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September 8, 2007

GameSetLinks: Iwai Vs. Garriott... In Space!

- A pleasant weekend watching DVDs of Torchwood and QI from my home La-Z-Boy planet can also be punctuated by writing up some of the interesting, bizarre, and obscuro game links that I've taken note of for GameSetWatch this week - and here's the inevitable result:

- You guys probably know Tosho Iwai from his video game work on Sim Tunes and Electroplankton, and now Music Thing has lots of videos/impressions from the UK launch of Yamaha's Iwai-designed Tenori-On instrument, a spectacular touch-based standalone music machine (early version pictured) which is a tad expensive (UKP600!), but definitely drooled over - lots of awesome videos within.

- Australian game biz blog Sumea has posted video from the recent Australian festival Free Play, which included a keynote from Braid creator Jon Blow and some interesting other lectures including 'The Indie MBA', "...a comprehensive and practical overview of the business of running an indie shop", and reminiscent (in a good way!) of a similarly named session we ran at IGS this year.

- John Andersen continues to sling me random good Asian links, and he points to a Korea Times article about NCSoft's Zero-G flight at Austin this week, which includes some hilarious Richard Garriott gossip - claiming NCSoft will pay to fly Garriott into space, quoting a 'source' as saying: "Garriott is rumored to be on board for a 2008 shot to the space station. It is to be announced in early October along with his new game, `Tabula Rasa.' He can then play his new game from outer space." While I guess Garriott could go eventually, a $30 million promotion for the game? Guessing not.

- Rock Paper Shotgun continues to be, in a deliriously rambling way, the best new blog out there, and John Walker has an interesting post about free-to-play, pay for items PC title Drift City, explaining that "...is a game from the madly named ijji (which is an awful lot of fun to say out loud, and also free). It’s a driving MMO-alike, very much like Test Drive Unlimited, except with cel-shaded graphics, and it runs via your browser." They also have an interesting post on a Birmingham, UK LAN center that looks, well, swish.

- Textfiles.com's Jason Scott, whom, rumor has it, may be writing for GSW soon, has posted with the news that The Last Starfighter Musical is returning to play in New York City from September 28th through to October 7th. He explains: "I've already written, to great length, in my previous weblog entry about how the musical was for me personally and how the scenes flowed in a musical format; trust me, it's everything you could imagine it'd be like."

- Mopping up old links, I ran into Game-Science co-founder Jonnyram's link to the Assembly 07 demo competition winners on YouTube - and it's a lot easier to see the awesome real-time rendering effects this way - even if it misses the real-time point. (Here's the second-place winner, for completeness' sake.) A lot of European game developers' technical prowess is down to historical events like this, so it's great to see that the scene didn't die after game fidelity got just as good as demo-scene technical fidelity.

- Clickable Culture has correctly raised questions about this already, but LivePlanet's 'Virtual Worlds Prods' is not only a bit misguided, it's absolutely lunatic - check out this story, ' Couple Found Dead in Hellfire Peninsula', from Azeroth World News. It's all done 'straight' as in-world reporting with dubious, borderline news value - for example: "The bodies of a man and a woman were found early yesterday morning just off the path from Honor Hold to Hellfire Citadel, deaths that investigators have labeled as suspicious." Is this trying to be Onion-y, or...? Head hurts!

- Gotta love Tim Schafer's chutzpah: after news of his next game allegedly leaked, he decided to announce Double Fine's triumphant follow-on to Psychonauts, explaining: "In this all new, action based IP, you play the part of a barbaric hero in an epic fantasy world, fighting his way from Rock and Roll Hell to Rock and Roll Heaven." And the resulting free, uhh, web game is, uhh, Epic Saga - Extreme Fighter. Has this put people off the scent of DF's next real game? Not really, but it's a lot of fun.

Why It's Bloody Hard To Make Games

- The Pixel-Love blog was kind enough to point out a new blog post from UK game biz veteran Dan Marchant, who has "been writing a series of posts about stupid reasons to go into game development", and recently posted 'Stupid reason #4 - “Most of the games today are rubbish - I’m sure I can do better”'.

Now, sure, you could say the post is a tad depressing, but it illuminates an excellent point: "The logic behind [this motivation to enter the game biz] seems to be that a huge percentage of games that reach the market are badly made, unoriginal, poorly tuned rubbish and so there is a space in the market for a start-up dedicated to making good games. The assumption seems to be that there are a huge number of developers out there who simply don’t care if their game is good and thus it will be easy for a new team to come in and do well."

Of course, as Dan points out, there a multitude of reasons why the end product doesn't necessarily match the vision - from 'Business dictates deadlines' to 'Design is overly ambitious and there is no editing' through 'Lack of ability in critical areas of the dev team' to the perennial 'Lack of publisher support for the developer's vision'. Some of these may be fixed by the 'coming indie storm' of digital distribution - if such one indeed exists - but a number of others won't.

As Dan concludes - and having worked in the mainstream game biz, I broadly agree: "So, if you are an individual looking to break into the games industry in order to “make a difference” you will find that few, if any, of the causes of poor quality games are solvable by just one person." But of course, if you know the right people...

Making Boring Tasks into Great Games

- Still enjoying the editorials from the folks at HDRLying.com, and their latest is entitled 'Quirky Games: Making Boring Tasks into Great Games'. It's a little on the meandering side, but worth highlighting because it takes a thoughtful look into what makes casual hits such as Nintendogs into, well, casual hits.

As HDRLying blogger Nayan notes: "Accessibility goes a long way to making a game successful. In the case of Nintendogs, the game provided a chance for players to raise, walk, and even enter dogs into shows, without the undesirable time investment. I myself felt quite silly playing Nintendogs in my own house in the US, while my two, very real Golden Retrievers went hungry and unloved. My feeling towards the game changed when I moved to Japan, and began to understand its pull far more."

He continues: "Not only does the game offer a lot of reward with very little time investment, but it gives players the chance to play with their puppies anywhere they are. The game’s success makes an incredible amount of sense in the context of Japanese society. Despite space concerns and the impracticality of owning a mid-sized dog, Japan is dog-obsessed."

HDRLying's conclusion suggests that it's really the wish fulfillment element and ease of success of a lot of games which helps them break through to the mainstream: "Perhaps that is the secret in casual gaming success. Its success lies in the same vein as more traditional games. Despite a far more down-to-earth or traditional grounding, casual games, much like their hardcore counterparts, offer success and achievement without gross investment and fatigue. Without the years of investment in attaining the knowledge, and without all of the negative portions of the experience, players are able to enjoy all the positives of a given activity, with a constant and almost immediate reward." This may or may not be obvious, but is well phrased here, I think.

September 7, 2007

Austin GDC - The Exciting, Cherry-Filled Sequel

- Well, we already did one of these on GSW, but my co-workers have been laboring so hard to cover Austin GDC this week (and my other co-workers laboring to run the show!), that I thought it fair to pick the highlights of their comprehensive coverage of the rest of Thursday and Friday.

Some of the key lectures include some great stuff from Nexon on MapleStory and KartRider, as well as BioWare on writing for Mass Effect, a particularly neat Final Fantasy/MMO-related talk by some Square Enix execs, and a host of other goodness - specifics are as follows:

- AGDC: Nexon's Min Kim On The Power Of Microtransactions
In Friday's keynote at the Austin Game Developers Conference, Nexon America’s director of game operations Minho Kim discussed his firm's incredible Korean success with games such as Maple Story and Kart Rider, and explained how the company's microtransaction model adapted to the West.

- AGDC: Jacobs, Bethke Tussle For Online's Future
In an amusingly heated 2007 AGDC match-up, online game execs Raph Koster of Areae, Eric Bethke of GoPets, EA Mythic's Marc Jacobs and SOE Austin head John Blakely convened for a frenzied debate on the biggest online gaming opportunities on the horizon -- and whether Blizzard should sell gold.

- AGDC: Koster, James, Ybarra Reveal Startup Lessons
What do Three Rings' Daniel James, Cheyenne Mountain's (Stargate MMO) Joe Ybarra, Areae's Raph Koster, Heatwave's Anthony Castoro, and Conduit Labs' Nabeel Hyatt all have in common? They're all acquainted with the trials and tribulations of forging out on their own in the wild world of startups. More interesting, perhaps, are the differences in their experiences, as you can read from their stories, advice and suggestions in Gamasutra's full coverage of the panel.

- AGDC: BioWare Charts Writing for Mass Effect
A conclave of Neverwinter Nights vets -- Bioware's Mike Laidlaw and Mass Effect lead writer Drew Kapyshyn, along with managing director Mac Walters, share the secrets of their approach to story crafting -- and hint at next-gen products to come.

- AGDC: Flagship, Nexon Talk Worldwide MMO Licensing
Multiverse's Corey Bridges moderated a panel that brought together Nexon's Calvin Yoo, Jeff Anderson, CEO of Turbine Entertainment (which is currently starting to license out MMOs) Flagship Studios' Steve Goldstein and Joshua Hong, CEO and founder of K2 Network, which is licensing Korean titles to the West. The topic? The challenges and benefits involved in licensing MMOs worldwide, from localization to currency models -- and why Hong thinks Chinese publishers have been bad for the entire industry.

- AGDC: Marketing Your Indie Game, Guerilla Style
"The worst games are done strictly for the money," said Strategery's Jay Moore, formerly a founding father of Garage Games. Along with Mode 7's Paul Taylor, the two talked about getting guerilla with indie marketing, demystifying the topic and boiling it down to knowing the soul of your game and your company, and ways to communicate what sets you apart.

- AGDC: Engaging and Empowering Community Influencers
Out of an entire community of players, this roundtable of community managers - Flying Lab's Troy Hewitt, SOE Austin's EM Stock and SOE Global's Alan Crosby, Blizzard's Paul Della Bitta, CCP's Charles Dane, and Guild Cafe community director Sanya Weathers - know how to identify and employ those star-powered individual users with the power to turn the tide of the entire community in your favor, as well as what to do when those 'community influencers' turn on you.

- AGDC: How Square Enix Hunts The Hunters
The fact that Final Fantasy XI was originally supposed to be an Xbox 1 game is just one of the revelations from producer and Square Enix executive officer Hiromichi Tanaka on building the game, the necessity of excluding microtransactions -- and what was learned, and what's next for the ever-expanding MMO.

Consolevania Debuts Scottish Games Industry Fluff Piece

- The Scottish game development scene, home of companies such as Crackdown creator Real Time Worlds, is in relatively bonnie health, and Brian Baglow, who runs ScottishGames.biz, kindly pinged GSW to note: "I'm the Screening Director for the Edinburgh Interactive Festival. For last month's bash I was asked to do something for the industry here in Scotland... I suggested something I've been wanting to do for ages - an actual film about the industry."

He then explains: "Now this could really have sucked - big time - but thankfully we've got a secret weapon over here in the shape of the Consolevania team. They agreed to do something and the Scottish Games Industry Fluff Piece [Google Video streaming link] was born. It was shot over three days (one each in Glasgow, Edinburgh and [EDIT: Dundee?]) the week before the festival and then edited and mastered in about four days max."

As Brian mentions: It evolved from a sort of promo piece, into a full blown errm, documentary type thing. It's something unique in the games industry I think - and it's well worth a look." Actually, it is - and needless to say, as Consolevania have got hold of it, it's very far from a 'fluff piece' - in fact, it's delightedly awkward and watchable. We already referenced the Google Video streaming link, but there's also a downloadable AVI version at the Internet Archive (part of a full Consolevania archive that relates to something I'll be talking about soon!), and even a BitTorrent version should you be so inclined. Huzzah!

Manifesto Spins Off 'Play This Thing!' Blog

- Over at indie game aggregation site Manifesto Games, Greg Costikyan has put up an announcement revealing a new project for them, the 'Play This Thing!' weblog, which is a standalone recommendation blog for cool, alternative games - whether carried by Manifesto or not.

In the blog post, Costik asks the question: "Why are we doing this, and why is it separate from the Manifesto site?", explaining: "In essence, we're divvying up responsibilities: Manifesto Games becomes an ecommerce site, while Play This Thing takes care of content and community." The reasons for this? "For one thing, when we launched the Manifesto site, we expected it to be a content-and-community site as well as an online retailer. That hasn't turned out as well as we had hoped; "The Word," our pages with reviews and articles about games, never got a lot of traffic--and in any event, reviews there sat a little uneasily on a site that was trying to sell you stuff. It was also not updated frequently enough to draw much repeat traffic--and perhaps was too much inspired by print magazine reviews."

He adds - and laudably, I think: "For another, we wanted to celebrate the full range of creativity in games outside the mainstream, including games that we ourselves don't necessarily sell--free games, games from people who haven't signed up to sell here, and so on. Play This Thing lets us do that, without confusing the Manifesto Games mission unduly. Of the five games on the front page at launch, for instance, only two are ones we sell. When Play This Thing features a game that Manifesto sells, we'll link back here for purchase, of course--but we'll be covering a lot of games we don't sell, too."

Anyhow, this looks like a good thing to do - if you poke around the Alexa rankings of some indie, casual, and various other digital distribution sites, you'll see that Manifesto hasn't got the kind of uptick that some other sites have managed. Here's a slightly crazed graph comparing ManifestoGames.com, GameTap.com, the surging Kongregate.com, alongside Reflexive.com and Miniclip.com. (Actually, all of these are not totally in the same market or even have the same business models - but they are all game sites who are distributing things digitally, so it's interesting to see their relative traffic rankings, even if Alexa doesn't always get it perfect.)

September 6, 2007

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': An Evening With Sander Cohen

-[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.]

The following article contains minor BioShock spoilers – there’s no discussion of the ending or of major plot points, but this week’s column focuses on a character who appears about halfway through the game and on the environment in which you fight him.

Still with me?

Andrew Ryan’s ideal for Rapture was a world in which the creative elite, unconstrained by social obligation, were free to pursue their own ends to any extent that their effort awarded them. Everybody came to Rapture thinking they were going to be “captains of industry” – of course, no one realized that “somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets.”

Sander Cohen, musician, artist and composer, was Rapture’s poster child for that creative elite. With Ryan himself as the prime supporter of his arts, Cohen held court in Fort Frolic, his musical scores the toast of the city, his artwork held up as the standard of genius. In his battered suit, his hair a nest of pomade and his face a white pancake mask, holding court now over none but a grim army of plaster-cast statues – the bodies beneath, still bleeding – a city that should have become his joy became his madness.

His mad taunts to the player vacillate between imperious demand, lavish praise and vengeful rage; perpetually unstable, the single-minded viciousness with which he assembles his masterwork, what he calls a quantych (though it’s technically a “polyptych”, isn’t it?) composed of the photographs of his disciples’ bodies, is one of the more unsettling of BioShock’s many tragedies of the human mind’s descent. It’s both repugnant and infuriating, the way he refers to the player character as a “little moth” – and enlightening, too.

After all, the most alarming thing about Cohen is how he still lives in a delusion of his prior grandeur, fancying himself a radiant light to which all things are drawn. Though all but the most crazed of splicers in Rapture have either been killed or perhaps hidden themselves somewhere safer, far out of sight, Cohen remains, lording over Fort Frolic, hosting performances no one will see and continuing to “create” – and nursing a psychotic desire for revenge against his students for slights that were slight, if not fictional.

BioShock’s strength lies in all of the subtle ways that Rapture has become a sort of time capsule for the world it once was. Though Arcadia’s Farmer’s Market is rotting, swarmed with insects, in the scattered bottles of fine wine and the display cases which sometimes still hold faintly recognizable shapes of meat and cheese, it’s not difficult to imagine how beautiful it once was. The “ghosts” the player sometimes hallucinates, one of the myriad side effects of splicing plasmids, tell a story of people who once loved their world. As menacing as the world is, as much as Rapture itself is our antagonist in a sense, even the most grim of its vistas is less a horror and more a tragedy, when we see the tiny details. A burnt-out home that was once someone’s joy and pride; an Arcadia advertisement for pet adoption where, beneath a picture of puppies that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a school library, it reads, “BEST FRIENDS”.

-Though, never is the window into Rapture’s past more illuminating, more poignant– and more tragic -- than it is when we look at the world of Sander Cohen. He’s not immediately crafted for empathy, combining egomania with antagonism, the flighty esoterics of an archetypal artist’s worst qualities, and his uncomfortably proximal, demeaning overtures. But then we see Fort Frolic’s promotional posters, for whimsical romantic comedies and musical plays that look quite like something Cole Porter would have come up with (and indeed, Porter’s “You’re the Top” scores a spot on the BioShock soundtrack). Even the way he titles his grim program, “An Evening With Sander Cohen,” makes it sound like the sort of Broadway cassette tapes my grandmother would have loved in my childhood. And so, we are able to get a glimpse of the man he must once have been.

He would’ve been no saint. When we follow Cohen’s coaxing into Fleet Hall theatre, where he’s rigidly critiquing the piano performance of a soon-to-be-very-unfortunate student, his urgent demands, even the way he attempts to vocalize the way the notes should go, make him not so much a psychopath, but a typical acting teacher. The character designers responsible for Cohen’s personality must have been intimately acquainted with theatre people.

Last week, on the topic of choice in games, I offered the opinion that while games provide the structures for experiences, it is the player’s choice to use those structures. That rather than expecting emotional satisfaction for technical behaviors, it’s up to us to take that next step and find a point of empathy with a game. This isn’t always easy, but that it is so limitlessly possible in BioShock is one of its strengths. We gain the most from our experience when we find ways to make a story personal, and it was Sander Cohen, not the Little Sisters, who provided the first in-road to me.

In 2004, I graduated not as an English major, but from a Madison Avenue, New York City acting conservatory, one of the finest in the country. I spent two years there with some of the most archetypal “theatre people” imaginable – black-cloaked, emotional Method actors, flamingly homosexual dancers, proudly egomaniacal Shakespearians, and hysterical, demanding pianists prone to throwing fits. Sander Cohen’s pitch-perfect rant, “my muse is a fickle bitch with a very short attention span!!” Might have been snatched from one of their mouths.

We, the conservatory students, were all the protégés of such, and it was there that I learned a little bit about the nature of acting, about any kind of creative art in general. When done well, it’s driven by a desire to give. But many times (perhaps more often than not), creative types are hunted to the edge of madness by a desire to please, and to be validated. They create not primarily to contribute, but so that they can be elevated socially for their singular achievements. Consumed deep-down with self-doubt, they instead try to earn love and validation from others through art – at first aiming to please, then to impress, then to control.

-It’s a tragedy, really; combine creative talent and a simple, human desire for love and approval, and you have a recipe for madness. Rapture promised Sander Cohen a cocktail more fatal than the Moonshine Absinthe of which he appeared to be fond – a world wherein his creativity was his greatest merit, but also a world that constantly wanted more, more. It’s a simple fact of human psychology that the love and approval of millions is not enough. The splicers, at the edge of the end of the world, needed more and more power to feel safe, or to feel beautiful, until it destroyed them. In the madness of Rapture, the same happened to Cohen and his gifts – and in the vacuum left behind by a decimated population gone mad, he began to cannibalize himself.

Many actors, artists and composers later go on to teach, and it seems Cohen undertook disciples also. In a final, absolute rejection of the act of giving, he turns on his own students.

He’s a brilliant character not only for his spot-on characterization, but for the way his endless wrestling with “the muse” is a perfect metaphor for the consumptive nature of Rapture in general. More is never enough to salve the spectre of self-doubt, and when there’s no more to be had, one will take from one’s own mind until one lives alone in a closed world of delusion – contrast Cohen’s sprightly musical posters with his later works, such as the aptly titled “The Doubters”, a grim plaster cast of an entire family frozen at the dinner table, or the insane “Wild Bunny”, in which his inspirational musical works is replaced simply by a hysterical nonsense refrain: “I hop, and when I hop, I can’t get off the ground. I want to take the ears off, but I can’t.”

Contrast this with the later, optional glimpse into the home of Sander Cohen, where sepia-toned portraits of friends in groups, musicians playing piano, and a solitary figure performing on stage, stand as forgotten homages to a life that was once happy, imbued with the joy of performing and the adoration of colleagues and fans.

When in the game Cohen’s masterpiece is at last, as he says, “accomplished,” and he descends the atrium stairs bathed in spotlight, a rain of confetti and canned cheers, waving lovingly to an audience that only he can see, trapped in a lost life, I confess I shed a tear. And that’s the key to connecting emotionally with games – somewhere in there is a point of empathy just for you.

I’m a writer, not an actress today – you may draw your own conclusions about that.

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Destructoid, Paste, Gamasutra and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]

Austin GDC - The Spector, The Morhaime, The Walton

- Something that's been keeping us all busy this week is our own Austin GDC show, of course, and as of yesterday morning, big sister site Gamasutra has debuted a dedicated landing page for Austin GDC 2007, with full coverage of keynotes, sessions, roundtables, and associated breaking news from the CMP Game Group's first Austin-based conference.

Various of our correspondents (including Brandon Sheffield, Brandon Boyer, and Christian Nutt) are marauding around Texas as we speak, chewing up the countryside and listening to the state of the online game universe - thus far, here are some of the original-reporting highlights from the conference:

- AGDC: The Warren Spector Interview
Disney and Warren Spector's recently acquired Junction Point studio a match made in cartoon heaven? Probably more than you might think, and in this exclusive interview, Deus Ex creator Spector tells Gamasutra all about his extensive history in the cartoon world, and hints on plans for the newly formed partnership.

- AGDC: BioWare's Walton On Making MMOs Post-World of Warcraft
Making an MMO in a post-World Of Warcraft world is tough, but BioWare Austin's Gordon Walton was inspired by the hugely successful game, presenting a twelve-point talk with lessons to learn in an engaging and popular GDC Austin speech.

- AGDC: Denis Dyack - 'The Media Is The Massage'
In his AGDC talk, Denis Dyack touched on Silicon Knights' methods for story, and warned that the media of games will often overpower the message you're trying to tell - he also dropped a few hints about Too Human along the way.

- AGDC: Raph Koster On Designing For Everywhere
Areae president Raph Koster, designer of Ultima Online and previous CCO of SOE, gave his talk at GDC Austin in front of a full-capacity crowd, all of whom were eager to catch a shred of what he’s been talking about for the last year or so: how the web is destroying games in terms of revenue and access.

- AGDC: Blizzard's Morhaime On Overcoming 'Myth' With WoW
Think every aspect of your game play has to be customized for regional players? Blizzard disagrees, citing the "myth of regional taste" and Gamasutra has president Mike Morhaime's full comments on the history of his company and his approach to World Of Warcraft from the Austin GDC keynote.

As well as that, the dedicated landing page for Austin GDC includes all the latest announcements and product news from the event - including a fun piece about Star Wars Galaxies' in-game house demolition helping charity donations to Habitat For Humanity.

[UPDATE: Oop, and one more - incidentally, watch out for an upcoming GSW piece about how I'm spending my millions (OK, a $10 Target gift card) in Habbo:

- AGDC: Haro On Making Habbo A Success
Sulka Haro's keynote speech on Web-based teen hangout Habbo Hotel, which kicked off the second day of the Austin Game Developers Conference, delivered a lot of wry commentary and useful information on the building of successful online worlds, from McDonalds roleplaying to Spider-Pig.]

The Triumphant Return Of... PCXL?

- Adorable GameSetWatch tipster Scott S. is upon us, and he points out the following: "Remember this GSW article about PC Accelerator? Well, guess who's BAAACCKK?" And then he links us to a PC Gamer forum post which reveals that the infamous Future PC gaming mag has indeed returned.

Not much information out there just yet - other commenters note that "Norman Chan is the senior editor of the magazine. I flipped through and saw that Greg Vederman also has an column as well... Cost is 9.99 US, 12.99 Canadian."

The cover of the relaunched PCXL features the Fragdolls, and a 'leave on news-stands til December' note elsewhere on the front, which indicates that this isn't a monthly magazine, but rather a 'special' - not sure if it's quarterly or just an experiment to see how the games + girls crossover fares on news-stands nowadays.

In any case, a little history lesson - the Wikipedia page for PC Accelerator, aka PCXL, explains: "PC Accelerator (PCXL) was a personal computer game magazine that was published by Imagine Media (now a subsidiary of Future Publishing). It was known for its Maxim-like humor and photography, and its last issue was dated June 2000. After the split up of the magazine editor-in-chief Mike Salmon went on to start the Official Xbox Magazine while some of the staff was sent to PC Gamer; others went on to work for Daily Radar." And now they're back. For a bit. Or a lot. Depending!

[UPDATE: Our very own Magweasel Kevin Gifford has a copy, and will be discussing it further in his column on Saturday - he notes that the spine says 'Fall 2007' and he believes it's one of the quarterly PC Gamer special issues under a sneaky PCXL guise. More on this soon!]

COLUMN: @Play: 'Balancing a game that looks balanceless'

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 (and Hack) keeps coming up again and again in this column because, after the original, it is the most Rogue-like of them all. Rogue is a game with profound design: changing even the tiniest bit affects everything else.

Of all the roguelikes, the Hack games are those which most recognize that Rogue is an interesting game for reasons other than its turn-based tactical combat. Many of these games pay lip service to some of Rogue's more profound features, especially item identification, without really embracing them. In Angband, attempting to ID some things by experimentation is a really bad idea, because of the existence of items that can instantly kill a player who uses them, and anyway players can usually find all the identify scrolls they need through the town shops. Dungeon Crawl's maintainers admit that it downplays its item identification game. And all of these roguelikes weight item generation by level, which upsets the identification game by making it even more unlikely that very useful items will appear early on.

Nethack's deeper features tend to be extensions and elaborations of Rogue's: its identification game, its objects with heavily programmed functions, and the secret uses of many items. And these are the things that roguelike fans who don't like Nethack disapprove of. I maintain this is because they've been trained to enjoy "mainstream" gaming first, which tends to be devoid of real strategy, values providing the player with an "experience" more than being a game that can be lost, and are forgiving to the point where he can't really ever die: he can always return to a previous save, after all. The absence of those things allow precisely the aspects of Rogue that make it worth playing at all.

My own thinking regarding Nethack's design has undergone some adjustment over time. Most people who become fans of the game upon first exposure like it for being Rogue Deluxe. After further play, they notice that although there are many more secret features in the game, after learning them all they make the game easier than the original. Some of them appear unbalancing at first, but actually they seem to be rather deviously balanced. After many games, it sometimes turns out that they may not be balanced as well as it seemed at first, and some of it actually overturns some of Rogue's elegance out of the exuberance of adding new stuff.

Yet that exuberance is an important part of Nethack. It is filled with interesting things, and as any worthwhile game designer will tell you, it is profoundly difficult to put something really interesting into a game. There are not actually that many things that can be put into games, and the artificial strictures placed upon them by "modern" game design, like returning to old saves, overbearing balance, hard-coded levels, and even the tutorial aspect of the early sections serve to restrict the designer's imagination even more. Nethack's Dev Team seems to be saying through Nethack that it's more important to add new cool stuff than to make sure it's properly balanced, and provided that it really is cool, I tend to agree with them.

But this is not to say that balance isn't important, nor that the Dev Team isn't concerned with it. What they're really about, in my opinion of course, is adding cool new features yet making sure they "fit" with the rest of the game. Sometimes they get it right immediately, sometimes it takes them some time to figure out the problem and fix it, and sometimes the problem survives. Sometimes it survives long enough that it becomes part of the game, and the thought of removing it becomes unthinkable. Sometimes it even turns out that the misfeature isn't so bad after all, or later features remedy its balance issues, but also sometimes they aren't so fortunate.

Here is a short list of some of the more immediately evident of these features, and their current status:

djinn28.pngProblems that have been fixed:

Wishing for wishes
Wishing items used to allow the player to wish for objects that could then be used to get wishes. In the case of wands of wishing (which used to be fairly common in hell), the net gain in wishes would be positive.

This was fixed long ago, although it can be noted that drinking smoky potions, no matter what they might be, may very rarely summon a djinn who could offer a wish. There is no restriction of the wishing of smokey potions, although the wish chance is slim enough that it's hardly an exploit.

nurse28.pngNurse dancing
Players wearing no clothes and wielding no weapons get healed, not harmed, from the attacks of nurses. If the player's fully healed, then a few of these hits will raise his maximum hit points.

This is a prime example of a feature that other games would either never have included, or if they did would remove rather than work through balancing it into the game. In Nethack, taking off all your clothes can open you up to quick death from suddenly-appearing monsters, especially liches, but there are other checks as well. There's a limit to how HP can be raised this way, and when a nurse heals there's a chance it'll vanish from the game, not just teleport as with nymphs, leprechauns, etc.

polypile28.pngProblems that were balanced around

Polypiling
Zapping a wand of polymorph can turn a monster into another kind of monster, but if the invisible ray travels over items it'll turn them into other, random items of the same type, i.e., weapons become other weapons, armor becomes other armor, gauntlets other gauntlets, rings other rings, potions other potions, and so on. Equipment keeps its enchantment, wands retain prior number of charges, and so on.

The major incentive to explore dungeon levels, as opposed to just heading for the stairs, is to find new random treasure, but if you can get that with a quick zap from a wand? And if it'll affect all items over five spaces, even if there's hundreds on that spot? This got fixed by causing large stacks of polymorphed items to "merge" into smaller piles when changed, discarding large amounts of stuff, and the creation of golems, which are sometimes strong opponents and who also take some of the objects out of the pile.

succ28.pngSuccubus dancing
Succubi and Incubi are a particular type of demon that can be... "consorted with"... to make special things happen. With high stats and luck, the chances of the things being good ones can be very high, even guaranteed, and one of those things is gaining an experience level.

The balancing from this is two-fold. The direct method, and the indirect. As for direct, such an encounter leaves the player mostly unclothed, like with nurses, the monster always ends up with "a headache" afterwards, unwilling to do it again for a random number of turns, and after a while getting a severe headache that disables its benefit-generating ability with permanence. To get benefits consistently from a foocubus also requires the player have high scores in Intelligence and Charisma, the two most difficult stats to raise (they don't change through exercise), and the benefit granted is chosen from a list out of which level gain is only one element.

The indirect balance is much more profound, and is actually a balance against all the instant level gains the game offers. In many other games arbitrary sources of level gain are obviously a balance flaw, but Nethack's monster generation system means it's not as bad as it might be. The traditional way to select random monsters is to pick from a list that's hard-coded for each level. Nethack does it by selecting monsters, from a big list of all those that can appear in the current dungeon branch, by taking the average of the player's level and the dungeon level, and trying to generate monsters of around that difficulty. This means that gaining levels itself will increase the difficulty of monsters generated, by about half the rate the player advances.

pudding28.pngCurrent problems

Pudding farming
When monsters greater than a certain difficulty are killed, in addition to sometimes leaving a corpse and always dropping what they were carrying, sometimes they'll additionally leave behind a random item. This may not make sense but it does fulfill a game role, since monster possessions are not very random but vary according to the monster type. For example, soldiers get military equipment, and elves and dwarves sometimes get cloaks, mithril and appropriate weapons. The random item drop thing provides extra loot incentive for killing strong monsters even if they don't ordinarily get treasure.

One of the monsters that can drop random stuff is the black pudding. Every time a black pudding dies, it can drop treasure. But whenever a pudding is struck by a weapon that does more than one hit point of damage, it may divide into two puddings. Each of these monsters now has a chance of dropping random loot, and they may also further divide themselves. Split puddings end up with half the hit points of the original, but they can heal back up to maximum.

Some players have pushed this into an epic exploit. By engraving a certain word on the ground, one that causes monsters to avoid spots on the floor, around their location except for one space, then purposely filling the level with puddings through division, they set up what is known as a pudding farm. They endlessly kill puddings, leaving behind vast quantities of loot over time. The chance of getting something from a kill isn't large, and the chance of getting something really good like a wand of wishing is extremely small, but after killing tens of thousands, or more, puddings, the small chances add up.

The only checks on this tactic in the game are the usual ones against sitting in one place doing very little, mostly hunger (pudding corpses, while acidic, are edible), and the tremendous ennui that results from playing the game this way. Players strong enough to divide puddings this much and survive are probably strong enough to win the game already, or could become so with little trouble, but some kinds of conducts become much easier through farming. And by producing huge amounts of loot, gaining high scores becomes much simpler, increasing Nethack's already-great score inflation.

pest28.pngPestilence farming
I've mentioned this before (in Giant Eel Stories), but as an advanced case of farming, which has taken scores up to MAXINT-1, it's interesting.

Using a somewhat similar setup as with puddings, players can repeatedly kill Pestilence, one of the three Riders at the end of the game, for large score awards. By restricting how other monsters can approach the player, and when playing a telnet game (such as through alt.org), the process can then be automated through a macro, attaining absurdly high scores.

September 5, 2007

Audiodyssey Mixes Wiimote Rhythm Action For Blind

- Over at CNN, there's a neat post called ' Video games' new frontier: The visually impaired' in the 'very future' Digital Biz section, and it discusses the neat use of a Wii-mote on the PC for a blind person-accessible music game.

As is explained: "A team of researchers at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab in Massachusetts set out this summer to make a music-based video game that's designed for mainstream players and also accessible to the blind. Appropriately, perhaps, they incorporated the Wiimote into the game-play, though it's optional."

The piece continues: "The resulting DJ game, designed for the PC, is called AudiOdyssey. In it, players try to lay down different tracks in a song by swinging and waving the Wiimote in time with the beats. Or they can just use keyboard controls." And yep, it's freely downloadable, which is neat - the creators had as an aim that: "The visually-impaired and the sighted can enjoy the same level and quality of gameplay." Is this true of any other rhythm games?

[Also notable - the full set of GAMBIT games done over this summer, all products of the Singapore-MIT Game Lab, look like they're both innovative and relatively interesting - everything from mobile through PC to more Wii-mote compatible titles are showcased there, with titles like Backflow and The Illogical Journey of Orez looking intriguing.]

GameSetReport: UT's Game Fundraiser - The Pics

[Following our previous special report from Richard Garriott's fund-raiser for The UT Videogame Archive, J. of Damned Vulpine fame has also contributed a gallery of pictures from the event.]

For those confused, or who haven't read the full report, here was our pre-show post about this fundraiser: "The Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin is kicking off our new UT Videogame Archive with a party and fundraiser at Richard Garriott’s estate on Lake Austin."

Below is a full (and slightly high-bandwidth, sorry dial-up folks!) gallery of pictures taken at the slightly damp but extremely successful event, which took place on the night before Austin GDC kicked off:

The arcade tent had Breakout, Gauntlet 2, Ms. Pacman, Donkey Kong and Joust in arcade cabinets, as well as the following consoles with games loaded: Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis, Intellivision, Sega Saturn, Super Nintendo, Dreamcast, Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo Gamecube, NES, and a replica of a prototype for the Brown Box itself, the Magnavox Odyssey.

Tents shade the items for the silent auction, along the main road.

The table tennis game set up for the Magnavox Odyssey stumped most players who assumed it was Atari's Pong. Design differences: Balls aren't served by the “player” boxes, rather from behind them and off screen; the balls can be served out of bounds if not volleyed back; and there is no obvious score for either player.

Captains of the Chess Team, nerd rockers your mom warned you about.

The grounds of Richard Garriott's castle has been under near-constant renovation for years. He might be building secret tunnels.

A chef prepares hors d'oeuvres for the crowd.

George “Fatman” Sanger enjoys a drink while other guests get their grub on.

Chris Grant of the Texas Juggling Society shows the fruits of a misspent youth. Other jugglers in attendance included Scott Kurland and Roy Paterson.

Guests wait to get their grub on, including meatballs in Asian-style sauce and classic chips and queso upgraded with Gorgonzola cheese.

Richard Garriott, master of the house, trades his cowboy hat for a helmet after coming off a ride on a Segway.
More from the Texas Juggling Society.

The Paw of Kilrathi Prince Thrakhath, main badguy in Wing Commander III, as used in [EDIT: Wing Commander III], goes up for auction as preserved in glass by the Origin Museum. Sold for $600.

Not all the items up for silent auction had much to do with games, including a Kinky Friedman inaction figure.

This mandolin signed by George “Fatman” Sanger was among the items for silent auction, including items from Sigil Games' Vanguard.

Richard Garriott picks out items from his “Garriott Anthology” box of stuff auctioned as a single item, including first-run copies of all the games ever released by Origin Systems, and a rare copy of Akalabeth on floppy disk, most signed by himself and other staffers.

Auctioneer Michael Hanley gets help presenting the package of Rock Band, with all the instruments and signed by the crew at Harmonix, three months before it hits shelves. Gamasutra news editor Brandon Boyer won this with his $500 bid.

Not too many people wanted to ride Segways on rain-wet grass.

Tents protected items up for the silent auction, and the people bidding on them.

Warren Spector of Junction Point Studios (and Origin Systems, way back when) addresses the crowd before the auction.

Leah Stoddard tries to get people to sign up for Tazeezuzah, a game made up by George “Fatman” Sanger involving wearing propeller hats and shocking people with little zappers that looked like mutant cigarette lighters. Only one person supposedly signed up to play, go figure.

The road down to the lakeside area is steep. Signs warned people to slow down.

Nate “the Great” Culpepper, Balloon Guy, wears a Yoshi hat that he couldn't get anyone else to wear.

GameSetReport: Inside The UT Game Archive Fundraiser

[This special report from Richard Garriott's fund-raiser for The UT Videogame Archive, held the night before the start of Austin GDC, was compiled for GameSetWatch by J., journalist and blogger best known for his Damned Vulpine weblog, and both a previous Gamasutra contributor and a stalwart of the Austin gaming scene.]

- Out under the trees, down by the river, far below the castle's view, they were making history. And, like a moron, I didn't bring my swamp boots.

The Event

Rain or shine, Tuesday's fundraiser on Richard Garriott's property, overlooking Lake Austin on the northwest edge of the city, was going ahead. History was the reason, the kind that could educate the next generation of game enthusiasts and possibly developers, at the brand-new UT Video Game Archive, at the University of Texas-Austin's Center for American History.

It had rained most of the afternoon, enough for event staff to raise tents over most of the grounds down close to the lake. I'd been here before, but the mud hadn't been so deep. But since I didn't have my boots, my nice white Adidas trainers will have to get me through the rest of the week at the Austin Game Developers Conference, stained brown. Still managed to have a good time, though my head's fogged and bullet points are all I'm going to manage from here on out. Apologies for conciseness.

The whole archive idea came about because local leaders approached Don Carleson, Ph.D., executive director of CAH-UT, about nine months ago. He's a political historian, not a gamer, but he immediately saw the utility in having an archive devoted to video games. “As I tell my students,” he told people gathered in Garriott's outdoor “Globe Theater” for the auction, “everything has a history, and everything belongs to history.” With an archive, Carleson said, students can use it to learn about the history of game development, and make new history with their own creations, made better by what they've learned.

Garriott said he was inspired to dive into his own trove of past documents and files from all the games he's made over the years, mostly at Origin Systems, by his friend and former colleague Warren Spector, now of Junction Point Studios, who stepped forward first with the need for “a place to put my stuff.” Technology continues to advance regularly, Garriott said, but game design methods seem stuck. Part of the reason, he said, is that most games don't have useful documentation, of the sort that he called “the Tolkien school” -- with extensive research and background material that the audience will never see. The design bible for Ultima VI, which he and Spector worked on, is probably revolutionary by today's standards, he said. “I'm learning things as I go through my stuff,” Garriott said. “There are things I used to do that I don't do anymore.”

- Spector, called to the stage before the auction, said games industry professionals have an opportunity that those in the movie business didn't have, to preserve their history. “Eighty percent of silent films are gone,” he said, many of them thrown out with the advent of synchronized sound, just like the materials used to make games are often thrown out when the game ships, or alternately, when the development shop goes out of business.

Plans for the archive absolutely include a public presence, said Erin Purdy, assistant director of CAH-UT. First things first: Plans are in the works for how to present it and where it will be housed, and materials are being collected, but they need support in the form of money. Thus, the fundraiser. Tickets to the event, which ranged in price from $75 all the way up to “Platinum” sponsorship of $5,000, were sold in amounts well above the original plan, Purdy said, but there were hors d'oeuvres enough for everyone who showed. She said a final total should be ready by the end of the week.

The Live Auction

Silent auction items were still being tallied at the close of the night's events. The major items were auctioned off on stage by Michael Hanley of National Gavel, who muddled a few pronunciations, but “Akalabeth” and “Kilrathi” would throw most people. They were, including the winning bids:

A bundle of Rock Band, with all four instruments, signed by the crew at Harmonix. $500 (to Gamasutra editor Brandon Boyer, yay!)

Prince Thrakath's Paw, foam rubber prop from Wing Commander the movie, preserved in glass by the Origin Museum. $600.

“Cowboy in the Storm,” a skyline photo of downtown Austin looking from across Lady Bird Johnson Lake with the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughn, taken by former Ion Storm executive and photographer Trey Ratcliff. $800.

Gaming immortality: Arkane Studios, Gearbox, Junction Point, Kingsisle, NCSoft, Pixel Mine and Spacetime Studios would put the winning bidder's name in a game they made. $2,000.

Two tickets to the Tabula Rasa party, thrown by Garriott on his property Sept. 5 (today!). Unlike Tuesday's party, he would let the winning bidders inside his castle. $2,100.

“Games As Art – Evolution of a Design,” a framed piece of the original artwork for the cover of Ultima Underworld, with preliminary sketchwork, by artist Denis Loubet and prepared by the Origin Museum. $3,000.

“Ultima: The Ultimate Collector's Guide,” a compilation of research by Stephen Emond, compiling the history of every Ultima game ever made, and signed by Garriott, Spector, and George “Fatman” Sanger. $1,250.

The Garriott Anthology, a plastic bin full of first-release boxed copies released by Richard Garriott and Origin Systems, including a rare Akalabeth copy. $5,000.

Two tickets to ride in the Zero-G suborbital space plane, of the sort used to train astronauts in low gravity but now privately available as a high-end touristy thing, coming to Austin later this week. $5,000 each, to two winning bidders.

A new-model Dell laptop, to Arkane Studios head Raphael Colantonio for the low price of $20. Hanley played a different game for this item, encouraging anyone interested to give ushers a $20 bill, and then call successive coin tosses. Colantonio won after the fourth toss, and he intends to use his new laptop on a round of showing demos to publishers. “I was short one laptop,” he said.

Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie Is 8 Years Old!

- Veteran game designer and top hatted geezer Ernest Adams has posted the 8th yearly edition of his 'Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie' column over at Gamasutra, running down things game designers absolutely should not do.

The first (of many) is 'wildly atypical game levels', described by a submitter as: "Optional mini-games are fun, and can be a refreshing change of pace, but optional is the key word here. Levels where a player must complete a game that uses a completely different skill set in order to continue back to a point that uses the original skill set can be irritating as hell."

Adams adds: "Bullfrog was often guilty of this -- I remember some wildly atypical levels in Dungeon Keeper, Magic Carpet, and Populous: The Beginning. They padded out the game, but because they made just about everything you had learned useless, they were very annoying." There's also now a No Twinkie Database on Adams' site, collecting all of the submissions so far.

September 4, 2007

COLUMN: Marketing Melancholy: 'Video Game Box Art Experiment'

[“Marketing Melancholy” is an occasional column by Siliconera's Spencer Yip that examines multiple facets of marketing games from an end user's point of view, from advertising campaigns through box art and beyond. This first column tries to see what happens when a video game store-goer gets literal with game boxes.]

For informed gamers, the box art is not going to be the deciding factor whether to purchase a game or not. By reading magazines, reviews and seeing shakycam clips on YouTube they already have an opinion whether on they are going to buy a game, wait for it to drop on to the clearance racks or ignore it forever. However, box art does serve an important purpose. It’s a first impression for uninformed gamers to learn about a title.

Introduction: The Idea

As an experiment, I’m going to venture into an unnamed 'popular-video-game-store' as an “uninformed gamer” (or at least, my attempt to blank my mind and become one!) and do something you should probably never do to a person - judge a book game by its cover alone.

Part 1: The Movie Game Enticement

sman3.jpg

The first thing I noticed was games based on movies. Why? Because as a “non-gamer”, the box art was familiar to me. Take a look at the Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End or Spider-Man 3 box art. The images are similar, if not identical to the movie posters. I may not be a gamer, but repetitive branding has conditioned me to recognize these titles, whether their gameplay is rudimentary or revolutionary.

I might actually pick one of these games up because I have not read reviews and I get a warm fuzzy feeling when I think of (insert favorite movie title here). The same goes with video games based on TV shows or anime. Naruto is on the front of all the Naruto anime-based games, of course, because he is the selling point for anyone who hasn't previously read up on the games.

Part 2: The Mascot Advantage

Hmm… there are a lot of boxes with this “Mario” character on the Nintendo side. I may not be a gamer, but I've certainly heard of Mario and Sonic before. The box art for Sonic the Hedgehog (next-gen) has a simple message: 'Look - Sonic is in this, you’re buying it because Sonic is in this.'

Mario Strikers Charged has a similar message: this game has Mario playing soccer; you don’t need to know any more. The majority of video game box art out there relies on pre-branding, familiarity with the characters or franchise.

Part 3: Preaching To The Converted

Take the box art for Final Fantasy III as an example - it's a simple logo mounted on a white background. Yes, it looks classy. However, if I've never heard about Final Fantasy in the first place, I’m going to ignore it. Obviously, there is a problem here. Not for Final Fantasy III, but for games that aren’t part of an established series. What kind of box art can break through the branding barrier?

Conundrum: Box Art Differentiators?

One option is to have a different design for your box. I know fans might not have been thrilled with the outside box art for Persona 3, but on a shelf the packaging stands out. When you quickly scan the walls of unnamed-popular-video-game-store the larger box is noticeable, perhaps noticeable enough for people to pick up.

BioShock has a similar eye-catching trick - it’s shiny and puffy. Viva Piñata (pictured) takes this concept a step further by making their box an entirely different shape. Too bad unnamed-popular-video-game-store alphabetically sorts games, which puts Viva Piñata close to the floor. Ouch.

Solution: Use Familiar Elements?

When you can’t make special packaging, the next best thing is to piggyback on familiar elements to showcase a new product. I may not know what Riviera: The Promised Land is, but the PSP’s box art has anime-style characters on it. Lots of localized games from Japan go with this concept.

They know which niche they are catering to, but this is a double-edged sword. While they are catering to the growing anime crowd, the box art doesn’t tell enough of a story to attract potential customers uninterested in anime. Perhaps explaining the gameplay may make a title more accessible, regardless of the art style.

Boxes Done Right: Picross DS

11741.jpg

A great example of gameplay illustrated by box art is Picross DS. The box art does a fantastic job of explaining what the game is, and how to play it. On the box you can see the Picross grid with a completed picture. Just to the right of it, you have a DS with a stylus touching the picture. The concept is easy to grasp and the text on the box makes it obvious - “Solve the picture, see the puzzle”.

The packaging explains what Picross is to a non-gamer and a gamer who didn’t pay attention to the title. Games aimed towards the casual gamer should pay special attention to this. If their cover art can explain how to play the game, a potential buyer who doesn’t pay attention to the latest game news may think: “Hey, I can do this, this game is for me!”

Boxes Done Me Wrong: Trapt, Soul Nomad

423px-T%D0%AFAPT.jpeg

Not every game can be as simple as Picross to explain, but highlighting a feature or two can broaden a title's appeal. Let’s look at the box art for Tecmo's Trapt as an example. Trapt is a unique game involving setting and triggering dungeon-based traps, but the box art doesn’t scream: “Hey look I have something new to offer!”

In fact, the generic cover shows an anime heroine with electricity flowing from one of her arms. If I knew nothing about it beforehand, I would pass on it. I have no clue how Trapt plays or what it is - other than I’m probably playing as the girl on the cover. Tecmo could have explained the game by showing Princess Allura with a sly smile watching in the distance, while the assassins trigger the traps - for example.

The same goes for NIS America's PlayStation 2 RPG, Soul Nomad. Seeing Gig on the cover placates the close knit community of strategy RPG fans. But I wonder how many more copies Soul Nomad would sell if the art explained the sandbox system or how you set up rooms in the game.

Of course, both of the above titles cater to a niche audience, but there are elements in both of these games that extend outside of the usual. These games also share a similar problem - a limited marketing budget. In both of these cases, my opinion is that self-explanatory box art can be another cheap form of grass roots marketing. What do GSW readers think?

Game Career Guide Reveals Salary Survey Details

- Now, we previously reported back in April that the highlights of Game Developer magazine's latest Salary Survey had been released - well now, over on our sister educational site Game Career Guide, there's a more in-depth run down of game industry salaries, taken from the very same survey.

There are plenty of graphs to check out, all surveyed from more than 3,000 responses from Game Developer and Gamasutra readers, who relayed their real-life salaries in 2006, and as is noted on the first page: "Programming is where the money's at. Unless your sights are set on becoming an executive of a game company, the most financially rewarding position within game development (not to mention the job that typically employs the greatest number of people) is that of a programmer. The average salary for a game programmer across all levels of experience has been more than $80,000 for two years in a row."

You can also compare and contrast to last year's salary survey, also available over at Game Career Guide. Of course, it doesn't have nearly as much information as the multi-year Salary Survey research on the subject, but then it doesn't cost $3,000 - rather, a couple of mouse clicks. Bargain!

GameSetLinks: Jam On It To The Machinarium

- Ah yes, the remaining long weekend-ish GameSetLinks must be disseminated to you, the vaguely interested public. This shall happen immediately, as follows:

- Ubisoft producer Ben Mattes is impressed by the official Jam Sessions tracklisting - and I'm also impressed by Ubisoft's choices on these Japanese-converted guitar strumming title. Death Cab For Cutie? Beck? Nirvana's Bowie cover? And the deluxe version (optional!) comes with an 'amp' for your DS - ie an external speaker system. Very cute.

- Adventure Gamers is reporting on the new title from Samorost 2 developers Amanita Design, the just-unveiled Machinarium. It's noted: "Amanita was reluctant to reveal too many details at such an early stage, but the game will use a classic point-and-click interface, and share certain similarities with the Samorost games, such as 2D backgrounds and characters, and no spoken words. However, Machinarium will be much longer and more complex in many ways, and this time around, the art will be hand-drawn and players will have a small inventory." Good to see the IGF winners (for Best Web Game) making an interesting-looking follow-up.

- John Passfield has passed on info on a neat new indie titles, as follows: "How cool is this? Comic creator Michel Gagné working on a cool game based on his beautiful artwork - called Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. It appears to be a quirky side scroller with lots of UFO action. Nice. His web site says that he's currently seeking a publisher... surely it's the sort of game that Microsoft or Sony would snap up for Xbox Live Arcade or Playstation Network?"

- A random tip from GSW friend John Andersen: Konami has successfully enforced its rhythm game IP/patents against Amuse World regarding Beatmania clone EZ2DJ. This lawsuit had been rumbling on since 2001 in one form or another - and Amuse World had released about 8 expansion packs to the arcade game in that time. Blimey. After this and the 'In The Groove' lawsuit - would Konami ever go after Red Octane or Harmonix regarding Guitar Freaks and Guitar Hero? One wonders.

- After our post on the German picks for most influential games ever, Jared Newman was kind enough to graph out the nominated games per year, and he concludes: "As you can see, we’ve recently entered a dark age of influential games, at least according to the German game journalists who compiled the list of nominees." But is it possible to work out what new games will become classics? Hm?

- New face Christian Nutt kindly pointed out a GamesRadar piece he helped on before he left, discussing what's described as 'The death of hardcore gaming?' For starters, there's an interesting quote up front: ""Shifting development to cheaper, simpler games is a smart one, given the state of the industry," said Ryan Payton, assistant producer at Metal Gear Solid developer Kojima Productions, in an e-mail interview. "The state of next-gen gaming really isn't all that great," Payton said, adding that "it's too expensive, it lacks a Trojan horse like PS2 enjoyed with its DVD playback capabilities, and Japan has been curiously late to this next-gen party.""

- The creators of Gish at Cryptic Sea have set up a new weblog to document the making of Gish 2, the follow-up to the IGF-winning squishy platformer, and made by the biggest band of Santa Cruz-based crazies you could possibly meet. And it starts in fine style, with the video 'How To Break Into The Mainstream' - apparently by _not_ reaching Reggie @ Nintendo! There's also some bizarre teaser art, step by step. Looking forward to more!

September 3, 2007

Why Do MMOs Need Web 2.0 Networking?

- Obviously, if you're playing an MMO or other online game, you're doing a lot of interaction, and managing a lot of information along the way. So do you need a third-party social networking site to help you manage that? MMO blogger Aggro Me has a post called 'You Got Web 2.0 in My MMO!' in which he examines just that issue.

As he notes: "The great thing is that MMO's already have so many ready-made social groups. In addition to player-made groups like guilds or a friends list, each player is part of server, a class, a race, a level range. These groups are the perfect foundation for creating a social network." He then goes on to suggest a bunch of features that it would handy to be aggregated on a webpage - from server status through game information to rankings, etc.

Interestingly, there's some crossover of this kind going on in more web-based online games - for example, Habbo has shared groups on its site, as part of the web-facing interface to its Shockwave-based online chat world. (Of course, if you want to keep track of your friends and users across multiple online worlds, individual game-specific solutions don't work.)

But in the hardcore MMO space, where the game tends to run a lot more independently of the web, and figures and information is even less abstracted out to feedable data in many cases, there are a couple of VC-funded startups trying to aggregate MMO players - Curse, whom we recently interviewed at Gamasutra, and rival Guildcafe, whom we also chatted to at Gama following their funding. Will people flock to interact on such sites? The jury is out, but since it coincides with the rise of social media, the VCs are certainly on board.

Ultima Online, Kingdom Reborn - Stop Making Sense?

- Brand noo PC game blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun (which is already differentiating itself, in my eyes, in being a blog in which all correspondents are enthusiastic about the subject matter) has some amusingly mystified posts about Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn - as Alec Meer examines the graphical update of the now 10-year-old (!) MMO.

The series extends to a couple of posts, thus far. The first one is bemusedly sarcastic to a tee, and reveals what I'd suspected - that UO is probably about half as arcane as Rogue-likes nowadays: "While I understand that the interface has to remain largely as it was so the veteran subscribers don’t explode, having to hold down shift, click on something in my inventory, then select ‘assign as key item’ from a baffling menu before I’m allowed to give it to the man who’s just asked me to give it to him is a special kind of ‘huh?’."

In the second post, a little more of the delightfully arcane gameplay mechanisms emerge: "Before I turn and resignedly head back to town again to be restored to life, I notice the deadly Wandering Healer is still lurking around. Initial instinct: anger. The bastard NPC's camping my corpse, hoping for another pop at me! Then he happens to wander near my ghost while I’m thinking about what to do next, and a message pops up. “Would you like to be resurrected?” Of course. He’s a healer - that’s what he does. It’s like a bully just offered to buy me a pint after boxing my ears. Except this guy has, being an NPC, entirely forgotten that he was merrily punching me in the kidney mere seconds ago." It almost makes me want to play it!

Yuke's Niche-s Its Way Into North America, Puzzle Fans

- Over at Gamasutra late last week, our new Features Editor, Christian Nutt had a chance to talk to Ken Koyama from Yuke's North American office - and it's pretty interesting to see the Japanese firm, "best known in the U.S. as the developer of the massively popular WWE Smackdown vs. Raw series for THQ", make a move into the States as a niche publisher - thus far debuting the relatively unsuccessful (as far as I know?) D1 Grand Prix.

The company was promoting its DS puzzle title Neves, which is 'seven' backwards, and is a tangram-based game licensed from Hanayama Toys, who first debuted 'Hanayama Lucky Puzzle' in 1935 - old school 'casual games' from way back - Koyama notes: "We have exclusive licensing with Hanayama, and they have a whole line of puzzle games that we could probably bring over to the DS."

Also notable is the possibility of Yuke's publishing anime-licensed titles it's created in Japan, like Berserk and Armored Trooper Votoms ("We're trying to see what we can do and what we can bring over"), as well as some honesty about why the company isn't located on one of the coasts ("One of the reasons we're in Chicago is based in the fact that the cost of living -- the amount of rent and stuff like that -- is a lot cheaper in Chicago than it is in like the West coast, or in New York. Obviously, that played a role for us to be in Illinois.") Neat interview.

September 2, 2007

Warren Spector's Seven Game Pitch Questions

- As we've previously noted, Junction Point head honcho and Deus Ex creator Warren Spector now has a game design blog, and his newest post looks at a multitude of issues, the most interesting being a recollection (from a GDC design talk) of his own internal meters for the criteria he applies to each of his game concepts.

As he comments, in the design talk "...I revealed for the first and only time the Seven Questions I always ask myself to determine if an idea is worth pursuing. You know the really weird thing? I don’t even tell my teams about this — I go through this exercise alone, evey time, every game." The Seven Questions are:

"1. What are we trying to do? What’s the core idea?

2. What’s the potential? Why do this game over all the others we could do?

3. What are the development challenges? Really hard stuff is fine — impossible or unfundable? Not so good…

4. Has anyone done this before? If so, what can we learn from them? If not, what does that tell us?

5. How well-suited to games is the idea? There are some things we’re just not good at and shouldn’t even attempt. A love story, for example!

6. What’s the player fantasy and does that lead to good player goals? If the fantasy and the goals aren’t there, it’s a bad idea.

7. What does the player do? What are the “verbs” of the game?"

A good set of questions - Spector ends by noting: "If I can’t answer the questions above, or the answers come out negative, the idea never makes it to the next stage — conceptualization. If the answers are positive — if there are good reasons to make the game, the development challenges aren’t too bad, the idea is well-suited to the medium... we move on to concepting and the real fun begins."

Things To Do In Austin When You're (At) GDC

- The wonderfully irascible J. at Damned Vulpine, who has covered the Austin Game Conference for Gamasutra in the past (but is shouting at PR people for us anyhow this year, to make up for us not having room to use him!) hangs out in the Texas game nexus all year round.

Therefore, to commemorate Austin GDC, which is run by us at the CMP Game Group for the first time, and kicks off this coming Wednesday (here's the conference at a glance PDF), J. has posted an awesome guide to the city of Austin, explaining: "Here are some things to do in Austin besides aimlessly wander the halls of the Austin Convention Center" - from movies, through bridge bats (!), to great restaurant listings - it's actually really helpful and sweet of him.

Sadly, I have to stay home and mind the fort, but we have multiple journalists at the Austin show itself - which has keynotes from Square Enix exec Hiromichi Tanaka, Blizzard president Mike Morhaime, Habbo Hotel designer Sulka Haro, and a whole bunch of other interesting talks - so watch out for special Gamasutra coverage starting on Wednesday.

GameSetLinks: Getting Surreal With Bloxx

- Aha, a fair amount of links have again piled up, and I'm going to do my best to unload them this weekend, in two discrete lumps - with a wide range of GSW-liked content, from the game development to the casual to the indie to the mainstream, even. Here goes:

- The Surreal Game Design website is a new design and development weblog from the creators of Drakan and The Suffering - made "...as a reaction to the typical game company website, where usually all you can get are press releases and official game information." Plenty of good intros and here's a neat design article, called 'Making the Rules: Great Enemies', about "..perils and pointers for creating good combat AI."

- The Speed Demos Archive continues to go from strength to strength, and both ridiculous and fun is the Promo Video 2007 page, a "...promotional music video that formed the introduction to a hour-long speed run clip showcase exhibited at Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in August 2007." It's oddly over the top and demo-scene - check out the news for the speed runs proper.

- Jay Is Games has pointed out that Digital Chocolate has released the mobile puzzle title Tower Bloxx in Flash form - noting of the gameplay: "A swinging crane holds a section of a tower above a platform. Press the button to drop it, then try and stack the following pieces on top as neatly as you can." Great title, go check it out.

- Soren Johnson's 'Designer Notes' blog has a post called 'J.K. Rowling: Good Author, Bad Game Designer', and it's got some good thoughts on Quidditch: "Games should not penalize players for doing their job well. It's not really even a game rule, it's just common sense. Of course, if you write the stories, you can make sure the fictional games never result in such a sticky position. Quidditch as a real game, though, would be a bit of a mess."

- More fun from Klei Entertainment's blog, in a post named 'Where Xbox Live Arcade Excels', discussing how Eets Chowdown appears on it, but noting something I've heard elsewhere: "I think many AAA developers could use a couple lessons in upselling, and building an Arcade game might not be a bad idea to do that. Too many of the demos on the Marketplace actually make me want to buy the game less than before I played it because of how badly it was put together."

- Petri Purho has compiled a list of the experimental games he's made over the past few months, from Crayon Physics to a multitude of other titles - ALL worth checking out. He adds: "The Season 2 of Kloonigames will begin in the couple of months, but in between I’ll try to release some updates to season 1 games or do something completely different. Maybe I’ll do a board game or I’ll collaborate with someone or something."

- There are not that many Japanese XBLA titles (especially indie-created) thus far, so good to see that Trigger Heart Exelica is coming to Xbox Live Arcade, with Arcade Renaissance commenting: "Though the game has seen mixed reviews, I personally enjoyed its grabbing and throwing mechanics. It isn't a perfect game, but its defintiely enjoyable and a worthy addition to the ever expanding XBLA library."

- The metrics craziness continues at the Orbus Gameworks blog, where they have been analyzing Guitar Hero clone Frets On Fire, revealing greater accuracy on faster songs from their playtester: "Jeff is actually more accurate when the notes are closer together! It’s like he knows he has to buckle down and concentrate when the notes come fast, but doesn’t really need to pay attention when the notes are sparse."



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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