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January 13, 2007

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 1/13/07

['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.]

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A bit of advertising kicks off our magazine roundup for this week. For those of you deeply interested in all the little nooks and crannies of magazine history, the unofficial DVDs on sale from zzap64.co.uk are really a must -- the complete runs of over 20 British game and computer magazines are available in scanned-JPG format, including the twin publications (CRASH and Zzap!64) that pretty much defined what UK game mags would look like for the next quarter-century.

Three new magazines have been added in the past couple weeks that are well worth looking into: Mean Machines Sega was the premiere Sega-console mag in the country for the late-Genesis/early-Saturn era (and also features some of Julian Rignall's last writing for print mags); Commodore Disk User is a tech-oriented Commodore mag; and Computer Age is a very early (and pretty short-lived) computer-hobbyist title in the style of Byte or Creative Computing.

It's all available for sale on their non-publisher-supported site (and the cash helps them track down and scan other mags), but you can actually find many of the series available free for download if you poke around long enough -- for example, the World of Spectrum archive contains all of the mags from the zzap64.co.uk collections that included any coverage for the 8-bit Spectrum computer. Have fun.

With that out of the way, click on for a full look at all the new US game mags of the past fortnight.

Games for Windows: The Official Magazine February 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: The Crossing

This is GFW's "101 Free Games" issue, which was a yearly occasion in the CGW days, arguably reaching its peak back in '03 when they included a DVD with Deus Ex and a couple other "real" games. The mag's long been discless, however, and so this feature is instead your typical roundup of screenshots, quick paragraph descriptions, and URLs.

Otherwise: The main feature is devoted to The Crossing, which is a hot exclusive on a game which sounds positively fruity -- France, crazy templar superheroes, "cross-play" -- and I can't wait to see it execute half of what it promises. There's also a four-page roundtable (featuring everyone from Frank O'Connor to Orson Scott Card) discussing the issue of why videogame stories suck. (Frank O doesn't get into what happened with Halo 2, but it's still a fun read.)

Over in reviews: It's a downright bad month for the big-name titles, as Gothic 3, Heroes of Might & Magic V, the LOTR strategy sequel, and Splinter Cell all get average evaluations. Phantasy Star Universe ties for the top score, which a lot of other mags would probably disagree with.

Massive Magazine #2

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Cover: Some taur

EIC Steve Bauman brings up an interesting topic in his editorial this issue that I wouldn't mind discussing in-depth myself sometime: "Our surveys show that you want previews, reviews, and news. WIth zillions of websites out there featuring that material, we feel this magazine can focus on some of the other entertaining parts of gaming." As he points out, MMOs inherently lend themselves better to more off-beat features and examination than the standard magazine-review format would allow.

And indeed, the only very standard game-mag-type feature in this issue is six pages up front that tour the WoW: The Burning Crusade beta. Right after that, though, comes a story on a guy who took a troll to level 60 in WoW without ever wearing any armor, and even though it's a tiny piece, I still found it more fun to read than that big WOW:TBC feature. I'd say Bauman has the right idea here.

Proving this point: There are all manner of interesting features in Massive #2, including: a look at the "big five" last-gen MMOs (Everquest, Uo, Asheron's Call, DAoC and Anarchy Online) and how they're doing now; a collection of silly anecdotes related to player-killing in all its many forms; the story of a man who ran an incredible Ponzi scheme on EVE Online and made about $45,000 in real money off it; and (incredible coincidence here) a piece that attempts to look into the mind of griefers.

It's really nothing but interesting features (even to non-MMO people) from start to finish, and I'd highly recommend any gamer to pick this one up if they want something to really sink their teeth into this month. It's enough to make me wonder what a magazine like this, but not just limited to the MMO genre, would be like.

Computer Games February 2007

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Cover: The Most Anticipated Games of 2007

I feel kind of bad for saying this, but these days I'm much more psyched for every new issue of Massive over Computer Games, even though they're from the same publisher and basically the same writers. Why is this? I think it's because, even as Bauman and crew are creating quite literally a new form of game magazine over on Massive, with CGM they're still stuck working within the strictly defined boundaries of what readers expect from a PC game mag.

This issue of CGM has a bit of self-parody along these lines, including a page-sized "Mad Lib Preview" that pokes mercilessly at the typical game-mag filler -- "Powered by the (EXCLAMATION) Engine, its (PLURAL NOUN) are (ADJECTIVE), and feature excellent shader (PLURAL NOUN) to create (ADJECTIVE) water and some very (ADJECTIVE) (PLURAL ANIMAL)."

Still: The main story in this mag is one of the oldest tricks in the game-mag bag: the old "Top hits of the upcoming year" preview roundup. 22 games (and a certain operating system) get quick previews in this section, and everything from Spore to Bus Driver gets coverage. Not badly done...but it also strikes me that this is just the sort of thing the same editors are trying to avoid filling the pages with in Massive.

Maximum PC Presents The Ultimate Guide to PC Gaming Hardware

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Look out, soldier! Another Future special! This one features a lot of original content and comes with a CD demo of Sid Meier's Railroads!, which makes it somewhat more worth the $9.99 price -- but, then again, maybe I'm just a sucker for two-page spreads of bare PC hardware with lots of arrows pointing at bits of it.

PSM February 2007 (Podcast)

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A decided lack of PS3 stuff happening currently means that PSM does another hardware cover after just doing one a coupla months ago. This time they do an exhaustive comparison between the PS3 and Xbox 360, one that claims to be unbiased on the cover. Is that true? Well, yes, actually. The face-off feature itself features equal amounts of Chris Slate and OXM editor Francesca Reyes, and every section of it tries to give both systems equal coverage in the Fox News "fair and balanced" fashion. The result is not so great for the PS3 -- even Slate must admit up to it in the end: "I'm a big believer in what Sony has planned for the PS3 -- I just wish that more of it had been ready at launch."

Even better: There's a news piece labeled "PS3: How Not to Launch A Console," which goes over all the problems Sony's facing with their new system right now and gives the overall launch a C+ grade. And you thought Future mags were all about blind fandom.

Also: PSM gave Okami their Game of the Year award. Rock on. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is the front-runner of a review section packed with the also-rans of the Christmas season.

Tips & Tricks February 2007

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The second issue of T&T after Bill Kunkel became editor-in-chief also features the first editorial written by the guy himself. "We're in the midst of some major changes here," he writes, "but we believe that it's all about added value with no loss of the content that has made us the leading strategy magazine in the business for more than a dozen years."

Part of those major changes include making their website a serious place for cheats and strategies -- but, for now, Kunkel's invited all of us to the mag's MySpace page.

The upfront section: This month the mag kicks off with "IMHO," three pages of T&T's editors giving their answers to some classic debate topics (What's the most underrated game ever? What's the best power-up?) and invites readers to contribute their answers. If this manages to keep its momentum, it could be a neat regular column -- and a very Kunkel-y one, too, I should add.

[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.]

GameSetQ: Video Games Starring Video Game Villains?

- Here's a random question for all you smartasses out there - I was playing Capcom Classics Collection Remixed on my PSP during my commute the other day, and checking out the intro for Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts reminded me of the ever-dangerous gargoyle Red Arremer's own starring roles.

When I had a Game Boy back in 1991 or so, I picked up an import version of Gargoyle's Quest, which is, of course, one of the three spin-offs starring Red Arremer/Firebrand as "a gargoyle who is predestined to be the Red Blaze who saves the Ghoul Realm from the evil wrath of King Breager and brings peace to the land once again." Uh, right! But it was a fun little monochromatic title, nonetheless - and Demon's Crest for SNES is also pretty fun.

So my question to you guys is: How many video game villains can you name who subsequently starred in their own video games?

Please reply below in the comments - I'm imagining that someone will quickly go ahead and name a couple related to a certain Kyoto-dwelling console hardware company - and please do - but I'm also interested in some of the more obscure ones too, since I'm sure they exist and I sure can't place them.

Ultima Online - Reminisce, Maaaan!

-Michael 'Zonk' Zenke handily points me to a series of great Ultima Online retrospectives over at Nerfbat.com, written by Ryan Shwayder, formerly of SOE, and now of Green Monster Games (yes, the Curt Schilling-founded MMO firm).

The set of posts were actually inspired by Dan Rubenfeld's recently GSW-featured Ultima Online reminiscence - and Shwayder's first post talks about running wild in the seminal MMO: "Sometimes we’d tame a dragon, take him to the inside of one of our keeps, leave it there until it became untamed, and gate unsuspecting people into its deathly lair."

There's also a second part, which coos: "Occasionally, we’d find a relatively unoccupied enemy tower, and we would create a staircase out of crafted items (chairs, tables, or something, I don’t quite remember) to the top of the tower, then assault it from within or simply steal everything and go. Or I’d tame a dragon and have it fetch the items I could see on the inside of a house."

Or even a third one: "Anyone recall the black dye bin craze? The REAL black dye. Jet black, that made you blend into cave walls. Those things were worth a pretty penny after a while." Is it just me, or is some of this stuff more evocative than some World Of Warcraft story recounting, esp. because of the crazy house customization stuff and cheeky exploiting?

Manic Miner - The Opera!

- Returning to the Manic Miner & Jet Set Willy-themed Yahoo! Group to see if anyone cared about my recently GSW-published article on the subject (yes, yes, vanity!), I came across something pretty amazing - 'Manic Miner, The Opera'.

Composer Colin Broom explains: "A while back (just over a year ago)I was commissioned to compose some music for 'The Franz Kafka Big Band', a radio comedy show on BBC Radio Scotland. The comedy is pretty offbeat and knowing the writer as well as I do, I'm never too surprised at the ideas he wants to do."

"Anyway, one of these was a sketch about trying to make classical music appeal to a younger audience, and involved the supposed premiere of 'Manic Miner: the Opera', an opera about Miner Willy and his journey through the mines, which I had to compose sections of. There were three sections composed: I - Central Cavern; II - Eugene's Lair; III - Warehouse." [.MP3 links!]

Needless to say, this is an awesome idea - and it's carried out really well, too! Of course, only on unlikely places like BBC Scotland would an almost 25-year-old video game be considered likely "to make classical music appeal to a younger audience", but it's certainly right up my personal comedy alley, so all's right with the world.

January 12, 2007

Super Jazz Man Adventures His Way Into 2007

- I think word of GSW appreciating some of the freeware and indie adventure games made using AGS is getting out, because we got a new email from the devs at Herculean Effort: "I was wondering if you would be interested in checking out our new game, Super Jazz Man, which was released not long ago."

There's actually a YouTube trailer for the game, too, which "...puts you in the unitard and cape of a musical superhero who waits tables at the Zanzibar restaurant under the cover of night.. After playing a weekend concert that revolutionizes the local airwaves, our saxophonist receives a phone call at work." There's an interesting ethnicity-related comment in the YouTube comments for the game, but I'm presuming that the trailer just presents the game unfortunately in that regard.

In any case, there's a playable demo of the game available for PC - the full version is $8.95 for download from the Herculean Effort website. In addition, the Super Jazz Man folks comment: "You may already be familiar with our freeware point-and-click games Apprentice and Apprentice 2." Indeed - both of these are high quality, free AGS games.

MMOG Nation: 2006 In Retrospect

['MMOG Nation' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column looks back at 2006, and tries to give out credit and blame in equal measure.]

TrophyDespite 2006's expiration date already having past, it's the solemn duty of anyone with a column to reflect on what has come before. It's vitally important that we remember the best and worst moments of the previous year, so that when people screw up this year we can say we saw it coming. This year, of all years, it's even more important that we keep the past in mind. All three 'next-gen' consoles are now on the market, pundits are shouting from the rooftops about the 'revitalization' of PC Gaming, and there are at least two or three AAA Massive titles likely to be launched this year. At the end of this year, we'll be able to look back with 20/20 hindsight on what is sure to be a unique span of time in Massive Gaming. In the meantime, we can take that same look back on a year that ... well, wasn't that unique. Nothing huge launched, nothing big went under, and the only industry-shaking news was the 'death' of E3, something talked about at great length in many corners of the internet already. Just the same, there were some good times and some bad times this year that are worth noting. Read on for a listing of the tin badges I picked up at the corner store: the 2006 MMOG Nation awards.

The Big Winner Award

Big WinnerEVE Online - When EVE launched in 2003, it was competing with several other titles for the Sci-Fi niche of the Massive genre. At the start of 2007, it's almost the only contender left. Games like Anarchy Online or Star Wars Galaxies are just jokes now, and direct competitor Earth and Beyond has had its doors shuttered for quite some time now. That EVE is the only really viable SF MMOG running would be noteworthy enough, but 2006 saw the game just explode in popularity. A CCG, a new expansion, CCP's acquisition of White Wolf Games ... last year was an exciting time for the title. It is constantly topping itself for new 'most players' numbers, and unless something drastic happens I think 2007 is going to be a fantastic year for EVE as well. EVE isn't my thing, and I'm definitely not sure I agree with the MMORPG.com community awards. Just the same, I'd like to think I'm smart enough to know a good thing when I see it: EVE is a title to watch, in 2007 and beyond.

The World of Warcraft Award

WoWWorld of Warcraft - I think this is an award every Massive award list should just have, so people don't have to vote on WoW in other categories. WoW just wins the World of Warcraft Award, and that's that. What is there to say? The new expansion launches next Tuesday, on the heels of the announcement that the game has hit 8 Million subscribers. 2 million people in the U.S. play the game. Last year WoW became a CCG, the topic of a South Park episode, a meeting place, the new font from which all game addiction flows, and the template for every fantasy-genre Massive game to be released in the next decade. We'll see how well she does once the rocky Burning Crusade launch is over and done with, but there's no way this behemoth is going anywhere. WoW is the mountain on the horizon. We'll be using it to orient ourselves for a long, long time to come.

The Good to be Free Award

Good to be FreeGuild Wars and Shadowbane - This award mostly goes to Guild Wars, which was designed to be a free title. Shadowbane gets an honorable mention because some dedicated game-makers have kept the 'Play to Crush' title alive, despite reality and business sense telling them to give it up. More deservingly, Guild Wars is a title that is changing things for the better in the Massive neck of the woods. Monthly fee-less, high quality play experiences that aren't transplants from Asia can only serve to enrich the Western appetite for Massive games. I'm sure the next Diablo title is going to be huge, but I personally think that's a waste of time. We've got Guild Wars. What more do we need?

The Anybody Wanna Buy a MMOG Award

RyzomSaga of Ryzom - Oh pretty, pretty Ryzom. Such a beautiful, French game. Even your 'roll your own module' gameplay addition, possibly the most inventive idea to be introduced to the Massive genre in years, wasn't enough to keep Nevrax afloat. Saga of Ryzom was finally purchased, and not by the 'Free Ryzom' foundation more's the pity. It's a sad day, though, when such a unique experience has to fight tooth and nail for a spot at the table. With a new crew steering the ship, we can only hope that Ryzom will be able to find more players willing to inhabit its well-decorated and highly unusual niche in the marketplace.

The Green Is Beautiful Award

GreenWarhammer Online - If you'd asked me what I thought about WAR a year ago, I would have grumbled about a poor translation of the RPG experience and then turned away. Having actually heard the (very passionate) devs describing what they're trying to bring to the party, I'm much more inclined to think this is going to work out. Really, Mythic is leading with what they do best: Realm vs. Realm combat. The orcs and skaven and chaos beasts are all along for the ride, but gameplay-wise Mythic is doing what it does best, and turning the amp up to 11. If they pull this off (and that's a big if at this point), I think WAR might be the only game in the offing that can give WoW a well-deserved kick in the pants. Go Greenskins!

The Men In Tights Award

TightsMarvel Universe Online and DC Online - They get to share this one. They'll be when they finally come out, so it seems only fitting that they get started here. While the DC MMOG has been publicly in the works since 2005, the yang to its yin was only announced as of E3 of 2006. The possibility of a fightout between MMOGs for both the DC and Marvel worlds is delicious to behold. If you add in City of Heroes, the three-way battle that will ensue becomes not only fascinating from a gaming perspective, but a business standpoint as well. Two of the games will be run by Cryptic Studios, which has proven itself capable if somewhat unimaginative with the superhero formula. SOE, on the other hand, is a Massive industry leader ... but they've never done anything like a comic-book MMOG before. It's going to be a fight to remember, and so the humble origins are important to remember.

The 'Most Improved Student' Award

StudentThe EverQuest Franchise - Both EQLive and EverQuest 2 saw the launch of kickass expansions this year. In the case of EverQuest, I think the Serpent's Spine justifies its existence in a way that recent developments have not. As for EQ2, World of Warcraft's ugly kid sister has blossomed into a prom queen. Faydwer gives old school players their propers, while introducing new twists and the extremely adorable Fae. The theories rolling around is that the next expansion will offer up a new evil city, and a new evil race. Whatever it is, I hope it can live up to the customization and creativity of the little folk. Say what you will about some of SOE's other properties, but the folks working on EQLive and EQ2 are doing a bang-up job. Can't wait to see what they have in store for us this year.

The Thanks For All The Fish Award

The FishIf you've been reading along with the column, you already know some of the MMOG bloggers I enjoy, but I wanted to make sure to publicly thank two gents for their writing. They're moving on to bigger and better things, and so we'll no longer be able to rely on them for insight into the MMOG-releated issues of the day. The Cesspit and Darniaq: Verbosity Unleashed are both now (mostly) quiet after several years of intelligent discourse. I'm especially saddened by Darniaq's sign-off, as I was hoping he'd be my first Citizen Spotlight for 2007. So it goes. Good luck to both Abalieno and Darniaq; your posting will be missed.

The Nigh-Onto-Clueless Company Award

?Turbine - Those folks need their heads examined. This is now a company offering the biggest disappointment of 2006 (DDO), a title from the era of EQLive that still has most of its original paint (Asheron's Call), and a game that looks like the most boring incarnation of Tolkien's vision ever to be brought to a computer screen (LOTRO). Seriously, how the hell do you make Tolkien boring? Lord of the Rings Online looks to be shaping itself into a gigantic waste of a very important license. When they proudly began showing us trailers and screenshots in 2006, it was all I could do not to laugh out loud. Wow ... so, you can autoattack? Orcs? And you can play a dwarf? Fascinating! There is a talented group of people working a Turbine, and it kills me to see their work showcased like this. DDO is just now starting to go interesting places, but how do you survive a launch like the game had? The concept of monster-based PvP is intriguing, but how do you convince people that LOTRO isn't EQ with added Tom Bombadil flavoring? I honestly hope they do better this year, but 2006 was just a bad year for Turbine.

The Big Loser Award

At Least He TriedAuto Assault - What if they threw a MMOG, and nobody came? That question was answered last year, when NCSoft proved that they don't always have the golden Massive touch. Even with the popularity of titles like City of Heroes, Gulid Wars, and Lineage cushioning the crushing failure of Auto Assault, the wasted time and effort of 44 employees has to hurt. The continued existence of this game just makes me sad. I really hope NCSoft tries to make the best of this by dropping the monthly fee, and aiming for a box-sales model like the one employed by Guild Wars. I say give those employees reasons to be proud of their work again, and give AA the only chance it has to make it in this cut-throat MMOG market. Otherwise, I hope the 2007 future of this title is a quick, painless death.

Whatever comes our way in 2007, there's going to be a lot to talk about. Here's hoping that you keep reading GameSetWatch, and keeping an eye out for the MMOG Nation column. Have fun in the Outlands, folks!

[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. ]

Birdwatching Sim 'Stealthier Than Thief'

- We do get some 'alternative' pitches round here (though, note, the headline is a joke!), and this one is from Thief executive producer Joe Gilby, who comments of his friend's game: "It is interesting to see stealth used in a totally different real world simulation. It's quite an accomplishment for Richard Gardener to have been able to pull this off with only a couple contractors to help him."

The 'stealth' in question is in, wait for it, Indigo Games' PC indie title "Wildlife Explorer: Birds of North America", which "...offers a unique 3D birding experience. It is an authentic immersion in birding, easily accessible from the comfort of your living room pc. The game is a deep and rewarding simulation of bird spotting, incorporating 45 distinct species with individualized animations, high quality recordings for bird calls, featuring rich bird behaviors such as mobbing and predator hunting."

What's more: "You learn to stealthily track, spot and photograph a plethora of birds in a variety of settings, on your way to documenting the legendary Ivory-billed Woodpecker to become a Master Birder." There's even a hook: "Led by researchers from the prestigious Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the real-life hunt is on to confirm the re-discovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, believed until recently to be extinct. Participate in this search, in the virtual world of Birds." You know, I _do_ think this game deserves a bit more exposure.

Game Developer Jan. Issue For Free Digital Viewing!

- Hey, good news for those who'd like to check out the latest issue of Game Developer magazine, the U.S.-based trade mag for game professionals that we run when we're not posting on GameSetWatch. The latest, January 2007 issue is now available for free online viewing, since it's our new digital sample issue!

A quick rundown from a Gamasutra story on the issue: "The cover feature for the January 2007 issue is 'Not Your Typical Grind: Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam for Wii' by Toys for Bob's Toby Schadt... The January issue also reveals Game Developer’s 2006 Front Line Awards, as announced in December, which "pays homage to the companies and products that make game development possible"... Another major feature is Chris Hind and Dan Bell's 'Setting The Bar' [about choosing your battles when fixing bugs in games!]"

Anyhow, there's also all the normal and very neat columns from our veteran columnists like Noah Falstein, Steve Theodore, Mick West and Jesse Harlin, and there's an opportunity to subscribe to either the physical or digital versions of the magazine over at the official website.

I won't put too much of a hard sell on you, but there's a lot of unique, practical content in Game Developer that you can't get anywhere else, if you're a developer, student, or wannabe developer - and the digital version comes with searchable access to back issues all the way to 2004, too. Though we like paper! [Oh, and in the immediate future, the February 2007 issue has an exclusive postmortem of Resistance: Fall Of Man by the Insomniac guys in it - yay.]

Bad Game Designer, New Twinkie Database!

- Good Lord, all I have to do for GSW nowadays is cut and paste things that people email to me. I like this 'Web 2.0' approach! This one is from Ernest Adams: "I'm going to mention it in my next Designer's Notebook column anyway, but I thought I would mention that the long-promised database of Twinkie Denial Conditions is now online."

Ernest continues: "Well, I SAY "database," it's that kind of database known as a "flat file." Anyway, I've organized them by topic and when you click on one, it takes you straight to its description in the original column." For those not aware, the concept of the Bad Designer, No Twinkie idea is: "Even great games can include design errors. Here’s a list of things not to do."

It's explained further: "These are all the Twinkie Denial Conditions described in my “Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!” Designer’s Notebook columns. Each one is an egregious design error, although many of them have appeared in otherwise great games. I’ve organized them into general categories." Here's a random example: 'Wrecking a Game's Balance for the Sake of A "Cool Feature"'. Nobody said all of these conditions were fair, but they're generally pretty damn readable!

January 11, 2007

Space Rangers Prequel Gets TotalGamed

- Got a note from Tom Ohle which is worth passing on to you unwashed masses: "Stardock just launched Space Rangers: The Klissan War -previously unavailable in North America - on TotalGaming.net for $19.99 or 1 token (that's less than $10 if you go the token route). They've bundled it with Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators for $29.99 or 3 tokens."

This is pretty cool - European sites such as Eurogamer were big fans of the Space Ranger series - though note that in the UK, Space Rangers 2 and Space Rangers came in the same box and were collectively called 'Space Rangers', whereas in the States, Cinemaware Marquee did a standalone retail release of Space Rangers 2 and called it... Space Rangers 2. As far as I can divine!

Anyhow, the point is, the Space Rangers series is a sprawling PC space exploration game which is, Kieron Gillen claims, "...precisely aimed at my soft spots – emergent situations, freeform universes, sheer quirkiness, and being constructed by an underdog developer in the middle of nowhere (Vladivostok, apparently)." It's interesting that Eastern Europe/Russia is starting to produce innovative titles that flow away from the traditional RTS/FPS genres which apparently keep the German economy strong, so I say, by all means support it!

GameSetOuttakes: Trip Hawkins On 3DO, Mobile Domination

- In a few days, we'll be publishing a comprehensive and rather neat history of Electronic Arts over at Gamasutra, thanks to a sterling effort by GSW columnist Jeffrey Fleming.

But, since we had the return of 3DO Kid just the other day, and one of the interviewees for our EA piece is Trip Hawkins, the EA founder and 3DO supremo, nowadays running mobile firm Digital Chocolate, we realized we had some neat out-takes from the Hawkins interview, and they should go up on GameSetWatch.

Thanks again to Trip - watch for his full comments in the imminent Gama piece! Here's what we left out due to space constraints:

Hawkins On Silicon Valley in The ‘70’s

"I might not have discovered Silicon Valley if I had not chosen Stanford for graduate school. I might not have learned about the first computer retail store without the coincidence that I took a summer job in Santa Monica and that is there the world's first computer store opened up. Then the first store in the first chain of stores opened near my home in Mountain View when I was attending Stanford. And I drove past Fairchild on the way to school, and they introduced the first cartridge video game system and I made a cold call on them one day to offer to do some free market research, and they said yes.

Ironically, the major institutions at that time - including Stanford, Berkeley, National Semiconductor, H-P, IBM, and Intel - did NOT grasp the concept of home computing and video games. For example, while I was at Apple a close colleague of mine that had gone to Berkeley tried to get the Computer Science professors interested in Apple, and they thought the Apple II was basically a pointless tinker toy."

Hawkins On 3DO

"After scoring a massively favorable license with Sega, I knew I had a big bull's eye drawn on my chest because the console guys would make sure I could never repeat what I had done with the Genesis. And on the PC side, nothing was going on that would advance the cause of the gamers and the game industry. This was 1990. Nobody liked paying high royalties under restrictive licenses, and what made it even worse was having to build ROM cartridges at great cost and inventory risk.

I knew the Genesis would give EA a great ride at least until 1994, but was afraid for what would happen after that. At that point, Sony had no idea they were going to enter the business and invent the PlayStation. I saw that great software companies like Microsoft and Sega and Nintendo all had created their own platforms. I thought the industry needed one to push forward with 3D graphics and optical disc media and networking capability. Nobody was doing anything, so it seemed like the window was open. That much proved to be true.

3DO was able to raise some money and recruit some big partners. But by 1993 Sony had made a $2 billion commitment, and even with all our partners we could not match what Sony was willing to do. 3DO ended up being a catalyst for many constructive changes. For example, even Sony executives have admitted to me that they copied many aspects of the 3DO licensing program."

Hawkins On His Latest Firm, Digital Chocolate

"By 2003 you could see the mass market adoption of SMS, camera phones, and ringtones, and the early growth of mobile games. Collectively I could see that the public was craving new ways to "reach out and touch someone." I realized that the mobile phone was really the first social computer. Social value will drive market growth, and that includes games. Human beings do not aspire to be alone. Playing by ourselves in isolation is not our quest for meaning.

Digital Chocolate is really catching on. We've won more awards and garnered the highest review scores in the industry in the last two years. This is the result of innovative games like Night Club Empire, Rollercoaster Rush, Brain Juice, and Tower Bloxx, which come with social community features. We're also inventing new social games like MLSN Sports Picks, where you can create a private club with some buddies and compete by predicting sports outcomes.

We're just now launching AvaPeeps, where you create and use an avatar that has its own social life and goes on dates with other avatars. It's fun to have a grown-up "Tamagochi" that is depressed after a bad blind date, but then gets elated over some hottie he met at our virtual beach. And that avatar hook-up might even lead to meeting the love of your life in reality.

The mobile phone could very well be "gaming for the rest of us." Hardcore gamers are about 5% of the population, but everyone has a mobile phone. There is synergy between the markets and traditional gamers will be key influencers and leaders, but in the end the mass market will want a different product experience that has more social value and will adopt a lot of new brands. This gives Digital Chocolate a great opportunity."

Game Biz's 2007 Resolutions? Maybe You Know!

- Throwing this one over here as well because I'd love some extra perspective from GSW types - over at Gamasutra, we're asking a new 'Question Of The Week' about the game business' resolutions for 2007.

This is really for professionals or those close to the industry, but: "The question, which can be answered at the official Question Of The Week page until January 13th, is: "If there was one change you'd like to see the video game industry effect in 2007, what would it be?" Answers could involve working conditions, different business models, legislation-related changes, image shifts, or even game trends - we'd like to see a large diversity of ideas for the game biz to consider in 2007."

So, if you have a clue and you're vaguely game biz-related (ideally!), please post! We already have some neat answers from folks like Cryptic's Clarinda Merripen, so I'm looking forward to posting the results soonish.

[While we're on the subject of sister sites and GSW-relevant stories, Alistair Wallis wrote a profile of Zombies Ate My Neighbors' Mike Ebert just posted over on Gama as part of the 'Playing Catch-Up' history series - I think this is one of the first times he's been interviewed standalone on his history in the biz? Fascinating stuff.

Also, Crystal Dynamics' Jason Weesner posted a rather neat history of the game biz over at our edu site GameCareerGuide.com, including a paean to the glory days of Ed's Model & Hobby Shop in Coronado, CA, which sounds like a great place in 1982.]

Metroid Art Fun Migrates To GDC Funkiness

Here's a fun little chronology for all you guys. It goes a little like this:

1. Game Developer magazine Features Editor and Insert Credit supremo Brandon Sheffield is browsing eBay while perfecting his Gackt likeness and fending off Ziff Davis claims that he's emo! He discovers some very cool painted NES consoles on eBay, among them a cute Metroid case version.

2. Michael 'GeekOnStun' McWhertor over at Kotaku goes and reads IC, and posts about them too, leading to various commenters saying "...The Metroid painting was the only one that looked professional", and Brandon reporting Kotaku to the Internet link-borrowing authorities, even if they did credit him with a 'via' (he has his reputation as a moody goth to keep up!)

3. Still, it turns out that GDC Executive Director Jamil Moledina reads Kotaku, not Insert Credit (*nelson* HAH HAH! */nelson*), and he goes and smacks down $100+ on the 'Buy It Now' link for the actually good painted NES, the Metroid one. Then it comes to the CMP Game Group office, and we all point at it, and Jamil takes a picture:

If you notice, I called the picture 'jametroid.jpg'. Hee - I so funny! For reference, the other things in the picture include one of those neeto Katamari Damacy hats that came out early in 2005.

In fact, Jamil gave one to Keita Takahashi at the 2005 GDC, and Takahashi's Time Magazine profile later in 2005 had a picture of him wearing a hat and posing next to a cow. There are also artfully arranged GDC meeting papers and the latest issue of Game Developer. (Jamil's desk is actually more 'sprawling' than this and has more Battlestar Galactica merchandise on it, but he's being modest. 42!)

So the moral of this story is - everyone should use Kotaku for cube to cube merchandise recommendations within their office! It's quicker than smoke signals, and you get to see more YouTube videos of large unclaimed PS3 displays that way. THE END!

January 10, 2007

Vince Twelve Gives Us The Ol' Adventure Game Dazzle

- Over at Gnome's Lair, they've posted an interview with offbeat adventure game creator 'Vince Twelve', whose splitscreen and wonderfully named 'What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed' we have previously covered on GSW.

Turns out Mr. Twelve, who is based in Japan, has done some very neat other experimental adventure game we didn't notice, including Anna ("You are Hero, a clear-room technician charged with the maintenance of all the station’s systems including Anna, the intelligent computer system that runs the station.The day starts as routinely as any other, but ends with Homeworld’s very survival in jeopardy"). The front page of his site is a neat blog, too.

He also helped out on Spooks ("...as close to the Land of the Dead that you can get with a pulse. In this immersive Sierra-style adventure, you play as Mortia, an adorably cynical little ghoul girl."), and [EDIT!], pops up in comments to note: "Spooks was written and designed by Erin Robinson. I just took on programming and distributing duties. And it falls more into the nostalgic category than the experimental category, but it's still an awesome game!"

I also love his comments about innovation in games: "I do think that innovation is important, but I don’t think it’s necessary in every game. A lot of people are making games with more consideration for nostalgia than innovation, and that’s perfectly fine. Afterall, refining and perfecting old ideas can be just as important as coming up with new ones. If you’re making a game, especially a freeware game, you only have to answer to yourself, so you can make the kind of game that you want to make."

He continues: "That being said, freeware game makers are in a unique position to innovate. Since they don’t have significant money invested in the game, it isn’t such a big deal if their clever, innovative idea doesn’t work so well in a game as it did in their head. Compared to a big developer with millions of dollars invested in a title’s success, or even a small developer who scraped together every last penny they could find to fund their game, this is a big opportunity to take some risks and try something new." Which he does. Thanks, Vince!

Falstein Sez - Use Your Brain!

- The Escapist has just posted some neat new articles, and one of them is named 'Shark Bone or Shark Oil?', and sees Bonnie Ruberg profiling Game Developer magazine design columnist and long-time design veteran Noah Falstein.

In particular, Ruberg notes Falstein's "...recent alliance with Quixit, a shiny new company out to save our minds, represents a unique synthesis of neurological research and game design that combines verified scientific process with the growth and support potential of an online community - and then makes it fun." In other words, it's all about the mental exercise, Brain Training stylee.

It's explained: "Quixit, which was born when CEO Sheryle Bolton acquired licenses to the France-based Happy Neuron brain game panoply, approaches [patient motivation to learn] bidirectionally: from one angle using Falstein's design expertise to refine the research-based Happy Neuron games for an entertainment aesthetic, and from another angle creating an online community where hundreds of thousands of potential users can share experiences, engage in friendly competition and, very importantly for primary health practitioners who may only see their patients once or twice a year, track and monitor individual progress." Intriguing article, and an interesting company, to boot.

Video Gaming In Iraq - Not So Crazy

- Despite the fact that MTV's website is still auto-video-playing, Flash-triggeringly awful, we're still going to link to Stephen Totilo's excellent new article 'Mortal Combat: An Iraqi Gamer Shares His Harrowing Story', over at MTV News.

It's revealed: "What's the gaming life been like in Baghdad? It has followed a path familiar to many European gamers, where the Amiga computer was the premiere gaming system at a time when the Nintendo Entertainment System dominated in America and Japan. Then the Sega Genesis was big. ("Mortal Kombat" on that machine was a... favorite.) Then came PlayStation. Nintendo was never big. The dominant games were always the soccer titles, [Iraqi gamer] Wisam said. He couldn't find many folks like himself who, in his words, is a " 'Final Fantasy' freaker.""

Wisam also notes: "Most of the games he buys are bootlegs, sold for about a dollar in Baghdad's Tahrir Square. "Before the invasion, we could buy a lot of games," Wisam said. "The games are available if you go outside. But maybe I'll get killed by a car bomb or [improvised explosive device]."" So, hardly a normal EB/GameStop situation then. But it's heartening (and a little weird?) to note that Final Fantasy fanboyism is alive and well even in Baghdad.

'Beyond 3DO': Round 2 - 3DO FZ1 vs Atari Jaguar - 'Death Race 2007!'

NFS-logo-small.jpg [After a break - he apparently nearly 32-bit gamed himself to death, having played and completed over 60 3DO titles in 2006, 3DO Kid is back. He's updating his blog. He's written a new entry for his GameSetWatch column, and all is well with the world - except, of course, the Angels of 32bit retro gaming that talk to him, and disturbingly, only him, through the medium of his 3DO controller... racing games this time, apparently!]

It is good to be back.

“What? What was that you said? Back to the 3DO games cupboard to pluck another game to duel in the endless war between 3DO Multiplayer and Atari Jaguar? Oh, OK! Back to the cupboard.”

[3DO Kid stuffs hand inside ‘3DO games’ cupboard, followed by the sounds of rummaging]

Megarace? No, sorry, the Atari Jaguar doesn’t have any streamed from CD racing games – lucky for it.”

[Rummage. Rummage.]

Autobahn Tokio? Nope. It doesn’t have any arcade street racers either.”

[Rummage, rummage.]

Crash ‘n Burn. What the!? Angels? ANGELS!!? Oh-there you are. What’s with the racing games? The 3DO and Jaguar had different types of racing games - they can't be compared!”

[Short eerie silence as the voices were communed with.]

“Oh – OK, I get it. Racing games for Round 2 then. The Atari Jaguar's best racing game versus 3DO's best racing game. Easy - when it's explained.”

3DO Vs. Jaguar - The Racing Game Overview!

The Jaguar, despite sharing its name with one of the most beautiful brands of car on Earth, was somewhat bereft of any decent racing titles.

Virtua Racing, no, sorry, I mean Checkered Flag leads the Atarian field, just ahead of Pro Rally Drive which hobbles in a 16-bit fashion semi-impressively across the field, with Club Drive bringing up the rear. Which, in many ways – is very appropriate.

Stil,l the 3DO offerings aren’t that great either. Megarace or Mega-stream-from-CD-athon, Autobahn Tokio, which despite my rose tints and the fact it does share some tracks, in my honest opinion (Retro Gamer Magazine, I’m looking at you!) with Gran Turismo – isn’t all that great. Crash ‘n Burn? It’s loved, but I don’t know why. So nope. F1GP – easily the worst F1 game eve. Hmm - too close to call, isn’t it?

But then hold on. What’s that? Oh yes. I remember. The 3DO Multiplayer delivers epic Atari smashing grandeur with Need for Speed. Oh yes. So it did.

Ha! Ha! Ha! [It’s good to see an unbiased attitude, isn’t it?] Easy one. 3DO has already won round two. Nothing. Not one Jaguar game can compete with the Need for Speed on the 3DO.

3DO: The Need... For Speed!

NFS-RX7-small.jpg The 3DO version of a Need for Speed is probably the only version of the Need for Speed you’ll ever need to really worry about. In contrast to many of the later sequels that EA spews forth each Christmas, NFS 3DO is set in broad daylight. It has cars that looks like cars, and offers a passing nod to the laws of physics.

The Need, in 1994, was not to glue bits of oversized Airfix kits to the car, or for that matter strap bits of fish tank lighting equipment to the underside. No indeed it wasn’t. The Speed, in ’94, was about Porsches, Ferraris and Lambos. With a few American and Japanese cars thrown in to make the numbers up!

Oh yes. The Need for Speed – born out of developers that had been bringing us 16-bit racing joy with the likes of Test Drive on the Amiga. 'Twas EA Canada – the Lord bless them and keep them – except, of course, we know he didn’t. Git.

There were three tracks broken into three sections each. It had coasts, hot air balloons, cities, snow, hidden scooters. Everything and more. No circuits, mind. Circuits were introduced when Satan had finished modifying NFS to run on the Sega and Sony machines.

Back in Nov ’94, The Need for Speed was accused of a couple of things that initially appear to be insane. Only on closer examination are they very actually insane. Firstly, it was accused of not giving the player the impression they were actually in a race. (Edge magazine – I’m now looking at you!) Well, that’s rubbish for a start. The only way to play NFS is from the in-car view. The sense of urgency you get when you hear that damned whine from the 512TR coming up from behind - or indeed, from that black and white car with the blue flashy things on the roof, filling the rear-view, certainly made me feel like I was in a race.

The second accusation was you were unable to explore the environment. Explore? What is this? A 4X4 simulator? Still, fair is fair - I explored my need to watch a Mazda RX7 pirouette across the road with smoke pouring out of its engine - that was all the exploration I needed. Explore? Really? Who writes this stuff? Even the graphics stand up today and the X-man – your ‘A’-merican FMV opponent, wasn’t half as cheesy as I remember. In fact, I kind of liked him. A role model to look up to, in my opinion. Who need 50 Cent when you have a Porsche 993? Replays? A horn?

It’s just a shame that NFS turned up when it did. If it had been delivered a year earlier, I think things would have turned out better. For 3DO anyway. If it had been a launch title for the 3DO – the world may have been a different place. It didn’t and it wasn’t. Trouble was, you see, NFS slid up to the lights, revving the hell out of its engine, only to peer across and see Ridge Racer and Daytona on the far side, running on the more powerful PSX and Saturn. It was a race that was over before it started.

Jaguar: Time To Take The Checkered Flag!


chkflag2.jpg However – pausing for a second today, a little older and a little wiser, we sneak a glance out of the nearside window – and lo what is that? My – my, it looks like a Japanese racer, a Sega Japanese racer – but what’s that? Just a minute - Oh no it’s not. It’s Checkered Flag on the Jaguar. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery – but in my opinion they should have just sent flowers.

To put things into context. If NFS is a Porsche, Ridge Racer a Ferrari and Daytona a Lamborghini, then Checkered Flag is a Kia. No really – it is.

I like textureless 3D models. I really do. I’ll be honest; I preferred Virtua Fighter's graphics to the textured Tekken graphics. I liked the graphics of Virtua Cop and Virtua Racing. So, I do like the clean lines of the graphics in Checkered Flag – sure, compared to the NFS on the 3DO, these bald polygons look somewhat dated – but there is a cute nostalgia. A warm glow. And it’s not from me wetting myself laughing at the ‘best racer on the Atari Jaguar’.

The sale must have been an easy one. Virtua Racer was a popular game and making a clone for the burgeoning next generation of machines must have made sense. Once that sale was made, it’s clear the developers sat and looked at Virtua Racer and analyzed its weaknesses. More tracks, more weather, more options. Sure. Great. Yes – well done. But there must have been either a sales or marketing pressure to make Checkered Flag appeal to two gaming demographics, where Virtua Racer only really appealed to one. Arcade racing fans. The addition of simulator elements made Checkered Flag rubbish, and it stalls as a game. Somewhere, hidden, I’m sure there is a game. Some claim to have found it. But in my opinion it’s the Osama Bin Laden of hiding, not the Saddam Hussein type of hiding. I doubt I could find the game play even with the help of 250,000 US troops.

The frame rate is jerky, pop-up - something that normally I don’t even notice - is really chronic, the handling is really bad; it suffers from awful under-steer. Trying to pit in is a real challenge, regardless of how slow you are going. It’s all a bit of a mess. Trust me when I say it is rubbish.

Thrilling Conclusion?

So that’s it. Easy round two for the 3DO then. The best news is that Freedo has released an updated version of their 3DO Multiplayer emulator, and NFS never looked better on your PC.

So where are we? Oh yes.

3DO 1: Atari Jaguar 1:

All to play for in the next round, then!

Keyboard Power, Bizarre Oldskool Adventure Novels?

- The Adventure Classic Gaming site is one of those niche but adorable sites that I kiss the Internet, Mahir-style, for having created, and its latest update is a feature called 'Keyboard Power' by Leopold McGinnis, discussing "...the passing of a dear old friend—the keyboard."

McGinnis notes nostalgically: "Today, the idea of using a keyboard to enter commands into a gaming system seems laughably archaic. Not too long ago, however, it was the preferred (if not only) option for playing games. In a gaming world where ergonomic and instamatic refinements on the game playing experience pop up every other week, it’s easy to get lost in the moment and lose track where this is all headed, to forget about the way things once were and what we once took for granted."

But what I think is even more interesting is the author's bio - apparently he "...is the author of Game Quest, a novel published by Underground Uprising Press about the hostile takeover of the world’s most famous computer game company and the death of the adventure game." And wow, if you're into thinly veiled Sierra homages, you're in luck!

So what's it all about? "Nestled deep in the California Mountains, the tight-knit Madre family is the envy of the computer gaming world. Since founding the company fifteen years ago, Will and Kendra Roberts have pioneered an industry by following their own brand of folksy, do-the-right-thing business ethic. But success proves to be their greatest enemy as their company begins to slip wildly beyond their control, and venture capitalists, smelling money, flood the market with cheap knock-offs of Madre's product. Not only that, but the new monstrously popular 3D shoot-em-ups threaten to put the final bullet in Madre's signature Adventure Games."

Damn them, and this is pretty adorable - Emily Morganti has done a review of the book over at Adventure Gamers, where she notes: "The novel is full of detailed scenes and dynamic characters, and it has a well-structured plot. Game Quest lacks some of the polish of professionally-published titles, but then again, so did many of Sierra's games, and those are still considered classics. This homegrown labor of love is a fitting tribute to the Sierra that used to be, and a great read for anyone with even a little nostalgia for those good old days." I like the idea of Game Quest, esp. for a hyper-niche audience. Like you?

January 9, 2007

Utne Reader Pokes And Prods At Games

- The be-bearded Raph Koster handily points to an extremely interesting Utne Reader cover story on games, written by Chris Suellentrop (who covers games for Slate on occasion, I believe).

The Utne Reader is an somewhat bizarre but neat alt.periodical and Suellentrop's conclusion for his article (reprinted from the even more obscure Wilson Quarterly) is actually an odd but thought-provoking one:

"Whether you find the content of video games inoffensive or grotesque, their structure teaches players that the best course of action is always to accept the system and work to succeed within it... Our video-game brains, trained on success machines, may be undergoing a Mr. Universe workout, one that leaves us stronger but less flexible. So don't worry that video games are teaching us to be killers. Worry instead that they're teaching us to salute."

For his part, Koster notes that the article "...argues that games may be driving gamers to be more conformist — because they teach you to solve the problems presented, not to break out of patterns and truly innovate. As part of the basis for this argument, the author uses my book a fair amount." Koster comments, however: "But I think it’s a mistake to perceive the ordinary daily play of games as being the only way to engage with games."

No, Guv'nor, It's The Game Truth, Promise?

- This may just be egging on the unnecessary, but I note that grumpy/cynical UK game journalist anony-blogger The RAM Raider has tipped his hat in the direction of grumpy/cynical UK game developer anony-blogger, 'Game Truth', currently dispensing hate and vitriol on a near-weekly basis.

A good point to start? 'Super studios', in which Mr. Truth claims: "The inside news is this: British developers are the worst developers in the world. Specifically, large-scale British developers are the worst in the world. They live in a high-currency climate, they spend money away on stupid ideas, they perpetuate a management class that drifts from studio to studio, driving each one to the edge of extinction."

There's also an semi-vicious attack on studio mergers: "When two developers merge it’s because one of them has no money and both have no ideas (but the money developer’s CEO hasn’t done his homework and doesn’t realise). These mergers ALWAYS fail, resulting in one of the companies getting eaten by the other and a consequent large staff overhead that dwindles resources, brand values and all the rest of it." Which is fun.

Coogan's Epic Gravitar Run, Revealed!

- Via new columnist Arttu's Solvalou.com, I spotted the homepage of Gravitar world record holder Dan Coogan, which is full of all kinds of gorgeous tips, stories, and interviews regarding the classic 1982 Atari vector monitor arcade game.

The biggest news, of course: "HIGH SCORE UPDATE: December 23, 2006: I surpassed my previous high score (3,652,700 on 9/8/03) with a new high score of 8,029,450. A NEW WORLD RECORD! Game play started at 10:15 AM Friday, December 22nd and ended at 9:30 AM Saturday, December 23, 2006 (23 hours 15 minutes). The game was recorded on digital video and refereed by Brien King." A totally awesome pic of Dan accompanies the announcement.

Elsewhere on the site, there's all kinds of awesome stuff - the full design documentation for Gravitar scanned in, including the Atari employee ID badges for creators Mike Hally and Rich Adam. There are also some newly updated, detailed email comments from both of the creators, including an important secret:

"[Rich Adam] answered a major question for me: Why is the game resetting? (frustrating, when you are playing for more than 10 hours and going for the world record, and suddenly it's "game over" ). Once the game stores more than 128 ships in it's memory, it can reset. Rich advised me to keep the total number of ships in reserve below 128 -- I did that and was able to break the Gravitar world record."

IGS Gets Blow On Prototyping, Braid

- So, we've been pressing on with plans for the 2007 Independent Games Summit, and we just finished up the list of sessions for the 2-day conference taking place immediately before the Independent Games Festival this March, yay.

There's a couple of panelists left to fill in, but we just confirmed the final unfilled lecture for the 2007 IGS today: 'Indie Prototyping, Braid, & Making Innovative Games', from Number None's Jonathan Blow. As we explain: "Former Game Developer magazine code columnist and 2006 IGF Design Innovation winner Jonathan Blow, the creator of innovative time-manipulating platform title Braid, discusses the deliberate methodology behind his indie game prototyping. He shows how he conceives, develops, and tests out indie concepts in playable form, and discusses how you know when a prototype is working, and where to take it from there, demonstrating multiple in-development prototypes (including Braid) along the way."

Some other recent tweaks - we just added Ryan Clark from Professor Fizzwizzle/FizzBall creator Grubby Games to the 'Indie Development Logistics' panel, alongside folks from Klei Entertainment, Gastronaut Studios, and NinjaBee - should be an interesting panel! Also, Introversion co-founder Mark Morris is making an appearance, alongside Manifesto's Greg Costikyan and a couple of other neat/sekrit to-be-announced people, in the final 'Building The Future of Indie Games' panel. Hope some of you can make it!

January 8, 2007

Will Wii Win? A Japanese Perspective

- This has been floating around my 'to be posted' list for a while, but I haven't seen anyone else put it up, so - 'Western game developer in Japan' blog Japanmanship has a neat post called 'Will Wii Win?', all about Nintendo's new console and the Japanese market.

Some of his key insights? "In Japan companies know customers expect free goodies for loyalty... This goes a long way and Nintendo play that game very well. Club Nintendo in Japan is actually worthwhile; the presents you can get on points are usually pretty cool. Gold and Platinum members, which depends on how many points you accrue, get given extra freebies, probably at quite a cost to Nintendo." This is a good point.

The conclusion? "In the end it is injudicious to speak of winners or that hateful term “console war”... I certainly hope the PS3 can keep its fair share of the market and the Wii will keep selling, as well as Microsoft finally cracking that Japanese market that has eluded it so far despite some heroic efforts. As a consumer though, my choice is clear: the Wii is providing me more value for money and fun than either of its competitors could hope to manage."

@ Play: Giant Eel Stories, Volume 2

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.]

In Giant Eel Stories, we examine the phenomenon of Usenet victory posts, in which players crow about games which were very interesting, often because of something that happened, or some conduct they upheld, or they won. This time we again focus on Nethack, although we may not in the future.

In this installment:

- We learn about a wizard who wasn't just content with killing a lot of monsters, but had to kill all the monsters....

- After than, we meet a Healer who won the game without killing anything at all, although it must be said a large horde of henchmen was seen following him through the dungeons...

- We have a look at the story of the Priest who did not win, but will still be remembered probably for years to come for getting the highest score. And when I say that, I mean she really got the highest score....

- We finish up with a look at a real story: a work of Nethack fanfiction. Yes, it exists. No, it is not as lame as you think it might be.

Edward, Chaotic Male Elven Wizard Extinctionist, Ascended
Played by Matthew Bourland
Google Reader archive

Some of the more useful objects in Nethack are scrolls of genocide, which can be used to wipe entire species of monster out of the game. While they don't work on everything, they do work on a lot of things, and they do an utterly thorough job. Once genocided, a class of monsters will be completely absent from play for the rest of the current game. It will be cleared out of the current level, will be wiped from existence from previously-visited level when they are seen, and will never be generated again.

But there is another kind of "genocide" in the game as well. Unlike most other roguelikes (and RPGs in general), generally speaking, there is only a limited number of each kind of monster existing in the game. Every time a monster is generated, a counter is incremented for that species, and once it hits 120, generally speaking, no more of that monster will be seen. In game terms, that monster is "extinct." When the game rolls to generate a new roaming monster on a level, if that monster is chosen it'll roll again, and again if necessary. Levels that come stocked with that monster already on it, even non-random levels, will, in most cases, be a bit emptier. Those monsters can still be added to the game via a small number of other ways, but they won't be roaming around levels, in general, any more.

Nethack is not a small game, but neither is it very big, and there are hundreds of types of monsters for the generation code to choose from, so it is rare that a quarter of those limits are reached in a game if the player is really trying to win, even if he drags his feet along the way. The extinction check is mostly there to put an ultimate barrier to certain kinds of monster farming behavior (which it really isn't too good at since the worst kind of farming, that of black puddings, uses a method that ignores extinction).

Even so, there has in recent years been established an unofficial conduct called Extinctionist, and many players have accomplished it now. The linked-to story describes the first such game recorded. What an Extinctionist tries to do is completely eliminate as many kinds of monsters from the game as possible, either through genocide if it's available, or from just depleting all the kinds of monsters that can be produced.

People who play these games, it must be said, often find that by the end it is not just the monsters that are exhausted. Extinctionist games can last weeks, and it is not even terribly exciting play along the way. A character with sufficient mojo to cause the game to run out of Archons will not have much to fear from the rest of the bestiary either, and the tremendous amounts of loot that rapidly pile up during these games eventually make what few source of danger that remain trivial to overcome.

But Extinctionist games are interesting not just as an example of some players' degree of obsession with Nethack. When Nethack starts to run out of monsters, what happens is, first, the few monsters that aren't yet extinct appear much more often, which are often the harder foes in the game by that time (like Archons), but their increased numbers run them out faster as well. But in the long run, after even the rarest foes are depleted, the way Nethack handles it is that monsters just stop appearing. (This is its own problem, since without monster corpses to eat, and once all the territory in the game has been explored, most players will eventually run out of food.)

Another consequence of Extinctionist games is that vast amounts of loot will eventually be generated in those games. Some of the loot generated by this are things that the player can use to increase his stats, or damage done, or armor class, or be used to make other useful things. By properly utilizing all this stuff, Extinctionist characters can become super-strong, powerful to a degree far beyond the realm of mortals. We're talking people in a world with 1st ed D&D sensibilities having hit points enough to make Final Fantasy characters jealous, armor classes of -60 and better, and a few other, esoteric benefits that most players go their entire Nethack careers without seeing, like acquiring high levels of intrinsic damage bonuses from eating many rings of increase damage.

But such extents of power are overkill, of course, as Nethack characters wielded by players who are steeped enough in the game's lore that they can seriously attempt Extinctionist games are rarely in tremendous danger after the early levels of the game, unless they are playing one of the truly extreme conducts. Like Pacifist.

Patito, Neutral Male Gnomish Healer Pacifist, Ascended
Played by Andreas Dorn
Google Reader archive

In a game in which thousands of monsters die by the end of a game, it seems like pacifist characters shoudn't even be possible, but they are, and the conduct has been done several times now.

Pacifism, in Nethack, means that the player cannot bring about the death of a monster by his own actions. It is okay to hit monsters (there is another conduct, regarding wielded weapons, for that), although it can be dangerous to do so since one might accidentally kill it in the process.

The problem with playing a Pacifist is that there are so many monsters who want to kill the player, and without being able to kill them in return it is extremely difficult to survive long enough to get to deeper levels. Plus, many of the objects the player needs, and really wants, are held by particular monsters. The solution to that is to have lots of pets, and strong ones, to take care of those monsters for you.

The problem with that is that pets are vulnerable in way the player is not, and can be instantly killed or permanently transformed very easily, in addition to facing most of the same dangers player characters have to deal with. Pacifist players usually must continually acquire new pets to make up for the ones lost to attrition.

Pets are not as capable as players for other reasons besides. When monsters are tamed, many of their non-melee abilities, like dragon breath and spellcasting, are lost, and they will never willingly attack a foe more than one experience level greater than it. Most of the baddies towards the end (particularly the Wizard of Yendor, who gets stronger and stronger) have so high a level that no pet will attack them unless special measures are taken to enhance their power. Because of this, Healers are probably the best choice for Pacifist games, not just for their thematic appropriateness but because their quest artifact, the Staff of Aesculapius, can drain levels from foes when they are struck with it, eventually getting them to the point where they can be finished off by a handy horde of friends.

Pets are the key to surviving a Pacifist game (that and figuring out how to raise one's experience level without combat), and Patito the Gnomish Healer was extremely skilled at their acquiring and maintenance. So great was his mojo in this regard that he even managed to tame... Pestilence.

That's Pestilence, the Horseman of the Apocalypse who hangs out on the Astral Plane, a unique monster who cannot be permanently killed but, apparently, can be tamed. Word on whether it enjoyed scooby snacks is, unfortunately, unavailable.

Zadir, Neutral Female Human Priest, killed by overexertion.
Played by legopowa
Google Reader archive

Nethack is a roguelike game, a roleplaying game, and its own self-consistent, algorithmically-generated world, but it is also a computer program, and computer programs, as we discovered back in 1999, have limits.

Destroying all the monsters in the dungeon is one such limit, and another is the range of the player's score. When computer games are stretched far beyond the expected limits, sometimes strange behavior is seen. The old arcade phenomenon of scores that rolled over to zero after passing a maximum value is an example of this. Many of them used a kind of binary-coded-decimal system to represent the score both on-screen and in memory, as a way of saving a few extra processor cycles, but with the result that, once the player's score exceeded however many 9s were allotted on-screen, the score value would "roll over," back to zero.

Modern computer games (and make no mistake, we are talking about one of them) use a C number type, in Nethack's case 31 bits long plus one bit to hold a positive sign, to store the player's score. Just like with a decimal record-keeping system, this variable can overflow, but that value is so vastly great that the player would have to earn... let me see... ah, 2,147,483,648 points to do so. That's over two billion points in a game in which most games score less than 1,000, victories tend to score between two and eight million, and Extinctionist games are in the tens of millions. So, would you believe that--

Aw heck, who am I kidding? Of course you believe it. We've already established that some people can win as pacifists in a game in which anyone sane kills monsters reflexively.

Further, legopowa's game was not something he did at home, away from prying eyes that might discover any cheating methods he might have used. He played his game in public, on alt.org's Nethack server. For a while, players had amused themselves there with setting higher and higher scores, trying to gain the coveted top spot on the list, while all the ordinary players (like myself) were sent into deep despair of ever hoping to topple them.

Nethack points are earned for reaching new dungeon levels, for collecting gold and artifacts, and for a variety of other little things, but in the end the thing that makes up most of the score is experience points. Not "gift" experience, such as from finding sources of free levels, but experience gained from killing monsters. Players gain the great majority of their points through killing monsters, and there is really no way around that. While a player, once he's reached the point where he can kill with impunity, can basically mint his points, it still takes an incredible amount of time to earn scores even of a hundred million. For two billion, it would seem to require decades, certainly at least years.

legopowa, using macros to automate his game, did it in a week.

The full details are in the Google Groups post, and he explains it better than I could, but the final result of his game are these: first, he scored MAXINT minus one points, getting the highest possible score without overflowing the score counter and thus finally and eternally claiming the top spot on alt.org's scoreboard, and second, he proved without doubt that Nethack's scoring system is broken. It might seem to be rather an extreme length to go to to prove such a thing, but that is just the kind of game it is.


In leaving you this time, I present that piece of Nethack fanfiction mentioned before, Virgo Vardja's "Behind The Scenes," the tale, not of how Cloud would love Sepiroth ever so sweetly, or of how Sonic the Hedgehog characters get along in their eternal angst-fueled war against the machines, or of how the author could be the only person Legolas/Captain Picard/Neo could ever love.

It is the story of what happens, in the Dungeons of Doom, after a player wins the game, and the residents have to get back to their lives. Perhaps that isn't as, um, "exciting" as the other inspirations for fanfiction out there on the internet, but it is at the very least entertaining to think about. (Other stories from Virgo Vardja can be found on his Nethack site.)

Sorcerian, You Saucy Devil!

- Still whacking through the great content on Hardcore Gaming 101 that's been stealth-posted recently, and another highlight is an overview of Falcom's Japanese RPG 'Sorcerian', an important RPG milestone over there, but relatively unknown over here.

Writer Al LaPrade explains: "Part five of the Dragon Slayer "series," Sorcerian is a bizarre mixture of side-scrolling platforming action and concepts adopted from both complicated western RPGs such as Wizardry and simplified Japanese RPGs such as Dragon Quest. What would be an unrefined mess of a game in less capable hands ends up here being an extremely charming and arguably successful experiment in the "out there" game design that characterized computer game development in both the US and Japan during the mid- to late 1980s."

The most interesting thing about it: "Once the quest begins you will be in for a shock when you realize that this game, which up until now has seemed like some sort of Wizardry clone, is now a side-scrolling action game. You control all four characters at once which looks pretty comical." But despite this, it looks like an interesting and compelling game, as evidenced by multiple remakes all the way up to the Sega Dreamcast.

There's also lots of hardcore info in here about crazy obscurities like third-party scenario disks for the series: "Two sets of scenario disks were released by a company called Takeru Soft. Similar to Sengoku and Pyramid, Gilgamesh Sorcerian had an historical/mythical theme...in this case the myths and legends of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king/legend/hero. Visitor from Space did not have a literary/historical/mythical theme but instead had the theme of "environmental destruction."" Great piece.

COLUMN: 'Arcade Obscurities' - Namco's Aqua Rush

[Arcade Obscurities is a bi-weekly column by Solvalou.com's Arttu Ylärakkola, probing some of the most interesting and obscure arcade games yet to be covered in the geek gaming press, thanks to Arttu's JAMMA board collection, and our insatiable quest for knowledge. The first column deals with Namco's 1999 puzzle game 'Aqua Rush'.]

Rushing Aquatic Puzzles

Google for Aqua Rush, and the first result you'll get is a marketing site for bottled water. However, Aqua Rush is also a little-known Japan-only arcade game, one product of Namco's massive arcade history - no wonder if you haven't heard about it.

Basically what we have here is an underwater themed puzzle game: air bubbles rise from the bottom of the screen inside a rectangular playing area. When the bubbles collide with static bubbles on top of the screen, they combine. If a bubble is wide enough to cover the whole width of the playing field, that part of the bubble bursts and disappears - yes, exactly like making a line in Tetris. No need to completely clear the screen, as only one red-hued row in the bubble needs to be removed in order to proceed to the next level.

In Aqua Rush, the piece you control starts as a 3-bubble-wide rectangle. Instead of rotating it, you have 3 buttons with which you can use to grow the piece as much as you like by adding one bubble on top of the leftmost, middle or rightmost bubble. Since the only things you can do are to move the piece horizontally and expand it, many of the game's levels consist of figuring out how to effectively fill vertical spaces.

aquarush1.jpg

This means making combos is relatively easy: just figure out how to expand your piece so that after the first bubble line bursts, the leftovers of your piece fit on the next vertical gap and so on. As nothing is ever rotated, gameplay is more streamlined than what is found in usual block fitting games.

Bubbly Combo Crackdown

This one-dimensionality of the game forces limits on how distinct puzzles can be created and makes the presented problems not very mentally taxing, but neither isn't really a problem as what matters more in this case is the basic ingredient of a fun puzzle game: high amount of stupendously long combos - and Aqua Rush is full of them. The way the graphics are implemented enhances the explosiveness of the combos, as the bubbles are big enough to make the level not to fit to the screen but instead the playfield scrolls vertically when lines are made.

Another gameplay mechanic which adds to the sense of speed and urgency is that often a level requires you to fill extremely long vertical gaps which is solved not by thinking, but by furiously mashing the buttons in attempt to resize your block correctly. And the bigger your block is, the more lines you can take out simultaneously. This is essential, as play is graded on how quickly a level is completed.

Easy, But Beautiful?

All the above works as well as possible, but unfortunately the fast-paced gameplay is not very finely tuned: I completed two of the three different difficulty levels on my first go. Two player vs mode is also available, but it does not work very well: huge chains equal quick unfair deaths. So is Aqua Rush a deservedly forgettable game?

No!

aquarush2.jpg

It's all about the presentation! The game is dead serious about itself, and for me, its style hits all the right spots. Instead of dancing yellow cartoon kittens, there are swarms of realistic polygonal fishes swimming in the background, screens of 3D explosion rings when points are scored and perfectly fitting soundscape (click the link for an MP3).

Conclusion

Aqua Rush was released as late as 1999 and runs on Namco's System 12 hardware, which is basically a souped-up version of the PlayStation console. What we have here is a 2D puzzle game running on the same hardware which was used for titles like Soul Calibur and Tekken Tag Tournament.

The above may sound heretical to the cultivated retrogamer, but with Aqua Rush the non-gameplay related components really make a difference. It's a prime example of Namco's unique style which surfaces in its games once in a while. Like, for example, Xevious 3D/G - in my opinion the best retro remake when it comes to style - Aqua Rush has everything right.

So what's the conclusion? Manic shooters put you "in the zone" with their intensity. While being a simplistic puzzle game, instead of being boring, Aqua Rush puts you in the zone with its presentation. It's a worthy achievement, methinks.

IGF Student Showcase - Best Of The Non-Finalists!

- During the course of scoring the Independent Games Festival's Student Showcase, for which the first-round winners were announced earlier this week, I ended up playing through lots of the other student games that were interesting but didn't quite make it.

So, as a service to the gentle GSW reader, I print some tips on some of the most interesting games that weren't judged finalists - and just about all of these are freely downloadable from the linked webpages, which is pretty darn neat. Please note these are just ones that appealed personally to me - there's no official IGF proclamations here. Here we go:

Spider (HKU, Holland - pictured!)
"With lush visuals and fun swinging gameplay, this Dutch student game has you as a spider, swinging through levels trying to collect fireflies. Some of the controls feel a little unintuitive (I want to be able to affect my swing with the mouse or direction keys), and the random movements of the fireflies make them a bear to control sometimes, but swinging around levels is a blast, and this looks every inch a professional game - it even has features like mid-level quicksaves!"

Lily & The Giant (Enjmin, France)
"A cute, whimsical art style, running in the Virtools game engine in a Web browser. Sweet fantasy music, too - a giant is stomping through your town and you have to move people out of the way and otherwise prepare for his passage. The difference between French and English keyboards plays havoc with movement controls, but play it with a joypad and you'll be good."

Helium Boy (Grimsöv, Sweden)
"Retro-feeling, almost N64-like side-scrolling 3D platformer with 'depth', in which you're a little kid with balloons that you can use for large, floating jumps, and you have to navigate various obstacles by either letting go of the balloons or inflating them. Uses an interesting mouse-based control system, but the forced scroll and some difficulties with depth perception mean it's a bit tricky - you restart further back on the stage when you die, to. Nonetheless, endearing and fun to toy with."

The Blob (Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, USA)
"A very ambitious FIEA project, the postmortem of which was documented on Game Career Guide, this Torque Shader Engine student game has some neat ideas and art, with you sliding a blob around a colorful fantasy world, but suffers a bit from high minimum specs and hybrid race/platform gameplay that feels a little shoehorned in. Nonetheless, intriguing - and not to be confused with a Katamari-style game called 'The Blob' that was also entered into this year's IGF."

Zombie City Tactics (Western Washington University, USA)
"We've covered this before on GameSetWatch, but it's still neat. Despite having no graphics to speak of, the zombie killing strategy game has plenty of deep tactics, and some pretty cool ideas in and among its 100 maps of carnage."

Understanding Games: Motivation (University of Applied Sciences, Potsdam, Germany)
"Less a game than a tutorial into what makes games interesting, this is a pretty neat idea nonetheless, and is a small Flash-playable file to boot. The readme explains: ""Understanding Games: Motivation" is one of
four games trying to raise awareness for the basic concepts of computer and video games. It deals with the player’s motivation to continue playing rather then leaving a game and examines what makes a game fun – instead of frustrating – to play."

Scholars Of The Lost Exhibit (Illinois Institute of Technology, USA)
"It's all about fish that ask you math problems in Scholars Of The Lost Exhibit, "an interactive and exciting game acting as a supplement to fourth & fifth grade math and science curriculum", and in which you have to wander around a Flash-created museum finding parts to build a robot by... learning stuff! I feel cleverer already."

January 7, 2007

Miike's Film Take On Yakuza Gets Trailer

- Over at excellent foreign/alt.film weblog Twitch, they've posted info and links to a v.brief QuickTime version of the teaser for Ryû ga gotoku: gekijô-ban - film director Takashi Miike's movie based on Sega's PS2 game Yakuza.

There's an interesting note directly after that: "Ryû ga gotoku: gekijô-ban shouldn't be confused with Takeshi Miyasaka's Ryû ga gotoku - jissha-ban, which Miike is credited as having been the integration director (sôgô kantoku) for.)" Those promo movies for Yakuza itself have been credited directly to Miike in a few places I've seen, which must have been not quite right - and no, i have no idea what 'integration director' means either.

Anyhow: "Toei Company Ltd. (Tôei K.K.) is scheduled to release Ryû ga gotoku: gekijô-ban theatrically in Japan on March 3rd of next year." (Miike is latterly most famous for his banned-from-Showtime 'Imprint' episode for Masters Of Horror.) And incidentally, Yakuza 2 is already out in Japan, though I'm not sure it's been selling too well, since I haven't seen it in any recent charts?

[UPDATE: Commenter 'spot778' handily divulges: "Yakuza 2 is up to 444,500 units as of Dec 30. Not too shabby as Yakuza 1 is clocking in around at 516,250 as of the same date." That's much better than I expected, and probably helps explain the film and general interest in the franchise. Go Sega!]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': If I Ran GamePro

['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.]

gpl2-0702.jpg

As the new year dawns and I try my best to rediscover the work ethic that I think I may have side-armed off the 4th floor balcony while enjoying my third Baileys the night of the 31st, I can't resist the desire to put on my mortarboard and goggles and try to predict how '07 will go for game mags. However, there's no way to get an interesting column out of that, because by now the challenges facing the print side of games media are blantantly obvious to any game enthusiast. With up-to-the-minute news, demos, and discussion available on dozens of websites, most mags scrambled back around '01 or so to find another reason for their continued existence. And, for the most part, they've found one -- whether it's a demo disc, or exclusive coverage of faraway titles, or an editorial staff that attracts a sizable fanbase of some sort.

However, not all mags have been so lucky. For example, GamePro. According to the statement of ownership in their February 2007 issue, GamePro had an average paid circulation in 2006 of 430,386 -- however, paid distribution of the November 2006 issue (the issue presumably out when GamePro filed the statement on October 1) was only 322,238, a pretty large dropoff to experience just before the holiday season. Both of these figures are down from the over half a million copies GamePro regularly sold from its inception all the way to 2003 or so. And the number of ad pages per issue has also fallen over the years -- while the February 2004 issue has 120 pages total, February '07 has only 100. (Electronic Gaming Monthly managed 126 in January versus GamePro's 112.)

Anyway, GamePro has hired on George Jones (ex-EIC of Computer Gaming World) as its new editorial director, and a redesign is in store for the March 2006 issue. But let's pretend that that redesign wasn't in the cards. Instead, what if, in a shocking move, I were suddenly hired on as editor-in-chief and asked to turn the magazine's fortunes around and make it a recognizable brand once again, all while keeping the original GamePro name?

Some may argue that I'd be a huge sucker to take up that task, but I like a challenge -- besides, I worked for GamePro (mostly the online side) from 2002 to '03, so I feel a sense of duty for the mag that got me into the business in the first place. Once I got settled down in San Francisco again (and smuggled my ferrets across the California-Nevada border), here's the five-point plan I'd try to push through the board of directors:

1. Trash the final vestiges of old-school GamePro. The "persona" portraits and smiley-face-based rating system were dropped years ago, but I've always been surprised that they didn't just go all the way and cut out things like editor pseudonyms and Protips completely. I believe the main reason isn't that the editorial staff wants them, but that the higher-ups at IDG see them as too intertwined with the GamePro brand to let go.

I say bullhockey. Nobody cares about Protips anymore (the age when a mag sold based on how many strategy tips were inside ended with the PlayStation) and there's little point to editors writing under nicknames when so little of their individual personality is reflected in their text. Dropping Protips has an additional side benefit -- it means that review screenshots for games on systems without integrated frame-grabbers (i.e. the Wii) will be far, far sharper. Why? Because we wouldn't have to take screenshots that match our Protips, which means we can have the publisher send us crystal-clear screens instead of the blurry manual grabs on Wii titles. This makes reviews more interesting to readers.

(I would also drop the useless Brady Games strategies entirely, but it seems that GamePro has already done that, at least in the February issue. Bravo!)

2. Knock off all that text. GamePro's features and reviews are incredibly text-laden. There's far more text per page than on any other console mag, which makes GamePro look a lot like Computer Games at times. This is fine if you are a hardcore PC games rag, but not if you're a mag that ostensibly caters to the younger reaches of the marketplace. Edit down the text on features; let the visual aspects tell more of the story.

3. Get a good designer. GamePro's design since 2000 or so has always been very by-the-book, featuring plain columns of text, uninteresting visual design, and extensive use of boring clip-art game characters and the Glow function in Photoshop. There needs to be more money and manpower put into the mag's design, something that the Ziff and Future titles have recognized for years now.

This point goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. It doesn't matter if you have Mr. Miyamoto himself writing in your video-game magazine; if the page doesn't look interesting to the reader, where's his impetus to spend the time and brain cells to read it?

4. Let the editors speak for themselves. GamePro's editorial philosophy has always been team-based. When you read the mag, the idea is that you are getting the unfiltered, utterly infallible wisdom of The GamePros beamed into your mind, not the individual opinions of Vicious Sid or Major Mike or whomever.

Again, this made more sense back during GamePro's infancy, when gamers cared more about strategy than reviews or industry features. Nobody expects a magazine to be the end-all be-all source of game information any more, however -- that's what the Internet is for. Instead, they go to mags for the same reason anyone goes to any mag -- because they enjoy the editorial focus, or slant, they find inside. So give the editors more space to craft their individual styles... and if they don't have an interesting individual style, find some who do.

5. Don't be afraid to skew younger. Remember back in 2002 when GamePro fended off the threat from Ziff's kid-oriented GameNOW with barely a sweat, even though GameNOW was better designed and arguably more interesting to read? That's because the editors of GameNOW lost their sense of focus after just a few issues and drifted back to standard, run-of-the-mill college-student-focused coverage. I don't think it was necessarily anything GamePro did to respond.

Although the younger marketplace definitely isn't what it used to be, it is still there, and it still drives an impressive amount of sales. I think it's possible to implement all four previous points while keeping number five in mind. It's something that truly separates GamePro from the rest of the pack, and if actively capitalized on (instead of taken for granted, which seems to have been the case for a while), it's probably the best chance the mag has at regaining readership.

Tune back into this space next month, when the March issue comes along and I get to see exactly how new this "reboot" of GamePro is.

[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.]

IGDA Game Preservation SIG Kickstarted

- I've previously discussed the recent DMCA exemption on game archiving, and I'm delighted to note that Stanford University's Henry Lowood has taken over the IGDA Preservation SIG, and is intending to kickstart preservation activities in 2007 and beyond.

He notes a GDC talk: 10 Games You need to Play," with Warren Spector, Christopher Grant, Steve Meretzky, Matteo Bittanti and [Lowood], which "is closely linked to the U.S. Library of Congress' interest in funding a major project towards game preservation as part of this program."

Lowood explains: "I can tell you that a consortium consisting of Stanford, U. Maryland and U. Illlinois has put together an expression of interest for a major preservation project, though we do not know yet if it will be funded. However, we hope that it will be, and that the panel will play a role in defining an initial project focus around a canon of important titles in game history."

I'm presuming that they will be trying to archive development and other materials based around specific important games - which would be amazingly good news if funded, and the right idea, I think. Go check it out and contribute to the SIG's other volunteer positions and objectives, if you can.

Feature: TNT Amusements' Arcade Infomercial Madness!

- [Regular 'Cinema Pixeldiso' columnist Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins has ventured away from his regular movie stomping ground to bring us this special report into a frankly insane arcade game infomercial from Pennsylvania-based TNT Amusements - full screencaps and analysis handily provided!]

Anyone that's familiar with the state of video game related television programming is well aware of how abysmal it is these days (though honestly, its always been really bad). Whatever show is usually hosted by either a brain dead supermodel that cue-cards everything or an obnoxious sexy gamer "grrll" that's "all in yo face!" And if its a guy, he's some overly sarcastic, too cool for school dude, often some former child star has-been that was chosen by the networks since their types "connect" with the youth of today.

The presentation is often slick... usually too slick. There's always an abundance of flashy graphics on-screen, but none of them from actual games. We often get is either crappy sketch comedy laced with leet-speak, or interviews with celebrities who at the end of their segment mention what they're favorite game is. Rappers always like Madden, the everyone in the pop-punk/emo skinny white guy rock act are big Grand Theft Auto fans, save the bassist who still likes Ms. Pac Man. Let's not even get started on the topic of award shows...

But there is one show out there that's good. Damn good. Its honest, its fresh, its funny, its educational. Its perhaps the best damn television program ever created to deal with the subject of video games, the first to do it right. It's...

Arcade Games For Your Home!

So what is it? Well, its a late-night local TV infomercial produced by TNT Amusements, a Pennsylvania based operation that reconditions and sells arcade video games, pinball machines, jukeboxes, and other amusement contraptions. They also throw private parties, and the 60 minute program goes into great detail what TNT is all about. According to their website, its been on the air in the local Philly area since 2002 and "has been seen by millions".

The show, which is available as a streaming-only WMV file (Part 1, Part 2, with individual clips also viewable - anyone considering YouTube-ing this?) is quite simply brilliant, compelling television, with so many interesting bits and pieces to see and discuss that we're going to take a look at it, virtually scene by scene. Why? Because it truly deserves such attention to detail. Again its that damn good.

After a brief rundown of all the wondrous machines that TNT Amusements has (and every single one of them is yours for the taking!) we are greeted by the president, and our host, Todd N. Tuckey (T.N.T. get it?) who invites us all on his guided tour.

Inside we find out about the location (there's only one, in Southampton, PA), and Todd implores the viewers to stop on by. He then explains that most are perhaps already familiar with their old infomercial, so much so that everyone's memorized every single line! But this NEW infomercial is jam-packed with new content, "plus our usual assortment of crazy gags!" he explains that its a fresh new 30 minutes, but we see on screen that its actually a 60 minute special extended edition program that we're being treated to. Oh boy!

Then Todd walks around the showroom, filled with many machines, all cold and quiet, till he turns on the switch and laughs, much like God did when he created Earth. Its the first taste of the wonderful Tuckey wit that the hour is simply chock full of.

Next Todd tells us of al the great video games and pinball machines that are to be found on the showroom floor, both old and new, along with how everything is nice and affordable. Plus they also offer the best warranty and service plan "on the planet". The URL to the company's site is given, and then Todd has all the machines shut off, then immediately chastises the audience for running off to go online before the show is done. That cad!

Todd immediately goes into salesman mode by highlighting certain arcade games. First he shows us the Namco Classics Collection, and mentions how it not only features three games, Pac-Man, Rally X, and Dig Dug in their original incarnation, but also arranged modes with souped up graphics. Todd then plays a bit of the arranged version of Pac-Man and even talks about one of the new gameplay features, the dash, which allows you to both run and knock "the creatures" unconscious for a moment (okay, simple mistake... we'll let him go on this one).

Second up is Space Duel, which Todd tells us is similar to Asteroids but allows for two player simultaneous action. Then he explains how the wondrous vector graphics has to be seen in person to be believed (especially since one just can't tell watching the machine at home). And how, along with a subwoofer "for a machine made back in 1981, it still has unrivaled sound and picture quality". Plus we even get a fun factoid, which the show is just full of.

Third up, Todd plays a bit of Jungle Hunt, and we get another interesting fact about its background (already this is show is 1000% more genuinely informative than the average G4 show).

After some guy named Al (???) is seen playing Journey (the game based on the band as some might recall, or are still trying to forget, much like the band itself), Todd goes into the pinball portion of the program, which is mostly a chronological overview of their technical evolution over the past couple of decades, which is quite seriously fascinating. Again, you NEVER hear anything like this on G4 or Spike TV.

The most interesting machine might be Caveman, which incorporated a monitor like a few other pinbal machinesl. If the ball reaches a certain point on the play-field, all the lights dim and then the player gets to control a little pixelized caveman via a joystick and deal with dinosaurs.

Todd then opens up the machine to show the viewers some of the components inside. He then mentions how in the last infomercial, there was a gag where he dropped the play-field onto a fake rubber hand, and responded to folks wondering if he was going to repeat the gag.

But he's above such tackiness, but all of a sudden... OH NO!

Gotcha! Again!

Next Todd goes over all the shuffle alleys that they have (its kinda like a comb of air hockey and bowling... and as far as I can tell is very regional thing, mostly around the Northeast), including all the through reconditioning that is involved when one is sold. He even plays a few games, and Todd's a pretty decent player.

TNT also stocks foosball tables, in both grey and the traditional oak color! And Todd goes onto to explain, at $500 they're a great deal since their boards are made of wood, and not cheap particle board "like you see at the cheap discount house... we stock them year round, not just in the fall!" I had no idea foosball tables were a seasonal thing.

After going over ping pong tables (when Todd asks you point-blank, "Do you desire a good quality ping pong table?" all one can say is "YES!!!"), air hockey tables, the show finally kicks into high gear with the appearance of his two daughters, Terry Noreen Tucker, who's 2 and half, and Tammy Nicole Tucker, who's 5 and a half.

"And now I'll show you all what my girls like to play the most!" Todd says, like the proud father he should be. First we see Terry run up to Cruisin' USA, which Todd mentions that it Tammy was weened on it, since it was the first game she learned how to play at the age of two!!! He then explains a bit about the game, such as how you can choose your car and its color, then mentions how the "high resolution sound and graphics are just tremendous."

The back of the machine is opened up and the innards revealed and explained. Todd points out the chips that have all the info and how it all moves around to other chips nice and smoothly as you play. There's "no herky-jerkiness, and you're not waiting for constant reloads as you would with a CD-ROM". To emphasize this point, Todd asks us all "Isn't that annoying? To see the flashing icon constantly flash loading, loading, loading" in very Andy Rooney-esque manner.

We then cut to his brother's house to show us his nephew Jonathan and his girlfriend Jen, covered in cobwebs as they wait for their CD-ROMs to finish loading.

We then catch up with the girls again. First little Terry playing some deluxe sit down dogfight game (Todd ends up getting hit in the head by the moving cabinet).

Next we catch up with Tammy with 18 Wheeler: American Pro Trucker (and hitting every car in sight). Then they play some pinball, with Todd saying ever so proudly "We start 'em young!". Onto Tammy playing Galaga, while Terry rides some moving jet ride that that's not a game. Then she spins around to Celine Deon playing on a jukebox. Cute. Their segment of the show ends with a game of hide and go seek, and Todd finds Terry hiding in the pinball crib that he created (which is basically a pinball machine with the play-field hollowed out to accommodate a child's bed. Also cute. But onto backs to business, so after scaring off his kids, he goes to the back to show the viewer how they recondition the machines, which means a whole slew of new wacky characters in the workshop.

The next couple of scenes out all the painstaking steps that Todd's crew goes through in order to ensure all the little components are in complete working order...

... sprinkled with a few corny jokes and this sight gag, in which Todd asks one of his men how much long it will take to do something. And upon answering his boss, the lights turn red, Todd pulls out an hour glass, and says that he doesn't have much time after all, and laughs like a madman.

Back to serious business: here's Todd going over Rudy, the intricate animatronic head from the pinball game Funhouse, including all the work involved in making sure its tip-top shape. One can't help admire all the work that Todd's crew puts in when it comes to reconditioning these machines, especially since many are long out of production. And it also goes a long way to show how incredibly complex they are as well. At this point of the show, all the behind the scenes, "how does it work" stuff totally feels like an episode of Reading Rainbow.

Time for more comedy! Here's Todd telling off two techs of his for not doing something right as they fix up an Monopoly pinball game, and telling them that they'll never make it in the industry.

The fine attention to detail isn't just restricted to pinball machines. We see the reconditioning an various arcade units, Robotron, Galaga, and Missile Command, which includes a vigorous cleaning, replacement of the overlay, as well as the chipset and circuit board, and a new paint job, among other things for each of them. In the end, each looks and feels as they did originally, as if they were fresh from the assembly line.





Next is a very detailed rundown of the overhaul of a World Cup Soccer pinball game, with various before and after shots. And after a breakdown of how each machine is shipped, things move onto jukeboxes, and this part is kinda boring, till the song and dance part of the show commences.

Here's Todd asking a tech to test out a record in a jukebox, and when its the Macarena, here's what he does...

When one of his techs, while fixing up Afterburner, asks to leave work a bit early to take his kid to a birthday party to a pizza place, Todd goes on about the competition and also warns him to bring lots of money since he's sure to run out of tokens in three minutes. Whereas at TNT, all the game are on free play!

We then meet Todd's wife Pan, who's a party hostess. She explains that all you have to do is bring the food and they take care of the rest. TNT does all sorts of events: birthdays, church and synagogue socials, Boy and Girl Scout parties, and even bachelorette and bachelor parties (though there's no booze).

After getting drilled into your head how much of a deal free plays for all games are, the choice of food is then explained. First is one pizza joint that supplies plain pizzas for $5, pies with topping for $6. There's also a hoagie shop that offers sandwiches for 15% off their regular price, which then elicits Todd to give the line of the entire hour: "And just look at the meat!" Finally we have yet another pizza joint which offers $6 for plain pizzas, and a buck fifty extra for toppings. $5 pizza or $6 pizza? So many choices!!!

Next we see a party already in session, where Todd gets to really screw around. Thing kicks off with him attempting to help himself a bite of some kid's snacks. He then explains that during the party they show a classic cartoon, and Todd's pretty proud of the fact that it’s shown on film, not video.

But as Todd says "if you desire, we can run a Three Stooges, especially if you are running an adult party, or a bachelor party." Which one might suppose means, every party HAS to have a cartoon or Three Stooges flick shown. So that bachelor party might seem lame with the fruit punch and no porno, but at least there's the free play of Mortal Kombat. Speaking of, we next join Todd back in the game room where he says that there's a huge choice to be found, from the latest games, to classics. And funny enough, right next to him is a stand up Virtua Racing unit, which this writer had no idea even existed (and was extremely delighted to see, being a diehard V.R. fan and all).

This also cues various consecutive shots of adult playing racing games with their babies at the wheel. Interesting. He here's a shot of Todd laughing like God again for the camera, and walking right in front of two guys playing DDR, which he follows up with "I can do anything I want!" And maybe so... I'd image Todd really is God around his parts.

When asking Fitz, the birthday boy, how much time he has left in his part, he's corrected by Todd and the hourglass gag once again.

And while passing along more sale jargon, Todd bumps into Jeff Zubernis, who fullfils the celebrity guest portion of the program. How... random.

Then here's Todd introducing the Jurassic Park alongside some guy who looks like the John Hammond character, who lip-synches the sound bite from the game, which is a sample from the movie, and looking kinda pissed while doing so.

Followed by Todd doing another "from infomercials past" staple, the playing of the sex-tester, yet another baby playing a driving game, Todd cracking a fat joke at the expense of some large woman he has a hard time passing in the game alley, and a mention that there's also touch screen games available for "slow learners", such as this old woman. The comedy is in such high gear, that Todd's even making digs at the Nintendo DS!

Time to get serious again. And time for the TNT Top Ten reasons why to do business with TNT Amusements.

Reason #1: There's the aforementioned incredible warranty plan, in which for the first five years of owning a machine, they promise an inexpensive repair. To illustrate this, Todd heads over to Igor's Pinball Palace who's obviously an disreputable pinball dealer with a lousy warranty plan.

Igor is actually Todd's brother btw, whom he proceeds to strip away the make-up, to show that this was just a demonstration and not for real, but would was acted out could very much be reality if one is not careful. Let this be a lesson for us all.

Reason #2 is that they have the largest selection of games in the world, and we get yet another tour, this time the warehouse which has several thousand machines waiting to be reconditioned. One machine that Todd points out is an Asteroids machine they accepted that had the sides covered in carpeting. Weird...

Reason #3 is the 30 day to try to out and if you don't like it, you get your money back promise. And since no real joke could be made out of this one, or Todd just wanted his wife in the infomercial a bit more, he had her wear a I Dream of Jeannie hairdo, whom then wished him to scrub the toilet.

Reasons #4-#7 have no real sight gags, so we'll spare the screencaps, though we will mention that they are, in order:
- Guaranteed free phone support ("unless you aggravate us!!!").
- The great trade-in deal.
- The abundance of spare parts they have readily available.
- The 57 point checklist of stuff that needs to pass before anything is passed to the buyer.

Reason #8 is that they accept virtually every single form of plastic known on earth, and again, another joke with Pam wearing a wig, this time looking like Cleopatra, who then wishes her husband away to the bathroom once more (its not the best of jokes, especially to repeat, I'm afraid). And reason #9 is that they have their own men in trucks (no subcontracted goons with TNT) that deliver the good in a four state area, and are very quick about it. Which is yet another opportunity for Todd to pull out the hourglass joke.

Okay, so things have gotten kinda boring by this point of the show, but reason #10 is that you're buying "the best of the best" and for the purpose of the program, they also saved the best for the last (well, almost). First we have Todd in the warehouse with two Black Knight pinball machines and two Ms. Pac-Man units. One of each is in suitable for a home sale, and the other matching pair is not up to their standards and will have to be disposed of.

How would that be done precisely? By tossing them off the roof of their building of course! Here goes Ms. Pac Man...




And there goes Black Knight...




[Simonc: Ouch, that's a bit harsh!] One can't help but get flashbacks to the good old days of Late Night with David Letterman (back when he used to toss stuff off a roof for laughs, for you kids who didn't know). Afterwards we catch up with Todd at his home, where we get to check out his private collection of mini-arcade games, which is the perfect size for his kids. One can't help but wonder when Terry plays Pac-Man, how many takes that they had to do with her not dying in the first three seconds (hey, she is only 2 and half after all).

Time to wrap things back and walk a bit down memory lane. Here's Todd going through his massive customer rolodex, which has grown quite a bit over the years, if screencaps from past informercials are any proof...



Finally, Todd warns us all one last time that, when it comes to purchasing any amusement machine, don't trust just anyone with such a major investment, such as an online auction or, worse yet, and for the last time, one of those damn, dirty basement dwellers- I mean dealers. And with one last hourglass joke...

... Todd signs off, and the credits roll (with snazzy end credit music courtesy of the World Cup Soccer pinball game).

But that's not it! With four minutes left in the hour to kill, Todd decides to fill it up with wacky out-takes, most of which is him flubbing his lines and doing a silly dance, or sticking out his tongue, which we will spare with the screencaps, since that would be over-kill. Though here's something interesting: a shot from a deleted scene with a Ms. Pac-Man machine shooting out fire!

Final Score

So what exactly makes an infomercial for some amusement center in the middle of nowhere so special anyway, let alone "relevant"? Maybe its because despite the low budget production values and goofy humor, there's about fifty times more heart and sincerity, let along actual educational and entertainment value, in its one single hour than an entire year's worth of programming on the G4 channel. And its been a very long time since video games has been represented in any media as something wholesome, and there's just something nice about that, for a change.

The center of it all is, of course, Todd N. Tuckey, who you just can't help but really like. But more importantly, people like him and the dedicated craftspeople in his employment are what is keeping the all American spirit of the arcades alive and well, which is unfortunately has been on life support for the past twenty years. We may never have the glory days back again, but Todd's effort to resurrect and preserve the past is greatly appreciated. He's not only your best friend, but to all video games as well.

But also, watching a Ms. Pac Man machine getting tossed off a roof is pretty cool, you gotta admit.

BTW

To check out the informercial for yourself, and even purchase a DVD copy, as well as maybe finally get that Super Street Fighter 2 arcade unit that you've been long wishing for, via the TNT homepage.

And special thanks to native Pennsylvanian Katie Skelly for pointing out such an amazing television treasure.

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]

Schilling's MMO Pitch Hits For Bleachers

- Increasingly, I'm wondering whether The Escapist's simultaneous delight and downfall is in its dense, feature-heavy reporting. When I really get _into_ its editorial, I appreciate it, but its lack of hooks often mean that I can't quite grok which of the 5 or 6 new features to read every week, so don't quite get round to reading any of them.

Maybe that's just me, though, and this week, the online mag's interview with baseball great and MMO mastermind Curt Schilling has those hooks galore. So, could his new MMO developer be a vanity project in any way? Curt says no: "The focus for me, from a founder's standpoint... is not to make my game. There's been a lot people who have made that mistake. The goal for me is to make the game."

As for who will care about the recently announced Green Monster Games? "If you do the math, and you take the McFarlane fans - Todd's site gets, I think, 320 million hits a month. R.A. [Salvatore] sold over 15 million books in the United States. You take baseball fans that are potentially Red Sox fans, Curt CS fans." And you get a pretty odd collection of geeks and jocks! But the point stands that Schilling has the money and the passion to put together a good team of developers, and with the ability to license good quality game engines like Gamebryo, you never know what's going to wander out of Boston in 2 or 3 years.



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