Friday, December 28, 2012

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Carpe Diem

In two months, it would be the five year anniversary of the "Last Lecture".  Five years ago, he taught us to live our lives right, and karma would take care of itself.  He taught us to chase our childhood dreams.  He taught us to live life to its fullest because one never knows when it might be taken from us.  A worthy lesson that was learnt by everyone at that time, and perhaps forgotten by many by now.  Ashamedly, I have to admit to be one of those people.

We're always been told to cherish life.  It is an old adage revisited through books, television, news and anecdotes passed around daily.  We know of its value, yet we need to be constantly reminded.  It seems that the message is always driven home the hardest when it is accompanied by the occurance death.  Death of a loved one, death of a friend or acquaintance or death of a celebrity.  We begin to cherish life more when brushing past death.

For a few years now, my godfather started to talk to me about staying healthy, and how its more important than many other things.  He said that "when you reached his age", you'll see your friends start to move on to the another world, and you'll start feeling the inevitability of death, and the value of life and health.  That qualifying sentence seems to add a significant time lapse.  I was lulled into a false sense of security that death is something that is far in the distance, a good 40 odd years away.

At our age, our experiences with death often come from an older generation.  Since that's the natural order of life, we often don't put that much thought into it.  Recently, a friend of 14 years passed on.  A friend that I may not have been very close to, but spent 7 years in neighboring classes with and played catching(tag) and video games with a long time ago.  In fact, I was using Facebook at the very moment his brother used his account to spread the unfortunate news.  The sudden passing of someone you know leads to feelings that can't be easily described by words.  Rest in peace, Kai Shyang.

A couple of weeks ago, I got into a bike accident.  A damage tire was dislodged by a rock, and correspondingly I was hurled away from the road onto the curb.  I escaped with mere scratches on my forearm.  At the very moment I fell, a car zoomed right past me on the left.  Shortly after I recovered from the shock of the fall, I came to the gross realization that I had just cheated death.  My bike could have easily hurled me into the road, which would have left me much worse than just scratches on my arm.

People say that near-death experiences often leads to your life flashing past your eyes.  I'm not sure what exactly I experienced there and then, but things important enough to me came to my mind.  Things I wanted to do, things I have not done, people I cared about.  I'm so thankful to God that I'm still alive.

A classic question people like to ask is that "if you were to die tomorrow, what would you do/how would you change your life?'  Should we really be waiting till that day?  Will you know when that day is?  I think now is as good a time as any to start living life to its fullest.  No more wasting time with frivolous pursuits and activities.  No more waiting for a better time to starting doing what you've put on your past 5 new year's resolution.
dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero. (While we speak, envious time will have {already} fled. Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Game Telemetry and Crowd Sourcing New Game Services: How you take over the game business

A while back, I went for a talk given by Rich Hilleman, VP, Chief Creative Director, Electronic Arts. For those who do not know him, he's the brains behind Madden Football, and many other EA Sports titles.  I don't play sports games often (since I suck at them), I first found out about Rich from an interview from Joystiq.

It shouldn't come as a surprised that a huge part of his talk focused on Sports games.  As a runner and football (or soccer, as they call it in the US) fan myself, I didn't exactly need convincing with regards to the power of sports.  Rich's theory of how Ping Pong Diplomacy kicked started the video game Pong was pretty awesome though.  Essentially, Rich believes that we have to thank Glenn Cowan for gatecrashing the Chinese Ping Pong bus for video games.  Had he not done that, the ping pong craze of the 70s would not have inspired the creation of Pong.

Sports Games are given less credit than they are due
Sports games are probably not one of the first games that new games developers would be lining up to develop. And for good reason.  Often criticized for basically churning out the same game every year, and using it as spinning money, its hard for any budding developer to be excited about the prospect of working with sports games.

Rich gave a few compelling reasons why developers should want to come to sports games:
  1. Technology.  While it may be easy to assume that sports games don't bother pushing the tech, thats probably far from the truth.  Any game developer who thinks otherwise clearly has not been following the gaming news.  AnimationMotion Capture are a few of the examples where EA Sports are dealing with bleeding edge tech. Because of its reach, things like metagaming

    Truthfully, I have never underestimated the technical challenge of a sports game.  However, technology alone is not a big enough reason to build sports games.  I want to working on something that excites me, and the tech is pretty much moot.  I mean, its always cool to be playing with the latest tech, but thats just a means to the end.

  2. Unique Development Environment and Challenges.  An annual audience is great to collect user feedback, iterate design and improve the franchise.  This data is something that any game studio would kill for, and thats what EA has for their sports IPs.  Sports faces many interesting challenges, typically UI issues.  There is a great divide between how we watch sports, how we play sports and how we play sports video games.  (e.g. a 3D football game would have too much information for a user to consume)

    Again, I think every single genre has its own set of unique development environment and challenges.  I think while some game developers underestimate the difficulty of sports game development, I do not believe that most are unaware of it.  Its probably not a big deterring factor against choosing sports game development.

  3. Sports and culture.  Rich shared several stories where he believes that EA Sports games have influenced  actual gameplay (Scoreboard ticker used by Sky sports, a football player running along the touchdown line to run down the clock, a random gentlemen who can't figure out how to beat his son at NHL asking Rich how to do so).

    In an era where beating on video games because they promote "bad" values, sports game may one of the only few games out there that seem to promote "good" values.  Rich sees sports game developers as coaches, and players as athletes.  A sports game developer's goal is to teach players how to play, make the practice what they've learnt, and finally mastering the skills - sounds familiar? that's exactly how sports coaches work.

    I'm probably one of the last people in that room who needs to be convinced of the impact and influence of sports.  To me, this is probably the biggest draw to want to enter sports game development.  However, I don't think this resonates with most game developers.  As Rich put it, most of the game developers don't take kindly to jocks since they were the ones being stuff in lockers by jocks.
So in terms of selling sports game development to us, I wasn't too convinced.  I perfectly understand that the good work being done in sports game, but it isn't something I want to do.  However, there were many other things I took away from the talk, but I'll just the two I found most important.

Fidelity is based on the accuracy in the minds of the players.
Well, guess what, Rich is not the only one who feels this way.  "Players don't want super realistic flight simulators, they want to be Tom Cruise (in Top Gun). Similarly, players don't want to play football realistically, because they suck at it in real life."

I think at times, we get over our own heads in trying to be realistic.  Peripherals like Kinect or Wii creates  big traps to try to use the technology to be super realistic.  However, I think its good to keep in mind that as game designers, our primary role should be fun.  How many times have we seen "super realistic" games crash and burn critically and financially?

A video about Video Games and the Uncanny Valley I watched a while back comes to mind.  While not completely related, I think it ties in with the pursuit of realism and fidelity.  Perhaps accuracy is overrated, and we should start designing more to fantasy, not reality. 

Empathy for your colleagues, for your players.
This was Rich's first answer to "What do you look out for in Game Producers?", amongst other more technical requirements.  The core ingredient behind games is people.  Again, more common sense, but easily something that game designers might forget.

Empathy for players probably refers to how as designers' our job is really to make it fun for the,. and not to show that we're smarter than them.  Empathy for colleagues is probably extremely important during crunch times where tempers flare and communication breaks down.

Looking at the above ideas that Rich shared, you'll probably realised that it does not only apply to game development, but software development.

Signing off.  There are no shortage of great upcomings talks, and I'll continue to share them here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

[Review] Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

NOTE: I've decided to reorganize how I dealt with the review.  I will talk about the game itself in one post, and deal with the controls in a separate post.  I'll also be editing the posts to add pictures. 

I grew up with Zelda games, with Link's Awakening being the first game I remember playing to completion.  I've since played almost every Zelda game, except its Game Cube outing.  All in all, I think Skyward Sword is a suitable swan song for Wii and a celebration of Zelda's 25th Anniversary.  The best (and perhaps the worse) of Zelda through its history has all been brought back.  I shall discuss the various aspects of the games, and what I felt.  Naturally, I will avoid spoilers, but when illustrating some of my points, I might pull out specific instances in the game.

For anyone not familiar with Zelda, it has built its success on the same formula.  You start with a sword and shield and have to save the princess from an evil force.  In each dungeon, you find a new item, which you will use henceforth to complete the dungeon, defeat the boss and that opens up new areas in the overworld, leading you to the next overworld area and dungeon.  Since A Link to the Past, Zelda games typically involve time/inter-dimension travel, through which Zelda's exquisite gameplay and dungeon design is flaunted.  Zelda games have an aspect of “open-ness” in that there also are collectables and mini-games available in the game.  However, the main storyline and the order of dungeons (except the first game) are pretty linear.  Eventually, you get to a showdown with the great evil and rescue the princess.

Having played all previous Zelda games, I completed the game, uncovering every piece of heart by myself, in about 50 hours.  So, I think 50 hours is about right for anyone playing for the first time.  If you want to dig out all the hearts, it will take another 10-15 hours, probably less if you look up an online guide.  In my second play through, I didn't dig up everything, and completed it in about 25 hours.  About an hour or 2 went to perfecting the boss rush mode.

The controls have arguably been the most divisive amongst fans and reviewers alike. Essentially, the game makes use of Wii Motion Plus, which allows you to have one-to-one sword controls, amongst other things.  The direction you swing your remote affects how Link swings his sword, giving you unparalleled immersion in any Zelda game.  As a result, you can no longer blindly waggle your controller, instead each strike has to be strategic and purposeful to defeat your foes.  In theory, this makes for an exciting Zelda game.  However, the controls are clearly not without issues and I've looked at it as objectively as I could.  However, anyone who manages to get the controls working will probably enjoy themselves and not understand what the haters are talking about.  Fans who are unable to do so, get ready to use your nostalgia and expectations of the game to tide you past the controls.  Anyone who already hates motion controls, don't expect this game to change your mind.

While I cannot blame Nintendo for wanting Zelda to be the poster child of their innovation, I can completely understand how motion controls have and will continue to piss people off.  Nintendo may have proved that it is possible to build a hardcore game using motion controls, however, I personally felt that they did it at the expense of Zelda.  Sure, the game is great, but I leave you with two questions: Would you have stuck through the controls if this was not a Zelda game? If this game had the controls from Twilight Princess, how much of the experience would have been completely lost?

The presentation seems to be the next most debated issue.  Like Wind Waker, the designers have once again manage to use their art style to present the game fantastically.  Except, impressionist art is used instead of cell-shaded animation this time around.  While there are moments in the game that will easily make you forget that you are playing an SD game, there are just as many moments that does the Wii no favours in the eyes of the typical core gamer today who looks for realistic graphics.

Don't get me wrong, I love the art style.  However, there are textures that clearly have been given less attention then others.  There are objects which could have benefited from more polygons.  Other than that, I love the art presentation.

Many reviewers point out that Skyward Sword are lacking many of the tools to compete with the current generation games.  They include lack of voice acting, and quest logs, just to name a few.  The former belongs to the "style" category.  I really think you're barking up the wrong tree here.  I don't think voice acting would significantly change the game.  So what if every other current generation game today has it?  Its almost as ludicrous as the "good graphics make good games" argument.

However, the latter belong the the UX (user experience) category.  I personally feel that Skyward Sword has to improve here.  I recall in Twilight Princess, every time you boot up the game, the first time you pick up a rupee of a denomination more than 1, you would be given a brand new dialogue.  Skyward Sword improved on this by removing it for the rupees, but forgot to do it for some of the collectables.  Skyward sword also has no quest log, which really becomes an issue when you're running multiple side quests, but eventually can't keep track.

Some of these UX issues really need to go.  Most of the people playing your games are seasoned fans.  Do I really need to hear a prompt every time I enter a new area?  It easily gets on your nerves and at times I really rather figure out stuff myself, like how the original Zelda was.  I think how Deus Ex handle the problem was good - have difficulty settings, in harder difficulty settings, you lose basic helpful UI elements.  I understand that you want to ensure that the game is more accessible to newcomers.  Fair enough.  To us, your loyal fans, we already know what to do.

Other times, the UX really could be streamlined.  If I were to buy potions for the 50th time, do I really still need to hear what that potion does? No.  One of the most annoying instances is during the skydiving minigame.  The minigame is hard, so a typical gamer would probably need to play it more than 20 times to get the perfect score.  However, every time you talk to the NPC, you have to go through all his standard banter.  Then you have to walk and drop into the cannon (which is blocked by a hatch so you have to detour slightly), to be launched upwards.  Is any of this necessary? Would walking to the cannon immerse me anymore? No.  Is it hard to automatically launch me up? No.  This is not the only instance of such issues.  Some of these problems are dealt with (automatically returning to listing of items to be upgraded after upgrading one of them), while other are not.  I'm nitpicking here, but I think more thought put in here would reduce the frustration caused.

Excluding UX issues, the rest of the presentation is, in my opinion, an issue of personal preference.  If you want great set piece moments, voice acting and excellent realistic graphics, go play Modern Warfare (which incidentally has some terrible textures in specific areas) or Battlefield.  However, there is cause for concern here.  I worry for Nintendo, whether they would have the expertise and resources to compete in the HD era when they head over to the Wii U.  Skyward Sword took 5 years to develop.  Would 2016 be too late for the first HD Zelda title?

I'm actually done getting all the negativity (from me) out of the way.  Because at the core of these UX, presentation, controls issues, is solid gameplay and level design.  Zelda games comes from a long tradition that excel in both these aspects, Skyward Sword is basically a tribute to the fans. The level design is probably the best in the series. Its very streamlined, so if you're not killing monsters, you're figuring out how to open up the next door.  The best design, as with Zelda games' past record, shines when it involves time travel.  I really would have wanted more time travel related gameplay because I had so much fun there.

Modern Warfare and Uncharted may have great set piece moments.  However, I think Zelda does just as well through its boss fights.  Every boss fight is memorable and fun to play.  In Hero's mode (unlocked after one play through), you lose twice as much health and hearts cannot drop from the environment or enemies, your skill is tested.  I would have liked to see how time travel could be involved in the one boss fight (for example, you have to go to the past to weaken the boss first, then only in the present could you damage it).

Reviewers have laid criticism on the gameplay as well, claiming that it is too formulaic and involves too much backtracking.  Its hard to take some of these reviewers to seriously when they talk about being formulaic, because the same reviewers would seem to forget this criticism on other current generation games, great as those games might be.  However, the criticism is not without reason.  Throughout the game, there was only one or two moments I had to stop and think to figure out what to do next.  Being so well trained with the other Zelda games, I pretty much knew what to expect and what to do.  Aonuma has promised that its time to shake things up, and I think its about time.  As for the backtracking, I think its a matter of perspective, and tolerance.  I found it perfectly alright, since I regarded the three main areas as part of the overworld.  So the only obvious backtracking to a specific dungeon only occurs once.

If you look at what's stacked against it (debatable motion controls, weak hardware, dated presentation), and then you think about how its still going places in the eyes of gamers and critics alike, its hard not to be impressed.  If anything, it tells you how solid the core of the game is, despite its many issues.  However, the reality is harsh.  I think Nintendo and Zelda faces an uphill battle in the coming years.  There are areas in which Nintendo and Zelda must improve, while other areas Zelda can and should stubbornly defend.

I thoroughly enjoyed my 70 hours with the game, but like many, my experience was initially marred by the controls.  I sometimes wonder how such big titles can release games with such issue.  Its unthinkable that these issues were not picked up by testers.  Were they simply pressured into releasing the game with these issues, or were they blind to the issues?  I seriously hope its not the latter, especially when you listen to what Nintendo themselves say about the game.  Come on Reggie, I am a big fan of the series, but I really wouldn't put aside the competition.  I hope the series learns from the issues from this outing, and defy expectations once again in its next outing.

What went wrong with Skyward Swords controls?

NOTE: This is not the full review of Skyward Sword, just the controls.

Despite the E3 demo gaffe during its 2010 E3 Demo by the legendary Miyamoto, many looked forward to the promise of an immersive control scheme.   However, a quick look over the internet, it is easy to find out that the controls is one of the most divisive issues amongst fans and critics alike. 

Shane Satterfield from GameTrailers spared no expense at bashing the game's controls.  In fact, he guaranteed that you would at least have one moment in the game where you want to throw your controller at the TV in frustration.  I respect the man and his views, but at times can’t help but sometimes disagree with his obvious bias (especially when it comes to certain franchises).   Even so, I cannot help but admit that I had on a few occasions, experienced what he said.   I was held back only by the fact that my Wiimote was the brand new gold 25th Anniversary edition, and that I didn't want to destroy a brand new piece of hardware. 

Now let me try to break down this whole control saga and make some sense of it.  Skyward Sword continues Nintendo's foray into motion controls, this time making use of Wii Motion Plus.  These controls are used a few areas, namely: Swordplay (including Shield), Travel, and other miscellaneous gameplay.  Let me first talk about these points in order, talk about non-motion control issues, and finally sum up with my thoughts on motion controls, and its use in this game.

Nintendo has been promoting Skyward Sword for its "1-to-1" control.  It's supposed to make every fight exciting and immersive.  Swordplay is integral from start to the end.  Swordplay is perhaps the most maligned aspect of Skyward Sword.  It has been accused of being unresponsive, inaccurate and all in all frustrating.

After my first playthrough, I was extremely disappointed with the controls.  "This can't be right! How could Nintendo screw up that badly? Am I doing this wrong?" were amongst the thoughts that ran in my mind.  I took a break and looked up what everyone else in the world thought about the swordplay.  Amongst the banter of cynics ("Skyward Swords controls absolutely sucks! Not responsive at all! I'm an expert gamer!!!!") and fanboys ("The controls are perfect, you only find it bad cos you suck! It works for me, so you must be doing it wrong or your remote is faulty. No more waggling! Immersive gameplay FTW!"), it was hard to get a good gauge of what exactly was wrong.  Furthermore, level-headed reviews on controls mostly showed basic areas thus had the controls work perfectly for them, providing no clue on what I was doing wrong. However, I chanced upon a forum thread in gamespot that explained how the controls should be working.  Upon finding out the "right" way to do it, the game became much more fun.

One of the first complaints that surface is the accuracy, or the inaccuracy of the sword strikes.  This occurs as early as the first monster you encounter - Deku Babas, These plantoids only open the mouth either horizontally or vertically, and they can only be killed if you strike them in that corresponding direction.  The problem that arises is that it seems to lack accuracy.  In the previous Zelda game, you could slouch on the couch and flick my wrists.  Almost immediately you find out that this cant be done here.  Wrists movements alone may not always accurately be reflected.  However, more exaggerated movements from elbows down would more likely be captured by the controller.  So, you'll need to sit up to play Skyward Sword.

I personally found that if you're sitting upright, and using deliberate swings, you'll probably get it right 80-90% of the time.  The remaining failures occur when your strike is at the borderline case.  I think that this has always been the limitation of motion controls, and Nintendo has already done its best in this regards.  Inaccurate strikes become a big issue when you fight against bosses that penalize you when you strike wrongly.  Later enemies/mini bosses/bosses counter inaccurate strikes, and deal damage to you.  This will undoubtedly cause frustration.  When this causes death, it’s easy to see how gamers will blame the game's control instead of their own lack of skill. 

The second, and perhaps biggest complaints is misinterpretation of Wiimote adjustment as a sword strike.  If an enemy is blocking right, and you were originally holding your remote on the right, you would move your remove from right to left, then strike rightwards.  Unfortunately, the adjustment process is misinterpreted as a sword strike, and you end up with an unnecessary strike.  In most times, this is ok, but like inaccurate strikes, this becomes an issue when enemies punish you.  This becomes even more unfair, since an unintended input was picked up.

This problem is exacerbated by one of the early monsters you meet - the Bokoblin.  The Bokoblin holds up his sword to block one side, leaving the other invulnerable.  The catch is, the Bokoblin's AI has periods where it almost instantly picks up where your Wiimote is being held, and blocks that same direction.  This easily gives the wrong perception that you need to adjust your sword quickly, to try to be faster than the monster.  I can see how for many gamers this might form the wrong impression, because in a large part of the game, you actually have more time to think and deliberate your strikes.  Gamers are essentially left in a lose-lose situation here.  If you try to out-pace the monster, you take unnecessary counter damage due to misinterpreted adjustment strikes.  If you take your time, you are not given an opening since the monster will almost always block where you're holding your sword, and eventually they will attack you.

With the later monsters being able to block more directions and counter mistakes, it is not hard to see why so many gamers are bemoaning the poor controls.  In truth, the game has misinformed you.  This has not been helped by the game's promotional material such as videos, articles, and its famed "one-to-one controls" tag - which promotes you to use deliberate strikes.  Sword position and strike angle is in fact independent of each other.  This means that you can hold my sword right, causing the enemy AI to block right, yet twitch the remote left to right to still strike from the left.  Once you figure this out, the game becomes much more enjoyable as it adds a different dimension of allowing you to "feint" the enemy.   Unfortunately, the game never corrects this misconception (at least, I was never able to find a clear in-game instruction that did so), so unless you already figured it out yourself, you're going to be facing a hard time in your last few boss fights.

There is then another big debate over whether this is "realistic" or not.  Personally, that does not bother me.  I think once you figure this out, the games controls are pretty much fixed.  It may not be realistic, but it works as a control scheme.  Instead, for the duration of the whole first play through, I defeated this annoyed monsters by "exploits", such as sneaking up on enemies, shield bashing and waggling after getting the lucky first strike.  Fortunately, later bosses and enemies required usage of your new items, which was a welcome break for me.  Had I not bothered to find out the "right way", I don't think I would have enjoyed the second playthrough as much.  The game should have made use of its long and large amounts of tutorials to teach us how to use this mechanic.

(Of course, on the off chance that Nintendo had completely not realized this, then they really need to wake up their idea.)

Lastly, one of the more important moves - the fatal blow, which involves shaking both your remotes downwards, is often not picked up, or misintepreted as a shield bash/sword slash.

Motion Controls - Shield
A second, less widely covered, aspect of swordplay is the shield.  Zelda introduced the world to Z-targeting with lock on when it switched to 3-D.  Previously, you could use the "Z" to target a monster, and your shield would be held up.  You have always had the option of setting "Z"-target to be locked on, so that you don't have to hold to that button.  In Skyward Sword, the lock-on and auto shield up aspect is removed.  This means that to stay locked on to a target, you must hold on to the "Z" button.  There is some degree of auto-targeting when you don't use "Z" though. 

Shield is now no longer held up automatically.  Instead, the game now has three modes - neutral, attack and defence.  Neutral mode is the default mode you are in, with both your sword and shield kept away.  If you try to dash, you will automatically enter this mode.  Defence mode, activated by a shake of the nunchuk, takes out your shield.  Your shield has durability, which falls with each strike.  If you time your shield well, you can block and stun an enemy, and not lose any durability.  This is an important skill as its one of the only ways you can create openings for yourself in some monsters.  Attack mode, activated by the shake of the remote, takes out your sword.  Your shield is held down, and you will take damage. 

Personally, I love this new mechanic design.  Z-targeting with auto-Shield made previous games too easy at times.  With 3 different modes, you are given different levels of risk and reward.  Keep your shield up at wimp, and risk losing your shield eventually.  Run away, and open yourself to attacks and delaying your counter attack time.

Unfortunately, the nunchuk shake is easily triggered, often misintepreted.  This becomes an annoyance when you are trying to through a bomb, or perform another task, which gets interrupted due to your inability to hold your shield hand still.  The left and right buttons on the main remote were not used.  I think that dowsing (which used "C" on the nunchuk) could have been shifted there (since it involved the sword anyway), and the "C" button could be used for the Shield instead.

Motion Controls - Travel
Flying, skydiving, swimming and piloting your beetle all make use of motion controls, by making the controller simulate you, your bird or your beetle. 

Flying is your main mode of transport between the various game areas.  Skydiving is also used whenever you jump off your bird or edges, and at various points in the game.  Despite being a very cool concept, I found flying very tiring and eventually got sick of it.  In the past, travelling had always been the time where you can sit back, relax and take in the sights.  In Skyward Sword, you have to point at the direction you want the bird to fly.   In addition, you are required to shake the Wiimote to flap the bird’s wings.   Firstly, this is tiring for long distance flights.   Secondly, since your flight direction tied to the Wiimote, flapping causes the direction you point the Wiimote at to chance, leading your flight to go haywire at times.   I think flapping is unnecessary for flying, which would make flying pleasant and less tiring.

Swimming and piloting your beetle are similar to flying.   The beetle is an item that can be used for reconnaissance, attack, and fetching/dropping items.   It’s a cool new addition to the game.  The beetle’s turbo uses A, while swimming’s turbo involves shaking the nunchuk.  I think these two mechanics are well handled.  In fact, I would argue that swimming with the Wiimote is slightly better than classic controls, but that is personal preference.

Skydiving is similar to Wii Sports Resort.  Personally, I did not enjoy any of it.  The minigame involving diving was up there with one of the most annoying moments in the game.   There are areas in the game which require to use skydiving to get to areas in the   

Motion Controls - Others
Motion controls are also used in various different areas.  The Boss Key, previously used to open the final boss area of each dungeon, is now a rotating puzzle.  Insignia drawing, pulling and putting a sword into the ground, jumping while climbing, are amongst other ways motion controls are used.  Mostly, these are interesting diversions with no real difficulty.  At times, the tooltips provided are misleading.  The worst example of this is tightrope walking.  You have to hold the remote upright instead of sideways (natural way of holding during most gameplay).  Opting the latter would lead you to scratch your head in confusion, wondering what went wrong.  Some of the motion controls, such as the drawing of the bow or slingshot is made optional.

It is a little annoying that you have to "reset" the controls now and then.  But what's cool about it is that you can end up pointing away from the TV and still aiming at the TV.  Ironically, this facilitates slouching on the couch better.  Also of annoyance is how when controls go out of sync during flying, swimming you have to open up the menu.

Non Motion Controls
Some other little controls issues bug me, but some were pleasant surprises.  After the whole deluge of negativity, lets stray into some positivity.

I like how items are now split up into two menus.  It makes it cleaner.  I also like how there is only one item slot, and how holding it is for selection.  On one hand less buttons are used, on the other, single slot adds more strategy.  I suspect the bomb beetle was one of the things they wanted to prevent.

Putting aside the whole motion control, Skyward Sword's control scheme has two more areas I take issue with.  First of all, it is the inconsistency with Twilight Princess.  Secondly, it is the stacking of multiple overlapping commands.  One gripe I had with Twilight Princess

Controls Conclusion
Overall, I think Nintendo disappointed in this outing of Zelda with regards to controls.  Yea sure, fanboys can come and claim that it works for them, or that it’s the fault of players for not being able to figure it out.  I mean, I'm probably an above average gamer.  If I went through one full playthrough without being able to figure out how to easily dispatch the games' 2nd basic monster type without using shield bash, something is wrong.

From a game designer’s point of view, to have a huge loophole in such a fundamental part of the controls is completely unacceptable.  Skyward Sword's controls may be the best that motion gaming has to offer, but its nowhere near perfect.  There are issues.  So just because you personally like the controls, doesn't mean everyone else who hates it are the ones with the problem.

The most common defense out there now could be represented by the following post: “In short the game needs not cater to your ego or twitch skills....unless your on the Olympic team for fencing and are running shieldless, what you see is what you get. Not because it's unexpected...but rather because it was meant to be that way...

On the contrary, my dear unknown internet friend.  As a designer, should you or can you expect your gamers to dig deeper for fundamental things like controls? I would say no.  You cannot expect gamers to figure out that sword slash direction and sword position are independent when the arguably more natural instinct is that both is related.  Furthermore, none of your promotional material and in game tutorials seem give evidence that say otherwise.  The other worst case scenario is that Nintendo might think everything is fine.  Either way, it is unbelievable and disappointing that such issues were not picked up by the designers during development or testing.  It is one thing to have a certain amount of pride and stubbornness with regards to the way you develop games, it is another to disregard users.  (As a side-note, I think Japanese Developers are most guilty of doing this, but thats another can of worms for another day.)

So what is my final thoughts on Skyward Sword's motion control?  Lets start with the more frivolous aspects of the motion controls.  Honestly, I think the game would not have been any different with or without them.  Travelling using motion controls was all in all better, except for the need of flapping my wings.  As for swordplay, I'm just as divided on the issue.  Swordplay affects you most at the start when you are not equipped with the tools of the trade yet, after which you can just use your other weapons.

In terms of boss fights, I feel that only one or two Boss fight was memorably shaped by motion controls.  As for the other epic boss fights, I don't think the lack of motion controls would have reduced its epicness or my enjoyment.  I think without motion controls, the game's bosses could have increased difficulty, and development time would arguably have been reduced, allowing less dust to settle on my Wii.

Had it been an option, I think the game would have been just as, if not more enjoyable. Yet, doing so might seriously be a waste of development resources.  Ultimately, even though its arguably the best hardcore motion control game out there, I feel that Nintendo has simply painted a target on Zelda and motion gaming's head.  Given the choice, I would not have wanted Skyward Sword fitted with these motion controls.  It seemed that Mr Eiji Aonuma thought so too.

That took much longer than I expected.   Now if you're reading till this point, it may seem that I'm just simply raging/hating/trolling on the game.  Clearly, I'm not just one of those waggling haters. Furthermore, I hope my detailed analysis has led you to read with an open mind.  Do check out the actual review as well.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Qishan Rant

I purchased my copy of skyward sword from, at the recommendation of a junior.  Qisahn prides itself on providing the lowest price or refund on the balance for the first 7 days, so they do have the most competitive prices out there.  As I did not have Wii Remote Plus (needed to play the game), the 25th anniversary bundle which came with a plus controller and the symphony soundtrack was the obvious choice.

Unfortunately, qisahn (who said it was the fault of their packer), did not pack the box properly, leading to the product being delivered less than satisfactory condition.  Anyone who has had stuff delivered would know that boxed merchandise typically comes with bubble wrap, or sometimes even additional box to ensure the box doesnt get dented.  I may not be a collector, so a small fold or crease is tolerable for me.  However, the box's corners were pressed in, each side had noticeable creases.  This was mainly caused to the packing (or lack thereof).  Instead of properly ensuring the whole box was wrapped, they used a soft foam slightly thicker than paper, to wrap the bottom half of the box.

Qisahn initially gave me the standard bull shit of blaming the delivery man, but was surprised to hear that the packing was done so haphazardly.  Despite being unable to exchange as they did not have a "spare box" (hello, just exchange the whole damn product).  They offered me $6 credit, which means I could get another product delivered with courier services.  I was keen enough to start playing to not press the matter further.

So all in all a bad experience with Qisahn.  I don't know if I'm even going to buy another product.  So anyone who wants the credit from me feel free to ask :)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

the third begining

i've re-used this blog twice, both for purposes of school courses. ever since the inception of this blog, it has been my intention to involve games and gaming in it.

so i'm going to attempt to do so. i've actually penned out thoughts for witcher 2, deus ex: human revolution, bastion, uncharted 2, heavy rain when i played and completed them, but never actually got down to working on the posts.

so, with zelda: skyward sword inside my wii as I type this, i shall use it to kick start this third beginning of the blog.  although i'm only starting with game reviews, i might use this to pen down thoughts and lessons learnt regarding game design, reactions to industry news, and more.

lets hope the stuff i right actually makes sense :)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

cs3216 from the eyes of a senior

As an excuse from doing work, I've decided to come blog a little :)  I'm not actually sure how many of the students from this batch will see this, but since I couldn't make it for the first lecture, I decided to make it up by sharing some of my thoughts. (some of which are reused from my reflections post - something you all have to do at the end of the semester)

I took CS1101s in my first year and CS3216 the semester after.  I followed this up with CVWO in the summer, and eventually did CS3217 in my second year.  So all in all, I've pretty much survived everything Prof Ben has to offer, so I think my advice counts for something. Heh.

You've probably heard from most of your seniors how awesome the course is and how it has changed their lives, so I won't repeat that anymore. Instead, I will share some advice/reflections that might not have been covered.  Since I wasn't at the first lecture, I might very well repeat some things that have been said, so bear with me.

1. Plan your time well
You have a lot less time than you think you do, so it would do you good to plan your time well.  Not only for the sake of this class, but for the sake of your remaining classes as well.  It also does not really help that time seems to fly when you're having fun. (well, you should be having fun, otherwise you're really doing something wrong opting for this class)

Prof Ben often tells everyone that sleep is optional.  I respectfully disagree, as I love and need my sleep.  Do get ample rest when you can, so that when it comes to crunch times before deadlines you can pull accumulate some sleep debt.  Fortunately, you will not be working over chinese new year like some of the previous batches.  But make no mistake - Time will pretty much zoom by you.  Before you know it, your mid term exams would be here, and you'll be done with all your assignments.

As you've already realised, the arms race is real.  The class are made up of pretty talented and motivated people.  The arms race will probably not get any better.  When deadlines approach (the biggest of which is the poster session), some groups would have completed their project and are now adding enhancements, while some may not have anything close to a finished product/have to return to the drawing board.  Bear this in mind - this basically means you don't really have the luxury to push everything to the end since your grade is affected by the poster session to a large extent (if i recall correctly).

For stduents coming off CS3217, CS3216 is NOT the same.  you're not guaranteed an A if you do well for your individual component.  Not only there is no individual component, there is also no curve.  The curve is determined by the standard of the projects created by you and your classmates.

2. Take Chances
CS3216 creates an environment that encourage you to take chances.  Whether it be starting flame wars, changing assignments, working with external people, or more, the class allows you to do it. if you have a real passion to bring forth a product, don't let the worry of not doing well hold you back.  i don't think you can ever have the time/excuse/resources during your school life to go all-in on a project you care for like in this clasee.

prof ben does his best to create this environment by assembling some of the most driven/talented people in school, and brings in lots of interesting people from outside as well.  something my classmate taught me last year was that it really doesn't hurt to go speak to people.  prof ben proved it too by getting free AWS coupons for the course (i'm not sure if he has told you this story yet, but he probably will)

so went opportunities present themselves to you, do take it. if anything, this, to me, is the most important mindset to have for the course.

3. be realistic
its great to see everyone all full of aspiration right now.  at the same time, i'm quite a practical person.  as i mentioned earlier, you're really not working with lots of time.  as such, i encourage you to be realistic with regards to what you can and are supposed do.  for example, if you're someone who has hardly touch programming, dont expect yourself to be able to pick it up within the time frame of the first assignment.  your friends from cs3217, soc, engineering who have wowed you so during the show and tell have all been doing it for a while now.  remember, you're chosen for this class for your unique skills. work towards honing them.
correspondingly, programmers should not overestimate your design capabilities.  make use of each other's strengths, and don't try to be heroes :)

all the best, have lots of fun. looking forward to seeing the great stuff you guys will do!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

better late then never

our group was probably one of the latest to meet up.  we first met up a day before the tutorial for the final assignment, and managed to come up with a story that we could agree with.

we settled on a futuristic theme during the meeting and we quickly got to work.  i came up with a quick concept for the overall setting.

original concept art for unnamed future city

the features of the city includes 
1) higher ground - high tech futuristic architecture with flying cars, domes, etc etc
2) lower slums - older architectures, even slum-like architecture with junk yards and dumps

the setting was inspired by movies (District 9, Batman Begins, Skyline), games (Final Fantasy 7 and 8) and even novels (Dune Series).

When we met up again, I was assigned the role of designing backgrounds.  I was happy to get this role as I was not as good at drawing detailed objects, and better at landscape objects and its details.  i was required to do 4 locations: future city, slums, school, junkyard

city skyline

school and classrooms

Other backgrounds (which reused previous concepts):

night skyline of future city with home background

side view of alley and dark alley (both in slums)

It was pretty fun conceptualizing backgrounds and creating them.  At times, I think I created too much detail to the danger of possibly overshadowing the foreground, but I hope that through coloring and touching up the backgrounds could appear to be less dominant.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

somewhere over the rainbow....

assignment 6 was one of the harder assignments.  first of all, i wasn't able to understand the requirements well.  secondly, choosing a set of lyrics/quote that could easy make use of a myriad of typefaces and variations in typography was pretty difficult.

eventually, my playlist for the night made the decision.  i was listening to jason mraz's cover of "somewhere over the rainbow".  with my memories of the original wizard of oz, I decided to use this song for my assignment

someplace where there isn't any trouble
do you suppose there is such a place, Toro
there must be
its not a place you can get to by a boat or a train
its far far away
behind the moon
beyond the rain....
~ Dorothy, before singing the song

This quote sets the mood for the whole song.  Its about being free from troubles and going to someplace far away and relaxing.  With this mood and feeling (something which I was NOT feeling during the time of the assignment), I set out to complete my assignment.

I didn't get much comments again this time around cos time was running out.  Julian just asked me to do more.

the added criteria of allowing for 2 A3 papers would allow me to expand on this assignment.  I would now try to use more different font faces, and add more pictures and actions.  With 2 papers allowed, I would split up two stanzas which I both wanted to use but had problems creating it in one pictures.

in order to communicate my feeling and mood, I wanted it to seem like your troubles started from the chimney and slowly flew into the skies.  I tried to use continuity to direct the flow of reading.

i like the idea, but i don't really like the outcome. will be splitting it into two pages.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

i wish it were summer right now

when i started on the assignment, i knew i didn't want to do christmas or new years.  originally i wanted to try to still keep in theme (yes! i actually had a theme), which was the whole running thing.

i actually felt it would be a good chance to experiment with color schemes because of the lack of colors (medal - 1-2 colors, string 3 colors, background 1 color).  but eventually, i found it tame and decided to think of something else.  moreover, i'm quite sad for losing the theme.  i initially wanted to do a running-stalker story for the photo assignment, and blisters & wearing proper footwear for the poster assignment.  i might actually try them for fun! (the list of to-dos from this module is getting longer and longer :S julian wasn't joking when he asked us to get it right the first time)

i like the idea of the whole warmth and cold colors from the presentation, and i wanted to do a piece that could convey temperature and climate.  so i thought of doing a summer greeting card! (cause the school is totally concerned about us enjoying a great summer vacation right? :S)

very first idea. then i decided to apply closure on the right eye

final mock up

color schemes!

i was quite happy to see my work quite well received! (at least for the first 30 minutes I was awake, subsequently i dozed off cos i did it over the night)

without light, warm sun, neon, cool breeze were generated automatically with illustrator's color scheme color wheel function.  after experimenting with those, i found out that i actually disliked the products from it so i stopped and manually chose colors for my 4 remaining pieces

i tried triad, split complementary but i didn't like both.

so most of my work is monochromatic, complementary and analogous.

things i want to experiement with:
1 high contrast piece
1 combination of hot and cold
1 traid
1 split complementary

some notable comments for improvement:
1. the hat looks like hair to several people. perhaps i could add more details?
2. warm sun is not warm enough.  lacking the range of warm colors i.e. darker orange, yellow, red.  i think i split this into 4, one for each color (orange, yellow and red) and combine them into one warm sun.  the existing one cane be converted into orange
3. sunny is a little dull :(
4. the sunglasses could be improved.  firstly i could add reflective ";" to the sides of the lens, and maybe reduce the transparency (yes, i did actually add a layer of transparent lens colors)
5. the white hat doesnt really make "logical" sense in dawn.  i might move the white hat to without light?

i'm surprisingly pleased with dusk and night. for my final product i'm gonna go with either sunny, day or dusk. although both sunny and day need to become more summery!

thanks for the feedback! this is one of the first assignment i'm more pleased with.

so all in all, i will try to add in 7 more (high contrast, red, yellow, orange, combination of hot and cold, triad, split complementary) and edit 4 (neon, day, sunny, warm sun).

if possible i will add details to the hat and glasses.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

stuffed intestines!

I wanted to do something related to eating oily food.  With an initial idea of using artery, I immediately faced the problem of getting an artery.  A quick visit to the market gave me the inspiration to use intestines instead.

Mock Up

Poster Draft (used for critique)

The white stuff is actually corn starch and water, which was a temporary replacement for mayo.

1. Misread the instruction to be MORE than 150 words.  Will change the text
2. I personally feel its not bloody enough.  Although it also takes a little while to actually get what this is.  Will experiment with different backgrounds.
3.  Will try to retake a picture with real mayo instead.  (if I have time)
4. Will also experiement with more layouts concepts from the lecture (e.g. repetition, balance)

The contents of the cover text would be how your intestines have to work harder to digest fats and oils, and that stuffing yourself with fats and oils is just like choking your insides.  Need some effort in picking out the right words and idea

I like the overall outcome of the picture. As did some of my classmate.  But I think the poster could do more work.

Monday, September 20, 2010

lecture 5 classroom exercise

we were supposed to create abstract figures that represent ideas given to us.  i was given hot and rich.  here is my work:

the coins are a little hard to identify but i think the pot helps.  the thermormeter is more straightforward though.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

assignment 3 storyboard

As promised.  Do note that the final outcome differed from the storyboard,

my egg-citment wore out :(

this assignment was the first one that i was most pleased with, before going into the critique that is.  it was fun boiling, drawing and decorating the eggs.


I chose different colored eggs, in order to try to hint segregation.  The story is that the lighter skinned egg was discriminated and bullied by the darker skinned eggs.

Some of my classmates was actually confused with this picture, although I actually think its quite clear.  The hand requires an egg, and is about to take the white egg.  The other idea which I wished to convey as well was that the dark skinned eggs were actually hiding.  So in spite of being bullies, they were really cowards.  This idea is hard to convey, but not completely important.

The white egg seems like he will be cooked, while the darker eggs are watching.  An attempted "foreshadowing" is that the dark eggs are so near the frying pan with eggs, and thus they are the ones who will be cooked.  However, I feel that this is at best a poor attempt, just like the example given in lecture (guy cutting holding knife smacking his lips = foreshadowing of killing/eating.... really???).  Feedback from my classmates is that there seems to be a lack of focus in this picture, cos the message I intended to convey is not really clear.  Suggested improvements would be to change the angle, and to remember to place focus on the white egg.

This is my favourite picture out of my whole series.  The shadow created seems like the white egg is about to meet his demise, and the camera angle helps to exemplify this. This shadow in fact contributes to the twist, because it may seem like it is the wooden spatula.  Even so, some of my classmates felt that the fear effect could be improved by using a different point of view.

Here's where i think things start to go awry.  The twist supposed to occur here because instead of being cooked, the egg is painted on.  The egg is actually used as an easter egg.  The few problems include:
1. The painbrush is obscured by the egg, so there is no focus on the paintbrush and its hard to make the association with the previous picture
2. The link between this picture and the previous picture is hard to see.  It may seem like a sudden change.  In fact, due to the way i edited the photo, it seems like this is a darker egg.  Suggested remedies include the use of a common feature to show that this egg is the same egg as the previous egg.  I kinda over looked this when trying to make the egg stand out from the background.
3.  Its hard to tell that this is actually an easter egg.  I hope to resolve this by including a final picture with a little girl eat her breakfast and holding this egg.

This last picture is just showing the darker eggs getting their just deserts, following up on the attempted fore-shadow.  I'm quite fond of the scrambled eggs ... i mean picture as well, although it turned out much darker than I intended.

All in all, I am once again disappointed in my work :(  I found out that had I took the module last year, I would have been one of the many other egg stories.  I'm also a little disappointed that I overlooked the transition confusion from the 4th and 5th pictures.

I shall try to do better in the next assignment.  Though I'm starting to be really worried. :/ 

will upload the storyboard later tonight...

Thursday, September 9, 2010


6 levels of abstraction
I chose the stopwatch, which was used in one of my initial drafts for assignment 1.  The stopwatch is a index for coaching, running, training.  My "company" would be a running coach company.

I began with simple sketches of just the stopwatch itself, but realised that the abstraction was minimal...

Hence, for the actual abstraction, I took a picture with a hand and the stopwatch.  Hence, in the abstraction, I was able to abstract away the hand, adding bigger jumps in abstraction level between the different images
Eventually, I chose the 4th design,  The rationale is that I felt that while the hand is gone, the stop watch was still able to connote the meaning.  In the later two levels of abstraction, I felt there was a loss in meaning as it could be easily misintepreted as a clock.

I chose red as the background because the track is red, and i omitted details such as email and address because my "company" is based online.

all in all, i felt that my work was a little too simplistic and i didn't like it.  before the stop watch idea, I had initially started working on track shoes, which was very common, and hard to abstract.  i think for the purpose of the assignment, my work satisfied the requirements, but lacked creativity and artistic flair, a common problem in all my work thus far.

stopwatch is an revolutionary online portal that will increase your performance in running.  here at stop watch, we believe that every runner should have the right to maximise their potential and achieve  his/her targets.  stopwatch understands that the lack of knowledge stands as the greatest barrier between a runner and his/her goals.  stopwatch is here to break this barrier.

with the help of top coaches, who have excellent track records of working with runners in Singapore, our training programmes are suited to the asian climate and physiology.  our coaches have devised a customizable training programme which can suit your individual goals and schedule.  other than coming up with training programmes, we would be able to provide advise on injury management, dietary recommendations and any other topics related to running.

other than our online portal, stopwatch also organizes training groups at various location.  we understand that group training is essential in improving performance.  with the personal attention of our experience coaches at various locations accross the island, our training groups provide a different dimension of training to help achieve excellence.

time to return to the drawing block.

with all the blogs out, looking at it really shows of the talents of this batch. which is very worrying :(

Friday, September 3, 2010

my illustrator skills are really poor :(

finally i'm done. julian was right. your skills (or lack thereof) will limit your capacity to communication. here are my final drafts for my first assignment.

design 1 - the runner

i chose this design for its simplicity and unique use of the running man. like one of my classmates said during the critique, this probably will not work for any other name.

the tracing seems very rough, and the color shading is really rather poorly done as well.  although i wanted to convey simplicity, i am thoroughly dissatisfied with the colors.  will look into improving the colors, and the shadows. i dont think i will be adding a background to this piece.

design 2 - knights and dragon

i chose this design because i liked the dragon and knight. i was pretty pleased with the knight and force field, however i do not like the dragon.  i also feel that the castle is lacking detail, all 3 areas i would be improving upon.

however, the most important flaw was obvious when i printed out my work.  the force field becomes rather unobvious, and the old could hardly be made out.  i think i might try to add some effects on the back side of the force field, and make it slightly more obvious.

please give me comments!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

lecture exercise

Iconogram - What you see is what you get

pictogram - Isotype representation
cartogram - topographical representation
diagram - charts
Ideagram - representation of concept
logogram - conceptual representation of writing
typogram - typogramical representation
phonogram - representation of phonics

other than the 8 -grams, most of the content from this lecture was from the preclusion modeul NM2101, which is a good revision, but not really too interesting compared to the past lectures :/

The activity at the end of the lecture was another opportunity to practice sketching :)

we were supposed to demonstrate our understanding of icons, index and symbols.
since this is an art module, i chose an artist to be the icon, the paint brush and palette to be the index, and the chinese character "yi" to be the symbolic (wasn't required by julian).

i originally thought that the painting in the first picture could be the index as well, since painting connotes painter some what?

in other news, i'm still a little slow on my assignment 1.  my illustrator is working again finally, but my end product is still less than desirable. more after the break

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

assignment 1 roughs - part 2

pac man (top left):
if you take a look at the thumbnails, my original idea involved using the corner of the pacman playing field to get the letter J. however, while drawing out the full scale rough i suddenly had the brain wave to include a retro TV and joy stick.  the end result was one that exceeded my initial expectations. although it is pretty simple, it achieves both the aim of the assignment pretty well (i think :P) for the font, i used the pacman font from the game.  although the piece only shows pacman, i wanted to indicated i love retro games.  i wanted to use a retro font within the TV, but the joystick out of the tv might be a little confusing. will also try to implement this piece

game controllers (top right):
this is the generic token piece for this theme.  i couldn't think of anything good for O and N so i just used the wheel controller and the wii mote with nunchuk. initially i wanted to do some flight simulator thing. but first of all thats a lie cos i dont play flight simulation games, secondly i couldn't think of anything for O and N.  all in all a boring piece.  i wanted to do a black and white for this until i accidentally started coloring it.

gun, scope and controllers
before the new pac man, this was my 2nd favourite game piece.  however, its plain background makes it a little boring.  i tried to use the font from "modern warfare".  originally i tried to use empty bullet shells for the N, but then I realized that might be interpreted as I love guns.  however, even with the controller, it seems like a very tame attempt to link it to first person shooter.  i wanted to use the mouse with wire at first, but that would be copying the controller from the pac man piece.

knight and dragon
my favourite piece :)
the dragon was quite challenging, again due to the fact it had many limbs.  in the end, i took away its two hind legs and spread its wings such that it forms the line on the capital J.  originally, the knight did not have a magical force field surrounding him, thus was hard to recognize the O. the background for this piece incorporated a castle and open air.

by coincidence, i realised that Jas' piece is almost the same as me, in that he used both the dragon and the door.  but we used different items for different letters.

I tried to use the medivial font.  if i can find time, i might want to the the dragon breathing fire to spell "my name is", and use medivail font on a banner hanging on the castle for "and i love RPGs".  

please feel free to tear any of these pieces down.  although its not the actual piece of work yet, i would love to hear some feedback/which piece/idea you think its the most suitable.

currently, i would do the running man and the dragon piece (although this one would be hellish to do on illustrator).  i would want to also create the pac man and track with silhouettes to make comparism