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December 16, 2006

2007 IGF Mod Winners/Finalists Announced

- Apparently, I keep accidentally scheduling IGF announcements to go out on a Saturday, but hey, there you go - here's the latest one, including some really interesting mods to be shown at GDC in March:

"The organizers of the 2007 Independent Games Festival have announced the four winners of individual categories in the IGF Modding Competition, each of whom will now compete at GDC 2007 for the overall IGF Best Mod award.

Best Singleplayer FPS Mod has been awarded to Cut Corner Company Productions' Weekday Warrior mod for Half-Life 2 (Gamasutra interview). The student collective at the Guildhall at SMU produced a total conversion mod made in the vein of the old-school adventure games, set inside a modern corporate office environment, which includes physics-based mini-games such as office golf, darts, and trashcan basketball.

Best RPG Mod has been awarded to Ossian Studios' Darkness Over Daggerford mod for Neverwinter Nights. Set in the Forgotten Realms, and produced by former BioWare producer Alan Miranda, Darkness over Daggerford gives players a 25-30-hour RPG with a strong Baldur's Gate feel, including a new world map and extensive involvement from some of the top NWN game modders.

Best Multiplayer FPS Mod has been awarded to ES Team's Eternal Silence mod for Half-Life 2 (Gamasutra interview), which is an impressive sci-fi space combat/FPS hybrid that "pits two capital ships against each other in a seamless blend" of the two modes, and includes a battlefield as large as 32768 cubic kilometres.

Best Other Mod has been awarded to Ludocraft's Spawn Of Deflebub, a mod for Unreal Tournament 2004 that mixes elements from dodgeball, pinball, billiards and Break-Out in a lunatic H.P. Lovecraft-inspired futuristic story setting, with impressive retro-psychedelic graphics. This esoteric mod has been constructed by the creators of last year's IGF Modding finalist Dragonfly Variations.

Congratulations to the four winners of the IGF Modding categories. They each get a $500 travel stipend to help them travel to Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this March, where they will show their mod as part of the IGF Pavilion. In addition, one of the four mods will be crowned as overall Best Mod at the Independent Games Festival Awards during GDC, receiving a cash prize of $5,000."

Slouching Towards Bedlam Author Passes

- Regular GSW Shih Tzu passes on the sad news that : "Star Foster, co-author of text adventure Slouching Towards Bedlam, passed away unexpectedly on Dec. 10 at the age of 33."

He adds: "Slouching Towards Bedlam took 1st place in the 2003 Interactive Fiction competition and also went on to win several XYZZY Awards, including Best Game of 2003. Although Slouching was her only experience writing IF, she was active as an apparently prolific blogger and writer... If you haven't played the (excellent) game, try it now in her memory."

Grand Text Auto also have a tribute to Star, and the IF Wiki has more info, adding that the 'Magic Words' feature by Andrew Vestal and Nich Maragos, originally printed on 1UP, has an interview with Star and co-author Daniel Ravipinto on it, if you'd like to know more.

GameSetLinks: Wii Will Farm You

- A relaxing Friday night is a good time to catch up on our regular-ish GSW linkdump, and even though it's getting pretty close to Xmas, that's actually plenty of interesting, good stuff out there. The blogosphere never sleeps?

- Massive Lack Of Backup?: Just a random note from QT3 - Steve Bauman from Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine has an interesting post in which he claims of CGMag's attitude to MMO gold farmers (banned from other mags like PC Gamer!): "IGE is no longer on the back page, for what it's worth, but still has a third-page in the interior. Here's the unfortunate reality: Our MMO magazine hasn't taken a single IGE ad, yet none of the companies that make "principled stands" against people that accept gold farming ads have stepped up to take IGE's place. So, we're screwed if we accept the ads, and screwed if we don't."

- Wii Did Not Recall!: Edge Online has a sharp but relevant piece, pointing out the incorrect nature of stories like: "'Nintendo is recalling more than three million straps for its new Wii console' says the BBC." They point out: "The truth behind the story concerning The Big Wii Strap Scandal isn't quite so sensational: Nintendo is not recalling any of its stock, but will happily change your Wii strap for a more robust replacement if you get in touch with its customer services department." We got it right on Gama, but who's behind this more tart Edge Online editorial? Is it existing staffers, or is Iain (Simons?), who posts in the comments, behind it? Reply if you know.

- Choco-What? Yikes!: Via Fort90, a completely bizarre costume of a Chocobo from Final Fantasy which was, for some strange reason, "created from a text description only. No visual input...no discussions from the clients... It was on display at the Barbican Art Gallery in London from May to September, 2002, as part of a show called “Game On” which is about the history and development of computer games." Why did they not provide reference, or am I missing something? Scroll down for other odd oddness.

- Riah Homebrew Go!: Selectbutton's Dessgeega has a post on a dojin PC game explaining that "...team folio's riah is an homage to castlevania, and not the metrovania style of castlevania that seems to have become the current template for the series, but the older model, where platforming is crucial and enemies are placed carefully to construct compelling setpieces." Also, Tim Rogers explains why Famitsu is PR, and that's fine.

- The Gaming Generation: 1UP has another of its excellent (though a little sparse of late) features, on how gaming and parenthood blend: "Gamers that stared down the challenges of reaching "just one more level" or beating an old high score are now facing a more significant challenge: blending marriages, mortgages, and parenting together with their gamer lifestyle. How are some members of the "videogame generation" coping? What do the children of gamer parents think? And where do sociologists see the "videogame generation" taking family relationships and gaming itself in the future?"

- Beatmaania, Never Over Here Again: NCSX points out that Beatmania IIDX 12 Happy Sky has debuted for PS2 in Japan. Shame that the U.S. PS2 version of Beatmania, by all accounts a bit of a lackluster song structure and choice compared to the Japanese highlights, looks like it's stopped further versions of the game being released in the States. I look forward to the time when stuff like this is digitally downloadable, XBLA-style, untranslated, for niche gamers. If that ever happens! Also, SNK Vs. Capcom DS is out in .JP - Brandon points out it's due in the West in early 2007.

- PS3 Vs. Xbox 360 - Blog Fight! - N'Gai Croal, whose Newsweek blog is a canny new read, has a good analysis of Microsoft's blog war vs. Sony - or rather, lack of war: "As hilariously transparent as [Microsoft blogger Andre] Vrignaud's motives may be, it doesn't excuse the fact that when it comes to the Battle of the Blogs, Sony Computer Entertainment has simply chosen not to fight." And yep, Three Speech and my critique of it gets cited. I think Vrignaud probably gives Microsoft PR conniptions, but we all understand where he's coming from, and that's SO much better.

Opinion: Why The Game Boy Should Never Be Counted Out

- I come to you this evening with a plea - yes, yes, I know we all love the Nintendo DS, but don't you think it's time to appreciate the Game Boy Advance hardware and software just a little more, even going into 2007?

Why do I say that? Well, this is partly sparked by the recent NPD results for November, which explained that Nintendo "sold a spectacular 918,000 units of DS" in the U.S., but "...the Game Boy also showed well, with 641,000 units". 641,000? That's more than any of the next-gen consoles or even the PSP sold in November - yet what's the current visibility of Game Boy-specific game software? Practically nil.

In addition, I recently picked up a Game Boy Micro to use on my longish train commute to and from work, and, while I don't think it has taken off like Nintendo intended, can be had for less than $50 on eBay. It's so light and easy to sling around that you can slip it in your pocket without a care. I also found that EB Games really has some good deals on some pre-owned Game Boy Advance games from the last couple of years that are well worth poking at.

And most importantly, when you play GBA titles on the Game Boy Micro's small but well-lit screen, it feels like they're made and perfectly formed for it - as opposed to the DS, where there's a whole separate screen which is unused. I'm aware that the DS Lite has a pretty well-formed hardware approach, but single-screen GBA games should be played on single-screen hardware - and that's my militant attitude!

- So, what pre-owned stuff did I pick up that I think everyone should take a look at? It'd be there:

- Sigma Star Saga (WayForward/Namco): Definitely a flawed title overall, but a really interesting blend of RPG, shooter, and awesome art from the folks behind Shantae, with some of the nicest parallax graphics ever implemented on GBA. Shame Namco didn't do Shantae Advance too, though!

- Rebelstar Tactical Command (Codo/Namco): Another interesting original IP Namco title from 2005, this time from the Gollops of X-Com fame - a hardcore Western-designed turn-based strategy RPG. It's a little _more_ hardcore than some might like (Brandon notes that turning to be able to see enemies is super-picky!), but it's one of the deepest GBA titles ever.

-- Mario Golf: Advance Tour (Nintendo): Actually a little bit older, from late 2004, but I found a copy cheap when I was back in the UK in September. Golf games already have a good deal on handhelds, what with the completely awesome Hot Shots Golf for the PSP, but this version of Mario Golf has some awesome RPG progression and extremely good basic golf playability.

- Rhythm Tengoku (J.P.Room/Nintendo): OK, not actually pre-owned, and this is a Japanese-only import, of course, but as the 4CR review explains: "From the Made in Wario team and J.P.Room (providing the music), Rhythm Tengoku offers a variety of mini-games similar to what is found in the WarioWare series, but adding some more challenge by asking you to have a good sense of rhythm." And it feels very Game Boy Micro-friendly, too. Awesome.

Anyone got opinions on other overlooked GBA gems from the past year or two? I've heard that Drill Dozer is just one of those, but haven't had a chance to check it out yet. Other hidden delight suggestions welcome - and viva la GBA!

December 15, 2006

No More Heroes, Lots More Money For Suda?

- The de-lovely Christian Nutt was kind enough to send over his newly published interview with Suda51, which is up at GamesRadar, and in it, Mr. 51 talks about his new Wii title No More Heroes.

Suda is most interesting because he's so direct about where he's seen in the marketplace - essentially as a cult icon, which is not necessarily where he wants to be: "I want profit and I want respect. I want the indie respect and the profit of the mainstream. I'm aiming to make No More Heroes more marketable than before. I'm making this game, more so than before, a game that's going to sell units in America and Europe."

He continues: "For Killer 7, my aim was to make something completely new in all different directions. So I think that maybe it was a new experience that wasn't familiar for American users when they first played Killer 7. So Killer 7 got all this different feedback. So it's actually a really good lesson for me in terms of what Americans and Europeans like in terms of gameplay."

"[For No More Heroes] I'm going towards the American, more standard type of gameplay. I think it will fit well with what people appreciated from Killer 7: the presentation, the cinematics, the story. So I think it will be easier for people to pick up and play - more so than Killer 7 - because I've learned a lot from just listening to other people's feedback from the gameplay of Killer 7." Oh, and he also namedrops The Warriors as a Western game he dug, which is really interesting.

Mizuguchi's Heavenly Star Hits iTunes

- We've previously raved about Genki Rockets' 'Heavenly Star' music video, which is part of Q Entertainment's Lumines II and is also viewable online - well, now they've put the song on iTunes, according to a press release.

I find it amusing that they're so vague about who the people behind the song are: "Performed by a new group called Genki Rockets and produced by Q Entertainment's own Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the song's catchy and uplifting tune combined with equally striking video has caught the attention of many gamers and was recently nominated Best Song at the 2006 Spike TV Video Game Awards. Genki Rockets is a hybrid group that consists of a few artists and will be collaborating with other artists in the future to bring new music and videos." Contractual obligation issues?

Also noted: ""Heavenly Star" is the first original song and music video produced by game producer Mizuguchi and is currently available as a background (skin) in the puzzle-based video game sequel Lumines II for [PSP]. It will also be introduced into Lumines Live! (Xbox Live Arcade) as the "Heavenly Star Pack" starting early January 2007 for a limited time only." Advertising more add-on packs for Lumines Live? You're a brave company, Q! This is still one of my fave songs of the year, mind you.

MMOG Nation: How They Are Going To Screw Up Firefly

['MMOG Nation' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column tries to throw some cold water on the Browncoats reveling in the news of a Firefly MMOG.]

FireflyI'm sure I'm not the only person who was excited by last week's announcement that the tools-maker Multiverse is going to be tackling the Firefly license, and making a Massively Multiplayer game. In fact, I know I'm not. You may have already seen Kwip's 'blue-sky' musings on just such a title as recently as last month. He tells you what he'd like to see, and the reaction from the MMORPG.com boards tells you that there's a lot of interest in the project.

Well, much as it may seem differently from recent articles, I'm not one to see a good thing and embrace it wholly. In fact, I'm a pretty bitter, cynical guy when it comes to these things. To put it thusly: the Firefly MMOG is going to suck. It's going to suck hard, on toast, and leave the hearts and minds of thousands of Browncoats lying trampled, again, in the dirt. I'll tell you up front, I hope I'm wrong. I hope that, a few years from now, you and I are doing our level best to make a dishonest living on the edge of civilized space ... and having a great time doing it. Somehow, though, I don't think that's what will happen. Read on for all the reasons why this bird just won't fly.

"Well they tell you: never hit a man with a closed fist. But it is, on occasion, hilarious."

There's going to be too much fightin'. I can tell you right now, sure as can be, there will be too much fighting to get the tone right for the Firefly universe. In fact, I'd go so far as to say this is the biggest obstacle to making a Firefly MMOG. While we all roll our eyes at killing rats, we go with it because we know there are bigger and better things coming along. There's room in the galaxy far, far away for rat-hunters. The 'Verse (as fans of the series call it) is not so flexible. Series creator Joss Whedon made it obvious over the course of the series that, while people die out there, life is still precious. Endless waves of faceless bad guys, all spawning in place to be randomly slaughtered by your brand new level 1 Big Damn Hero, puts the lie to that but quick. There's got to be combat, of course. Every MMOG has combat. But what has to be different in order for this to work is the meaning behind that combat. Fighting has to be done with a purpose, or you've already missed the boat on what makes Firefly special.

Big Damn HeroesAs much as I think the source needs to be boxed around the ears, I think Dungeons and Dragons Online is actually the best place to start. Their instanced, focused, combat would be a great fit for the kind of storytelling you'd want to do in Firefly. The key here, though, is that you've got to make sure there's a world outside of combat. Your character, your shipmates, your ship ... there has to be something besides combat to 'do'.

"For this plan to work, River and I will have to be dead."

While I think there's going to be too much fighting, on the other hand I don't think there's going to be enough ... anything else. Given the constraints of time and economic pressure, the 'not in combat' portions of the game will inevitably get waylaid and pushed outside the scope of the original launch. Massive games are all about combat, right? Who wants to make shoes when we can crush?

Which is, of course, ridiculous. In fact, if anything, the 'Verse is an even better setting for a crafting and entertaining system than Star Wars Galaxies. Just in the very few episodes of the show we see merchants, miners, dancers, prostitutes, Companions, soldiers, preachers, criminals, aristrocrats, and all aspects of the human condition in harsh places. The 'life is precious' theme has to be extended out beyond combat, to include the concept of 'characters have real lives'. I don't think there's a need for a fully immersive alternate existence; this should still be a game, after all. What the designers should do, though, is make an effort to compliment the game's heroic moments with quieter elements taken from the background of the 'Verse.

Serenity's MessThough I can't rightly say I know how to go about it, it would be great if there was some element of planning involved in the game too. Some of the most enjoyable moments in the show come from attempts at tactical planning and strategy ... even if they don't work out very well. One option would be to allow the group leader to choose a mission's objectives. If you have several big tough guys, a frontal assault might be an option. If you're, as a party, better at subterfuge perhaps a more stealthy approach would be the way to go. I don't think the game would be 'broken' without it, but it would certainly go a long way towards giving players the authentic Firefly feel.

"We're gonna explode? I don't wanna explode!"

Joss Whedon shows, even when they're being all dark and serious, are funny. Really, really funny. Firefly without humor would have been a waste, a poor man's Cowboy Bebop. I just cannot envision Firefly without laughter to dull the edges. WoW has humor, but it's of the satirical or irreverent nature. City of Heroes, likewise, has humor of the 'send-up' nature. None of those things are clever or witty. I'm not even certain that clever and witty are possibilities in a Massive game; most players don't even stop to read the quest text. Is the answer to do voiceover work for the entire game, and only have quest text in your journal once the intro spiel from the NPC is over? That would likely get old fast.

In truth, this is an aspect of Firefly that I'm just not sure can be translated into the Massive genre. How do you cram the kind of humor the show and the movie display into something as narratively dead as a quest in a MMOG?

"Ship like this, be with ya 'til the day you die."

They've got the license, and undoubtedly have the rights to use the likenesses of the protagonists in the game. So, why wouldn't they use them?

ToboldThe most compelling reason I can think of is that they'd get in the way. If there's one thing every Massive game gets right, it's that the experience should be about the player's story. If Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of the Firefly-class ship Serenity are included in the game (as I suspect they will be), the only purpose they would really serve would be to degrade the experience of the individual players.

What possible purpose would it serve to remind players that they are not, in fact, one of the crew? The very best Firefly game you could make, one that would make the players care about the world they inhabited, would not feature Serenity in any way. Perhaps sidelong mentions of their antics in quest descriptions might be fair, but otherwise I say let them fly alone.

"Does seem like everyone's got a tale to tell."

Whatever direction the Firefly MMOG takes, at the end of the day stories in the 'Verse are about freedom and individuality. It would be hard to find a premise for a Massive game better than that. At the same time, the elements of the Firefly series that make it beloved by its fans would seem to represent insurmountable obstacles to making it a good MMOG.

Fans of the series will undoubtedly find some things to like about the game. It's hard to argue with the intention of bringing Joss Whedon's vision to life as a persistent world. Just the same ... is it still Firefly without jokes? Without storytelling, western accents, and the crew of Serenity, is the 'Verse still a place worth inhabiting?

I wish Multiverse and the folks they'll be working with the best. Through a combination of bad luck, bad timing, and poor decision-making, we've never had the chance to see the totality of what the 'Verse has to offer. If Firefly really takes off, there are so many stories that could be told and plots that could be explored. It makes this particular Browncoat weak in the knees just to think about it.

That said, real life and the 'Verse share one thing in common: the right thing rarely gets done. Let's hope I'm wrong.

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]

December 14, 2006

Game Developer Blows Up Defcon, Sneak Jan Peek

- So, as you guys may recall, I'm also EIC of Game Developer magazine in my 'copious spare time', and as it happens, we just made the December 2006 issue of the mag available online for paid digital download. For those who don't know, GDMag goes out to around 35,000 qualified game professionals in North America and worldwide every month, and it's a B2B trade mag which deals with the art and business of making games, with postmortems, technical articles, and in-depth columns galore. And Reggie gets it!

Anyhow, with the help of trusty cohorts Brandon and Jill, who kinda actually run the mag (since I'm evilly busy), our cover postmortem this month is for Introversion's Defcon, written by Chris Delay, Vicky Arundel, Thomas Arundel, Gary Chambers, and John Knottenbelt - yep, the whole caboodle. Wired's Chris Baker already IM-ed me to say something nice about it, so it does indeed seem to be a neat look at making an indie death sim extraordinaire - which is now available in a Santa edition, incidentally!

Other goodness in the issue includes an in-depth article on piracy, interviewing folks like Todd Hollenshead from id and representatives from the ESA, alongside a technical article on how, "...using a data-driven AI architecture, Pandemic Studios created a flexible [AI] system for Destroy All Humans II." Plus our regular columnists, of course.

- And shh, don't tell anyone, but here's a sneak peek at our January 2007 cover, which both reveals the Front Line Award winners for the best game tools, and also has an exclusive Wii postmortem, for Toys For Bob's Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, alongside plenty of other goodness.

Oh yeah, and it has a GDC 2007 preview guide in it, so the entire Jan 2007 issue is going out to >100,000 people on our GDC mailing lists - so you may see a copy even if you don't normally subscribe to the magazine. That's why we're eradicating typos _as I speak_, and consulting our Funk & Wagnalls tremulously.

Anyhow, if you don't get Game Developer right now and would like to (esp. if you're not a qualified game professional!), there's actually a special deal on the digital version to be $21.95 for the year, if you're so inclined. [The digital edition is like reading the mag in a web browser, and works really well - esp. cos you have access to back issues and it's searchable. I still like the print edition, which is a bit more expensive, but that's just my paper leanings!]

Sure, Carmaggedon's Death Race Leanings... But Mad Max?

- Over at Gamasutra, Alistair Wallis is continuing his excellent 'Playing Catch-Up' column stint by quizzing Crystal Quest and Carmageddon creator Patrick Buckland - and yes, that's a pretty extreme contrast between the two most notable games on his resume!

I'm a pretty massive Carmageddon fan, so it was interesting to hear of the original license plans for the game: "Originally, the game was intended to by the publisher to be a licensed Mad Max title, though this plan later ran into trouble when SCi couldn’t actually get their hands on the license. Next, in anticipation of a sequel to the cult 1975 film Death Race 2000 film, the game was titled Death Race 2020. “This is where running people over came from,” Buckland notes. “Then the film fell through, and we all decided ‘Sod it, let’s just do it anyway – who needs a license!’” he laughs. “The rest is history…”"

Also good to see Isle Of Wight-based Stainless going the indie, small game route: "For the future, Buckland suggests that Live Arcade and Sony’s E-Distribution Initiative present the best opportunities for Stainless Games. “For the time-being, this is where we’d like to be,” he says. “However we’d like to develop and extend this into producing more original, innovative titles for these platforms – we have a few things in mind. We also have a few ideas for proper triple-As as well, that we’re talking to people about. We don’t believe you need to spend $20m+ to write a best-selling game – not if you design it around good gameplay, not bulk of content.”"

Art House Games, Exposed

- I believe that some of these have been reposted on Indygamer by the author, but the Arthouse Games blog seems like a neat new hangout for indie types.

For example, there's an interview with Nick Montfort about text adventures, with the following rather lyrical answer re: puzzles in IF: "I don't think puzzles are mandatory, nor do I think that IF authors have to go out of their way to create puzzleless work. There's a very successful and long-lived tradition in poetry of the riddle poem, which the reader or listener is asked to figure out, to solve -- while also appreciating the beauty of the language that makes up the riddle."

There's also a review of fl0w for PC, which rather interestingly says: "I highly recommend giving flOw a try, with the warning that it doesn't have much depth. It's a 10-minute experience, perhaps, but I don't think it aims to be anything more than that." Wonder how they're gonna fix that for the PS3 version?

December 13, 2006

Let's Go Sega Gaga Crazy

- We've recently referenced, in passing, James Howell's planned English translation of the cult Sega Dreamcast title Segagaga. [Incidentally, GameTap folks - work with James and Sega to debut this on the service. You have a DC emu and the right contacts! Do it!]

Anyhow, my co-worker Brandon Boyer pointed out James Howell's 1UP blog updates, which includes an incredibly intense, detailed entry on his "editorial approach to the third and later drafts" of the Segagaga translation.

Where it goes from there may either seems inspired or insanely overanalytic: "Here are my personality associations for Alisa: cheerful, emotive, moe, emotionally transparent, and respectful of order. These qualities remind me of Desdemona from Othello, so I analyzed the vowel patterns used in her speech as a template for writing Alisa." It goes on for some time. With diagrams!

Rockstar Explains Its Bullying Habits

- 1UP has an EGM-reprinted feature in which the creators of Bully talk about the construction of the freeform school sim, even referencing the gay kiss that apparently turned up on VH1's 'Best Week Ever'.

Producer Jeronimo Barrera comments of that choice: "You know, we didn't think it was going to make such a big stir. It's one of those things where we treat the ability to give the player as many choices as they can in the game. It's one of those things we felt balanced the game out. So we put it in. We didn't think people were going to go so crazy for it. Honestly, it was like, "If you can kiss the girls, why not be able to kiss another boy?""

Sounds a bit like Madonna being surprised she is controversial! Also, good to see some nods to the overt predecessor of Bully: "some of the guys on the development team were fans of Skool Daze, which was an old [ZX Sinclair computer] game in the U.K. Anyway, it was a popular game that involved school life. And us being fans of things like Ferris Bueller's Day Off or Pretty in Pink -- that John Hughes sort of vibe -- for us, it was like, "Yeah, this is cool. We should do this. We should explore this element.""

3 Minute Games, Cha Cha Cha!

- Worth a post on its own for its illumination of the Japanese indie game scene, TIGSource has a lengthy exposition on the results of a recent Japanese '3 Minute Game' competition, with tonnes of freely downloadable content.

Blogger Ithamore explains: "Each game is suppose to be based on a 3 minute theme, but longer mini-games have also been accepted", and then points out a recent highlight: "Granspope Frial is TERU-soach’s best effort in most ways. The graphics have a clean, interesting style, and the design’s concept has some good potential. You race as a bird against the clock by pressing a single key (‘Z’ or ‘Space’) to fly through a course covered with acceleration bars, which boosts you at the angle at which you touch them as long as your momentum is increasing."

Most interesting, though: "Recently, the number of decent games submitted to 3 Punge has been improving. There still haven’t been any gems to match the sparkle and shine of Omega’s Every Extend and Dan! Da! Dan! from the 2nd and 5th contests." Didn't realize that Every Extend started out as part of this competition!

December 12, 2006

GameSetLinkDump: It's All About 'Erotic Zombies'

- Wow, it really _has_ been a while since I got to trawl through the ol' Bloglines, and so I will now do so and present the random game link-based results to you. Let's go party!

- The Zombies, They Are Slinky!: OK, I was attracted to this 3PointD post because it's titled 'The Erotic Zombies of Second Life', but it has an interesting report on the virtual world, discussing "...a new phenomenon in “camping chairs.” These are usually located at nightclubs, and allow users to earn a trickle of Linden dollars (usually something less than L$50 an hour, that last time I looked) simply for parking one’s avatar’s butt in a chair and remaining there for a period of time.... But as Tateru writes, some club owners have recently started installing camping objects that put users’ avatars through the paces of erotic dance." Very odd.

- Grumble, Grumble, Linden: But on the subject of SL, Scott 'Broken Toys' Jennings does a little Second Life backlash of his own, questioning a World of Warcraft-baiting comment by a Linden VP, and grinning: "That’s not to say that SL doesn’t do cool things. It does. And it’s a good start at where social MMOs should go. But given the amount of media love and concurrent scrutiny, slapping the market leader with your SL marketplace-purchased “attachment” should only be done if, you know, you can back your attachment up. With, you know. Facts." Oh, and Tony Walsh points out Clay Shirky doing the same - it's pile on time!

- Orbital Thunks Back To Earth: Myself and Jeremy Parish have been some of the more rabid cheerleaders for Orbital Media, the Canadian indie GBA/DS developer which has had some pretty tragic delays for its original IP, often gorgeous-looking pixel-strewn titles. Unfortunately, according to eToychest, Juka and The Monophonic Menace just ain't that good - though the overall average is quite a bit better. Stuff like Scurge: Hive didn't fare spectacularly, and I think Orbital has sputtered to a stop in the handheld arena already.

- Designing The Death Star: Greg Costikyan points out "...a new little Flash game called Death Star Designer, as a promotion for Ubi's Star Wars: Lethal Alliance. I like the basic concept (who doesn't want to build the galaxy's most powerful battle station?); the basic implementation, though is "spreadsheet + leaderboard." You've got a trillion credits to spend." It's almost Kevin Smith-esque in its simplicity!

- Boo, Sony, Boo: A couple of people, particularly Admiral Zorg, have linked me this, given my previous ire over Sony's viral PR tactics, so I should probably link to PressTheButtons' explanation of it: "Sony is "down" with all us "gamerz", usin' our street "vernacularz" to show off their mad marketing "skillz". This time around the company hired viral marketing firm Zipatoni to put together a website/blog to praise the PlayStation Portable for the holidays." And then gamers found out, and then OUCH.

- Luigi Strikes Back: Via Fort90, I really have no idea what is going on with the intense scariness that is 'Super Mario Galaxy: Luigi Strikes Back', illustrated in remarkable fashion. Lots more insane fan-art if you click through.

- Console Classix, Xplained: Vintage Computing has an extremely in-depth review of Console Classix, which "could best be described as “the world’s first online video game rental service.”" It "takes advantage of a loophole in copyright law that all movie and video game rental stores use: it’s legal to lend a legally obtained (i.e. bought) copy of a movie or game to someone else". Sounds a little... borderline, to me, but there's an interview with creator Aaron Ethridge which explains more.

- You Remember The Genesis?: Over at Namako Team, Jiji has been checking out a bunch of Sega Genesis games - and why, indeed, shouldn't he? Here's the second part of the same, including Turrican: "It's easy to see this game's influences, and not surprising to find them in a European game, but what is somewhat surprising is how well they're blended. There's a lot of Metroid in its level structure and secrets, but the powerups and stage-to-stage flow are mostly Contra."

Cheap Gamer? The Chron Has Your Back!

- I just thought this was totally cute - a mainstream U.S. newspaper (the San Francisco Chronicle) exhorting readers to buy a Dreamcast this Christmas. Apparently we've died and gone to UK Resistance-themed heaven!

Writer Peter Hartlaub explains: "By far the biggest deal in the eBay/Craigslist universe is the Sega Dreamcast, an underrated system that was overproduced, meaning we'll always be in a buyer's market. It's not hard to find one with a dozen games for about $20, which is amazing considering some of the great titles on the system. Try to find a seller who will throw in a copy of Jet Grind Radio or the voice-sensitive game Seaman with the package." [Pictured image from an actual Dreamcast game, the incredibly wacky Japan-only, but being translated Segagaga!]

But wait, it gets better: "I saw a copy of the PC game Grim Fandango, a complete masterpiece that most people never played, for $6 on eBay. Since it came out in 1998, you can probably find an abandoned computer on the curb that will play it. You'll be experiencing about 98.5 percent of the fun that the Getty heir who bought the PS3 is having, at about 1 percent of the price." Hello, Bizarro world!

GameSetPics: Pinball Hall Of Fame Vol. 3

Finally, I got a little time to finish off this series of posts on Las Vegas' down and dirty, rather excellent Pinball Hall Of Fame (here's Part 2, featuring some of the best-looking machines, and Part 1, marveling at 'The Pinball Circus').

This particular post will simply picture and highlight four of the machines I actually spent some time playing while I was in Las Vegas last weekend - and there's a smattering of obscure classics, machines that are precious just to me, and plain weird pinball mutants. Let's go!

This one falls into the 'precious to me' category - Data East's 1993 pin 'The Adventures Of Rocky & Bullwinkle', which had just came out when I started going to university. We had a machine in our dorm's common area for quite some time, and so I had lots of fun jumping in the WABAC Machine and watching Bullwinkle pull a rabbit out of his hat.

The game is a sophisticated multi-moder with nice smooth lines and a dot matrix display, and I think is definitely one of the top Data East pins of all time - though the company doesn't have THAT great a rep in pinball, sadly.

Here's a good guide to the game, which in particular notes: "You don't get any points for it, but this is the first game in existence that recognizes a death save (getting the ball back in play after an outlane drain) and CONGRATULATES you for doing it!. This is totally cool. :) In fact, it now takes first place on my Way Cool That They Even Thought To Put That Into A Game list, just barely edging out "Dirty pool" in The Addams Family."

Oh my, this is Stern's 'Orbitor 1' from 1982, and I'd already played it at California Extreme, so I didn't try it out again in Vegas - but it's kinda awesome, because of its extremely quirky concept and execution.

Basically, you're playing pinball across the surface of the moon, and the playfield is curved to match the moon's craters, making it one of the only pintables ever that doesn't actually have a flat playing area!

As IPDB explains: "The playfield is (smooth) molded plexiglass, with the moonscape surface artwork suspended beneath it. The moonscape is lit from below by a fluorescent tube."

Now, this is Williams' 'Hyperball' from 1981, a unique pinball machine in that, uhh, it doesn't even have flippers! As IPDB explains: "Hypercannon fires up to 250 3/4" balls per minute at targets located around the outer edge of the playfield."

There's also a 'Hyperball: What was it?' FAQ which explains more: "You controlled the game from two hand-grips with triggers, which rotated left to right and back. In between the hand grips was a *Z Bomb* button which would destroy all the attacking lights....Hyperball was released by Williams Electronics originally at the 1982 AMOA show. This initial version was apparently a mechanical nightmare."

Oh, and this is very cool: "It uses the classic Williams sounds from that era, including many Defender sounds and the walking sounds from Robotron." Ah, back when the pinball/video game crossover was in full effect!

A final highlight (and thanks to co-worker Frank, a Vegas native, for alerting me to this one!) - Midway's 'Safe Cracker' from 1996. This pintable was produced in pretty limited editions (just over 1,000 machines made), and is notable for being perhaps the least-seen pinball machine from the legendary Pat Lawlor.

Why would you know Lawlor? Uh, try Whirlwind, Funhouse, The Addams Family, Twilight Zone, and many more - he was responsible for multiple games in most pinball fans' Top 10, and it's surprising that this mid-sized table ended up being so obscure - possibly it was the lack of theming which did it in? This is the first time that i'd seen one, at least, and it's a design from the late end of Lawlor's golden age, so to speak.

In any case, it has an honest-to-God board game as part of the back glass, it dispenses tokens if you win (!), and a handy FAQ explains a lot of the carefully designed and excellently carried-out ruleset. Also, it has a shot in the middle of the playfield which is just where The Electric Chair is in The Addams Family, which makes it seem like signature Lawlor even if you didn't realize it was him. Great stuff.

Games Make Sexy Time?

- Naughty naughty! Over at Gamasutra today, we've got a review and lengthy extract from 'Sex In Video Games', Playboy: The Mansion designer Brenda Brathwaite's excellent take on the subject of how video games got their, uhh, groove on.

There's plenty of explicit explanation, but my favorite bit in the extract is pointing out where sex happens, but nobody sees: "When asked to point out the sexual content in Zoo Tycoon 2, most people aren’t readily able to. “There’s no sex in that game,” said one. “In Zoo Tycoon? Are you sure you have the right game?” said another. However, breeding animals is very much a part of the game’s appeal. The sexual content in the game, though, is fully abstracted."

"“In order to successfully breed animals, you need to care for them properly and care for their surroundings,” said Linda Currie, a designer on Zoo Tycoon 2 and now producer at its developer, Blue Fang Games. “Happy animals make baby animals. You need to meet their basic needs like hunger, thirst, and environment, and their more advanced needs including mental stimulation, social interaction, exercise, and privacy. You must also have a male and female animal in the same exhibit”." And then they hide behind the CPU and do it!

Dynamite Deka Returns For Arcades, Implausibly

- Now, here's a bit of a surprise - Insomnia.ac has revealed their playtest impressions of Dynamite Deka Ex for arcades, a pretty surprising new update for the Dynamite Cop beat-em-up line, one that most people must have believed dead.

[EDIT: Thanks to Shih Tzu for reminding me/you in the comments: "Those of you who don't know it by the name "Dynamite Deka" might instead recognize the name "Die Hard Arcade", as the first game was released in the West with a slapped-on Die Hard license."]

The site's Alex Kierkegaard notes: "Sega's new Dynamite Deka is, if nothing else, an indication that the Japanese arcade industry must be going through a period of relative prosperity. Because not only is it obviously beyond mediocre, but it also belongs to a genre that was never very popular in arcades even during its heyday (I am referring to 3D brawlers -- the 2D variety was of course hugely popular back in the day). So if someone thinks they can make money with it then there must be enough money to go around in the first place. It's either that, or the people in charge of the purse strings at Sega's AM division have gone completely off their rockers. I am inclined to believe the first scenario."

He also explains: "For those of you who've never heard of the Dynamite Deka (lit.: Dynamite Detective) games, they are rather unique, quirky 3D beat 'em ups, consisting of a string of short, carefully-scripted fighting scenes, joined together with so-called Event Scenes (Shenmue-like Quick Time Events, though of course both DD games appeared long before Shenmue did). Dynamite Deka was released in arcades in 1996 for the STV board, with a Saturn port coming out in the same year, and Dynamite Deka 2 ~Karibu no Kaizoku Hen~ came out in 1998 for the Model 2, with a Dreamcast port following in 1999."

But for this new game: "What they did instead was give the game a minor facelift, and add a few lame twists here and there." So... maybe not the best, then?

December 11, 2006

2007 IGF Finalists - Reactions, Download Links

- Yes, we know we already did a post about the IGF finalists, and that we help run the competition, and all that, but there's a couple of updates that are worth pointing out here.

Firstly, it's been nice to see the finalist announcement get linked in a lot of places (even as far away as BoingBoing!), but this response, at 'And Maw! This', is probably the one I appreciated the most: "The IGF finalists have been announced. This set of games is very “IGF friendly.” I think these games reflect what game developers would like indie games to represent. Almost none of the casual games or portal hits that entered this IGF made it to the finals."

I'll quote a bit more, because there are some neat prediction threads linked for the finalists, too: "My initial thread skipped on Aquaria because at the time I had no idea what it was, but in “More on IGF” I followed up with Aquaria because of Derek Yu’s beautiful artwork and the cool theme of the game. The game is nominated in almost every category it is eligible for and I have a feeling it will clean up like Darwinia did last year. I can’t wait to try it out, any chance I can get in the beta :) ?"

But the other thing I wanted to point out is that we just put up a canonical 2007 IGF Finalists page which has all the information you need on them in one place, including screenshots, links to interviews at Gamasutra (if they happened!), plus whether you can get the game for free/demo/commercial, and links to each website - so it's a pretty handy way of working out what is playable now and what is downloadable for free. Thanks to Stephanie for helping us on this!

UMD Movies: The New 8-Track, Start Collecting Now!

- Well, I jest in the title, of course - but if you're a collector of PSP-related memorabilia, it's probably time to start checking out eBay, because as studios slow down and basically stop releasing UMD discs - the handy UMD release list at The Digital Bits shows only a handful of new Sony-published movies coming out - so, as stores and retailers clear their decks over the next few months, there's likely to be both bargains and rarities galore.

Personally, the thing I get most excited about is great audio/video synchronization, because I use my PSP both to listen to MP3s and to watch movies/play games while commuting, so I finally managed to pick up the Beck 'Guero' special edition UMD which we gave away on GameSetWatch last December - only $5 plus shipping from eBay, too.

The UMD includes "all the audio tracks from the 8-bit retro game-ish influenced album, special video art by D-Fuse for each track, and seven music videos", and it makes me wish that album-specific goodness like the Super Furry Animals' Rings Around The World and Phantom Power DVDs would come to UMD - something which they are clearly not, hah.

But in any case, I've previously mentioned that Dr. Who's first season is apparently out - although I can only find references to it for UK release, so maybe the U.S. release was pulled? What is definitely out is two Family Guy box sets (the first one is still decently priced on DeepDiscountDVD), an Entourage box set, and a bunch of Adult Swim UMDs, for starters. So I think if you're a bit of a geek, you might want to start picking some of these up now, before they get scarce - and feel free to ping us if you see any good UMD sales?

Speed Demos Rev Up Sonic's Sequel

- Well, I'm back from Vegas now, so the final part of the Pinball Hall Of Fame saga will be up soon-ish (and no, GameWorks didn't have many good new arcade games at all, *sigh*, apart from House Of The Dead 4, though the MGM Grand does have Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara in its well-maintained game room, so they win the 'Vegas arcade sweepstakes' this time round.)

In any case, I was catching up with my curation of audio/video content for the Internet Archive, whom I help out from time to time, and I noticed that the latest Speed Demos Archive speed runs are now mirrored on Archive.org. The Speed Demos guys do a sterling job of compiling and capturing insane speed runs done on original hardware, and the latest subject of their invention is the seminal Sonic The Hedgehog.

Say Speed Demos Archive co-runner Nate: "Three weeks short of a year ago, i called on you to run sonic games. i offered up the new sonic 2 individual-level table, every run in it lovingly crafted by yours truly, and i implored you to build on my times. i said i was prepared to wait no longer for sonic runs worthy of the speed demos archive name. today, my wait is finally over."

The full completion time for the entire of Sonic 2 is just 20 minutes and 2 seconds (!), and 'chemical plant zone, act 2' is just one of the many highlights - there's actually streaming embedded Flash of that 40 second run now, since the Archive is experimenting with streaming Flash on its uploaded videos nowadays. Awesome - and the whole news page at Speed Demos Archive is brimming with further goodness. [Thanks to Wikipedia for the animated Sonic 2 GIF, btw!]

December 10, 2006

@ Play: A Coward Dies A Thousand Deaths, My Computer, Several Billion

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

I ask you to halt your busy day for a moment and consider the challenges inherent in getting a computer to play a game. Not to sponsor a game for human beings, but actually play the game, itself. To manipulate virtual controls in order to successfully maneuver through a game made for human play.

There is at least one computer game made specifically for the computer itself to play, although it is really more of a joke. And there are ways to get the machine to play through the game itself and display the results. Some action games that have an ability to record demos, in fact, work by "playing" the game. When the user plays, the game software records the sequences of control inputs, in the order and timing in which they are made, and stores them in a file. When the demo is played back, the opponents and level structure are handled as if it were a real game, and the program substitutes the recorded control stream for a player.

One may object to this, saying that this is not really playing, but it is, from the computer's standpoint. If the game is the same every time, if there is no randomness, then the process of a human playing it is actually the process of discovering the essential control inputs needed to win, and once that sequence is discovered one need only feed that sequence into the world simulation, like stimulating a brain in a jar, to cause the computer to play itself.

But the process of discovering that sequence, that is really where the game lies, isn't it? Getting a computer to play back a recorded set of inputs is easy, but designing a program to examine what a human being would see, then send the game process the discovered control stimuli to play with no prior knowledge of the game world, that is much harder. In the roguelike genre of computer games, in which all dungeons are created randomly each time and even the identities of the items shift from game to game, it is much harder to create a computer program that can play well. So hard as to be impossible, one might think.

It is so impossible, it has been done twice.

Rog-O-Matic: It Dies Dozens Of Times So You Don't Have To

The first automatic roguelike player, or "borg" as they have come to be known, was written for Rogue itself. Rog-O-Matic is a program that, if you have the fairly specific, ancient Unix hardware it runs under, plays Rogue 3.6, and plays it extremely well. It runs as another task on the machine that intercepts the output coming from the game process and supplies it with its algorithmically-determined input, and thus cannot "cheat" with inside knowledge of the hidden portions of the game's state. It has exactly the same information that a human player would have in a game.

Very few people have the means to run Rog-O-Matic any more. In fact, although the source was available from Boudewijn Waijers' Rogue page (his site was, for a long while, just about the only notable roguelike game resource on the Web) that link seems to be broken now. Like many of the earlier roguelikes themselves, the program is sliding into obscurity, and may already be permanently lost. But we do have the paper they presented at the Conference of the Canadian Society for Computational Studies of Intelligence, and it makes for an interesting read, from standpoints both of player and programmer.

Rogue, like Nethack but unlike some other roguelikes like Angband, places as heavy emphasis on the item discovery aspects of the game as combat tactics, so an automatic player will have to actually figure out aspects of the game world instead of merely exploring it. Since it begins every game with no knowledge of the identities of potions, scrolls, wands or rings, and information on these things is difficult to come by during play, there is a large component of luck in any player's progress, whether it is soft- or wet-ware.

Rog-O-Matic does not cheat, in that it has no knowledge of the game a human player could not obtain, say by reading the memory of the game process or examining the executable, but it does use what amounts to spoilers. It begins with a hard-coded list of all the possible items in the game, and it has some built-in tricks for figuring out what they do, which is important for such items like scrolls of scare monster which are not used in the normal way. This information would be hard-won to a person playing, so the game begins with what amounts to a fairly significant spoiler. This kind of cunning, the ability to figure out non-typical item uses, is something that a programmer would indeed find it difficult with which to imbue an algorithm with, so Rog-O-Matic gets around it by granting that knowledge to the borg. However, it does seek to learn the abilities of monsters honestly, keeping notes in a monster memory file between runs, in which it records whatever data it has been able to acquire about monster statistics and abilities. (It is rumored that this feature was added to universalize the algorithm, to make it less vulnerable to changes made by Rogue's developers specifically to counter Rog-O-Matic's effectiveness.)

So then, how well does it play? According to the paper, very well, as well as the best human players. It cannot win every game, neither can anyone, for Rogue is random enough so that victory is never absolutely certain even given perfect knowledge, so this is about as well as can be expected. The skill with which Rog-O-Matic plays makes sense when one considers that Rogue is, ultimately, a logic game married to a tactical combat simulation.

The procedure for identifying items is a puzzle with many special cases that need to be accounted for in order to obtain the most information from each test. Potions of object detection do not identify from use if there is nothing on the level to locate, scrolls of scare monster can be conclusively identified without touching the object, and rings of regeneration are obvious when worn if the player thinks to watch what his hit points do after taking damage. Once all these special rules are built into the system, what is left are the true challenges of writing an automatic roguelike player: optimizing player actions to minimize the resources consumed during the player's trip through the dungeon and creating an excellent tactical combatant.

(Trivia: One of the authors of Rog-O-Matic, Michael L. Mauldin, went on to found Lycos.)


Uh, Did Three Of Eight Just Tell Sauron Resistance Is Futile?

The other significant automatic roguelike player was created by Ben Harrison during his run as maintainer of Angband, and although it has the advantage of being a branch of the Angband source tree, which means it doesn't have to decipher a terminal data stream to figure out what is going on (it is said not to utilize any secret knowledge), it has a much more difficult task to accomplish. Rogue had a strong item discovery focus, but in Angband's play concerns itself more with defeating ever-stronger opponents than simple survival.

Angband's item discovery game is much more shallow than Rogue's, but that game has shops from which scrolls can be purchased, and levels can be regenerated indefinitely to generate more scrolls of identify if need be, so piecing together such knowledge requires a lot less effort from the machine. On the other hand, Angband has many, many more kinds of foes than Rogue, and they can do many more kinds of things to the player (like summon in large numbers of additional foes), so the Angband Borg doesn't make an attempt to learn what the monsters can do, it just uses its built-in knowledge of the bestiary. There are also monsters that can kill even a perfectly-equipped player in just a few turns, and from a distance, meaning that a successful borg must prepare for and be alert to such problems so they can be death with at a moment's notice. Angband's tactical depth is a bit deeper than Rogue's as well: players can dig their own tunnels, block off spaces from monsters with glyphs, or randomly warp a region of the dungeon around the player.

The original Borg is no longer being actively worked on, with Harrison having passed the Angband torch off to others. Currently, the primary fork of the Borg in development is the APWBorg[http://www.itctel.com/~apwhite/andrew.html]. Watching it play can be either a humbling or inspiring experience, depending on what one thinks about the potential of computers. The Borg has been known to win at Angband on occaision, but unlike Rog-O-Matic it tends to not be as good as an experienced human player. Watching it in action (and saving and reloading often to get around an annoying crash bug) shows it has an inordinate fondness for level 1, spending much of its time there even after it has achieved experience level 19. (The Angband dungeon is 100 levels deep, and maximum character level is 50.)

Unless the program is slowed down by adjusting a configuration file the game passes by much too fast to be able to tell what's happening, but once slowed down watching the Borg in action can be a useful way to gain ideas for how to play. Or, and here we're moving from the realm of simply cool to full-fledged awesome, there is a version of the APWBorg that works as a Windows screen saver! It you are unable to see the coolness inherent in having your computer play a game on itself at spare moments then I sincerely suggest that you turn in your geek badge, as it clearly must be a forgery.

Insert Credit's Select Button Is Depressed

- We haven't really covered the break-up of the Insert Credit forums, partly out of respect for our the dead (and the passing was pretty horrible, with 4-Chan invasions and mass bannings after a moderator change backfired.)

But IC's front news/features page is still going strong, and the forums have now semi-officially moved to SelectButton.net, which is neat. In addition to the transplanted forums, there's also an IC-like front page to SelectButton.net, featuring some interesting news posts from vaguely GSW-ish folks like Fort90, JamesE and Dessgeega. I reckon it's well worth a bookmark for fans of alt.gaming goodness.

Recent highlights? Dessgeega points out new games from Pixel, the creator of Cave Story - well, new old, but it's still Pixel, darn it. And there's a nice translation of the 2ch thread about the crazy Japanese guy playing Wii on his 1-inch TV. So a great start!

GameSetPics: 'Pinball Hall Of Fame Vol.2 - Design Classics'

So, more pictures from The Pinball Hall Of Fame in Las Vegas, then, and this time round, I'm concentrating on some of the classic pinball machines there which may not have incredibly complex multi-mode gameplay, but certainly have some gorgeous designs associated with them. And here are some of them:

Some of the pinball machines closest to the window.

Gottlieb's 'Abra Ca Dabra' from 1975 - love the backglass.

Stern's 'Nugent' from 1978 - nobody beats the Nuge, esp. not with these classic stylings.

Gottlieb's 'Punk' from 1982 - there's nothing quite like reflecting gritty DIY rock aesthetic with a glitzy pintable, eh?

Continuing with the rock music theme, here's Bally's 'Capt. Fantastic' from 1975, based on the film version of Tommy, with Elton John on the backglass.

Gottlieb's 'Centigrade 37' from 1977 - is this a Fahrenheit [EDIT: 451 - damn you, Michael Moore!] pastiche? Again, awesome sci-fi stylings.

Incredibly rare 'Impacto' machine from Europe circa 1975 - the IPDB page for the game notes that this is the only copy in the U.S.

Gottlieb's 'Rock Star' from 1978. Neat.

Possibly the grooviest machine in there - Gottlieb's 'Domino' from 1968.

And that concludes our random look at some of the neatest-designed machines in there. The final report of our three from the Pinball Hall Of Fame will examine two or three of the quirkiest or coolest more recent machines exhibited there - ones I actually spent some notable time playing!

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': A Little Town Called Peterborough

['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]

These days, the video-game and computer magazine industry is a lot more consolidated than it used to be -- not just in terms of number of publications, but also in location. Nearly every magazine in the field is based in San Francisco or its suburbs; there are only a few major exceptions, including PC Magazine (New York), Nintendo Power (Redmond, WA, for obvious reasons), and Game Informer (Minneapolis, former headquarters for Funco Inc).

Sendai Publishing was based around the Chicago area, and most of the magazines stayed there even after Ziff Davis bought the outfit in 1996. The offices weren't fully moved to San Francisco until 2002, when Electronic Gaming Monthly finally got around to the cross-country trip -- losing a chunk of the old-guard editorial staff in the process.

I'm going over all this because I want to introduce to you a very strange situation that existed in magazines during the early 80s -- nearly a dozen of the nation's top computer mags being published by two rival firms, both headquartered in a sleepy New Hampshire town with a population of about 5000.

byte.jpg   kilobaud.jpg

How did this happen? It's all thanks to Wayne Green, who started up an amateur-radio magazine called 73 in 1960 and moved the operation up to beautiful Peterborough, NH in the summer of 1962. Green, a WWII Navy vet who's now retired and still lives in New Hampshire, is arguably one of the most outspoken magazine editors to ever work in the business -- each issue of 73 included up to five or six pages of editorial, which rambled from topic to topic and often had very little to do with ham radio at all. Starting in the early 1970s, Green's favorite topic in the editorials shifted to the IRS, as he was busy waging war with them over an extended period of time. The situation only got worse when 73 published plans for assorted phone-phreak technology (including the "blue box" that Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs would later sell for pocket money) in their June 1975 issue, which elicited an AT&T lawsuit and a later out-of-court settlement.

BYTE Magazine was founded by Green in early 1975 with Carl Helmers, a New York native who had self-published a hobbyist computer 'zine for two years previous, as editor-in-chief. The magazine premiered in September 1975 with a run of over 50,000 copies and was an immediate success, quickly becoming the definitive hardware magazine for the then-brand-spaning-new personal computer industry. Green didn't keep the magazine for long, though -- in later 1975, he lost BYTE and the magazine moved to a different house in Peterborough. The exact reasons for this schism are a little murky -- some sources suggest that diverging BYTE was part of Wayne's settlement with the phone company, while others say that Virginia, general manager of BYTE and Wayne's ex-wife at the time, just did it to spite Wayne. (The two Greens battled it out legally for most of the 1980s, but the matter was also ultimately settled out of court.)

Wayne, not the sort of person to take this sort of thing lying down, retaliated by launching Kilobaud, a "computer hobbyist magazine" that covered largely the same beat that BYTE did, albeit with just a dash more coverage of consumer-oriented products while BYTE stuck squarely with the tech stuff at this point. The two magazines shared a rivalry for the next seven years that was often anything but friendly. "For a while," BYTE executive editor Rich Malloy later wrote, "employees at one magazine would be afraid to mention that their spouses worked at a rival magazine. The competition was so intense that one Christmas, Green posted a large sign outside one of his buildings: 'Merry Christmas to all but one.'"

80micro.jpg   incider.jpg

While BYTE didn't expand its magazine roster much (it was bought by McGraw-Hill in 1979 and stayed in Peterborough until its closure in 1998), the fledgling Wayne Green Publications aggressively grew as the 1980s came around. 80 Microcomputing, a magazine devoted to Tandy's TRS-80 series that launched January 1980, was billed as the first magazine devoted to any single model of computer. It was an enormous success, with issues going over 400 pages in 1982, and it lasted all the way to 1988 on the stands.

Other magazines launched directly by Green include inCider (an Apple II mag launched January 1983) and HOT CoCo (a Color Computer mag launched June of that year).

hotcoco.jpg   run.jpg

In 1984, just as Green had launched Commodore 64 publication RUN, the publisher decided to sell his operation to CW Communications, a division of IDG (which publishes PC World and GamePro nowadays). Green became a member of IDG's board, which allowed him to oversee the launch of AmigaWorld later in 1985. In addition to his IDG job, though, Green maintained an independent publisher in Peterborough, which he used to continue producing 73 as well as launch new mags in the fields of laptop computers, desktop publishing, and CD-ROM technology. (He kept on publishing 73 until 2003.)

The funny thing about all of Green/IDG's computer magazines of the era is that almost all of them were enormous successes, and all of them are still great reading today for classic computer nuts. They were almost all super long-lived, too -- RUN lasted until 1992, AmigaWorld until 1995, 80 Micro until 1988, and HOT CoCo until 1986 (when it was incorporated into 80 Micro). The only real laggard of the lot was the original Kilobaud -- unable to strike a balance between "hardcore" coverage and the emerging consumer market, the magazine was folded in 1984 without many people noticing.

amigaworld.jpg

I've never been up to Peterborough myself, but I bought my run of Kilobaud off eBay from a reseller based in that town, so I'd like to think that these issues were the ones kept in the Green Publishing offices. As far as I know, there are no magazines left in town, but I'd still like to take a trip... or a pilgrimage... up there someday, just for kicks.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]



If you enjoy reading GameSetWatch.com, you might also want to check out these UBM TechWeb Game Network sites:

Gamasutra (the 'art and business of games'.)

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Finger Gaming (news, reviews, and analysis on iPhone and iPod Touch games.)

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

Worlds In Motion (discussing the business of online worlds.)


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