Sierra got a lot of things right with their Xbox Live Arcade version of the classic board game, Carcassonne. It's simple enough to bring newcomers in, but has enough depth to bring experts and enthusiasts back for more. The clincher, though, is its webcam support. Taking a social game and adding the ability to see your friends is just one more step towards eliminating the boundaries that normally divide us on the Internet. I'm not just playing a game against imaginary people stuck inside my 360. They have faces to go with their names and voices. Seeing people on my friends list actually laugh makes them much less abstract.
Anyone who doesn't have a camera on his or her Xbox is missing out. Webcams and the games that use them are really next-generation, far more than the sound and fury of high definition graphics.
Web cameras have earned a bad reputation. Just saying the phrase invokes images of the seedier alleyways of the information superhighway, filled with poorly designed adult sites charging $30 an hour to view bored Russian women lounging in their underwear. But for all the amateur skeezefests, there are sites like Justin.tv and YouTube, taking the voyeuristic concepts inherent to webcams and subverting them. Video games can do the same thing, and have been trying to do so for years. With the releases of Carcassonne and Uno, however, the industry seems to be on the cusp of figuring the concept out.
The technology behind web cameras isn't mind blowing. You make a camera, typically on the cheap end. That camera takes pictures or video, and uploads it to the net. What eludes developers is the next step: What to do with the picture you get? Do gamers want to show off their flabby bodies and unkempt neck beards? Should the camera's role be to place your face into the action? Do they want to interact with the images on the screen like a lo-fi holodeck? Here's a look at what Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are doing with webcam-based gaming.
The Playstation EyeToy, released in 2003, was not the first console webcam, but it was the most interesting use of the technology at the time. The brainchild of Dr. Richard Marks, the focus of the EyeToy was to give players a new way to interact with their games. Unfortunately, this translated largely to multiple collections of minigames, most of them built around concepts like popping bubbles or manipulating objects on the screen with vague gestures. One interesting title was EyeToy: Antigrav, a futuristic snowboarding game developed by rhythm game gurus Harmonix. The title, like the EyeToy itself, didn't take off as hoped.
Sony isn't giving up on camera-based console games, however. Later this year the company will release the Playstation Eye, a massively upgraded version of the EyeToy capable of capturing 640x480 video at 60fps and a four-capsule microphone array. Just like the console it's plugged into, the Playstation Eye packs a lot of muscle into the hardware. All that power will be shown off in the camera's flagship software, called The Eye Of Judgement. The game is reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering, but uses the Eye to read cards you play on a special game map and then renders the virtual combat in-game. Sony plans to sell booster packs of cards, bringing the experience to uncharted levels of uber-geekiness, but if the concept is strong, the game could be an absolute blast. The Eye Of Judgement, along with the Playstation Eye, should be out later this year.
No one was lining up to buy the Xbox Live Vision after it was released last year, but the 360 peripheral has had surprising legs. Originally used for personalized gamerpics or sending inappropriate images to your "friends," the Live Vision has found a place with the casual crowd on Xbox Live Arcade. The only thing better than dropping a Wild Card Four on an unsuspecting player in Uno is seeing the look on their face when they realize you screwed them. The way Microsoft's webcam is integrated into these casual games helps foster the tabletop experience they're trying to emulate. Sitting down with a beer, Carcassonne, and some friends on Live is almost better than having them over and watching them eat all my pretzels.
This social focus is even starting to translate to full retail games. Command & Conquer 3 already supports video feeds during the game, and the upcoming Burnout Paradise will take photos of your opponents when they crash, and allow you to send gloating images back at them. The Live Vision isn't designed to change how you play your games, but how you relate to the people you're playing with. You may not always want to see the creepy guy on the other end of the tubes, but seeing your opponent goes a long way to humanizing him, and so far seems to cut out a lot of asshattery prevalent in multiplayer games. It's hard to believe that a simple webcam has that much impact on the Xbox 360 experience, but the way Microsoft has utilized the Live Vision makes it the most fascinating accessory for the console.
Ever the rebels, Nintendo doesn't have any plans for a camera add-on for the Wii, which is strange when you consider the countless minigame opportunities in WarioWare or Mario Party. Instead, Nintendo is bringing camera support to the DS with its newest Training title, Face Training.
Plug the camera peripheral in the GBA slot on your DS and follow along with "Facening" expert Fumiko Inudo as you squint, wink, and grin your way to a better face. Yes, it's about as much of a game as Brain Age, but it's a unique approach to using camera technology to interface with software. The title and camera are due out in Japan on August 2nd, and currently there's no North American date.
Camera interfaces have never been mainstream, but they've also never been more interesting. They provide a unique opportunity for gamers to interact not only with their games, but also with each other. Consoles will soon have the potential to keep us connected through more than voice messages and text, but also visual communication. Whether consumers want that kind of connectivity or not remains to be seen.