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June 23, 2007

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Nightshade

No, that isn't the Japanese title.[“Might Have Been” is a kinda bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Beam Software's Nightshade, released for the NES in 1992.]

Nightshade is a strange one. At first impression, it’s very much like The Secret of Monkey Island, Leisure Suit Larry, King’s Quest and other adventure games of the ’80s, as it features a wry, semi-competent hero pointing and clicking his way through a joke-strewn world. Yet Nightshade is a little more than that. It’s also a popularity contest, a primitive fighting game, and a stunted attempt at creating a franchise.

It began as a simple idea: the higher-ups at Australia’s Beam Software wanted a “graphic adventure game that would be a whodunit,” according to Paul Kidd, Nightshade’s director, writer and lead designer. With vague orders to “fill in the details,” Kidd and the rest of the Nightshade team devised an offbeat superhero tale bearing a certain resemblance to later satires like The Tick or Mystery Men.

Not that it’s entirely cute. Nightshade’s prologue tells us that Metro City’s leading costumed hero, Vortex, was brutally murdered by a dog-headed crime lord named Sutekh, who’s since used all the local mobsters to conquer the entire region. Nightshade, an up-and-coming defender of justice, steps into this heroic vacuum with little more than a trench coat, a fedora, and a few caustic observations.

What, you mean like sitting behind a desk ALL DAMN DAY, YOU EMASCULATING BITCH?!Metro City minus Mayor Haggar

Like many an adventure game lead, Nightshade’s unassuming and accident-prone. In fact, he starts his quest tied up next to a sparking bomb. Yet he’s not without defenses. Shortly after he gets free, he runs into what appears to be a bloated, hat-wearing British policeman, and the game reveals its biggest surprise: actual combat. The fast-paced fights, which crop up whenever Nightshade walks into a foe, are basic and strictly two-dimensional, but they’re also fair, never hitting Nightshade with anything that the game’s punch-and-jump setup can’t handle.

Punching is, of course, only one part of Nightshade’s quest. Explore the city, and you’ll find not only slinking female ninja and huge-headed thugs to battle, but also talking seagulls, hot-nut vendors, and legions of helpless citizens. This leads to Nightshade’s second innovation: a popularity meter. Good deeds, violent or not, boost the meter and earn our hero the respect of many. They also advance the game; an old man won’t tell Nightshade any secrets until he’s proved himself a hero, and a stuck-up clerk kicks him out of the newspaper archives if he isn’t sufficiently beloved by the populace.


Researching Nightshade brought up three forgotten comic-book heroes and a My Little Pony villain.Right game, wrong platform

Its fistfights and public relations aside, Nightshade progresses just as traditional adventure games usually did. Getting through it is a matter of finding the right items and talking to the right people, with occasional forays into jumping, bribing, or examining.

Nightshade’s options are many, though they’re a little hard to navigate with a stock NES controller. The genre was birthed through PC keyboards and mice, and Nightshade went against the grain in Beam’s choice of system.

“Nightshade was only done for the NES,” Kidd explains. “At that stage, Beam was basically only for the home game platforms. PC games had been abandoned by management as clearly being a dying art form.”

Also, Nightshade should have a giant ROCKET PENIS that he can use to hey where are you all goingEvery game needs Blood Snakes

Adventure games frequently lived by personality alone, and if Nightshade isn’t quite as winning as Grim Fandango or Sam and Max Hit the Road, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. The conversations are frequently amusing, and even the mundane sections benefit from the game’s cartoonish appeal. Despite the dark backgrounds and somewhat grim ancient Egyptian décor, Nightshade is very much a comedy. Yet it wasn’t easy to keep it that way during development.

“Typically, I would come into work to find that the über-boss had been pressuring my workers in the dark of night, and wild idiotic ideas had sprung into life,” Kidd recalls. “Ideas such as enemies whose heads could be severed, allowing giant blood snakes to form out of the blood hosing from their carotid arteries. So these sorts of things were eased onto the 'back burner' pile, and then the burners were turned on, incinerating these concepts for the good of all humanity.”

STOP CALLING HIM LAMPSHADECo-designer: Snidely Whiplash

While Kidd and his team were able to ditch most of the bad ideas tossed their way, one setback couldn’t be avoided.

“We weren't allowed to have any battery-backed ROM,” Kidd says. “So if you died in the game, there were no save points!”

Lacking any save feature or password system, the development team devised an inventive continue system. Upon dying, Nightshade’s stuck in some convoluted death trap, and the game is truly over unless he figures out how to stop a conveyor, untie himself, or elude some other silent-movie fate. Die five times, however, and there’s no last-minute escape. Though novel, it all makes Nightshade a bit too demanding, recalling the rigid and deadly King’s Quest series instead of the smoother, friendlier LucasArts games.

Heh heh heh. A-HEH HEH HEHWhoops

In the market, Nightshade’s luck was no better than its downtrodden hero’s. It arrived in January of 1992 as one of the last NES titles released on Konami’s Ultra Games label.

“The timing was exactly wrong,” Kidd says. “The SNES and Genesis came out as we were finishing up the game, and the NES died literally overnight!”

It put an end to a very ambitious plan. Nightshade was dubbed “Part 1: The Claws of Sutekh,” and, during its early stages, Beam intended to make it a major property. Later in development, however, inter-office tensions led to “deep reluctance amongst Beam to make too much of the game,” Kidd describes. Such drama also squashed any hope for similar NES adventure games that might’ve been in the works.

Yet Nightshade did get a sequel, if only in the spiritual sense. After wrapping up the game, the team was put to work on a Super NES adaptation of Beam’s newest license: the tabletop role-playing game Shadowrun.


This is wrong in SO many ways.From Metro City to Cyberpunk Seattle

According to Kidd, the deadline for Shadowrun was extremely tight, and he and the other staffers had about six months to assemble the game.

“That meant using the guts of Nightshade as the basis for Shadowrun,” he explains. “We made improvements and changes, but the basic concepts were pretty much the same.”

It’s not hard to see Nightshade’s influence in Shadowrun’s dark cityscapes, dialogue-heavy exchanges, and touches of humor. And it was the last of these that would fuel yet more discord between Beam’s management and its programmers. By Kidd's account, he and artist Jeff Kamenek took Shadowrun’s initially “serious” build and made some comedic alterations to the script and the artwork. When presented with both versions, the game’s distributor chose the humorous one, sparking ire among the Beam overlords who’d preferred the straight-laced Shadowrun.

Nightshade battles the evils of child prostitution.Time enough for Nightshade

Kidd left the company to pursue a writing career shortly thereafter, and remembers that Beam quickly lost “most of the people who would have been their core adventure game designers.” The company’s work with the genre faded, and though its strategy series Krush, Kill ‘n’ Destroy was a hit in the late ‘90s, Beam never touched point-and-click adventures again.

If their efforts ran afoul of Beam’s business side, Kidd, Kamenek and the rest of Shadowrun’s staff have since been vindicated. Critically lauded in its day, the game’s now a cult classic among 16-bit RPGs.

Nightshade isn’t quite so popular, though it’s almost as fun. Despite some flaws, it carries itself with undeniable style, and comes off better than a lot of NES-based adventure games. It may have been doomed by corporate infighting and bad timing, yet there’s no denying that, in better circumstances, Nightshade could’ve gone on to greater things.

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

GameSetCoda: Western Dating Games & The N's 'Hook-Up'

- Having just posted about Western dating games, there was a comment on that post, from Kevin Cancienne (now at Area/Code) that was notable enough that it's worth its own GSW post - particularly because it reveals a free Flash game that takes cues from the Japanese norm. Kevin writes:

"I hate to pimp a former project of mine directly, but the last game I did with Thup was a Western-style dating game for "tween" cable network The N called The Hook-Up. A lot of the issues we dealt with while designing the game are directly related to some of the stuff raised here.

While not perfect -- due to the constraints of budget, time, and the online Flash game format (and possibly some overambitious goals) -- I like to think we tried to work some interesting ideas in there. We took a close look at Japanese dating game conventions, and it sounds like the Backbone guys did as well. Those games are very much about time management, which is an interesting mechanic, but as noted here, can limit the time you spend really engaging with the meat of the social issues the medium (and presumably, the audience) really wants to address.

We were also wary of the limitations of the conventional adventure game-style conversation tree format, and while The Hookup did have a bit of that, we went with the fairly insane idea of sticking a stripped-down Magic: The Gathering-style card battle in the center of the game. We ended up with what we called "Intense Conversations" -- abstracted verbal altercations in which the player got to utilize the secrets, lies, and gossip that made up the game's social economy.

I've had my eye on Brooktown High myself, but I'm PSP-free so I'm not sure I'll have a chance to give it a look. Simon, I agree that there are interesting possibilities in the idea of games exploring this kind of untraditional subject matter. I personally think there's something beautiful about using games to try to quantify the unquantifiable -- emotions, social dynamics, etc.

While I'm very cautious about idealizing the wacky subject matter of games from Japan (they're often just as guilty of cliché and slavish pandering to convention as our own), I do hope that western developers continue to loosen up and apply some of our game design and development know-how to more than just ballistics models and crime movie tropes." Great post.

GameSetFocus: EGM And The Future Of... Everything

- So most of the time, on the 'new' GameSetWatch, I'll be doing the multiple-link thing to lots of interesting external sites. But from time to time, we'll want to highlight an individual story that really makes a difference - and in this case, EGM's massive 'The Future Of Videogames' feature is just that story.

As is explained in the intro to the piece, reprinted on Ziff's 1UP.com portal: "We've asked experts across the industry to track the next 20 years of everything from game-design trends to the evolution of your living room. A two-decade forecast, we figure, is near-term enough to be tangible (we're staying away from silly sci-fi stuff) but far enough out to fire up your imagination."

There are seven parts in total - all well worth reading, but some of the highlights are the 'Controls' section, dealing with Emotiv's mind-activated game controller, the 'Genres' area, with Halo 3 Design Lead Jaime Griesemer suggesting: "I think you are going to see a lot of FPS games drop the "S" and start making action games from the first-person perspective that don't have guns in them. Call them FPX games", and the future of 'Players' - the inevitable future when everyone becomes a gamer.

Anyhow, the feature is worth checking out because it doesn't get too crazed when predicting the future, and it's the kind of thoughtful omnibus article that hardly anyone does on the web, because of the time and care needed to compile it. Which is a major shame. Thanks, EGM.

June 22, 2007

COLUMN: Game Collector’s Melancholy – Genesis

[‘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 dig through old boxes in the corner of the garage and empty out the hall closet, searching for old Sega Genesis hardware.]

High Grade Multi Purpose Intelligent Terminal

sega_logo.jpgI developed my enthusiasm for video games a little bit later than most. Although the arcade and microcomputer scene fired my imagination in the late seventies and early eighties, most of my young adult-hood was concerned with other things. I have no sugary nostalgia for Nintendo and Saturday morning cereal bowls. The Atari 2600 was something that other kids got for Christmas and were already bored with by the time I came to visit.

Instead, my first console was the Sega Genesis and it colored all of my perceptions of video games since. I was reading Count Zero (along with Mondo 2000 and every RE/Search book I could get my hands on) at the time and in my mind the Genesis’ black surface, studded with vents and ports, seemed to be the embodiment of Gibson’s Ono-Sendai deck. The Genesis hardware pointed the way toward a looming digital landscape, wild and dark in potential and made all the more dangerous by its affordability. Over time, this exhilarating rush of possibility wore off, muted by endlessly replicating cute mascot characters. As the game industry grew and Sega struggled to find its place in it, my initial feelings of hope and wonderment were underscored by a melancholy strain of defeat.

Genesis

The Sega Genesis came to America in the fall of 1989. Leaping beyond the NES’ aging technology, the 16-bit Genesis was powered by the same 68000 chip that was found in many personal computers. Known as the MegaDrive in Japan and Europe, the Genesis would see a bewildering array of model revisions and accessories over its approximately ten-year life span.

genesis_model1.jpgFormed out of black plastic, the Genesis model 1 looked modern and high-tech, comfortably taking up residence next to the VCR and stereo equipment. It came with a headphone mini-jack and volume slider as well as coaxial RF and composite video outs. The machine was also fitted with an expansion slot and a 9-pin EXT port. In Japan, a modem was available that utilized the port but it was not a success and the hardware was soon revised, removing the EXT socket.

genesis_model2.jpgThe Genesis model 2 was a complete redesign released in 1994. Sega discarded the headphone jack and volume slider and simplified the video outs to a single 8-pin DIN port that allowed for RF or composite video. Other changes included a new power adapter (its yellow tip connector will not fit the model 1) and a 6-button controller.

genesis_model3.jpgIn 1997, well after the Genesis’ glory days had passed, Majesco manufactured a low-cost version called the Genesis 3. Radically redesigned to be slightly larger than a game cartridge, the Genesis 3 had the model 2’s DIN video output but lacked an expansion slot, making it incompatible with the Sega CD. A revised chip layout inside also made the unit incompatible with the 32X and Power Base Converter as well.

Any of the three Genesis models are very easy to find. Garage sales and thrift stores are good places to find them cheap (beware of optional installed Brown Recluse spiders!) while online retailers sell them for between $25 and $35.

Power Base Converter

powerbase.jpgFirst of many hardware add-ons that Sega produced for its Genesis console, the bulky Power Base Converter looked somewhat like an Aztec pyramid plugged into the top of the console and enabled Genesis owners to play most of Sega’s 8-bit Master System cartridges and chip cards. The device was really only useful for playing Phantasy Star which was commonly found in bargain bins at the same time. If your interest in Master System games extends beyond just Phantasy Star, it might be wiser to acquire a complete Master System because several games are incompatible with the Power Base Converter.

Look for the Power Base Converter online and pay about $25.

Sega CD

segacd_model1.jpgThe Sega CD was a single-speed CD-ROM drive released for the Genesis in 1992 and represented the company’s first steps down a long road of hardware incoherency. Sega’s marketing promised a new dawn of lush graphics and deep game play, but the reality was pixilated, low frame-rate FMV and heaps of movie-licensed shovelware. The Sega CD was also incredibly expensive, costing more than the Genesis itself, and consumers were reluctant to invest.

segacd_model2.jpgLike the Genesis, the Sega CD was produced in two different versions. The first was designed to sit beneath the model 1 Genesis and had a motorized front-loading CD tray. The second version was redesigned to cut manufacturing costs and featured a top-loading drive sitting on a tray next to the model 2 Genesis. It could also fit a model 1 with the help of a snap on extender. Both versions had RCA audio outs and a small amount of on-board memory for saving games. Sega also produced a Memory Card that plugged into the Genesis’ cartridge slot.

Despite the Sega CD’s failure in the marketplace, a few worthwhile games were published for it. Working Designs released LUNAR: The Silver Star, LUNAR: Eternal Blue, Vay, and Popful Mail while Konami brought Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher to the Sega CD. Other titles to look for are Sonic CD, Shining Force CD, Dark Wizard, Robo Aleste, and Rise of the Dragon.

Working Sega CDs are somewhat difficult to find now. A model 2 is worth about $50 while the model 1 in good condition will set you back around $75.

CD-X

cdx.jpgThe CD-X was a deluxe item that condensed a Genesis and a Sega CD into a single, portable unit. Enjoying a very short production run in 1994, the CD-X could operate as an audio CD player using 2 AA batteries but required a power adapter to operate as a game console.

The CD-X’s high retail price guaranteed limited sales making it somewhat difficult to find. Expect to pay over $100.

JVC X’Eye and Pioneer LaserActive

xeye.jpgSega maintained an irrational commitment to its Sega CD format over the years and even licensed the technology to other manufacturers in hopes of growing the market. JVC created a device called the X’Eye that combined a Genesis and Sega CD into one elegantly designed unit that had microphone inputs for karaoke and a MIDI port that allowed connection to a music keyboard.

laseractive.jpgPioneer produced a hybrid LaserDisc player in 1993 called the LaserActive CLD-A100, which had an optional module available that allowed the machine to play Sega CDs and Genesis cartridges, along with a small selection of LaserDisc formatted games called Mega LDs. For the truly obsessed collector, a TurboGrafx module was also produced. The LaserActive along with its game modules was astronomically expensive, ensuring that very few of the units were sold.

Both the X’Eye and the LaserActive can be found online for around $100.

32X

32x.jpgReleased late in 1994, the 32X was a hardware add-on for the Genesis that would upgrade the aging console into a 32-bit machine. Considering that the Saturn would be released less than a year later, the 32X was dead at birth. By the end of 1995, Sega dropped the accessory and stopped making games for it. Not that anyone cared. In the history of consoles, even the most hangdog machine will have one or two games worth playing. The 32X is unique in that there is not even one game to recommend for it.

The 32X was drastically marked down at retail and now can found for about $25.

Nomad

nomad.jpgA hand-held version of the Genesis released in 1995, the Nomad was a good idea that did not work out so well in practice. With a cartridge sticking out of the top and a battery pack attached to the back, the Nomad was about the size of a shoebox. And while the 3-inch backlit LCD screen was luxurious, the Nomad’s voracious appetite for batteries would chew through six alkalines in less than an hour. An optional (and expensive) rechargeable battery pack did little to improve the machine’s portability.

The Nomad had six controller buttons and a port for a second controller. A DIN video output allowed the Nomad to connect to a television but the LCD screen remained active, making it somewhat distracting to play.

Nomads sell for around $75 but beware of scratched LCD screens.

Neptune

neptune.jpgThe Neptune was a piece of one-off concept hardware created by Sega engineers that combined a Genesis and a 32X into one unit. Never seriously considered for production, the Neptune lingers in the minds of video game collectors like a mythical unicorn. Every few years rumors are passed about a forgotten warehouse somewhere on the Yokohama Bayfront, stacked high with dust covered boxes of Neptune systems waiting to fill orders that will never come.

The Ark of Dreams

genesis_ark.jpgThe first time you see a Genesis “boat” it shakes you a little. Combine a Genesis Model 1 sitting on top of a Sega CD Model 2 with tray extender and top it off with a 32X unit. With a tangled nest of cords dangling off the back and three power adapters dragging behind it, the resulting mess is a shocking testament to failed dreams and misplaced loyalty.

For Genesis cables, adapters, and accessories look to Sega-Parts.com.

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

Brooktown High And The Future Of Western Dating Games

- So, I've been trying out Backbone and Konami's Brooktown High for PSP, even though it really hasn't been getting good reviews at all. [GameSpy's 1.5 out of 5 stars is the lowest, but the GameRankings average is a slightly awful 53%. And it's pretty clear, from the small amount of GameFAQs discussions - and the lack of a FAQ - that not too many consumers are picking it up, either.]

But it's an interesting game to be developed in the West, because it's one of only a couple of larger scale Western-developed dating games ever released. Other ones? Gameloft's Sprung for DS immediately comes to mind, and Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude sorta counts. Kinda.

And while it's not been that well received, I think Brooktown High: Senior Year is absolutely worth checking out and discussing just because it's a relationship-centric game - you know, like that Facade thing that everyone raves about?

So, the good things about the game, first. You personalize your high school character when you start the game, and the questions they ask (about favorite locations, gadgets, styles) help make your character be like... you. But it's interesting - the game encourages you to play someone like yourself - in my case, a decidedly geeky guy. And this makes your interactions with the girls in the game a little more personal.

- Brooktown High is also well-scripted, in a knowing, slightly trashy Laguna Beach-esque way. And it plays like real life _generally_ is - if you're lead geek of astronomy class, then the head cheerleader is going to require extra convincing to actually dig you. That makes you more self-conscious and careful about who you approach. And you actually care about changing your clothes in-game (so girls notice) and targeting specific people who seem to like you for who you are.

But in the end, the object of the game is to impress girls (or boys, if you choose a girl to start with) and then kiss them - and maybe even sneak a few bases beyond that. [All the 'action' is implied in abstract, comedy stock footage cut-scenes, such as red lights turning green, eventually the typical Austin Powers-esque rocket launches.] It's probably a good idea to cultivate the affections of multiple girls at once, so you actually have something to do except talk to one girl per week and then wait. So... that's a bit creepy.

And at some point, I was having a conversation with one of the girls in the game about how she fell off a bike and had to fix her shoulder, and I was impressing her with a long and detailed story about evading some crazies on my own bike, and... I had an odd moment of mental rebellion. It just felt like such a strange, un-natural thing to be doing in a video game, in an imaginary world. I felt a bit dirty, I think. (My wife said I could play, though. Please check with yours.)

- What does that say about me, or the gaming medium? I'm not sure. And it's unfortunate that the actual mechanics of Brooktown High will prohibit many players from getting much pleasure from it - as GameSpy notes: "You only get a few minutes each school week to fraternize before rushing to class, which limits the amount of time you can dedicate to meeting other students or setting up dates."

So there's a lot of rushing around in the times you should be having fun, and there are issues with characters not remembering previous conversations you've had with them - and situations where the multiple choice conversation tree makes you act like a jackass, no matter what.

And the game's interface is a bit tricky in places, and the resource and friend management not spectacularly sophisticated, despite the good-looking 3D art - the 'Art Assets' 02/2007 .ZIP on the Konami PR assets page has some nicely done renders, like math geek Meena's (above). And yes, there are guy ones in there too.

But there's something there - buried in the simplicity of logic and the complexity of interface. Check out this GameFAQs board thread for a good idea of the (slightly scary, manipulative) tactics to use with girls, and therefore the kind of interesting and odd plot threads Brooktown High uses. And I think game creators should check it out and work out what they feel when the play it. Because there aren't many games out there with... emotions in them.

- Anyhow, there was a question, as you can see from the title of this post, and I'm still going to ask it. I'm aware that Match.com is a dating game, but Brooktown High offers an even greater opportunity to represent somebody who isn't yourself with no repercussions. So - can there ever be a successful Western dating game? Or is it just too niche, too odd, too taboo, and not something people want to be doing on their own, without real people?

[BONUS: Extra reading - there's a geeky GameFAQs conversation on the roots of dating games and how Japanese ones compare to the few American ones - worth reading.]

GameSetNetwork: Tomb Raiding A Physics Funfest

- We really are pumping out a good deal of original content at Gamasutra, Game Career Guide, GamesOnDeck, and our various other sites and events of late (ah yeah, and The Hollywood & Games Summit is next week, too) - so here's a few of the ones that I figured you crazies might enjoy checking out:

- GameTap's Animextravaganza!: On Gama, we quizzed GameTap's Ricardo Sanchez on Re\Visioned, their game-themed animation series that's starting by letting Aeon Flux's Peter Chung loose on Lara Croft. This rather neat-looking and presumably not cheap series (GameTap.com has a teaser in the videos section) is gonna have multiple arcs with other characters, too: "The second season is quite different from the first, as it will feature six different IP that share a common theme, explored and created by different creative teams. Season three is about exploring a single IP, with a single team doing a multi-part story."

- GDC China Up & Running: For all of you in the Shanghai area (or with interests in the Asian game market!) - our colleagues just opened registration for GDC China, organized in conjunction with GamePro/E For All owners IDG, and taking place August 27-29, 2007 at the Shanghai International Convention Center. Plenty of top Chinese speakers, from what I've heard, and also some interesting Western ones: "Headlining the Online Game Development and Business track is David Perry, CEO & Founder of Gameconsultants.com. Paul Steed, Co-Founder & CCO of Exigent, will address "Why Cultural Training is Crucial to Outsourcing" on the Outsourcing and Next Generation Games track." There's more info at the official site, anyhow.

- Kalman What What?: Yes, this is super duper hardcore, but we ran a feature called ' Where's the Wiimote? Using Kalman Filtering To Extract Accelerometer Data' on Gamasutra - and it's almost as complicated as the title. Anyhow, it involves using complex algorithms to get the Wiimote behaving itself, and there's a rather immortal comment in the intro, explaining the need for greater filtering: "In the bowling game I have been soundly defeated by a 7 year old. While that in and of itself is not an issue, he usually beats me by swinging his arm in a random convulsive fashion behind his back."

- Lego Of Physics!: A new Gamasutra feature, called 'Publishers And Developers, Living Together - NetDevil's Scott Brown On The New Paradigm', discusses the somewhat surprising resurgence of the Auto Assault creator, having muscled through the auto combat flop to sign the 'Lego Universe' MMO and a number of other projects. Particularly notable, when referencing their currently PhysX hardware card-exclusive Warmonger: "We’re evaluating if it makes more sense to make some of the game not require the accelerator so you can see the difference. And also, maybe get a little more exposure for the title." Is Ageia finally limping into submission, I wonder?

[Also debuting on our sites recently - a neat chat with 'Central Clancy Writer' at Ubisoft, Richard Dansky, a look at AiLive's Wiimote AI tool, as seen at the AIIDE conference at Stanford recently, and a postmortem of Carnegie Mellon's Northrop Grumman Recruitment Game over at GameCareerGuide (!), plus a slightly odd Gama opinion piece claiming that interactive DVD games are 'the next big thing' - hey, that's why it's an opinion!]

June 21, 2007

GameSetA: World Of Warcraft's 'Oh My God' Moments

- Well, it has to be said that the reaction to the first couple of longer posts on the 'new' GSW have been excellent, with almost 40 comments between the 'Who Are The Sex Pistols Of Gaming?' post (including some incisive comparisons from N co-creator Raigan - Rockstar are Marilyn Manson?) and the GameSetQ referencing 'Oh My God' moments (which have a mass of Metroid comments, in particular).

But I think it's the World Of Warcraft-related moments which are the most resonant - and I'm picking three of them to highlight here in a standalone post, because they each show how the massive, massively addictive online world can affect you in different ways. The third anecdote, in particular, is a killer - somewhat literally:

Joy (Michael Zenke, MMOG Nation/Slashdot): "The very first time I hit max-level with a character in a Massive game was in World of Warcraft. I was hunting Yeti in Winterspring, and I realized I was *almost* there. I FRAPsed the 'final' golden glowie, and then danced around my apartment singing."

Geeky References (Dan Amrich, Official Xbox Magazine): "WoW is full of little in-jokes that have stopped me in my tracks. In Orgrimmar, there's a guy in the Cleft of Shadows in the rogue trainer area named Zando'zan. I sat there dumbfounded; how did a Last Starfighter reference ("Interstellar hit beast!" shrieks Centauri) make it in here? Was it put here just for me?

And just last week, I suddenly came across the Lost Vikings in Uldaman. If you didn't recognize Olaf, Baelog and Eric the Swift, it didn't interrupt the game at all...but since I got the reference, it made me stop and look and, at one point, nearly get killed by getting too close to a pack of level 40 elites. I was totally elated, and that kind of subtlety -- that respect for one segment of the audience while not excluding the rest of it -- just reinforces how human game experiences can be."

Raw Emotion (Matthew Bellows, ex-WGR, Floodgate Entertainment): "Was questing near Sun Rock Retreat in WoW one night with these two other toons. One, just from the way she wrote, was clearly a girl. About 15 minutes in, she /w: "Do you like me?"

Knowing that my wife was not looking, I wrote back: "Yes. Definitely."

She wrote back: "No, seriously, because this other guy is telling me that he thinks you are fighting the way you are to show off for me."

At that point, I opened up the discussion to all three of us. We retreated to one of those little mounds in the center of the zone and talked about love, difficulties and personal issues. At one point the guy said: "I had a terrible relationship with my mom. Sometimes I get so angry about it I just punch the walls in my house."

The next night, I was in Sun Rock, turning in quests and repairing, when I saw the girl from the night before. We were chatting about the scene the night before, how weird it was, how awesome WoW was that that could happen, etc. Suddenly, she cried out, her chest exploded in blood, and a lvl 60 alliance rogue appeared behind her, ganked her with one backstab.

It was the most shocking thing I've ever experienced in a game... This girl, who was starting to be a friend, killed in front of me, her blood splashed on my face. Then the rogue one-hit me. No single player game could ever match that experience."

Game Developer Revisits EA_Spouse, Three Years On

- So, we at the CMP Game Group have just published the June-July 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine, and you might notice that the frowny little guy on the cover relates to the cover feature 'For Better or Worse: A Quality of Life Update'.

This Paul Hyman-penned feature (sorry, not available for free online - subscribe now and support the mag!) takes a look at the effects of EA_Spouse's call to action (and the subsequent lawsuits) regarding long working hours in the game biz. As the synopsis notes:

"In 2004, a then-anonymous letter writer, “EA_Spouse,” penned an angry and outraged treatise to the game community chiding Electronic Arts for forcing employees to work egregious amounts of overtime. In the months that followed, development studios, the IGDA, and other outspoken individuals stood up and voiced their opinion of what it means to be in this obsessively dedicated line of work, with most of them calling for industrywide change, too. Nearly three years later, has any of it stuck? Or has the call to action petered out?"

Of course, since then, EA_Spouse has 'come out' as Erin Hoffman, and she makes plenty of comments in the article about how game company cultures (and EA in particular) has changed: "From what I understand, the Los Angeles studio has made a really big turnaround, for example. I've heard mixed comments from Vancouver, and I consistently hear bad things about Tiburon." We've heard that too, judging by a brief letter received after the article debuted, and some of the feedback on the GameWatch.org forums, set up by Hoffman to help discuss the issues.

But is it fair to single out EA? Absolutely not - all major game companies have (or have had) some degree of problems with working long hours, an edgy extension of a job that can require a lot of creative dedication. But it's when working 60 or 80 or 100 hours per week becomes corporately mandated or 'tribe'-impelled and management does nothing to stop the burnout that we get into trouble.

Anyhow, the GameWatch forums, though fairly quiet nowadays, have some good discussions in general, with other companies also coming up for scrutiny and even a 'Kudos' forum calling out companies from LucasArts through EA Chicago and Destineer for their good attitude to quality of life.

And UK-based Relentless Software's David Amor, who wrote an article on this very subject for Game Developer a few months back, also popped up with an excellent, in-depth look at the problem and some possible solutions. And as we discuss the issue more, I would hope that it's only going to get better.

[Have any (anonymous, if necessary!) GSW readers had experiences with quality of life issues being addressed thanks to EA_Spouse's publicity, or has it made little difference in your neck of the woods, I wonder?]

GameSetLinks: June 20th, 2007

- So, still trying to work out whether this redesigned, 'cut down' GameSetWatch is actually taking me more time than the old one, heh. It's certainly more, fun, though, and judging by the enthusiastic response to a couple of the opinion pieces I posted, people seem to dig it. Onward and upward with a nice smattering of random links:

- Aquaria Edits Things Up: An official Aquaria blog update has revealed video of the level editor that will now ship with the IGF Grand Prize-winning title - and it looks remarkably intuitive. Alec Holowka [EDIT: Oops!] notes: "We recently decided to work on including our editor tools in the game as well as a Mod framework... What else are we doing? Working on the end of the game, secrets and various details… and unfortunately we can’t show any footage of that yet, for obvious reasons." Neat!

- The Compleat Gold Farmer: This is actually from last weekend, but it's well worth pointing out, since we didn't - Julian Dibbell released a longform New York Times Magazine piece entitled 'The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer', and the result of a great deal of first-person research inside China: "For every 100 gold coins he gathers, Li makes 10 yuan, or about $1.25, earning an effective wage of 30 cents an hour, more or less. The boss, in turn, receives $3 or more when he sells those same coins to an online retailer, who will sell them to the final customer (an American or European player) for as much as $20."

- Quick, EA, Hyde!: Over at Pocket Gamer, British freelancer du jour Jon Jordan has written a cute little blog post pointing out Electronic Arts' UK headquarters being used in new BBC drama: "We’ll assume it’s not because the giant publisher is falling on hard times, but keen-eyed viewers of James Nesbitt-vehicle Jekyll, on BBC1 this Saturday, would have noticed EA’s publishing UK HQ standing as a swanky-looking hospital [pictured above, or at lleast someone loitering in front of it]... The Lord Foster-designed building used to be pretty busy, but last year EA Europe’s senior management buzzed off to a Swiss low tax haven, while all the developers got shunted down the road to Guildford, so maybe filling up the entrance hall with film crews makes sense." Hah!

- Developer, Academia Clash?: Well, not totally, but a Santa Cruz Sentinel article discussing the new UCSC game degree, co-run by Grand Text Auto-er Michael Mateas, has a couple of quizzical quotes from local developers about game education. Gish co-creator Josiah Piscotta: "I think schools are a little behind the times" - though I think he's implying it's a good thing that they are starting degrees now. Cryptic's Jack Emmert is a lot more vociferious: "I think these programs are stealing money... It's premature for universities to sell degrees when the industry hasn't even figured out what the skill set is to be a successful game designer." Though I think many schools train artists and programmers too, but - interesting. (via VH1 Game Break)

- Blow Hits Indie Podcast: Must say that I didn't know about the Indie Game Developer's Podcast, but the latest edition has Jon Blow, "...founder of the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC and developer of the game Braid talking about game design" - GBGames explains that "...near the end, he talks about story in games, specifically saying that games can tell a story without resorting to the methods used in media such as books and movies." Blow also popped up on Arsecast recently, which is less painful than it sounds.

- Oh God, The Metaverse: Finally, Raph Koster points to a MIT Technology Review cover story called 'Second Earth', and subtitled: "The World Wide Web will soon be absorbed into the World Wide Sim: an environment combining elements of Second Life and Google Earth." Sure, it's breathy stuff, but it turns out the whole online worlds thing (often involving penguins!) is a big deal, despite the Second Life hype bubble distorting many viewpoints. In fact, we have something rather smart to announce in this general area (hopefully next week!), which I think will make Koster happy, for starters. And no, it's not a virtual beard grooming machine.

June 20, 2007

More Talk, Less Action: Erotic Text Adventures

[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.]

-Just like with sex, the visual component’s a huge part of gaming. However, the text-only interactive fiction community’s still going strong, programming, sharing and entering into competition text adventures of all stripes— throwbacks to the Infocom era that are often quite sophisticated. Gamers can still enjoy over a decade’s worth of text adventures with only a simple, fuss-free interpreter for TADS or Inform, two of the most common languages for writing interactive fiction.

Interactive fiction—commonly called simply “IF”—requires a goodly helping of imagination. This is due in part to the fact that solutions are sometimes notoriously obscure, but largely, it’s simply because in today’s environment of lush game cinematics and jaw-dropping graphics, it’s increasingly tough to play a game where all of the images are user-created—that is, spun from the mind’s eye.

Many Hentai games are little more than point-and-click slideshows of character graphics; given the often typified plot construct clumsily erected to showcase the sex scenes, plenty of people prefer to bag the “game” entirely and just download the CG sets. Given this, how erotic can a completely image-free sex game be?

Not surprising, but the imagination can be quite a bit mightier than the pixel. Images or no, text adventures can offer some of the most unabashedly aberrant experiences available to gamers.

One such game, written in 1996 by “Scarlet Herring" and titled Moist, is recognized as one of the better erotic titles in the interactive fiction archive. Your player character is a nondescript naked man—he’s chanced to wander away from his nudist colony—who’s become trapped in the castle of the lascivious Queen Morghana. To escape, the player will have to effectively seduce each of Morghana’s three servants to earn a chance to try and satisfy the Queen herself.

The fairly standard text adventure puzzle structure is in play here as you explore the castle to reach new areas, any of which might hold an object key to your conquest. To put it plain, you can find rope, lubricant, sex toys and even batteries for such niceties. Each female character is slightly different and requires something specific to submit, and as expected, the Queen herself is the greatest challenge, once you reach her. It’s quite difficult, perhaps impossible, to please her unless you’ve brought the resources to occupy her in several areas at the same time. Once you’ve achieved victory, you can roam freely about the castle and revisit your new friends.

It’s a bit unwieldy and embarrassing—after all, if we are using our imaginations here, we must picture ourselves as a naked dude walking around a castle with armloads of sex props, and the medieval elements will push the nerd factor beyond the pale for some. And while the females’ responses, reactions and behavior are impressively natural considering they’ve been pre-parsed, their occasionally inappropriate AI blurting can be awkward—even funny. So’s the fact that your character can “interact” with certain inanimate objects, like an anatomically correct statue.

Overall, though, by stimulating the other major organ (remember the brain?), Moist manages to offer a little bit more cerebral and immersive a gaming experience than many of its graphic-rich, soundtracked and voice-acted counterparts—and perhaps it’s refreshing that it doesn’t take itself too seriously; it has a certain charming self-awareness.

Text adventures are not subject to the ESRB, and anyone with a readily-available programming language can make one—and remain wholly anonymous, if they so choose. As a result, games like Samantha Jones’s 2002 creation Depravity Bites are made possible. If seducing a corseted queen in Moist is too tame for you, give this one a try.

But a bit of fair warning: it’s purely alternative fetish—very alternative— where mutilation bondage and something called a “yellow enema” are only the lighter side. Depravity Bites is far closer to the true definition of psychological aberration than any plain sex game, but though I earnestly struggled to find appropriate language with which to review it, I’m forced to surrender for now.

In today’s massively multiplayer world, a solitary, stripped-down experience is surprisingly easy to appreciate. Rather than being a letdown, the text-only, no-frills interface feels intimate, the privacy a relief. Nobody’s watching—not even, technically, you—and a flexible, word-driven world provides a sense of freedom rare in the high-stimulus environments where we currently play.

[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.]

GameSetQ: Your 'Oh My God' Moment In Games?

- The other evening, I was happily playing along in Medium mode on Guitar Hero II for the Xbox 360, and - at the point of an encore, about halfway through the mode, it happened. What happened? A heavens-to-Betsy 'Oh My God' gaming moment - which I'm sure all of you have had in the past at some point.

What conflation of events made me so ecstatic? Well, take a finely crafted Harmonix rhythm game, always one of my favorite genres (and I loved Frequency and Amplitude, too), and add a little Spinal Tap - whom I'm proud to say I caught live with Steve Vai in San Francisco during their last tour - that's a great start.

More specifically, the track in question is 'Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight' - you just wait for the breakdown before the guitar solo comes in, and then hit Star Power and jam it, and - not a dry seat in the house, indeed. Then slam happily into the end of the song to see... the drummer explode onscreen. Even yet another Spinal Tap reunion can't compare to that particular piece of video game magic.

- So I guess what I'm saying is that everyone has a certain combination of gameplay styles, visuals, music, effects, and personal loves that can come together in a special moment. And it's not quite the same as other creative media, because you're interacting with the game and affecting the outcome.

Thus, my GameSetQ to you, kind reader, is as follows. Whether it be in Rez, Zelda, Psychonauts, or a host of other games, what single crowning moment in video gaming has blown you away with how much you enjoy it, on a visceral level, a humor level, or even a deeply emotional level?

How Perry, LoPiccolo, Dizzy Got Their Start In Games

- OK, the cute little eggman isn't really one of those we asked, but sister site Game Career Guide has been quizzing a bunch of notables, including Dizzy's daddy Philip Oliver (Blitz), former Shiny supremo David Perry, and Harmonix VP Greg LoPiccolo (as well as Aussie veteran Derek Proud), about just how they got into the game industry - way back when.

Let's have a paragraph, then, highlighting each of the alternately 'bedroom programmer' and 'rock god' ways they sneaked into the biz - not necessarily applicable nowadays, but darn interesting nonetheless:

Philip Oliver: "The twins believed that by using their own "ideas and perseverance" they could "write great games". Even at that point though - staying up until all hours of the night, working on their own games, which were steadily becoming more and more proficient - Philip never "projected ahead" for a possible career in the industry. "Industry?" he laughs. "At that point in time nobody really believed there was an industry; just a passing fad for a few nerdy hobbyists. Our view was that if we could get paid to for our hobby then we'd see how long we could avoid getting real - dull - jobs.""

Greg LoPiccolo: "LoPiccolo's interest in games didn't start until the relatively late age of 32 - for the most part, he was more focused on his career in Boston rock band Tribe. It wasn't until 1993 that he was exposed to the industry by a friend who worked as a programmer for Looking Glass Studios, which had just released Ultima Underworld II. The company was about to start work on System Shock, and LoPiccolo was asked to contribute to the game as a composer."

David Perry: "Later that year, Perry decided to send his work on Cosmos, and a number of other games, to National ZX Users Club magazine, and was paid £450 for his efforts. It was at this point, he says, that he realized working with games "could actually become a job". After meeting the magazine's publisher, Tim Hartnell, Perry asked if he could contribute a chapter to one of the books that Hartnell was working on at the time - the appropriately named Tim Hartnell's Giant Book of Spectrum Games." Wait, isn't Tim Hartnell's Giant Book of Spectrum Games more rock than being in Tribe?

June 19, 2007

GameSetLinks: June 19th, 2007

- Aha, time for the new-style GameSetWatch 'concatenate lots of random links into one place' concept - and there's everything from Crecente Winfrey's Game Club to fractal fighting action in this particular bouquet of goodness:

- Kotaku's Game Club: Kotaku's Brian Crecente was nice enough to ask me my opinion on some interesting indie PC games to include in his Game Club concept, which is, yes, a lot like Oprah's Book Club, except for games - and he set up a poll to pick the first title, including my picks for discussable, deeper indie titles - Deadly Rooms Of Death: The City Beneath, Mr. Robot and Cave Story. Looks like Cave Story is coming in second to Beyond Good And Evil right now, but hopefully they will try more of these games at some point, because they're all very worth.

- Metal Gear/Halo Comic Art @ Ebay: Some late-night eBay trawling produced some completely awesome Ashley Wood artwork from Metal Gear Solid, apparently an alternate cover for one of the comics. Wood's style is increasingly being used by Kojima Productions, of course, with it appearing in Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, so it's a rare example of game-comic-game crossover. Also, there's some Simon Bisley art from the Halo graphical novel, if that's your poison.

- Fractal Fighter Shmup!: Derek Yu points out a completely awesome looking shooter at TIGSource: "Crazy cactus has put together (in 24 hours, I might add) a great [free-to-download] “boss rush” shoot ‘em up called Fractal Fighter. In this one you’ve got to clip off the tips of each boss while you slowly make your way in to the core. Each “generation” of the boss has it’s own attack pattern."

- Pollen Sonata's Abstractions: Abstract ambient game alert! Selectparks points out a Source Engine-modded title called Pollen Sonata, which is "... meditative, to say the least: the mix of navigating in wind currents (the work with force vectors is quite impressive) sound-design and soft colour-palette had me quite preoccupied with my my new life as a small cluster of pollen. Once finished playing I was left looking for a genre with which to describe it and arrived at Casual Ambient."

- Silent Movie Critics & Games?: MTV News' Stephen Totilo now has his own domain for his MTV Multiplayer blog, and on it, he links to a new MTV News story which discusses the early days of film criticism and how it resembles how games are being treated now. "Münsterberg [who was around in the 1910s!] wrote about the "movement toward Federal censorship" and defended movies — photoplays — by claiming that people always hated a new medium but inevitably learned to appreciate it."

Who Are The Sex Pistols Of Gaming?

- So, I was watching Julien Temple's excellent documentary 'The Filth And The Fury' earlier today, and it really made clear just how iconoclastic and absolutely terrifying The Sex Pistols were in the '70s.

For example - let's not forget that when they got to the top spot in the UK music charts with 'God Save The Queen', there officially was no No.1 single that week - the top spot was just blank in the printed version of the chart countdown.

And it got me thinking - has the game industry got an equivalent of The Sex Pistols? That is to say - a rough and ready, don't give a crap-styled set of rabble rousers who nonetheless start a whole movement?

Well, probably not, since there's nothing that the media and public is quite so abjectly terrified of, nowadays. But here's some nominations for people who at least embody elements of the Sex Pistols' spirit:

- They're English as well, but they don't spit on stage as much - the guys at Introversion Software, headed by Mark Morris, Chris Delay, and Tom Arundel have an attitude, an image, and let's not forget, they can use naughty words to get developers pogo-ing with the best of them. Mind you, they aren't afraid to aim high, too, integrating elements of Malcolm McLaren-esque svengali-ing into their publisher non-f*cking-with. Their long-term goal? "To be the Kubrick / Tarantino of the games industry." Talking a good talk is very Pistols.

- In terms of careful image creation and cooler-than-thou attitude, Rockstar Games, whatever its state under Take-Two's new management, exudes 'don't mess with me' attitude. Like the Sex Pistols, Rockstar speaks to the press little, if ever - exuding disdain along the way (in The Filth And The Fury, inebriated journo Nick Kent admits that the Sex Pistols got on so well with the media because they hated them, and journalists are essentially "masochistic".) And they're drawn to controversial subjects like flies to honey, something the Pistols ('Belsen's A Gas', after all) were also mighty fond of. There's a similar ability to cause outraged politicians and tabloid headlines, too.

- Most of all, I think of Vince Desi and the Running With Scissors clan at GoPostal.com. Desi is a man, lest we forget, who has licensed his key product to Uwe Boll to make a 9/11-aping movie in which he appears as a gigantic penis mascot called 'Krotchy' (tagline - 'Only my father and my priest can touch me there'). They sponsor Mixed Martial Arts fighters for no good reason, and they declare happily: "Running With Scissors develops and publishes outrageous games just for the hell of it." Now that's the deliberately pointless Sex Pistols spirit at work - touche. Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

GameSetNetwork: From Hard Drivin' To Domestic Abuse

- Something else I'll be doing more of is rounding up original reporting on the CMP Game Group's edit sites - which includes big sister Gamasutra, as well as mobile game site Games On Deck and education site Game Career Guide.

Why? Because, honestly, I think some of the stories sometimes get a little slept on, due to the volume of edit we put out. Here we go:

- Take Action On Domestic Abuse: Over at Gamasutra, there's an interview with Susana Ruiz of Take Action Games, the designer of MTVu-sponsored social activism game Darfur is Dying. She's now revealed her latest project, RePlay: Finding Zoe, a Flash-based game encouraging children to report domestic abuse - and she explains: "What the game attempts to convey is that, while it can be extremely challenging to act out on an injustice around us, it is definitely our greatest power to observe, care and take action."

- Midway & Ghost Patents: Our main feature on Gama today was called 'Hard Drivin', Hard Bargainin': Investigating Midway’s ‘Ghost Racer’ Patent', and the Kyle Orland-authored piece is explained as follows: "Did you know that games such as Project Gotham Racing and Ridge Racer 6 are paying Midway to include 'ghost mode' cars to race against, thanks to a patent in the company's 1989 arcade racer Hard Drivin'? We analyze the original patent, talk to Midway and licensee Global VR, and examine just how patents impact the biz." Honestly - damn those patents all to hell.

- Hollywood... Games!: My colleague Brandon Boyer caught up with Hollywood & Games Summit and GDC head honcho Jamil Moledina to discuss next week's L.A.-based conference, which CMP is doing in association with The Hollywood Reporter. and has keynotes from Clive Barker and 300 producer Thomas Tull, as well as appearances from Jordan Mechner, Rob Pardo, and a host of others. Moledina seems to think that the film and game biz are playing a lot nicer, nowadays:

"For the first couple of decades of this relationship, the collaborative expressions lived at a fairly consistent level, where most decisions were business-related. There was a mix of results, as you pointed out, that everyone would admit. Today, we’re seeing much more creative participation."

[A couple of brief other highlights - there's a Games On Deck feature called 'Ditch the Emulators: How to Code Your Own J2ME Simulator', handy for the hardcore cellphone game heads, and the latest 'China Angle' column has Shang Koo discussing Microsoft's investment in Chinese PC-based 'console' firm Changhong, which "...might be the first step in Microsoft's intricate strategy, but will likely end as a cheap lesson on China's console market."]

June 18, 2007

2007 Independent Games Summit Gets Physical

- So, I'm delighted to announce that we've just set up a new website for the Independent Games Summit, the IGF-affiliated event that took place for the first time at Game Developers Conference 2007 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, on March 5th and 6th, 2007. (We'll do it again in 2008.)

As we explain on the page: "The Independent Games Summit [which runs alongside the Independent Games Festival at GDC] seeks to highlight the brightest and the best of indie development, with discussions ranging from indie game distribution methods through game design topics, guerrilla marketing concepts, student indie game discussions, and much more."

Even better, we are gradually putting video of the 2007 Independent Games Summit online "for free, in the spirit of sharing, and to help the indie community understand and better itself".

The first one of these is the 'Physics Games Go Indie' lecture from new IGF content co-director Matthew Wegner - here's a direct Google Video link and .MP4 download link for his lecture, plus the embedded version:

Here's the original session description: "Wegner, who is both an indie developer and runs the physics game blog Fun-Motion, explains why real-time physics are such a big part of many innovative independent games, with demonstrations and practical tips for developers wanting to use physics to make their games stand out."

[And actually, pictured in top left is his own Flashbang Studios' Sealab 2021: Sweet Mayhem game [.EXE link] for Adult Swim, completed as part of the IGF Project Goldmaster Award, which used physics rigs for the enemies - we're always up for a little bit of elastic Stormy action.]

OPINION: Evenhanded Media Digg Policies - For Game Sites, Too?

- Jason Kottke has pointed out something that warms the very cockles of my heart, with regard to fair linking and Digg, something I've previously discussed more than once here on GameSetWatch.

He explains: "Digg policies from Lifehacker and [from] Gizmodo, which state that the only Digg-worthy posts of theirs are those with "original content, new reporting, treatment, or photos" because "it's not fair when we get the Digg for someone else's work.""

However, Kottke then goes on to make the fair, but slightly tortuous point that: "This seems inconsistent on the part of Gawker Media. One of their main innovations (if you'd like to call it that) regarding the blog format was the idea of linking to things in such a way that readers don't need to actually leave the site to get the full (or nearly full) story."

Yet should a site be actively promoting a story that's been broken by another site? As I've said before: "You can absolutely submit things from your own outlet to Digg - we also do it from time to time - but IMHO, it should be your own original reporting, otherwise the dilution of information just discourages first-hand reporting." I think Kottke's arguing that the very blog format does that already - so the Digg-ing of such stories is just another form of what makes the blog useful in the first place.

But I think what Jason is missing is that increasingly, blogs are running original content in order to lock in their readership increases and develop a more unique editorial voice, while getting people to link to them - Kotaku has a fair amount of original stories every week, for example. So they're also now in the situation where they break exclusives and other editorial sites and/or blogs don't give them the respect that they deserve - which is unfair.

This linking thing is mighty confusing, of course - but consider this an open call sites and ESPECIALLY random Digg users. Here's what I think. When a blog picks up on someone else's tip or original reporting, then when writing a story about it, they should name the source (at an absolute minimum) and link them (unless there's a v.sensible reason not to).

At which point, site admins and _especially_ users - don't Digg the story or heavily promote it unless you are promoting the primary source. Checking out the Digg game page right now, I can see thousands of hits redirected away from Newsweek and from IGN, without any crediting, natch. It discourages independent reporting and thought in the game journalism community, and it's lame. Anyone else want to comment about it too on their own sites?

GameSetLinks: June 18th, 2007 Edition

- Been trying to think a little bit about what GameSetWatch means to me, my employer, and the game biz, and so we're trying something new for a little bit.

Namely - the same unheralded/alternative links we have always run will be around, but concatenated into a single daily post, linklog-stylee, and then we'll save our longer posts for more interesting and longer-form columns and opinion pieces. Or that's the concept. So here we go:

- HDRLying has a piece up discussing 'The Top Eight Labors of Love in Gaming History', explaining: "Sometimes, a team puts so much of their heart, soul, time (and sometimes even their lives) into a game, that it becomes much more than just a product; it becomes a labor of love." Examples include Panzer Dragoon and Cave Story.

- There really do seem to be more forgotten, interesting titles on the Game Boy than a lot of other consoles - and Disgruntled Designer rounds them up in a new post - for example the marvellously obscure Trip World: "This game suffered the fate of many of Sunsoft's fantastic games in the 1990s like Hebereke and Gimmick!, namely being withheld from release in North America, and being released in low numbers in Japan." [Via NamakoTeam.]

- How many page views might you get if those dapper dons of gaming cartoons, Penny Arcade, linked to you? Thomas & The Magical Words creator Chanon at Viquasoft has found out: "In the month of December 2005 we got 42,904 visitors and 26,081 downloads (hits to the download link) for our game Thomas and the Magical Words from Penny-Arcade from this post. Conversion rates were actually above normal, which I believe was probably because Tycho himself was actually recommending the game." Not bad.

- Here's an interesting one - someone at NBC Universal sent over a physics toy that I guess they've commissioned (is this to promote something, or just a new interactive site they're trying?): "I wanted to point you in the direction of a game/community called Calamity Game. Its a Flash based physics web toy where users start with a blank canvas and a rag doll. They can then create their own scenes using different tools." It's... neat.

June 17, 2007

Target Toss Pro Arcades Up The Bar

- Of course, U.S. arcade firm Incredible Technologies has made a mint out of its Golden Tee Golf series, which shrewdly (or fortunately!) anticipated the move of new arcade titles in North America from massive arcade centers to smaller add-ons to bars and drinking establishments.

Anyhow, Arcade Heaven has commented on Incredible's latest arcade launch, the amusingly named Target Toss Pro. As they note: "As usual it was good to see something different from the coin-op norm but at the same time I have never thought of playing bag toss as a video game." (Incredible's other popular product of late is Silver Strike Bowling, another American favorite gone digital.)

Of course, like Golden Tee, Target Toss Pro is another trackball-controlled game, since alcohol and trackballs seem to produce positive feedback loops in many players - it's explained: "Like beanbag toss, the object of Bags is simple: toss a beanbag into the hole of a platform, or box. If you “put it in the basement,” as the players say, you get three points. Land the beanbag on the box, and you get one point. Of course with Bags, the beanbags and box are virtual.” And trackballs are still 'unique arcade experiences', most of the time, too!

Should Publishers Have Demographic Advocates?

- At his Game Tycoon blog, Xbox Live Arcade portfolio planner David Edery has been discussing the idea of 'demographic advocates', asking if "...video game publishers might be well served by having an internal advocate for different demographic groups."

Edery explains: "The idea came to mind when I was thinking about Marble Blast Ultra, one of our XBLA games. I have heard it said on more than one occasion that “if Marble Blast Ultra included a sandbox mode in which there were no penalties, no timers, etc, it would be a perfect kid’s game.” Conversely, when playing Pokemon Diamond, I’ve often thought 'if only there were a way to speed up the rather slow and repetitive feeling of battles (among other related issues), this game might have some chance of appealing to more adults.'"

He also makes suggestions on how other ethnic and gender groups can be better served, explaining: "Theoretically, the marketing arm of a publisher would be responsible for these observations. But it seems to me that, while this kind of thinking does take place in the industry, it does so sporadically. I think we’re a mature enough industry to justify a more consistent approach. When relatively minor changes or additions to a game could result in a significantly larger target market, to be anything less than vigilant seems wasteful." Thoughts?

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 6/16/07

['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]

beckettcheats-card.jpg

Oh, drat! Beckett Spotlight: Cheat Codes has ceased publication with Issue 17, June/July 2007, and now I (as a subscriber) will get yet more copies of Beckett Massive Online Gamer crammed into my mailbox every other month. Not that anyone, even me, will miss it much -- there was absolutely nothing inside of it that online wasn't doing better 12 years ago.

When a magazine ceases publication, that's usually my cue to try to collect every back issue I'm missing. But I don't know where to begin with this one. I didn't start buying it until Issue 12 last fall, and it had been going for two years previous. Does anyone actually have any back issues of this title they'd be welling to sell? For that matter -- hey, Beckett writers! I know I've said a lot of bad things about your mags and all, but c'mon, how 'bout we let bygones be bygones? I mean, here's a guy who actually wants a complete collection of all your cheat-code mags. How many other readers do you think were that dedicated to your publications? Not many, I can tell you that.

With that bit of sad news behind us, let's take a look at all the US mags that hit mailboxes and bookstores the past fortnight. Game Informer leads the pack with Fallout 3 coverage, but one gets the idea GI's editors had other games on their minds...

Game Informer July 2007

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Cover: Fighting person

The cover may be devoted to Fallout 3, the fire of the loins of PC game nuts worldwide, but I have the sneaking suspicion the GI staff is a great deal more passionate about the other hot-sclusive this month, Harmonix's Rock Band. EIC Andy McNamara spends his entire editorial talking about it, and while Bethesda's game gets 10 pages of by-the-book GI game reveal (lots of dev narratives, lots of pre-pre-pre-alpha screens for fanboys to whine about on the net, lots of sentences along the lines of "You'll be able to do X and Y and it'll be awesome"), whoever wrote the eight-page Rock Band piece honestly put his/her heart and soul into it. I mean, they couldn't get a pic of the (still under development) drum set planned for the game, so they had some outside artist render a version of the drums they saw for the magazine! How much dedication does that require? A lot, and you can see it in both the text and the dev quotes.

The Connect news section is pretty low-key this month, with two articles (Starcraft II and Sony's Gamers Day) that had better coverage online, another on elite Gears of War player Daniel Vasquez that seems more appropriate for a Beckett mag, and yet another on "alternate reality gaming" (i.e. Perplex City) which doesn't seem to have much to do with video games.

GamePro July 2007

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Cover: Somewhat recognizable fighting man

This month all of GamePro's editions include an "interactive CD" produced by eTAGZ you play on your PC or Mac. GamePro has a long and varied history of never doing anything unless there was some kind of instant money to be made off it, and this CD is no exception, being sponsored by ITT Tech and a couple other outfits. Load it up, and you'll find a few game videos, a couple of old buyer's guide articles (and a PDF strategy guide for Halo 2 just in case you haven't played it yet), and that's about the entirety of it. In other words, pretty much like any demo DVD packed into a British game mag.

Over on the paper side of things, Halo 3 is king, and the feature story is essentially an info dump, covering every possible facet of the beta (and beyond) and getting downright obsessive with describing every item and weapon. The other feature, on Crysis, features a lovely 2-page opening art spread and continues on with several bite-sized infoboxes, done up similar to Nintendo Power's style and making it much easier to read through than most coverage on this game, which tends to be extremely verbose for some reason.

I just realized that GamePro is about the only US game mag willing to print a single screen shot full-size across the entire page. It definitely gives the mag's previews and features a unique sense of style, something that I know GP struggled for years on end with not too long ago.

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

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Cover: SimCity: Socities

GFW has a three-page article on Dwarf Fortress (a.k.a. the first PC game I've really cared about in approximately six years) this month, and for that it once again wins my utter gratitude and peon-like faithfulness. Surely its ASCII graphics would've made for a compelling, eye-catching cover, but instead the editors thought a bunch of rendered buildings would be more interesting.

Oh, I kid, I kid. SimCity: Societies does have a fascinating story behind it, at least, partially because Will Wright all but declared the series dead in the water three years ago. Ryan Scott gives a very smart and Edge-like look at what's being done with this game to revitalize it and make it relevant to a large audience, and you'll almost certainly want to read it once you're done with Dwarf Fortress. Tom & Bruce is also great this month, covering LOTR-Online and being consistently funny throughout. It's amazing they still have it after all this time.

Hardcore Gamer July 2007

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Cover: PS3 WTF?

This cover (a somewhat less confrontational version of the question EGM asked a few months ago) belies a feature article that's just a wall of freaking text -- which is pretty outside the box by HGM standards, definitely. Daniel Keyser of gametrailers.com always seems to write the wordier articles in this mag, and he gets his money's worth here, spending eight pages discussing the PS3/PSP's fortunes and what future games are worth paying attention to.

It's an oddly "mainstream game-mag" sort of article to put in HGM, but the mag gets it out of its system soon enough by devoting a two-page spread to The Red Star, which (naturally) gets a perfect 5 out of 5 score. It's an interesting contrast to their review of Odin Sphere -- game mags (Game Informer in particular) seemed to lap it up, but HGM picks on its "dumb-as-rocks story" and claims "there's no way [it's] a finished product". Rough!

Game Developer June/July 2007

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Cover: Quality of life

The cover article of this Game Developer has a lot worth reading even to the average gamer. It brings up the case of EA_Spouse's weblog two years ago and takes a free-wheeling look at whether quality of life has improved much for game makers since. All manner of folks on both sides of the issue get interviewed, and the ultimate conclusion I took from it was that yes, things are better, but not in any very tenable fashion.

Future specials

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Magazine racks are getting a heapin' helpin' of Norman Chan's quizzical face this month. He's the editor of Future's specials, and you'll see him all over these two latest $9.99 one-offs, which I can't seem to stop myself from buying.

The Ultimate Xbox 360 Encyclopedia is a simple compilation of OXM reviews, while PC Gamer Proudly Presents the 2007 PC Building Bible is a more thorough examination of PC technology and homebuilding from the utter beginner stage onward. Quite handy if you're looking for a quick reference and can't be bothered to sift through Google results for every question that comes to mind.

Tip specials

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Tips & Tricks 2007 Video-Game Codebook includes an original Halo 3 beta wrapup that reads quite a bit like GamePro's, actually, though GP's feature has nice art and T&T's is mostly populated by tiny screen grabs. The pencil puzzles are around, too, although they're printed on glossy pages this time, which seems odd.

Meanwhile, Code Vault -- or the name, at least -- seems to be gradually fading away into the ether. The logo's gotten smaller and smaller lately, and as of this Summer 2007 issue, it now plays second fiddle, by far, to the cover game and its title. Inside it's the usual business, although I'm glad to see the Brady Games strategy excerpts gradually getting phased out in favor of original stuff -- even if it is mostly borrowed from Gamerhelp, IDG's FAQ website.

[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.]



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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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