The Kickstarter project was initiated to provide funding for the main part of the project which is to create an online 3d environment where you can 'learn Tai Chi in the comfort of your own home'. The project is still in development, but the small UK indie developer team have already produced a working prototype of the software which has been in closed beta for the last three months.
The prototype software includes an interface currently in development which allows you to view a 3d in-game model which performs the Tai Chi sequences which have been motion captured from a real live Tai Chi master. The interface allows you to play back a variety of aspects of a real Tai Chi class including breathing exercises, chi gung or Chinese yoga exercises, and of course the familiar Tai Chi movement sequences. You can edit the playback interface to set the length of time for each section you want to learn in effect building up an entire Tai Chi class. Although there will be aspects of a Tai Chi class that will be difficult to recreate - say the developers on their Kickstarter blog - this is offset by the advantages of being able to train at home. Not everyone can make it to a Tai Chi class, but the mushrooming growth of the internet in the last ten years has meant that people across the globe are now more in contact with each other than with their neighbours. This means that people do not have to work around the logistics of a traditional class where they have to meet once a week at a pre-arranged class. The project reflects more the popularity of Tai Chi in traditional China where it was a family Art and accessible to people on a daily basis where they would train in the park or at home together.
Chris Simpson project manager says: "You can log on to the teaching environment at any time of the day or night, for as long as you like, and as often as you like. You can be guaranteed to be in contact with a team of dedicated individuals, teachers and advanced students who can give you feedback and guide you along the path. Many of the in-game guides are teachers who are highly qualified and experienced in running their own real world Tai Chi classes so you can be assured that you are in good hands. It's ideal for people who simply don't have access to a regular evening class but want to go further than looking at books and videos. It's also a comprehensive back up resource for people who are training regularly but want some way of checking they are doing the right thing at home. It's convenient, it's easy to use, and it's extremely good value."
The project team are all experienced Tai Chi teachers and their aim has been to reproduce as much as possible of the Tai Chi training process online, however the project is supplemented by real Tai Chi training days at courses in Cornwall. The developers are concentrating on bringing the player as much feedback as possible in the game by looking at several approaches including using the Kinect, talking to teachers using voice over IP for example teamspeak, text chat based approaches such as a user forum and in-game chat channels, an in-game browser, and also using video. Players will be encouraged to be assessed by teachers in the same way they would in a normal class, they will learn the sequences then video themselves on a smart-phone, web-cam or video camera then upload this to the server. The video can then be viewed on an in-game screen which is semi-transparent and can be superimposed over the in-game animated models for comparison. The model can be sped up or slowed down to synchronise the movements with the video and the screen can be positioned to get exactly the right angle either for side-by-side viewing or used as an overlay. As well as being a useful way for players to get an objective overview of their own progress it's also a way that teachers can assess them. Once a player has learned the initial set of moves a teacher can promote them to the next level where they can continue on to the next set of sequences and so on, once they have learned enough moves and other techniques they can even take the master grade which will enable them to either become an in-game guide or if they decide to take it further even set up their own real world Tai Chi class.
As well as being experienced Tai Chi masters the dev team are also passionate about gaming. In particular online multiplayer games. One of the key elements in the design is not just a Tai Chi trainer for enthusiasts but a fully featured multiplayer game which will show people some of the philosophy behind Tai Chi training. Tai Chi is based on the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism and it is down to earth and can be applied in a variety of real world scenarios at work and at home. One of the central concepts of Tai Chi training which is familiar to the Chinese but is alien to most westerners is Chi. Chi means energy, it's like having a battery, you can charge it up or run it down. The players' store of Chi will be affected by three different variables in the game according to the Tai Chi Elements Kickstarter page:
- Personal energy development
- Enhancing the environment
- Forming groups and interacting with other players
The name of the game 'Tai Chi Elements' is related to the Chinese philosophy of Taoism and the Wu Hsing or five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. These are different to the western elements in that they are more like stages in a cycle where each elemental energy adds something to the mix and feeds the next. In the human body these energies are associated with different meridians which are channels used in acupuncture. This idea is very similar in terms of gaming to accumulating a store of mana and the elemental energies are similar to stats like strength, wisdom and dexterity that you might find in any typical role playing game. Dungeons and Dragons players first started rolling dice to create player statistics and go on text based adventures back in the 1970's, but The Tai Chi Elements developers want to take this concept a step further by basing the strength of a player's elemental energies on the quality of their actions and interactions with others. This will provide players with real feedback about their development. A Tai Chi class is not just a matter of doling out information, a good teacher is more like a guide who shows students the path but doesn't piggy back them along it. The greatest gift a teacher can give his students is the skill of learning itself. The developers want to take this philosophy further and not only apply it to the game play but apply it to the actual game design itself.
Lead designer Chris Simpson says, "We see this game as a project, it's something ongoing and something we hope to continue developing for a long time. In typical role playing multiplayer games you often see high level players who have dedicated themselves and become immersed in game play suddenly disappear or even sell their characters online to novice players, it's a terrible waste of a valuable resource. We want to take the advanced player a stage further than the traditional end-game, rather than ever bigger bosses we want to see mobs piloted by experienced players. This is our aim, beyond scripting to player driven scenarios. This all reflects the kinds of interactions which we see in Tai Chi classes which are spontaneous and involving students interacting with each other rather than simply listening to lectures by the teacher."
There's a parallel here with the way information has become disseminated on the net. In the old days users logged onto a central server to download files, as the user load increased the server became choked until it eventually ground to a halt or went down under the weight of demands for information. More recently with the advent of peer to peer networking users log on in the same way as before but immediately start sharing information with each other, the more users who log on the faster information is shared across the network. It's the same in a Tai Chi class, every student becomes a teacher and every teacher becomes a student, knowledge is shared and a hell of a lot more gets done.
Work has started on developing a physics based approach to combat inspired by the Tai Chi interactive training exercises. One exercise called sticky hands sees students testing each other's balance by gently pushing each other, the exercise teaches students to yield and avoid force against force. In the game there will be a similar scenario where players will test each others skills, the interactions online will not be key-press based scripted animations but will use a real physical model of the way the body reacts to external forces and maintaining balance. Players who block each other and try to overpower the opponent will soon find their store of Chi becoming depleted just like in real life.
The game will also teach people about how their actions can affect the environment. The ancient Chinese art of Feng Shui describes how the placement of objects affects the energy environment. The energy flows through dragon lines across hilltops and through valleys, and just as acupuncturists can affect the flow of energy in the human body allowing it to accumulate or dissipate, advanced players will be able to do the same thing in the landscape.
Now that their Kickstarter project has been successfully funded the team are turning their attentions towards a public beta test by the end of January.
For anyone interested in participating in the beta test and for more information, blogs, screenshots, artwork, videos and updates about the project which is due for release on 5th April please check out the official Tai Chi Elements website.
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