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May 26, 2007

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Super Baseball 2020

Once again, Street Fighter II ruined everything.[“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 SNK's Super Baseball 2020, released for the Neo-Geo in 1991.]

In the years just before sports games came to be dominated by authentic rosters, realistic visuals and the terrifying visage of John Madden, there briefly flourished a school of titles that looked to the athletes of the future. Simultaneously cynical about human nature and optimistic about technology, they envisioned worlds where the public was entertained by brutal robot linesmen and exploding soccer balls.

Few of these games made a mark; Mutant League Football remains a cult favorite and Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball may live forever in infamy, but no one really remembers Namco’s Powerball, Sofel’s Klash Ball or Bitts and Triffix’s odd Space Football.

SNK’s Super Baseball 2020, however, is better known, partly because it’s a Neo Geo game. Specifically, it's a Neo Geo game that hit 1991, just when SNK was ferociously promoting the system as real competition for the Super NES and Genesis. That idea met with a quick death, but SNK’s marketing attempts won Super Baseball 2020 the sort of attention paid only to a new console’s first wave.

My fanfiction explores the deep and subtle rivalry between Debbie and Ha Ho Ra.Featuring the Ninja Black Sox

Set only three decades or so from its release year, Super Baseball 2020 isn’t terribly radical in its changes to the sport: humans wear jetpacks and armor while playing alongside robots, but the positions and rules are tweaked only a little. The Cyber Egg stadium (the 2020 version of Tokyo’s Big Egg) has a narrower zone for home runs, and would-be homers instead bounce off the shielded stands and hit the field below. Yet the real innovation lies in the game’s power-up system, which allows teams to earn money and spend it on armor that enhances fielding, hitting, or pitching abilities. Unlike SNK's fighting-oriented Soccer Brawl, Super Baseball 2020 doesn't stray too far from what it's supposed to be.

Presuming that the entire world will one day enjoy baseball instead of soccer, the teams represent international names, such as the Naples Seagulls and Aussie Battlers, as well as presumably borderless outfits like the Metal Slashers and Tropical Girls. Each includes a different mix of the game's three character types: The men are fully armored grunts, the robots are cute headless things that roll around on tank treads, and the women are busty, long-haired amazons who wear lipstick, shorts, and cleavage-baring vests, and they celebrate homers by blowing kisses to the crowd. In other words, they were uncanny predictions of SNK’s future female characters.

Okay, I admit it. This was my favorite part of the game when I was 12.Dusty Diamond 2 awaits

Overt sexism aside, the game’s easy to enjoy. An arcade quarter-muncher at heart, it doesn’t bother with elaborate statistics or customization, borrowing much from SNK’s Baseball Stars series. The controls lend an action game's simplicity to pitching, hitting, stealing bases, buying power-ups for players, and using jetpacks to jump for fly balls or slide for last-second catches.

For these special moves, the game shifts into quick close-ups of the players, who, for all of their simple animation, looked impressive back in 1992. The rest of the game’s visual design is the same: striking by the standards of 16-bit baseball games, but strictly adequate today. At least the soundtrack’s still catchy.

And Super Baseball 2020's just so darned cheerful about everything. In sharp contrast to the mechanical violence of Konami’s Base Wars or Atari’s Cyberball, the Cyber Egg stadium of 2020 pulses with life, as crowds surge beneath protective domes and fouls fly over concession stands manned by bubbly, swimsuit-clad clerks. The players aren’t terribly serious either, not when they’re breaking electric bats across their knees or, in the case of the robots, tumbling to pieces when a batter gets a homer off their pitch. Nor do the rosters play it straight, with robots called Johnny-6 and ED-309, and a team of end bosses apparently named after leading members of the Nazi party.

FALL, PUNY FLESHLING.Small Hurt Baseball

In fact, the cast seems to have fun even when they’re tossed into the air by landmines. The game’s only real hazard, “Crackers” crop up on the diamond more and more as the innings wear on, though it’s rare that fielders actually run into them.

Aside from some strange oversights (such as the basemen/basewomen/baserobots never leaving their posts), the only real problem is that the baseball of 2020 isn’t goofy enough. Once you strip away its robot umpires, power-ups and jetpacks, Super Baseball 2020 really isn’t all that different from Baseball Stars.

And that killed it. SNK released Baseball Stars Professional 2 the next year, making Super Baseball 2020 the second-best sports game on a system where games cost $200. It was ported to the Genesis and Super NES in 1993, but no sequel arrived, perhaps because Pallas, the company that co-held the game's copyright with SNK, dropped off the face of the earth. The developers, known as Team Galapagos, moved on to the Samurai Shodown series before fragmenting, and rumors now place their former members everywhere from Capcom to Yuki to Arc System Works’ Guilty Gear team.

And they say women athletes don't get enough credit.Super Curling 2020 died in the design stages

Yet perhaps a sequel wouldn’t have been right. Super Baseball 2020’s ideas beg more for different sports: hockey, tennis, football, soccer or perhaps even a beach volleyball game that would have conveniently justified sticking female players in revealing uniforms.

The gaming market of the early '90s would have allowed anything short of a lacrosse spin-off. Mutant League Football begat a hockey-themed sequel and an unreleased basketball game, and the Turbografx’s mediocre TV Sports series spanned the same territory. And yet SNK, drunk on the possibilities of aping Street Fighter II, simply wasn’t interested in more than one sports franchise in the early ‘90s. Indeed, as the decade continued, the company wasn’t interested in much beyond fighting games and Metal Slug.

As with all but the worst Neo Geo games, Super Baseball 2020 has a number of fans, and it’s a shame that they’ll never get to body-check robots in a brightly futuristic hockey arena or power up a quarterback so she can throw a 250-yard Hail Mary. But they’ll always have SNK’s foray into the future-sports genre, and a hint of a franchise that could’ve been an upbeat, robot-filled alternative to boring old realism.

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

Game Developer Wants Your Audio Opinions!

- So audio columnist for Game Developer magazine, LucasArts staff composer/music supervisor Jesse Harlin, is asking the public at large about game sound for his August 2007 column, and he needs you to fill in a poll on that very subject.

Questions asked include asking us plebs whether: "I have played a game where the sound effects were absolutely necessary in order to complete the game", and indeed: "For Xbox and Xbox 360 users: I have used the Xbox's Custom Soundtrack feature to put my own music into a game." Looks like you can see the current results, too - and they're pretty interesting thus far. So go ahead and vote some more, dear GSW readers.

[Also, if you want to know more about Harlin, he's got an entry in the Wookieepedia, I just found out, which reveals, among other things: "For Republic Commando, Harlin created the Star Wars language 'Ancient Mandalorian,' which later became the basis for Karen Traviss's Mando'a." Oh, Star Wars.]

Juul's Tile Matching Theories Lead To... Tile Matching Game!

- Look see, no sooner had we linked up Jesper Juul's excellent history of 'match 3' puzzle games, than he admits that he's just released a PC casual game, 'High Seas - The Family Fortune', which he co-designed and programmed, and is based at least partly on what he learned researching the article.

Here's an overview of the game, in which you play disaffected traveler Tricia McDormand, using her father's treasure map: "With the map in hand, players join Tricia as she sails the seven seas in search of the mysterious family fortune. In order to power Tricia’s ship, players must drag rows of jewels and align them by shape or color - and receive big bonuses for aligning by shape and color."

Juul particularly notes of the title: "Yes! It is a matching tile game, but with some radical twists!... Physics model: You can interact with all tiles on the screen, all the time... No waiting for tiles to fall. Free interaction without making matches... Match on shape or color... Developed story (!): Tricia travels the world following her grandma’s map in search of the Family Fortune." Seems like it mixes things up in an enticing way - anyone had a chance to play it and would like to comment on whether it evolves the genre at all?

The Existential Malaise Of The Japanese Arcade

- Sometimes, I think that GSW commenters cock a snook a little unfairly at 'powerhouse game blog' Kotaku - and while I agree that the informedness of its contributors varies, like any organ, I really enjoyed the newly posted, Brian Ashcraft-penned feature 'Sex, Gambling, But Not Games in Japanese Arcade Hell' - as a work of photojournalism, as well as a downtrodden ramble through the dysfunctional Japanese psyche.

Why? It has fluid writing like this: "A row of taxis lines up across from the New Shinbashi Building, not the Shin Shinbashi Building. An old lady is laying in the street, and I can hear the rhythmic siren of an ambulance. Businessmen in ill-fitting suits move in transit from work to bars, and a gaggle of young girls wearing thigh-highs and mini-skirts cluster near the doorway, putting on eye liner and talking on cell phones."

And it has depressing, neon-flecked prose like this: "An old man sits down in flannel, stuffs a coin in and begins playing. His fingernails are dirty, and I write down the game's title: Cherry. Bonus. IV... Another Konami banner tells me that "Wing" has mahjong — Along with Virtua Fighter and Tekken. The game cabinets are deserted, and salarymen sit hunched over, lighting cigarettes, putting them out, lighting them again. They don't notice me." So it works. More fatalistic urban decay in video game blogs, please.

Worship At The Temple Of The Roguelike

- GSW is definitely a fan of Rogue-likes, as can be seen by an entire column devoted to the subject, courtesy of John Harris - and no doubt he'll be delighted to learn of the brand new 'Temple Of The Roguelike' blog, dedicated to the dungeon crawler in all its many-tentacled forms.

Quite apart from alerting us to wackiness like the latest version of Gearhead 2, "...the roguelike game of inertia space mechafighting and random plots", the new site has a rather good interview with Glenn Wichman, one of the creators (alongside Michael Toy and others) of the original and much-cloned Rogue.

Wichman reveals one particularly good reason why Rogue-likes are still interesting today - the random factor, still spectacularly underexploited in mainstream games: "IMHO, The quintessential feature of a Roguelike is that the computer creates a world for you to explore. The adventure has to be different every time, and the game has to be capable of surprising even its creators." [Via TIGSource.]

May 25, 2007

Persuasive Games In The NYT... As Editorial? Whoa

- We briefly mentioned this at Gamasutra, but it needs some underlining - Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games has announced a partnerhip with the New York Times "...in which they will be publishing newsgames we create on their op-ed page, as editorial content, not just as games."

As Bogost notes: "This is unprecedented, and at the risk of tooting my own horn, I think it represents another important shift in videogames as a medium. This is news/editorial in videogame form, rather than videogames trying to make news fun." [There's more on this whole subject from a recent Creative Loafing Atlanta story featuring Bogost and his fellow Georgia Tech issue-based gamers - and a snarky IGF judging reference!]

Of course, the only barrier for entry for this project is that you have to be a paid TimesSelect subscriber to play the game in question, 'Food Import Folly', detailed on the Persuasive Games page as having the player "...protect the country from contaminants in foreign food imports using extremely limited resources." But Persuasive has plenty of other games, including the 'Arcade Wire' ones for Shockwave, that are free to play.

Karaoke Revelation: Subscription Music in Games

- Over at new-to-GSW blog Microscopiq, they have an interesting discussion on music, karaoke, and gaming which points out, thanks to insight gained from a Korean karaoke bar in New York, that having timed subscription access to massive amounts of songs might actually be more fun that individually grabbing Guitar Hero 2 mini-song packs, for example.

The blog notes: "Recently, for instance, Karaoke Revolution creators Harmonix started selling song packs for Guitar Hero 2. You buy it, you own it, but only 3 songs at a time and you can’t pick and choose. While it’s a cool idea (and one I’ve been dying for since Frequency), this is one place where subscription could do better."

Why so? "That’s because on karaoke night having bunches of songs at your fingertips for an evening beats the shit out of owning a few songs forever. Variety bests longevity. Of course, licensing fees, bandwidth, and content creation cost are issues here. Still, I’d pay a nice sum to get a few hours with a library of downloadable songs for a Karaoke Revolution party, or even a monthly fee to have that access always. Would you?"

Heck, I'd probably pay $10 a month for a multi-hundred song Guitar Hero 2 library that included all kinds of randomness. But I suspect it makes much less financial sense to the companies involved, sadly. Yet Microscopiq notes: "While Steve Jobs clearly has a point that people want to own their music (85% market share can’t be wrong), the same may not hold true in gaming." It's debatable!

COLUMN: Game Collector’s Melancholy – Zone of the Enders

[‘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 look at the often-dismissed Zone of the Enders series.]

Giant robots have been a staple of Japanese pop culture for decades. As Roboto Chan! shows, the robot in manga and anime has been rich source of inspiration for game designers. So when Konami’s Hideo Kojima decided to bring his post-modern touch to the giant robot genre, expectations were high.

Zone of the Enders

zoe.jpgReleased in 2001 for the PlayStation 2, Zone of the Enders was a remarkable demonstration of what the new hardware was capable of. Abandoning the lumbering tank movements of other giant robot games, the robots of Zone of the Enders moved with a pole-dancing, acrobatic style that would become the hallmark of modern action games like Devil May Cry or Dynasty Warriors. Called Orbital Frames, the game’s mecha were designed by Yoji Shinkawa as lithe, airborne seraphim. As if to emphasize their aerial nature, they did not even have feet. Instead, their legs terminated in elegant spikes. In close combat the Frames whipped out flashing energy blades. From a distance they launched bolts of plasma from their hands like a 50 meter Sailor Moon gone berserk.

Despite the slick presentation, Zone of the Enders was unable to get by on its looks. Initially the game invoked a wide-eyed thrill, but after a few hours of play, Zone of the Enders had revealed most of its impressive tricks, leaving the remainder of the game feeling only half-formed.

Zone of the Enders is an easy game to find, so don’t pay more than $15. However, make sure that it includes the Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty Demo disc which allows you to play the Tanker chapter up to the Olga Boss fight with the original Japanese voice acting.

The Fist of Mars

zoe_mars.jpgDetermined to grow an Enders franchise, Konami followed up in 2002 with Z.O.E – The Fist of Mars for the Gameboy Advance. Developed by Winkysoft, creators of the long-running Super Robot Wars series, Fist of Mars combined light strategy with a melodramatic anime storyline.

Using the same basic design as the Super Robot Wars, Fist of Mars played out on a large grid where terrain was mostly just background for its turn-by-turn combat. In Super Robot Wars, when units engaged in battle you were treated to a flashy cut-scene of them trading blows. Fist of Mars made these cut-scenes interactive by requiring you to catch the enemy in a crosshair as they dodged across the screen. The size of the crosshair and the speed of the enemy would vary, as well as length of time allowed to make a hit. Similarly, when defending it was necessary to weave back and forth across the screen, avoiding the enemy’s aim. Unfortunately, there was a seriously game-breaking trick for dodging enemy attacks that once learned, considerably reduced the game’s challenge level.

Pay about $20 for Z.O.E. - The Fist of Mars with its box and manual. Also look for the two Super Robot Wars available in English, Super Robot Taisen – Original Generation and Super Robot Taisen – Original Generation 2 for Gameboy Advance, both published in 2006 by Atlus. The first is out of print and sells for around $25. The second is still available new for $29.95.

The 2nd Runner

zoe_2nd.jpgWith the previous two Enders games being interesting but ultimately flawed, one asks why collect? My answer is Zone of the Enders – The 2nd Runner, a game that finally delivers on the series’ promise. With 2nd Runner, Kojima’s team created a tight, responsive game that is lovingly crafted down to the smallest detail. Like an expensive Italian sports car, 2nd Runner is a work of kinetic art.

Unlike the first game, 2nd Runner has a compulsive drive, with one event leading smoothly to the next. Dramatic action suddenly gives way to intriguing narrative, which quickly sets up a new round of frenetic combat, constantly drawing you forward. Perhaps the best way to enjoy 2nd Runner is to set aside some time and play it straight through from beginning to end in one sitting like a movie. Some might complain about the game’s short length (a little over four hours) but 2nd Runner is exactly as long as it needs to be.

I try not to be seduced by graphics and I enjoy plenty of games that are far from the cutting-edge of visual presentation. That being said, 2nd Runner is absolutely ravishing. Clouds of enemies shift and dart across the sky like schools of fish. Explosions spray fragments of super-heated metal as radiant beams split the air. Black tendrils of null-space leave ghostly tracers as Orbital Frames fold time, warping instantly from one target to the next. In 1964 Leary, Metzner, and Alpert called it the “Retinal Circus”. Play 2nd Runner and begin to understand. As an extra visual treat, sharp-eyed observers will recognize a guest design contribution from Shin Megami Tensei’s Kazuma Kaneko, done in his deliriously aberrant style.

Perhaps because of ambivalence over the first Zone of the Enders game, when 2nd Runner was released in 2003, most people passed it by. Big mistake. Now out of print, the game is becoming increasingly difficult to find. Expect to pay around $45.

Anime

If you want to delve deeper into the world of Zone of the Enders, Sunrise (the animation studio behind Gundam, Escaflowne, and Gasaraki) produced a well-made tie-in anime series. When the first Enders game came out in Japan it included an OVA called Idolo. This was followed by a television series called Dolores, i. Both were released in America and are now available together in ADV’s Zone of the Enders Complete Collection for $49.98.

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

Definitely The Pinball Tattoo Of The Century

- You may recall that GSW is a bit of a pinball fan, so it was neat to see that distinctly retro gaming site RetroBlast! has spotted an extremely impressive pinball-themed full-arm tattoo, done by Darren Brass of the reality show Miami Ink for game developer Amy Gunson.

Gunson notes that the gigantic and rather stylish tattoo "...took two sessions and close to 9 hours to complete", and further comments that "...it's an homage to one of my first loves, pinball. I've moved across the Pacific five times and had to sell most of my pinball collection in the process. Now, I have something that I can take with me anywhere I go. It's bold and colorful and full of energy!"

Apparently, anyone working at EA Vancouver can admire the tattoo themselves, since Gunson works there as a technical artist - she further details: "The design was done by the fantastic tattoo artist, Darren Brass who used to play a little pinball himself, with Theatre of Magic being one that stands out in his mind. Those of you who play might recognize the ball locks from Big Bang Bar, rails galore, and the big bold color in the pop bumpers that look like they may have jumped out of a Charles Bell painting." Awesome-o.

May 24, 2007

Warren Spector, Tom Chick Escape From The Grid

- It's really a bit painful, in a 'tree falling in a forest' type way, that there's a four-part Warren Spector treatise on storytelling up on The Escapist for a few weeks now, and, uhm, nobody has really made a big fuss about it. And they should, because it's pretty interesting, if on the dense side.

Randomly picking Part 4, here's some perceptive, if slightly depressing prose: "Once we can create beautiful, photorealistic spaces, players will expect us to do so, and then we'll have to teach our NPCs how to navigate through and interact with ever-more complex worlds appropriately. Rapid advancements in graphical fidelity and depth of simulation have always left AI and design playing catch-up. That problem seems likely to get worse, not better, in the next few years."

Getting away from TEH DOOM for a second, Tom Chick's Escapist column has been proceeding apace, and apparently, the Fight Club logo designer still hasn't sued yet (parody!), yay. So far, a random email exchange is probably the funnest one, for me, since it included the immortal line: "He can't do it. He just got a job as a viral marketer for Second Life. I need you to do it." Though I will note that splitting up longer articles into X weekly installments is totally a print trick, and doesn't work very well on the web.

Also, Mr. Chick has now brought his own brand of laconic spitballing to GameSpy, where his first Alt-Tab column is up, and it's also a load of entertaining, hyper-intelligent bollocks: "Let's talk about the things that are untrue about you. You are a twenty-four-year-old leggy girl from Texas who worked as an exotic dancer for four years so you could save up money to put yourself through a PhD program in electrical engineering. You only date guys you meet from your World of Warcraft raiding guild."

Outrun 2 SP SDX Gets Backseat Driving Vegas Welcome

- Last year, sister site Gamasutra chatted to Sega Entertainment U.S.A. about the rebirth - or at least some minor stirring - of the U.S. arcade scene, and we just got a press release revealing some concrete additions they're making to their GameWorks arcades.

It explains: "Sega Entertainment U.S.A., Inc’s. (SEUI), casual dining brand, GameWorks, will install three different, and very original, gaming attractions to the entertainment mix at its 14 GameWorks locations. The company has added 3 units of the newly released OutRun 2 SP SDX Driving attraction to their Las Vegas , Detroit and Chicago venues, install 84 Sega UFO Catchers throughout the company's US locations and is testing Virtual Bowling by Brunswick as an attraction in Las Vegas ."

Of these, OutRun 2 SP SDX is definitely the most interesting - Kikizo already has a bunch of detailed screenshots from the upgrade to the OutRun 2 upgrade (!), which was originally unveiled last year, and Sega explains the twist: "In traditional racing games, one player drives the car. In the new version, two players are seated in the car and each has their own steering wheel, brake and accelerator."

Wha? "The control of the game is determined by how well a driver maneuvers the course - once they hit a wall or crash, control will immediately shifts to the second player. This will happen for the entire length of the game, and during stage changes as well, sometimes changing player control 6-7 times. Players can easily check their rankings in the middle of the race, through the electrical bulletin board attached to the game... CCD cameras are also installed at each cabinet to take pictures of players, and are then aired on a large monitor." An interesting gameplay mechanic and deluxe giant playscreens means a unique arcade experience, which can only be good for the biz. Bet the machines cost a bomb, though!

MMOG Nation Column Flies Away, 1UP Cages A Variant

- So, Michael Zenke, whom you also know as Slashdot Games editor Zonk, has been helping us out with his awesome GSW column 'MMOG Nation', based on his blog of the same name, over the past few weeks and months.

Sadly, this is no longer to be the case, as he explains on his MMOGNation.com blog: "You’ve probably noticed that my ruminations on the GameSetWatch site have been absent from the site of late. The reason is that, following some discussions allll the way back at GDC, the ‘MMOG Nation’ column has found a new home. Now to be known as ‘Massive Update’, it’s going to try to be a slice of the previous week from the Massive perspective."

He explains: "It will still feature my opinions, but instead of a grand subject I’ll be focusing on concrete things that have happened in the recent past... The keenest bit? Massive Update’s new home is the 1UP Network" - and here's the first 1UP Massive Update column.

Congrats to Michael for getting picked up by the Ziff folks, and many thanks to him for his excellent MMO column-ing that he did for us over the past few months - as you may recall, the columns here are done on a slightly voluntary basis for a slightly random audience, so we're very happy if people go on to bigger and more trafficked things.

COLUMN: The Aberrant Gamer - 'Princess Maker 2: Daddy's Little Girl'

[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media. Hentai gaming, fantasy fanfics, twisted psychology and notes from the dark side-- we'll expose, discuss and enjoy the delicious underbelly of our beloved gaming universe.]

- Can you call a game a “sex game” if there’s no sex?

It’d be tough to classify old chestnut Princess Maker 2, originally created by Evangelion maker Gainax in 1993, as a Hentai game—in fact, it’s probably most appropriate to call it a parenting sim. More similar to Nintendogs than it is to any sex game, the player is tasked with raising a girl child to adulthood. A laundry list of stats—things like strength, grace, morality and stress-- combine to determine what kind of woman she’ll be. Her health and well-being, her job, and even her future husband are the result of the way you raise her.

The story begins under a fantasy premise—“the gods” bestow you with a little girl about ten years old as a reward for defeating a demon lord and saving the city. Apparently, there’s no gratitude from the populace in the form of monetary compensation (there never is, is there?) because despite being a supernatural war hero, you must immediately put your dewy-eyed ten-year-old to work. Each job causes a boost in some stats and a decrease in others—working at the farm, for example, boosts strength but lowers refinement. You can also affect her condition by gifting her with pocket money or scolding her. Finally, the game has an RPG-style adventure mode, which allows you to raise a little fighting heroine, in addition to snagging special items.

There’s a dizzying number of possible endings— among others, your daughter might end up a nun, a scholar, an innkeeper, a lady-in-waiting or a lumberjack. She can also be a soldier, a bounty hunter or a street performer. She can even become Queen, if you raise her up real well.

But what if you don’t? You wouldn't entertain dirty wishes for your little girl, would you?

- The game’s already a step ahead of you—your little girl can start working at the “Sleazy Bar” at the age of 15, and at the “Cabaret” by 16. You’re responsible for her “sin” and "sex appeal" statistics, and it’s possible for your dear daughter to develop into a bar wench, bondage queen, or prostitute (regular or “high class” varieties). Additionally, you've got rather precise control over the child’s body size—even allowing you to administer pills to enhance her bustline.

It is perfectly possible to be a sterling parent and play it cute and clean for the duration of the game. But it’s also possible to dress a 12 year old girl—who calls you “Daddy”— like a whore. With the help of the widely available “UnDress” patch, you can even dress her in nothing at all—while she continues to stand front and center of the main screen, beaming devotedly, perfectly secure in your fatherly guidance.

True Hentai games usually feature absurd scenarios—your father’s just remarried an insatiable woman with five equally insatiable daughters, or you’ve just inherited a mansion staffed by sexually available maids. Compared to this, the simple premise of raising a daughter seems quite tame. But Hentai games, much like the rape that often plays a prominent role, are about control. The idea’s to give the player a “what-if” sexual scenario where anything goes and everything usually does. You cannot have sex with—or even sexually touch—your daughter in Princess Maker 2, but the undercurrent of manipulation, of ownership, that undercuts the entire child-rearing process is nearly as intense, and no less sexual.

- All H-games are a little twisted—that’s what makes them fun. Hard to say, though, what’s more twisted—a graphic rape game, or a parenting simulation that can be sexualized.

It’s not too uncommon for members of either gender to fantasize that women enjoy rape, and the fantasy reaches hyperbolic proportions in H-games—despite a violent nonconsensual coupling, the girl always comes away grateful, transformed and in love. As for your little princess, when her eighteenth birthday arrives, a potential husband comes knocking. And if you don’t want to give your beloved child away, it’s possible to marry her yourself-- though it's the most challenging ending to achieve.

You put her to work in the bar, starved her to keep her waistline down and dressed her in skanky clothes. And yet, radiant-eyed and adoring, your daughter will approach you, saying that she wants no man but you. Princess Maker 2 might not be a Hentai game, but it's more like one than not.

[Leigh Alexander is a blogger at her Sexy Videogameland site and reviewer for outlets including Paste Magazine. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]

GameTunnel's May Masquerade Flutters Eyelashes

- Aha, what do we spy here? "Game Tunnel has just published the May Independent Video Game round-up, its 35th monthly panel reviewing what is new in indie games." This is rather awesome news, we fear.

The Game Tunnel-ers continue: "The 10 games in this month's article include an incredibly edible castle, an insane lighthouse, a monkey named Darwin, and a "hyperkinetic rabbity thing" named Max." And this time, the Game Of The Month is not a Sam & Max title, rather Chocolate Castle, the Lexaloffle-created PC indie puzzle title that we've previously covered on GameSetWatch.

In fact, Caspian Prince positively raves of the title: "Lexaloffle has a wonderful unique style in the indie game world today - a kind of raw 16-bit retro with no anti-aliasing which really works and brings back memories of times when gameplay reigned supreme. In Chocolate Castle we've got a slickly presented puzzle game polished to a sparkling shine ... and what's this! It's totally original! At least as far as I know." I also get the warm fuzzies over Lexaloffle's unique stylings, so congrats to him for winning out this time round.

May 23, 2007

Digital Domain Gets Tarred By The Bay Connection?

- What's the wrong way to get the attention of the game biz? Seems like Digital Domain found out the other week when the CG house's announcement it was planning to make video games was overshadowed by the connection to company co-chairman Michael Bay, director of the famously vapid Armageddon - or at least, the announcement has got the goat of Ubisoft's Clint Hocking in his Click Nothing blog.

It's probably the very 'Hollywood' tone of the Los Angeles Times article breaking the news which is particularly disagreeable - it reveals that Digital Domain "...plans to develop four or five games over the next two years", and says oddly nonsensical things like: "As video entertainment becomes more sophisticated, the line between video games and movies is blurring."

At one point near the end of his commentary, Splinter Cell supremo Hocking rages: "They actually think that they can just hand over lead creative on a game to someone who made some movies and that will work. Well, I wish them luck. Okay, that's not true. I don't wish them luck. I hope they fail. I'm sure people will be happy to tell me what an egotistical asshole I am. But let's not forget I'm not the one gambling 25 million bucks on an ego that says just because I directed some movies I can therefore direct games. Maybe we'll get to see if the man-god can bleed after all."

Well, a couple of counterpoints here. Firstly, Digital Domain are on a panel at the upcoming Hollywood & Games Summit being organized by my colleague and GDC head honcho Jamil Moledina, and the impression he has is not really that it's a 'film director'-led exercise, rather that they are using CG talent and recruiting from the game industry to make conventional game teams, but with some director input. In other words, it's quite possible that the L.A. Times played up the, uhm, L.A. angle - at the expense of making it sound like any game creators had input into the burgeoning division at all.

And one particularly notable paragraph near the end of the piece: "A recent TV ad that Digital Domain made for "Gears of War," the popular Microsoft science-fiction game for Xbox 360, showed off the new direction. Instead of relying on conventional software, Digital Domain's visual-effects artists created the 60-second spot using the same software that the game runs on. The commercial featured realistic effects and took only five weeks to make, about half the regular time."

A CG house using Unreal Engine 3 to make a commercial? That makes convergence sound pretty damn interesting. But we'll see - after all, fellow CG house Rhythm & Hues stepped up to the plate in the mid-'90s and the result was, uhm, Eggs Of Steel. So really, anything could happen!

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': You Got Your Mecha in My Wargame

['Roboto-chan!' is a (hopefully) fortnightly column formerly ruled with an iron fist by Ollie Barder, but recently stolen off him by Christopher Bruso, alias TOLLMASTER - it covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers Activision's 1995 PC title MechWarrior 2, a simulation-style mecha game that somehow became a hit in a time long past, practically introducing mecha games to the Western audience.]

mech2box2.JPG Americans love big things. Americans are a radically diverse people, but wherever in the United States you go, you'll find an appreciation for scale, even in unlikely places such as the South (I, for one, consider the monster truck fan to be a relative of Homo mechotakus, or the giant robot anime fan). It was only a matter of time before the United States would notice similar appreciation for size in their neighbor across the sea in the genre of giant robots, and attempt to create a work in that genre, combining both Japanese and American elements.

Add to this humanity’s universal penchant for war and explosions, and you got a game called MechWarrior 2, many Westerners’ first experience with the mecha video game genre, and one that is still fondly remembered those gamers lucky (or wise) enough to have played it.

The story of Mechwarrior 2 begins with BattleTech, a American tabletop wargaming and role-playing game series by the FASA Corporation. Battles were decided between hulking giants of metal called BattleMechs (‘Mechs for short), bristling with beam weapons and more standard fare such as cannons and missiles, in addition to more familiar units such as tanks and infantry.

BattleTech was hardly a unique concept; its early history included lawsuits due to similarities with some of their ‘Mechs and to the mecha of Japan’s Super Dimensional Macross (you may know it better as Robotech) and Fang of the Sun Dougram. In fact, Dougram’s boxy look can be seen as having had a major influence on FASA’s artwork despite the removal of infringing material. But despite these close aesthetic similarities to, and obvious inspiration from, Japanese mecha, BattleTech was its own beast.

The ‘Mech might be a powerful weapon, but they were still fairly limited in power compared to some of Japan’s realistic robots, such as the ever-popular Gundam. A team of ‘Mechs would often be supported by other vehicles, such as aircraft or tanks, and these were at least somewhat comparable to ‘Mechs in terms of firepower; meanwhile, tanks in Gundam were useless antiques with less a chance of survival than your average Star Trek redshirt. America did not have the “Super Robot” television shows where a single heroic mecha would save the Earth from an entire evil empire, and thus could hold a more realistic interpretation to what these humanoid war machines might bring to a futuristic field of battle.

This lack of firepower compared to their Japanese counterparts, however, did not make them any less appealing. Instead of specific mecha, fans grew attached to the political and military entities that fielded these weapons, setting the stage for a complex plot. And by happy coincidence, many of the early 3D computing games attempted to simulate vehicles in a realistic manner. For the obsessed fan, it wasn’t a far jump from a program simulating real-life tanks and aircraft to a program simulating a walking humanoid robot.

While the more fantastic Japanese anime of the time would have to wait for more processing power and a long series of failed game designs to create simulacrums of their frenetic dogfighting, the down-to-earth BattleTech design must have seemed perfect for a three-dimensional game at the time. The ‘Mech was fantastic, but real enough for the imagination—programmers’ imaginations—to grasp. Thus, the conditions for a successful computer game based upon the franchise were all there, just waiting for Activision to create what would become a legendary game among PC enthusiasts and giant robot fanatics alike.

MechWarrior 2 is one of those rare examples of a game that got everything right, by filling an open niche with a game designed to fill that niche exactly. There had been, of course, 3D vehicle simulators, and you may guess from the number in the title that MechWarrior 2 was not the first BattleTech PC title. But it was the first game to enthrall a mass audience. The combat engine looked great for the time, and was advanced enough to portray the massive robots in a way that made them feel “solid”—you were not just a robot, but a 100-ton walking death machine who rained down fire and brimstone upon your enemies.

Combat was relatively simple to learn but deep enough to be engaging. Missions were more complex than “destroy all enemies” and could take a few attempts as you tried to figure out the best way to tackle your objectives. In the exact opposite of Doom and other popular games at the time, it had a rich backstory that explained the various factions and their philosophies (pulled from the political and military maneuverings of rulebook “fluff” material and official fiction). It even had primitive multiplayer support in later editions, which was a rarity at a time when modems were measured in now obscure terms such as “baud.”

But the most impressive feat that MechWarrior 2 performed, and why MechWarrior is still remembered today, is that it was a simulation. Arcade-style games featuring mechanical humanoids were and are a dime a dozen; just replace what would be a human character with a robotic-looking human, and you’re set. But MechWarrior 2 wasn’t a simple action game. There were controls for more than just turn, aim, fire and speed; to master the game, you had to learn how to twist your ‘Mech’s torso, order your weapons into groups to deal with changing circumstances on the battlefield, watch your heat levels as you fired energy weapons, and even override your own shutdown mechanism to get that precious extra shot in before your unit exploded into a nuclear flame.

The default first person view, with critical information appearing in your cockpit's HUD, added to the realsim. And if the various ‘Mechs weren’t to your tastes, you could edit them between missions, giving your unit more missile ammo at the expense of a few lasers. This simulation-style gameplay may have turned off a few users who were used to Doom’s simpler control scheme, but Activision had given computer players the impossible by allowing players the chance to pilot a fictional vehicle.

MechWarrior 2 is still, unfortunately, only one of a small number of mecha-oriented games which took this simulation approach. Other than the other games in the MechWarrior series, there are the Heavy Gear PC games (also developed by Activision, and also based upon a Western company’s wargame/role-playing game property), the excellent Armored Core series, Earthsiege/Starsiege, the Gungriffon series, and the Xbox’s Steel Battalion—which actually shipped at the retail price of 200 dollars, because Capcom apparently felt the simulation experience necessitated the largest peripheral controller for a console ever.

Robot Alchemic Drive for the PS2, developed by Sandlot before they became internet-famous for the Earth Defense Force games, could also be counted as a simulation, but it might more accurately be called a meta-simulation, given that you control a character who controls a robot rather than just the robot directly. But today, most of the mecha games produced focus more upon the action and drama of the anime series they are based upon, acting more like distant relatives of 2D “bullet hell” shooters than true simulations of what those mecha would be like if they truly existed. Mecha simulator games are one of those genres that may never die, but whose glory days have certainly passed.

Every few years I try to get MechWarrior 2 to run on a modern Windows system, just as fighting game fans will plug in their SNES once in a while to play Super Street Fighter II and remember the “good ol’ days” before other genres pushed our own favorite genre out of the limelight.

While the genre itself might be on life support, it’s good to know that MechWarrior 2 was an important step forward for gaming. It was one of the first PC games to combine a powerful narrative with complex mission objectives, and this legacy is carried on today in the more complex first person shooters, which tend to have a good amount of backstory and objectives that are more than “kill the enemies” or “the bad guys are out to destroy the world.” Mechwarrior 2 was proof that a large audience could tolerate a story inside an action game.

And while playing Mechwarrior 2 over the net was an option exercised by only a few people due to the connection speeds and lag times of the period, MechWarrior 2 was certainly a major step forward in the expectation that major PC releases would have some form of internet play, and one of the first instances where closely-knit groups would gather together and form team-based tactics, opposed to more traditional “deathmatch” oriented clans. Being able to edit your own ‘Mech’s parts helped popularize customization style games, making Gran Turismo a possible relative of MechWarrior 2 on the video game family line.

Finally, while the simulation style of gameplay has all but died off, many popular computer games now include deeper levels of sophistication, with more options leading to a greater variance in the number of possible strategies. Even if the game and the genre it belonged to are almost forgotten by the mass audience, Mechwarrior's legacy lives on in the more complex game styles of today.

If you'd like to see the game in action, nice people on Youtube have been able to record videos of the game, illustrating the slower pace of the simulation style gameplay. The methodical pace of the robots would probably not feel right when compared to the "instant action" games made today, but the simulation feel is what made the game so memorable and fun. If you're going to pilot 100 tons of steel, it should feel like 100 tons of steel, and the first time you accidentally run into an enemy 'mech you WILL get caught up in the simulation and flinch.

As far as playing the game itself, the original Mechwarrior 2 will run on XP for some people, but others like myself have to load up DOSbox and a hack just to get the game running, and a bit slowly at that. The good news is that the system requirements are fairly low (I ran it perfectly back in the day with 120 mhz and MS-DOS) and a working CD shouldn't be too hard to find.

XIQ - A Game Of Traps And Lines, Fa La La!

- Thanks to Shawn McGrath for sending over info on his new PC/Mac/Linux freeware title, XIQ, which is, reversibly enough, "...inspired by the arcade classic QIX", and was made at the 2nd annual Toronto Game Jam - which looks to have been a v.neat event - full game list from it coming soon.

For this abstract shooter (mmm, abstract shooter - there's a video at the bottom of the info page!): "The objective is to create boxes on the screen that enclose triangles. You shoot lines in four directions using wasd and move with the arrow keys (gamepad works too). You can use the lines both offensively, (creating boxes), and defensively, (blocking off space, creating safe paths to move, etc)."

What's more: "There's four powerups - two that stay on the screen permanently, (and cause great distraction if you leave them for too long), and two temporary ones that are risky to try to get, but are often life-saving." Looks like a well-designed retro treat - and honestly, judging by the video, this is the first game in which I've ever found vector-based triangles to be menacing. So that's a big plus.

Guerilla Gamer Marketing GONE WILD!

- Ah, guerilla marketing - where would we be without you? Probably in a situation where I didn't receive emails such as this one, which starts: "Hi Carless: As a fan of Game Developer's great gaming reviews, I'm happy to offer you some quality fuel for your late-night sessions."

Well, Game Developer doesn't actually review games, and that's my last name, but please, keep going: "I represent Carl's Jr. and Hardee's new Spicy Buffalo Chicken Sandwich (www.spicybuffalo.com). Inspired by the best of dive-bar hotwings, the Spicy Buffalo combines Frank's classic Red-Hot sauce with juicy chicken breast, giving you all the kick and spice of your favorite bar food without the spilled beer and sawdust."

Oh, OK, I see where the video game relevance is here! "And since you're into games, you might like to play with our Lunch Invite widget. Make a Lunch Date with Ashley Hartman (uh, there's a different East Coast link for Hardee's)... you get a $1 off coupon at the end, and you'll get to see a gorgeous girl do your bidding." Aha, appealing to the geeks, here. And the 'gaming insider' capper? " Of course, if you roll female Blood Elves, you're probably used to it."

Dude, I 'roll female Blood Elves' ALL THE TIME. But separately of that, I learned the following:

a) Don't try to shoehorn random gaming references into completely random subject matter;
b) If you're sending out a mass email, try to personalize correctly both the name of the person you are sending it to and what the outlet actually does;
c) Imagine if Electronic Arts was called something different in New York to California. That's the problem Carls' Jr and Hardee's has. Ouch.
d) I just gave these guys free publicity anyhow. Ack.

Building A Better Player Character For Games

- Just posted at sister site Gamasutra yesterday is the feature 'The Everyman and the Action Hero: Building a Better Player Character' by Iron Lore's Ben Schneider, who most recently worked on the rather mythological Titan Quest, and has also labored over games for Harmonix and Stainless Steel Studios.

It seems that Schneider has some genuinely well thought-out comments on character crafting: "Working from the template of the everyman and the action hero can help you achieve buy-in from the player, but it’ll take more than that to make your player character something special. In fact, making your protagonist safe is really directly at odds with making him or her original, evocative, or lifelike. There is a vital arm-wrestling match that goes on here between all those limitations and the creative goal of making a really good, memorable character."

Another intriguing point explored in the piece: "Most game developers do a pretty good job of finding that action hero/everyman sweet-spot, but far fewer take the time to make more out of the hero or find a compelling, striking way to introduce them. God of War, Max Payne, and Grand Theft Auto 3 (and 4, it appears!) stand out in this regard, simply for properly setting up the beginning of the game, even, in Max Payne’s and GTA’s cases, if the setup is a pastiche of pulp fiction clichés."

May 22, 2007

@ Play: Things to Do While Visiting Ancardia

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.]

Nethack has gotten a lot of talk here, and it remains perhaps the most complex roguelike out there due to its profusion of object interactions, but it is by no means the roguelike with the "most to do." That is, the objective of Nethack, although more complicated than the old days where ultimately all you just had to get fire resistance, level teleport down to the Amulet, get it, then climb out, is still relatively straightforward. The game got a lot more complex in version 3.0, and more complex still in 3.1, but in this respect it really hasn't changed too much since Hack.

The roguelike with, by far, the most to do is ADOM (Ancient Domains Of Mystery), which is perhaps the example of the genre that takes the most ideas from the world of other RPGs. Nowhere is this made more evident than when examining the game's complex web of quests. Nethack has four (although one is different for each character class). ADOM has dozens.

Here is a very small sampling, chosen for a mix of ease of observation by beginning players and raw cool factor.

Save a puppy!
The little girl in Teryino, the first town, asks you to save her dog from a nearby cave. The cave doesn't appear on the map until she asks you. The cave always has a good number of ants in it.

aquest2.gifThe "cute dog" must be generated (its level reached in the cave) before fourth game days have passed for it to remain alive, which is a very strict time limit considering that the required overworld travel will necessarily take up some of that time. Because of this, the player has almost no opportunity to advance in level except in transit, making this fairly difficult.

Make the Plains Safe For Adventurers!
The sherrif, Tywat Pare of Teryino, assigns two peacekeeping missions to the player during the game. Kranach and his band of raiders appear as a random overworld encounter near Teryino until you reach experience level 6, meaning that sometimes the player won't be able to complete this one due simply to bad luck. Wilderness encounters also get more difficult over time, and wandering the plains uses up a lot of food, so it's not recommended for beginners. The reward is 3000 gold pieces, which some players will find more interesting than others.

The other involves killing the crime lord Hotzenplotz in the nearby outlaw town Murderberg Lawenilothehl, a task that's either challenging or simple to a character at about that point in the game, depending on whether he has ray attack spells. As in, if you don't know any, then his bouncers will probably bounce you to death. If you do know one, you can beat him and is cronies without taking a hit. What else can be said, except, "Wizards rock?"

aquest1.gif
Kill the Mad Carpenter! (or cure his madness)
Later in the game the player must cross a piranha-infested lake. There are only two ways across the water, and one of them involves learning the skill of Bridge Building. This means something must be done about Yriggs, who carries the only source of that skill in the game, the Manual of Bridge Building.

The Yriggs quest (which I also mentioned last time, should this sound familiar) is one of the coolest features of ADOM, and it comes early enough that it can be done first if the player wants. After talking with Rynt in Teryino, the player can go down to the dungeon approximately to the south-east and descent to level seven to find him. If killed he drops the objects necessary to build bridges, but, usefully, he can also be saved by purposely running away from him, letting him chase you to Jharod the healer on level four. (Like with many of Nethack's features, there aren't many hints within ADOM that this is possible.) Doing this will satisfy Jharod that you are worthy of learning the extremely valuable Healing skill, increasing your rate of natural hit point restoration.

Like many quests, this is also worth a bit of an Alignment change towards Law, which some players will appreciate, and some find annoying.

aquest3.gifPerform Last Rites for a Dying Sage! (Or....)
ADOM contains multiple dungeons. The "main" one, usually not seen until the player already has a few experience levels, is the Caverns of Chaos. And in this dungeon, some way down, is the endangered sage, Khelavaster.

The opponent philosophy of roguelike games is, in essence, "everyone is a monster." Characters considered NPCs in other RPGs get full stats, and can usually be attacked and killed, in a roguelike game. Usually they will become angered in the process and made hostile. They are controlled by AI just like the dungeon opposition. Khelavaster is an interesting case, however, because unlike the roguelike tradition, he is part of a scripted encounter.

Khelavaster is generated peaceful on the downstairs of his level, surrounded by chaos servants. In ADOM, there is no way to descend dungeon levels without using stairs, so the player will eventually have to get Khelavaster off them to continue with the game. This is typically not a problem, as talking with him (with the chat command, shift-C) will cause him to immediate die and leave his stuff to the player.

This is the story. See, Khelavaster is the sage who originally predicted this chaos stuff would plague the game's fantasy world. He went into the Caverns of Chaos to try to do something about it And Was Never Seen Again. While Khelavaster is not actually fighting the chaos servants, he is "in stasis" on his level, about to die. But he is actually immortal until the player talks to him; he always perishes in the conversation, in dramatic fashion.

However....

While ADOM's treatment of the encounter may not be roguelike normal, there is a very clever thing the player can do concerning him. It requires finding one of the game's more useful items, an amulet of life saving. As with Nethack's item, if worn by the player or a monster it will save his life one time, remedy the fatal condition, then disintegrate. Also like in Nethack, these are not too common to find. Actually they're pretty rare in ADOM, even more so considering that the game is thought to weight item generation according to dungeon difficulty.

If the player can find an amulet of life saving before talking to Khelavaster, then instead of chatting with him, he can give him the amulet, which logically enough will save his life. This is a fairly nifty trick, right up there with curing Yriggs the Carpenter. It makes the stuff gained from the sage much better (somehow), and late in the game enables the player to attempt an "ultra" ending if he wishes.

The problem is that amulet of life saving are quite rare and usually don't appear until later in the game, while Khelavaster is typically found about one-quarter the way down the Caverns of Chaos, fairly early. None are guaranteed to be generated, and even if the player searches all the available dungeons before reaching that point frequently he won't find one. They can be wished for, but wishes are not much more common than the amulets are, and there are plenty of other things that the player might want instead. But then, it isn't called an "ultra" ending for nothing. (And there are worse things the player must accomplish in order to achieve that....)

aquestsi.gifCollect ...um... Strange Items!
Ah, the si. For a game that has dozens of artifacts, hundreds of monsters, devious quests, secret features and ultra endings, it's amazing how it's the little things that come to define the game in one's memory.

The si was a relatively early addition to ADOM's equipment list, and despite the fact that it has no real purpose, and doesn't even have much of a logical explanation, it's still there. Probably because were Thomas Biskup to take it out, he'd probably have to fend off a hundred enraged ADOM fans with a stick.

"Si" stands for "strange item," and if you're expecting more of an explanation than that, well, you won't get one, mostly because there isn't one to give.

No one knows what a si looks like. We know the level it's on is filled with a strange smell. We know that the si is a kind of tool. We know it weighs 10 stones. And we know that the si is an artifact, of sorts, despite the fact that the major defining attribute of artifacts, uniqueness, doesn't apply to it.

This is because the si multiplies. So long as one is carried, they will slowly make more of themselves. The means by which this happens is obscure. No message is printed on the screen when it happens. It doesn't seem to happen if it isn't in the player's inventory.

Because they will periodically add an additional 10 stones to your carry weight, careless players will eventually get weighed down by them if they don't notice what's happening and drop some of them. Like artifacts it cannot be destroyed except by special means, but it has little other use, except for generic artifact things: they can be sold for cash, they can be sacrificed to make your god happy with you, and should you need something that's generally indestructible, they more than fit the bill.

Ultimately, what the si is is a whimsy. It's not a reference to anything. It's kinda silly and cool, even though it's not an explicit joke. Like naming the fruit in Rogue, it's just a neat thing that got thrown in just because.

It's good enough for me, anyway.

Sources:
ADOM Guidebook (the most complete source on the game on the web): http://www.andywlms.com/adom/

Dead Rising - Fixing What's Wrong With Games!

- Once again, GSW sister site Game Career Guide has been brave and let Eric-Jon Waugh out of his fenced-off area to analyze, from a game design point of view, a recent and interesting video game.

This time, he takes the lawnmower to Capcom's Xbox 360 exclusive Dead Rising, and within which he calls the game "...the self-appointed answer to everything wrong with videogames as they are now."

He sets the scene rather beautifully, too: "Somewhere between note-sharing exercises like the Game Developers Conference and the growing impact of games like Grand Theft Auto and Gears of War on the Japanese charts, goaded on by the phenomenon known as "gamer drift", in which existing players stop playing and no new players can be found, Western games have slowly begun to resume their aborted influence on Japanese design - just as Japanese design has influenced the West since Nishikado's Breakout-tile Invaders first began to boop down from orbit."

He then neatly files Dead Rising in an interesting place: "At its core what Grand Theft Auto wants is to recapture the glory of Asteroids and Centipede - the old American school, from before Atari fell off a cliff and the PC scene got weird... Dead Rising is that same idea, plus structure. It completes the picture by dragging GTA back into Ed Logg territory, and turning it into the modern equivalent of an Atari Games battle of attrition. Namely, sort of, Gauntlet." Waugh thing, I think I love you.

GameSetPics: Rare & Nintendo - Where It All Began

- Though I'm not as much of a collector as our very own MagWeasel, I've been known to hop on eBay from time to time to pick up some gaming magazine memorabilia, even if shipping for all that dead wood is a little bit excessive.

In fact, Gamasutra contributor Jason Dobson and I [EDIT: Uhoh, grammar fiend commenters object!] recently fought through a fierce bidding war to each pick up a few mid-'80s issues of arcade/amusement trade journal RePlay Magazine, and boy, there's some pretty amazing stuff in there.

RePlay stood alongside rival Play Meter magazine as the only trade chroniclers of the arcade industry as it grew up, crashed, and was reborn in the '80s, and there are some stand-out looks at the Japanese arcade biz in 1986 and in-depth interviews/site visits with Capcom and Konami's U.S. divisions in the issues that I managed to purchase.

However, we obviously wouldn't reprint these articles without permission (something we're currently talking to RePlay about - we'll see what happens!). But in the meantime, there was one Nintendo-supplied press photo from the August 1986 issue of the magazine I wanted to scan in for you all, because I'm pretty sure it's never been available online before, and it shows the beginning of a seminal relationship in the history of video games (click through for hi-res version):

-

This picture was taken on the first-ever signing of an outside software developer, Rare, to produce titles for Nintendo's VS. System, the NES-based arcade setup. So, from left to right, there are some people you may have heard of - Joel Hochberg of (Rare's U.S. business partner) Coin-It, Chris Stamper of Rare, and Nintendo's Frank Ballouz, Howard Lincoln, and Minoru Arakawa.

What happened from there? Actually, a Steve Kent article for Screenager Central (!) has much of the skinny. Skiing title Slalom, at least, made it out for the VS. System, and also for the NES itself. And obviously, Rare went on to a much closer relationship with Nintendo, creating RC Pro-Am, Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct, GoldenEye, and a host of others - and Lincoln and Arakawa were key figures in Nintendo's rise to power in the West, too. And this is where the Nintendo/Rare relationship all started - which makes it an important image.

God Of Violence? Barlog Explains, Journalists Nod

- Stephen Totilo sent over a note linking to his new MTV News article on "...some observations and interviews I had from Sony Gamer's Day centered around the -- for once -- surprisingly frank and open response to attacks on violent video games" - he comments on it on his blog and the full piece is on the MTV News website.

As Totilo notes: "In previous years, when video games both violent and tame were showcased at the Electronics Entertainment Expo, video game makers did not go out of their way to refer to controversy... Offstage at Sony's San Diego event there were other indications of a change in tone." He's talking to the God Of War PSP folks in particular, and indeed they do try to justify the violent nature of the titles, as follows:

""Chains of Olympus" creative director Cory Barlog knows some people are put off by what Kratos' adventures ask of them. Standing in front of a big-screen TV playing the game, he argued that the discomfort some players feel is intentional. "During [the ancient Greek] wars, people weren't hugging — it was very, very brutal," he said. "We really wanted to stick to that mentality, creating situations within the game to force the player to choose, and kind of morally have to be, what Kratos is like."

You know, I don't really think that's a great explanation. But my God - this _is_ an attempt at explaining artistically why it's done, and that's light years ahead of the normal Rockstar 'do bad stuff, don't comment on it' attitude that they used to radiate - though I will note that even they have got better recently, for example, talking on the record about the same-sex kissing in Bully.

And overall, I do appreciate that there's an attempt to think things through, and particularly, some agreement that there is some thought given to morality: "Ru Weerasuriya, whose Ready at Dawn Studios is handling most of the creative duties on "Chains," agreed that the line is sometimes hard to see. "You go as far as you can," he said, chewing a piece of gum. "Sometimes you have to push it far to then bring it back a little."" The fact that we're discussing a line is certainly making the biz look much less Neanderthal.

Wander Around Disney Parks For DS 'Pirates' Booty?

- Disney is getting _really_ interesting in the game space recently, and here's the latest example from the House Of Mickey:

"Timed to the release of the Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End video games, Disney Interactive Studios announced today a partnership with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts to release exclusive content for the upcoming Nintendo DS video game at Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort."

Specifically: "Beginning May 22 with the release of the video game, Disney park guests who bring their Nintendo DS and a copy of the Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End DS video game with them during their visit can download new video game content at specific "X-marks-the-spot" hotspots hidden near the Pirates of the Caribbean attractions. This download unlocks new content such as unlimited health and "savvy," as well as fun extras, including additional costumes. This special content is only available to Disney park visitors and can be accessed with a Nintendo DS."

Personally, I love the idea of wandering around a Disney park with my DS to get extra content in specific places, especially if that content can only _ever_ be unlocked that way and it's cool and bonus. Not sure about unlocking 'cheats' that way like unlimited health - that seems a bit potentially game breaking. But hey, as long as the extra costumes are neat and the game itself is decent, I'm not complaining. More ideas like this, please!

May 21, 2007

When Business Software Behaves Like... Video Games?

- The New York Times published an intriguing article over the weekend entitled 'Why Work Is Looking More Like a Video Game', which tries to point out that games can teach software a lot of things about motivation and usability - or something like that?

Of course, you only have to wait for the first paragraph for overt implications of games being juvenile: "Paul Johnston has remade his company on the idea that business software will work better if it feels like a game. Mr. Johnston is not some awkward adolescent, but the polished president and chief executive of Entellium, which makes software for customer relationship management."

The gaming comparisons continue: "Rave isn’t exactly the business version of Madden N.F.L., at least not yet. But Craig K. Hall, president of Logos Marketing Inc., a graphics company in Albany, said it reminded him of video games he has played, like the Legend of Zelda. Mr. Hall, 31, says he likes the way Rave pops up information, including news that will matter to clients." This is all a little tenuous, to be honest, but it then wanders into a decent discussion of serious games, so hey!

Why We Need More Boring Games

- Over at Gamasutra, 'serious games' creator Ian Bogost is making the case that video games should be more mundane, particularly discussing of Nintendo's Brain Age: "It’s certainly a very different kind of game from Halo or even Miyamoto’s own Zelda series, games that allow the player to inhabit complex fantasy worlds. Instead, much of Brain Age’s success seems to come precisely from the ordinariness of its demands."

So - what of this? Would games become more accessible if they tapped into everyday things a little bit more, as opposed to spiralling off into fictional realities? Bogost suggests: "As a medium becomes more familiar, it also becomes less edgy and exciting. This is what [clothing designer] Marc Ecko means when he refers to movies as demystified. Over time, media becomes domesticated, and domestication is a mixed blessing."

But, he cautions, there's an upside: "On the one hand, it allows broader reach and scale. It means that more people can understand and manipulate the medium. Grandma and grandpa understand what they are looking at when you send them a VHS tape of junior blowing out the candles." Do you want to live in a world where games are 'ordinary'? Because sooner or later, we're going to get there - or that's the suggestion.

PlayStation Museum... Liquidating Contents? Aw, Wow.

- Wuhoh, bad news for the folks at the PlayStation Museum, who explain on the site: "The PlayStation Museum is liquidating all of our retail and development hardware and software. Now is your chance to get over 1,500 games, a lot of hardware (including a 10 Million Model PSX and MIB edition) plus a few other surprises."

Here's the eBay auction in question, and let me be the first to say that the selection is _insane_ - though they do note: "Virtually all hardware listed on this site is in the auction and a lot of the software. Due to NDA, the gaming graveyard games are generally off limits (unless listed in the auction)... Unfortunately, this is not a promotion nor a joke."

Quite apart from the ridiculous amounts of boxed software and hardware, including plenty of rare development kits and a prototype PlayStation keyboard, there's by far the biggest set of Lightspan educational PlayStation games I've ever seen - as the linked article says: "In a groundbreaking strategic partnership with Sony, San Diego-based educational software and Internet company Lightspan has cornered the K-8 market on video games in the classroom... PlayStation produces all of Lightspan's software at Sony Disc Manufacturing, and Sony charges license fees for the use of its gaming platform for a for-profit venture." Now, the 'BUY IT NOW' price is $30,000, of course, but you can always make an offer?

Tetris Evolution: A Study In Contrasts

- One of the games I picked up recently (and, actually, was the first to reveal, thanks to GameFly's advance listing madness) is THQ's Tetris Evolution for Xbox 360, Sure, the game is inexplicably not for XBLA, rather shipping on a disc. But the Mass Media-developed title is at least a relatively cheap $29.99, so we'll have to forgive it for not being Arika's awesome Tetris Grand Master Ace arcade conversion.

Now, there are a couple of notable issues with Evolution - most particularly that nowhere in the manual or the game itself (that I could find!) does it explain the T-Spin, a tricky rotation move that you need to master to get more than one Achievement. Fortunately, the excellent TetrisConcept wiki has a special page devoted to it and mastering it.

In fact, TetrisConcept goes even further in terms of tactics, and has an 'ST Stacking' page, explaining "...a more-or-less sustainable (under Random Generator) method of stacking tetrominoes to form successive 4-line clears and T-spins." And yep, used it and busted out a two-line T-spin in no time, so it definitely seems to work.

Personally, I like Tetris Evolution a lot more than the mediocre Tetris Worlds from the previous gen - though Evolution does have the 'infinite rotate at bottom of screen' or 'Easy Spin' rule by default, which is part of the almost weirdly scary, Henk Rogers-enforced Tetris Guidelines now. I quite like it, but many purists rage over it.

Finally, what's particularly neat is that Evolution has networked high-scores, and you can see the actual game replay from the people on top of each of the (many) Xbox Live high-score tables for each mode. Seeing what the masters are doing is incredibly useful for racking up high scores of your own, particularly for the limited-time modes, and gets a massive thumbs-up from me. [If you don't have the game but wants to see Tetris masters in action, there's an excellent YouTube Tetris video glossary on TetrisConcept, too.]

May 20, 2007

Why Don't Indie Game Creators Market... Themselves?

- Last weekend, the New York Times published an excellent article by Clive Thompson called 'Sex, Drugs and Updating Your Blog', which deals with how the web is allowing musicians to connect with fans and make a living via altogether different promotional means than simply booking a gig, posting some flyers, and turning up to it.

Thompson explains how "...fame can come instead through viral word-of-mouth, when a friend forwards a Web-site address, swaps an MP3, e-mails a link to a fan blog or posts a cellphone concert video on YouTube. So musicians dive into the fray — posting confessional notes on their blogs, reading their fans’ comments and carefully replying."

So my question is - why don't more indie game creators make sure that they have blogs that talk about themselves, how they make games, day-to-day musings, and hints about what they're working on? If your audience connects with you and gets to know you, then they will be even more loyal and happy to interact with you. Since you can simply subscribe to an RSS feed to keep tabs on creators nowadays, I think all indie game makers should do this.

A couple of random examples - Cave Story creator Pixel has (or had) a development diary which was pretty simple, but even got translated into English because his fans are so rabid. On the other hand, Armadillo Run creator Peter Stock has a fascinating story behind his title, but his homepage doesn't even give a hint that a single person created the entire game, let alone the quite probably interesting trials and tribulations behind it.

Of course, it's your own choice - and anyone is welcome to be private, there's no mandate to be self-exposing. But don't underestimate the advantages of letting your potential audience know about you, and not just in the form of a playable demo - rather, in the form of humanizing info, pictures, and remarks. More people just might buy your game because of it!

Physical Education - Analyzing PhysX's Prospects

- Over at Eurogamer, Alec Meer has been taking a close look at Ageia's PhysX cards, on the occasion of the release of CellFactor: Revolution, which is "...a game originally intended to be a full-blooded celebration of PhysX."

He makes some good points about the hardware physics card solution (though there's also a software SDK underlying it all with the same name, just to warn again confusion), particularly focusing here: "To become a success, PhysX needs games based upon rather than merely aided by its abilities, but, as the smallness and brokenness of Cellfactor demonstrates, such a game won't get made because not enough people have PhysX cards. Catch-22."

In the end, Meer suggests that, unless Unreal Tournament 3 is spectacularly better with PhysX, it's pretty much over for Ageia, and concludes: "If PhysX dies, it won't be because the hardware has failed; it hasn't. It'll be because it was a small fish in a small pond already filled with sharks. It's Beagle Two up against NASA, and while you have to admire its pluckiness, its homemade, tinfoil and sellotape approach was never going to be able to compete with infinitely rich giants that could turn its ideas into just one tiny mass-produced component amongst thousands."

I'd only add that over $65 million in funding doesn't make the firm a spectacularly small fish - but it's definitely rough for a company to compete with a $300 hardware card that doesn't have any physical outputs on the back of it, and works with just a handful of major games. Probably a sign of the company's performance so far is that I have a couple of the cards that I was considering giving away in a GSW competition - but I decided that people wouldn't be interested enough. Doh. Integrated physics cards in GPUs for the longer-term future, though? V. possible.

GSW Note: Anyone Had Trouble With Comment Posting?

- Just wanted to check in - has anyone had issues with posting comments to GameSetWatch in the last couple of weeks? I just happen to have posted a comment that got filtered as junk for some random reason, and I went and grabbed it out of our 'Junk Spam' directory, but that makes me a little concerned.

Right now, we're using Akismet on top of a MovableType install, but honestly, we're probably one of the largest game blogs still allowing anonymous comments without login, due to the ridiculous amounts of comment spam out there - looks like GSW is getting about 1,500 spam comments per day right now, youch.

Anyhow, comment below, or if that gets spam filtered (hah!), mail us at editors at gamesetwatch.com, and tell us when your comment did or didn't get posted. Also, suggestions below on possible solutions are welcome - should we add a CAPTCHA? We could even use TypeKey with forced login, but I don't think that's too popular.

In the longer term, we're moving toward single sign-on across all CMP Game Group sites/events, so we might be able to tie that in to commenting here - which would be the best and coolest, but won't happen for a while.

The Virginia Tech Flash Game - Should We Care?

- Now here's an interesting question, much along the lines of the AP discussion about Paris Hilton we covered a while ago - when, if ever, should deliberately controversial gaming subjects NOT be covered? Shacknews' Chris Remo has a detailed post called 'On Giving Attention to V-Tech' which looks at this issue even further magnified.

Remo explains: "Yesterday, we ran a news piece dealing with the media coverage and political situation surrounding Ryan Lambourn's tasteless game based on the recent shooting at Virginia Tech. I approved the story... because of its well-researched and, I believe, contextually clear angle highlighting the sadly myopic view of video games taken all too frequently by those with a public voice."

He continues of Shacknews user complaints not to give the creator attention: "That complaint is one with which I would generally agree if we were simply reporting on the game's creation and availability. This, however, is not the case. More relevant to the coverage sphere of this site is the situation that has sprung up around the game, with elected officials using the game's subject as a platform to further erode the already embattled reputation of the video game industry as a whole--or even the concept of games as an entertainment form!--and with mainstream media effortlessly blurring the line between a freely distributed nonprofessional game and a product of the established game development community."

Over at TIGSource, Derek Yu does some further analysis, due to a Destructoid double interview with Lambourne and Super Colombine RPG's Danny Ledonne that's just been posted. And I think he's right on the money with the following statement: "I find it interesting that Ledonne is very articulate and Lambourn is… well, he did it for the “lulz.” Neither game is a success, in my opinion, from a gameplay perspective or a social perspective. What they’ve proved is that games can create discussion and cause controversy… is that something that needs to be proven?"

A particularly interesting comment in the TIGSource thread from 'Underwhelmed', too: "I know that Ledonne says he did it for art, and Lambourn says he did it for attention, but really, Lambourn is the only one telling the truth here. Both of these guys are attention whores, Ledonne is just a little more articulate and willing to pretend it was for some other reason."

So what's the fix here? As Remo says, whenever games are not seen by public figures such as politicians as a monolithic entity, then it'll be easier for the entire art form not to be tarred with one brush - Hollywood and YouTube are not synonymous, despite both being filmed, for example. But then again, if we're asking for games as a whole to be awarded free speech rights on the basis of 'flagship titles' such as SCMRPG, are we going about it the right way? Like many of you, I'm deeply conflicted, and wish our poster child wasn't quite so ugly.



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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