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May 12, 2007

What Naughty Dog's Jason Rubin, Andy Gavin Did Next

- You, dear GSW reader, might have heard of Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin due to the fact that they co-founded Naughty Dog, creators of both the Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter game franchises. But after Rubin left in 2004, to apparently work on a new title called 'Iron & The Maiden', everything went a little quiet.

Well, in fact, Andy Gavin also left Naughty Dog a couple of years back (oop, we SO need to update our Game Developer advisory board masthead to reflect that!), and Jurie at Intelligent Artifice has pointed out that their new project has launched - and it's in the form of a Web 2.0 site called Flektor, rather than a game.

Social media blog Techcrunch explains of the site: "Flektor allows users to create slide shows using video, photos, text and effects/transitions... in our testing we also found the Flektor creation wizard to be far easier to use than the current Slide and RockYou offerings." They predict a swift acquisition for the site, thanks to its slick interface - hey, maybe the game guys have something to show the Web 2.0 guys regarding usability after all?

[Oh, and as for Iron & The Maiden? The MySpace page for the project reveals it will be coming out in comic form first, with Rubin noting: "I can announce a shelf date for book 1, with the other books following right on its heels: August 2007, just a few hot months (at least in LA) away. I also have a publisher... that I will announce in a short time." Mysterious!]

GameSetGama: Englehart, Koster, Wetherill, Oh My!

- There were a few other GSW-worthy links on big sister site Gamasutra and our other sites that I wanted to pass on this weekend, not least because it's been a pretty frantic week - two conferences and lots of game announcements - masking some of the neater non press-release-y material! Presenting:

- Alistair Wallis' regular 'Playing Catch-Up' talks to comics and game veteran artist Steve Englehart, and there's about 20 years of fascinating fringe game stuff in there, such as: "His first project as a designer for Atari was E.T. Phone Home, for Atari 400 and 800 computers – a product designed to cash in on the movie, just like Howard Scott Warshaw's Atari 2600 adaptation, which was developed simultaneously. “We were all aware of those problems,” he says of the 2600 version’s rushed and tumultuous development, “though I didn't connect them to any one guy.”"

- Oop, just mentioned him in the last post, but Bonnie Ruberg's interview with Areae's Raph Koster is well worth checking out, because he hits some key points on how the online game biz might get left behind, talking about his GDC talk: "“Where Game Meets Web”: that's the one where I basically said that everyone in the industry is doomed because the web is stealing their thunder. This industry isn't working with the web very well at all." Then he gives examples!

- Over at mobile site GamesOnDeck, veteran Steve Wetherill has posted the first part of 'EA Air Hockey: Designing A One-Button Mobile Game', and accessibility is again a key factor: "The other compelling reason to create a one-button game is to appeal to the so-called "casual" gamers and the non-gamers (the "to be converted") as it's these folks who makeup the vast majority of "mobile phone users". A game that is playable with one button should contain little to scare away or embarrass such a player." More good insight in there.

On VC Deals In (Or Close To) The Game Biz

- It used to be that venture capitalists left the video game industry well alone - mainly due to the gigantic hit-miss nature of the biz.

But with digital payment and the ability to spread risk, there's increasing amounts of investment in mobile, casual, online, and in-game ad areas of gaming as illustrated by a list of recent VC and angel investments in the game biz via the 'Stuck In Customs' blog, from John Galt Games' Trey Ratcliff.

The deals are undated, and a number of them are quite a few months old, but it's a good list because it gives an idea of where investors are looking to step up - and hey, here's one we all know: "Company: Telltale Games, San Rafael, CA... Investment: $ 0.8 million... Investors: Keiretsu Forum... Description: Telltale develops and deploys cinematic quality animation and storytelling technologies, to create interactive content. Telltale offers content development and custom publishing services to assist license-holders in adapting their properties for interactive delivery."

Of course, the interesting thing is that it's only for $0.8 million, whereas some of the other perhaps dodgier plays in the in-game ad market (even more dodgy now that Sony looks like it may be doing its own in-game ad platform) have seen double digit millions raised.

But it's all about chasing the prize, of course, and a lot of the fundings and subsequent acquisitions right now are for infrastructure companies in an unknown market, where the acquirers (often big media) feel like they 'can't miss out'. But there's very little creative about those companies in terms of making great art. Why can't VCs and investors gamble on companies that create lasting art?

[Answer: because art is subjective, and successful corporate entities are increasingly - and have generally always been, to some extent - those which sort and regurgitate art as a commodity, rather than create it. Oh well. Thanks to Raph Koster for the initial link, incidentally.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': You Call Y'self Hardcore?

['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.]

supergaming1.jpg   supergaming2.jpg

Well, you're not hardcore, because otherwise you would've subscribed to Super Gaming, Sendai Publishing's magazine devoted entirely to Japan-only video games.

Here is how Sendai advertised Super Gaming in their own magazines, including Electronic Gaming Monthly and Mega Play:

Are you the type of video game player who has always wanted to know about the latest games and systems but could never find a magazine devoted entirely to what's new and in the future? Not just games for the Genesis, Turbo and Nintendo, but also previews of Japanese titles that won't arrive on these shores for years -- if ever!

Now the editors of Electronic Gaming Monthly, always the first word in video games, has created a magazine especially for you! Super Gaming will take you where no other game magazine has ever gone before, with the latest news and game previews for your Sega 16-bit, NEC or Nintendo systems! With Super Gaming you will know about the hottest carts of tomorrow today, as well as new developments and game systems!

supergaming3.jpg   supergaming4.jpg

All four issues of Super Gaming released were only 32 pages long, but they were available both on a subscription and at the newsstand, as the Electronics Boutique price stickers on my issues indicate. The contents mostly read like a "lite" version of the EGM of the time -- lots of little previews divided up by console, a handful of large features packed with colorful screenshots, and not a heck of a lot of real in-depth content. Starting with issue 2, the magazine had its own review section, covering nothing but Japan imports and featuring scores from editor Mike Riley, associate editor Ken Williams and someone named "Samrye" (get it? huh?!!).

Unfortunately, this sort coverage meant that the only advertisers interested in such a magazine were mail-order shops that specialized in Japanese games. The magazine failed to become a marketplace success, and so with the third issue Super Gaming repositioned itself as a "video game preview" magazine, with early coverage of both Japanese and American games. This failed to make much of a difference, though, and the magazine folded after one final issue, which dropped the Japan stuff entirely and devoted most of its pages to 1991 Winter CES coverage instead.

So there you have it -- probably the most obscure Sendai Publishing title, and one that folded before it could find any sort of niche in the marketplace. It's certainly not a good magazine by any stretch of the imagination. So why do I care? Because I'm trying to get everything Sendai ever published -- and completing this Super Gaming collection was damned difficult, because the mags go for way too much money online and are impossible to find elsewhere. So, that's another Sendai title complete...now I just need to figure out where to find copies of Hero Illustrated and Internet Underground...

[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.]

Game Journalist To Developer, Or... Vice Versa?

- Kyle Orland's regular 'Media Coverage' column for GameDaily this week discusses 'Going To The Dark Side', subtitled as "...the surprisingly common phenomenon of journalists going to work for the game industry."

As some may know, I have a strong opinion or two on this, and I'm delighted to see Stephen Totilo at MTV News vocalizing some of those: "Talented reporters taking jobs in the fields they cover is nothing new, but it seems to happen so often with so many of gaming's brightest reporters and critics, that I can't help but feel a reflex reaction against it... I ... cheer for the day when writing about games will be a rewarding enough experience -- creatively, personally, and financially -- that more people will be able to stick with it."

But on the other hand, I've learnt to fight that gut response just a little, since I realized that there are some professions that you are naturally just better at or more suited to. After all, it worked for me the opposite way round - as Kyle quotes me saying in the last paragraph of the GameDaily piece: "I realized that I'd really always had more fun and felt more capable as a writer about games... I felt like I was just better suited, more capable, and would be happier writing about games, not making them. So I did that."

May 11, 2007

Hentai Game Explosion! Run For Cover!

- Over at Eurogamer, Dave McCarthy has ventured where many gamers fear to tread with his feature 'The Bluffer's Guide To Hentai Games', which talks about the wonder of English-language 'erotic Japanese PC games' from a European perspective.

As handily explained: "There's... a wide range of play mechanics, from simple dating games, where you've got to impress the girls enough to get them into compromising positions, to choose-your-own adventure style flowchart games, where you simply have to make choices at key moments to propel the sexual narrative along." It's actually good to see acceptable English language explanations of what is a pretty interesting, often badly explained gaming subgenre.

Further coverage of that very same genre has recently been taken up by Sexy Videogameland, the blog of Paste/Escapist contributor Leigh Alexander, and she looks at this conundrum: "How, then, does a Hentai game come to be bestowed with gravitas?" It then gets into Kana: Little Sister, which is all kinds of taboo, and the game does deal with oddly emotionally mature themes (the death of a family member, and coping with that), somewhat apart from the sexually mature parts within it. But as Leigh notes: "Dealing with such poignant concepts-- the lifelike vulnerability of your ill little sister, the burden of a family who may soon lose its innocent-- seems just a little bit twisted, actually."

Best Of 2007 IGF Entries Pop Up At ACMI

- Some might says that there aren't nearly enough museums and cultural institutions doing game-related exhibitions right now - with the traveling Game On! exhibition being a notable exception.

But Helen Stuckey and compatriots at the Australian Center For The Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, who previously mounted a great history of Melbourne House's output, are now going ahead and showing off a new exhibition, 'The Best Of The Independent Games Festival 2007'.

This is actually the third time that ACMI has put this on, and it's neat because the public can play titles like Aquaria and even Castle Crashers ahead of their public release, and also check out some of the most notable Student Showcase games such as the wacky Opera Slinger and brain-scrambling South Korean puzzler Rooms.

The free to attend exhibition, which is billed as 'A sensational selection of winners and nominees from the 'Sundance' festival for games', is open at ACMI from Wednesday, May 30th 2007 to Sunday, September 30th 2007. It's fully supported by the IGF (of which - disclaimer - I am Chairman!), and there's a private opening night reception on May 29th, with Mike Fegan, CEO of Heroes Of The Pacific creators IR Gurus Interactive, opening the show. Neat stuff - and if any other U.S. or foreign institutions want to put on an IGF show, then ping me.

Webkinz: Takahashi's Subversive Game Cat F'Real?

- You are presumably thinking that the above headline makes absolutely no sense, yes? Well, it's referencing Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi's GDC Europe 2005 Game Design Challenge entry, which is a robot cat for grandmothers: "Embedded in the cat is the capability for it to communicate wirelessly with other cat controllers (on other Grannies' knees) in the neighborhood."

Of course, the genius element in Takahashi's design is that the other members of the family are told to pretend that the cyborg cat is normal, and that only Granny can talk to it. Not so with Webkinz, the cyber-cat (and other Beanie Baby-style plushes) for kids which is the subject of a new CNET News article called 'I fell in love with a cyber alley cat'.

It's explained: "The phenomenon has been a huge hit; Ganz claims that more than 2 million units have been sold to retailers and 1 million users have registered on the Webkinz site, where kids can create lively domiciles for the virtual versions of their animal, shop for pet paraphernalia, and chat with fellow Webkinz owners."

Michael Zenke has actually previously covered Webkinz for us as part of a wider article on kids' virtual worlds - it's a plush toy, with game/virtual world elements after you register said toy - and though it doesn't have any wireless or directly code-based elements to it, unlike the virtual Barbie Girls MP3 players, it's another example of games, virtual worlds, and toys getting hopelessly intermeshed in the name of addictiveness and repeat business. Neopets was just the beginning, folks - and this is far more sinister than just perplexing Granny.

'Might Have Been' - Flash Hiders

The best fighting-game-named-after-a-firearm-accessory since Super Gas-Venting Recoil Compensation System 3.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Right Stuff's Flash Hiders and Battle Tycoon, released for the PC Engine in 1993 and the Super Famicom in 1995, respectively.]

Many will snort derisively at the idea of fighting games having storylines. The fighter, they will tell you, has always been about competition, about facing another human in matches free of plot or computer-controlled opponents. And they’re right. Modern fighters typically offer some story mode or a similar one-player attraction, but they’ve never really needed them. In fact, the first genre offerings to follow Street Fighter II’s 1991 debut had no real narratives. Fighting games had characters, and, if you were lucky, endings. That was all.

It wasn’t until 1993 that a developer called Right Stuff bothered to change things. They’d made a name by dealing in PC Engine games like Emerald Dragon, Fang of Alnam, and other RPGs heavy on cinematic cutscenes and anime archetypes. Why then, someone at Right Stuff surely asked, couldn’t a fighting game have the same focus? And so Flash Hiders emerged.

Having only two characters react in this scene saved Right Stuff a good 3000 yen.Unhidden flash

Much like the typical CD-based RPG of its day, Flash Hiders begins with a lengthy animated intro, one that finds an easily annoyed martial artist named Bang Bipot and a temperamental sorceress named Tiria Rossette on a trek across a half-medieval, half-futuristic world. In the game’s main “Scenario” mode, the not-quite-a-couple runs across and all but adopts Erue, an emotionally fragile young man somehow connected to an assortment of thugs, bounty hunters, and stranger things.

As a manga-style yarn that haphazardly meshes fantasy and science fiction tropes, Flash Hiders’ story isn’t particularly remarkable. It doesn’t help that the presentation’s uneven: some sequences are just talking heads or static images without even some two-frame lip flap thrown in for dramatic illusion’s sake. And while there’s a bit of comic timing in the characters’ constant bickering, it’s rarely imaginative. An example: the first scripted fight results after Harman, a curvaceous and vain female mercenary, angrily kicks over a restaurant table when Erue calls her “Oba-san” (“Grandma”), leaving Bang to avenge his ruined meal. If you’ve seen any given sword-and-sorcery anime comedy, you’ve seen Flash Hiders.


CAL-N is short for Calnarsa Le Bon, which might be a reference to the Duran Duran frontman.Leveling up

Yet in 1993, it was revolutionary for a fighter to develop any story at all, and Flash Hiders borrowed more than cutscenes from Right Stuff’s RPG experience. Before each match, characters can buy and equip different items, and then selectively boost their defense, attack power, and speed. Simple as this may be, the selective stat raises add a lot to the fighting template, and actually allow far more freedom of character development than the typical 16-bit Japanese RPG.

Though the Scenario storyline restricts players to controlling Bang, the “Advance” mode takes the rest of the main characters down their own goofy plot threads. In testament to Right Stuff's target audience, both modes automatically have your chosen character controlled by AI; you’ve got to fiddle with the options before the game lets you play instead of watch.

And watching isn’t all that fun. The animated intermissions may be colorful (and a bit too glossy), but the battles have a washed-out look, with limited animation and muted palettes. Still, the soundtrack isn’t bad, and Right Stuff spent considerable sums on a voice cast that includes then-famous anime actors like Kumiko Watanabe, Konami Yoshida, and the revered Megumi Hayashibara, who could practically sell a game on her own back in 1993.

Tiria's curiosity about Bang's enormous head becomes too great to contain.Simple depths

And beneath all of the shiny, huge-eyed vixens and shrill battle cries, there’s a surprisingly detailed fighting game. The controls are precise, and the cast of characters is quite balanced for a fighter that was never designed for fierce competition. There's a intriguing mix in the three classes of fighter: the magicians specialize in projectiles, the cyborgs are slow and powerful, and the remaining warriors, as members of some "were" race, morph into wolves, tigers, and other predators during their special moves.

The combatants even use dashes and guard canceling, now-standard techniques that were strikingly uncommon in the time of Mortal Kombat. Perhaps that's why Flash Hiders, unlike many fighters of its era, doesn’t feel wholly outdated when matched against the current complexities of Guilty Gear X2 #Reload or Street Fighter III: Third Strike.

In the mid-‘90s, however, Flash Hiders didn’t quite catch on. Every popular fighting game of the era started in the arcades, and a PC Engine CD release didn’t command the same attention, not when the PCE’s stock two-button controller simplified Flash Hiders’ four-button mechanics. The game never even showed in the West. The U.S. TurboDuo was one-tenth as successful as its Japanese incarnation, and if NEC couldn’t be bothered to release Street Fighter II on their American system, they couldn’t be bothered with Flash Hiders.

Well, at least she's not a Strip Fighter II character.Flash Hiders EX Plus Lesbian

Right Stuff took another chance on its fighting venture in 1995, with Battle Tycoon: Flash Hiders SFX for the Super Famicom. The alleged sequel loses the original’s Scenario mode and all of its cinematic sequences, though the in-game fighters at least animate better. The Advance mode, meanwhile, is substantially improved in Battle Tycoon, in which players can roam freely from one city location to another, picking fights, upgrading characters, and even visiting a coliseum to bet on all-AI showdowns.

Battle Tycoon also lost four of Flash Hiders’ duller fighters, replacing them with the cyborg Guston Slade, Bang’s father Jail Lance, and a swordswoman named Patchet Vayne. Perhaps Battle Tycoon’s only real point of invention, Patchet stands as one of the fighting genre’s first lesbian and/or bisexual characters. (Or the first at all, if one ignores Variable Geo, and one should.) Naturally, Patchet’s also a complete stereotype: muscular, hedonistic, and not particularly bright, she spends most of her Advance-mode story lusting after the other female fighters. One of her moves makes her resemble a metal-skinned wolf, but I doubt that’s tied to her sexual proclivities.

Lose, and a little pixelly mob comes out and cuts your character's thumbs off.Right but largely irrelevant stuff

Battle Tycoon made even fewer waves that Flash Hiders did, and for the same reasons: it wasn’t an arcade game, the market in 1995 was already saturated with fighters that were, and no one cared to translate a dated-looking fighter for North America.

Right Stuff gave up on the would-be franchise soon after, turning instead to a doomed sequel to their Alnam RPG. The company didn’t survive the decade, and their demise killed chances for a world where Flash Hiders eventually would be a hit, a world where fans would hold tournaments in its name and the lonelier devotees would buy suggestively posed statues depicting Harman and Patchet instead of Cammy and Mai Shiranui.

Yet if Flash Hiders didn't get far, its ideas did. Modern fighters such as Soul Calibur have elaborate weapon-upgrading system, while the likes of Guilty Gear, Melty Blood, and Tech Romancer have engaging story modes. It’s not clear if Namco, Capcom, and other developers were inspired by Flash Hiders or if they merely followed a natural evolutionary path, but even if Right Stuff’s little experiment had no far-reaching influence, its spirit lives on in any fighter that’s fun to play solo.

And, of course, any game with a metallic lesbian werewolf.


[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]

Disposable Media Looks At Game Magazines

- Over at the Disposable Media homepage, Gillen points out, they've posted an article about the state of the game print media (confusingly enough, called 'Disposable Media?') in Issue 7 [.PDF link] of the, uhm, virtual magazine.

Anyhow, the start of the piece asks: "By instilling such power in what remains a largely unknown entity, have we essentially handed over the gaming press to a generation of illiterate 13 year olds broadcasting from their bedrooms?" Potential literates like the aforementioned PC Gamer-esque Kieron Gillen, as well as GI.biz and Eurogamer's lovable Irishman Rob Fahey then comment, and make some good points about the speed and relative accuracy of print vs. online.

There's some amusing quotes in there, too: "Ever concerned with snatching enough hits to generate advertising revenue, many such websites have a set tally of news that must be uploaded daily. If an editor demands 6-10 stories a day but, in reality, there is nothing to cover, inevitably that site – and indeed those who mirror its coverage – is flooded with hearsay and speculation to fill the quota." Dammit, we really must ramp up the hearsay on Gamasutra!

But, slight hyperbole aside, it's interesting to hear considered opinions on this massive shift, albeit from an online publication obviously enamored with the print medium. Whither now the considered, in-depth New Yorker-style article on the Web, eh? [It's possible to do them, but often difficult to monetize them if page views are your currency. Not inconceivable, though!]

May 10, 2007

Preservation, GameTap, and Curmudgeoning

- So, after my recent post on GameTap adding a bunch of Neo Geo titles, I got a really interesting email from Matt Matthews, he of Curmudgeon Gamer fame, and he kindly allowed me to share our email conversation here on GSW, because it's pertinent to game preservation, and he makes some good points. Opinions on the below?

Matt: "Can you please explain (in 50 words or less) why you're so hip on GameTap?I I thought you might have had an interest in making sure archives of digital works would exist far into the future. However, I assumed that you'd be on the side of making sure those archives were not purely commercial in nature.

That is, if we could be guaranteed that GameTap would be around for 200 years, then fine. We'd have time for laws and technology to change to the point that people could probably back up or reverse engineer the games on GameTap for archival purposes independent of GameTap. But as it is, once that service shuts down (and I think it's a given that it will, perhaps even in the next five years) then how are we to keep copies of [games such as] Sam & Max for future analysis and study? Or any other game that they publish in pay-to-play format?"

[Click through for more curmudgeoning!]

Simon "I just like them because they make old, interesting games available legally. It's as simple as that. There will still be ROMs and standalone copies of these games (Sam & Max is coming out as a standalone digital download too, and at retail, don't forget). Sure, there are some exceptions like Uru, but that needs a server to exist anyhow.

Are you being a Curmudgeon? :) What do you think they are doing wrong? It's not possible that old games would just be available for free, because companies can monetize them. We have to wait for the public domain to kick in for that."

Matt: "Perhaps a bit of a curmudgeon, but more importantly a person who likes being able to purchase copies of media. Do we know that [all the games GameTap offers exclusively on their service] will be untethered? The lesson of Half-life 2 and other Steam-linked products is that you may find yourself dependent on the service for authentication -- either now or in a few years when you want to revisit a game -- even if the game itself doesn't require anything online.

That's what my friend/co-blogger Ruffin calls the virtual rare book room, and it's a reasonable analogy I think. There is a gatekeeper who stands between you and things that you (think you) own (in the instance of, say, a public university where the people ostensibly own the library's holdings).

It reminds me of the security/freedom exchange often attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Something along the lines of "He who would sacrifice essential right of ownership for a little convenience deserves neither."

I'm not asking for the games to be free -- short of a revolution overthrowing the U.S. government and then a new constitution with reasonable copyright laws, I'll never see any game fall into the public domain because it's copyright expired. I'm asking that people who study or value games as a medium be allowed to purchase copies of them -- as we do with almost every other medium such as audiovisual media and music, even sculpture -- be allowed to actually own a copy of those games.

I can do this with almost everything on GameTap, I confess. Archivists can (and should) purchase originals of arcade games and console games and Windows/DOS games and others as often as they can. But the model that GameTap and Steam and XBLA and PSN and other services represent is one in which the company always stands between you and your game, ready to exact a toll if they can work out a way to do it. That gatekeeper is one I cannot abide."

Simon: "I think it's much more of a problem for Steam (potentially) than GameTap, because the point of GameTap is that you can ALREADY buy physical versions of most of the games. The only game on GameTap that you can't get ROMs of (less than legally) or buy carts/boards/discs of is Uru Online, and that wouldn't even be running without GameTap's help at this point. I guess you say that further down your commentary, though."

Matt: "Just to be clear, this is the slippery slope we're on right now. Boiling the frog, foot in the door, whatever analogy you want to use. If we relinquish our interest in owning copies of things we *could* get in physical form, then the natural next step for a publisher is to skip the physical copy altogether (in the name of cutting costs, sold as a benefit to the consumer) and offer only virtual copies.

Those virtual copies will likely include tethers to some home server which will be justified as a means to easily, seamlessly patch the game and offer extensions to the original game. As we've seen with Xbox Live, however, the model will then be used to sell (e.g.) map packs for Gears of War. The first hit's free, to throw in yet another needlessly trite analogy.

Finally, let me say that there are other areas which have struggled with precisely this problem. Academic journals can be accessed through the web, provided your university buys a subscription. As soon as the online subscription costs aren't paid, all that knowledge is walled off. Compare with paper copies which are obviously less convenient, but permanent ownership of knowledge. You can guess which I'd prefer *in the long term*."

PC Gamer UK Gets Seamy In Second Life

- Tim Edwards kindly points me to a new PC Gamer UK feature posted on C&VG, discussing some of the more suspect sexual practices in online world Second Life (text somewhat NSFW, obviously), and with notable timing given recent controversy over explicit content in the world.

Writer Graham Smith explains ruefully: "Sex in Second Life is more than mere mimicry of the real world: it's an entire industry unto itself. Here, in the bottom floor of this mansion by the sea, among the finely coiffed and immaculately undressed, my avatar looks gormless and crude. Designed primarily by hitting the randomise button too many times on the character creation screen and infused with life by clumsy, default animations, I look like an overly-stretched man stumbling with the wandering gait of Frankenstein's monster."

Unfortunately, Smith has some virtual, uhh, performance problems, thanks to some faulty 'add-ons', and concludes: "I can objectively understand how someone might enjoy this, how if they were to commit themselves to the fantasy then perhaps, yes, this could be exciting. But I feel detached, and silly, and self-conscious, and even a little bored. Were I to know this person, have an actual connection to them, then I can imagine this might be fun, an emotive process or an extension of our relationship. But it's not."

COLUMN: Game Collector’s Melancholy – Kenji Eno

[‘A Game Collector’s Melancholy’ is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we take a look at the iconoclastic game designer Kenji Eno.]

tripd.jpgKenji Eno founded Warp, his small, independent game studio in 1994. Coming from a background in music, Eno wanted to bring the same energy and spirit of the electronic music scene to the rapidly expanding world of video games. With long hair and black clothes, Eno would pose for publicity photos with his Roland Jupiter-8 synthesizer (analog of course), cultivating a rock and roll image at a time when game designers were still considered members of the pocket-protector set. He also made it clear that Warp was not part of some corporate hive.

The company’s first games were for the 3DO system. Its straightforward licensing structure dispensed with the cumbersome and arbitrary approvals process that other hardware manufactures required and the machine’s CD-ROM format made it easy to publish for, lowering the barrier to entry for the start-up developer.

Warp’s initial efforts were basic puzzlers and mini-game collections. Although somewhat primitive, they were done with an absurdist graffiti style that made them distinctive. One of these early games, a Tetris clone called Trip’D made it to America in 1995, but it was the horror adventure D that would make Warp famous.

D

d.jpgD was a graphic adventure in which a young woman named Laura must explore a spree killer’s tormented psyche in order to solve the mystery of his murderous rampage as well as her own strange relationship with the killer. D played similar to Myst with nicely rendered cinematic transitions between static frames. To enhance D’s creepy atmosphere, Eno composed a suitably dark ambient soundtrack. Operating in true garage band style, Warp utilized consumer level Amiga computers to generate D’s visuals rather than the expensive Silicon Graphics workstations that were considered the standard tool for creating computer graphics.

D’s big conceptual trick was to require its players complete the game in one sitting. It had a two-hour time limit with no pausing or saving allowed. This was a bold stance for Eno to take, refusing to allow his game to be evaluated on the basis of length or replay value.

D was first created for the 3DO but soon ported to the PlayStation, Saturn, and even DOS. Of these, I’ll go with the Saturn because the Sega logo adds a nice symmetry to the collection. Published by Acclaim in 1995, D shipped on two discs so make sure both are present before committing to buy and expect to pay around $10.

Enemy Zero

enemy_zero.jpgThe 3DO struggled against the newer 32-bit machines that were coming on the market and plans were made to create a successor called M2 that would be based on PowerPC chips. Warp began work on a sequel to D for the upcoming machine and work-in-progress screenshots were used to demonstrate the advance graphics capabilities of the M2 hardware. For the sequel, Warp seemed to be moving in a fantasy direction and early screens showed a richly detailed, polygon-based gothic castle as its play environment. However, by the end of 1996, the 3DO was discontinued and the M2 project was shelved less than a year later.

Putting the D sequel on hold, Warp turned away from cutting edge graphics and created a game called Real Sound: Wind of Regret that had no graphics at all. Released in 1997 for the Saturn, Real Sound was an adventure game played from the perspective of a blind person and relied exclusively on audio cues. Re-released on the Dreamcast in 1999, Real Sound utilized extensive Japanese language voice acting, making a Western release impossible.

Having stripped away everything that makes a game a video game with Real Sound, Eno decided to create a new work called Enemy Zero that would fully engage both sound and vision. Set on a deep space towing rig, Enemy Zero found Warp riffing on Alien as well as its own D. Although not a sequel, Enemy Zero featured D’s Laura as the main character, employing her as a “digital actress”.

Enemy Zero was a hybrid graphic adventure and first-person shooter, fast paced and cinematic in presentation, a sort of game equivalent to the summer blockbuster. The shooter elements were unique in that you faced invisible enemies, forcing you to depend on audio cues and sonar pings to locate your target. As you crawled through a maze of ductwork and darkened halls, a clammy, panicked sweat would trickle down your brow as the oscillating sonar warned of approaching enemies. Unfortunately, the shooting part was implemented in a painfully realistic manner, forcing you to draw your gun as the invisible monster approached, wait for it to charge up, and then fire hopefully hitting your target. If not, then you had to wait for the charge cycle to complete before you could fire again. Oh, and the gun’s batteries had a limited number of charges. Frightening? Certainly. Frustrating? Absolutely.

Published in America by Sega in 1998, Enemy Zero came on 4 discs labeled 0 to 3. Search for it online and pay around $25.

D2

d2.jpgD2 had the distinction of being one of the first games announced for Sega’s new Dreamcast console in 1998. Rather than dust off the work that they had done for the M2 version, Warp went back to the drawing board and came up with completely new game. It would again feature Laura as the main character but moved the action to the snow covered Canadian mountains. Its story begins with a hijacked airliner being improbably hit by a meteor in mid-flight and crashing in the snowbound mountains. Laura survives the crash but finds her fellow passengers infected with an alien virus that causes them to abruptly burst into drooling bug/plant/cephalopods with an urge to mate. The game only gets weirder from there.

With the power of the Dreamcast, Eno was free to fully indulge his mash-up style, creating in D2 a game that was an elaborate layer cake of genres. When exploring D2’s massive environment, the game was played from a third person perspective and much effort went in to accurately depicting the frozen landscape. Distances were realistic and it could take many minutes just to trudge over an icy mountain pass. Periodically, mutated creatures would pop out of the snow and the game would switch to a fixed, shooting gallery perspective. Guns and ammunition were oddly plentiful and combat was over quick in a rapid-fire hail of lead and green goo. Sifting for clues was handled point-and-click style and the bizarre story was advanced by lengthy cinematics. On top of it all, D2 featured a Deer Hunter style mini game that allowed you to poach varmints for meat.

D2 was released in America in 2000. Published by Sega, the company thought it wise to make a few judicious cuts to the game, toning down some of the alien on human rape imagery. D2 shipped on 4 GD-ROM discs and can be found for around $20.

Despite the advance hype, D2 came too late in the Dreamcast’s short lifespan to really connect with consumers who were already looking to the PlayStation 2 for their kicks. Warp folded in 2000 and transitioned into Superwarp, a multimedia company whose focus shifted away from games. Eno resurfaced in 2006, announcing the formation of a new game development studio called fyto (From Yellow to Orange) and hinting that the Wii will be his platform of choice.

[Jeffrey Fleming is an East Bay writer. To read more, please visit Tales of the Future.]

The History Of 'Match Three' Puzzle Games

- Game theorist Jesper Juul has just posted an article from a forthcoming academic journal, named 'Swap Adjacent Gems to Make Sets of Three: A History of Matching Tile Games', and it does a creditable job of summing up the influences and path of the 'match three' genre.

This actually extends the project from an earlier GSW-linked diagram by Juul attempting to chart the genre, and it's noted of how it might have started: " From the top of the diagram [.PDF link], there are two progenitors of matching tile games, Chain Shot (figure 4, Moribe, 1985) (also known as Same Game) and the better known Tetris (figure 5, Pajitnov and Gerasimov, 1985). We cannot rule out the existence of earlier little known matching tile video games, but we know that Tetris was an extremely successful game that spawned a number of imitators, and we can see the influence of Chain Shot at various points in the tree. Both of these games were originally non-commercial."

The subject of casual game cloning is also dealt with in a section called: 'Zuma: The controversy of moderate innovation', explaining quite correctly: "Even more than other distribution channels, the casual game channel is characterized by the two opposing requirements of familiarity to the player and an element of innovation to differentiate a game from other games on the market. This creates a somewhat schizophrenic environment of cutthroat competition between developers simultaneously trying to out-innovate and out-clone each other." And yes, the whole Puzzloop, Zuma, and Luxor thing is then discussed, for kicks.

May 9, 2007

How Many Copies Did Gish Sell?

- Over at excellent indie game site GameTunnel, Gish co-creator Josiah Pisciotta has revealed actual sales on the IGF-winning blob platformer, and it's OK, but a little underwhelming for the indie PC gaming world.

Why? Well, even though it was a high-profile IGF winner, the Chronic Logic guys sold 4521 copies only through their website, for a total of about $81,000. After the retail/affiliate income and the IGF winnings, they ended up netting about $121,000 - not bad for a game done in 6 months by 3 people, but not spectacularly impressive.

As Josiah notes: "As you can see Gish did not sell well in retail or on other sites and the majority of income generated from Gish (67%) was from direct sales through chroniclogic.com. Gish also missed out on a number of opportunities that could generate a lot more income such as North American retail and console distribution because of a lack of a shared vision among the developers."

My point of view is, partly, that digital distribution of PC indie games was still becoming accepted when Gish launched in 2004, and that I suspect less well-known games are doing better now. As an example, I heard anecdotally (and unconfirmedly) that Armadillo Run may have sold at least 5,000 copies directly from its website.

In addition, it seems fairly easy to rack up 20 or 30,000 paid downloads at $10 each if you can get on Xbox Live Arcade as a console-based indie. There are _wildly_ diverging opinions about whether console distribution is good or practical for indies, but I think it aggregates the hardcore indie-friendly consumers and makes it easy for them to pay, so it's a very good thing. But we need more data points! Anyone else want to volunteer figures, esp. for XBLA titles and major PC indies?

Game Prototyping For Fun & Profit

- Noel and Charles at the previously GSW-discussed Power Of 2 Games, who are a fascinating San Diego-based startup featuring game biz veterans going ultra-indie, have posted an in-depth new entry about game prototypes, and it's excellent stuff.

They explain, that instead of building a complex game engine over a period of months: "We decided to start with a prototype. This isn't supposed to be a "prototype" that eventually morphs into a shipping game, or a prototype that uses the same technology as the production code, or even a prototype that's used to impress the big-wigs to squeeze some money out of them (ha!). No, all that stuff detracts from the ultimate goal of our prototype."

How so? "Our approach was very similar to what Chris Hecker and Chaim Gingold described in their GDC presentation [.PPT link, GameSpy write-up]. We had the need to answer one very specific question: "Is our game idea fun?" And we wanted the answer as quickly and cheaply as possible. Everything else was secondary." A great approach, and they reveal: "Now at least we can be confident that the game is going to be pretty fun." Of course, we don't know WHAT the concept is - but now we're all interested.

Getting Creative With GameCock Love

- Those crazies at new indie hotness publisher GameCock just mailed around that their new GameCockLove.com website is live - and actually, we interviewed them on Gamasutra yesterday about their E-I-E-I-O barnyard-ish alt.E3 event.

But what caught my eye was the beautifully insane 'About' essay on the new GameCock website, thanks to head honcho and G.O.D. co-creator Mike Wilson. It's wonderfully semi-fictional, and it's about - well - the hunt for funding, I guess? "Harry “El Gringo” Miller and I had knocked on every money door we could find from Wall Street to Hollywood to Silicon Valley to a gay massage parlor run by the Korean Mafia. After a great massage, we hit the stones again and these guys crawled out, bank rolls in hand and fire in their eyes."

There's also some leftover vitriol from G.O.D's sale to Take-Two: "Where's Max Payne now? Now that this industry is tied to the proverbial tracks. Dead. Dead like Serious Sam and Mafia and even Railroad Tycoon. Like every franchise brought in by a great Indie team and then bought, coddled, and quietly smothered to death by a bloated public company. We had all become the hollowed out pawns of the rotten, crooked puppeteers supplying the grease to the wheels that make this crummy gaming business turn."

But basically, the gist is that they lost - and then won - the investment to start up GameCock in a crazed illegal razorblade-toting cockfight: "In marched the birds, and on came the betting. Feathers flying, I was dizzy watching Harry place his bets and keep raising the stakes for the first fight- which was over in about 10 seconds by my count. They were using razors strapped to the birds’ feet." This is spectacularly not true, but it's tremendously readable, and I think that's meant to be the point. Bravo, Gamecock-eteers!

Totilo On 'The Pit', Grant Morrison's Sass

- So, I was trying to explain to MTV News' Stephen Totilo earlier why I don't link his awesome material more - not through lack of appreciating it, either. I came to the conclusion that the stuff he writes is so relatively sophisticated that it sometimes lacks 'hooks', and so I have trouble communicating it on in a sensible way to GSW readers. Either that, or I'm just lazy.

Anyhow, his 'Player Two' blog continues to update, if you want to cut out the middleman, but I wanted to showcase two notable recent updates - first, an interview with Grant Morrison on his game work, which is probably a prime example, since Morrison really doesn't have any current game projects. But he does dish on 'Citizen Death', his idea for what sounds like a completely surreal version of GTA: "The vehicles you could actually get were more interesting, like UFOs, flying saucers and boots that would allow you to bounce around over skyscrapers."

More recently, we have some ruminations on 'The Pit', as triggered by ""Super Paper Mario"'s Pit of 100 Trials, an endurance test buried in the sewers of the game's main town." Totilo asks: "This used to be the only kind of experience games provided. Every game was designed to bring the player to failure... [but] Isn't the game world outside the Pit just another Pit in disguise?"

[Oh yeah, and Tom Kim just conducted a Gamasutra Podcast with Totilo yesterday, talking about "...how games coverage might differ from traditional news reporting, specifically with regard to blogging and non-traditional first person writing" and a multitude of other issues. He gets it, guys - which can only be good for the industry.]

Gamelab, VH1 Games Get Rhythmic With Downbeat

- Felicitations to Gamezebo for pointing out that VH1 Games and Diner Dash creator Gamelab have just released their first casual game collaboration, Downbeat, and it's - wait for it- a mouse-based casual '80s rhythm action title, using licensed music.

Why would this be awesome? Well, for starters, because Gamelab continue to make some of the all-out best and most innovative casual titles around - some of which, like Plantasia or Egg Vs. Chicken, are honestly a bit too sophisticated to take off in the town where 'match three' is king.

But now Guitar Hero has burned itself into everyone's retina, the time is probably right for Downbeat, one of five new titles Gamelab will be introducing over the next few months, and described as follows: "Finally! A rhythm-action game for the rest of us. With ten classic 80s hits, Downbeat busts out with dazzling graphics, pumping tunes, and can’t-touch-this gameplay."

So how does it play? Well, it has the Beatmania and/or Guitar Hero 'press the button in time to the music when an object hits a line' stylings, but it switches things up by having you manipulate the mouse to place colored objects in the relevant audience area, and drop objects in specific orders to make combos and stop the crowd from fleeing. Plus - the soundtrack (instrumentals only using loops, no vocals) includes Madness' Our House (the clip is close enough!), Rick James' Super Freak, and Nena's 99 Luft Balloons, to name but three.

Only had a chance to play it briefly - it's a Shockwave.com title where you can download and play for 60 minutes for free before paying for the full version - but it's nice to see the rhythm action genre coming to PC casual games with Downbeat, and in such a relatively sophisticated way. We'll see if it takes off.

May 8, 2007

Inside The Ecology Of Game Design

- Another story from sister site Gamasutra worth pointing at (promise we won't do it _every_ day), former EverQuest designer Kevin Carter (not the Manic Street Preachers one) has written 'Living Worlds: The Ecology Of Game Design', promising "...three simple guidelines you can use to make your game worlds that much more believable, and therefore that much more exciting to play through."

He explains in the intro: "I’ve compiled notes on the conditions that enhance, or at least encourage, the feeling that a game’s environment is a real place, that it may theoretically exist somewhere out there and is not just a collection of levels built solely for my amusement. Surprisingly, this kind of immersion has little to do with graphics (though good graphics never hurt, they are not the focus of this article). It has more to do with subtle elements borrowed from the real world."

A particularly interesting point is that creatures are shaped by their environment, something not always well communicated in games: "The easiest of the tools that can be used to tie creatures into their world come from environmental associations between the creature and the surrounding game geometry. In other words, wherever a creature appears in game, it should be nearby an object (or objects) typically associated with that creature type." Can anyone think of good/awful examples of this?

KQED's 'Video Games - Access For All' Exposed

- Ah, a note from a staffer at KQED Public Broadcasting in San Francisco: "We recently did a TV story on video games that are accessible for everyone for QUEST, our multimedia series on environment, science and nature."

The story is called 'Video Games - Access For All', and the KQED site has a nice quality official streaming video version of it on the above site link - which is awesome, go PBS! The official Quest blog has some notes on the segment, specifically: "QUEST TV takes you to the international Game Developers Conference celebrated recently in San Francisco, where a group of gamers used colorful tactics to convince mainstream developers to make video games that are accessible for everyone."

Barrie Ellis of OneSwitch has some nice comments in the Quest blog post, too: "A very fine video, touching on most of the main points of game accessibility. Can’t say that I agree with Noah Falstein’s thoughts that main-stream developers will likely never embrace accessibility. Many of the features essential to disabled gamers add very little development time if thought out in advance, and can offer much to the main-stream. For example - speed control, reconfigurable controls and closed captions can benefit all gamers."

GameTap To Add Last Blade, Metal Slug(s), KoF, More...

- So, apparently I'm the only member of the press who logs on to GameTap's client and checks their 'Coming Soon' section - but I'm not complaining, since it gives me plenty of good info on what the 'all you can eat' PC subscription service has coming up - and for GSW-style game geeks, there's some powerful good Neo Geo action forthcoming.

Of course, one could argue that the best Neo Geo games have been a bit slow coming to GameTap - but they're starting to leak out now, with King Of Fighters '94 (the first KoF game to appear on GT) scheduled for May 10th, according to the page, shortly followed by Art Of Fighting (some time in May), and undated debuts for Samurai Shodown, Last Blade (mm!), and - especially appreciated - Metal Slug 2, X, 3, 4, and 5, to join the just-added Metal Slug.

Also listed on 'coming soon', outside the whole Neo Geo thing, is classic Interplay board game Battle Chess, which I remember delightedly playing on my Amiga back in 1988 or so, with Origin's all-time classic Ultima VI also mentioned, with an unspecified arrival date. Neato.

Midway's Allison Talks Oversized Art House

- N'Gai Croal's always insightful LevelUp blog at Newsweek has roped Midway's Steve Allison in for a guest editorial discussing what developers should learn from marketers, in partial answer to Denis Dyack's recent series of suggestions, and it makes for interesting reading.

It's a little bit depressing - but maybe I don't work the best as a profit maximizer, and Allison is definitely trying to be realistic: "According to our numbers, the actual success rate of new IP over the past four years is just seven percent. In other words, 93 percent of new IP fails in the marketplace. So while the 90-plus review scores and armfuls of awards create the perception that titles like Psychonauts, Shadow of the Colossus, Okami and other great pieces of work were big successes, the truth is that they were big financial disappointments and money losers."

There are some things that don't ring true in his rhetoric - a bit too much random Midway hyping, for starters - witness this statement in the second part: "A game's sales potential is entirely determined by the strength of its overall concept, while the difference between its sales potential and its final tally is determined by its execution. And given the phenomenal execution of Psychonauts, Ico, Psi-Ops and the other art house games listed above, their failure can be ascribed to a misguided concept, poor timing or both."

Wait, Psi-Ops (which was, yes, made by Midway) is an 'art house game'? Nonetheless, Allison has, abstractly, a pretty good point - "What happens all too often in the videogame business is that we get art house movies made at blockbuster budgets." This is true in a number of cases, but I wonder - how many of those titles were aimed squarely at the mainstream but just failed to understand the market properly?

Well, I'm pretty sure that Psi-Ops is one of those 'mainstream missers', for starters, and it's going to be interesting to see whether Midway, increasingly playing a high-stakes game, can hit home runs with the titles they need to, such as Stranglehold and Blacksite: Area 51. If they do, then Allison has really delivered on the concepts he espouses here. If not - well, I guess we can always blame it on the art house?

@ Play: Hack's Lost Brother

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]
I'm back and fully rested after a break for column #20. And before you complain about the extra week, note that it took quite some doing to get play time in on this week's game....

Up until now we've mostly gone after fairly low-hanging fruit. We've discussed four of the five roguelike biggies: Rogue, Nethack, ADOM and Dungeon Crawl -- Angband is waiting until I can get a proper handle on it. We've also looked at Pokemon Rescue Team and ToeJam & Earl, which each have some roguelike qualities, and DoomRL, which is roguelike but very different in style. But all these games are fairly available. ToeJam & Earl is the hardest of this lot to find, and that was only until Virtual Console put it within the reach of nearly everyone with eight bucks and a Wii, although that may be small consolation.

But the thing about roguelike games is, the genre is seriously old. Rogue, a computer game with random dungeons, a full inventory and tremendous strategy, was created in 1980, a year before Pac-Man. In those 27 years since Rogue's birth we have seen a good many roguelike computer games, and it is no longer so easy to get to play some of them.

Along those lines, the Roguelike Restoration Project is the incredibly noble effort to take some of these ancient games and make them playable under common operating systems. Among the eight games that can be found there are three versions of Rogue, two of Advanced Rogue, and three other games with "rogue" in the title but that take increasing liberties with the play. Like Rogue, all of these are fairly playable today. Unlike Rogue (and like Nethack), they lose some of Rogue's clarity by adding so much to the game. But at least they still exist.

There are some other roguelikes it's getting harder to find nowadays. Moria, Hack, Larn and Omega were the first ones to branch further off from the tree, and there is little, if any, development going on in those branches now. None of these are so easy to find. At least Moria evolved into Angband, while Larn and Omega mostly stagnated. Hack, of course, would become the imposing Nethack, also called Gradewrecker and Thesisbane.

Hack, itself, inspired a few variants back in the day, and one of those is our focus this time: the game HackLite, a little-known variant that is most difficult to play these days because its main version was for Amiga home computers.

ahacklite1.gifGenealogy of the Dungeons of Doom

Hack was originally the branch-off roguelike to stick closest to Rogue. For example, it and its descendants still call many Rogue monsters by old names. Nethack's latest version contains Giant Ants, Floating Eyes, Violet Fungi, Gnomes, Invisible Stalkers, Jackals, Kobolds, Mimics, Purple Worms, Quasits, Rust Monsters, Umber Hulks and Xorn, but Rogue's does not, despite all these foes first appearing there. (Trivia moment: rumor has it the monster names and symbols were changed specifically as an attempt to thwart the automatic Rogue player Rog-O-Matic, but we've already covered that little program.)

In between Rogue and Nethack there were a few different Hack versions, games that were only in currency for a moment compared to their descendant's lifespan, but are still referenced fondly by Nethack's history file. Another version of Hack, one that doesn't get a lot of mention anymore because it was not part of Nethack's lineage, is HackLite, of which versions were made for DOS and the Amiga personal computer.

Meet the Wizard of Yendor's Lost Brother, Neil Yendor

Even while Nethack survived and prospered, HackLite sunk into obscurity, perhaps for two reasons. The first is right in the game's readme: "It is interesting to note that, in the world of Hack descendants, HackLite is the only one I know of that believes a limit on game complexity is a good thing." At a time when players seemed interested in the most detailed game experience possible, the existence of Nethack, which was composed by taking the best ideas from multiple Hack variants, must have seemed awfully compelling. These days there is a thriving side of the roguelike genre composed of games that try to rein in some of the complexity of which they are capable, so it could be said that HackLite was ahead of its time.

ahacklite3.gifThe other limitation was a longer-term issue. Hack's source code has long been public, even if not expressly open, back in those heady days when code was considered free by default if available. Thus it was that HackLite forked off of Hack and Nethack's source code right before Nethack switched to the "Nethack Public License," which was based off of the Bison license, and the nature of that beast should become obvious when I tell you it was produced by Richard Stallman. While Nethack ended up with a license that looks more than a little like the GPL, HackLite's source code was never released, and remains obscure today. No source means no variants, no user-made patches, and no development by anyone other than the author and his agents. Meanwhile Nethack has drawn repeatedly from the work of interested users, fosters a patch-writing culture, and its open nature early on attracted the infamous Devteam.

There is one advantage to keeping a lid on the source. The workings of HackLite are more mysterious than those of Nethack. While its origin came from the folding together of a version of Hack and Nethack 2.3, the game was changed in other ways than that. The specifics of the resulting program no one really knows. When it comes down to it, a lot of the dissatisfaction many have with Nethack comes, not from the fact that it requires spoilers (which it technically does not, all information needed to win is available in-game, although it takes a whole lot of play to see enough of it), but that those spoilers are easy to obtain, and exhaustively correct. How did they get that correct? By source diving, of course.

So that leaves us with the mysterious game itself. The opinions here come from playing the Amiga HackLite v2.8.0, scavenged from Fred Fish disk #799.

"This corridor seems dusty.[More] Perhaps if you cleaned more often?"

ahacklite4.gifHackLite is based off of earlier versions of Hack and Nethack 2.3. Importantly, this was before version 3.0, which instituted many changes to the game system (blessed items came around here) and version 3.1, which gave us the modern dungeon layout. This means that the player is in for a game a good deal more like Rogue than he may be expecting.

Importantly, while HackLite has prayer its purpose is obscure. It does not seem to be a general-purpose plea for aid, and it doesn't even work unless the player has taken a certain measure first. Monsters do not seem to be much worse than Nethack's, but neither is food in greater supply, and without prayer for early emergency feedings lots of players run out. Many of my trial games were ended by starvation, it being a far more potent killer than any of the monsters.

"You feel strong! But you don't feel agile, tough, smart, wise or charismatic."

HackLite also is missing all player stats other than Strength, level sounds ("You hear someone cursing shoplifters.") and burdening levels (plate mail seems to "weigh" the same as a gemstone). The burden level thing is a much greater change than it may seem at first. One of the more head-scratching things about modern Nethack is the proliferation of weapons and armors that go unused. 3.1 players soon learn to avoid plate mail because of its tremendous weight; only those with high strength can carry both it and basic equipment without becoming burdened, while mithril is not hard to find in the Gnomish Mines while being much lighter, and mid-game characters usually wish up or make Dragon Scale Mail, which has the best Armor Class, is extremely light, and provides a free resistance to boot. By doing away with burdening, HackLite restores plate mail's usefulness.

ahacklite5.gifBut HackLite is more than reduced Nethack; it makes some additions of its own as well. One interesting change positive change made to the game, that Nethack itself could gain benefit from, is that items in shops are a lot more similar in price to each other. Scrolls of Identify no longer stick out like a sore thumb as the cheapest thing in bookstore inventories, which may seem like a little thing but actually changes the game quite a lot. Finding that first ID scroll is a milestone in Hack-family games, since the player must happen upon it by chance and test-read to discover its type. This, plus the inclusion of a few additional item types like rings of addiction and wands of futility, can throw players expecting fewer tricks for a loop.

Plays Great - Less Taxing

So, why is HackLite still entertaining to play? It is simple, the same reasons that games like Dungeon Crawl and DoomRL have become more popular in recent years. It is a roguelike that doesn't require what amounts to a Master's degree in the game to be successful at it. Some tricks will help, and there are secrets, yes, but Nethack has entire game mechanics that are secrets. HackLite, on the other hand, does without many Nethack 3.0 and 3.1 that are sorely missed (like player attribute scores other than Strength), but it still contains bones, engravings, vaults and the like.

This is a general feeling one gets while playing the game. Nethack has become so balanced (to some, "easy") over time that successful play is most often attained by playing ultra-cautiously, price IDing items when possible, avoiding testing scrolls if it can be helped, using dipping and other means to figure out the bad potion types, being cagey with wand charges to ID them, and so on. Many experienced Nethack players manage to avoid trial and error identification nearly all the time. HackLite has fewer of these features, so item information must more often be traded for (by usage, which often wastes resources and inflicts bad effects) instead of obtained for free. This makes it a much more chaotic game than NetHack, even despite its simplified game world.

A note about playing this game:
HackLite actually evolved out of an Amiga port of Hack, which was then converted into a DOS version. The Amiga port is still the nicest way to play, due to its interesting, though idiosyncratic, graphics. If you wish to try the version pictured here, you will either need a stock Amiga, or the UAE emulator and images of the Kickstart and Workbench disks, the rights to which are currently owned by Amiga Forever, who sells copies for about $30.

HackLite
Dos version: http://roguelikedevelopment.org/archive/files/executables/hacklite283.zip
Amiga version: http://ftp.funet.fi/pub/amiga/fish/701-800/ff799/

Sources:
The Rogue's Vade-Mecum
Readme for HackLite
Dungeondweller's awesome Roguelike archive

Other news:
Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, the version of Dungeon Crawl that sees active development, reached 0.2.4 about a month ago.

Reference:

Here are my notes concerning differences noticed between HackLite 2.8.0 (2.8.3 is the most recent version) and the Nethack 3.1-3.4 line.

SPOILERS FOLLOW! Do not continue if you wish to avoid them!

Different:
No dungeon branches.
No pet displacing. (Very annoying, this.)
No exercise.
No stats other than strength
Shift-X learns spells (not the read command)
Absent commands, no #chat", no #untrap", no #monster
Shops sell objects for more, price differences are less great.
Some messages are different.
"You don't know how to/still can't/will probably never learn to walk through walls"
General items cannot be blessed or cursed. Equipment can be cursed only.
Monster attacks that damage weapons reduce plusses, instead of causing "rusty," "burnt" or "corroded" states.
Preserved items. (Probably analogous to Nethack "erodeproofing.")
Dungeon levels have more rooms. (This is positive.)
Some polymorph monster abilities implemented via special extended commands (#? to get list)
Doors are not "open" or "closed," but always open.
Tins contain food types instead of monster types (salmon makes fingers slippery like french-fried food in modern Nethack). Also, each tin contains random food instead of a predetermined type (that could be, say, identified).
Dead rats always make you "feel sick"
"Reading this scroll confuses you. You are awarded the Yendor Prize for Poetry!" (Confuses player for a good while)
No level sounds.
No burdening levels: plate mail weighs the same as a gemstone.
Dead zombies are edible?
New items: Ring of Addiction, Wand of Futility
Fountains can be generated in shops
Eating rock moles can result in message "You feel tougher!"
Starvation is a much bigger problem.
No partially-eaten things.

Similar:
Monster corpses do grant intrisics.
Eating floating eyes does confer
Bones levels are in the game.
Overaged corpses can kill players via food poisoning.
Polymorph is in the game.
Potion dipping seems to be in the game, but its use isn't yet known.
Prayer: #pray. (However, it is not as useful as a generic escape from trouble. Speculation: punishment makes prayer available? When punished and praying, I got "the gods accept your tithe.")
Doors cannot be passed through diagonally.
The engrave trick for identifying wands does work.
Vaults are in the game, as well as the teleport traps that lead into them.
Monsters can use weapons, including thrown weapons.

May 7, 2007

Nakazato Reveals All - Or At Least, More Than Usual!

- This has already been splattered all over the Interweb, but thought I should point it out too - big sister site Gamasutra has an in-depth interview with FeelPlus president Ray Nakazato, the chap who's currently executing on Lost Odyssey under the direction of Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi - and it's an absolutely fascinating piece.

This is mainly because Nakazato talks incredibly frankly about the biz, from his time at Microsoft Game Studios Japan working on Ninety-Nine Nights ("It was just going so wrong. So I was there [in Korea], Mizuguchi was there, to kind of sort it out") to previously unknown Xbox 360 titles ("Then one project that we were doing with Mr. Okamoto (and Game Republic) was canned... It was a third-person shooter game with a Japanese samurai. Kind of half historical, half sci-fi.")

He also talks about the challenges of developing Lost Odyssey with Unreal Engine 3: "It was hard, because it was a new platform, and Unreal Engine 3 itself was in development, so we had to deal with incomplete middleware. We actually released a Lost Odyssey demo in Japan in November, though we finished it in June of last year. Back then, the Unreal Engine was still incomplete, so we had to release something on incomplete middleware... Now that they've done Gears of War, the engine itself is much more stable." There's oodles more in there (Matsuno references!), so feel free to check it out in detail.

The Gorillaz/Guitar Hero II Connection

- One of my favorite niche weblogs, the animation-centric Cartoon Brew, has been praising the recent animated Guitar Hero II Xbox 360 ad, but it bought up some interesting info on the director along the way.

Editor Amid notes: "Gorillaz animation director Pete Candeland of Passion Pictures has turned out a visually stunning spot [.MOV, alt. YouTube link] for the videogame Guitar Hero II. It would have been even better if the animation of the guitar playing had been more closely timed to the music, but the superb drawing and movement of the two main characters, not to mention great inking style, makes this spot a winner."

Anyhow, Candeland's portfolio page on the site reveals that he did indeed work with Gorillaz creator Jamie Hewlett on the music videos to tracks like Manana and the awesome Dare clip, as well as a bunch of other neat animated vids, along with a whole bunch of collaborators.

[And also, I had the same reaction as a Cartoon Brew commenter, actually: "I saw this ad while skipping commercials on my DVR the other day and it was actually visually interesting enough that I went back, JUST TO WATCH THE COMMERCIAL." This is impressive! Score several to Activision for commissioning this.]

On The Ownership Of Student Games

- Back to Microsoft Casual Games' bizdev guy Kim Pallister, who mentions an issue regarding student games that I've been meaning to point out for a while.

He notes: "In a conversation with some Digipen students at the IGF at GDC (their game was a finalist), I was *shocked* to learn that they didn't actually have the right to commercialize their game, but that the Digipen school owned the rights to any games created by their students... I was also naive. It turns out many of today's educational systems are imposing unreasonable copyright terms on students in their media programs."

One of the commenters on this post is Steve Chiavelli of 2007 IGF Best Student Game winner Toblo, who explains directly: "We knowingly (naively?) signed away the rights to everything we would make when entering DigiPen. Personally, it seemed like a good trade-off. I would be attending what I had researched to be arguably the best place for learning how to be a game programmer... Unfortunately, I never could have foreseen the whole Slamdance drama. Having the school attach my game (and name) to something against my will was an unpleasant experience, to say the least."

For those not clear on the particular issue, it's written up here: "On January 16th, the DigiPen Institute of Technology -- the college we attend -- overwrote our decision and readmitted Toblo to the Slamdance Festival. We still have very strong feelings regarding the removal of Super Columbine Massacre RPG! from the competition, and we have not been satisfied with Mr. Baxter's numerous rationales for dropping the game."

As Chairman of the IGF, an event which student games figure very heavily in, I definitely feel some unease about schools owning game rights. It becomes a problem if those Digipen (or Full Sail, or USC, or whichever school's) students sign their rights over, but then their views and wants diverge from that of the school's. Obviously, this has happened publicly at least once, with Toblo and Slamdance, and I'm hoping that it doesn't happen again. Maybe someone in the faculty at a game school can comment on why ownership makes sense?

First Person Shooter: The Play

- Matteo Bittanti has been nice enough to point out First Person Shooter: The Play, which premiered in San Francisco on Saturday night, and "...takes us inside ‘JetPack Games’, a start-up video game company, where the hottest, most violent game on the market has brought instant success to its twenty-something tech geniuses."

According to the SF Playhouse page for the play: "Their celebration fizzles when their game is blamed for a schoolyard shooting. As the young CEO of Jet Pack deals with an impending lawsuit and the father of one of the victims, he must confront whether he has any responsibilities in the world beyond his computer screen."

Bittanti points out a review/analysis piece over at the Mercury News, too - which mentions Virginia Tech a lot, considering the disproven connection, but oh well. In addition, Firing Squad has a good interview with playwright Aaron Loeb, who is also COO of Giants: Citizen Kabuto creators Planet Moon Studios, as it happens.

Making Rifftrax For Games - Why Not?

- Having finally sorted out a decent sound system for my TV (and thus having two audio output methods), I decided to download some Rifftrax, which are essentially Mystery Science Theater (at least the Mike Nelson version) continued by other means.

Anyhow, I picked up the Star Wars Episode 1 Rifftrax commentary - and that clip actually has a random Psychonauts reference in it, so there's some game relevance right there. (In case you don't know the deal, you download the MP3 and play it synchronized with the movie DVD. In my case, suddenly I felt like my Star Wars DVD purchase was actually worth it again!)

There's an article about Rifftrax in the New York Times today, as it happens, and so this further got me thinking - Half-Life 2 has a commentary track, right? Why don't game developers step it up a notch and have self-deprecating comedy commentaries includes as part of their games? Heck, Chet and Erik could do it for Portal, 'cos Valve certainly has the technology. C'mon, whaddaya say, guys?

May 6, 2007

Kameleon Project To Help Indies Connect

- Got a note from the folks at Slitherine Strategies, the plucky UK chaps who have been IGF finalists on multiple occasions with their PC indie wargames - most recently Arcane Legions, which I think may have morphed into The History Channel: Great Battles Of Rome, an interesting license agreement.

Anyhow, they've announced 'The Kameleon Project', which "...has been created to assist other independent developers to bring their games to market." It's explained: "If you’ve got programmers but no artists, the Kameleon Project will arrange a match. If you’re missing music and sound effects the Kameleon Project can help. If you need design, marketing, business or general advice the Kameleon Project is your one stop shop."

Why bother? "Over the years Slitherine have made many friends and keep in regular touch with them, exchanging information and ideas, and sharing experiences, good and bad. During this time it became apparent to Slitherine that whilst many independent teams lack nothing in talent they have little or no experience in dealing with marketing, publishing, contracts, and the million and one other things that are needed to successfully launch a new title."

Now, you can argue that this is just a biz move by Slitherine - and it is, partly - but in the niche PC areas like wargames, it's nice to see a developer coming forward to help other devs. They note: "The first release from the Kameleon Project is ‘Commanders – Europe at War’ from Firepower Entertainment and DoubleThink Studios, which will be mastering in May 2007."

Ziff's Last Stand, Gaming Things Up

- Publishing periodical Folio Magazine has a cover feature called 'Ziff's Last Stand' in the May 2007 issue, with the front cover headline being 'Breaking Up An Icon', and yeah - it's a little bit depressing from the point of view of the print media behemoths.

The story starts, regarding the EGM, Games For Windows and 1UP.com owner: "Of the big three tech publishers (CMP Technology and IDG are the others), Ziff Davis Media has had by far the most interesting story and in some ways, the most startling success. During the six-year tenure of CEO Robert Callahan (he joined in October 2001) it has had a two-sided challenge: Stanching the decline of print while building out an e-media business. It hasn’t been easy. The company barely skirted bankruptcy in 2002, carries a crushing debt load, and unlike its two peers, had essentially no resources for growth."

There's some insight on the Ziff Game Group - with specific stats - from John Davison: "In the Game Group, the challenge has been responding to a slow start. “Competitively, the situation we were in was our print brands were very strong in this space, but we were late to the online world,” says Davison, senior vice president and editorial director of the group. “We once had GameSpot, which was sold to C|Net. And the other big online game site was IGN. They’re both huge and keep getting bigger. I think IGN is about 20 million monthly visitors and GameSpot is close to that.” The piece then cites the 1UP Network at 13 million unique visitors and 97 million page views monthly.

But here's the money quote when it comes to what's happening to Ziff Davis, which is still for sale, of course, according to remarks from an un-named 'expert': “[Possible acquirers] would probably all like to have the online assets... Ziff has done a terrific job of building their online business, but they still have a major position in big print magazines and they are all still continuing to struggle—the opposite of economies of scale are diseconomies. You have to figure out what your standalone expenses are.” [Via PaidContent.]

Gamer's Quarter Highlights ZZT Goodness

- Over at The Gamer's Quarter forums, Dessgeega has published a fun, screenshot-filled guide to some of Epic's 'Super ZZT' games, published back in 1991 for PC, and - one might vaguely credibly claim - the farthest back predecessor to today's Unreal Engine 3.

Dess explains: "zzt was the first shareware title to be released by epic games (then called "potomac computer systems". it's a text-mode game that uses ascii characters to represent game elements - symbols are recontextualized, level design becomes language, form becomes function, and games are living, breathing ascii art."

Continuing: "the games themselves were created in a freely-distributable level editor, giving them an overall coherence and letting the creator's voice really come through. the editor is a whole other thread, though. it's the games that we're interested in now - specifically, the three super zzt titles, volumes five through seven, which were compiled in a special editor that allows for - among other things - huge scrolling maps rather than single-screen areas." Lots and lots of screencaps and explanations follow - v. neat.

Purho Goes Daydreaming In The Oval Office

- So, Petri Purho at Kloonigames, whom we last covered for his April Fool's spoof of Rod Humble's 'The Marriage', in the form of rather Pong-like 'The Divorce', has just released another 'made in a week' PC indie title, called 'Daydreaming in the Oval Office'.

He explains of the actually rather politically-themed game: "You’re Mr. Bush and you’re daydreaming in the Oval Office... trying to collect imaginary pieces of evidence about the Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Use arrow keys to move George around. Try to keep the beach ball of the floor and try to collect the pieces of evidence." Iiinteresting.

Oh yeah, and we never linked his previous game, 'Forbidden.exe', which is "...an experimental horror game. So be warned, there’s harsh language, violence and other fun forms of violation. One could say that it’s an experimental violation game." Rapid prototyping FTW! [Via The2Bears.]



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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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