie or otherwise, that is actually built on top of SlimDX. It’s been out for some time, and we’ve been aware of it, but for some reason we only just noticed that it’s an actual title rather than just another hobbyist pseudo-game. Visually it’s not terribly sophisticated, but that’s simply not the point. The UK Gamer blog has a review, for some more discussion of the actual gameplay.

What is interesting about AI War is, well, the AI. Since I haven’t actually played the game yet, I can’t actually tell you how effective it is. But as a strictly technical piece of work, it’s really quite impressive. The guy behind the game is Chris Park, who has his own blog. He’s written two entries about the AI so far (One, two), and more are coming. There’s lots more tech information over there though (and also discussion of game design), so I’d recommend skimming the blog. It’s similar to a post-mortem, except he’s only talking about the positives so far. That’s a hint, Chris!

I’m hoping to see more games rolling out on top of SlimDX. XNA’s done a lot to further the case for managed games in general, but with support for the new 10 and 11 APIs, 64 bit, and all sorts of other things, I’m eager to see what people can do with our tools as well.