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April 21, 2007

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 4/21/07

['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.]

Very few new US mags hit shelves the past couple weeks, but that's all right because everyone was too busy dissecting GI's GTA4 feature anyway. I have the entire magazine on my mind, though, and click on to read my views on how the world's top-circulation game mag is doing in its quest to keep itself relevant...

Game Informer May 2007

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Cover: Grand Theft Auto IV

I'd like start by reprinting some of editor-in-chief Andy McNamara's opening statements this issue:

"I find it funny that almost daily I read about how print is dead on some Internet site. It's like they have nothing better to do than belittle their competition, rather than compete. To the naysayers: Magazines are here to stay, whether the Internet likes it or not [...]

I actually enjoy the avenues that open up to us when creating a magazine. In the early days of Game Informer, we spent a lot of time and effort cramming as much news into an issue as we possibly could. Thankfully, regurgitating every minor press release is no longer our charge. Magazines are about the big picture. This lets us do more in-depth reporting and analysis. we can look at what is and what isn't important to the gamer today, and find the stories that we think are shaping gaming now and for the future."

I think statements like these should be pretty familiar to anyone who's read this column before. As I've mentioned, pretty much every magazine these days, from GI and EGM all the way down to Beckett's publications, are trying their best to be interesting to read in and of themselves -- become coffee-table items, in other words -- rather then pretend to be authoritative on every aspect of gaming.

So how well has this issue of Game Informer (arguably one of the most closely examined in years) lived up to McNamara's goal of covering the big picture over the details? Well, the "Connect" news section up front personifies it. This particular month's Connect is a little more news-y than usual, devoting spreads to previews of upcoming MMORPGs and the very old news of Sony's GDC announcements (Edge did it nicer a month ago).

Much more interesting, however, is the six pages on game focus groups -- a feature I think EGM did a while ago, but with nowhere near this amount of depth and featuring this amount of input from both group members and industry people, both "speaking under condition of anonymity" and not. There's also an interview with Randy Pitchford (an interesting talk about the very boring topic of FPSes) and a very nice piece from the chief creative officer of Cryptic Studios (City of Heroes) about the future of the MMO industry.

Following this is the feature well, with 10 pages on GTA4 and six on All-Pro Football 2K8. Like most issues of Game Informer, this is where I start to wonder if McNamara's team loses their focus on "the big picture". What is it about either piece that couldn't have been done by IGN (and, indeed, probably will be done over the next few months)? I'm not sure there's much of anything, really.

Both articles are interesting if you are interested in the game in question in the first place. They are glorified feature lists enhanced with developer quotes and insulated by hundreds of words of filler. The same continues with the 17 pages of "regular" previews afterwards, which give you very little reason to want to read them at all, and the reviews are as they are in any mag -- helpful as another opinion, but not what you're buying the magazine for.

Now, GI is not the only magazine with boring features and previews. They all do, though I'd make the argument that mags like EGM, OXM and Games for Windows are at least trying to do away with them. What's more, GI's news/commentary section is totally unique among US games media (online or off) and I think it's easily worth the price of a subscription all by itself.

But does having an enormous circulation and every PR lady in the world trying to get her game on your cover mean that it's OK to publish features and previews that not only could be reproduced online, but probably done better online? I know I'm being harsh by expecting an industry leader to completely revamp itself overnight against the wishes of management, but while GI has made great strides toward McNamara's goal, I think they have just a bit further to go.

Tips & Tricks May 2007

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Cover: God of War II

This must be what it feels like when you're attending a White House dinner and find yourself wearing the same evening gown as Laura Bush. Tips & Tricks this month starts out with six pages on the professional gaming circuit...just as an entire magazine, Beckett eSports, debuts on newsstands that's devoted to the same topic. T&T even printed the exact same photo of Halo 2 player Dave Walsh on the cover's top-right corner that eSports used for their main cover subject. The article's more interesting than all of eSports, though, concentrating on all the highlights of the scene without feeling obliged to report every little tournament detail.

The column lineup's exciting as ever, including two more pages of ancient Nintendo toys (I need to find out where Chris Bieniek got this stuff) and a couple of neat dev interviews.

Hardcore Gamer May 2007

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Cover: Spider-Man 3

Was I the only subscriber to HGM who thought that this cover was actually a stick-on advertisement hiding the "real" cover? For that matter, am I the only subscriber to HGM at all? Is there anyone else out there? It's lonely...

The big news this month: all the editors now have weblogs, which you can access via hgmblog.com if you're too cool for clicking. Otherwise, you know the score for this mag by now, although the GDC "Junket Journal" is kinda a fun read.

[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.]

Cooper's Flash Spawns Boxhead Carnage

- While researching for some new Gamasutra columns, Alistair Wallis pointed me to UK-based game designer Sean Cooper, specifically because of his awesome Boxhead: More Rooms game currently up and running on Flash game aggregation site Kongregate.

It's basically a 'kill lots of zombies with Lego-style characters' shooter, as the official plot explains: "Jon Bambo is back and a new beast is out to get him. Equipped with even more weapons and equipment, the Zombie has become cannon fodder and the new Beast will take you down unless you get all the 90+ upgrades and perfect your skill!"

Just had a chance to play through a few levels, and it sure has some fun physics (zombie recoil!) and switchable weapons - commenter Kyriva notes: "Very addictive. Worst thing is to shoot a barrel after you’ve laid it and it switched to pistol. Brilliant to scatter barrels so they all go off at once when the demons attack them."

Sean's official website has a big list of the titles he's worked on - Alistair summarizes: "Former Bullfrog artist, programmer and producer. Assistant producer on some of the earlier games like Syndicate, Populous II and Magic Carpet. Lead designer on Dungeon Keeper 2." Cooper also worked on a number of big EA titles (including initial concepts on The Godfather and James Bond titles) before leaving in 2005 to do the indie Flash thing. Yay.

GameSetLinks - A Korea Move To Cute Knights

- A little early weekend GameSetLinks, then - this one mainly compose of stuff I found during the week which was just a little small, weird, or otherwise darling to make it to a standalone post. Here we goes:

- via Dearest Copernicus, a new linkblog by GameSpy veteran Joost Schuur, Korean game-themed blog GameStudy.org has info on how well Korean MMO game firms are doing overseas, showing that in most cases, non-Korean divisions of Webzen, NHN, etc are apparently not profitable. Not particularly surprising, particularly because they're trying to break into new markets, but one does wonder whether we'll see a retreat at any point.

- Game Of The Blog points out an interesting 'Best Of Rockstar Games' official video, set to The Who's 'Eminence Front'. GotB's Joel notes: "It's interesting to note the games that aren't shown. From what I can tell (I haven't played them all), it's pretty much just The Warriors, the GTA 3s, Bully, Red Dead Revolver, the Midnight Clubs, the Max Paynes, and Manhunt. No 2D GTAs, State Of Emergencys, Smuggler's Runs...hell, not even freakin' Oni for God's sake!."

- I'm presuming most of you read it anyhow, but Game Developer editor Brandon Sheffield's Insert Credit has been a bit more active recently and I wanted to point out a couple of posts in particular - info on a new Korean PC 2D fighting game called 'CHOSUN MUSA : Chosun Hokeouk Geumlok', and the 'Typing Of The Dead'-style title Typing Mania 4, which is actually a free Flash game - nice.

- A blog to watch out for is Inside Xbox Live, since, as the author notes: "I will be a visiting researcher at the Community Technologies Group at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington between July and December 2007, primarily looking at online gaming." He's hoping to get access to varying amounts of Xbox Live data and analyze it for the good of all - which is great! Just a couple of posts up so far, and I'm not sure whether Microsoft types are aware of this blog yet - but hopefully MS can work to make this happen.

- I can't not link The New Gamer, so here's their review of THQ's S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a title that I was sent, but have sadly not had a chance to check out - it's in the hands of our Counter-Strike-lovin' sales guy right now, actually. Anyhow, The New Gamers' conclusion sums up well what I've been hearing about the game: "There are a dozen reasons you could truthfully use to call Stalker a bad game, but there are likewise a dozen reasons why it's the best game you'll play this year."

- Tale Of The Rampant Coyote has pointed out the release of female friendly RPG upgrade Cute Knight Deluxe, and he explains handily: "I tend to think that even though this is a very "girl-friendly" game, it is just good fun, and has a significant ... "guy friendly?" ... good ol' fashioned dungeon-delving hack & slash component. Hit the dungeon, bash monsters, gather loot, upgrade your equipment with magical treasure... good classic stuff. Just do NOT forget to change out of that bloody, dented plate mail before attending the ball, because it is just SO unbecoming!" There's a good interview with the creator here, and a fascinating story in how female-friendly RPGs (also see: Aveyond) have gotten onto casual portals, incidentally.

- Future U.S. (publisher of GamesRadar, OXM, PC Gamer, etc), has a semi-public marketing blog, and I'm going to have to call out their video of WWE Diva Ashley promoting GamesRadar by, uhm, being completely unable to string a series of words together to actually do so. Wait, is this marketing, or just hilarious?

Duelin' Firemen - All You Ever Wanted To Know!

- Apparently, Frank mentioned this game in the 1UP Retronauts podcast from this week, which is possibly why it popped up again, but Metafilter has an informative post on insane 3DO vapoware game Duelin' Firemen.

Here's the wisdom of the original MeFi post: "Duelin' Firemen was originally conceived as a 3DO game. According to this old subgenius post (Rev. Ivan Stang was apparently part of the cast), it was slated to be completed in July of 1995. It never saw the light of day. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), some of the game's video sequences survive, edited together in all their seizure-inducing glory [YouTube link]."

As the post ends: "Watch for cameos by Rudy Ray Moore, Mark Mothersbaugh, Tony Hawk, Timothy Leary, Steve Albini, David Yow, and a whole bunch of others... if you can actually bear to watch it."

There's also a very informative comment on the MeFi thread from 'eatyourlunch': "A few years ago, Grady [Sain, also one of the folks behind Urban Yeti alongside a slightly deranged old friend of GSW's] told me they'd hoped to revive the game, but then 9/11 happened. Planes+WTC and Space Shuttle+Sears Tower were too close for their comfort so, barring a rewrite and reshoot, this is all we're ever going to see of Duelin' Firemen."

He concludes: "But the spirit of runandgun is still alive and well with their alumnus Dave Foss (you certainly don't want to miss Horned Gramma or his alter-ego, TV Sheriff.) Other amazingly creative folks from the early 90s Chicago video scene include VJV2, Brian Dressel and Brien Rullman at OVT Visuals, and of course the inimitable H-Gun." All crazy, all the time.

The Game That Changed The World

- Regular GSW readers may recall that Vinny Carrella's column for Gamezebo is one of my favorite pieces of game writing on the web, and his latest, 'The Game That Changed The World', is no exception.

He explains: "There are these magic moments in life when a work of art seems as if it's sent to you by the gods. It hits you in just the right way at just the right time, and usually when you need it the most - Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye - and it's cathartic, it's life-altering. After you see them or hear them or read them, you look at things differently. You change. It happens most often to me with music or books, but in games it's rare. Yet it did happen. Twice."

And? "The first time was in 1992 and that moment is tattooed on my brain. I remember it so clearly. It was a little-known adventure game called Out of This World [aka Another World], from a French studio named Delphine. It came on five floppies. There was no manual and no tutorial. The box was cryptic and offered little in the way of assistance to my understanding of game-play or plot. I had no idea what I was about to play. I was taking a chance. Little did I know I was pulling the cover off a masterpiece."

Now, the second game that changed Vinny's world is Snapshot Adventures: Secret Of Bird Island, a brand new game that a) nobody has really spotted so far and b) Vinny helped produce, but I actually think that the Large Animal-developed title looks pretty darn interesting (a Pokemon Snap-styled bird photography casual game!), so I'm pretty convinced that this is genuine conviction on his part, rather than hyping. Nice.

April 20, 2007

Inside The Metrics Of Quake 3 Arena

- Semi-via game metrics blog We Can Fix That With Data, we spotted the homepage of Orbus Gameworks, a newly founded game metrics analysis firm set up by Darius Kazemi and friends to help game developers make better design choices.

Anyhow, they have a blog featuring some neat visualizations of metrics info they're working on, most recently trying things out using Quake 3: "Green dots are health/armor pickups, blue dots are ammo, and red dots are weapons. The white lines you see represent frags: we draw a line starting at the position the killer was in, and ending where the victim was killed. And then we put a little triangle where the player died, so it makes a kind of wonky arrow."

There's also another newer visualization, and in this one, using a Java app to display the results: "We visualize 5-second windows of time during a deathmatch involving 7 bots on the map q3dm3. Within each window, we plot where a bot was when it fired a weapon. The point is color-coded by bot. If a bot successfully fragged another bot, we draw a line from the killer to the target, putting a big circle on the target. The circle is color-coded to the target bot’s color, and the line we draw is the color of the killer." Pretty neat stuff for game design purposes - also for fetching patterns.

COLUMN: 'Cinema Pixeldiso' – The King Of Kong

['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a semi-regular column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s selection is another documentary that chronicles a world record attempt, but this time we get to take a look at the most famous video game record holder of them all.]

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/kingofkong1.jpg

Last time we examined the story of a man vs. machine - Bill Carlton vs. Missile Command. This time we have Steve Wiebe vs. King Kong, but the true heart of the story is man vs. man, Steve Wiebe vs. Billy Mitchell. And who's Billy Mitchell? Why, he's "gamer of the century" of course.

The King Of Kong

Cinema Pixeldiso's previous entry, on 'High Score', and this latest one, on 'The King of Kong', might seem identical, since both tell the same tale, of one man's mission to be immortalized as the greatest player of a particular classic video game. Both even feature a normal, everyday kind of person on such an absurd quest. But that's where the similarities end.

Whereas in the case of Bill Carlton's journey, the key difference is the person he was also going after, the man who held the high score that Bill was determined to shatter. In High Score's case it's Victor Ali, a nice, mild-mannered man who felt that his achievement, which attained during his youth, was something that he was proud of, but it hardly defined or dictated his life. It was ultimately some silly little thing, and High Score did a great job illustrating that hardcore gamers are usually normal folks that have a quirky obsession, and that's about it.

The King of Kong, on the other hand, goes the opposite route, by showing how much ego, absurdity, and insanity can come into play as a record holder for video game playing. How? By taking a close look at a man whose entire persona, even existence, is built around the fact that he plays video games very, very well.

The Superstar And His Entourage

Billy Mitchell is indeed one of the first superstars of the competitive video game playing world. Back in 1982, during the golden age of the arcade, Mitchell came into prominence by being the first to beat many popular machines, all at the age of 17. Around this time, Twin Galaxies, the world's first organization dedicated to collecting and verifying high scores, discovered Billy along with other expert players, and over the course of the years, Mitchell would become the unofficial figurehead of their entire universe.

His achievements, along with his prowess and even personality would help to form a cult of sorts; in many minds, at least those who believe having the high score in Pac Man is a god-like act, Mitchell is in fact a god to them. And one gets the sense that Mitchell drinks his own Kool Aid as well; early on the film, Mitchell is quite proud of his records and abilities, since they are simply the result of his underlying philosophies in life, that is to always be number one, and to take the enemy down like a fierce hunter.

Aside from high scores, it's gotten him recognition and fame (as silly as it sounds, his high scores has gotten him trips across the globe, appearances on television shows, and countless awards and photo opportunities.... there's even folk songs written about the man) - even letting him continue a successful family hot sauce franchise.

One interesting figure in Billy's universe is Steve Sanders, who first met Mitchell back when LIFE magazine gathered all the hot players at the time for a photo-shoot. Sanders' claim to fame was having the highest score to Donkey Kong, which Mitchell sensed was b.s., and it actually was. So Sanders was challenged to a head-to-head match and thoroughly trounced. But from that rather embarrassing and humbling moment, seeds were planted.

Sanders attributed Mitchell as the source of inspiration, what drove him to be a better person in life, and that Mitchell is the reason why he's a successful business person himself, and the two have remained close friends ever since. Another intriguing personality is the founder of Twin Galaxies, Walter Day, a rather frail looking, and obviously friendly sort of fellow, who plays folks guitar and practices transcendental meditation, and a man who takes great enjoyment and pride in cataloging the great achievements in electronic competition. He's the absolute authority, the final judgment. He can also make, or break, video game gods.

Walter is more or less a one-man operation, though he does have operatives, such as Robert Mruczek, the senior referee for Twin Galaxies, who was actually the "authoritative voice" in High Score. At one point we get to check out his apartment, which has stacks upon stacks upon stacks of video tapes that people had sent in of their record attempts, all of which has to be watched and verified by Mruczek, who describes the process with a "its a dirty job, but someone's got to do it" attitude.

We meet others too from this bizarre world, all of whom are a contrast to the friendly, relatable, and more importantly, approachable folks in High Score. Many of the folks in King of Kong are quite simply misfits of some sort (to put it nicely) that have found solace and meaning in life via the act of achieving greatness in a video game, and again, Billy Mitchell is their father-figure. Even early on he comes off as someone who's quite full of himself, but at least he seems like a nice enough guy. For the most part if feels like an act, which is further reinforced by the way he presents himself; at well above six feet, and rather lanky, he's got a mullet, a rather cartoon-ish beard, and is always seen sporting a very patriotic necktie.

Back to Donkey Kong, Mitchell nabbed the title of greatest Kong player back in the day, and its been his record ever since, as well as one that he's quite proud of, due to the fact that it's "... by far the hardest game." So being the King of Kong was something to be happy with, though there's not much stress or worry involved since it seemed so unattainable for others. That is until...

The Born Loser

Enter Steve Wiebe. Wiebe is that one person that everyone knows, the guy who always has so much potential, but just never manages to achieve true greatness. Wiebe's talents are varied, ranging from music to sports, and he's had chances to shine, but he's always come up short when the time was finally his. The dude just has bad luck, like when he signed for his first house, which was also the day he found out he was getting laid off. So with time on his hands, Wiebe discovered that he was good at Donkey Kong, and after checking out the highest score on record via the Twin Galaxies online database, he decided to go for it.

Thanks to a combination of having seemingly excellent hand-eye-coordination and OCD (which folks around him thought was autism), Wiebe played hard, as well as studied hard. Which was how, before any player before him, Wiebe discovered the true secret behind playing the game, a means to control the action onscreen. So one day, with a machine in his garage, and a camcorder on the screen, Wiebe decided to beat the record, and he succeeded (even when one of his children begged him to stop playing to help change his diaper due to an accident he just had).

And instantly, Wiebe becomes a superstar, with local news clamoring to talk to the man that broke a long-standing record. Granted one, that no one really knew or cared about, but that didn't matter, especially to Wiebe. At last he was a somebody. Wiebe had bested Mitchell. And that's when his troubles began.

Not too long afterwards, two mysterious men showed up to Wiebe's house while he was gone, and while his wife asked them to leave and come back, they simply brushed her aside and went on with their mission. The two men, who were from Twin Galaxies, went about and stripped Wiebe's Donkey Kong machine, to verify the hardware, to make sure if wasn't tampered with to give Wiebe any sort of edge. They would find one tiny little technical detail that did cast doubt, so the score was stricken from the record and Mitchell was given the title once more.

One primary reason for the doubt in the first place is that the board was supplied by Roy Shildt, a long-time nemesis of Mitchell and his gang. He achieved numerous high scores that Twin Galaxies refuses to acknowledge (there really wasn't any mention of him in High Score). Like Mitchell, Shildt is a cartoon character, having created a persona, called "Mr. Awesome", one that's reminiscent of an 80's WWF wrestler. The documentary even shows some footage of one film that Shildt created himself, "The Awesome Guide To Girls." Mitchell also accused Shildt of threatening his life, which he denies, so there is legitimate heat between the two.

Anyhow, Shildt saw in Wiebe someone who could take down the man he hated the most, and since Wiebe needed the hardware, the relationship was beneficial, but unfortunately a primary impetus for doubt in his achievement. Though the official reason that was given was that to truly break the record, the score has to be done live, in person, something that Mitchell always championed, the idea of performing under pressure.

Once again, Wiebe was a loser. But Shildt refused to allow Wiebe to be "chumpatized" and encouraged him to prove himself in front of all the doubters, at the holy grounds of classic gaming, Funspot at Weir's Beach in New Hampshire, which is American's largest arcade, and where many high score records had taken place, including Mitchell's famous record for Pac Man. So Wiebe headed east...

Into The Lion's Den

It's only when Wiebe arrives at Funspot, and into enemy territory, do we finally realize the entire scope of how ridiculous the little world that Mitchell and his cohorts have created for themselves. Unacknowledged and unwelcome by the faithful, Wiebe simply comes up to the place's Donkey Kong machine and starts to play. At this point we are introduced to Brian Kuh, a rather mousy character who was anointed by Mitchell as his "prodigy".

Much like Mitchell, there's the cockiness, but at least Mitchell has some degree of bizarre charm, whereas Kuh is just plain annoying, and he obviously has zero faith in Wiebe's abilities. Which is why he's beside himself as he witnesses Wiebe's skills firsthand, which he then reports to Mitchell via telephone, who at that moment is still down south in his native Florida, with Doris Self, the world's oldest competitive gamer, who was about to leave for Funspot herself, to cement her crown as champion Q Bert player. Also at this point do we finally see Mitchell's calm, cool demeanor begin to break down, and we see concern, even fear. As Self boards her plane, Mitchell hands her a special package to deliver, a grand surprise of sorts.

Another highlight of the movie is when Wiebe is approaching the end of his game, the "kill screen" as it is called (which is when the game simply cannot go any further and player's character is dies instantly), we see Kuh run around the arcade to tell anyone and everyone that "Someone's gonna hit the kill screen in Donkey Kong!" like a total dork. But Wiebe finally hits it; his score bests Mitchell's, and with not just eyes on-hand, but plenty of breathing down his neck. Victory is finally his... at least for a few minutes.

Not too long after, Mitchell's package arrives on the scene, and its a videotape, of Mitchell nabbing a higher score than Wiebe had just a few moments ago achieved in person. Again, Mitchell had stolen Wiebe's thunder, but worst off, in the same manner in which he was criticized for. Making matters worse is how the tape appeared to be tampered with, yet Walter Day still allowed it to be officially acknowledged.

Seemingly totally crushed, Wiebe goes back to his home state of Washington with little fanfare or regard...

"Some People Ruin Their Lives To Be There"

A few months later, Wiebe gets a phone-call. He discovers that the Guinness Book of World Records have decided to enlist Twin Galaxies as their official arm to tabulate and authenticate video game high score to be added to their books. Furthermore, a brand new competition is taking place to re-verfiy records, and its taken place in Florida, practically in Mitchell's backyard. Wiebe decides to give it yet another shot, and this time, even if he comes up short, he's determined to face the so-called King of Kong.

What follows is a cat and mouse game, one that proves that politics is everywhere, even as something as benign and innocuous as having a high video game score. What takes place, much like the entire film, is truly fascinating stuff - which we're obviously not going to spoil here. Like the very best documentaries out there, the reason why The King of Kong so amazing is that you hardly believe what you are seeing is real, but it is. Steve Wiebe is not unlike High Score's protagonist or hero, Bill Carlton, but in this instance, Wiebe is far more identifiable, since all of us have had sand kicked in our faces by a Billy Mitchell type, an overly proud and arrogant figure, one that is flat out despicable and who you wish would just come tumbling down.

King of Kong is, to a large degree, utterly frustrating, because we witness the jerk come up on top time and time again, but that's what also makes this movie so intense and effective. Like all good stories, we see people grow and change; false faces fade away and true natures become apparent, and how the people in both camps react is also compelling. Of note is Wiebe's wife, who just wants to see the man she loves be the best in just one thing in his life, as well as Steve Sanders, who also has to tow the line between friendship and reality.

Aside from the story, which again is one that is relatable to anyone, regardless of any interest in electronic games, the editing is superb, with effective use of on-screen graphics, as well as smart usage of music.

Final Score

The King of Kong is quite simply the finest documentary on the subject of video games this reviewer has ever seen. It is to video games as what Beyond the Mat was to professional wrestling and Spellbound was to spelling bees. We give it the highest recommendation possible.

BTW

For those of you in New York City, you can catch The King of Kong starting next week in the Tribeca Film Festival. Otherwise, you can catch it later this summer when it is released nationwide by Picturehouse on August 17th - GSW previously covered some of this info with added links, for the interested.

[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.]

Harvest Moon Is For The Young

- Always enjoy it when Eurogamer bust out an interview to break up the news and reviews, and there's a neat interview with Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada up there right now, answering some vital questions.

If nothing else, I enjoy the simple statement from Wada about why he created the series: "I wanted to convey the goodness of rural life - not urban life, but rural life - and farming was the easiest instrument to realise that feeling in a game. That's why I chose to make a farming game."

He also muses on the game franchise's success, and just why that might be: "I think it's very gentle and friendly. These days there are other games such as Animal Crossing that bear similarities, but before there wasn't such a game at all. Perhaps that's why people identified so much with Harvest Moon, originally."

Also, looks like Wada might be working on some interesting titles, to say the least. Though he still oversees Harvest Moon from a business point of view: "I'm working on something on the Wii platform, which is top-secret. I'm also working on No More Heroes on the Wii, which is headed up by [killer7 designer] Goichi Suda. It's a totally different world to Harvest Moon..."

So that's two more Wii titles worth at least a glance, then. Actually, while we're on this very subject, why hasn't one single major Western 'name' game designer announced that they're working on a Wii-only game? Am I just blanking on them? Is this because the Wii has been considered a family console, and edgy fare and cutting-edge graphical tech (not very likely on Wii) defines major Western creators better? Very vexing.

McGonigal + SF Weekly = Pink Hair Cover

- Was reading this on the train the other day, and now it's online - alt.paper SF Weekly has a longform profile of Jane McGonigal, called 'Future Games' as their cover story this week, and it's eminently readable.

The most interesting thread in the article is an interest to harness the power of ARGs for serious, world-changing reasons: "To explain where she's coming from, McGonigal likes to quote one of the inventors of ARGs, Sean Stewart, who works at the Emeryville-based company 4orty2wo Entertainment. Until last year, McGonigal worked with his team on their commercial games. "He said that these games create "a collective intelligence that is unparalleled in entertainment history,'" says McGonigal. "Because it is unparalleled, I believe it would be a real crime to use it only for entertainment.""

Specifically: "McGonigal wants to harness the power of the communal cerebellum her games create, and put it to work solving real-world problems. Maybe young folks in warring countries could play games together, and would be less inclined to shed each other's blood. Maybe players could analyze real scientific data in the course of a game, crunching numbers and looking for patterns just as they always do, but with a payoff that goes beyond advancing to the next stage of a game." Realistic? Certainly provoking.

Volk Explains Activision's Lazarus Comeback

- The latest in Alistair Wallis' (and before that Frank Cifaldi's) 'Playing Catch-Up' column series for Gamasutra talks to Conflict 2500 creator William Volk - but if you didn't know about the cult 1981 strategy game, there's another fascinating part to his biz history.

Specifically, this is one of the first detail descriptions I've seen of how Activision came close to going out of business in 1991. Volk talks about how he helped to champion Cyan's Manhole at the company, and then it's noted:

"Activision was going through a number of financial issues, including an ill-advised decision to get involved with non-gaming software under the name Mediagenic, and the continued monetary fallout from a 1985 patent lawsuit from Magnavox in regards to Activision’s publishing of “ball and paddle” games. “The saddest thing about the patent judgment is that it almost put Activision out of business,” Volk sighs. “Almost everyone was laid off and we lost Cyan as a developer. We could have been the publisher of Myst! Amazing.”"

What's more: "The company changed management, with former Four Kids Entertainment CEO and Director and then-BHK Corporation head Robert Kotick stepping in as Director, Chairman of the Board and CEO in after acquiring a controlling interest in the company in February 1991. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and lost the majority of its staff at this time, but still managed to develop and release a number of titles – most notably, Steven Meretzky’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2, which Volk helped program, since the company was down to just 12 people at the time."

Plenty more good stuff if you click through - turns out the actual Activision resurgence was helped by Return To Zork, which Volk was one of the key players in: "“I also think Bobby believed in my vision on the multimedia adventure stuff,” he muses, “and Return to Zork proved him correct.”

April 19, 2007

The Video Game Personality Boardgame Lazyweb Attack

- For some reason, I was talking to someone on IM the other day, and I realized that there's a whole market in video game personality-themed board games that are just itching to be done.

Yes, I know Fantasy Flight Games make a World Of Warcraft board game, among many others, and I certainly remember the Pac-Man board game from Milton Bradley, but that's not what I'm going for. Specifically:

- How about 'Jeff Minter's Clue!' (or 'Jeff Minter's Cluedo' for non-Yanks)? The board could be Minter's idyllic welsh farm and paddock, the characters could include various sheep and goats, alongside Minter and his companion, and the murder weapons could include a Nuon controller and a Pink Floyd album. Obviously, nobody would be dead - just stoned. But hey, maybe there could be a limited edition with a gold Konix Multisystem controller, too?

- Rockem Sockem Robots with Nolan Bushnell and Ralph Baer. Why so? Well, Gamasutra writer Benj Edwards has already interviewed Ralph Baer and discovered some hints at some totally cute animosity: "One of the complaints that his highness Nolan Bushnell had was "Well, you didn't have any scoring on screen."" Apparently there's more to come from both Bushnell and Baer, and in the absence of any actual duels with light guns, maybe the guy who patented the computer tennis game and the guy who 'borrowed' the concept for Pong can have a little robotic square-off. Done.

- Everyone knows that special editions of Monopoly rock. But how about an Ion Storm version of Monopoly? The 'Do No Pass Go' card could be 'Do No Reach Alpha On Daikatana', the main characters could include a lovably modeled Superfly Johnson and JC Denton, both cast in 18 carat pewter, and best of all, John Romero could be Rich Uncle Pennybags. Would also come with a cast-iron guarantee: 'NO ROBOT FROGS INCLUDED!' You're feeling this, right?

But yes, this is a bit silly. Hey, sometimes I get all obscure and ephemera-referential - this is why GSW is an editor blog and not an organ of record, sorta.

Simple 2000: The Schoolgirl Vs. Bugs!

- Over at Namako Team, Jiji has reviewed 'Simple 2000 Series vol. 113: The Tairyou Jigoku' for the PlayStation 2, the latest budget-priced Japanese title from the ever-dependable D3, and it seems like it's only borderline awful, yay.

He explains in the intro: "What makes a Simple 2000 release worthwhile? Does the concept need to be original? Does the game have to be "good?" Or simply playable? There are roughly three grades of Simple 2000 games out there: those that are terrible and unplayable, those that are terrible and playable, and those that are not terrible. I had fully expected this game to fall into the first category, but I found something that just barely sneaks into the second."

So what's it all about? "The Tairyou Jigoku, which loosely translates as "The Overwhelming Hell," puts the player in the shoes of high school student Erika Mizusaki, who at the game's outset has lost her cell phone and has returned to her school to retrieve it. Unfortunately for her, it's not where she left it, and it turns out that a very Carrollesque white rabbit has swiped it. Erika, of course, gives chase, through several nightmarish environments, covering (roughly) four stages."

So it's all a bit Fear Factor, really: "These stages are infested with all manner of creepy-crawlies, from insects to arthropods to rats to rather more supernatural creatures. It seems that they must like Erika's choice of perfume, because they have a tendency to swarm her whenever she moves near them. When she's being swarmed, Erika panics and can't move until she's shaken off all the critters... proximity to any given biomass causes Erika to be panicked, as represented by an onscreen meter consisting of the Japanese words "zowa zowa," onomatopoeia for the chills running down poor Erika's spine. If the creepy lettering reaches across the screen without being lowered, Erika will simply collapse and die of fright." Neat!

Some Notes On Boom Boom Rocket For XBLA

- So, it's true that EA/Pogo and Bizarre Creations' Boom Boom Rocket for XBLA is somewhat of a missed opportunity - at first, some presumed it would be Fantavision-like, and in fact it _is_ Dance Dance Revolution using a joypad, with little extra complexity. But I've been playing it quite a bit and enjoying it despite those faults (it's definitely been worth $10 of my money), and here's some random feedback along those lines:

- Composer Ian Livingstone has obviously been told to hew _very_ closely to some electronic artists - for example, '1812 Overdrive' is so Apollo 440 that it hurts (other commenters noted its resemblance to the Lost In Space Theme by the group). Madness and Goldfrapp are also referenced in major, but kinda fun ways, integrated into the classical tributes.

- The biggest issue that I and other Boom Boom Rocket players are running into is the odd ranking system for getting an A, as opposed to a B. It's about timing your notes perfectly as well as not missing any, and it seems like the difficulty has been cranked up just a bit high on it - plus there's no sensible degree of certainty on how you achieve a higher score. Or if there is, nobody understands it yet.

- Finally, a shout-out to the visualization mode in the game - which other people seem to dig enough to take pictures of. It drifts around the cityscape while fireworks explode in time to the music of your choice (streaming from your PC is pretty easy, of course). It's all slightly Minter-esque and gorgeous - you can control camera angles, pan, and zoom in real-time too. I've mainly been listening to 808 State's 'Lopez', featuring James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers, while flickpanning around the fireworks as they reflect off the buildings. Serene.

MMO Production Costs - How Low Can You Go?

- Iron Realms' Matt Mihaly has posted a new post discussing the minimum cost of an MMO, seguing off Brian Green's post on the same subject, and it's neat to see dueling specifics as far as cold, hard cash numbers.

I'm just going to cite Mihaly's specifics, because they're pretty interesting: "So, does it cost $2 million or $3-$3.5 million to make an MMO that garners 10,000 players? Neither. It can be done for less than a million.

- Puzzle Pirates was released for less than $1 million (30,000 active players). (Though yes, it was released before WoW.)

- Sherwood’s total development cost to date is whatever the sole team member values his time at plus the cost of some (a few dozen I’d estimate) low-end art assets. That is almost certainly far less than even a quarter million and that’s being generous I suspect. (100,000 unique monthly players currently, monetized via Adsense.)

And of course, we’re doing Earth Eternal for less than $1 million. I’d say I’m willing to bet quite a bit that it’ll be capable of garnering at least 10,000 active players but I’ve already bet the development budget! (And happily, we need less than half that number to run in the black if we keep it lean and mean.)"

April 18, 2007

And The Shoehorning Pirates Award Goes To...!

- I'm pointing to this week's issue of The Escapist primarily because it covers both nautical pirates and software pirates at the same time, and I consider this such a cheeky, naff act that it must be documented.

I have to say that some recent Escapist articles are getting so erudite and abstract so as to be practically a language unto themselves - witness this piece starting: "Pirates are currently at a peak in the social consciousness of the U.S.", and continuing on to talk about hobo markings, and the key quote: "Mennenga thinks pirates are over, and zombies are already the next big thing."

But hey, there's a Daniel James interview, basically necessary for any pirate-themed periodical, in which he notes: "I was invited to a pirate party, and it was ridiculously fun. Everyone knew what to say and the outfits were awesome." I think Mr. James' entire philosophy is built around plank walking and parrot familiars, and the rival cowboy faction within his company are probably cowering in terror right now. Or something. Booty!

Universally Inaccessible Gaming? Game Over, Man!

- Thanks to Alistair Wallis for passing on an entertaining Switch Gaming blog post, which is all about an intentionally terrible game, created in order to work out how to make games better/more accessible.

It's explained of the Greek university-made title: ""Game Over!" is the world's first (and hopefully only) universally inaccessible game. This practically means that it is a game that can be played by no one. But why was such a game created? Well, the goal of Game Over! is to be used as an educational tool for disseminating, understanding and consolidating game accessibility guidelines."

Here are some of the evil level setups - and really, the descriptions are enough for you to work out the insanity, although the game is downloadable for PC/Mac/Linux as well, yikes:

"Level 2. Piano Man
Gameplay: The player must use awkward key combinations to control the spaceship (e.g., Shift + L + Left Arrow to go left).
Guideline: Avoid simultaneous button pressing.

Level 5. Spell Check
Gameplay: The player has to type 'left' to move left, 'right' to move right and 'fire' to fire.
Guideline: Support alternative input techniques.

Level 11. Hakuna Matata
Gameplay: Information about how this level can be played is provided in Swahili.
Guideline: Use simple language and provide easy to understand instructions.

Level 21. Speechless
Gameplay: The player is asked to listen to "the voice" and fire when instructed to do so. If s/he doesn't, or if s/he does it any other time, s/he loses. Unfortunately, "the voice" cannot be heard.
Guideline: Provide closed captions for dialogue and sound effects."

As Switch Gaming notes: "There are 20 guidelines included, of which it would be wonderful to see mainstream developers take heed of. Even if it was only for them to include fully reconfigurable controls and wide difficulty options - that would at least be a start!"

Nucleus, Bringing Bogdan Raczynski To Your PS3

- This announcement seems to have got lost behind the couch cushions, but 1UP has a preview of new PlayStation 3 downloadable title Nucleus, dated late last week, and developed by Kuju's Surrey studio (where-in I used to work in the late '90s).

Overall: "The game looks a bit different from your typical Geometry Wars clone", though it sounds like it might, uhm, play a bit like one - difficult to tell. Anyhow: "For instance, Nucleus doesn't take place in outer space, but in "Inner Space" (no relation to the film, as far as we know). And instead of shooting aliens, you fight bacteria while swimming around blood cells and collecting proteins."

But here's a particularly neat bit: "Beyond the setting, Nucleus has a different vibe compared to other shooters out there. The graphics are minimalist and dark, but the real distinction comes from the soundscape provided by Rephlex's Bogdan Raczynski. The very Aphex-Twin-like music shifts between ambient noise and fast paced oddness." It's all about the Braindance!

[Actually, I'm wondering whether my old Kuju colleague Chris Williams had anything to do with this - he's such a big fan of Bogdan's music label Rephlex Records that he had its logo put in Tank Racer, the odd PS1 title we worked on ages ago. Wacksome.]

How To Become A Game Designer?

- Just discovered the new Games and Men blog, which is a relatively anonymous developer's look at the game biz, and there's an informative new post on 'How to become a Game Designer? - My experience' just posted - well worth sharing.

The first point, on 'requirements': "There is no precise set of requirements for becoming a game designer. Most designers come from different fields of computer arts, programming or directly out of QA and I could totally see people from science or psychology fields orienting themselves in the video game field. In fact, the more diverse are your knowledges, the better."

Interestingly, the author is working in a niche of the biz that is less remarked-upon: "I'm working for a company that develops educative games for young children. I have not heard about a lot about these companies as there is few of them but from where I work, I can tell that the quality of life in these environment is much higher than with the big players."

The Montreal-based dev concludes: "First of all the company is much smaller, which gives place for more discussion and employee empowerment. I'm not doing any overtime and if ever I have to (in exceptional occasion) I'm paid for it. My bosses care about their employees and the environment is much more relaxed. I'm really enjoying my experience so far and the games are of tremendous quality." Overall, though quite general, the piece is a neat introduction.

NewGrounds Analyzes IGF 2007 - With Bonus CliffyB!

- This is actually about a month old, but Brandon just pointed out to me Tom Fulp's nice write-up of the 2007 Independent Games Festival @ GDC over at NewGrounds - it's the Flash portal that's closely affiliated with The Behemoth, of course.

As the current 'daddy' of the IGF, it's great to see lots of game impressions and photos herded into one place, and the Castle Crashers guys obviously had lots of fun representin' at GDC - which is the way it should be!

Some fun quotes: "We met REAL video game celebrities! Wednesday night was the awards ceremony, so Edmund and I got photo ops with Cliffy B (Gears of War game designer) and Miyamoto (ever hear of Mario and Zelda?). After taking the pic with Cliffy, he sent me off with "Tag, bitch!" - a classic line from a GoW collab here on NG. If you think I'm sick, just look at that hand gesture. Two in the pink, one in the stink?" Oh dear.

But overall, the NewGrounds/Castle Crashers guys largely behaved themselves, and their conclusion is uplifting: "It was a long, fun week and we met a lot of great people. In an industry that is so dominated by people who don't actually make games, it is nice to hang out with a group of people who do all the heavy lifting themselves. Real programmers, real artists, real human beings!" Roll on 2008 - there should be an initial announcement on dates in the next 2 weeks or so.

April 17, 2007

Crecente Debunks Thompson, World Sighs

- This is already rolling up the Digg charts as I speak, but a hat tip to Brian Crecente's dissection of Jack Thompson's Fox News report over at Kotaku - a sensible and necessary look at some commentary that's beyond the pale.

I'm not really sure what to say about the original news report, other than it'd be nice if tragic events were not spontaneously linked to games at every turn:

"Just hours after the shooting on the Virginia Tech campus, Jack Thompson worked his way onto national television to attempt to tie the tragedy to video games - hours before authorities had released any information about the suspect or his motive."

Crecente's conclusion to the whole sorry affair: "What do we learn from this assessment of Thompson's babble on national television? That you can say anything on TV and not have it fact-checked as long as you say it quickly, when TV needs someone to fill time and it's a good sound bite." I'm officially depressed, which is why this whole entry is just a little bit, you know...

[UPDATE: David Thomas (I presume) at the IGJA has added some commentary: "It’s shameful, and perhaps indicative of the lack of professionalism at all levels of the journalism world, that Fox returns over and over again to Thompson as an expert. While experts may have controversial claims, and may reach debatable conclusions, we certainly need to exclude anyone as an expert source who simply, and consistently, get their facts wrong."]

Games - The Total Makeover Diet!

- Returning once more to 1UP, there's a fun new feature called 'Total Makeover: Same Game, Different Name' which explores "...drastically changing a game and giving it a complete makeover" in the name of... well sales, persumably?

Author Kurt Kalata explains helpfully: "Perhaps a publisher thinks a title will sell more if it's associated with popular cartoon or movie characters. Sometimes, companies want to create a brand-name association by tying a game in with a well-known franchise. Maybe the game is too culturally alienating and needs to be made less "foreign."

Wow, the piece itself is a gigantic 11 pages long, and I definitely learnt some stuff - for example, that Dexter's Laboratory: Robot Rampage is actually Elevator Action EX for the Game Boy Color: "The original Japanese version...featured three different playable characters. These were changed into three different versions of Dexter, each wearing different outfits. All of the bad guys were changed into robots, and the story scenes were altered to include Dexter's archnemesis, Mandark." Also, Dragon's Lair: The Legend was a conversion of Rollercoaster? Blimey!

Leisure Suit Larry, Under A (Enlarging) Microscope

- The entertaining Richard Cobbett has returned with a comprehensive look at the Leisure Suit Larry series, giving Al Lowe's creation of comic genius - or, at least, perceived comic genius when we were growing up - a little coloring round the cheeks. Not really sure which cheeks, of course.

Anyhow, he shrewdly notes: "The series was almost completely harmless, using Carry On style innuendo, rarely dropping a swearword, and bitterly disappointing any kid who got their hands on a copy with the near total lack of sex, nudity, or anything else they'd been told to expect. Rather than a comedy sex game, it was a comedy about sex - an important distinction - and one which offered a much more moral core than non-players expected."

I particularly appreciate Cobbett's predilection for Leisure Suit Larry 7, which I also heartily enjoyed: "It's the atmosphere that wins out in Love For Sail. It's a relentlessly cheerful game, with almost every character kicking back for casual fun in the sun - unlike the often cynical earlier games. The plot is non-existent - it's just a competition for the guys on the ship to spend the week with its pin-up girl Captain - but it's playful enough to get past this. More than any of the earlier games, this is the one where the reward for getting one of the girls on the ship is seeing Larry suffer... The encounters are fun, packed with jokes - some good, some bad, some intentionally absolutely terrible - and ultimately, it's just a really likeable adventure."

[And dammit - I just found out that Al Lowe's planned comeback with Sam Suede: Undercover Exposure has been put on hiatus due to "...the challenges of acquiring additional funding and establishing an international publishing partner." This is empirically not fair, and some real-life lounge lizard should step up immediately and front the cash for it.]

Causing Physics Havok, Ragdoll Stylee

- Tools company interviews generally aren't _that_ riveting, but I did appreciate colleague Brandon Sheffield's interview with Havok's Jeff Yates on Gamasutra - the physics engine is seen in games like Half-Life 2, Dead Rising, and MotorStorm, but this conversation was a bit more wideranging than just bouncy boxes.

Havok is diversifying into animation and other tools, but my favorite question is after Brandon mentions that having a fixed simulated physics world would be a shame, because he 'loves breaking games' - and he does, folks!

Yates notes: "I think that the more people who aspire from a development standpoint for complexity, the more ways there will be to break stuff, especially with procedural animations. Everybody wants emergent results, but when you get that, you actually have a very hard time testing it. It's a very serious practicality issue that everybody is facing. Ragdoll and physics are the same way. You can stack things up and get out of a game's world! It's pretty wild. Somebody should design a game based entirely around that premise."

Oddly, this is more or less exactly what Brandon does at every game showcase he visits, the adorable scamp. Games broken by Mr. Sheffield in the past 3 months include Crysis and Lair.

Also very notable is talk about Xbox 360 to PlayStation 3 conversion: "It's changing for sure. I think the PS3 has great potential, but it's a very different kind of architecture. If people build their games with an understanding of what their challenges are going to be with porting between consoles, we can do a lot. In some cases, though, we're seeing people start with a 360 SKU and defer thinking about the PS3 port later. That can have some pretty dire consequences for how you process your art."

Conclusion? "We try to advise people that if they're thinking about moving to PS3 eventually, that they need to talk to us at the start so we can get things sorted out. I think that's going to be a very big challenge for everybody for awhile, because this idea of many, many cores with smaller local memories will present a lot of challenges in many different directions."

[One other note, while I'm on work stuff - Gamasutra writer Alistair Wallis is doing an article for Game Career Guide about testing and Q/A. If there are any testers out there who could talk to him about what they do, on the record - he can check with your PR folks after you contact him - then ping him at his Gamasutra address. Thanks!]

Do What Gamers Tell You, Not What They Say?

- Now, Hanford Lemoore is a bit of an interesting guy - he does product design in Silicon Valley, including for ReplayTV and the Rio MP3 player, but he also makes wacky games such as Rocknor's Donut Factory.

Anyhow, his latest blog post is regarding UI design, and is entitled 'Don’t do what your users say…', concluding: "...do what they’re telling you." He explains specifically: "It is rare that a user outright lies for no reason. There is almost always a root cause for what your users are saying. The trick is to find that root issue to truly get what the user is telling you."

He has an awesome example, too: "I sent a private beta version [of Rocknor's Bad Day] to some close friends to get their take on it. A few days later I collected feedback via email and phone conversations. I got a good variety of comments back. Constructive thoughts. But I noticed an interesting trend: The most common thing suggested was “Add an undo to the game”. It seems almost everyone who tested the game had asked for an undo option."

But.. that's not what he immediately did - he did an in-person user test, which revealed: "After the user test is was clear to me that the root cause for undo requests was that the controls were too sensitive for the average player. There were a few other things that were revealed too. People really loved solving the puzzles in the game -- the first time. But if they had to restart, they really did not enjoy redoing the puzzles they had already solved." More if you click through, and it's an excellent lesson for all developers.

April 16, 2007

Mizuguchi Vs. Al Gore - An Inconvenient Truth!

- Over at 1UP, they've got excellent coverage of a Japanese event hosted by Grasshopper Manufacture titled Snake vs Zombie Vol. 2, and "... featuring a series of talk shows between famous game creators and musical performances from artists such as Norihiko Hibino (Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops) and Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill)."

But probably the wackiest and least remarked-upon bit of the whole caboodle is the following: "Mizuguchi was surprised when Iida mentioned hearing about his involvement with one of Al Gore's projects. Although Mizuguchi was reluctant to talk about details at this point, went on to say, "Like in the recent movie An Inconvenient Truth, we talk about preventing global warming, about conserving water, energy, reducing gas emissions and so on, but I think it is not easy. I think that we would need to see our own planet from outer space."" OK - we have no idea what this project is!

Mizuguchi continues: "We see that there are no borderlines between the countries and simply notice how beautiful it is. And maybe then, we will be more conscious about the environment. It's about gaining a new perspective, like when we moved from 2D to 3D. When we gain a new perspective, I think our conscious mind changes." Still have no idea. Anyone?

@ Play: Doom, doom, doom, doom

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.]

DoomRL is a game I did not expect to like.

As you may have guessed by now, I have pretty strong ideas as to what constitutes "roguelike," one that is more in line with the term’s original sense, as seen in games like Moria, Larn and especially Hack. These are all games with random areas and random items, where melee combat is the norm and distance attacks are fairly limited, where optimized exploration strategy is fairly important to survival. DoomRL has none of these things.

In case you missed the throwaway link last time, DoomRL is a roguelike game based on the classic first-person shooter Doom. Not based as in "inspired by." Based as in, if you ignore the overhead perspective and turn-based play, "pretty damn close to." It seems like it would be a quickie throwaway game, but the goofy premise hides rather a lot of interesting play.

doomtitle.gif

Is this gimmicky? Oh brother, of course it is. But so is that new-fangled "Wii" thing the youngsters are fussin’ about. A good gimmick can get you pretty far, if it really is good. And DoomRL gimmick is.

Fortunately, there’s more to this than just a good gimmick. DoomRL's primary addition to the genre is that, while it still has walk-into-foes melee attacks if it should come to that, missile weapons are what players will use 99% of the time. Lots of monsters can also use missile weapons, changing the dynamic from the game from managing melee proximity to range and line-of-sight. Like in Doom itself, cover matters for a lot; facing down a small horde of soldiers will probably get you slaughtered, but if you retreat behind a wall, and put a bit of distance between you and that corner, you can keep yourself out of danger surprisingly long. It helps that most monsters are stupid enough to instantly forget about you the moment you leave their vision.

doomentry.gif

Also like Doom, it is important to learn the secret Art of the Reload: shotguns may be powerful, but it takes an extra turn to pop another shell into its chamber. More specialized shotguns can be found, like double-barreled, or combat shotguns. The combat ones have a limited automatic reload while you’re fleeing, enabling a thoughtful player to use them nearly as effectively as a pistol.

One thing that DoomRL does not have, which I consider to be necessary for a true roguelike, is an item identification system, but where it lacks there it makes up for it with a rich tactical game, and a limited, but well-designed, bestiary. All the monsters come directly from the original games, and their abilities line up pretty well with that much-admired spawn of Carmack and Romero. They’re tough, tough in a way that brings to mind fond memories of running from Trolls and Griffins, which is to say, almost unreasonably tough. Just tough enough that there are times that fleeing for the stairs makes more sense than sucking down a tough monster’s experience points. Tough enough that the high score list means something.

DoomRL’s item system does have room for special equipment and multiple weapon types, which is more than Doom had, but it does suffer a bit for giving players many more pistols and shotguns than he’ll ever need. There are only so many They aren’t strategically useless, but since their ammo cannot be salvaged, to gain proper use of them requires lugging about a lot of extra guns just to drop them when their bullets run out. DoomRL enforces a very strict inventory limit, even more strict than Rogue’s, and it is easy to fill up much of that with stacks of pistol and shotgun ammo. There are also items that work like Doom’s powerups, in that instead of entering inventory they activate the moment they are collected, which is a fairly significant innovation for a roguelike. And Doom’s fairly clever health system, where players can supercharge their health over the normal maximum at the cost of it slowly draining until the surplus is gone, is copied unchanged.

doomlvl5.gif

Probably the coolest thing about the game, though, is its approach to "user deformable terrain." Many roguelikes contain things like pickaxes and wands of digging, but in DoomRL changing level layouts like this becomes almost a first-class play mechanic. Most walls can be destroyed with a rocket launcher, or by pushing an explosive barrel up next to it and shooting it. Barrels, properly utilized, can greatly harm many monsters who would ordinarily outclass the player. Monsters can destroy walls too, and their explosive shots can set off barrels, providing a nice balance of risk to shoving those things around a level. One way to measure a roguelike is by noting how foes can be harmed through methods other than basic attacks, and those barrels make DoomRL very strong in this area.

One of the more entertaining things about the game is that, while the graphics are ASCII and the gameplay is turn-based, the sound comes directly from the original game. MIDI-based music that sounds pretty close to Doom’s soundtrack plays throughout each screen-sized level, and it is difficult to avoid grinning when mowing down a horde of ‘h’s, and they make the same sounds as the original game. Especially interesting is that the sound effects are not only same, but they serve the same purpose as Doom. While games like ADOM and Nethack play messages when something important happens out of sight on the level, DoomRL actually plays the sound, and adjusted in volume depending on how far the foe is from your angry little @-sign. The sounds only play after each move however, so it makes sense to play the game with the volume up.

doombomb.gif

While its lack of complex item play means the game will always lack in the greater scheme of roguelike strategy, it says a lot for the game that its inclusion would arguably dilute its play. DoomRL is, ultimately, an awesome little game that sets out to do one thing, and do it well. There is certainly room enough in the genre for something like that.

DoomRL
http://doom.chaosforge.org/index.php?module=downloads

Carnival Of Game Production - No Clowns Allowed!

- Over at GameProducer.net, they're hosting the 'Carnival of Game Production - Third Edition', described simply enough: "In this carnival, some people sent me several articles related to production and games, and simply some fun stuff."

It's actually a bit of a mixed bag, but Jake Birkett does contribute 'I’ve finished my game - now what?', which has some great points about getting casual games distributed, with specific info on which portals worked for him.

He explains of his methods: "Either find a publisher who’ll do all the hard work for you and be prepared for them to take a cut (could be worth it to save the hassle) or do it all yourself - it’s a learning experience but it’s HARD WORK. Make a list of portals and contact them in an organised manner and chase them up. Only tell them about complete games (include screenshots and a web address) that you can send them a full version of."

OXM Sez - Two More Bizarre Creations XBLA Games!

- Already talked about Official Xbox Magazine briefly this weekend, but there's one detail from the May 2007 issue of the mag (which you should subscribe to for the disc freebies, if nothing else, imho!) that I thought was worth passing on.

Specifically, in a look at Bizarre Creations' new shooter The Club (which will apparently consist of 50/60 levels, each a couple of minutes each, with elaborate Woo-style shootout combos being the name of the game!), this tiny sidebar caught my eye: "Aside from Boom Boom Rocket for EA, developer Bizarre has two other Live Arcade games underway, including one by Geometry Wars creator Stephen Cakebread."

First time I've seen this info, so I thought I'd communicate it on to you kind GSW readers. Actually, I invited Mr. Cakebread to speak at the Indie Games Summit at GDC this year, but he sadly wasn't available - but it'll be great to see what he comes up with next (I'm highly presuming a Geometry Wars sequel).

[And remember, though Boom Boom Rocket has its design detractors, and perhaps rightly so, it was actually designed by Pogo.com and executed by the Bizarre-ites - so fear not for the originality or playability of the other upcoming XBLA games, I hope.]

Emily Short Talks Interactive Fiction

- This actually ran much earlier last week on Gamasutra, but I realized it wasn't cross-linked a lot of places and is rather GSW-ish, so wanted to point out Jim Munroe's interview with text adventure author Emily Short.

Well, Short has been an important part of interactive fiction for some time now - actually, her Wikipedia page sums it up well: "Emily Short is the pseudonym of an interactive fiction (IF) writer, perhaps best known for her debut game Galatea and her use of psychologically complex NPCs, or non-player game characters."

Particularly referenced in the interview is Savoir Faire, "...about a magician in 18th-century France searching his aristocratic adoptive father's house." Talking about pacing IF, she explains: "The game should stay fun for as long as it takes to play; no aspect should take more of the player's attention than it deserves. What that means in practical terms will vary a lot from one work to the next. In Savoir-Faire I mostly thought in terms of puzzles and their rewards." Lots more good stuff in there.

April 15, 2007

Indie Game Jam 4 - A Hidden Treasure?

- So, one of the best-kept secrets in the game biz is the original Indie Game Jam - and it's mainly a secret to the web, actually, because the creators (including Chris Hecker and friends) haven't managed to update the website with info on the 2005 and 2006 iterations.

I did ping Chris briefly, and he said it would be updated soon, but I found out about some of the results of the 2006 Indie Game Jam via Casey Muratori's MollyRocket.com site, where there's a brief messageboard thread linking to three of the music-based games done there.

Firstly, stealth code ninja for hire Atman Binstock has posted his title 'Beat Butter' on his site, explaining: "This game was inspired by previews I read for REZ. Ie, I imagined it was something like this... I wanted a game where the music, level, and gameplay all encourage (but not force) the player to use the controller in a visceral way that *feels* good."

In addition, former Game Developer magazine code columnist Sean Barrett has posted 'Beat It!', another game with some intriguing influences: "The primary motivation for the gameplay was my sense that Harmonix-style beat-matching gameplay created the feeling of playing a musical instrument, but only by forcing you to synchronize to a previously constructed audio track which you must mimic; the experiential effect is only binary: either you're playing it correctly or not. The hope with Beat It! was to provide you with an arcade game which you can play while totally ignoring the music, and yet in the process of playing it you would create music."

Thirdly, programming veteran Muratori (who MC-ed the GDC Programmer's Challenge this year) has linked to his game 'Ears Of War' [.ZIP], explaining: "You may need to play with the Windows microphone gain setting in order to get mission mode to work, as the audio recognition is not very good (it was made in about two hours, and I know nothing about audio recognition."

No idea who else has music games out there from Indie Game Jam 4, but hopefully they will be posted online in due course. It's wacky, actually - these folks, who may be relatively unknown to you, are some of the hidden geniuses behind the nuts and bolts of game creation, alongside Jon Blow, Mark Cerny, and other similar svengalis. You'd be very surprised to learn what they all worked on, I'm guessing.

Acclaim's Dance! Online: 'I GOTTA PAY TO BE BLACK?'

- Uhoh - over at Broken Toys, Lum has posted a story called 'Acclaim: Being Black Is Awesome!', which reveals: "Acclaim’s new DANCE! Online dancing-required microtransaction-driven MMO has decreed that being a black person on the dance floor is so totally awesome, you must earn the privilege."

Let's just cite the particular argument as Lum explained it, since it's... touchy, to say the least.

"Or, as one somewhat surprised user asks,

'I GOTTA PAY TO BE BLACK?'

to which a “player moderator” replied,

'Black is an EXTRA feature. It makes your person look unique, so that is an EXTRA feature. Therefore, you having to PAY for it. (Or ask a friend to pay for it).'

Thankfully, before Rev. Al Sharpton was made aware that MMOs exist, an actual Acclaim employee immediately chimed in with

"As an optional character upgrade, we must put this in the item shop for players to acquire. This is the only way to offer the African-American heads. However, it should be EASILY accessible to all, so we made it just 1 POINT in the shop (which is basically for FREE). You don’t have to spend any money to get it, just play the game and earn points. Thanks!""

Wait, and Broken Toys commenter 'GreyPawn' chimes in: "It is in deeper trouble than just its racist tenor. In-game, there is a built-in marriage system for characters. However, the system intentionally excludes same-sex couples." Oh dear! Set up the PR barricades, Acclaim, it's going to be a long week.

Inside The OXM Universe

- So, I recently got Issue 70 of Future's U.S. Official Xbox Magazine, which was my first chance to check out the 'OXM Universe' episodic game which is _only_ available on OXM coverdiscs starting with the April 2007 (#69) disc. And... so far, it's not quite 'there' yet. But let's explain more!

OXM's Dan Amrich has pretty much the only official info up about OXM Universe, as a FAQ on the Xbox.com forums, explaining: "OXM: Universe is an evolutionary, episodic game available exclusively on the Official Xbox Magazine (US) game disc. It’s developed by Go Fever and OXM." No screenshots online yet, guys?

But what do you do in the 'game'? "Just put in the OXM Game Disc. You’ll notice that the background of the standard disc interface is now an animated 3D solar system. Head to "OXM Universe" on the menu to build probes, manage your space program, and explore your discoveries." So basically, you get OXM points for playing on-disc demos, filling out a survey, and watching movies all the way through - and you can then spend those points in interactive menus to build and launch spacecraft, etc.

There's been a couple of unfortunate things so far - firstly, the existing OXM Points (which are separate from normal Achievement Points) go back to 0 for this project: "The slate was wiped clean when OXM Universe launched. Everybody’s starting fresh. This was necessary, since the original plan -- to redeem OXM Points for Gamerscore points -- did not work out." However, neither the new nor the old points (which are still technically viewable if you pop in old discs) are redeemable for Gamerscore, yet - yikes!

Secondly, the content of the 'game' so far is really, really on the rudimentary side. The first two discs have you building your first spaceship. But you're just buying compulsory-to-purchase parts with your OXM Points, and there's no more interactivity in the game so far than 'click here to purchase this' - and the spaceship hasn't even launched by the end of the second disc, even if you got all the OXM Points possible, from what I can gather. I guess I was expecting something a little Outpost Kaloki X-like or something with resource management, even at this early stage?

Now, it sounds like there are big plans for rewards, expanded content, and even networked elements in the future. But my concerns are echoed by a longish thread on the forums, in which OXM reader 'Areacode' gets the tone exactly right: "I'm hoping the OXM Universe will be more than spend points upgrading things; go to a planet; read some text; unlock a "prize"; rinse, repeat. Nice, but I need more if it is a real game - otherwise the old format worked just as well, and didn't take several issues to complete. I do however love that you are trying something new, and hope it works out well. Just add more game elements to it and I will be more than happy with it." Let's see how things pan out, mm? Having physical discs compete with digital downloads is an awfully tough task.

GigaGamez Takes A Left Turn Outta Game Website Town

- After a pretty short run (the blog only soft-launched in December 2006), Om Malik has posted on parent site GigaOm revealing that "...we are putting [his company's game blog] GigaGamez on hold."

Malik notes: "With our current focus, it was one of our blogs that just didn’t catch fire. That blog struggled to get out of first gear. Some might suggest three months wasn’t long enough to make that site work, but the numbers were telling us: hasta la vista baby. So we are now back to the drawing board, rethinking and re-tweaking the focus of the blog, to see if we can bring it back."

And indeed, the Alexa stats show that GigaGamez struggled to make it past even little ol' GameSetWatch, which is a resolutely non-pro 'weird stuff' editor blog at this stage. On the other hand, Malik's New Teevee, which launched at the same time, is doing much better, it can be easily seen from the Alexa graph.

Personally, I was a little disappointed that Om didn't give the newest editorial team - which included Alex Handy, Blake Snow, Raymond Padilla, and Jason McMaster, overseen by head Second Life cheerleader Wagner James Au, time to evolve. That second staff iteration had been in place only since February or so, I believe.

But GigaGamez was definitely a bit confused about whether it wanted to cover broad business, opinion, or consumer stories, or much more specific things. It's notable that the announcement post trailed it as "...focus[ing] on the business of games, online worlds and other related sub sectors of the business" - which actually seems like a 'everything' mandate, rather than a focus.

In any case, a great deal of the writing on GigaGamez was intelligent, and it was hardly an effort to be ashamed of. I think there's room for at least one more professional game blog out there - but probably as a Joystiq and Kotaku competitor, not as whatever odd business hybrid Om and friends were going for. But - anything is possible!



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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