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March 24, 2007

The Future Of The PSP

- There, I knew subscribing to IGN's all-articles feed would bear fruit in the end - they've just debuted 'The Future Of The PlayStation Portable', describing, in handy hyperbolic terms: 'Over a dozen of the top developers tell us in a huge anniversary blow-out.'

The intro article is a bit, well, over-apologetic for the format, ("Hell, the Nintendo Ds is the best-selling game system of this new generation, period -- nothing stands up to it as competition. But just because Nintendo is winning, does that mean that Sony has lost?"), but the interviews are well thought-out, and there's some firm sense talked in the Planet Moon chat, for one: "The PSP needs to have a digital game distribution system. It's perfect for it and it will liberate the device in many ways."

Q's Tetsuya Mizuguchi has what I think is the best response, though: "While the PSP may have lost a bit of steam over the last year - especially when compared to the DS - we're hopeful that it will continue to provide quality entertainment for current and future users. There's still this image of PSP being mainly a "portable game device" rather than a multimedia entertainment device - that is, including myself, as I don't use the PSP other than to play games - so I'm looking forward to how the other possibilities and uses of the PSP will be promoted including the connectivity between PS3 and the recently announced Home. Now, if only it came with a hard drive..."

Packaging The East For The West

- The HDR Lying blog has another interesting, if a little meandering piece, named 'The Essential Worldwide Success: Packaging the East for the West', and it talks specifically about the suitability (or not) of Koei and Bandai's Gundam Musou for PlayStation 3 for launch outside Japan.

In the way of an intro, it's noted: "In a time where games are becoming more and more expensive to produce, and profit margins are shrinking, more and more companies are starting to look at creating a global product. Ryan Payton’s hire at Kojima Productions was a step to get a more global perspective on their series, including the ever popular Metal Gear Solid." But how does Gundam Musou fit in?

As noted: "For the Japanese gaming market, the amalgamation of Gundam and Musou is a no brainer. The game is a mix of the most popular action series in Japan, and the biggest animated franchise phenomenon in Japanese history, on a single Bluray disc." But in the States, as Dynasty Warriors, it's just not such a big deal. So, it's asked: "With no Musou name in the West, how does Namco Bandai name Gundam Musou?"

Hm? "Does Namco Bandai make their connection to Koei public, and call the game Gundam Warriors? They could sever the connection entirely, and instead ride on the Gundam alone, going with something close to, but likely more original than, Gundam Battlefront. With a change like that, they lose the cache that the Musou name would give them, but in the United States, that might not matter at all." This is one example, of course, of a continuing cultural battle to get universally popular video games across multiple regions - but it's an interesting one.

Grand Theft Auto IV Teaser... Teased?

- Over at Rob 'Xemu' Fermier's blog, the Ensemble Studios staffer points out a 30-minute TV advert teaser for the Grand Theft Auto IV trailer, which "...ran on the FX network in the wee hours [on Thursday]" - yep, a full half-hour of just a repetitive countdown message. Wonder how much that cost?

Xemu notes: "I think Rockstar's approach here of using TV even at this early stage makes a lot of sense given the wide target audience of the game. Having a countdown via off-hour TV spots is pretty intriguing and may lead some people to the web based version of the same (which is all the information reallly in the ad)... But the levels of recursion here are pretty astounding."

Right! "This is promotion (TV) for the promotion (web) for the promotion (trailer) of a game. Of course, I found out about this through a fansite which adds a fourth level... then I guess this is sort of promotion of that, so now it's a fifth level..." And this one is the 6th! Anyhow, Planet Grand Theft Auto has up-to-the-minute gossip, noting: "The first GTA4 trailer releases on March 29 at 6:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time", and, indeed: "Grand Theft Auto IV releases on October 16, 2007 in North America for PS3 and XBOX 360."

Our Art Director Can Beat Up Your Art Director!

- The latest required Game Developer magazine-related viewing over at YouTube is, of course, '2007 Disneyland Martial Arts Festival Sport Jujitsu' - specifically 'Cliff -vs- Pat. 200lbs and Up Division'. What? Oh yeah, this would be the magazine's art director Cliff Scorso kicking some ass (and getting a gold medal!) in his weight division at a regional championship!

I don't really understand how this whole Jujitsu thing works, so Brandon explained it to me in IM: "The reason the fight keeps stopping is because the guy kept complaining he couldn't see when Cliff hit him in the face... but you're allowed to do that." What's more: 'So, the yellow flag means a round is over. And that guy apparently has a good stand up game, but didn't get to use it because Cliff kept throwing him."

So, seriously, any magazines out there - is your art director more hardcore than Monsieur Scorso? Because we challenge, on his behalf, and not actually bothering to ask him - yours against ours in mortal combat. Also, we're going to be a bit more careful about asking for front cover changes in the future, just in case he grabs us and throws us again the cube wall in a fit of pique. (Only he wouldn't, he's lovely, hah!)

'Halo Effect' Book PopCults Up The Phenom

- Just got sent a copy of a pretty interesting book, 'Halo Effect: An Unauthorized Look at the Most Successful Video Game of All Time', which is described as "...examining the Halo phenomenon from every angle... from profiling the greatest Halo player who ever lived to providing a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the wildly popular, virtual-reality Halo movies." [I think they mean machinima!]

Anyhow, slightly vague intro aside, there are a number of fun essays in this anthology, from Smart Pop Books, who have also published a similar tome about World Of Warcraft. For one, NGJ czar Kieron Gillen has a piece called 'Planetary Objects In The Rear View Mirror' about how interest in Halo grew during the game's construction, positing: "There was a time no one outside of Bungie cared about Halo. Or if they did, they cared for no reason at all. Or the wrong reason."

Even neater, Kevin R Grazier, apparently the science advisor to Battlestar Galactica (the new one, not the chrome '80s one!) contributes 'Halo Science 101', including calculations in the differences in velocity rates for water in a waterfall in normal gravity vs. on a Halo, and lots more insane planetary calculations based on the Halo mythos. Finally, the ever-lovable Dean Takahashi contributes 'The Making Of Halo and Halo 2 And The Birth Of The Xbox 360', which seems typically well-researched and handy.

I think this is a bit more factual than theoretical, compared to some of the other famous books by the same company - but I've tended to highlight the more game writer/science-y stuff, and there's definitely some 'heavy thinking' in some of the essays, too. Overall, it's a fun concept, and Halo fans would do well to check it out.

March 23, 2007

COLUMN: 'Arcade Obscurities' - Sega's Dark Edge

Screenshot [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. This fifth column looks at Sega's obscure 1993 3D-'ish' fighting game Dark Edge.]

Back in the day, Sega was known for its powerful arcade hardware. What this meant in the late '80s and early '90s was that the hardware was good at sprite scaling and rotation. When Sega released Rad Mobile in 1990, its state-of-the-art pseudo-3D graphics were powered by the new System 32 hardware. While driving games come and go, there's one obscurity on System 32 that never was seen outside Japan: a fighting game called Dark Edge.

The game's background from the official flyer: "In the 25th Century, the human beings are allowed to live in the unified world controlled by the ultra-large computer. Those tough people who got out of their control now seem to be battling for the sake of their ambitions and desires. Even that battling, however, is controlled and the super-fighter is destined to fall a victim to an assassin sent by the ultra-large computer. Down the assassin and destroy the computer. Regain the future of the human beings, and fight for your aspirations."

The "out of control" heroes "fighting for their aspirations" are:

ScreenshotM.E.K. (Mechanical Enforced Kommando)
"A European mercenary soldier wounded in the war underwent a cyborg operation and is determined to have revenge on the Boss who sent him to the battlefield."

Genie
"A female martial artists who wears the Gymnastic Battle Suit that enhances her agility. She attacks the enemy by taking advantage of an unguarded moment."

Blood the bio-monster
"This monster man born as a result of generic mutation has the weapons of elastic nails and sharp fins. He displays primitive instincs as a fighter as he discharges poisonous liquid."

Yeager the sonic breaker
"A former German fighter pilot who became a cyborg in order to be the super-fighter. His special ability: High speed flight."

Thud the Samurai
"An American who has the Samurai spirit can use two swords skillfully. He believes in the spiritual power and controls the thunder."

Goliath with power suit
"A laborer wearing the power suit converted from construction equipment. He moves slow, but his attack is extremely powerful."

ScreenshotWhat all the above means is that Dark Edge is more or less your typical one-on-one fighting game. Like in almost every other modern fighter, players have multiple punch and kick buttons at their disposal, as well as various projectile attacks. Defeat one opponent and fight a more skilled one. In additon to standard characters, the game contains two bosses, plus Space Harrier-like bonus stages.

What makes Dark Edge special is that it is probably the world's first modern 3D fighting game. What is even more special is that it implements its "realistic 3-D battle action as seen in the SFX movies" (like it says in its flyer) by using 2D sprite scaling! As far as pseudo 3D-graphics go, Dark Edge is very impressive: System 32's sprite pushing power is used extensively.

In addition to two big fighters, the environments have lots and lots of eye candy: snow with footprints, reflective water, billowing sand, spinners flying in around in a Blade Runner - themed level and so on...all this while simultaneously keeping the frame rate high - while animation is very choppy, the graphics move very fluidly. While there have been other sprite-scaled 3D fighters, none of them has been as ambitious or well-implemented as Dark Edge.

ScreenshotUnfortunately, the amount of sprite-pushing power can not overcome the fact that using 2D graphics requires lots of memory: since all the fighters are pre-drawn, there is only a limited number of angles from which the combatants can be displayed. Also, the graphics tend to get very blocky when the camera zooms in. While in a "normal" polygonal fighting game low-quality textures or low-poly models would not affect playability, Dark Edge proves that making 3D fighting game with sprites is not a very good idea: the gameplay, while not a total mess, feels very imprecise and random.

In addition to technical issues, there are also some basic problems that exist probably due to the newness of the 3D fighting concept: the camera does not rotate around the players, meaning that very often you end up exactly behind or front of your opponent, and playability flies out the window when in a versus fighting game, you can see only one character.

Polygon-powered Virtua Fighter, with a rotating camera, was released couple of months after Dark Edge, and all we know very well what happened. While not being a very good game, Dark Edge still holds the admirable title of being the world's first true 3D one-on-one fighting game. In addition to that, I've always had a soft spot for sprite-based 3D games, and Dark Edge is no exception: "PlayStation-generation" types will probably think that those games look terrible, but they're just wrong. :)

In Casual Games... Why Spy?

- Possibly my favorite column in all of gaming website-land is Vinny Carrella's semi-regular article series for casual site Gamezebo, and his latest discusses why games like the iSpy-esque Mysteryville and Mystery Case Files series continue to enjoy such immense popularity among casual gamers.

Carrella explains: "Based on what I know (intuitively not scientifically) about the behavior of mature gamers - what they want and what they gravitate towards - these find-the-needle-in-the-haystack 'mystery' games are the tip of an iceberg I saw looming in the icy waters of the gaming ocean more than 15 years ago.... Searching for your lost car keys can be an agonizing and frustrating experience. But if someone were to hide your car keys and then tell you that they were somewhere on your desk, it becomes a game, especially if they give you clues."

Thus: "The same [principle] is at work in games like Mystery Case Files. We are shown an image and told that somewhere within that image are several items. The more we find, the more we trust that we're not being duped and if the game is well-designed we'll spend hours searching for what we know must be there. There is an innate sense of empowerment in this activity, an affirming satisfaction that our powers of perception are indeed strong. Such games pose no risk of failure and offer us the pleasure of finding hidden things under conditions where the stakes are low. That appeals directly to our primal primate perception; which many believe evolved to find brightly colored fruit amongst the dense foliage of the forest canopy." Awesome writing.

GameSetCompetition: GDC Magnetic Poetry Giveaway!

- There has already been some marvelling at the Game Developers Conference 2007 speaker gift, which is "...a DVD clamshell with four sets of DVD-shaped magnetic poetry, the words conforming to themes from this year's conference [and random 'hilarious' game-related words!]" - and a little stand to put them on if you don't have a fridge handy, actually.

Anyhow, we managed to grab five sets of the DVD-case stored magnetic poetry from the wonderful GDC organizers who we sit near (thanks Jamil and Meggan!), and we're going to give them away in a stupendous GameSetCompetition! The question is simple enough:

"What's the best phrase, sentence, or nonsensical chain of words you can make by using the words on the special GDC magnetic poetry pieces?"

- You can see the full word line-up by clicking here or on the picture to the right - as I noted before: "A bunch of the words were actually contributed by myself and some others from Game Developer and Gamasutra editorial, hence some suitably dumb stuff like 'Riiidge Racer', 'Megaton', 'Dropdabomb', 'O RLY', 'shmup', and some others I can't remember right now. Also 'sensible stuff' like Itagaki, Wright, Schafer, Sid Meier's, shipdate, script, physics, texture, and so on."

Also, now I look at it, I remember I included GAF (oh dear!) - and also I think we didn't include enough 'doing' words like 'praised', 'beat', 'encouraged', etc. Oh well. But you can still get some good stuff out of this. Here's my completely random and quite possibly libelous example: "Drunk Jaffe Slipped Kojima The Twink"!

Anyhow, please enter by submitting your chain of words in the comments below at any time before Thursday, March 29th at noon PST, and include either an email address or a link to a website containing your email address. And may the dumbest answers win! [Thx for pics, Boyer!]

Ozymandias Muses On PS3 Memory Use

- You've got to hand it to Microsoft's gaming platform strategy guy Andre 'Ozymandias' Vrignaud - he's certainly been getting into the PlayStation 3 vs. Xbox 360 conflict on his weblog recently - and he's asking some interesting, if Microsoft-centric questions, such as how much memory is reserved for OS on PlayStation 3.

So, apparently, all of the Xbox 360 system information (dashboard/online) fits into 32mb, resident at all times. Pete Isensee at Microsoft comments of the alternative: "For comparison, PS3 developers have to deal with a system that has memory split into two 256MB banks, one of which is reserved for graphics only. A large portion of both the memory banks are reserved for the system. On top of that, games that want to support other features, like friends lists or in-game commerce, take an additional memory hit."

He continues: "[An Ars Technica postl indicates that a total of 96MB is reserved for the system on PS3. [An Innerbits post indicates that 9MB is required for friends lists (and 60MB for in-game commerce!). If those numbers are correct, a PS3 title using friends lists functionality has 512-96-9 = 407MB available, 73MB less than an Xbox 360 title using the same features."

However, more than one commenter is skeptical about how this is presented - Parveen Kaler comments: "That is very one-sided analysis. There is a space vs. speed trade-off here. The PS3 doesn't require as much memory for certain tasks. For example, progressive meshes are a viable technique on the [PlayStation 3's] SPUs, whereas it is not very viable on the 360's cores." Later on, apparently blocked from commenting more by NDAs, he comments: "My final point is that this argument is all overblown fanboy fodder. This particular issue is a speed bump not an iceberg. Both systems have pros and cons. Developers will exploit the pros of both systems and mitigate the cons of both systems."

GameSetLinks: From Green To Mutant League

- Ah yes, those GameSetLinks - there's a few things hanging around that are worth posting before we get to the weekend, spanning follow-ups to previous posts through brand-new and hitherto undiscovered rubbish. Which you will like, honest:

- Firstly, an interesting comment follow-up to a recent GameSetWatch story about Guitar Hero 2 for Xbox 360 'going green'. Commenter T. Ryan Arnold notes: "I work in the Mastering Lab at THQ, so I would consider myself sort of an expert on things going Gold, Green, and everything in between. Here's another intersting tidbit of information. Back in the early Xbox days, builds submitted to Microsoft on DLT tape for submission would have a test run burned onto special submission DVD media which happened to be GREEN. Back then I'd hear a lot of devs talking about "going green", meaning that the final build had been burned to green submission discs. Most submission to Microsoft is electronic now...so [the naming] might just be a holdover to the days when "going green" meant that you basically had a build that was in the final stages before manufacturing." Useful!

- This is not game-related in content at all, but Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw just updated his weblog with a great book recommendation: "The finest Robert Louis Stevenson novel I hadn’t read, The Master of Ballantrae (1889) blends the high-seas piracy of Kidnapped! and Treasure Island, with Jekyll & Hyde’s dark doubled vision of humanity. It seems to have had a strong influence on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer (1909), of which I was vividly reminded during certain long discussions in a ship’s cabin during a storm. And toward the stripped-down end of the novel, it turns into a grim frontier adventure reminiscent of Antonia Bird’s sublime Ravenous." So there.

- Gamasutra news guy Jason Dobson has posted a new interview with Atlus' Nich Maragos, also a former Gamasutra news guy (aha!) over at Snackbar Games, discussing the upcoming Etrian Odyssey - and Maragos explained of the first-person DS RPG: "What we hope to do... is put a little of the spark back into the genre. It's a very beautiful game, set in vibrant forest mazes that are a little more interesting to look at than your average medieval sewer. It's got colorful, bold designs for the monsters and characters that make it more appealing to people who have grown up with Japanese RPGs, rather than their American PC brethren."

- If you haven't seen Jeremy Parish's review for Cooking Mama: Cook Off! for the Wii, then you should do so. It starts: "[Editor's Note: The following teleplay is a transcript of the pilot episode of Iron Chef: Video Games, which was inexplicably dropped by the Food Network before its on-air debut.]", it's got an entirely goofy concept, and guys, guys, it's actually fun to read/view. Why can't more reviews be fun to read? That's the eternal question, of course.

- An interesting YouTube find, here - someone has posted a VHS-recorded video from BS Zelda no Densetsu, the "...expanded version of The Legend of Zelda that was released for the Satellaview attachment for the Super Famicom in Japan." Most bizarrely: "The game was divided into four weekly episodes. These episodes were played live, at the same time as a videogame tips show was running on the satellite network." Since the game can never be played live again, this is the only evidence we'll have of precisely how the game was shown through the Satellaview. [Via Frank, who adds: "They used cable television to stream "game data", which was actually live-broadcast, looping audio, with data downloaded via modem."]

- Worth pointing out at Gamasutra today - Alistair Wallis' profile of Mutant League Football's Michael Mendheim, explaining the genesis of the game: "Mendheim’s growing status in the industry saw his connections grow as well. Based on a love of American football and EA’s John Madden Football series of games, he contacted a producer at the company, and pitched an idea he had for a twist on the sport. “I loved Madden Football,” he enthuses, “it was and still is my favorite game. Football, science fiction, violence, and a touch of dark humor all seemed like a natural fit. Mix these elements up with the right amount of strategy and you end up with a blood and guts football game that makes people laugh and think.”"

- Kotaku's look at the upcoming movie Reign Over Me and its apparently intelligent use of Shadow Of The Colossus in the plot is a nice piece of reporting - we'll see how the movie turns out, but the point is good: "Reign Over Me must be one of the first Hollywood films, if not the first, to deal with games thematically and intelligently. While other industry pundits try to figure out how to take the latest blockbuster game and turn it into a movie or vice versa, Reign Over Me already has an insightful leg up: Let the games speak for themselves. Characters bond through games and lose themselves in them, only to find themselves again. They enjoy the simple act of play."

- Another Experimental Gameplay Workshop game I'm just waking up to (thanks Gillen/Kumar!) is 'The Truth About Game Development', in which: "You play the part of a game producer and your job is to produce the best game you can as cheaply as possible. Mostly you just try to motivate the lazy ass game developers by killing them." Nuff said, really - all of the Kloonigames 'done in a week' games are pretty awesome, so just look around!

March 22, 2007

Confirmed - You Can Now Touch The DS Dead!

- You may remember that I had an in-depth trawl of GameFly's pre-release information a few weeks back, happening upon the following entry: "- Touch The Dead (Eidos, April 30th) - sounds like a logical title! Are there any Japanese zombie touching DS games that Eidos could import, or is this a whole new title? No info online at all."

Well, information has now broken (huzzah!), and MTV's Stephen Totilo has a cute write-up of the game (scroll down) as part of his Eidos game inspection festivities in New York. He notes: ""Touch the Dead," which Eidos initially planned to call "Dead and Furious," is a first-person shooter on rails. You don't control where the character moves, you just tap the touch screen in the right spots to shoot at the zombies. When you're out of ammo, you drag bullets to the gun."

What's more: "In later levels, the zombies throw their heads at you. The player has to touch those craniums into oblivion. The game, which is slated for May, is running off a crude 3-D engine. It may have been the worst-looking game that Eidos was showing. But it doesn't matter. It had me using a stylus to tap zombies to their doom. So I crown it the best new game I played Tuesday."

[Anyhow, looks like the game, instead of being imported from Japan, as I conjectured, is heavily Japanese-inspired but made by Dream On Studio, a French developer spun off from Infogrames Lyon. The studio also makes Winnie The Pooh's Rumbly Tumbly Adventure - bit of a stylistic contrast, there!]

How XBLA, XNA Development Works

- I believe that we have an interview with them next week on Gamasutra, but in the meantime, Torpex Games' Jamie Fristrom has posted some fun facts about XNA and Xbox Live Arcade on his GameDevBlog personal blog.

Torpex are making Schizoid, which is mini-previewed on 1UP and is "...the first game to officially make the jump from XNA development to Xbox Live Arcade" - it's described as "a co-op action game in which teamwork matters like never before, as gamers and their friend or AI ally protect each other from barrages of glowing enemies." Should (hopefully!) be out before the end of the year.

In the blog, Fristrom explains the various approval processes for Xbox Live Arcade (handy!), talks about the advantages and disadvantages of XNA (also handy!), and concludes by answering the query 'What you think of the cost of doing "casual" games...?' with: "I prefer the term "downloadable" because our players aren't going to be casual. And, well, hey, it's cheap. Really cheap. A story went over Reuters today that said my alma mater - Spider-Man 3 - may cost $35 million. Schizoid will cost over two orders of magnitude less than that. And I believe it'll be just as fun. You could make over a hundred Schizoids for the cost of a Spider-Man 3! "

Muscle-Controlled Gaming For Mobile Phones?

- Over at a Forum Nokia blog, Finnish developer and researcher Arto Holopainen has been talking about his company's physically operated game controller experiments, specifically the "idea of using muscles to control wirelessly mobile phone applications like games" - intriguing!

He explains: "Since the first case study [.PDF link], the muscle controlling has advanced quite far. Now the actual muscle controller is kind of wearable “sleeve” that is made of skin tight material like sport clothes. The “sleeve” has built in textile electrodes to measure EMG signal from muscles as well as integrated small Bluetooth enabled bio-amplifier to collect and to forward the information wirelessly."

He continues: "You just wear the sleeve and start using it. MuscleControl application in mobile phone receives muscle activity and translates it to phone commands. Instead of creating own games that uses the “sleeve” in closed-box like fashion, the beauty of MuscleControl is to act more like a joystick driver that can be used to control other applications. So basically you can use and configure it to commands you like. Nice isn’t it?"

What's more: "In addition to just for fun, the application can be harnessed for more serious use like muscle rehabilitation (games for health) and for help to disabled persons (to activate e.g. phone call with certain muscle activity). And of course one obvious usage is the sport exercises. Wouldn’t it be nice to monitor your muscle activity during your training and to get to report afterwards? There are some many applications for MuscleControl that I’m just wondering why this hasn’t been done before..." Neat stuff.

[Actually, speaking of the 'alternative mobile gaming' area, sister site GamesOnDeck has just posted a neat feature about proximity-based gaming from Tom Soderlund, creator of the game BotFighters.]

Game Review Scores - Fixed Forever!

- I've been quite enjoying the blog posts of Dan 'Elektro' Amrich of Official Xbox Magazine recently, and one of the most recent ones is titled 'I will now fix the review score problem', and, uhh, does, kinda.

Dan explains: "Recently OXM took some heat for giving Crackdown a 7 out of 10. OMG WE HATED IT, said the readers. But when OXM gives a first-party game an 8 or above, OMG THEY R TEH BIAS. So. After careful consideration, here’s the answer..." What? What? We feel a revelation coming on!

Wow, it's genius. "All games get one of two scores: 7 or 8. As already determined by the audience, 7 means the reviewer hated it. An 8 means the reviewer loved it. There will be no complaining, no arguments about whether a stealth game that gets a 9.8 is actually superior to a shooter game that gets a 9.9. You get a 7 or an 8."

He explains why: "It’s a very personal but extremely binary decision at its core. Pull out your wallet and tell me it’s different: It’s worth your money or it’s not worth your money." You know, I see the sarcasm, but he also kinda has a point, right? I've been liking 1UP's Retro Round-up reviews, which do exactly this - thumbs up or thumbs down. Maybe all reviews should go that way, hmm?

Inside Humble's The Marriage

- Over at Arthouse Games, they have the scoop: " Rod Humble just released his experimental artgame The Marriage for public consumption."

So, what is it? " With no sound, no music, and barely-there graphics, this game is clearly not meant to dazzle your senses, but instead meant to intrigue your mind (and its low-fi nature is not a cop-out---Rod Humble's day job is at EA, so he has plenty of experience making high-fi games)."

Arthouse Games' Jason Rohrer continues of the title, which was showcased at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC this year: "I have played The Marriage quite a bit, and so has my spouse. We've spent some time talking about what it might mean. The game, and my experience discussing it, have reminded me of experiences at galleries of modern art---for each piece, I stare at it, scratch my head a bit, and try to mine the piece for meaning of some kind. I'm also reminded of watching a David Lynch movie with friends---we'd spend the rest of the evening discussing what the movie might mean."

March 21, 2007

Toronto Indie Game Jam 2 For The Win!

- So we ran the results of the first competition last year, but the guys at the Toronto Indie Game Jam have slung us info on their new TO Jam 2 'make a game quick' festival, taking place in just a few weeks. Indies in Toronto should check this out:

"This is the official announcement of TO Jam 2. What's this Jam deal all about you ask? You attempt to make a game in one weekend. You say it can't be done? Well it has been done! Thi's years event promises to be bigger, more exciting and prestigious than last year."

The event "will be held in the downtown Toronto area" and "will happen May 4-6, 2007" - there's going to be more information on the forums in due course, and considering that completely wacky games like Kalishnikitty came out of it last year, we're looking forward to seeing what they (and you!) do this time round.

Queen Bee Of ARGs, Jane McGonigal Talks

- Realized that this was posted on sister site Gamasutra, was very GSW-worthy, and I didn't link it - Bonnie Ruberg chatted to 'alternate reality game' creator Jane McGonigal, known for her work at 42 Entertainment on ilovebees and Last Call Poker, during GDC.

This was a pretty interesting exchange, for one: "One of my most rewarding game design experiences has been the gameplay for cemeteries (Last Call Poker), the Activision-commissioned project for the release of Gun with 42 Entertainment. I did the game design for the cemeteries. We had a lot of goals with that, some were related to Activision, their interest in exploring the history of the game and the real American folklore of the game."

McGonigal notes: "Part of it was also we realized we were going to send players to cemeteries, and, well, once people go to cemeteries to play a game, they’ll probably go back again some day for something not quite as fun. It was the idea that we could read some sort of social experience and meaning system in a cemetery that would make those later moments somehow more bearable." This is definitely a bit out there, but I do actually appreciate the sentiment.

Capcom's Localization Chops Revealed

- It's interesting to see Japanese-headquartered, formerly 'closed' companies such as Capcom open up, as it's been doing over the past few months, and their Lost Planet blogging has turned into a general Capcom multi-person blog setup which encompasses lots of interesting posts - though the master URL is still at Lost Planet's community site, for some reason.

Anyhow, Scarlett's blog on CapcomUSA.com, which also feeds into this, has been posting some excellent interviews with Capcom localization staff and the latest talks to Janet Hsu of Capcom Japan about her job in general, as well as her localization work on Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

Hsu comments of some relatively untranslatable Japanese gags: "The other things that didn’t transfer very well were for the most part, cultural references. For example, Morgan Fey’s style of speaking in the Japanese version is a very old style of Japanese and she has a peculiar way of addressing people. I had to figure out how to rework it so she still sounded formal, but slightly odd in English and came up with “Good sir!” as her way of addressing Phoenix."

[Posted earlier, there's also an interview with JP Kellams and with the excellently named Brandon Gay, both localizers based at Capcom's Osaka studios, and various other interviews and links of interest dotted throughout the Capcom blogs - I'd love to see more companies opening up like this, in a sort of 'internal/external newsletter' style.]

GDC Speaker Gift Is Rather... Magnetic

- You know, I completely forgot about this, but Kotaku has picked up the story from an original Watercooler Games post - there were some special GDC poetry lessons given out this year.

Specifically, Ian Bogost explains: "For those of you who don't know about this tradition, every year [at Game Developers Conference] CMP provides a small yet charming gift to all of the speakers. This year it was a DVD clamshell with four sets of DVD-shaped magnetic poetry, the words conforming to themes from this year's conference."

A bunch of the words were actually contributed by myself and some others from Game Developer and Gamasutra editorial, hence some suitably dumb stuff like 'Riiidge Racer', 'Megaton', 'Dropdabomb', 'O RLY', 'shmup', and some others I can't remember right now. Also 'sensible stuff' like Itagaki, Wright, Schafer, Sid Meier's, shipdate, script, physics, texture, and so on. Now I just need to work out where if we have any spares, because I forgot to pick mine up at GDC!

March 20, 2007

Dr Peter Favaro's Alter Ego Exposed

- Over at Gnome's Lair, they have a really interesting interview quizzing Dr. Peter Favaro, cited as "...the man behind the excellent Alter Ego life-sim and also one of the few psychologists deeply interested in the Internet... and video gaming."

Dr. Favaro explains of what happened after the '80s Activision title that made his name: "Well, Alter Ego was to be followed by a game called Child's Play -a humorous simulation about raising children, but Activision fell on financial hard times and [it] had to be scrapped. The project manager was someone named Brenda Laurel, whom everyone first referred to as "The Lizard Queen" in the early days of the Internet. Since then I have had some game ideas. One is finally coming to fruition. It's Internet based and code named K-OS."

He then explains this new wackiness called K-OS: "People purchase computer generated DNA. They feed, train and teach the creature that forms from it. The creatures meet in a virtual world on line, fight, consume each other's attributes until one becomes most superior. You know, the kind of touchy feely activities psychologists are known for." Sounds appropriately 'survival of the fittest',

Game Developer March Issue Goes Sam & Max Crazy

- This has actually been out for a little while, but we just managed to add it to the website, so now we're communicating it to you, yay:

"The March 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine, the sister print publication to Gamasutra.com, and the leading U.S. trade publication for the video game industry, has now shipped to subscribers and is available from the Game Developer Digital service in both subscription and single-issue formats.

The cover feature for the March issue (accompanied by an exclusive Steve Purcell-painted cover) is an postmortem of the episodic process used to make the new Sam & Max monthly 'Season 1' PC instalments from Telltale Games, and is described as follows:

"Do the words “episode one” still make you groan from the 12 times you watched all the Star Wars movies in one session? To developers, they signify a new day. Telltale Games, working with Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell, embarked on a months-long journey to create a game series that would be episodic in both content and distribution cycle. A handful of company insiders share how the plan came to fruition and what measures they took to adapt to the new schedule."

The March issue also takes a look at security issues in video game coding, of which it's explained: "When game developers talk about player protection, they're usually referring to cheating. However, some developers are coming to see that there's more at stake in matters of security. Microsoft security experts Dave Weinstein and Michael Howard consider how the machines of online game players might be left exposed to virtual perpetrators."

Another major feature is a 'state of the industry' piece on digital distribution, including interviews with major figures from Microsoft, Sony, and Valve: "Are video games retreating from store shelves en masse to fully join their digitally exclusive brethren, to create a game version of the iTunes Music Store? With digital distribution, developers and publishers—even of console games—are not only cutting out the middleman, but also enhancing their products. And they need more than just a lower price point to make it work."

The issue is rounded out by an interview with original home video game creator Ralph Baer, GameLab co-founder Peter Lee, and the customary in-depth news, code, art, audio, and design columns from Game Developer's veteran correspondents, as well as product reviews and game art features.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues, all for a reduced price.

There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of March 2007's magazine as a single issue. Newsstand copies of the magazine are now available at North American outlets including Barnes & Noble and other specialty bookstores."

What They Don't Tell You On Game Design Job Ads?

- The mysterious and grumpy 'Grassroots Gamemaster', whose mission is "in a world of dead, bland game design... to reawaken the truest dimension of what games can be - as they once were - and what they could be again" has posted a blog entry called 'What They Don't Tell You On The Game Design Job Description...'.

He then gets uber-cynical in deconstructing a typical game design job opening, for example: "Demonstrated ability to motivate and lead other team members. [That means two things: one you describe your vision, but then when the team cuts it down you just shut the hell up and take it. Two: you really get around to doing what we want you to do, to transform your vision into something everybody in the group - from the topmost producer to the lowliest QA guy - can get... can understand... right off the bat. Because believe me, if we don't understand it right away, it ain't gonna fly. I mean, who the hell do you think you are, Stanley Kubrick or somethin'? There ain't guys like that in game dev, boy. Let me tell you.]"

Or: "Proven track record with AAA console products and/or online game development. [Again... vision or no... we want proof. Not that it really means anything, or really does prove that this new game you or anyone else will be worth a damn, but it's comforting to us... Think of all those shitty games out there made by people with "proven track records"...]" You know, I don't really think this is actually useful, but it's an entertainingly nihilistic piece.

@ Play: I Believe It Not!

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.]

Simultaneously among the most beloved, and most loathed, features of the popular roguelike game Nethack is its wide variety of jokes and anachronisms. Often, when people who dislike the game, but appreciate other roguelikes, discuss their dissatisfaction with the game, it's because it contains things like candy bars, quantum mechanics, credit cards, magic markers and fortune cookies within its vague fantasy setting.

There are those of us who dearly love all these kinds of things, and in case you haven't guessed I'm one of them. I find that far too many fantasy games, both the regular kind, and roguelikes too at times, take themselves too seriously. The most popular computer roleplaying games you can find don't care a whit about subtlety or humor except on rare occasions.

Even Zelda, the last time out, gave us a strongly-typed light-dark motif that, although they did try to overturn it during the course of the game, still seemed to buy into it more than discredit. Yet considering how the whimsical and joyous Wind Waker was the worst-selling console Zelda for a long while, it seems that most gamers are perfectly happy with this. I am disappointed in modern gaming for many reasons, but none so more as this.

You know the kind of games I mean. Games that throw around words like "darkness" as if they were going out of style -- and the sooner that happens the better as far as I'm concerned. Yet it is enlightening, perhaps, to note that other than a weird little tacked-on prologue before the game, we don't even know why Nethack's long succession of @-signs are braving the dungeon. It likely isn't to save the world; the player's god wants the amulet, but it isn't a pressing fight against the forces of evil. I've always seen it as more of a quest for glory kind of thing.

Of the other major games, Rogue's quest is important only so that Rodney can gain admittance to the local fighter's guild. (In light of that game's tremendous difficulty, I can only imagine that he'll be in scarce company.) Crawl players seek the Orb of Zot; we don't know why. Angbanders wanna slay Morgoth, the great foe of Tolkien's Middle Earth (Sauron's boss), but it doesn't seem like he's about to up and invade at the moment. ADOM, alone among the major roguelikes, puts the player in a world-saving (or conquering) role, and perhaps because of this it is ADOM's quest, which has far more storyline than the other roguelikes, that seems the most petty. To save the world is a noble thing, but come on, it's been saved millions of times by now. Can't the durn thing take care of itself for a moment?

Well I say, let the technicolor phantastic realm-kingdom in dire need of salvation take a running leap. This time, our focus is digressions. A listing of jokes in Nethack. Let's go!

Strange objects

Sinks
Some time ago Nethack Devteam member Janet Walz saw the multiplicity of things in the game, and asked herself what thing is there that it lacks? The answer was obvious: the kitchen sink.

Sinks can be drunk from, if you have a death wish or something (there are two different ways to get polymorphed that way, and polymorph can destroy armor). They can be kicked, which can summon succubuses or incubuses for a bit of fun, or black puddings for a bit of the opposite of fun. Or you can drop rings down them, usually wasting the ring but providing a significant hint to its function in the process.

So, those results aren't funny? That's right, they aren't, but come on now. There are kitchen sinks in the dungeon!

Shirts
Back when Tourists were added to the game, they were intended as a challenge class. They begin with no melee weapon, get overcharged in shops, and their starting armor is a "+0 Hawaiian Shirt," which offers no protection at all.

More recent versions have changed this somewhat; many players agree that the Tourist quest artifact, the Platinum Yendorian Express Card, which doesn't charge general merchandise but does wands, is among the best in the game. And that "useless" shirt, when coupled with other armor, can be a boon. Any armor piece can only accept so much enchantment, you see, before it becomes likely that it'll disintegrate. A player can wear a suit of armor, a cloak, a helmet, a shield and a pair of boots, and their combined pluses can be substantial, but once it reaches a given maximum it becomes dangerous to enchant any more.

A shirt, you see, is an extra layer of armor that goes under armor, and so while it has no defense value itself it can be safely enchanted to +4 or +5, and that can make a big difference. Shirts are very rare items to find randomly, so it is useful to begin the game with one.

A few versions after Hawaiian Shirts entered the game, the Devteam added T-Shirts, which are functionally the same except for one useless, yet interesting, feature: they can be read. And there are quite a good number of things that can be printed on them, like:
tshirt.png

(By the way, Tourists themselves are not, strictly-speaking, an anachronism. They are a reference to Twoflower from Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. In fact the Tourist quest takes place in leading Disc city Ankh-Morpork, and the Tourist quest leader is Twoflower himself. In any case, the Tourist class is one of the features that can be compiled out of the game if the player is that opposed to them.)

Graves
They are found randomly throughout the dungeon, sometimes appear on bones levels at the spot a previous player met his end, and there are dozens of them deep in the dungeon, in the Valley of the Dead. They can be looted, but they can also be read. A sample grave marker....
headstone1.png
headstone2.png

Fortunes

Fortune cookies are an essential part of Nethack's hint system, with the meaning of the word "fortune" here being based more on the Unix command-line toy more than the confection offered by Chinese food places. There are hundreds of possible messages, divided into "true" and "false" based on their usefulness. Blessed cookies always provide true fortunes, and cursed cookies false. Many of the fortunes, further, are frequently fairly funny:
fcookie1.png
fcookie2.png

"So when I die, the first thing I will see in heaven is a score list?"
A wish? Okay, make me a fortune cookie!
Let's face it: this time you're not going to win.
Not all rumors are as misleading as this one.
Segmentation fault (core dumped).
Sorry, no fortune this time. Better luck next cookie!
You swallowed the fortune!
You choke on the fortune cookie. --More--

The Rogue level

roguelevel.png
Never let it be said that Nethack has forgotten its roots. In addition to the game's many holdovers from its early history as a remake of Rogue, deep in the dungeon it contains the greatest homage of all: a complete level done in the style of Rogue, right down to borrowing its own idiosyncratic ASCII graphics. Even graphic versions of the game drop down to letters and line-drawing characters here, and it'll also make an effort to duplicate a version of Rogue produced for the platform the game is made for; the picture above is from the MS-DOS port. It also always contains a ghost named after one of Rogue's creators.

Cultural borrowings

Perhaps the most awesome thing about Nethack, speaking as an English grad student? The game is loaded with cultural references! Most of the quest artifacts are taken from different fantasy series, from Dying Earth (Eyes of the Overworld) to Conan the Barbarian (the Heart of Ahriman). The Knight artifact is the Magic Mirror of Merlin, which goes all the way back to Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, which was printed in 1596 for heaven's sake. Most of the other artifacts are borrowed similarly: Stormbringer comes from the Elric books, Grayswandir's from Amber, Vorpal Blade's from Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky." Sting and Orcrist, of course, are from The Hobbit. The artifact weapon Snickersnee is from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, just about the last thing you'd expect a D&D-ish random dungeon game to borrow from. The gods worshipped by each character class is also cunningly chosen to be from a relevant world mythology (Valkyries, for example, get Norse gods), with the exception of Tourists (Discworld gods) and Priests (who get a random deities chosen from the other sets).

Not only that: balrogs and hobbits are also from Tolkien, crysknives and long worms are from Dune, towels and their use from The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, lots of things come from the Zork games and Adventure, and many of the named demons come from Christian tradition by way of early Dungeons & Dragons books, pre- obnoxious fundamentalist furor perpetuated by televangelists and rabble-rousing preachers.

All of this just scratches the surface. The game's built-in encyclopedia has a quote, from some< work of literature, for most monsters in the game, as well as some of the more noted artifacts. An exhaustive list of those, over 180 in all, can be found here.

Coyotes

A recent version of the game introduced a new canine opponent, to go in alongside the domestic dog hierarchy (small dog, dog and large dog), jackals, wolves, winter wolves and hell hounds: the coyote. If you use the "What is" command, forward slash, to access the game's encyclopedia to get information on a coyote, the entry is:
coyotedesc.png

If that's not enough to convince you of the monster's esteemed inspiration, the forward-slash command adds an interesting extra bit of information to the What Is report, only for coyotes:
coyote1.png
coyote2.png
coyote3.png

Incidental messages

If you somehow die on the very first turn:
200zorkmids.png

If you have a pet pit viper or pit fiend, who falls victim to a pit trap:
pitiful.png

If you are polymorphed into a metal eater and munch on a trident:
trident.png
If you're hallucinating the message is different:
trident2.png

Eating apples provides the report message "Core dumped," but I don't have a picture of that because it only does that in Unix ports of the game! (Core dumps are what Unix/Linux programs do when they crash, they write the contents of their memory to a file, called a core.)

Finally, while I won't spoil it here, players who are really hungry or low on points, are playing a Wizard or Valkyrie or of Elven race, and are familiar with the arcade game Gauntlet, are bound to be surprised eventually.

Hallucination messages

That brings us to the uncomfortably large category of hallucination jokes, which the game contains so many of that at times it seems like the hallucination condition is there solely as an excuse to be funny. It is easy to overlook the fact that hallucination actually predates Hack, first being seen in later versions of Rogue.

hallusource.png
The Devteam did make the most of it, though. Almost anything the player does prompts a funny message when hallucinating, often with a pop culture joke or bit of hippie slang attached. (A personal favorite is "You feel that Odin is bummed.") There are so many of those, and they're scattered so throughly throughout the source code, that I won't even try to list them. I will offer extra points, however, to whoever can find the condition that causes the game to tell them "There's a tiger in your tank."

The actual effect of hallucination is that monsters (and item observed from a distance) appear to flip randomly through a set of possibilities, thus depriving you of knowledge of what type they are. In Rogue the random appearance was chosen from the monsters in the game, but Nethack will also pick from a list of monsters that don't actually exist, which cover a wide gamut of sources in games, books, TV, movies and comics. Favorites include giant pigmy, master lichen, grue, Y2K bug, rodent of unusual size, Smokey the bear, smurf, Klingon, Totoro, Dalek, teenage mutant ninja turtle, one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater, and, of course, Morgoth from Nethack's distant cousin, Angband.

Shocking the gods

Finally, a specific game event that most good players encounter eventually, but always comes as a surprise, and sometimes a rude one, the first time they see it. It is a kind of joke to do with the alarming tendency of Nethack characters, once they get a good 15 levels under their belt and a selection of all the useful equipment they can obtain in the game, of becoming unstoppable tanks.

While even advanced characters can be killed, and often are in the days running up to one's first victory, if the player really knows what he's doing, more than half of the game can become a foregone conclusion. A really knowledgeable Nethack character is in some danger at the beginning, a little bit danger maybe at the very end, and almost completely safe in between. Of the named demon lords that can accost the player later in the game, the great heavies of the old-school D&D world, only Demogorgon is a significant challenge by the time he might show up, and he makes an appearance in only a very small number of games. I've never run into him myself.

Of course ultimately, there's always a bigger fish. The dungeon of Nethack a number of branches, but what is considered the "dungeon" is split into two major halves, the Dungeons of Doom, which go down to about level 25 or so, and Gehennom, which is the rest of the way. There are a number of significant differences between the two (like that Gehennom is a lot more frustrating to explore), but the foremost one is perhaps that prayer, Nethack's all-purpose escape valve for the almost-dead player, doesn't work in Gehennom. While there operators route all prayers get routed to Moloch, the game's antagonist deity. (See: fish, bigger.)

If alerted to a presence in his domain, the there is a chance that the thing does is fire a lightning bolt at the player's character, which instantly kills if it isn't resisted. But of course, by this time the player is likely to have gained shock resistance from one of several sources, and will pass through it unscathed, which gives Moloch an excuse to pull out the big guns, the wide-angle disintegration beam.

This beam cannot be reflected (like by a shield of reflection), and can destroy multiple inventory items at once. Magic resistance doesn't help either. However, it IS survivable, for one kind of monster in the game, black dragons, can confer the intrinsic state of disintegration-resistance if its flesh is consumed. The comment made by the Great God Moloch upon realizing he has been thwarted by a mere mortal is awesome to behold:

believeitnot.png

Game Developer's Sheffield Roughing Up San Diego

- In their 'infinite wisdom', the IGDA's San Diego chapter has invited my colleague Brandon Sheffield to moderate/talk about 'What makes a next-gen game', as he handily points out over at Insert Credit. [While he's down there, he's going to do a San Diego studio profile mini-tour for Gamasutra, so that's cool!]

Anyhow, Sheffield underpeddles his wares semi-adorably in his IC post, : "You should go if you're around, and in the industry. I think that's a prerequisite. Maybe heckle, or bring rotten fruit to throw. I moderated some stuff at GDC too, so it may go ok... though there were some hecklers there too!" The event is next Thursday evening, March 29th, and: "Questions will be solicited from game developers worldwide and there will be an opportunity to ask questions at the event."

The full event website has more info, explaining: "Don’t miss out on this exclusive, free event featuring editor-in-chief Dave Halverson from Play Magazine; editor-in-chief Francesca Reyes from Official Xbox Magazine; deputy editor-in-chief Kaiser Hwang from PSM; editor Brandon Sheffield from Game Developer Magazine; contributing writer Paul Semel for GamePro, Official PlayStation Magazine, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and others; and Game Head host Geoff Keighley from Spike TV."

March 19, 2007

Impressions: Q Vs. Disney: The Showdown

- The folks at Buena Vista Games were kind enough to send over Meteos: Disney Magic for the Nintendo DS, and I'm going to continue the grand GSW tradition of only posting impressions of games created by Q Entertainment - of which this, alongside Lumines 2 for PS2, is the latest.

The first thing to note is the cute message on the back of the box: "Basic reading ability is needed to fully enjoy this game." And indeed it is, since there are several specifics tasks to be done in Story Mode which you have to understand in order to accomplish, such as blasting off particular types of block to complete levels.

Also worth commenting on is that this is actually an outsourced Q joint, as the credits explain: "Concept planning & Management: Q Entertainment; Development: ASPECT Co. Ltd, Platinum Egg Inc.; Product management: Jamsworks Co." All small Japanese devs, I think - if anyone knows anything about them, post in the comments. [UPDATE: Even before this went live, Brandon Sheffield has done the research for us - all hail the IC massif!]

So, the gameplay! I feel that being able to shuffle blocks both vertically and horizontally makes the game, sure, slightly more of a vanilla block-shuffler, but much more natural and fun to play. Meteos is fun, but for me it always felt like I had one hand tied behind my back while playing it because of the vertical only gameplay. (Though I believe that the hardest single-player level in Disney Magic has horizontal shuffling turned off, and turned on via a power-up?)

- Something that I definitely appreciate is a little depth, and with silver and gold benchmarks to beat on each level in Meteos: Disney Magic (apart from an actual 'Stage Passed' milestone), you can keep going back to do better - though you need to play through levels in one sitting.

Also, the branching level structure after the 'Easy' stage in Story Mode is appreciated for a bit of variety. Honestly, the game doesn't seem that easy for a Disney-themed title, either. 'Normal' level was already reasonably challenging for me, and there's 'Hard' and 'Expert' after that, as well as various endless-style modes. There's a lot to keep you occupied there.

In addition, it's good to see another game with vertical orientation, something that started feeling more natural on DS after Brain Age did it. [Mind you, I don't think the original DS works quite so well vertically, ergonomically speaking, but the DS Lite certainly does.]

For me, the art was just a little bit 'vanilla', for some reason. I think I expected slightly twisted and cooler versions of Disney characters, but maybe I'm spoilt by Kingdom Hearts, which does that really well. And also, this is a game for kids and families, not for me, so they would likely be expecting regular depictions of their Disney favorites, from Toy Story through Lilo & Stitch and beyond - there's even Pirates Of The Caribbean in there somewhere. And Nightmare Before Christmas, of course - which looks cool, actually.

Overall, this is competent and playable, and I'm actually having more fun with it than the original Meteos. But it's not as cool and original IP and all that kinda of stuff, and you don't get to mess with planets and weird abstract signs. Hey - how about Disney characters traveling through the Meteos universe? That would have been the ultimate mash-up here. But I'm just spitballing now, and the fact is that this is a fine DS puzzler based on a neat concept (lacking only Wi-Fi play, boo), and well worth checking out.

Shooter Gets Scientology Pwned

- Not even sure if I _should_ point to this, but it's interesting that Indygamer has discovered a student game called 'Scientology Pwned', which I _guess_ is a critique of scientology, although it seems like more of a Robotron clone without much of a message, honestly.

Tim @ Indygamer explains: "The premise of Scientology Pwned is to essentially shoot everything in sight. The single unobstructed map has four enemy generators that create progressively tougher enemies. Use the arrow keys to move your character, and hold the control key to shoot. Your shooting direction will automatically lock when the control key is held down. Alternatively, the shift key can be held to lock your shooting direction when the control key is not held down. Music was composed by Jonathan Mak, creator of Everyday Shooter."

Tried it out briefly, and it's a well-created mini-blaster, but I'd love to see something with more of a social message. The game references various classes of enemy, including Scientologist, Special Affairs, and Sea Org, but that just really affects which rocket launchers they hold. Indygamer commenter Paul Eres says: "There's (still) such a thing as freedom of speech, and I like this game's name, I think its author did well to choose it. I assume he knows the risks though -- this is only slightly less risky than naming a game Islam Pwned." Quite. Guys, can we have some games dealing with controversial subjects with some DEPTH to them, please?

Wario Ware, At A Moment's Pose

- I try not to enter the debate about video game reviewing, since it tends to be long and messy, but I will say that, apart from Eurogamer's sophisticated and progressively interesting attitude to reviews, the other site I actually want to link to for reviews on GSW is The New Gamer, who just reviewed WarioWare: Smooth Moves for Wii.

I like the review's conclusion so much that I'm just going to excerpt is - but read the rest: "Smooth Moves is, moreso than the effervescent Wii Sports, a brilliant collection of ad spots for the Wii: It's a compendium of five-second-long vignettes showcasing the versatile and numerous control methods of the form baton/Wiimote. The eclectic series of Wiimote movements is a virtual showroom for just how ambitious developers can successfully work the hardware. Certainly, Smooth Moves leaves critics scratching their heads, wondering 'can developers recreate this level of fun for extended periods of time?' to which, the advertisers would obviously say "Who cares? Buy now! Supplies are limited!" and to which, I'm tempted to reply in the same manner."

"Smooth Moves is the best pitch-job for a console I've seen in some time, one that is infinitely re-playable simply because of its controller and the unique, expansive, experience it can provide, which is far more than we can say of prior WarioWare games and even most launch-window games. And while Smooth Moves can't answer whether future long-form Wii games can sustain the same amount of glee, it definitely shows that, in a gaming life where nuances, aggravations and story are excised, such boundless fun can be attained."

GameSetLinks: Floating Babies, EverQuest Readers

- A little more random GameSetLink-age for late on a weekend, and there's actually quite a lot of neat things that might have escaped your knowledge - but, thanks to the tentacles of my RSS feeds and Technorati-ing, have no escaped mine - here we go:

- Mega64's Rocco has posted a long account of his experiences at GDC, and it's kinda fun, since it talks about how the whole Miyamoto sketch came about - someone's posted the version that showed at the Game Developers Choice Awards, incidentally, so you can hear the audience reaction. It's also heartwarming: "As soon as Shigeru walks through the door, he sees us in our stupid costumes and just starts cracking up. And then we all started cracking up. I think that little moment was one of my favorites ever in getting to work on this crappy little show of ours. Just thinking back to Derrick and I hiding under the West Hills bleachers in our Mario costumes, the first thing we ever filmed, all the way to this moment, was just nuts. It doesn't get any more full-circle than that."

- Comic book artist and bon vivant Evan Dorkin (Milk & Cheese, Dork) has posted up a bunch of his rough sketches, and one of them is the pencil version of his Game Developer 2006 Career Guide, which depicts an ittle cute little baby floating in search of a joypad, Nevermind-styled. I'd never seen the sketch version, so I was delighted to check this out.

- Chris Kohler has already done a good write-up on this, but there's some slightly ridiculous internecine fighting going on - Kohls explains smartly: "Games Radar is accusing rival games site IGN of copying their article ideas, pointing out that their articles on game franchises that have gone downhill and top 25 games for each console were followed closely by similar pieces on IGN... Honestly? The "games that jumped the shark" article is a tiny bit suspicious, but the last time I checked you don't have to be a super genius to come up with a list of the best video games on Xbox." Guys - it aint' what you do, it's the way that you do it - that's what gets results.

- A couple more random/smart GDC and IGF reports I Technorat-ed: 'Someone Stole My Domain' has a nice IGF 2007 write-up summing up "the low-down on the very best of the indie scene", or at least our IGF-ified version of it. Also, Emily at Telltale has posted her GDC experiences, including links to the Sam & Max skits they did specially for the IGF awards.

- Videoludica has spotted an intriguing-looking new book I was unaware of, 'The EverQuest Reader', "...a collection of new essays that breaks fresh ground in the fast-growing field of games studies by theorising the major themes, ideas and activities surrounding the online fantasy role-playing game EverQuest, which boasted nearly half a million players at its height and became a landmark of interactive entertainment in the online age."

- Over at Flash game aggregation site Kongregate, they've put up 'Understanding Games: Episode 1', "...the first of four games trying to raise awareness for the basic concepts of computer and video games. It deals with rules, interactivity, representation and simulation in games." It's actually interesting, since it's a game that's also teaching you about making games - it's by the Pixelate Environment folks from Germany. [Via Boyer!]

Ugh, Call The Hopkins FBI, Stat

- UK writer Richard Cobbett's website has some really fun writings on adventure games, and a recent entry discusses what's known as 'The Horror of Hopkins FBI', analyzing a PC game which, while getting decent marks from a couple of adventure game critics, appears to be horribly cliched, misogynistic, and terrible.

Cobbett explains of the 1999-ish European-developed title in question: "I last thought about it while writing Cirque du Strange for PC Gamer - the 50 Weirdest Moments In PC Gaming. Hopkins had so many that could have been included, but none I could find grabs for. So it didn't make it in, and I was sad."

He continues: "Then I was poking around our local game store when I saw a copy on the shelves. 99p, as part of a double-pack. Clearly, they didn't know what evil they had taken into their midst. I had to remove it in order that their souls not be lost. This level of Weapons Grade Badness requires special training to handle, and I've played Midnight Nowhere, Druuna, and Plumbers Don't Wear Ties. I knew I could take it..." Then he explains why, with pictures and story references and OUCH.

March 18, 2007

GBA, DS Points Of Interest @ EB/GameStop

- Had a chance to wander around my local Bay Area GameStop store yesterday, and spotted a few details and interesting products for Nintendo's handhelds that might be of interest to GameSetWatch readers - as follows:

- Firstly, Atlus' Game Boy Advance version of puzzle game Polarium is available for $9.99 new - also on the website, but obviously you'll avoid shipping charges if you buy it from the store. Tony 'Tablesaw' Delgado did a whole column on the game late last year, and some say it's even superior to the DS version, so it's worth checking out.

- Not sure how long it's been this cheap, but GBA title Drill Dozer is now $14.99 new at GameStop. It's by Pokemon tykes Game Freak, and here's a handy Onion A.V. Club mini-review: "Reach areas by drilling through tunnels, open doors by drilling cranks, defeat enemies by drilling into their gaping mouths. Yup, [main character] Jill is hardcore like that." Ignoring Freudian issues, might be time for those who haven't to pick this up, as I did.

- I didn't buy this one, but Capcom Classics Mini Mix for GBA is also now $9.99 new, and Armchair Arcade just made a little post about it, handily. Interestingly, "...the games included here are oldies but goodies and are were originally NES ports of arcade games that are heavily changed from the originals in effective ways." And it's got a SD version of Final Fight called Mighty Final Fight, even. Probably not amazing, but intriguing.

- Two final oddities: just available for DS at $20, Namco Bandai's Trioncube hasn't been that well reviewed, but seems quirky and different, at least. Brandon found some nice commercials promoting it in Japan. And I ran into a game that you haven't heard of - Destination Games' Lionel Trains: On Track, apparently a DS-ish Railroad Tycoon type game which, at least according to reviews so far, isn't very good. But it's unknown!

Tale Of Tales Storytellers Take 'The Path'

- Over at Videoludica, there's some new info on 'short horror game' The Path, from Tale of Tales, "the innovative game design studio is responsible for The Endless Forest interactive screensaver and 8. The Path is slated for a 2008 release."

From the official 'The Path' website: "There's something wrong with the forest. No matter how bright the sun shines, it remains dark and foggy. It smells like something died. Strange noises fill the rusty air. Squeaks and screeches. The dull thump of someone chopping trees. The wind playing eerie melodies on ghostlike flutes. Shivers run down her spine. She just left the city. Cars can't drive here anymore. Mother told her to go visit grandmother. The old lady lives all alone at the other side of the forest. Quite a walk from here. It's probably best if she stays on the path..."

Here's the rundown for this interesting PC art-game melange: "Play six different avatars with distinct personalities... interact with autonomous characters driven by Drama Princess technology... unique free-form gameplay: do what you want when you want it.. .mix the music in realtime through in-game activity... lose yourself in an endless forest filled with attractions and atrocities." Worth checking out.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Introducing Your Game Mag of the Future

['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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Reports that Computer Games and MASSIVE Magazine (recently rechristened MMO Games due to a legal dispute) have been shut down met with unprecedented furor and wailing across the entire Internet. Just kidding. Actually the response was tepid nearly everywhere it was reported, with these comments posted to Kotaku being pretty representative of prevailing opinion:

"I stopped reading game magazines before I hit high school. Years, and years, and... years ago. I didn't even realize there were still so many around. Waste of paper and money if you ask me. Just my opinion."

"Since magazines by their very nature can only report month old news, as compared to the immediacy that is the internet, they were destined to failure as soon as high speed internet came to be commonplace in most house holds.

They should have just switched to an online company, rivaling IGN or Gamespot."

One could argue that the PC game-mag marketplace is a tad more moribund than its console counterpart since it's shrinking and increasingly moving to online experiences that print mags can't report on fast enough. However, I think the real problem is these commentors' general way of thinking, which is likely far more prevalent among gamers casual and hardcore than most EIC's would like to admit. To sum it up, video game magazines are old, and all they have is old news, and I can get news on the Internet, and therefore magazines are dumb.

Putting this another way (and perhaps in an unfair manner), you could also say this: Magazine publishers are failing to communicate to their potential audience that their magazines just aren't like that anymore. A lot of mags, from EGM and GFW to Tips & Tricks, try to de-emphasize news in favor of longer pieces on the industry and trends in general. But as long as you are EGM or GFW or any other long-standing game publication, you can't get rid of the cookie-cutter news and reviews and previews -- readers will complain about it mightily if you do, no matter how wrong they are on the issue.

With that in mind, I've given some thought to what I'd do if I had the editorship of a brand-new game mag and ten billion dollars to build it with.

To start out, I took a bunch of mags I'd like to borrow stuff from and simmered them all together on my oven range:

- The older-game coverage of the UK's Retro Gamer
- The extremely long features and interviews of Japan's CONTINUE
- The massive variety of regular columns of Tips & Tricks
- The visual design of Make
- And the dogged devotion to product quality seen most recently in political commentary mag The New Republic (which went from publishing weekly to twice a month, expanded the page count and size, and began to feature extensive new art and photography starting this week)

So, throwing all these unrelated traits together, and what kind of game mag do you get? Well, first off, the mag (which I'll call GameStoat for the sake of this article) is a mook, a made-up Japanese word combining "magazine" and "book" that emphasizes high paper quality and extensive visuals at the expense of a high price. (Make and CONTINUE are mooks.)

I'd want each issue to be a constant 150-160 pages each, and I'm not planning on many ad pages (certainly nowhere near as many as traditional game mags), so the price would have to be pretty high -- I'd reckon $15 is about the maximum any sane person will spend on something in a magazine rack. (Sound high? Well, look at any non-game magazine that comes with a DVD or anything extra to it -- almost all of them are at least $10 these days. Instead of DVDs, though, the Stoat will use that price tag to use the best paper and have the most content pages of any game title in the US. A worthy trade-off? Well, if the writing quality's there, yes.)

Why do I like the mook format so much? Well, it's different from the pack, for one. The format looks nice on your coffee table, not disposable and getting all crinkled up on your toilet seat. What's more, a mook-type publication works perfectly for the subject matter GameStoat will cover -- not retro games, not current game news, but just games, in general, and anything else neat about and around games.

Every issue would have:

- Some sort of enormous retrospective on some aspect of video games. An old console, a long-running game series, a certain creator, a certain genre, some kind of trend in video games, video-game TV shows, and so on. The Sega Genesis. Batman games. Treasure. Need for Speed. DOS games from 1994 to 1996, that transitional era between 2D and 3D. Maybe a couple per issue, even.

- A similarly enormous interview with one game dignitary or another -- a creator, the head of the ESA, whomever is interesting past or present. Miyamoto. Will Wright. The guy who makes all the Mario Party games. The guy who designs the cases for game hardware.

- Editor roundtables on one thing or another -- trends, old games, and so on.

- A design that recalls Make and GFW -- extremely clean and straight, but also packed to the gills with original photography and art. That $15 price tag would pay for a ton of custom art for the mag. The art would be more prevalent in the mag than any individual game's screenshots.

- Massive amounts of columns. Anyone involved with games, or anyone who's talented in another field but likes games a lot (Trent Reznor, Penn Jillette, Curt Schilling, that sort of thing), can have a column. The game designer's column on making games, the PR/marketing guy's column on selling games, the degenerate WOW addict's column about the moment his girlfriend gave up on him, Mr. X from a famous Texas game studio exposing life in the trenches of development. Illustrate the columns with art, not game screenshots all the time.

- A regular "how-to" section. How do I set up this stupidly awesome entertainment center? How do I build up a great big collection of game music? I kinda missed out on Amiga games as a kid -- how do I set up and run an emulator? How do I beat the Grim Reaper in the first Castlevania? If there's an interesting way to visually present all this, anything can fit in here -- it doesn't have to even be a practical how-to; it's just gotta be interesting to read. Along with this, a column called "How to Make This Game," a dev diary with lots of Maya screen grabs and pictures of uncomfortable PR parties.

- Interesting giveaways for a change. Giveaways are a deceptively powerful way to build reader loyalty, but pretty much every mag except for Nintendo Power gives them short shrift. I love giveaways, but I hate boring ones like free games. Let's give away concept-art lithos, Master Chief helmets, the inflatable shark from EA Tiburon's cafeteria signed in Marks-A-Lot by everyone on the Madden team, the contents of Hideo Kojima's cube's wastebasket.

- Anything and everything else that makes a neat-looking spread that a fan of video games aged 25-50 might legitimately be interested in. 80s Nickelodeon TV shows. DVD season sets. Simpson T-shirts. Oh God, I'm 30, how do I save money? The New Kids on the Block -- I'd love to know what Jordan is up to these days.

And that's the Stoat in a nutshell. Note the complete lack of news, previews and reviews. I don't want any of those in GameStoat -- not in the traditional way, at least. That's because I honestly don't think readers of print game mags give a crap about reviews and previews anymore. They may think they do, but they don't, and when they encounter a mag filled with nothing but interesting features instead of page-filling previews, they'll realize how much they were missing. (MASSIVE was in the process of proving this before getting closed through no fault of its own.)

The mag would be seasonal, maybe bimonthly if it actually takes off. There would be an online counterpart, of course, with weblogs and podcasts and forums -- but, most importantly, print subscribers would get to access a full digital version of every issue, including extra audio and video wherever possible. I'd consider it an utter success if circulation reaches 100,000 -- GameStoat won't be the flagship title in any publisher's roster, but it will make a profit, and if I do my job right as EIC, its prestige and fan dedication will be the sort of thing money can't buy, either in print or online.

Does that all sound exciting to you? Well, tough. This was just a stimulating exercise in concept design for me. I already got a job -- and besides, to run a game mag I'd pretty much have to be in California, and I like my ferrets more than being a big game-industry star. Hopefully, however, GameStoat has shown that the magazine format can still be made to work for video games -- and, if done right, it can be the exact opposite of Computer Games and prove how relevant print still is in the 21st century.

[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.]

The History Of Capcom's Darkstalkers

- I'm still struggling to remember them with their non-RSS shenanigans, but a recent update on Hardcore Gaming 101 includes an excellent, in-depth look at Capcom's Darkstalkers series, one of my own personal favorite fighting game series (I used to own an arcade board of Vampire Savior 2, even.)

Anyhow, the intro handily explains: "Darkstalkers (Vampire in Japan) was Capcom's other original fighting game series. Its popularity never came anywhere near Street Fighter's, but its colorful characters, innovate gameplay elements, and quirky sense of humor earned it a cult following and heavily influenced other fighting games, including Guilty Gear and Capcom's own Marvel Vs. series. But for such a groundbreaking title, Darkstalkers gets surprisingly little recognition, especially in the States."

What the piece does a particularly good job of is rounding up the slightly confusing arcade and console sequels, as well as obscure appearances for the game's characters: "The Japanese only strategy RPG Namco X Capcom includes Demitri, Morrigan, Felicia, Lei Lei, Lilith, Lord Raptor, Huitzil and Q. Bee, as well as a few of their signature songs." Oh yeah - I have a request - Namco X Capcom localized downloadable release over PS3 E-Distribution, plz? And Segagaga, while you're at it?

The conclusion from ther HG101 crew? "So have we really seen the last of the Darkstalkers? My guess would be yes, unless Capcom decides to do a few more crossover games somewhere down the road. I would be a lot less disappointed about this if the series had gotten a better run -- the only fighting game more undeservedly overlooked than Darkstalkers is probably Last Blade. That's just the way it goes, I guess."

Good Lord, It's Time For Gish 2

- Thanks to Fun-Motion for pointing out an extremely cool physics-game related fact: "Gish 2 is now listed as in development on the the Cryptic Sea website."

Matthew Wegner explains: "The release date is a vague “later”, and the description is a mere ellipsis, but this is fantastic news for Gish lovers everywhere. Alex and Edmund, the original programmer and artist on Gish, will be working on the sequel (they recently acquired the rights to Gish from Chronic Logic). Godspeed, gentlemen!"

The various commenters are pretty excited about a sequel to the 2005 IGF-winning game, too - 'Axcho' comments: "That little goo guy with the sword looks awesome, like a cross between Gish and Stitch (and what could be better than that?). I think it might be more fun to control him than Gish. Well, I can hope…"



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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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


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